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Culture Shock: The unbearable weight of expression

When I was asked to submit an article for The Slovak Spectator's Culture Shock column, I quickly realised how awkward it is for a Slovak to write for English speakers about cultural differences or problems between Slovakia and a western country.
So much has changed. Consider that today relations between Slovakia and the US, for example, are in such good repair that neither side has any interest in badmouthing the other. It was so simple before 1989. The more we Slovaks badmouthed the communist government of Czechoslovakia the more support we received on the other side of the iron curtain. Now, on the other hand, no one, neither here nor there, seems to want to hear anything negative, even if it's the truth.
I have written in the press before about some of Slovakia's problems and how we could learn from other countries. In 1999 in an article for the Slovak daily Sme I wrote that Slovakia had two future possibilities: that small and medium-sized businesses could rise up and refuse to pay more than 10% in taxes, thereby forcing the state to slim down, or "maybe the US will recognise that it is time to come, with arms, and rid us of our own thieves and establish American legislation."


The US and Slovakia have become firm friends, but honest discussion on the two countries is not always easy.
photo: TASR

When I was asked to submit an article for The Slovak Spectator's Culture Shock column, I quickly realised how awkward it is for a Slovak to write for English speakers about cultural differences or problems between Slovakia and a western country.

So much has changed. Consider that today relations between Slovakia and the US, for example, are in such good repair that neither side has any interest in badmouthing the other. It was so simple before 1989. The more we Slovaks badmouthed the communist government of Czechoslovakia the more support we received on the other side of the iron curtain. Now, on the other hand, no one, neither here nor there, seems to want to hear anything negative, even if it's the truth.

I have written in the press before about some of Slovakia's problems and how we could learn from other countries. In 1999 in an article for the Slovak daily Sme I wrote that Slovakia had two future possibilities: that small and medium-sized businesses could rise up and refuse to pay more than 10% in taxes, thereby forcing the state to slim down, or "maybe the US will recognise that it is time to come, with arms, and rid us of our own thieves and establish American legislation."

I was referring to the reduction of the tax burden and proposing a radical shrinkage of the state apparatus. For some it was a joke, for others it was an offence, and there were others still who made me out to be the second Vasil Bi3ak (the likely author of the letter inviting the Soviet Army to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968). Some even wished that the first American rockets would hit my Stoka theatre, although it was mainly American legislation I hoped to summon, not the American forces.

More than anyone else, politicians do not speak openly about things they admire or deplore in another country. If today I write that in the US some issue has been handled well, many ordinary people will say I am right. But no Slovak politicians or American diplomats can say publicly that I am right. If a Slovak politician did, it would be tantamount to admitting that that good thing in the US is not so good here, and by extension perhaps, that he hadn't been doing his job.

Likewise, no American diplomat working in Slovakia could admit that something here is worse than in the US because it would appear that the US is unsatisfied with Slovakia. And the US can only be unsatisfied with countries that do not uphold elementary democratic principles - not Slovakia's case.

I had a chance recently to see New York City, and there was much to admire, especially the sense of law and order. I saw police sitting in a car in a park with order all around them. I saw police getting on and off metros where there was order. I saw police stop a man, press him against a wall, frisk him - and there was order all around. I saw police directing traffic in Chinatown, and again there was order.

During my 20-day stay in that traffic-crammed city I saw only one car crash, or better put, one fender-bender. It was promptly sorted out by the drivers and a policeman who came immediately, without having to be called multiple times.

I met many people in New York who lived far from the establishment, but who respected the police. And then I came home, where I was stopped by the Slovak police although I'd committed no offence, and was forced to submit to a document inspection and breath test. Seemingly just for fun (not mine).

A Slovak who admires America is in a difficult position. When, two years ago, I applied for a travel visa to the United States, the official at the embassy interrogated me as if I were a criminal. Why did I want to go? I said I had an invitation and wanted to see some friends.

Then he asked me a question which, I admit, I could not answer: Why now? I stammered like a child caught with stolen candy. I wanted to say that until then I hadn't had the money, but I was afraid I would reveal myself as insolvent, knowing that during the application process it was necessary to submit documents proving my financial security.

For a while I didn't say anything, although I knew that was the worst thing to do. Finally I said I wanted, as a director, to see some theatre. Why then was I going to visit friends and not travelling with a theatre? I had no answer.

I longed to get out of there, like I once longed to get out of university entrance examinations. But then the official very gruffly said "Very well, I'll give you the visa, but only for three weeks."

Again I am struck by the awkwardness of my situation, complaining about the immigration official of a country I would like to see again. What can I expect from him the next time I apply for a visa? Who knows?

Some Slovak politician, I believe a municipal one, said that if parliament doesn't pass the law on the powers for the new regional governments, the mass emigration of Slovaks will not stop. Apparently after 10 years of 'freedom' 140,000 have left. That's 2.8% of the Slovak population.

These are awkward topics and it is difficult to write about them. It is painful to write about them. And I wonder how much they can interest English-speaking foreigners living in Slovakia.

The author is the director and founder of Bratislava's independent Stoka Theatre

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