Once upon a time, inhabitants of Bratislava were known for their speaking three languages fluently: German, Hungarian and Slovak. Bratislava has a range of international and historical names, including Preslavasburch, Pre?porok (Slovak), Posonium or Istropolis (Latin), Pressburg (German) and Pozsony (Hungarian). The city was only finally baptised Bratislava when the first Czechoslovak Republic was created in the early 20th century. Little of the international image of Bratislava survived the communist era, but recovery is on the way.
Bratislava`s favourable geographic position - along the Danube river and within walking distance of the Hungarian and Austrian border ? was systematically undermined by the communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1989. Crossing the border was almost impossible. Wide border strips were surveyed by Czechoslovakian soldiers, who were given additional salary for shooting trespassers. Only very few brave individuals managed to escape the Czechoslovakia in those days.
`I go to Vienna regularly, but hardly ever make it to Hungary`
Austria could be seen from the city castle and it seemed within arm`s reach a few kilometres up the Danube. The safest route to Austria, although just as illegal as swimming across the Danube a few kilometres north of Bratislava, ran all the way through Hungary and Yugoslavia. But even that road was hard to travel, as travelling to Yugoslavia also required a lot of paperwork and formalities that aimed to assure that people would actually return home.
Without possibilities of being properly informed about what was going on, many Czechoslovakians imagined Austria as a paradise, where the life was easier, people had more money and shops were full. Only a handful of people, always as part of a `delegation` - a sport club, a music ensemble or a diplomatic mission - had any superficial impressions of what life in Western Europe was like. They would take home chocolate, sweets and clothes, much to the pleasure of those who had not joined them on their excursions to the West.
The image of Utopia remained intact even after the 1989 revolution and the subsequent dismantlement of the Iron Curtain. The first glances Czechoslovakians collected of Austria only confirmed their expectations. Still today, many of the improvement schemes for Bratislava are modelled after Austrian examples. Everybody over 25 remembers the first trip to Austria as a big surprise. Every product that was available in one or maybe two versions in Czechoslovakia could be bought in all sorts of different shapes, tastes and colours in Austria.
Martin (20) is too young to remember such introduction into Western European life, but he does realise that it took Czechs and Slovaks another 10 years after 1989 to look at Austria in a more objective way. `Not everything is perfect in Austria, but only few people realised that in the early years after the revolution. After initially travelling there to marvel at the obvious differences, Slovaks have now returned to their own daily lives. Travelling to Vienna is nothing special anymore. I go there quite a lot. To me, Vienna is interesting for its cultural institutions and galleries. Bratislava is catching up though. The collaboration `Twin city` has brought more tourists to Bratislava. It makes a nice day trip from Vienna, which is only one hour away by car, and can also be reached by boat over the Danube River.`
`Although Vienna and Bratislava are still quite different, they are growing more and more similar. Starting from the old centre of Bratislava, continuous improvements are being made and there are more and more cultural events. After Slovaks unanimously travelling to Vienna, there are now also Viennese people coming to Bratislava. Many of them are elderly who come to enjoy the Bratislava opera at prices that are much lower than what its Viennese counterpart charges.` As I learn later during the day, a good number of Austrians also come to Bratislava`s Aupark mall for cheap shopping. Also, a big wave of incoming tourists is expected to land in Bratislava during this month`s European football championships, which are co-hosted by Austria and will have the final match played in Vienna.
Martin thinks that Austria for a long time slowed down the creation of new links with Slovakia. `It took them much longer than needed to construct the motorway between Vienna and Bratislava. North of Bratislava, there is still only one bridge connecting the countries. All projects initiated to improve connectivity are slowed down for oftentimes unclear reasons.`
Martin (28) thinks that no change exceeded that of 1989. `We were not allowed to travel anywhere and all of a sudden, we could go almost wherever we wanted. People could finally apply for passports, which was a much bigger difference than those brought about by Slovakia joining the European Union, or by Slovakia joining the Schengen zone. Showing or not showing a passport is only a minor difference if you imagined the difference of showing a passport to getting shot for crossing the border. We travelled to Czech Republic without any problems, simply because it was back then a part Czechoslovakia, just like we were. Even now, when I cross that border, it don`t really feel like going to another country. One of the conditions for Slovakia to become independent was that citizens on either side of the border could freely travel to the other side. The border with Czech has always been a political one, more than a practical one.`
Laci (28) works in Austria as a nurse. He experiences quite some Austrian resistance against Slovaks on a daily basis. `Austrians are not all unfriendly, but when it comes to working relations, they tend to see us as slaves. I travel back and forth every day in a job taxi along with other Slovaks who also work in the hospital. I think Slovak people have fair chances of finding a job in Austria, but they first need to learn German. Many don`t, so they are restricted to their side of the border when it comes to finding jobs.` Beside his hesitations concerning Austrian people, he enjoys the Viennese metropolitan multi-culti culture. `Vienna is great for partying and shopping. There is much more going on than back in Bratislava. On top of that, us Slovaks don`t have the same resistance against Vienna as the Czechs do`, he says. To us, Vienna is like a window to the world, while the Czechs historically see it as the centre of power from the days they were part of Austria-Hungary.`
Lucia (25, photo) thinks that many people could work in Vienna but few people do. `It takes too long to get there and back, every day after the other. I only have one friend who works in Vienna. Salaries are higher but it`s quite difficult to find a proper solution for issues like social insurance`, she says. `It`s more common for young Slovaks to find summer jobs in England or the United States during their studies than for ordinary employees to take up jobs in Vienna.`
Whenever Lucia goes to Vienna, the purpose of her trip is usually to go shopping or do site-seeing. She compares the feeling of going to Vienna to the experience of travelling to Prague, even though Prague is located four times as far away. `Whenever I visit Vienna and Prague, it`s usually for the same reasons. Both serve as common destinations, more so than Budapest does. Hungary itself may be very nearby, but the nearest city that is substantially bigger than Bratislava is Budapest, a couple of hours away. As long as they don`t have any particular reason to go to Hungary, very few people living in Bratislava will actually go there. Such would be more of an option for ethnic Hungarians living in the countryside along the border. They may have more options finding jobs in Hungary than in Slovakia.`
Lucia thinks Austria is much more of a reference point for Bratislava than Hungary is. `The cities are starting to look more and more alike. I don`t like how some old buildings are torn down to be replaced by modern malls, no matter how much I like to go shopping in those malls. They should be constructed only at the borders of the city. We would do good maintaining the historical architecture in the centre.
For international tourists, Bratislava indeed makes a nice day trip from Vienna. The cities are conveniently connected by bus, train and boat. If there are any two neighbouring cities in Europe that still show how different East and West used to be, it`s Vienna and Bratislava. One hour away from each other, they have more fundamental differences between them then -say- Lisbon and Helsinki. Seeing both Bratislava and Vienna during the same travel provides an inspiring insight in the history of the entire European continent.
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