Why the interest in Central & Eastern Europe?

My fascination with the countries of Central Europe and Eastern Europe that made up the so-called Eastern Bloc stems from childhood. Some of it comes from football as I can remember being bemused by the sight on television of Rangers playing an away to Steaua Bucharest in a stadium filled with soldiers in uniform.

A couple of years after that, the revolutions began that would bring down Communist rule across swathes of Europe. I remember the attempted breakaways of the Baltic States and the repression that the USSR responded with. I remember Ceaucescu being executed in Romania and I remember the Berlin Wall coming down with The Scorpions’ Wind of Change dominating the airwaves.

At Edinburgh University, my dissertation was on Britain’s Role in the Development of the Cold War.

The repercussions of this time aren’t too distant from me…my Slovakian wife’s parents and siblings learned Russian at school. My wife was the first in her family to have the opportunity to learn English, French or Spanish instead.

Where can I talk about?

Feeding my fascination, I have visited the following former Easter Bloc countries – (Allow me to use my other area of knowledge to slip in some beer recommendations as I go through them)

Slovakia.

This is the country that I have most knowledge of, due to my family ties there. I have visited Bratislava, Zilina, Strecno, Trnava, Kosice, Presov, Bardejov, Banska Bystrica, Kezmarok, Cicmany, Martin, Poprad and Sturovo.

I also speak what I refer to as ‘restaurant-level’ Slovak. Though it’s what I think anybody else would refer to as ‘elementary level’ Slovak. Still, it was enough to give a wedding speech in which I declared my preference for the local spirits Slivovica, Borovicka and Hruskovica over Scotch Whisky…and announced myself as a Slovak!

As far as beer is concerned, Martiner is nicely hoppy and Saris makes for a refreshing ‘table beer’. Avoid Corgon…

Lithuania.

I’ve been to the capital, Vilnius, but also to the 2nd city, Kaunas. While visiting Lithuania I went to the island-castle of Trakai and the historic town of Kedainiai. This town had a significant Scottish population in the 17th Century and formed part of the basis for one of my History talks. Did you know that the Lithuanian for ‘thank you’ sound like ‘achoo’? (Aciu) Also, allow me to combine my Lithuanian knowledge with one of my other areas of interest to give you a top tip – Svyturys Baltas wheat beer is delicious.

Ukraine.

A long-held desire to see Dynamo Kyiv play in the flesh was fulfilled in 2009 when I visited the Ukrainian capital. I saw Dynamo defeat Tavriya Simferopol 6-0, inspired by a virtuoso display from Ukrainian football’s enfant terrible, Artem Milevskiy. Yes, I did eat Chicken Kiev while I was there. More importantly though, I discovered the virtues of Nemiroff vodka and Chernihivske beer!

Hungary.

I’ve visited Hungary twice, the first time being for a stay in the capital, Budapest. It was the first place where I had what is sometimes referred to as ‘cut beer’, where you have light and dark beer mixed. This done with the local Dreher beer is very nice. More recently, I visited the old Hungarian capital of Esztergom, when staying with relatives across the Danube from it in the Slovakian town of Sturovo.

Poland.

One of my favourite countries, I have visited Krakow, Warsaw, and Wroclaw. Pierogi? Dziekuje!

Czech Republic.

I have visited Prague, read the Svejk books and enjoy many of the Czech-made films of the former Czechslovakian era.

As the home of Bohemian Pilsner, you’ll struggle to find a bad beer.

Estonia.

I visited the fairytale capital city, Tallinn, and while there I was also able to take in the local football derby between Flora Tallinn and Levadia Tallinn. Viru beer is pleasant enough.

Talks & Articles

For 2013’s Previously…Scotland’s History Festival I gave two talks relating to Central & Eastern Europe. One was on Scottish migration to this area around the 17th Century, while the other related to the success of the pre-WWII Scottish football coaches, John Madden, John Dick, and J.T. Robertson with Slavia Prague, Sparta Prague, and MTK Budapest respectively.

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