Friday, January 12, 2007

correspondent's diary (new feature on website)


From Estonia to Atlantis

Jan 12th 2007

Travels with our central Europe correspondent

LONDON (or at least the bit of it that is interested in eastern European politics) was abuzz with unkind gossip after the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, came visiting in November. Of several awkward moments, the most talked-about was when he looked around the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street, and muttered something which his interpreter rendered as “Not very impressive”.

There are three baffling aspects to this. One is why Poland, the weightiest country in eastern Europe, managed to choose as head of state a man whose personal merits (honesty and kindness) are disguised by an ignorant, clumsy and nervous manner.


Not very impressive

Another is why his staff are so utterly incompetent that they don’t provide him with some bland talking points.

The third is why the Polish government seems consistently to hire such lousy interpreters. Mr Kaczynski actually wanted to make a pleasant observation that it was a surprisingly small room for somewhere so important.

Poles who understand the damage done by such mistakes are gloomy. The government is not too bad—indeed it is probably one of the least bad that the country has ever had. But it is abominably bad at foreign policy.

To console them, your correspondent tells some horror stories from other countries. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia turned up nearly an hour late at Downing Street—a place where the prime minister’s day is timed to the minute.

But it is odd that Poland gets so much mockery. There is a kind of snobbish disdain for Europe’s east rooted very deeply in the British psyche. Before writing this diary, your correspondent was trying to do his expenses—a task that represents a weekly high-water mark for a journalist’s numeracy (and, it is rumoured, creativity).

The Economist’s internal expenses form allows claims in Zambian Kwacha—but not Estonian kroons, or lats (Latvia) or litas (Lithuania). These countries may be members of the EU and NATO, but for all that they are just not important enough. To say nothing of pipsqueak countries such as Ukraine.

There is some pressing business to end the week with. Literature from small countries, especially those that were wiped from the map for a few decades, tends to fare badly on the international publishing circuit.

Despite that, Estonia’s writers have a lot of clout for a country of 1.3m people. Jaan Kross (as in “The Czar’s Madman”) is internationally known. Tõnu Õnnepalu is a rising star. But the national classic, “Truth and Justice” by Anton Tammsaare, has never been published in English. That is a huge gap: rather as if Thomas Mann, Cervantes or Stendhal were not available in English.

“Truth and Justice” is a terrific tale, in five volumes, spanning rural farm life in Czarist-era Estonia, the Russian revolution and the creation of an independent Estonia.

The world it portrays seems as distant from ours as Atlantis. But the Estonians, taciturn, thoughtful, and dependable, are instantly recognisable.

There are translations in both German and Finnish. Rumour has it that there was once a translation into English, but it perished during a wartime shipwreck.

Now two Estonian-Americans, Inna Feldbach and Alan Trei, have translated the first volume and have sent some sample chapters of what they call the “sprawling, rambunctious” epic. A literary journal is publishing one of them, and the others are now with Random House in New York, and Arcadia Press in London.

It is addictive stuff, and a valuable Friday afternoon that should have been spent fixing interviews for next week’s paper slips by in a happy, melancholic haze. With luck the hard-nosed publishers will feel the same way. It would be a worthy addition to the Great Books list so animatedly discussed in Bratislava.

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HOME again to London―the financial, cultural and diplomatic capital of eastern Europe. The city is a magnet for the ambitious, the desperate and the nervous, and for those just itching to have fun. By some counts it acommodates 500,000 expatriates from what your correspondent still likes to call the “former captive nations”. There could well be more.

It’s a new wave, but not the first. When your correspondent was first learning Polish in the mid-1980s, he frequented a café in South Kensington called Daquise, where he laboriously construed the label on a shabby collecting tin that sat next to the cash till. It was a quote from one of Poland’s great wartime leaders, General Wladyslaw Anders: “Legitymacja skarbu narodowego jest paszportem wolnego Polaku” (”The National Treasury ID card is the passport of a free Pole”).

Holders of those particular ID cards faced a death sentence if they returned to communist Poland, which regarded the government-in-exile that issued them as treasonous.

Now the members of that government, for which the tin raised a tiny, voluntary tax, have wound up triumphant. They, not their communist usurpers, are honoured by Poland's current rulers, as the legitimate government of that day.

It was a time when east European languages were deeply exotic, and finding people to practise them with was quite hard. The smart way to get a cheap conversation lesson was by buying drinks for the mustachioed gents who used to hang around Daquise, or the Polish Hearth Club up the road.

