Soon after we’d left the Vienna airport, they came up, on both sides of the Bahn, an unending presence along the route running from the edge of the highway to the horizon itself: white towers with long blades drawing energy from wind that pushed them. As in Judo. Standing tall on the rise and fall of the Austrian landscape, they turned with gusto. It was raining. Gray air and grey cloud pressed down on the lush green expanse of earth, earth free of buildings, cut through by grey road and dotted with these high windmills. Until yesterday Europe had been awash in uninterrupted golden sunshine, but this moment in the rain changed two weeks of the sun into mere memory.
“This rain is good,” our customer who was driving us from Vienna to Slovakia said. “There’s been too much pollen flying.”
The Austrians voted out nuclear energy a long time ago, and they must succeed with alternates. In Slovakia, our customer said, a Soviet-era nuclear plant is serving its five-million Slovak population just fine. (I haven’t done a fact-check. The customer was brilliant, so well informed.)
At the border, the profusion of windmills ended.
The big thing in Slovakia is auto. Most big European names have moved in, whisking to effervescence the dour east-bloc economy of yesteryear: Porsche’s Cayenne, Volkswagen’s Tuareg, the BMW 5, Citroen’s C3, Land Rover, KIA’s Sport, the Audi Q5. Auto has done for Slovakia what software did for India. Nearly half the industrial output is auto, which constitutes a quarter of its exports. Every few moments we passed trucks lugging fresh-made cars out to the world, cars shining like candy even in the absence of sun.
“They bought used cars from us in the past,” our customer remarked. “Now Germans buy new cars from Slovakia through agents in Germany. Up to 33% cheaper.”
The first things that show up when Bratislava appears are the spanking new malls, rising behind arched sound barriers lining the stretch of highway that passes through town. Slovaks have it good these days. A forklift operator in an auto plant makes a thousand euros a month, with an indirect payout of 47% on top.
Going through Bratislava, looking at a hill covered in old buildings, India’s police quarters and its railway quarters came to mind. The buildings were painted in bright colours, but the colours couldn’t hide dullness, the communist past of them. They weren’t painted back then. The newer buildings nearby were different, designed by free-market architects.
Bratislava is hilly, riparian with two rivers — the Danube and the Morava. Riding a wide old bridge, I noticed a hotel named after Chopin. And on a hoarding, again by the bridge, a hotel was advertised which was named after Mendelssohn. Europeans fight the most horrible wars and yet they unite completely for the arts.
Leaving Bratislava, we were in the plains again, fertile plains with hills in the distance. The mountains lurked beyond the hills, perhaps, but we couldn’t see them from the valley of the Váh river, from the road to Piestany.
Piestany is small, population 30,000. It is a spa town whose springs have drawn humans to them since 80,000 years ago. The town centre has the things a town centre should, in a petite pedestrian zone — in a brisk ten-minute walk we’d covered the area. The boutiques were modest (Zaira, selling garments, hit my eye). The restaurants suggested French and Italian cuisine, but the Argentinian steak ruled everywhere. The Hotel Park Avenue, where we checked in, boasted unchallenged the best Argentinian in town. The hotel sat on the corner of a nice old park. Communist dictatorships nurtured parks — I remembered the large ones I’ve seen in Ceaușescu’s Bucuresti.
Everybody spoke German. They learn it at school, a carryover from when East Germany and Czechoslovakia were ideological buddies. Our waiter spoke English, and he organised for us vegan soup and aglio olio. Afterwards, he urged that we try their chocolate egg — a shell of chocolate the size of an ostrich egg, with ice cream inside, and raspberry sauce. “Somebody should order the chocolate egg,” he said and laughed. He was tall and young and good-looking, and he laughed after every three sentences. “I’ll take it,” our customer said, relieving the vegans.
Loveable folks, the Slovaks. Only five million of them, living in a beautiful land with room to spare. They won’t take one single refugee.
We’d come to Piestany to visit a factory, with a mission to move a hundred-worker operation to India. The senior executive who showed us around didn’t hide our purpose from the workers. They weren’t afraid of losing work they’ve been doing for years, because they wouldn’t be losing their jobs. We came away without suffering guilt.
On the return, the clouds had gone, and the world was again golden.