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Mixed couples: A bumpy, enriching ride

The story of the American-Slovak couple on the front page of this paper is a poor advertisement for international marriages. That's a pity, because marrying a Slovak has much to recommend it.
1. Entertainment value. I can only speak for myself, a male foreigner who married a Slovak woman, but marrying someone from a different country is sometimes like living in a house whose many rooms you never completely explore. Strange sayings, customs and attitudes crop up unexpectedly, turning the most mundane of household chores (peeling potatoes) into a full-blown cultural encounter over the merits of knives versus potato peelers, and the reliance of foreigners on gadgets.

The story of the American-Slovak couple on the front page of this paper is a poor advertisement for international marriages. That's a pity, because marrying a Slovak has much to recommend it.

1. Entertainment value. I can only speak for myself, a male foreigner who married a Slovak woman, but marrying someone from a different country is sometimes like living in a house whose many rooms you never completely explore. Strange sayings, customs and attitudes crop up unexpectedly, turning the most mundane of household chores (peeling potatoes) into a full-blown cultural encounter over the merits of knives versus potato peelers, and the reliance of foreigners on gadgets.

2. Self-awareness. Because both partners are constantly being challenged as to their beliefs and habits, only the dullest bulbs among us can avoid reflecting on exactly why we act the way we do. Why do Slovaks swathe themselves in scarves when they have colds? Why do foreigners scoff at such remedies as if they had all been educated at the Louis Pasteur immunology clinic?

3. Home comforts. Foreign men with Slovak female partners may watch with dismay as a lifebelt of fat secures itself around their waists, but there's a great deal to be said for home cooking - and the ordered home regimen that goes along with it. What foreign women who marry Slovak men think of these cultural expectations may be another story altogether.

Despite the nourishment such relationships offer, it's not all gravy. The very differences that fascinate and enrich at one moment can aggravate the next.

1. Language barrier. People who are cloyingly upbeat about their relationships sometimes list being forced to communicate in another language as one of the benefits of international couples. But in reality, especially when the talk turns serious, or you haven't spoken a word in your native tongue for days, it can be a great burden. Unless you have perfect command of the language your couple usually communicates in, you will rarely appear either a) funny, b) bright, or c) yourself. It's immensely frustrating to take part in a conversation or a dinner party without being able to deliver yourself of the witticisms or wisdom you normally have to offer. In couples where Slovak is spoken, the foreigner can generally expect that the other half will be appreciative and supportive, but when English is the lingua franca, the foreigner often has no idea of the trials the non-native has to endure. It's not always the case, but 'language claustrophobia' is a syndrome to watch out for.

2. Family. The two of you may have invested the time in crossing cultural bridges, but that doesn't mean that either of your families will be willing or able to do the same. Getting to know the in-laws is often a tense and sometimes a tedious process, and it's not helped if you can't communicate properly, if you show up for family dinners in clothing your hosts aren't expecting, if you criticise Mečiar to anyone over 50, or express anything but delight with your host country. Honesty is often not wanted. Reassurance is.

3. Friends. Acceptance is easier here, but in male foreigner/female Slovak couples you'll often get snide comments about the motives of each party. If the man isn't here 'poaching' home-grown beauty, the woman clearly has one eye on his passport and the other on his income. The former suspicion may lead to the odd bar-fight; the latter to snubs and wedding guests who glower at the two of you from the bar as they sock back double shots of Glenfiddich whisky at trouncing expense.

4. Portability. Can you take it with you? If you get serious, one of the main discussions you will have to have is about where to live. I've been told Slovaks adapt less easily to life in a foreign country than foreigners do to living here. Whatever the case, the foreigner in the couple has to bear in mind how tough it was for him or her to get established in Slovakia, and make sure the other person understands what awaits in any big move. The foreigner also has to take into account the strength of family ties here, and to guage what impact it will have on the relationship if the Slovak is stripped of friends, relations, culture and language.

If you're both still convinced and want to get married, above is a chart suggesting what may await - three months of red tape and about 10,000 Slovak crowns in fees. Start with the marriage office (matrika) wherever you live, and resolve to be patient.

It's worth it, if you can figure out a way to keep those pounds off.

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