Riding a bike one crisp fall morning along the High Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia, I turned to our guide Ondrej and asked how his life had changed with the end of communist rule.
I'd gone to central Europe for a bicycle tour stretching from Krakow, Poland, to Budapest, Hungary. I was interested in seeing some areas off the beaten path and, while I was there, I also wanted to find out how much life had changed in the past 10 years, since the drastic increase in business investments there.
So I visited plants in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and found people who were proud of having developed the skills, in just a few years, to turn out world-class products.
But the change in government also meant that some plants that supplied the defense industry had closed. Some that had held monopolies on manufacturing appliances or tractors or car parts also closed. Others had to find new products to stay in business.
In one Slovakian city we visited, a former defense plant was making rail cars. Others remained closed, massive buildings on the outskirts of small towns, surrounded by chain-link fences.
Thousands of people have moved to larger cities, or even other countries, for the work that is plentiful in those areas.
There isn't any one answer for businesses trying to survive in this region filled by small countries with multiple languages and cultures. The markets tend to be small and cater only to a portion of the potential customer base.
Burlington, Ontario-based mold maker Wentworth Technologies Co. Ltd. makes high-cavity PET molds in Poland that are used globally. But the firm admits that individual markets in central Europe are small, and as a result, Wentworth has few customers in its own backyard there.
While I was there, I also asked people like my Slovakian guide Ondrej - who is working in the burgeoning tourist industry - how their lives had changed.
On that morning in the Tatras, near his hometown of Poprad, Ondrej said that now his town could get fresh fruit year-round in local stores. And now, he said, it was much easier to travel.
Then he laughed. He said that when he was a boy, just before communism fell, the only plant approved by the state to make toilet paper burned down. It took months before the plant reopened. In the meantime, people had to buy toilet paper off the black market, or find other alternatives.
``If that were to happen now,'' Ondrej said, ``there would be three more plants open the next day to supply toilet paper.
Miel is a Plastics News staff reporter based in Detroit.