Sunday, May 06, 2007

Opposition leaders on Healthcare

Being in political opposition is an interesting position for politicians. It is fascinating at times, in its vagueness, while also providing the venue necessary for future aspirations. Most people might think of Winston Churchill’s ‘wilderness years’ as an example of a politician who benefited from the experience. Interestingly, Churchill was not active in politics at the time. Either was Ronald Reagan when he gave his “time for choosing” speech in 1964, sparking the interest of Republicans that cumulated sixteen years later with his nomination for the presidency.

Finding oneself in opposition after being in government is a much more difficult experience. One is forced to accept the loss while seeing your opponent’s smug face across from you. You may pout in the backbench as Mr Hague did in 1997 or sulk in rejected silence as fellow Tory and successor Mr Duncan-Smith did in 2001. It is a bit different in the United States though Mr Kerry’s performance post-Nov 2nd 2004 warrants mentioning. Opposition gives the Party or Party’s the duty to hold the government accountable. This is true in Slovakia though fiction is being created from fact.

Opposition leaders Mikuláš Dzurinda (SDKÚ), Pál Csáky (SMK) and Pavol Hrušovský (KDH) agreed at their meeting on May 3 that it is Prime Minister Robert Fico, rather than Health Minister Ivan Valentovič, who is to blame for the "miserable situation in the healthcare sector".

Economists and historians will tell you that there is a cycle of five to ten years to see the affects of specific governmental policies. The difficulties in the healthcare sector existed under the Dzurinda era too. It is a bit bold for Mr Dzurinda and fellow opposition leaders to place all responsibility on Mr Fico for within such blame lies the fallacy similar to the one Mr Fico has used taking credit within recent months of the strength of the Slovak economy. There is an overlap in policy execution from government to government that is seen over years not weeks. Interestingly, a point not commentated on by Mr Fico or Mr Valentovič.

The opposition has said it will not propose a no-confidence motion against Valentovič at the next parliamentary session due to begin on May 9. The parties will propose, however, a declaration obliging the cabinet to submit a report on "the miserable situation in the healthcare sector" to parliament. Such actions though appropriate for parliamentary procedure belie a fact the opposition seems to forget: you cannot fault the Prime Minister and then ask his Cabinet to answer before the Parliament. The Slovak Republic is a Parliamentary-style not a Presidential-style government. Questions and blame lay in the Cabinet. Yes, the prime minister is responsible for overall policy but questions on and blame for the execution of policy lies with respective ministers. Mr Valentovič should be no exception. That is why cabinet reshuffles are so anticipated and feared in British politics every time policy fails.

Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister following Churchill’s death did not repeal England’s National Health Service, legislation introduced under the Labour government of Clement Attlee, even though both Churchill and Eden opposed it from the other aisle when it had been debated in the Commons. The United State’s does not have a national health service, but an issue equally divisive is social security. Ridiculed by business and Republicans when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt introduced it as part of his ‘New Deal’, successive Republican Administrations have kept and expanded the system. The health sector in Slovakia, a homogenous remnant of socialism and a decade of democratic policy, is in need of cash and reform. It is hoped these facts will be remembered on May 9.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Media & Mr Fico

Those of us familiar with American politics may criticize the conduct of the media, generally dubbed ‘the press’ over its failure to keep the Bush Administration accountable over the past seven years. This criticism comes from a deep memory of the specific relationship the press has had with public officials, specifically presidents. Whether it be the dogged interview style of a female reporter that kept Mr Van Buren in the Potomac River naked until he answered her questions or an exasperated Mr Grant commentating on the number of press and office-seekers hanging out in the Willard Hotel lobby that gave a title to a new group of Washington insiders. It could be the friendly and almost equal exchange of favors and information that characterized the Roosevelt cousins or the media inspired, media driven Camelot era.

From Watergate, a new golden age began, and though charmed for eight years by Reagan the press never lost sight of its role within the public discourse, acting as advocate and at times mediator. It is this history and the similar histories of western European democracies in England and France and Germany that has inspired the press in former communist countries. If the model cannot be followed in content then the hope often is to replicate in at least style. Unfortunately, in Slovakia, even this has proved elusive since the new government took office in May 2006. Reviled at best, locked-out in typical ‘Soviet’ style at worst, the Slovak press and Slovak government have a horrible relationship.

