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Crossing from East to West


The bus moving west from Vienna is full and it’s +30˚, a landlocked central European summertime. Almost all passengers have boarded in Bratislava or its initial departure point further east, in Košice, the Slovak Republic’s second city. One or two are just settling into their reserved eurolines seats having been picked up in the Austrian capital, only a quick hop thirty minutes or so across the border. From my seat I watched drab grey housing blocks and half finished or given up on shells of buildings on the outskirts of the Bratislava, exchanged for the neat and tidy streets and cheerful looking shop fronts of the nearest town after the border crossing.

Soon we hit Vienna’s glistening commercial suburbs and truly arrived in Western Europe. This contrast between ‘east’ and ‘west’, between the old bloc and the still emerging Union blooming at its side, appears suddenly and can catch you off guard after many months ‘on the other side’, beyond the Zone.

Kosice, fountain

Heading for London, the bulk of the bus’s passengers are young Slovaks, going to jobs, to see family or friends. Very few, I gather, are going for a conventional holiday. It’s mostly work and many of them are young women, girls in their late teens on their way to jobs in the capital or elsewhere (typically) as au pairs.

Inga, travelling with her brother and a friend, is one of the few going for a purely recreational visit. From her seat next to me she tells me a friend of hers has spent the last six months with a family on the south coast. She’s nervous about meeting the family because she doesn’t speak any English. Her brother meanwhile is the one going to the UK to work as an au pair. Stano’s English is substantially better than his sister’s, but still he asks if I will help when it comes to passing through immigration. He’s worried about being turned away and shows me a hand written letter of invitation, his guarantee from the host family and, for him, only a flimsy reassurance that things will go smoothly. Inga is interested in my family and we manage a broken conversation until, somewhere across the German border, the sky darkens and overhead the nightlights start going on. At some point she decides she needs a pillow and uses my shoulder.

I am the only foreigner making the thirty-hour journey, primarily to save money. Everyone on the bus is trying to save a little money. I presume that everyone, with only a few exceptions, is hoping to bring some back and hopefully more than they have left home with. Those returning home at all. The Roma family at the back of the bus are conspicuous for two reasons: a) because they are the only Roma on the bus, and b) because of the amount of luggage they are bringing. Everyone knows they are not going camping for a fortnight in Bognor Regis.

Arial view Kosice

The next day at the first control gate at Dover the family are escorted from the bus and taken elsewhere. The rest of us are shunted forward and eventually pass through immigration. Flashing the front cover of my passport is all it takes as behind me Inga and her brother, along with the majority of passengers, have to wait in line. There are two lanes here: for ‘UK and EU citizens’ and for  ‘Others’. For those failing to get this far another sub-category exists, but there was no sign to say what it is. 

It turns out I’m not needed to vouch for anyone, act as bumbling translator or anything else. There is a quiet air of relief and a little excitement as we board the coach again and hit the road for central London. At Victoria coach station we say our goodbyes and Inga writes down her address – Stará Lubovňa, a town nestled somewhere among the wooded slopes and ski resorts in the foothills around the Tatra mountains.

It was while visiting Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia that I had felt a mixture of amusement and bemused curiosity at the sight of casual citizens and tourists passing under the signposts mounted on the old bridges in the city centre. Emblazoned gold on blue in bold letters was the epitaph ‘EU citizens’. On the parallel footbridge, white lettering on black, its negation: ‘Others’. Crossing from one side to the other I saw that the two bridges had signs displaying each label depending on which way you crossed either bridge.

From what I could see on the bridges, two alternatives were clearly marked. You’re either ‘in’ or you’re ‘out’ and Ljubljana’s citizens were being cheerfully reminded of that concept on a daily basis.

At airports and ferry ports, of course, the signs directing human traffic have been doing that for much longer.

Europe’s jigsaw puzzle of nations and peoples and their identities, is a melting pot marked out by often fragile boundaries. It’s a history of alliances and empires, revolutions and uprisings, conflicts and treaties. People have always moved here – to, from, across borders; to seek a home, to escape… It’s a diverse continent where groups mix, languages mix, cultures harmonise or clash. Europe is now undergoing streamlining, reorganisation and emerging as a ‘union’, an affiliation of countries and cultures under one name, one flag, one currency. It’s a time of flux and bright hopes, also dark fears of the unknown and the new, of change, of what lies ‘out there’, beyond the old boundaries of ‘them’ and ‘us’. West and East are now merging as the next wave of countries has been admitted to the EU.

Being afraid of ‘outsiders’ is nothing new. For European nations the threat of invasion is an historical reality that has been played out time and again over the centuries. As far as the UK is concerned, being an island has offered some reprieve over time but has also allowed a heightened sense of ‘preservation’ to develop in relation to what passes our borders. The ‘threat’ of invasion has risen its head again. At home, hardly a week passes without a media story involving illegal immigrants/asylum seekers/east Europeans.

After a brief visit to the north of England I’m once again making the thirty-hour trip by bus in the opposite direction, returning to my teaching job in eastern Slovakia. The journey is largely uneventful. I’m surprised to meet another Englishman, travelling with his Slovak wife, and even more surprised to learn that he’s set up a fish farm near the spa town of Bardejov. It’s not then, the story of one-way traffic conjured up in the media. Here we are, both of us, heading in the opposite direction.

