Wrong Side of the Border

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In the year
2010 if you step into a train in Slovakia, it is likely a train
built 30 years ago. A train that squeaks and is so noisy that the
gentle rocking won't work you to sleep. Each window opens, or is
at least supposed to open. The seats often stick to your skin on
hot days and chill your clothed skin with a hard vinyl on cold days.
Still upholstered with the original materials of 30 years ago and
mended with duct tape-like material here and there. If the lights
work they are harsh, but can be switched off in each six- or eight-passenger
compartment, each coupé, as the Europeans are fond of calling
them. The toilets have ages of wear on them that are indecipherable
from filthiness. When you flush, a trap door in the toilet opens
to reveal the sound, sight, and draft of the tracks below. There
is no pretense of there being a storage tank on this train.

This train
is the superior train in Slovakia, a train you are lucky to be on
if you have the opportunity. Every passenger on that train can control
the temperature, the level of draft that reaches him or her, the
amount of light, out of politeness by first asking the six other
people in the coupé if they wouldn't mind and then opening
or closing a window, door, drapes, hanging a head or arm out into
the breeze, switching on the heat or air-conditioning, turning the
lights on or off. This is the communist built train that surprisingly
exemplifies and recognizes the freedom of the individual, a responsibility
to people immediately around him, the ability to change things immediately
around him.

When walking
out on the street or on the sidewalk, you can never be certain of
who sees you. In a coupé, you can make it more private. You
can actually close a curtain if you don't want passengers walking
by to be able to look into your coupé. You can close other
curtains if you don't want to be stared at by people standing on
the platform as your train sits at a station. You can even lock
the door. Yes, you can lock the door to your coupé built
during the days of the intrusive seemingly omnipresent communist
government. Sometimes the conductor will use his key to open it
when coming for tickets. Sometimes he or she will just knock and
wait patiently for you to open it.

Some trains
are crowded, others are not. On some lines, at certain times of
the day, even when just riding second class, you can quite literally
read a book in peace and quiet, entirely on your own, not a person
in sight or earshot. Even on pretty full trains if you're travelling
with a bigger group of friends, you can get a coupé or two
to yourselves. If you are with family, travelling four or five in
a group, often other passengers will allow you a coupé to
yourselves, especially with little kids in tow.

And in contrast,
we have another type of train in Slovakia — new and shiny. It sometimes
even smells new, fresh out of the factories of the Western democracies.
It's at times a hand-me-down from a country of the West, fallen
below Western standards, but of high standards for a post-communist
country, so it's often a welcome hand-me-down. This is the inferior
type of train that you can step onto in Slovakia.

It's created
with a love for sameness and for identical behavior and wants throughout
a community. A train created in one of the Western democracies.
A train that doesn't let you open a window. If everything's working
properly, a train where every room, every car, every seat has the
identical temperature, the identical amount of fresh air.

Of course,
everyone is able to put on a sweater or take one off, but beyond
that very limited option you have on this train no greater control
over yourself and your surroundings. Nor does any other passenger.
In that respect it is equal. Nor, would it seem, does anyone else
on board have that ability, as you would learn from an attempt to
change the atmosphere on the train on those 43 degree days in late
September when someone left the air-conditioning on or those 87
degree days in April when someone forgot to turn down the heat.

You can always
ask the conductor to turn down the air-conditioning in September.
He might even do that for you. Or there's a list of surprisingly
familiar options to anyone who's gone to an overseer (aka public
servant, aka government employee) and begged for something.

He might tells
you "yes," and not do it. He might tell you "no"
and walk away. He might tell you he can't because he's not allowed
to. It's "the rules" that it must be at that temperature
and the person/people who make/s the rules is/are not even on the
train, nor do/es he/she/they have a phone number, but "will
get in touch with you promptly if you send him/her/them a letter
to an address that I can provide for you."

Or he just
doesn't know how to turn down the A.C. It's outside of his pay grade
and in a need-to-know world, it's not his business. In the end,
in order to ensure some modicum of comfort, and to stop your travelling
partners from shivering, you are likely to have to open a window
on that chilly September day in order to warm up the air conditioned
train. Or in April to cool down that superheated train. Except the
windows simply don't open. They're all bolted shut.

On these trains
there are no barriers separating compartments. There are no compartments.
Entire trains composed of entirely undivided train cars. Everyone
can see and hear everyone else. Sure, there are plush seats, big
windows, the things around you feel new and a little cleaner. It's
well-lit, consistently well-lit regardless of how light or dark
it is outside.

If you happen
to find a car that has a coupé, it will be a coupé
with entirely glass walls. No hiding behind curtains or locked doors
in there. No momentary privacy. No small groups. No isolated family
units. This is the train of the Western democracies.

On this "up
to Western standards" train, you can't even do one of the most
beautiful things there is to do in Slovakia: to open the window
any of the four seasons and to take in the fresh air as you run
through the countryside, along rivers, past mountains dotted with
castles, at 90 miles an hour, allowing Slovakia to whip through
your hair.