This relationship between the government and the Slovak media grew even more tense last week. At a meeting in Veľký Krtíš on April 22, Prime Minister Robert Fico did not even try to hide his disappointment with the media's conduct. Spurning all questions, instead he spoke to what he saw as media bias. This is a mantra often tried by politicians around the globe and its moderate success has made such repeated efforts possible. The difference last week is in how Mr Fico treats the press. Unlike Mr Blair’s bright smile or Mr Bush’s nicknames given to the American press corps that follow him Mr Fico actions indicate clear disdain. You know you are on the s#*t list if Mr Bush revokes the nickname or worse calls you by an expletive. Losing access to Whitehall is Blair’s equivalent. Mr Fico does not even bother with a list.

For Slovakia to evolve in its democratic experiment all elements need to function. This includes dialogue between the executive and the fourth branch of government, the press. Mr Fico likes to tout his populist credentials, it is important for him to remember that the people also hear his message by reading newspapers and watching television.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Preparations for euro introduction

Ninety-three percent of Slovak companies believe the introduction of the euro will have an impact on their work, according to a survey that aimed to find out how prepared Slovak companies are for euro adoption. The poll was carried out in March of 2007 by the Ernst & Young professional services company. This is very good news, however it is who was surveyed that was the trouble. The most advanced in their preparations were the financial sector and firms concerned with network industries and telecommunications. This was to be expected, what is a bit confusing and frustrating is though Slovak companies of various sizes participated as many as 50 percent of the companies were based in Bratislava, the capital.

Slovakia's motto is 'Little Big Country'. Yes, it is small, but from Trencin, Zilina, and Martin to the north; Banska Batrisa in the center and Kosice in the east there are many major cities with international business interests. Why did this poll not have more of a representation throughout the rest of the country? Education and prepardness are the two vital ingredients for the Slovak Republic before January 2009. These two ingredients will also go a long way in solving the apathy and silencing the cynics in the country, not to mention assist companies work out their strategic analyses. Time, one might argue is still on our side here in Slovakia. Candidates for the presidency in the U.S. hoping to move to a new residence in January 2009 would tell us otherwise.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Slovakia silent as Ukrainian crisis deepens

With President Victor Yuschenko's decision to disband parliament and hold early elections, a new political crisis began. Now it has entered its second week, foreign diplomats and well-wishers have travelled to Kiev offering to help broker a solution. Surprisingly absent from this group is Slovakia, despite having declared Ukraine its foreign policy priority in 2004. No official government statements on the unrest have been issued either. Why?

As interested as I am in the politics of country I live and work in there are some things its government does that is more surprising than what I see the President in my native country doing. So, for my Slovak readers and my American friends this is what has been going on.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whom Yuschenko accuses of trying to oust him, met on April 12 with Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas and reassured him that the crisis would not affect Ukraine's foreign or economic policy--the country is a major transit route for natural gas to European markets--while a group of European Parliament members was also in Ukraine on a mediation mission, with EP deputy speaker Marek Siwiec urging European lawmakers to pay more attention to what he described as "a power struggle".

If these names sound familiar that is because these two, Yuschenko and Yanukovych, are old foes from Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution' in 2004, when Yuschenko won a repeat presidential vote after Yanukovych's victory in the first round was found to have been accompanied by massive election fraud. Last month defections of some MPs in the Ukraine parliament to Yanukovych's ruling coalition, made Yuschenko accuse the government of trying to gain enough support to impeach him, and shut the legislature down. Paranoia or not, the parliament has continued to meet, however, while Yuschenko insists new elections will be held on May 27.
Siwiec has said that the European Parliament and the European Union should change their attitude to what is happening in Ukraine, since if we allow the crisis to escalate it could threaten European interests and Ukraine's European ambitions. Wise words considering the geographical significance of the country. Even former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has been on hand to mediate between the two Ukraine leaders. Kwasniewski played a major role in brokering an agreement during the Orange Revolution.

However, in Slovakia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ján Škoda said his ministry would not comment on a situation it regarded as an internal matter of Ukraine. Telling the The Slovak Specator "We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and of course we support all democratic forces in Ukraine, what we are doing is adequate for the situation. We cannot compare what is happening to the Orange Revolution."

This is odd considering the previous government statements over the past few years.
Following Yuschenko's victory over Yanukovych in early 2005, then-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda mentioned how Slovakia would offer Ukraine all of its experiences gained from reform. The country was praised for its engagement on Ukraine by US President George W. Bush during his speech in Bratislava at the Bush-Putin summit in February 2005. High-level contacts with Ukraine have continued under the new Fico government, including visits by Fico and Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš this year and Defence Minister František Kašický and Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška in late 2006.

