|St. Martin’s Cathedral Where 11 Kings and 8 Queens were crowned
Visiting Bratislava, Slovakia was a late decision in our trip planning. Berlin, Prague, Vienna – easy choices. But, Bratislava? Luckily, we included it to add one more major Austrian-Hungarian Empire city to the tour but found a surprising connection to Paris, Texas.
When Czechoslovakia internally parted ways in 1989, Bratislava became capital of the new country of Slovakia and Prague governed the Czech republic. Slovakia differs significantly from its western twin –
less prosperous and more Catholic and rural. Its roots reach deep into Hungary, a part of the Habsburg monarchy for almost 400 years. Strangely, the centrally placed Bratislava was a favorite coronation destination for the royals. Eleven kings and eight queens were crowned at its St. Martin’s cathedral, including Maria Theresa of Austria.
Historical Bratislava suffered greatly under communism. Two-thirds of the buildings in Old Town were cleared for highway and bridge construction as well as for building large, impersonal prefab apartments. The comparison to its charming and well-preserved sister capital of Prague is tragic. Today, thanks to increasing numbers of tourists, Bratislava has restored what it could and relies on its energy to be quite welcoming.
We arrived at the 1950’s train station with its small kiosks in front selling hot dogs and a sign encouraging us to “have an amazing time in Bratislava”. A taxi ride along the Danube river passed the intergalactic Novy Most bridge and stopped near town central where we jumped on a small, red mini-train that very slowly moved through the downtown pedestrian streets. The driver identified disparate sites, “On your right is St. Martin’s Cathedral, on your left is one of Bratislava’s many playful manhole covers” .
|Marianna Gajanova and Betty Swasko
It was a warm spring afternoon and we later strolled the stone streets and sidewalks with some of the city’s 450,000 inhabitants, waiting for our 3 p.m. appointment to meet Marianna Gajanova. She is a second cousin twice removed to Paris resident Paul Swasko. Paul’s great grandfather and Mariana’s greatgreatgrandfather was Jan Szvacsko, born in 1861 in Slovakia. An American family member had tracked down Mariana’s family. Paul’s wife, Betty Swasko, arranged our meeting. As Mariana walked towards us, we were all struck by her resemblance to the Swasko’s youngest daughter, Kristi. The shared genes played out in the blond hair, height, and even their walking gate.
|Betty Swasko and daughter, Kristi Swasko
Mariana grew up in Cierna Lehota, a small agricultural town in the hills of Eastern Slovakia, with little to offer its youth. Facing a post-communism 30 % unemployment rate, she wisely considered education her best way out, choosing to study German in a bilingual boarding school a long bus ride from her hometown and then mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Zilina. Her facility in German and engineering were the perfect combination to work in her country’s biggest industry – automobile assembly.
Volkswagen was the first major automobile company to set up shop in Bratislava in 1994. Since then, the company has continued to expand, producing through the years the Passat, VW GolfA3, Polo, and AudiQ7 as well as many parts for other cars. Peugeot-Citroen and Kia followed suit in 2004 , meaning Slovakia makes more cars per capita than any other country in the world and is known as the Detroit of Europe. This industry’s presence has lifted many Slovakians from the countryside into relative prosperity.
Happily, Mariana’s English was quite good, and we visited over a typical dinner of dumplings, cabbage, ham, sour cream, and beer. When asked if she liked beer, she smiled, “I’m Slovakian, aren’t I?” We learned Mariana is now an assembly planner for SUV door systems for Volkswagen and Audi and her boyfriend, Rado, works as an internal auditor for CEIT Consutling that provides external support for Volkswagen. They drive a Volkswagen, of course, and because of expensive real estate prices in Bratislava, have bought a house 24 miles outside of town. Despite their strong earning capacity (especially in Slovakia), 25% of their salaries goes to taxes with the house payment eating up more. They have to plan carefully to even visit her home 200 miles away.
Marianna knows she’s fortunate to have her job and to be living where she does. She was only two when the regime fell but heard from many that under communism, everyone had a job and seemed happier. That may be true of her parents’ generation but Marianna took advantage of her country’s education and now participates and excels in a very capitalistic world. Her generation is the hope for Slovakia. And the truth is, both Slovakia and the United States are lucky to have those Swasko genes.