Austrian village goes international with Slovak commuters

20th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

When neurologist Miriam Soskova moved with her young family from her native Bratislava to this sleepy Austrian village 15 months ago, giving up her job in the Slovak capital was never on her mind.

19th December 2007

Austria (dpa) - "I am on maternity leave now, but I work in Slovakia," she said, as she cleaned her sunlit kitchen dressed in a red T-shirt adorned with a white image of Bratislava castle.

The 38-year-old mother of two has moved to a foreign country, but once she returns to work her morning commute will take 15 minutes at most. It will be faster than taking public transport from her previous home on the outskirts of Bratislava outskirts.

When the Iron Curtain between the then Czechoslovakia and Austria tumbled 18 years ago, residents of the grey, run-down and impoverished Bratislava crossed the nearby border, just 7 kilometres away, in search of jobs and western goods in better-off Austria.

Now the Slovaks are scouting Austria's border region in search of land or houses, which are substantially cheaper here than in booming Bratislava.

Three years ago Miriam's Slovak-Canadian husband Daniel Soska, 39, a regional sales director in a telecoms company, was one of them.

"If we wanted to have the same land 7 kilometres from downtown Bratislava on the Slovak side we would have to pay at least four times more per square metre," he said.

Some 50 Slovaks have settled in Wolfsthal in the past five years and many more wish they could do so, the village's mayor Gerhard Schoedinger said.

"Slovaks buy every house that is for sale. It's superb. It is great for us," the mayor said. Whatever appears on the market sells within days and land prices have nearly tripled, reaching 100 euros (147 dollars) per square metre, in the past two years, he added.

Slovak newcomers are gradually turning a sleepy border outpost, whose main street is dotted with tidy blue, orange and green houses, into a cosmopolitan suburb. German, Slovak, Hungarian and English were all spoken at a recent block party, the mayor recalled.

"Each family that came is educated," Schoedinger said. "Our children are learning Slovak in kindergarten. It is very important for us that they develop a flair for the language, a feel for Slovakia."

The expansion of the borderless Schengen area on December 21 will bring Wolfsthal even closer to the Slovak capital than it has been for 90 years - since the time when Bratislava, known then in German as Pressburg, belonged to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

The village's population has been shrinking since the monarchy disintegrated into nation states after World War I and a border between Austria and the nascent Czechoslovakia emerged in its backyard.

In the years after World War II, the Iron Curtain came and a once-busy imperial tram line between Bratislava and Vienna, which passed through Wolfsthal, finally ceased to run. The village faded from a stop on a busy artery into a declining station in the middle of nowhere.

"This used to be the end of the world," said the 45-year-old Schoedinger, a former policeman whose entire life has been linked to the border. "I've witnessed everything that happened here," he added.

Months before Czechoslovak Communism fell in November 1989, Schoedinger, then a 27-year-old customs officer, tried - in vain - to give first aid to an East German boy, who had rammed a car through the heavily-fortified border gates in an attempt to escape the Communist bloc.

Shortly after Communism fell, Schoedinger fell in love with a Slovak customs officer who is now his wife and the mother of the couple's two boys. But most of his neighbours were then fearful of the unknown world behind the border.

"We worried about what would happen, that many people would come over," the mayor said laughing. "Now it's history."

And while politicians deeper in Austria have cautioned that giving up border controls will help criminals enter the country, Schoedinger remains unfazed.

"I don't think we will have problems. Our police cooperation is good," he said in the fluent Slovak he speaks on the job with Slovak policemen.

The village of 250 weekend inhabitants and 800 permanent residents, 40 per cent of whom are now under the age of 30, saw a rise in its population for the first time in 2001, the mayor said.

Schoedinger has been in talks with Bratislava's public-transport authorities so a regular bus line could start running between the city and his hometown as soon as the border controls disappear.

"Now we have a future," the beaming mayor said. "We live in a region between Bratislava and Vienna. That's what is important, not which passport we carry."


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