In trying to answer my own question of why I remember Foreign policy analyst Alexander Duleba comments that it was too early to tell what the nature of Slovakia's interest in Ukraine would be under the new administration, basically meaning business, or Ukraine's democracy and Western integration. This is a part of the puzzle, as is the fact that there has been no public pressure, no demand for the Slovak Foreign Ministry to respond. It is understandable that Kwasniewski is in Ukraine since it is part of Poland's internal domestic discourse, but why has there been no public discourse on Ukraine in Slovakia. We have had debates on Turkey and Kosovo? This is particularily strange since it was Kubiš along with Kwasniewski who had played a key role in resolving the 2004 crisis.

Action is needed. Slovakia has a unique opportunity to be the leader within Central Europe and help pull Ukraine closer to the E.U. The closer Kiev gets the farther away from Moscow and that is what is important if European integration is going to work.

Until next time

Saturday, April 14, 2007

France's presidential election

For the past quarter-century the French seem to have accepted a sort of unwritten, profoundly conservative pact with their politicians. It goes something like this: we agree to elect you, the political class—all trained at the same post-graduate college, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration—and we will tolerate high unemployment as the price of the protection you guarantee for the rest of us. In return, you agree not to undermine that protection, and to preserve the system as it is. Recently, however, this deal has been strained to its limits. The French no longer trust their politicians to shelter them, and are furious about it. They rejected the EU constitution in a referendum in 2005, partly in protest against an enlarged Europe that threatened to suck jobs out of France and which their politicians could do nothing about. When rioters set light to the banlieues in 2005, the French were reminded that high unemployment has a searing social cost: the failure to integrate ethnic minorities.

So as the French prepare to go to the polls to elect a new president, they have every reason to feel perky. The top 40 companies on the Paris bourse have been pulling in record profits. The TGV, France's homegrown high-speed railway train, has just reached the dazzling world-beating speed of 575 kph (357 mph) on the new line from Paris to Strasbourg. And after 12 ‘interesting’ years under 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, voters are about to hand power to a fresh, dynamic younger generation. However, as the French head to the voting booths for their two-round poll, on April 22nd and May 6th, they do so in a collective funk. They are fed up and fearful. Fearful that their jobs will disappear abroad, that their children will not find work, that the banlieues will explode again, that their welfare system will collapse. They are also tired of politicians who seem neither inclined nor capable of doing anything about it. Not all of this declinism is justified. Elements of the methodically planned, generously financed French system still serve the country well. For example, France's public hospitals are first-rate. Free nursery schooling has helped to boost birth rates to among the highest in Europe. With such success also underlines a system that has undermined risk-taking, and braked economic growth. The past five years, has seen GDP growth in France below the OECD average. No greater concernation for French pride is to see Germany's economy take off, again, while France's has stalled: in the fourth quarter of 2006, on a year-on-year basis, GDP grew more slowly in France than in any other European Union country except Portugal.

There are many reasons for this underperformance, in particular, the fragile industrial middle. But the single biggest problem is that not enough people work, and when they do, they do not spend enough time on the job. France's 35-hour work week is one of the shortest in the world; the employment rate for the over-55s one of the lowest; and unemployment has not dipped below 8% for 25 years. Over-protected jobs prompt employers to recruit temporary staff, thereby entrenching the very insecurity that protected job contracts are meant to prevent, cutting off employment growth of minority communitites that have lead to the recent rioting.
Into all this steps three very different, very electiable canditates. The upstart Socialist outsider Ségolène Royal, a mother of four, whose partner, François Hollande, happens to be the party boss, and it does not hurt that she also seems to embody modernity. She talked unlike any leader on the French left, admiring Tony Blair's employment record and using taboo phrases like “labour flexibility”. She has proven internet-savvy, and promised a new “participatory democracy”. At last, it seemed, here was a leader who could modernise the French Socialists. Then there is Mr Bayrou. A former education minister repackaged as a provincial farmer from the south-west, Mr Bayrou promises to “bridge the left-right divide”. His programme is a mix of fiscal prudence and old-style interventionism. He is admirably bold about curbing public debt, and promising to spend only what the state can afford. He hopes to encourage job creation, by allowing each company to hire two workers free of payroll charges. He wants to lower France's wealth tax by broadening its base.Although his surge in the polls has levelled off lately, he remains a contender, drawing those disillusioned both with the palaeo-Socialists and Mr Sarkozy on the right. Finally, there is Nicolas Sarkozy.

