Impressions of the Eastern Bloc

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Growing up during the Cold War as I did, my impression of places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia was that they were grey, oppressed, and full of unhappy people glumly plowing their way through life. Now that we live on a more-or-less entirely capitalist planet, it’s interesting to visit former regions of what had been the U.S.S.R. and see what it’s like.

I’ve spent the past few days in Slovakia, a place I’d never been before, nor had ever anticipated visiting. Here are a few off-the-cuff impressions I’ve had from my brief time here:

  • The Old/New Contrast – The run-down buildings, peeling paint, and collapsing walls are still here. However, there is plenty of new construction, and when I say new, I mean new. We are staying at the Doubletree here in Bratislava, and that sounds pretty dull, but it’s really a superbly nice hotel, far better than almost anything I’ve stayed at in the U.S. because, by definition, those hotels are going to typically be two or three decades old.
  • How Cheap Everything Is – No matter what it is, be it lodging, or meals, or drinks, everything is a small fraction of what I’m accustomed to seeing. And to a normal Slovakian, I’m sure the prices I witness are the rip-off tourist prices. For example, just looking at a bar menu, most of the drinks are maybe one or two Euros, with plenty of beers at a fraction of that. It’s strange to see an old cold pilsner being sold for 0.70 Euros.
  • Grey Sky, Grey Mood – Perhaps there’s a reason being aren’t flocking to Eastern Europe in the middle of January, but it’s been nonstop grey here, which has got to be a factor in people’s moods. The citizens here still seem to have that kind of muddling-through-life look from the Soviet era, but maybe it’s just because it’s not exactly sunny outside.
  • Two Genders – It sounds cliche, but this is definitely a place where the men are men and the women are women. Living in the SF Bay Area, I am accustomed to the whole topic of gender being rather amorphous and largely off-limits. I’ve lost track of how many dozens of genders there might be. Not that a hyper-clean binary system is ideal either. The guys dress kind of like thugs (in my opinion, anyway), with closely-shorn hair on the sides, and motorcycle boots, and so on, whereas the women stress their femininity. Let’s just say I haven’t encountered a lot of gender dysphoria issues here.
  • Graffiti – I guess it’s a cultural thing, or maybe a throwback to the Soviet days, but there’s a surprising amount of graffiti on the walls here. However, some parts of the city are beautiful, and I’ll leave you with this image of one of the places I enjoyed visiting here: