Reporter's Notebook: The Road to Bratislava

"Oh my gosh," I said to producer Kim and cameraman Barnaby as we rolled into Samorin, Slovakia. "This doesn’t look like "New Europe"…this looks like Stalag 17!"

We were on the last leg of our trans-European Odyssey, trying to find out what were the continental feelings about America and President Bush. The "hook," as we say in the news biz, is that we were shadowing Bush’s European tour. But instead of hanging out with the big wigs in the cities where the White House entourage would be camping out, we’d head for the Euro heartland and find out what the REAL people were thinking about America.

We had just wrapped up what was first a monotonously boring -- then dangerously harrowing -- 12-hour drive from our last stop in Germany, through Austria and a whipping blizzard to Slovakia.

After the tough trip we were looking forward to treating ourselves to an upscale hotel in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the site of Bush's final meetings with local officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The place, however, turned out to be a warmed-over Soviet-era businessman’s showcase, where nothing (TV, toilet, heating) quite worked exactly correctly. Oh, well ... back in the USSR.

After a restless sleep and quick breakfast we were off to a town 20 minutes away called Samorin (pronounced Sha-more-Een). I actually stumbled across it on the Internet. An enterprising fellow by the name of Peter Nagy runs a couple of Web sites and touts the place throughout. I was perhaps unrealistically expecting a town with capitalism and democracy writ large all over its landscape.

Instead, Samorin is dominated by ugly, cheaply built slab apartment blocks put up in the '60s and '70s by Soviet-inspired builders who thought the Moscow way would hold sway for centuries. The parking lots were also dotted with old Skodas (not the new Volkswagen underneath kind) and many of the remaining older buildings looked like they needed a freshening up. But then we met Peter Nagy and our concerns began to be allayed.

He took us for a walking tour of the place ("We’re going to convert that old Abbey into offices and stores," "Do you see how many banks there are in town? A half a dozen … all with cash machines," and "Those people are all carrying bags from the two new supermarkets here"). I realized I had stumbled into the Bill Gates of western Slovakia.

With at least two or three other business ventures under way, Nagy had seized the American entrepreneurial spirit and then some. Bush’s "Free trade" message on this current tour falling on very open ears: "In America everyone has a chance," Peter explained to me.

"It’s not only the thing to be born into the right family. ... In the U.S. …everybody has a chance," he continued. "If he is lucky, if he is clever, if he has motivation."

Capitalism is one thing, but the main message of Bush’s trip is the spread of democracy, freedom, liberty. Not only had Slovakia (then part of Czechoslavkia) suffered under decades of Soviet-enforced Communist rule, but for several years after 1989, including while it broke with the Czech Republic, the government was not as open as it could have been.

Now, along with a booming economy, democracy is here big time. And nobody exemplifies that better than does Karoly Domsitz. He refused to be a member of the then-Communist Party during the Warsaw Pact days, so he was prevented from serving the people for whom he cared.

Now he is the mayor of Samorin.

Domsitz proudly showed me around his super-sized office, complete with a very big desk and prime view of the town square. I’d already seen his picture in a special supplement to a local Bratislava newspaper, so I figured he already had caught on to the American media-marketing model.

But his gratitude to America for the support afforded to the newly emerging nations of central Europe (to a large extent by President Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush) was free of any discernable "spin": "The support of the U.S. was strong," Domsitz proclaimed, "especially moral support. It helped us turn 180 degrees from the east to the west."

Still, as I already noted, Samorin was not exactly yet Beverly Hills-on-the-Danube. And when we cruised the sparsely attended Saturday market we heard our fair share of grumblers. Some complained the "Free Market" had by no means set them "free," and others were worried about a United States that had replaced the Soviet Union as the new superpower to which all (including Slovak politicians) felt they had to pay homage.

"I feel negative," one man confided to us. "The U.S. wants to rule the world."

The United States also is helping the people of Samorin, though, earn their own keep. The Denver-based Samsonite suitcase company has taken over an aged factory here and is employing some 300 area residents on state-of-the-art assembly lines.

The wages are lower than Western pay but are good money in Slovakia, where the cost of living is low. Most of the workers we talked to sounded pleased, which might have had something to do with their boss standing within earshot.

But we heard another worker voice opinions that sounded straight from the heart. It came from perky young administrative assistant Eva Patassyova, who told me in very good English she "loves" America.

It turned out she had spent time in —- of all places —- Texas, and told me she loved the people. And while she assessed that some policy actions might not be "thought through," she also told me she "agrees" overall with U.S. politics.

After the president's five days of meetings, formal dinners and photo ops, which most certainly have done much to restore important trans-Atlantic ties, my guess is that George W. might have been more than happy to head toward a Slovak watering hole, kick back a non-alcoholic local beer with Eva and shoot the bull. Hey, maybe we can still arrange it!