His economic program defies classification. On industrial policy, he is an unapologetic interventionist. He is proud of having rescued Alstom, an engineering firm, from bankruptcy with taxpayers' money when finance minister, in 2004. He says it was “a mistake” to have sold Arcelor, a steelmaker taken over by Mittal last year. Three elements of Mr Sarkozy's program, however, are of more liberal inspiration. First, he understands the need to remove obstacles to job creation. He plans to liberalise the 35-hour week by exonerating all overtime from payroll charges and income tax. Second, he believes in minimising taxation. He wants to lower the overall personal tax rate from 60% to 50%; and he promises, optimistically, to cut the overall tax burden by four percentage points over ten years, and public debt to 60% of GDP by 2012. Sarkozy is also ready to confront France's bastions of conservatism. He promises to give universities more autonomy, letting them compete to recruit staff and students. He says he would break the big five unions' statutory stranglehold on representation in companies. He intends to introduce a law that will guarantee “minimum service” on public transport during strikes. And he wants to reform the special pension regimes for railway drivers and other state employees that enable them to retire early on full pension.

These are the reasons that Sarkozy is the only candidate who seems both to have understood the urgency of reform and to have the abrasiveness to stand a chance of carrying it out. A political outsider, who fought his way to the top of the Gaullist party through hard work and cunning, he remains fearless in the face of opposition. For all of Europe, France’s presidential election is important. Central and Eastern European countries new to the European Union and those still benefiting from the labor flexibility that such ‘western’ european countries have provided their citizens who wins the first round is important, but who wins the second is vital not only to the next 50 years of this European Union, but France’s relationship to the world.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Gulf 15

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced today that the 15 British sailors and marines who were captured in the Gulf last month are to be released "immediately". Speaking at a press conference to mark the Iranian New Year, he maintained the military personnel had "invaded" Iran's territorial waters and described their release as a "gift". Meanwhile, the Iranian state news agency Irna reported that an envoy was being given access to five Iranians detained by the US military in Iraq since January. This was done shortly after Mr. Ahmadinejad gave medals to the Iranian naval officers who had taken the 15 sailors.

This seems to be a happy ending. But as Phillip Jacobson stated in his article Chronicle of a Kidnapping Fortold “Iran's Supreme Leader warned publicly that the Islamic regime intended to retaliate in kind for "illegal measures" he claimed had been taken against Iran by the international community. In a tub-thumping speech to mark the Iranian New Year, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei electrified a crowd in Mashad with a defiant declaration that "we can also act against the law and we will do so". Some experts on Iran interpreted this as proof that Khamenei had already given the nod for a strike against the West in response to the international community's opposition to the controversial Iranian nuclear program. If this is true then a new angle to this how crisis is reveled.

So, if engagement instead of confrontation does indeed prove correct (let us wait till the news cameras show those sailors on British soil) then it could set a useful precedent. Moderates on both sides could then point to this crisis and accurately say that talks with the west can yield results, giving fresh impetus for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear plans.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Seville & Malaga

Taking advantage of the opportunity to go back to Spain after last weeks wonderful trip to Barcelona I first traveled to Seville. I did not see the barber.

Seville is the artistic, cultural, and financial capital of southern Spain, irrigated by the river Guadalquivir. It is the capital of Andalusia and of the province of Sevilla. I was surprised to discover that the population of the city of Seville proper was roughly 704,154 the population of the urban area was over a million, ranking the city as the fourth-largest metropolitan area of Spain. With this said, you do not feel that you are in such a large city. Known as Hispalis under the Moors. The architecture of the older parts of the city still reflects the centuries of Moorish control of the city, beginning in 711. The city sits well inland, but a mere 6 meters above sea level. Seville was long an important sea port, prior to the silting up of the Guadalquivir. It was from Seville that Ferdinand Magellan obtained the ships for his circumnavigation. Much of the Spanish Empire’s silver from the New World came to Europe in the Spanish treasure fleet that landed in Seville. To those fellow history lover readers out there, Seville holds the most important archive of the Spanish administration in the Americas: the Archivo General de Indias. Also, the American silver had been rapidly transhipped to Antwerp or Genoa, seat of the bankers who had advanced steady funds to the Spanish Crown from Seville. To those chocolate lovers, the first commercial shipment of chocolate from Veracruz arrived in Seville in 1585. The city was the biggest of Spain in 16th and 17th centuries, with a population of 130,000 in 1649, the year of the Great Plague of Seville. This was the beginning of the city's fall from importance, but Seville was an important artistic centre of the baroque. A stronghold of the liberals during the First Spanish Civil War, 1820-1823, due to its proximity to Africa, during the Second Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, Seville fell to the insurgent army led by Francisco Franco.

