We head west, via Slovakia

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Slovakia  , Košický,
Thursday, October 20, 2011

I'm in the midst of what I'm going to call "retrospective tourism," particularly with regard to this and the next few days of our travels. Now back home, I have the leisure to read about what I’ve seen.  And my camera has a GPS function--each photo is tagged with the latitude and longitude of where it was taken.  So I can type these into Google maps and see exactly where I was when  the snap was taken.  And read about that location.  This deepens and enriches the experience, vividly filling in what I’ve already seen firsthand. 

More on retrospective tourism later; first we have to get out of Ukraine.

Because the crossing between Hungary and Ukraine had been so fraught, and because of the fear of lurking police, we decided to skedaddle to Slovakia.  We had learned that the Slovakian border was only about 1 km from Uzhgorod, vs. a 40 or so km journey to retrace our tire tracks on the way into Ukraine from Hungary.  So our plan was to head for the welcoming shelter of the law-abiding European Union as quickly as possible.  From Slovakia we could wend our way back down to Hungary, then onward towards Germany.    

As it turned out, this new border crossing was even more daunting than the one on the way in.  We twiddled our collective eight thumbs for over 3 ˝ hours before we were finally set free in Slovakia.  Though there was lots of interesting but seemingly random guard activity on the Ukrainian side (see photos), the main delay wasn’t getting out of Ukraine, but getting into Slovakia.  Each of the cars in the queue was thoroughly searched, presumably with an eye for cheap Ukrainian cigarettes and vodka for which EU residents would be willing to pay big bucks. 

But we finally did emerge in Slovakia, back in the ol’ EU.  The roads were certainly better than in Ukraine, but the grim post-Soviet patina hadn’t quite been erased.  There were plenty of grim gray concrete buildings.  And decaying infrastructure galore--we passed many apartment buildings that looked like they’d been uninhabitable for years.  Curiously, in most of the villages we drove through we noticed sets of old-fashioned loudspeakers—obviously relics from Soviet times--fastened to the light posts or telephone poles every few blocks.  Had they been to warn residents of nuclear bombs winging their way from America?  Or did they blare out propaganda and cheerful Communist party songs to spur the comrades on to yet greater productivity?  Or did they simply serve as communal radios?  As is true so often when one travels, what’s obvious to the locals remained opaque to us visitors.

Soon it was time for lunch.  We pulled off the highway at the first city of any size we came to:  Michalovce, population ~40,000.  Only later, through the magic of retrospective tourism, did I learn that it had been part of Hungary until the end of WW I, when the Treaty of Trianon ceded it to Czechoslovakia.  At that time about a third of the population was Jewish.  They were virtually all exterminated in the camps in 1944. 

We parked, and Annie’s radar led us in the direction of the town square.  We passed a bar and café with graphics that appealed to me.  Being timid, I encouraged the others to go in and ask for a restaurant recommendation. The lovely bar tender, who was fluent in German, immediately pointed us down the street to U Švejka, a restaurant named after the protagonist of the novel, The Good Soldier Švejk (or, Schweik).  Written by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek, the book was a reaction to his experiences in WW I.  It’s a black comedy, emphasizing the absurdity of war, as seen through the eyes of the hapless solider Švejk.  This was possibly the world’s first anti-war novel; Joseph Heller said he never would have written Catch-22 had he not read The Good Soldier Schweik!  Again, retrospective tourism at work.

We walked up a creaky staircase to the restaurant.  The dark wood interior was encrusted with drawings and sculptures of Švejk.  Naturally, we posed with the good soldier (see photo).  The waiter spoke good English and the menu was astounding--chock full of not only Slovakian favorites, but pasta and vegetarian options.  Even tofu had found its way to U Švejka!  Maybe the presence of tofu on the menu should be a measure of how far a country has come from the grip of old Soviet times. 

So everyone got something to their taste—Manfred had his chicken schnitzel, Carole a lovely tofu dish, Annie some luscious potato dumplings, and I had fried cheese with salad.  All were delicious.  And of course the beer was Pilsner Urquell (see photo), the Czech beer that, by the way, is “the world’s first pilsner.”

After lunch, which was so cheap that we were very happy to tip about 50%, we continued our journey to the southwest, towards Hungary.  As we entered a broad green valley, far on the other side of the road we saw some sort of gray-white monument.  Up a set of broad stone steps was a statue of a soldier with a rifle, heroically protecting two peasants standing slightly behind him to either side.  At the base of the statue were numerous plastic flower wreaths, red, green, blue and white.  Meanwhile, on our side of the road were two rusting tanks, mounted on pedestals.  Taking the edge off this mysterious scene was a pile of trash in a collapsed rubbish bin near one of the tanks, and off to the side some shabby fenced-in buildings, guarded by a fierce German Shepherd.  What was all this about?  The only clue was a brown and white sign (see photo), “dargovské bojisko,” which of course told us nothing.  There were no other signs in any language.  We took a few pictures, shrugged it off to some sort of residual Soviet propaganda, and drove on.

Now, with retrospective tourism (involving more than the usual amount of on-line detective work), I know that this site commemorated the horrific battle of Dargov Pass, which took place between December 1944 and January 1945, perhaps soon after the Kleins of Shalanki had perished in the camps.  The Russian and Slovak armies joined to repel the Nazi forces moving to the east.  It was a vicious battle, with somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 casualties!  Now it’s memorialized only by a slowly decaying sculpture far across the highway, two rusty tanks, and a few piles of trash.

On a much less momentous scale, I think of how epic events in our lives also fade into obscurity with the passage of time.
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