How have Czechs and Slovaks got used to the border between their two countries twenty years after the split of Czechoslovakia? A British journalist decided to find out by travelling the length of the border last summer by bicycle and producing a book on his experiences. In Czech Books, David Vaughan finds out more.
The Brussels based journalist and translator, Paul Kaye, is fascinated by borders and the way that they shift, and come and go over the years. What interests him in particular is how people experience the physical reality of being separated from their neighbours, either by force, as in the case of the old Iron Curtain, or by political choice, as happened with Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce”. So Paul got on his bike and decided to explore the Czech-Slovak border from end to end. I talked to him in Brussels by Skype.
“I knew that the 20th anniversary of the separation of Czechoslovakia was coming up and I wanted to do some kind of project related to it. A few years ago I did a similar sort of project where I cycled down the Iron Curtain. That was for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to see how that had changed in the intervening period. So I thought I might do something similar for the Czech-Slovak border.”
And I should add that Czechoslovakia – as it was – is not unknown territory to you. You lived in Slovakia just after the split.
“I did – and that was a big part of the motivation. Shortly after the split I moved to Slovakia, initially to work as an English teacher, and fell in love with the place. Then I worked as a journalist, and I also worked in radio – at Radio Slovakia International – for a while, and moved then into translation. I was there for three-and-a-half years in the end. It’s a long time since I left there, but it’s a place which has been close to my heart for a very long time – the whole of the former Czechoslovakia.”
At the time when the split first happened, did you visit the border and see it as it was being established?
“I did actually – not in any journalistic sense, but I went to a place called Kasárne (Kasárna in Czech) which is a fascinating place right on the border. It’s just on the Slovak side and it’s a skiing and hiking area. I decided to go skiing with I friend I made in the first few months I was in Slovakia. Now all I knew was that it was in Slovakia and since we were in Slovakia I thought, ‘Well, I probably don’t need my passport.’ So I left my passport at home in Bratislava. Of course, when we got there we realized that to get to this place, even though it was on the Slovak side of the border, the only road went through the Czech Republic. And so we got stopped on the border, because several months previously border controls had been introduced for the first time, and we had problems. It took a lot of persuasion to get the border guards to let us through. We reassured them that we were just going to go in to get to the ski resort that was in Slovakia…”
But common sense ruled in the end and you did get through.
“Yes, and so that just brought home how new the situation was and I suppose it was all part of that process of all sides trying to feel their way towards how they should try to treat the border.”
In 2004 both the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union and the “Schengen” area, so the border became a very porous one again, didn’t it?
“That’s right. In 1993 they had to build all the infrastructure that has to be built between two sovereign countries: border check points, customs controls and all the rest of it, which wasn’t there before. Yet, just of a decade later both countries joined the EU and the Schengen Agreement, and that swept that all away. I found it quite interesting that there was this whole infrastructure that was built for a period of only a few years. On the ride that I did along the border in several places you see these empty, obsolete, big buildings, which are the customs offices and the border check points.”
“It’s an absolutely beautiful area. I went in the summer and it really was an enjoyable trip – and rural and mountainous. The way I did it was that I took a train up from Bratislava to the town of Čadza, which is just on the Slovak side of the border – at the far northeastern end of the Czech-Slovak border, so the end that’s next to Poland. So I cycled up to the ‘tripoint’, the three-country-point, where Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia meet, I took photographs of the little border marker stone there that marks the end of the border – or the start of the border, depending on which way you’re going.”
Did they keep the old stone and just change what was written on it?
“On the border with Poland yes, so I have a photograph in the book of one of the original Czechoslovak border markers from 1920, and etched into the stone you can still see a C and an S for Československo. That’s painted over and on top of that a letter S has been painted.”
Travelling along the border, you met a lot of people along the way, and a key part of what you were doing was to see how they have experienced twenty years of living with a border in their backyard. Did you have many surprises – or unexpected experiences on the way?
“Yes. I met quite a few people who lived on one side of the border but worked on the other side. Suddenly, overnight in 1993, they were working in a different country. So they became international travellers every day to get to their workplace. A lot of them were given special permits to travel, so it became easier, but still, it must have been quite a strange experience for them. All along the border I found that people would stress that there are no problems between the people on either side and they played down the importance of the border to their daily life, even though they had to undergo these border checks during this period.”