I was able to see the city's cathedral which was built on the former site of the city's mosque. It is the largest of all medieval and Gothic cathedrals, in terms of both area and volume. The interior, with the longest nave in Spain, is lavishly decorated, with a large quantity of gold eident. Interestingly enough, the Cathedral reused some columns and elements from the mosque, and most famously the Giralda, originally a minaret, was converted into a bell tower. On the top of the cathedral is a statue, known locally as La Giraldilla, representing Faith and is the city's most famous symbol. I loved Seville and wished I could have stayed but it was one to Malaga.

Málaga is a port city in Andalusia, southern Spain, on the Costa del Sol coast of the Mediterranean. It is beautiful if a bit too tourist. The climate is mild and equable, the mean annual temperature being about 19 °C (66 °F). It has been compared to Naples for its broad sky and broad expanse of bay. The beaches where very nice and I received a nice tan.
The inner city of Málaga is just behind the harbour. And I walked the quarters of El Perchel, La Trinidad and Lagunillas. The Holy Week, Semana Santa, one of two well-known of Málaga's festivals took place while I visisted and I have attached a corresponding picture.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Part of my break or 'holiday' between terms allowed me to go to Spain. If you have never gone I strongly urge you to visit. Yes, what you might see on the travel channel is true; dinner is served no sooner than 8:00pm. Now, for many people in the U.S., Barcelona is best remembered for being the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. However, well before this occasion, the city played an important role in Spain's history. Bacelona is the second largest city in Spain after Madrid, and is the capital of Catalonia. To be honest, I only knew of Catalonia through Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Mautrin naval series. So, to make the discovery that Barcelona is the regions capital was very exciting. If however, my dear reader you are still fuzzy where geographically Barcelona is I will save you the trouble of running for the Atlas. It is located on the Mediterranean coast between the mouths of the rivers Llobregat and Besòs, limited to the west by the Serra de Collserola ridge (which my plane flew over and I must admit it is massive looking down). Then again, maybe you do need the Atlas.

Barcelona is a major economic centre, with one of Spain's principal Mediterranean ports. On Thursday walking along with beach I could almost see in the distance the ships that launched the Spanish Empire (Columbus's Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria). On Saturday I immersed myself in the architectural works of Antoni Gaudí with his house, and several buildings being on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For the political junkie in me I had to see the houses of the Catalan autonomous government, known as the Generalitat de Catalunya, notably its executive branch, the Parliament and the Supreme Court of Catalonia.

If you do wish to travel to Barcelona I highly suggest taking the Barcelona Bus Turistic. It was through this mode of travel that I saw literally the entire city, stepping off into the Placa de Catalunya, the city's nerve center; Casa Batlio; the Casa Mila known as La Pedrera; Sagrada Familia; Park Guell; Miramar-Jardins Costa i Llobera; Colom-Museu Maritim; Port Vell; and the medieval quarter that keeps itself young, the Pla de Palau. A few pictures of what I saw and the man whom all Barcelona loves:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

End of Term & Train trip

The university where I teach over here operates on a trimester system. So, after ten weeks of teaching I have allowed a brief respite before I begin the Spring term.

I have traveled to Brussels and in a few days I will leave for Barcelona. The advantage of living on the Continent. To get to Brussels I took a flight from Bratislava to Paris, then a train to Brussels. If you, my dear reader, am confused as to why I chose this particular route to get to my final destination I will soothe any frowns with this simple answer. It was faster. A flight from Bratislava to Brussels involves a stop over in Munich. I am sure that Munich is nice, but after spending five hours in its airport I wish not to experience it again. Since the whole trip should only take approximately three hours and my first trip to Brussels had leave in the morning and arrive in the evening I was looking for something else. So, an hour and half plane journey to Paris and then a hour and forty minute train journey to Brussels. Simple, concise and easy.