No, on this
up-to-Western-standards train you can't do that, but you can view
your country through tinted windows, to see a green-hued or maybe
a blued-hued or brown-hued or gray-hued Slovakia.

Perhaps a color
of window designed in a country that does not have its own colors.
For here, in a country like this, with such a rich palate of rural
colors, clear is the preferable color of the glass manufactured.
And why is the glass tinted? Because the designer/design committee1
didn't trust you to look away when the sun shone, to cover your
eyes from the UV rays. It might be dangerous for you if you act
irresponsibly, so all people get the same tinted view.

It's one of
the paradoxes one encounters in skirting the border between East
and West. In repressive regimes you find these surprising ways that
individual freedom pokes out. It seems there will always be people
with a desire to not have every aspect of life centrally controlled.
The design of the communist-era Slovak train being but one small
example in a constant flood of them, a constant flood of them that
are apparent to the keen observer. A constant flood of ways that
people (most often quietly) allowed for the individual, himself,
herself, or another, to be the boss of oneself in some aspect of

And that same
paradox is true as you move West of that border. You see things
you would never see East (especially pre-EU-acquisition of the central
European post-communist nations aka "Eastern Europe");
the train being but one small example. In nations that are, relatively-speaking,
considered to be some of the freest countries in the world, you
can find a virtually endless supply, really virtually endless to
the keen observer, of ways of controlling other people. It's fascinating
how it always seems to be there, this underlying idea of "I
know what's good for you, better than you know what's good for you."
Behind political faades of freedom, you always find this in places
you don't expect to find it. Not the idea of "individuals choose
for themselves," but the idea of "I will choose for myself,
and for you as well."

Just as a sense
of decreased political freedom in the US has brought out a sense
of rebelliousness in me, I wonder if a guise of increased political
freedom brings a willingness to tolerate less freedom, a willingness
to tolerate more central planning where one worker, or more often
a committee decides for all with limited avenues of recourse.

years without a king makes the heart free" reads a Slovak t-shirt.
But I wonder if it's really years of those failed (usually foreign)
repressive regimes that made so many Slovaks so beautifully apolitical.
So apolitical that not once, but twice they had the worst voter
turnout in EU elections for any EU member state. Politicians simply
don't have the fertile soil here for widespread voluntary political
hero worship.

In 2004, W.
visited the Slovak capital of Bratislava to give a well-attended
public speech. In an image captured by many cameras, a group of
approximately 10 Slovak thirty-somethings were engaging in the uncharacteristically
Slovak act of holding placards with George and Laura Bush's photos
on them and showing fervent vocal support. Cheering, jumping, clapping,
chanting. They weren't in the easy-to-enter VIP section, but were
suspiciously in the "everyone else" section. Shocked by
what I was seeing I asked a few of them which of Bush's policies
they liked most. The answer was something like "WE LOVE GEORGE
BUSH!!!" I tried again, to which I received a substanceless
answer. So the third time, I pulled one person off to the side,
tried again, and she said to me "Don't tell anyone, but we
work for the Prime Minister. We have to be here today doing this."

The lack of
widespread voluntary hero worship seems to allow for this tremendous
distrust of government. Seldom can individual politicians be mentioned
at a table full of people without someone at the table laughing
aloud about the politician. Frequently what follows is the latest
joke going around about that politician.

In a country
where government has so consistently failed the people, it's an
attitude one should expect. (After all, if failure is marked by
instability, the last century saw six different officially acknowledged
currency changes with four different officially acknowledged implosions
of government in Slovakia. Any person on the street of a certain
age can tell you that.) Freedom might be more precious to a Slovak
who knows his government failed him than to an Austrian who believes
in his government. To a Czech more than a Frenchman.

It seems we
notice our freedom most when that precious freedom feels most keenly
threatened. But what is it that brings out the central planner in
men, that moves one to force his will on others, and more importantly
that allows us to acquiesce to the planning of the minutia of our
lives by fiat? Is it the veil of political freedom? If we believe
we are free, will we consent to anything? If we simply feel
free, will we consent to even more?


  1. Footnote
    to designer/design committee:
    While a designer and design
    committee are vastly different entities in that one is a collection
    and the other an individual, in all likelihood, any one person
    allowed to make decisions for a government funded train is so
    infused with some form of groupthink, some type of orthodoxy2,
    that the above distinction is rendered moot. The individual designer
    is certain to act with the same fears and lack of originality
    of the design committee.
  2. Footnote
    to orthodoxy:
    According to Webster's
    Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
    , the English word "orthodoxy"
    comes to the English through Latin from the original Greek orthodoxos
    composed of "orth" meaning "correct" and "doxa"
    meaning "opinion." Even the origins of the word are
    paradoxically inline with orthodoxy in that it describes an opinion,
    which is usually something that is subjective, as objective truth.
    The root after all, uses the word "correct," a word
    that indicates objective truth. Orthodoxy — the correct opinion.

Stevo [send him mail]
is the author of Somewhere
between Bratislava and DC.
He is working on his next book.

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