Ljubljana

Thirty hours by road and deep-sea tunnel from Victoria and my journey ends. For any visitor from Western Europe, the small city’s sprawling concrete estates are an ominous sight, but are home to most of the 250,000 or so people living in Košice. The city grew up around the steelworks that lie just beyond its suburbs and which have employed generations of local people over the decades. This accounts for the overwhelming presence of high-rise housing estates against an otherwise pleasant backdrop of rolling hills and woodland. These steelworks are now a firmly established American affiliate company, taken over at the turn of the millennium and continuing to be the main employer in a region afflicted with high unemployment. The presence of a large American company and its expatriate employees and their families has added another dimension to the city’s population, which already includes significant Hungarian and Roma minorities.

In the warm months between May and September, Košice’s main street is the lively hub of life in the city. The pedestrianised street is lined with shops, cafes, bars and restaurants and dominated by the magnificent cathedral of St.Elizabeth. Strolling along this street is almost a local pastime for people of all ages and soon becomes part of life for anyone coming to the city for any length of time. Especially during the warmer months when many of the cafes, bars and restaurants bring out tables and chairs so that people can enjoy the open air.

It was some time after I first arrived in the city that the first hypermarket shopping centre opened and before long there were three of them, the latest combining a drive-in cinema in the car park. The housing blocks glimpsed across the road from the new shopping centre are not unlike most put up during the heady days of socialist planning. Lunik 9, as it is known, stands on the fringes of the city’s limits and occupies a particular place in local folklore to the extent that mere mention of its name will raise eyebrows and purse lips. Like many I had never set foot on the estate, but had seen in the local press and on television the obligatory backdrop of piles of refuse, the rundown apartment blocks and ragged packs of children.

The Optima hypermarket and shopping centre/cinema complex meanwhile, is of a kind found in cities and large towns the world over. With an array of stores and fast food restaurants under its roof it was not only the newest but the biggest and boldest in town.

Stepping from a world of shiny floors and lurid shop windows, it was here one day that I saw them: a large, raucous group of Roma children from the Lunik 9 housing estate. These kids seemed to me aged variously between 4 and 10 years old, while it’s quite possible that one or two were either older or younger than they first appeared due to the curious quirks of Roma genetics. Stunted growth and growing up fast without much parental supervision can produce equally startling results. They were an unruly, noisy, shabby and chaotic bunch overflowing with life, singing and dancing around next to a disinterested, if not a little uneasy, bus stop queue.

I became dazzled by these kids, boys and girls: their disjointed, randomly conceived dance moves and kung fu posturing, all accompanied by snippets of popular songs as they spun and bounced off one another seeming to spill out of themselves with energy. As it went on, occasionally this freeform display fused into dialogue. It was during such a moment that the scruffy looking bandage covering the arm of one of the smallest children in the group became the focus of attention. One little girl stopped her MTV dance routines to adjust it, saying something mildly reproachful to the even smaller girl before seamlessly returning to the J-Lo manoeuvres.

The bus arrived and they piled on through the rear door chanting, from what I could understand, a kind of improvised homage to this free transportation laid on for shoppers at the hypermarket complex, not to mention the occasional opportunist looking for a ride into the city centre. Chatting incessantly, the children took up places at the back of the bus along with two or three adult Roma while the rest of the space was occupied by the shoppers.

Ljubjana

Not atypically on a Slovak bus, I found myself standing. Local etiquette when using public transport required that I give up a seat to women and elderly people. This time, however, I stood not because there was a bus full of women and old people and no free seats. There was something wrong then, because on this bus the overwhelming majority were choosing to sit or stand as near to the front of the bus as possible when there were places towards the back clearly available. I hovered over an empty seat deciding not to risk it just in case someone changed their mind. I was only going a few stops anyway, but it was as though an invisible partition had been made to keep one group at the front and one group at the back.

So who’s in the club and who’s not? In the long run up to expansion there was talk of ‘disparity’, not only between EU member states and non-EU countries, but also within the EU itself. 

In the Slovak Republic as in other countries, the Roma live outside of mainstream society. To say that they are simply excluded would be simplifying what is a more complex issue. Roma people don’t integrate well and largely keep to themselves, on the fringes and at the edges. Occasionally, their world seeps into the mainstream of life, but mostly I would see them in small groups and in all weathers combing the rubbish bins that stand in front of the housing blocks around the city. It is uncertain where this minority group fit in with the scheme of things in a newly included EU country with all of the benefits and adjustments entailed.

So where does a country like Slovakia fit in? And what about this far flung edge of the new Union?

Kosice in the winter

When the snow falls and locks the land in winter, to the unacquainted East Slovakia and the rest of the region may as well be Siberia. It wasn’t uncommon for walkers and drivers alike to reach a standstill in the high winds and icy conditions that afflicted the city in the time I was there. In this part of Europe the winter can be deep and long.  Blizzards and heavy snowfall have been known to bring Košice to a standstill. I struggled along with other pedestrians through the mounds of snow ploughed off the roads and burying footpaths. Leaving home to travel a few hundred metres could become an exhaustive and time-consuming operation depending on the level of snowfall or deep freeze. Add to this the region’s occasionally gale force winds conjuring up fierce high-speed blizzards and life for almost everyone becomes just that little bit more precarious. 

With the snow knee deep on the footpaths next to the road leading out of the city towards the steelworks, the solitary Roma pushing a wheelbarrow laden with old household objects had little choice but to do so against the flow of the oncoming traffic. From the tram window I could clearly see the drivers cursing as they sounded horns and raised fists. The man with the wheelbarrow merely ignored them, pushing on up the hill in the bitter cold on the wrong side of the road.

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