Upon arriving at Paris Orly airport I followed the signs to the train, bought my ticket and proceeded to take the Metro (blue line) to Gard de Nord. Once there I collected my pre-ordered ticket and made my way to the track. However, two things happened that I found particularly intriguing. The first was that I was asked by a gypsy for money. I fell into the trap quite quickly, since I had had my back turned and only heard 'do you speak English?' Maybe it was my luggage. But then maybe it was how I was dressed that gave off the impression that I was a local, but educated enough to speak one of the universal languages. This seemed to be the case on the train not ten minutes earlier as I had helped a couple on vacation navigate the crowds and their map. So with this memory still fresh in my mind I assumed it was another lost tourist. I was mistaken. When I told her truthfully that I did not have any euros she empathically stressed she wanted dollars (quite the shred businesswoman). Unfortunately for her I did not have any dollars only Slovak crowns and a 1 euro coin, which as I was telling her that I had no American money fell out of my wallet rolling on the ground. I was soon forgotten as she scrambled for the coin and I promptly left.

My other intriguing observation was the rolling countryside of northeastern France. Whether it was the chateau sheltered by trees that I saw for the briefest moments as the train ran by or the fields of flowers and wheat. I was overcome with the sense of history (the professor and nerd inside me crying out for the train to stop) imagining the very same rail track taking blue coated soldiers to the jagged scars across the landscape in 1915 or the herd of refugees roaming across the fields one step ahead of the advancing German Wehrmacht in 1940. This was not too hard to do since stone pill boxes can still be seen, if you know what you are looking at.

I will write on Spain soon.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Whose Is The Bigot?

Three of the leading Republican presidential candidates on Saturday denounced one of their party's best-known conservative commentators for using an antigay epithet when discussing a Democratic presidential contender at a gathering of conservatives. It should not be any surprise that Ann Coulter is controversial; her speech and her writings are primarily for conservatives and those unfamiliar with her, though this is hard to believe, it does not take long to deduce her extreme right-wing sentiments. Her comments will not repeated in this blog, but I would like to know why she choose John Edwards? He is not homosexual and more to the point there has never been any suggestion that he might be.

Such comments made possibly for shock-effect or considering Ms. Coulter’s audience amusement may be understood within that context though it still is not acceptable. I am reminded of a Slovak politician who is habitually in the media spotlight for unfavorable remarks and actions. The gentleman’s name is Ján Slota and for those readers who have not heard of him let me give you a brief bio: he is the co-founder and President of the Slovak National Party (SNS), and former mayor of the town of Žilina between 1990-2006. In the 2006 parliamentary election, Slota became an MP and his SNS joined the ruling coalition with Robert Fico’s Direction - Social Democracy party and Vladimír Mečiar’s People's Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. As a part of the coalition agreement, Slota didn't obtain any government position.

Slota is frequently criticized for his arrogance and nationalism. In his defence, Slota says he is protecting Slovaks, especially those living in southern Slovakia. However when he has repeatedly made and makes xenophobic, nationalist, abusing statements about the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (the party of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia), and Hungarians in general and strongly abuses in his speeches the Roma (Romanians) and homosexuals, it is difficult to discover how he is protecting Slovaks. His most recent comments regarding Albanians had his coalition parter and former prime minister, Vladimír Mečiar cringe.

Comments by Slota and Coulter touch upon a deeper problem in the world. Ignorance. Both of the individuals mentioned in this post have a particular following of supporters. They both have a set of beliefs that they consider inseperable from their personality, in part, the reason for their celebrity, but the number of accolodes, books, or press clippings still do not change the fundamental inaccuracy of such beliefs. Moreover, such beliefs should embolden advocates, parents, and teachers to do the only responsible action. Educate. The reaction from Republican presidential contenders and public outcry towards Slota’s comments show that both are not in the mainstream of opinion. This is good and it is not only electioneering. Let us hope that the time soon comes when their opinions are not mentioned at all.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Out of Practice

As my students prepare for their final exams and I prepare their exams while reading and grading their papers this weekend I thought it would be interesting to note what I have learned regarding european college social life. Simply stated, I am out of practice.

What I mean is that while I remember with a smile my own university days of staying up past 1:00am partying with my friends I still managed to get at least six hours of sleep and function the next day. This sleep schedule was accomplished by the fact that bars closed at 1:30 or 2:00am. In Europe this is generally when the second wave of party-goers arrive!

Most bars and clubs don't shut their doors until 4:00am! This I discovered three weeks ago and the reality of my unfitness to the 'old' lifestyle sunk in the following morning when I had to lecture through the occasional yawn and catch up on sleep for three days.