Now, by contrast, east European languages are so common on the London street that they barely register. But few of their speakers imagine that any local (and in his tweed jacket, corduroys, brogues and Barbour jacket, your correspondent could hardly look more English) will understand what they are saying.

At a bus stop, a Russian chats animatedly into a mobile phone about a scam involving over-invoicing. On the bus, two Polish girls are comparing notes on their sex life with laudable frankness.

A bit later, on the tube, three Lithuanians are discussing a complicated and dodgy-sounding business to do with a container, some forged documents, and a British “colleague”. They create the dismal impression that they have corrupted a customs officer.

After a bit the eavesdropping gets rather conspicuous, and they look at the unwanted observer with undisguised dislike. They switch to Russian, which this eavesdropper understands rather better. Sadly, they get off at the next stop.

Merely speaking Russian doesn’t mean that you understand Russians. For that, start with one of the best books ever written about the Communist mindset, “Negotiating with the Soviets”, by Raymond Smith, first published in 1989.

The author, a retired American diplomat who spent his working life in dull, intricate, pointless talks with Soviet bureaucrats, explains beautifully the difference between two kinds of Russian truth―istina which is what is factually true, and pravda, which is the “right truth”.

He explains the use of vranyo—an untranslatable word meaning, roughly, “useful bullshit”. And, perhaps most usefully, he outlines the three ways of dealing with strangers: befriend, bully or grovel.

The normal Western conversational register, of friendly, respectful professional interaction is much rarer, particularly among Soviet-born people of a certain age.


Mourning Mr Litvinenko

An example: your correspondent leaves a message with a famous Soviet-era defector, now living in the UK, asking whether he and other cold war fence-jumpers are nervous in the wake of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asks brusquely. He interrupts the explanation. “I don’t talk to the KGB”, he erupts. “Your paper is full of communist propaganda. Your correspondents are KGB officers. Sack them.”

This line of attack is rather disconcerting, given that our general line on Russia is quite hawkish, and your correspondent's, if anything, more so. But still he thinks the paper’s coverage of Mr Litvinenko’s death was insufficiently reverential.

He rants on. One option is to counter-attack, berating him for his foolish and ignorant views. But that is risky. He is a lot older, and considers himself a lot grander. Another is to whine and apologise, let him enjoy some trampling, and then appeal for mercy. The third is try to befriend him.

But a fourth option looks more attractive still. As he reaches a fulminating crescendo of insults, explaining for the third time why he will not talk to Moscow’s flunkeys, it is time to apologise crisply for bothering him and then, as he pauses, slightly startled, add a swift goodbye and hang up. It wasn’t that interesting a story anyway.

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TO BUDAPEST, and the Gellert hotel. A favourite of your correspondent. Note the eccentric plumbing, the peeling paint and the worn carpets. The service ranges from sombre to sullen. Here you can see all the tide-marks left in the course of Hungary’s transition from goulash communism to debt-laden crony capitalism.

But the history, architecture and atmosphere outweigh such cavils. The visitor is not quite standing on the shoulders of giants, but at least standing in rooms they frequented. The Gellert is where Oskar Schindler stayed when saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis.

The hotel manages, just, to feel like an oddly-run bit of a market economy. But a trip down the corridors to the Gellert's thermal baths, still municipally owned, brings with it an unmistakable whiff of the bossy, dour regime that collapsed in 1989.

In, say, Estonia, this gorgeous Art Deco swimming pool would have been privatised long ago, renovated, and turned into a world-class health resort for the super-rich.

In a city with a more dynamic municipal government, it might at least be run by friendly English-speaking staff.

But it isn’t. And for the foreign visitor, one of the great experiences of Budapest can seem a bit daunting. So here’s what to do.

Pack a bathing costume and flipflops (or buy overpriced ones in the hotel business centre). Change in your hotel room, donning the thin and scratchy white bathrobe provided. Bring soap, some small-denomination Hungarian banknotes, reading material, and a towel.

Pad down the corridor and summon the antique lift, all ironwork and glass. The female attendant will give you a faded plastic swipe card to get you through the turnstiles thronged by glum-looking Budapesters intent on sweating away their troubles.

Here you will catch a tempting glimpse of the swimming pool to your right, though you get there via a roundabout tunnel worthy of a car park.