“Quite a few people on both the Czech and the Slovak sides said to me quite strongly, ‘I don’t feel Czech’ or ‘I don’t feel Slovak.’ ‘I feel Czechoslovak,’ and they still have a sense that they were part of a bigger, united country. That may be simply the fact that they live close to the border and so they have a closer association with the people on the other side. So I don’t know whether it’s representative of the wider population throughout the rest of the two countries. But yes, quite a few people were nostalgic about it. On the other hand, there were quite a few people who were happy that the countries had split. I met Slovaks who said, ‘It’s good we’ve split. We can be independent, have our own country, and if we have problems there’s nobody else to blame.’ The Czechs say that in the past they would get a cool reception from the Slovaks when they went there. They said that’s changed. People are much warmer towards them. So there are a lot of people that welcome the split.”
There’s an obvious question I should ask you, because you wrote a previous book about what used to be a border – the German-German border between West and East Germany – a border that’s now gone. Now you’ve written a book about a border that didn’t use to exist. I’d be interested to know how you’d compare those two experiences.
“Yes, the German-German border is very different in the sense that it cut through an area that had been united politically and culturally for a lot longer, so it felt like a deeper wound than the current Czech-Slovak border. Virtually every village and town along that German-German border has some kind of memorial or museum either to German reunification or to the period when the two sides of Germany were split. So you simply can’t get away from it. It’s fantastic the way that they have memorialized that period in their history. Along the Czech-Slovak border there’s less of that.”
“It’s essentially a photographic essay, and with an introductory text, setting out a bit of the history, the background of the story of the country and the history of the border, and giving a bit of an introduction to the places and the characters that I met on the route. So it opens with that and then goes into large-format photographs, showing some of the landscapes, some of the places, some of the features along the border…”
… and also, I noticed, quite often the people in the landscape, which I particularly enjoyed – seeing people standing outside the house they live in, at the place where they work or by the border.
“Yes. One of the things I enjoy the most about doing this kind of journalistic enterprise is meeting people – at random, since I don’t arrange these in advance. I simply do the journey, come across people, say, ‘Would you like to talk to me?’ and it leads to very natural-style photographs of these people in their environment. And they’ve almost always got interesting stories. Some of the photographs are quite obvious in what they are showing and they don’t need any further explanation, but for some of them there’s a caption underneath, explaining perhaps the significance of a particular feature if it isn’t obvious.”
Can you describe a couple of the pictures?
“Yes. There are two places very close to each other which I think some up the situation on the border. There’s a well-known mountain called Veľká Javorina, which is the major focus of activities to do with Czech-Slovak brotherhood. So every year there’s a meeting of Czechs and Slovaks on this mountain. There are all kinds of commemorative plaques and so on, commemorating meetings of Czechs and Slovaks at various points in history from the mid-19th century. And there’s one little plaque there which says, ‘Czechoslovakia: renewal in 2018’ – that’s the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia.”
And so it’s predicting reunification – or do they mean it metaphorically?
“I think perhaps hoping more than predicting. I didn’t find anybody who seriously thought that the two countries were going to be forming a new state again, although I know recently there’s been a lot more cooperation at a diplomatic level between Czechs and Slovaks. But I think this is an expression really of those people who still feel that they are one nation. But a couple of kilometres further along the border, deep in the woodland, there is an old radio transmitting tower that was used for military exercises. Again, it’s right on the border and this area is now overgrown by the forest. So you have crumbling buildings that serviced this big radio tower, and you can still climb up it, even though it’s derelict, and go to the top. You get fantastic views over the forest and the hills. The land underneath the tower is owned by Slovakia – it’s on Slovak soil – but the tower itself is owned by the Czech Republic, and they haven’t agreed among themselves how to organize it so that they can renovate the place and use it for tourism. So you have that place, where there’s still a sign of disagreement and very close to it you have that sign of friendship and brotherhood between the two countries.”
And how can our listeners get hold of the book?
“I used a system called ‘Blurb’ (www.blurb.com). It’s a very good system for publishing photographic books. You download the software from the Blurb site, you create the book yourself, using their software on your own computer, and when you’ve finished, you upload it to the website and you can then find an audience with it. People can look at it, they can preview it and if they like they can buy copies of it.”
So how can our listeners actually find the book on the site?
“If they go to the blurb.com website and search for the title ‘The Velvet Border’, which is the title I’ve given the book, it should come up using their search engine."