The Genteel
June 21, 2018
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A view of old Bratislava (Photograph: Katarina Kuruc).

From Bratislava Castle Gardens overlooking the Danube on to Petrzalka, it's hard to ignore the remnants of Communist rule. Grey buildings characterized by crumbling facades, graffiti and little greenery still stand uniformly, serving as a reminder of what was: a time of little freedom, suspicion and constant shortages. For Slovakians, there was no escape from the everyday realities of political, economic and cultural inequalities. "Politics is a palpable, brutal force directing every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to how we live," wrote journalist Slavenka Drakulic. It infected virtually every facet of daily life to the point where seemingly ordinary activities or purchases became infused with ideological sentiments. 

Petrzalka-a constant remainder of what once was
Petrzalka (Photograph: Katarina Kuruc).

Small grievances encountered on a daily basis by citizens added to their general distrust of the state. In writing about her Communist experiences, Drakulic wrote about the lack of food, clothes, cosmetics and other commodities: "real consumerism was impossible - except as an idea - because there was little to consume." The lack of consumer culture may seem trivial when compared to the plethora of other political and economic issues people had to endure, however it was symbolic of the people's discontent with the regime. Consequently, every shopping decision was embedded with meaning. Purchases of Coca Cola and bananas (when available) were a powerful measure of the desire for the outside world. Such goods represented an ideal life and an escape from the punishing realities of life under a totalitarian regime. Similarly, Drakulic claimed that products such as make-up and fashion, for example, were crucial because they evoked certain political ideals and a desire for capitalist-style consumerism.  

Purchases of Coca Cola and bananas (when available) were a powerful measure of the desire for the outside world.

Slovakia's consumer past was bare, but fast-forward twenty-two years and consumerism and materialism have become something of a sport, especially for the new generation of post-Communist youth. Today, the younger population enjoys a consumer freedom that the older generation was never afforded. With new businesses, particularly fashion mega-chains such as H&M, ZARA, Gate and Accessorize, coming into the country annually, commodity shortages are a thing of the past. Consumer freedom has most noticeably been embraced in Slovakia's capital city, Bratislava. With three massive shopping centers (Aupark, Avion, Eurovea), this small city (population barely 500,000) has come a long way from its once empty general store shelves. Outdoor markets, small shops and large discount stores dot the city and provide ample choice for any consumer. Eurovea, in particular, signals a break from Bratislava's anti-consumerist Communist past. Opened in March 2010, the shopping haven has been hailed as "the new commercial heart of the city which acts as a social focal point in the center of Bratislava." Ironically, plans to build a similar project were developed in the 1970's, however they were terminated by the Communist party - exemplifying their disdain for a consumer culture. Today, the shopping promenade is located on the banks of the Danube, overlooking concrete Petrzalka, and is the "go-to" place for trendy Slovaks and tourists alike. With over 150 stores, 31 cafes, restaurants (including the ubiquitous McDonald's) and other entertainment venues, Eurovea has become a beacon for the new-found consumer spirit of the nation.

eurovea
Eurovea: "The social focal point of Bratislava"
(Photograph: Katarina Kuruc).

Left behind by all of this abundance, however, is the political awareness that the old regime cultivated. Travel writer Brendan Edwards wrote that, "the younger generation -particularly those below the age of thirty, who have little to no memory of Communist times - tend to look upon democracy and capitalism as mere synonyms for freedom." Unlike in the past, where politics was embedded into virtually every aspect of daily life, today there exists a clear separation between the political and the material. Whether this change in consumer culture is positive or not is left up for debate, but one thing is certain: people no longer turn to symbolic purchases as a means of vocalizing their discontent with the government; what is purchased is done so based on function, desire and want.

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