Last night was the last school party of the term. I left at 11:30pm, but many of my fellow colleagues were still there and though I asked my students, who had a review for their final exam in my classes today, not to stay out too late, this was translated as 2:30 at the latest.

The review went fine though I noticed the occassional yawn. As for myself though anything past midnight has become a struggle I am comforted to know that I have exactly six weeks before the next party.

Until next time...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Power of a word

The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter. However, in the children’s book, The Higher Power of Lucky, the book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum. To quote from the page:“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. To make matters worse, or better this is not just any book. The author, Susan Patron, won the Newbery Award. If it were any other novel, it probably would have gone unnoticed, unordered and unread. But in the world of children’s books, winning a Newbery is the rough equivalent of being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club title.

Visiting friends and family in Europe and now living here I have often been surprised and at times shocked by what is generally accepted by the public. Young children peeing in public, if a bit discreetly, at the foot of a tree or alongside the road and large billboard advertisements showing woman’s breasts or male buttocks. Such things are not seen in the United States, being considered too rude or crude for public consumption. There are a few exceptions over here, such as the British renaming the second Austin Powers movie, because they found the word shag offensive. Of course, when it comes to offensive or crude, my European friends are correct to point out that the sex and violence and language, to the point of gratuitous, in Hollywood movies on television and in song lyrics pervade the American culture.

So why does the word scrotum worry and offend so many? I really do not have the answer. I think that an opportunity has been lost, however, in the banning of this book in some school libraries. American teachers have lost the opportunity to do what they do best, teach; while parents have lost the chance to do the same. For a culture that is supposedly at war with itself here was the opportunity that every conservative should want: parental instruction of their children unfettered by schools and the government. This too offered liberals a chance to show how inclusion of literature can be the common ground or at the very least the start of dialogue. Let us hope for a next time.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Snow, Whirlpool, and Slovak roads

Hi to all,

Well, this past weekend I trekked up to the High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. Those of you who wish to grab an almanac, this mountain range runs across the north of the country and acts as a natural border with Poland.

Winter has arrived in Slovakia. Snow accompanied the bus on Thursday morning as it made its four hour journey north and stayed throughout the night providing the perfect conditions for skying. So on Friday, my free day, I and twelve of my colleagues took a bus to the ski slopes. Since, this was my first time skiing I was promptly forgotten by my more experienced friends, though truth be told they did check on me, more often than not, looking down upon my sprawled body in the snow. After two hours of frustration though I achieved what I had hoped for. Actual skiing down a slope at speeds that made my Olympic fantasy come alive, shortly, before the practical concern of how to stop shattered my day-dreaming. With my bruised body, not to mention ego I left the Tatra slopes unbowed though and definitely undaunted. I have found I love the activity and plan on returning as soon as I can. Later that night I found the warmth of a whirlpool the necessary remedy to my aches and pains.

Saturday was the conference and I spent most of the day inside a lecture hall listening, taking notes and educating myself.

Sunday the bus that had taken us up to the mountains now returned us, though under tougher road conditions. For those of you in the U.S. road maintenance, in particular, snow removal is considered a priority in many states where snow is the common denominator during the winter months. This is not the case in Slovakia. Such maintenance and removal does occur, just not as frequently as expected nor as I had hoped, so many prayers where offered on the return journey.

This week my students in Political Science take their mid-terms examinations. I hope for their sake they will do better than how they did on my review today.

Until next time.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Middle East, Trains, and a retreat

Well, as is the case when there is too much to do, things are forgotten...

This blog for example. It has been nearly two weeks since I last posted and much has happened.

The classes that I teach are still good and I do still enjoy the subject matter and overall the students that file into my classroom everyday. However, I found myself in the delicate position of lecturing on the Middle East to my class of International Relations. To my surprise and a bit more to my shock very little is known, outside of the stereotyped and prejudicial views. In my attempts to mediate a bit more information on Israeli views, why for example did they refuse to leave the Golan Heights in negotiations in the late 90s; overwhelming sympathy for the Palestinian cause blocked my efforts. This was repeated when this week discussions on the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Iran resulted in similar reactions. Much of this I can justify in my mind and there were those few students who did know much about the region, its politics and troubles that did not come from the 30 second news clip the majority of their peers listen to. This is comforting. But, I am left with unsettled feelings that a generation of youth not very different from their American counterparts are walking into a future more globalized than when their fathers arrived, more enlightened in terms of available news sources and yet, apathetic.

