I'm in the midst of a trip in Central Europe, the first in several years. I lived in this part of the world for the better part of the 1990s and it's good to be back.
A few observations after five years' absence.
1. The region has discovered "take out coffee." This is a good thing. I wonder if Starbucks, a relatively new arrival, is responsible for this long-delayed innovation.
2. The Austrians still hold the Post-Imperial Area title for motorway engineering. If we Americans spent as much as they must have to build sound barriers in even the most rural of areas, I suspect it would have paid itself back in improved property values alone. It's still jarring to go from limping across southern Moravia or south Slovakia to the meticulously engineered, tunnel-intensive autobahnen, where the original 1967 Mission Impossible television soundtrack is required driving music.
3. In Budapest, the trend has continued, and it is now nearly impossible to find good Hungarian food in restaurants. The best gulyas I've had so far in the region was in Štúrovo, an ethnic Hungarian community in South Slovakia. Somebody needs to give Budapest's chefs some remedial education in the old ways.
4. If you want to see a town defy Rust Belt-ism, go to Zlin in the Czech Republic, the former Bata shoe factory town-cum-Capitalist worker's utopia. I wrote about the city five years ago in the Christian Science Monitor and the trend has only continued. The old factory complex -- largely empty last I visited -- is now a thriving neighborhood of hipster lofts, university expansion buildings, and business start-ups. And if this rural corner of the Czech Republic can build a rapidly expanding public university -- with new buildings popping up every year -- why can't Maine manage to keep the University of Southern Maine from imploding? I suspect this has to do with leadership, municipal, academic, and state.
I am an award-winning journalist and author of American Nations, American Character, Ocean's End, The Lobster Coast, and The Republic of Pirates. I'm a staffer at the Portland Press Herald, where I won a 2012 George Polk Award for my investigative reporting and was named a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.