Don's Diary

January 26, 1996

MONDAY. It is seven weeks since I arrived in Bratislava, but I am still trying to find the social work department, one of two in which my European chair, organised by the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, is supposed to be based. The department's former home in Moskovska was gutted in the summer, and temporary accommodation has been found in Petrzalka, where more than 100,000 citizens live in communist-style tower blocks, on the other side of the Danube. Last week none of the phones there seemed to be working.

By luck I met a social work student on Saturday at a dance. Between folkloric polkas, she told me that they had spent the past two weeks preparing for an exam but staff failed to turn up to set it. So that is why they have been missing from my social policy lectures in the politics department. (Note: she is an excellent dancer - I must try to go out with her again sometime).

The head of department has told me the wrong bus, so I spend an hour wandering through Petrzalka. It is still remarkably orderly and neat, but when all the middle-class professionals have moved out (say in 15 years time) it will make a perfect setting for Mad Max IV. There is much building activity in the new premises, but no sign of staff or students.

TUESDAY. I have bad news for my excellent assistant, Peter Priadka. The European Union money for the new photocopier has taken three weeks to be transferred from Vienna to the social work department's account, and the departmental head will be in the United States for the next two weeks. So Peter will have to continue to sneak into the professor's room (while he is elsewhere) to copy the teaching materials for my lectures.

WEDNESDAY. It took me three weeks of intrigue to get the university council chamber for my weekly set-piece, but, apart from the first one, when my lurid hand-drawn posters attracted more than 30 inquisitive souls, I might as well have settled for room 217. Continuity is a problem. This week the sociology students have mysteriously vanished, and been replaced by a party of visiting Croats. This class is about international social policy issues, so I organise an exercise. The Croats and an American student give a spirited rendition of the EU reprimanding Slovakia for its errors, while a motley crew portray Ukraine, trying to woo it away from the west. But the star turn is Andrej's all-too-convincing performance as Slovakia's premier Meciar, playing each side off against the other.

THURSDAY. To Petrzalka again first thing, but the students cannot attend a planning meeting, because of a last-minute addition to their programme. They still have no timetable so I must hazard a date next week, when there are state holidays. In the evening, I give a public lecture at Academia Istropolitana, provocatively on "Crime and the Political System".

There is a vigorous debate about Slovakia's stony path towards the rule of law; was the man who left immediately after my remarks on this reporting to the secret police? - or am I falling back into cold war thinking?

FRIDAY. Ruffled feathers in the rectorate about my interview for "Our University", in which I criticise the learning environment. The powers-that-be have censored my suggestion that their institution is no more democratic than the wider Slovak polity, and my smug conclusion that my athletic skills will enable me to escape from would-be enforcers. The burden of my critique is that the students will never be reliable or committed until the staff demonstrate these qualities themselves. It is just not good enough to go to conferences in mid-term without telling their classes. Those who do turn up rely too much on intimidation, and teaching methods are often archaic. The university is much less transformed than many other parts of the Slovak economy and society. All this will not endear me to colleagues. I also suggest that the students should organise to demand representation on all decision-making bodies. But this may be expecting too much; the general rule of Slovak social relations is to find a covert way to get even with the system, not to organise to fight it.

SATURDAY. Heavy snow. I go for a magical run in the woods, make lots of telephone calls, and do my shopping.

Once again, as I tramp through the concrete walkways that are so reminiscent of English developments of 20 years ago, I reflect on the amazing resignation and compliance of these people. It is so ironic that Slovakia should have a reputation for violence and illegality, when all I see is a civic culture of politeness and consideration. "Please maintain order and cleanliness" says the sign in the bus, and they do: old people are always offered a seat.

SUNDAY. A warm and comfortable day in my flat, preparing for next week. It is a monument to 1970s bad taste, with brown-and-orange floral acrylic carpet, neo-brutalistic exotic-wood, hi-shine furniture, formica tops and whole-wall picture of South Sea island. But till February this is home, and I must battle on.

Reader in social studies at Exeter University. He is currently serving as European chair in social policy at Comenius University, Bratislava.

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