Danubius Hotels
Danubius Hotels

The way of Buda

Swimming is strictly anti-clockwise. Backstroke is recommended so that you can see the ceiling. Grecian urns and lions’ heads spouting water evoke a more elegant age―which is more than you can say for the podgier of the clientele.

Now for the real treats. Head right (men) or left (women) and you reach a warren of cubicles and passages. Collect a “modesty cloth” from the freshly laundered pile on the table, and find a vacant cabin to change. An attendant (monoglot and cross) will lock away your possessions for safe keeping and give you a tiny metal tag to wear round your ankle.

Proceed to the dry sauna with its three circles of hell. The hottest is 80ºC. Hungarians sit stolidly reading newspapers, or conversing in their (to outsiders) impenetrable tongue. Some are in their underwear, others in modesty cloths. The etiquette is to switch this round when you sit, so that your bare bottom does not rest directly on a wooden chair.

After a bit of that, head for the two plunge pools, heated to 36ºC and 38ºC, or go for a bracing wallow in the cold pool. Disappointingly for aficionados of the Russian banya, which follows a long bake with a serious freeze, the cold pool here is cooled to a mere 8ºC.

Once your extremities are losing all feeling, warm up again in the “wet” (steam) sauna next door. Nobody reads or talks here. Breathing is painful, and you can’t see across the room.

The tantalising “mud treatment”, whatever the hotel may say, is not available at weekends. To get it at all you need a doctor’s letter certifying to your general good health, and to your particular need of spa treatments for fatigue and digestive problems.

But there are beauty treatments requiring nothing more than cash—around €50 for an hour of facial patting and prodding with anti-wrinkle potions, an extraction of blackheads (by hand) and other pleasurable if scientifically unproven remedies. Your correspondent's wife, who believes her husband to spend most of his time overseas in a muddy wasteland where starving dogs gnaw at frozen corpses, was delighted, pronouncing it “blissful”. Wait until we get to a Moscow banya.

The baths will shoo you out in good time for dinner. Take the hint. Hungarian cuisine is the best anywhere in the ex-communist world, with sophisticated combinations of duck, goose, sour cherries and chestnuts, instead of the cabbage, sausage and potato of most other countries.

But some local delicacies are better than others. Lung casserole is rather like eating rubber bands. Catfish, especially when stewed, taste like the lake-bottom on which they live.

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THE conference on post-communist Europe is a rare gem, with short papers, lively discussions, and lots of time for socialising. The wildly varying levels of informality are striking. Some people have been friends for 20 years: they use “ty”, and diminutive forms of address―“Honza” for Jan, “Edicko” for Edward.

Others are meeting for the first time, and want to be friendly without rushing it. Luckily, it is much easier to be informal in English, where speedy use of a Christian name doesn’t signify forced intimacy.

A Serbian diplomat will have none of this. Steely in manner, appearance and views, she insists on addressing her interlocutors at every point as “Esteemed” followed by their job title. The crosser she gets with our more cavalier approach, the more formal she becomes.

A spare hour presents a chance to call an actress, Ingrid T. She comes highly recommended by a journalist colleague, now in New York, who spent many years in post-communist Czechslovakia. He is something of a Casanova, but gives no hint of any romantic entanglement.

The conversation goes like this. “Hello, this is X from The Economist. I am in Bratislava and wanted to discuss the interaction between Slovak cultural identity and global influences. I got your number from Peter in New York”. At this point the call is interrupted by a peal of derisive, incredulous laughter, followed by a click. It is tempting to phone New York for an explanation. But perhaps better not to.

Over dinner, four of us, all from outside the region, discuss what first sparked our lifelong interest in the now ex-communist world, back when it seemed as inaccessible as Pyongyang seems today. The common answer: books.

The captivating Milosz

This prompts an attempt to construct a reading list, on the lines of an American-style Great Books course.

You have to start with Kundera, says one colleague. “Grossly overrated,” says another, who insists, “Skvorecky is infinitely better”. There is a measure of agreement that Czech fiction is a big part of the canon: Klima, of course, Hrabal, Capek … Someone mentions Havel. “Nobody would have heard of him if he wasn’t a dissident too” comes the squashing retort.

A Pole, eavesdropping, weighs in: “You can’t understand anything unless you have read ‘Pan Tadeusz’.” But like the Koran, “Pan Tadeusz”—a captivating 19th century romantic epic by Poland’s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz—is untranslatable. After some debate, Czeslaw Milosz’s “Captive Mind” is chosen as the greatest Polish book accessible to non-Polonophones.

