When I was a kid, my mother would sing old songs. One of my favorites was a Gershwin tune:
You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off
And that’s what I sang inside my head as we headed to Komárom-Komárno, potato-potattah. Two cities across the Danube with similar but different names. One side is Hungarian, the other Slovak. But unlike Gershwin, it’s complicated.
Historically, this was one big, happy, Hungarian city. Then, Hungary was carved up after World War I. Pieces went to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia; a touchy subject for Hungarians – and for Slovaks. The single city which spans the Danube was split down the middle. To keep one name would imply Slovaks and Hungarians can agree about something. But these are two countries fixed on disagreement.
Sunday morning, we toured Fort Monostor with our friends, Abraham and Brigitta. This is one of five forts built on either side of this stretch of the Danube as part of a network defending the empire and ultimately the city of Vienna. The first
fort protected the region from Turkish invaders during the 16th century. Fort Monostor was added in the 19th century during Hungary’s battle for independence from Austria. The fort is huge, 640 rooms which could hold 8,000 soldiers. And to make it less obvious and easier to protect, it is buried under meters of soil and grass. From the river, Fort Monostor is barely visible, a fort almost completely underground. During World War I, Monostor served as an enlistment and training center. After World War II, the Soviets stashed tons of ammunition here – the largest arsenal in Central Europe.
After the tour, we ventured over to Slovakia for lunch – the oldest part of Komárom-Komárno (tomato-tomahto). The buildings here are typical Central European baroque – pastel and ornamented with decorative plaster. There is a square, Europe Square perhaps. Abraham was not sure of the exact name. Each building is designed to represent a different country in Europe. The buildings are beautiful, yet most are vacant, many starting to rot and peel – a good idea gone, it would seem, irreparably bad.
We enjoyed a lunch in a restaurant which featured a variety of game dishes served to us as we sat on hand-carved, wooden chairs in a forest of kitschy trees. Our waitress spoke Hungarian. Abraham told us that 90% of the people living in this Slovak city are Hungarian. Pat and I used a few of our Slovak words (we are in Slovakia, after all). While she answered in Slovak, we could tell Hungarian was her native tongue – and her preferred language.
The town seemed to be a bit of a ghost town; empty shops, poorly maintained buildings, and a main church which was locked up tight at noon on a Sunday. Do Hungarians not come here because it is in Slovakia? Do Slovaks not come here because the town is considered Hungarian? Or is this just a reflection of the hard times that are typical outside the capital cities in both of these countries?
Bottom line, to me, it’s a great, big, potato-potahto mess. And contrary to the Gershwin song, sadly, I doubt either side will call the whole thing off.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe