January 25, 2004


Toli the country mouse talks about visiting his cousin the city mouse.

Christine already mentioned our day-trip from Vienna to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It was a short trip, with not much to see in terms of tourist sights. Yet it had a profound impact on me.

As we entered Bratislava on the bus, I noticed the communist era buildings by the highway. These buildings are big blocks of flats, which have no distinguishing features from each other: they all look like big cubes with identical floors, each floor having a very regular pattern of windows and balconies. I had seen them before, when I visited Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) in 1989, so the sight of one such building wasn't particularly notable. However, once we climbed up to the old town's castle, we saw a striking view: one the one side of the Danube lies the old town: unkempt, in the process of being revitalized, and devoid of soviet blocks of flats. But on the other, there is nothing else but soviet-style construction. The sight was vaguely reminescent of US towns, where some highway divides the affluent part of town from the run-down neighborhoods. Anyway, in addition to the flats, there were two large factories (with the usual immense smokestacks) on either end of the soviet town; there was also a huge cube, situated by the river, which acted as exhibition hall and/or warehouse for goods to be shipped via the port. And all this edifice was surrounded by woods.

Well, the first thought that struck me was that this half of Bratisava is really a naked city; or, in other words, a city reduced to its bare essentials with all aesthetic elements eliminated. There were the places of production, the places where the necessary workers subsisted, and the trading center. And that's what a city is in its very essence.

And then I realized that, if I had ever been tasked with building a city, that's exaclty what I would have created. Heck, that's what my LEGO constructions of houses looked like (I grew up in a city too, though one more aesthetically pleasing than Bratislava; and, yes, LEGO kits of houses look like country houses, but I never followed instructions with LEGOs). Preoccupied with function over form, I would have built a city of minimal construction and maintenance cost, and maximal functionality. And also one that minimizes human impact on the surrounding environment (if you spread the families residing in those soviet blocks over single-family homes, the woods would have been long-gone, let alone the pollution generated by commuting). Yet, to be honest, I would have absolutely hated living in such a city...

So I realized that I do appreciate aesthetics after all. That may be obvious to anyone who knows how beautiful a wife I chose, but she will tell you that every time she buys something for us, my first question is 'why do we need this new blah-blah?' (meaning 'what function does it serve?'). Well, the simple answer again is that an object that pleases the senses alone (and has no other practical, utilitarian purpose) has that very property as its function: and I am not immune to appreciating it, and I even downright feel a need to be surrounded by beauty (however subjective its definition might be).

I also made another profound observation thanks to the soviet Bratislava... We live in the countryside, but this trip took us primarily to cities: Munich, Amsterdam, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, etc. And, of course, I also have the experience of 18 years growing up in Athens. As this trip is near its end, I have finally put my finger on why I love living in the countryside: quite simply, the clothes and makeup a city adds to itself to turn the naked Bratislava into a fabulous Vienna is not enough for me to hide the Bratislava within. My (very personal and subjective) experience of being in a city is one where I constantly see through the facade, and every city looks like a Bratislava to me.

I think I need to explain this a bit more... it's not that I am an observer more acute than others. It's just that the clothes and makeup of a city look transparent to one who doesn't put a very high aesthetic value on them. For example, a city may boast ancient ruins or grand churches or neoclassical buildings. For many people, these create a sense of connection to their heritage, a sense of pride in the artistic talent of mankind, or even make them feel awe when praying in a vast gothic temple. I can see all that, and, as a tourist, thoroughly enjoy the experience. But, for me, it's transitory. Sooner or later, the ruins are just delapitated old buildings, my connection to God on a field in spring unmatched by a human construction, and as for most artistic decorations, well, they are just plain ugly (esp. since a few years after their regular upkeep they look pretty bad covered in pollution). In the end, Vienna is reduced to the sum of Bratislava (function without aesthetics) and Disneyland (aesthetics without function)... and Disneyland's magic, wonderful as it may be for a short excursion, doesn't last past midnight.

In the end, cities are neither good nor bad in any absolute sense. Nor is the Austin countryside any more ideal in itself: there are scorpions, there are mosquitoes, there is urban sprawl, there is pollution driving into town, there is a lack of museums, grand art, and restaurants, and so on. Quite simply, for me, the aesthetics of (almost untouched) nature --- the trees, the sky, the stars at night (can't see them from most cities by the way), the slow pace of life --- make up for the deficiencies. So I guess I am a country mouse...

The soviet Bratislava will probably be rebuilt sooner or later. It's clearly a mark of local shame, as it doesn't appear on any postcard of the city. Already, the old town its being prettied-up to attract tourism (the old buildings are getting repainted, their plaster replaced, etc.). Slovakia is the poor sibling of the Czech Republic, so the rebuilding may take a while, but sooner or later, soviet Bratislava will be gone. And it looks like I'll be the only one who will miss it for what it can teach its visitor.

Posted by Toli at January 25, 2004 12:31 PM