Na Zdravie!

August 13, 2010

I spotted Milan almost immediately, grinning proudly amongst the throng, his beer chastely covered by a coffee container. We work on the same team at work and he has the habit of making jokes constantly throughout the day, most of which I don't understand, but all of which make me laugh, largely due to his Slovakian accent and second-hand English. He's got these great Slovakian parables, so when the subject of traveling to Amsterdam with contraband arises, he'll say: "In Slovakia we have saying: don't bring wood to forrest," before laughing uncontrollably.

He's playful and keeps the mood light during stressful situations. Of everyone I've met here, he knows how to have a really good time. He's friendly with everyone, so it's not uncommon for a drunken old Irishmen he's met at the bar to come stumbling over to sing a song or two and stamp his feet, as Milan sings along merrily in absolute gibberish. It's also clear that he absolutely adores his wife Lucy and is a trustworthy friend.

The Slovaks welcomed me by first making sure I had something to drink. At the main stage drinking wasn't allowed, so they had all sorts of accoutrement to make sure the beer and vodka was well hidden. His friends were generous, refilling Milan's coffee cup which he'd gifted to me and introducing themselves. We stood around listening to Khaled, an Algerian singer, sipping beer and watching the girls (and an occasional drunk Irishman) limbo.

I got to talking with another Milan, Milan2 as I like to think of him, a wiry, passionate fellow about my own age with a shaved head who was clearly in an altered state and treated me a 45-minute synopsis of Slovak-Hungarian-Czech relations. The short of it is that after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the Hungarians employed an ethnic assimilation policy known as "Magyarization" or ("Hungarization") that outlawed Slovak language in schools and imposed Hungarian language and culture on ethnic minorities within the border. In 1918, a Slovak patriot Milan Rastislav Štefánik (the original Milan, which is how we got to talking about all of this) helped organize a Czechoslovak army against Austria-Hungary which became its own nation following World War I.

After a brief stint seceding from Czechoslovakia at the behest of the Nazis and aligning themselves with Germany, Slovakian rejoined Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II only to be federated by the Socialists in 1969. Thus began life under communism that lasted until the end of Communist rule in 1989 and by 1992 Slovakia had become an independent nation. Thus, as Milan2 put it, the Slovakians hate the Hungarians and they used to dislike the Czechs although now they'll hang out with them (pointing to other members of the group), but they don't actually trust them because Czechs like to stab Slovakians in the back.

I guess it's one of the stark differences between America and Europe in that we don't have this weighty history on our backs. These old grudges that stem from years of invasion and persecution that don't die easily. The Slovaks hate the Hungarians who hate the Czechs who hate the Russians. The Danish hate the Germans. The Irish hate the English. There's so much national pride that has to be waved around, flouted in others' faces, traced as a line in the sand to see if anyone will dare cross. That's the gift of growing up in a country that just happens to be a global power I suppose. Not insecure enough to worry about bad blood with the British or Mexico, Vietnam or even Iraq. We've never suffered defeat that was in any way culturally humiliating (yet), and so we don't wear the same chips on our shoulders.

Milan2 excused himself to "let the water out of my body" and stumbled off. As the concert wound down, people started to complain of hunger and a plan was made to seek out fish and chips, but Milan2 was no where to be found. Someone pointed out that he'd left his shoes, which is about the one item of clothing you'll need when seeking out a portable toilet. No one seemed to have his cell phone, not even Daniella, his tall blond girlfriend with the full pouting lips. She was upset and concerned, but after the sky began to get dark, we had no choice but to go for food hoping that fate would throw Milan2 in our path again.