Your correspondent counters with his childhood reading of books by English authors. Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy shows the moral roots of the cold war with almost unbearable poignancy. Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” tries to explain pre-war Yugoslavia. Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” does the same for Romania.

There are funny books too. Malcolm Bradbury’s “Rates of Exchange”, set in the fictional but all too recognisable east European country of Slaka (part-Yugoslavia, part-Soviet), made bad food and intrusive officialdom seem amusing, rather than threatening. His follow-up spoof guidebook, “Why come to Slaka” tells you a lot you need to know about the last decaying decade of communist rule.

The prize for obscurity goes to “The Foolish Virgin”, a slight, long-forgotten novel by an enterprising British nurse, Violetta Thurstan. It tells the story of an idealistic, prickly English girl who works in Austrian refugee camps in the late 1940s.

The plot and characterisation are tosh, but the background, drawn with unselfconscious precision, gives an extraordinarily convincing picture of the squalid, fearful world of displaced-person camps, administered by worn-out soldiers in a ruined country. The cold war is palpable, but has yet to be named for what it is. Plucked from a bookshelf by a bored, lonely 12-year-old, it awoke a spark of interest in the history and politics of eastern Europe that has burned ever since.

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MY VISITS to Bratislava always have a faintly penitential air. It was here 17 years ago, covering what was then communist Czechoslovakia, that I made probably the biggest of my many professional misjudgments. Writing about a court case on November 13th 1989 in which Slovakia’s top dissidents were being sentenced on a trumped-up charge of subversion, I wrote: “The likelihood that any of the defendants might one day argue with the authorities across a negotiating table rather than a courtroom seemed distant.”

Barely a week later the Velvet Revolution was under way.

In those days Bratislava was an isolated, scary place. Now it is at the centre of Europe―despite Slovakia's latest government, which unites racists and sleazy populists in an unholy alliance.

My visit this time was for a conference about the political weakness of post-communist countries—a worrying trend. From the Baltics to the Balkans there is not one strong reformist government. Some are smug, do-nothing coalitions (Estonia and Slovenia), or prickly and ineffective (Poland) or powerless minority governments (Lithuania, Czech Republic), or sleazy and unscrupulous (Hungary, Latvia).

The evening gave a chance to go to Nitra, an hour’s drive away, to watch an avant-garde British play at a theatre festival. The theatre, a hideous monolith, was packed. The play was very funny. But the overtitles projected on the proscenium arch were unnervingly out of synch. Sometimes they delivered the jokes before the actors did, and the half-dozen native-speakers in the audience roared with solitary laughter. Sometimes it was the other way round.

Afterwards there was a slow, late and rather formal dinner for the honoured British guests. My conversational Slovak is improvised from long-forgotten Czech plus protoslavonic borrowings from Russian and Polish. But it seemed to work, thanks to the patience of our Slovak hosts.

Please tie bridegrooms elsewhere

The trick in speaking a language badly is to have a few good questions at hand. In Russian you might try, “Shchto to znachit konkretno?” (what does that mean in practical terms?), or “U vas jest jarky primyer?” (do you have a vivid example?). If you know local variants of those questions you can keep offering them with a friendly, puzzled smile, and in the end your interlocutor will get out a pen and paper and draw you a cartoon strip in order to get the point across.

Back to Bratislava, where the vibrant culture of young British manhood is enlivening the beautiful old town centre. Stag parties fuelled by cheap alcohol and low-cost airlines are the curse of eastern Europe. Sometimes they can be quite amusing: a friend tells of a hapless bridegroom who was stripped naked and wrapped, immobile, to a tree with clingfilm. But mostly it is noise, vomit, urine and vulgarity.

The other big interest is property speculation. Brits like talking about house prices even more than they like talking about the weather. Knowledge of the topography, regulatory environment, climate and architecture of eastern Europe is now at an all-time high. People who would have not found Bratislava on the map ten years ago can explain exactly which provincial town in Slovakia offers the best “upside”, and the pitfalls of buying a cottage in a Bulgarian mountain village.

There’s a more cerebral, though equally self-interested, strand of interest too. The hard-pressed British middle classes, squeezed by rising taxes, stonking increases in the cost of education and stagnant real incomes, are fascinated by the thought of paying a flat-rate 20% income tax (instead of the 40% marginal rate they currently suffer). It is an odd experience to hold a London dinner party enthralled with a detailed comparison of the Estonian and Slovak tax systems. But it happens surprisingly often.

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