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Culture Shock: The true shock comes in leaving Slovakia

The real culture shock comes when leaving Slovakia and trying to live elsewhere. My wife and I lived in Slovakia (in Trenčín and Bratislava) for more than seven years. We are Americans, widely traveled, and presently living in South Africa. But in all our travels, no place we have been to, no place we have lived in, has quite gotten under our skin as deeply as Slovakia. Trying to figure out why is a never-ending topic of conversation for us, as well as the dozen or so people we know who also lived for some years in Slovakia and are now somewhere else.

The real culture shock comes when leaving Slovakia and trying to live elsewhere. My wife and I lived in Slovakia (in Trenčín and Bratislava) for more than seven years. We are Americans, widely traveled, and presently living in South Africa. But in all our travels, no place we have been to, no place we have lived in, has quite gotten under our skin as deeply as Slovakia. Trying to figure out why is a never-ending topic of conversation for us, as well as the dozen or so people we know who also lived for some years in Slovakia and are now somewhere else.

Without exception, all of us miss Slovakia far more significantly than any other place we have been. Virtually all of us talk about going back or retiring there, or in some cases, wondering what stupid impulse caused us to leave in the first place.

We range in age from just-out-of-college to long-retired; men and women, single and married, diplomats, NGO officials, teachers, and business people. What we share is a love and nostalgic longing for Slovakia and its people. None of us seem to be able to find the same level of satisfaction living elsewhere.

The question, obviously, is why? Why after living in Slovakia is it such a shock to try living somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is 'home'? When I talk with people who have at least heard of Slovakia, they are unanimously mystified that I could have liked it so much, and (Oh My God!) even have prefered it to Prague! They look at me a bit differently after that, wondering if I might be just a little unbalanced.

Curiously, those who only pass through Bratislava or stay for a short time do not like it. No one. But those who have - for whatever reason - lingered for a significant amount of time fall inexplicably in love with the city, the country, its people, and leave only reluctantly all the while conspiring an eventual return.

How to account for this stark and confusing contrast? Why is a city ugly and irrelevant to the passerby, but compelling and even addictive to the lingerer?

Anyone who has actually lived in Slovakia for longer than a year or two would immediately jump to the defence of Slovakia and Slovaks, and say that superficial observations of the country are at best hasty, and at worst, examples of blind ignorance.

I know a couple who recently moved to Paris - ah, everyone's favourite city! So why do they return to Bratislava on their holidays and wonder when the laws will be changed to allow them to buy 'retirement' property near the city?

I know a man who left a good job in Bratislava and moved to a better job in the US. One year later, this American with no Slovak roots was back in Bratislava, with a lesser job, just so he could 'go back home'.

Another couple flood the email boxes of their Blava friends trying to find jobs that will allow them to return. My wife and I also are wondering when the laws will change to allow us to buy a house or flat there.

Why? Well, all the usual homilies seem to apply. Because it is so unbelievable to most people, I am often asked why I like Slovakia so much, so I have had many opportunities to answer. What do I say? I say only that I was happier, more content with my life, more fulfilled in my work than anywhere else I've ever lived. Why? I have no idea.

Don Merritt was born in America. He lived in Slovakia during the 90's and now resides in South Africa.

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