Last weekend I took my first journey outside Trencin. Traveling by train (the only true way to travel in Europe, forget the bus) I made my way to Bratislava, Slovakia's capital and absolutely nothing like the disgusting and horrific image presented in the 2006 movie Hostel. I walked through the City Museum admiring the paintings, indulged in my love of Asian food at a wonderfully authentic Chinese restaurant and picked my way through several antique stores where the available items were more 19th century than 20th. The crown jewel, no pun intented, of my trip was a neat coffee place, owned by an ex-pat who has stuffed his walls with rows of books. Nestled down an alley, away from the hustle of the city and its tourists, this quaint little place provides the caffeine needed to read the final chapter in a mystery pulled from the shelf or the cozy smoke-filled atmosphere of the anteroom where intellectuals of all stripes can sit, philosophize, debate and laugh over a pint (yes, beer is also available).

In an hour I am off on a bus to the high Tatra's (mountains) for a retreat. A weekend of work and fun. I have been told much about this yearly excursion, heard more rumor than fact and look forward to it with anticipation. Winter has finally arrived with continual snow the last two days, and I am excited to finally wear a sweater and, if I feel so inclined, I might try the slopes tomorrow.

Until next time.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In the Heart of Europe

It has been a few months. I have moved and started a new job. As promised to those readers in my last post in November I now turn my electronic pen to webpage and write once more.

I have decided to keep the blog name unchanged. Though my intention now is to write on my experiences in a foreign country and not so much my personal view of specific news stories around the world, I believe that here in Europe a 'worldspin' does occur. Different media, culture, and personal opinions provide a nice seasoning to the dish I hope to give to you, my readers, in the coming months.

A brief summary of my crazy life since I last wrote:

I accepted a teaching position at a university in Trencin, Slovakia last March. It seemed to be an ideal situation to find employment in the foreign city that was the birthplace of my wife and where much of her family still reside. And so it was that in December I moved. For those of you unfamiliar with Slovakia or the Slovak Republic as it is also known as; it was one part of the former Czechoslovakia. The nation peacefully split in 1993 and this small nation literally in the middle (heart) of Europe I now call home.

On December 20th I flew to Munich for my connecting flight to Bratislava, Slovakia. There in the airport with my wife we heard much to our chagrin ten minutes before we were to board our flight an announcement that the flight had been cancelled! (no explanation offered) This set off a mad dash to the Lufthansa service center where after waiting in line for 40 minutes were told that the next flight to Bratislava was at 9:30pm. However, a flight to Vienna was leaving at 6:40pm. We arranged to take this flight, booked in part, I believe since my wife's ticket from Istanbul, where she had been on business, had been 'business' designated and she spoke German throughout the entire conversation with the service clerk (to confirm my suspicion, a woman in front of us speaking English did not get this option, being told instead that the flight was full). Once booked we both prayed all our luggage would take the Vienna plane too. Originally, the University had arranged to have a person pick us up at the Bratislava airport. With our flights cancelled I had to call the gentleman responsible for this nice arrangement and tell him the situation. It was a bit awkward since by the time our new flight was booked and I called Michael, we were supposed to be at the Bratislava airport! All worked out. A driver was sent to Vienna and we got to Trencin in the evening, shortly before ten.

My university apartment is really nice. Much more than I expected. It is furnished, which I was told, but one does not really know what that means, you know? Well, it has everything: washing machine, TV, Internet, living room separate from bedroom. It is great. A five minute walk to the school, a ten minute walk to my wife's grandmother. I met with the Associate Dean on December 27 and discussed my schedule for the next term.

My second week has just concluded. It began on January 2nd and I must admit I love what I am doing. All the sections are roughly 12-25 students, which I find a good size to have group discussions and activities with. My fellow teachers are very genuine and helpful. Two of them are American as well. I do feel, however, that I am walking the delicate tight rope of not looking or sounding unprofessional or just plain stupid to my fellow colleagues (which in a way hinders the questions I am able to ask them) while speaking with authority in my classes and using techniques that I either 'feel' are correct or from friends and family (who are teachers) told me are fine. I have quickly realized two things. The first is that while the extensive knowledge is there in my brain on the stuff I am teaching, the specific pedagogical information is not. The second is the sheer weight of responsibility over these young minds many of whom are only four or five years younger than I am. A point I hope the vast majority of them do not realize.

Until next time...