Nuno Viana is one of nine native Portuguese living in Slovakia.
photo: Peter Barecz
Officially numbering only a handful of natives, the Portuguese community in Slovakia is like that of many other foreign nationals - isolated and estranged, but on the brink of enlargement as Slovakia becomes better known as a travel, work and investment destination.
Viana himself arrived in Slovakia in 1998 when his firm sent him to assume his post in the board of directors at Union insurance company. "It was not a deliberate decision to come here, but after some time I've come to like it," he said. "I love the High Tatras, and the beautiful area around Poprad."
With his wife and child back in Portugal, Viana says he often travels home. Such conditions breed loneliness, and Viana often finds himself thinking of his native country. "I don't know how long I'm going to stay, it depends on my company," he said. "But I think it's a shame that there aren't more Portuguese people here."
Indeed, few Portugese natives have found their way east, leaving the local community in Slovakia minute. According to František Vizváry, the Portugese honorary consul in Slovakia, the number of registered Portuguese residents in Slovakia is only nine.
"It's a tiny community and most of them are people who came here 10 or 20 years ago before the fall of communism," he said. "They usually stay because they got married or found work in Slovakia."
Frederico Goncalves (39), who arrived 20 years ago as a student, is a perfect example of the 'typical' Portugese expat in Slovakia. "I studied medicine at Comenius University where I met my wife," he said. "Then I got a job in Bratislava."
Though still a Portuguese citizen, Goncalves' ties to Slovakia run deep. "I'm at home here with my wife and two children. But every year I go to see my family in Setú Bal [40 kilometres south of Lisbon]," Goncalves said in Slovak indiscernable from a native speaker's.
Viana, for his part, says that he is trying to understand basic Slovak phrases. "I started to learn the language only recently, and it's extremely difficult for me. On the other hand not many Slovaks speak Portuguese," he noted.
In fact, two Slovak universities offer Portuguese language courses - Comenius University in Bratislava and Matej Bel University (UMB) in Banská Bystrica. "We started this programme two years ago and now have eight students," said Zuzana Chudíková who teaches Portuguese lexicology at UMB. "Unfortunately, not many Slovaks know a lot about Portugal and it's too bad because the country, its culture, and the people are wonderful."
Chudíková said as a result of the lack of native Portuguese speakers interested in coming to Slovakia, her university has found it difficult to secure a qualified native speaker, which would in turn offer better opportunities for the Slovak students learning Portugese to study abroad.
"It's a shame that Portugal doesn't have an embassy in Slovakia," she said. Chudíková explained that the department was still without a native Portuguese-speaking teacher, although they had tried to find one through the consulate.
The consulate's Vizváry said other venues of co-operation existed, such as an educational institute called Camoes, allowing for possibilities of broader cultural exchange between the two countries.
On the other hand, Pedro Mundroj from Lisbon, who came to Slovakia in 1999 with his wife, said that more of his countrymen would come to Slovakia if more information about the country were available back in Portugal. "This is a great location - Slovakia is in the heart of Europe and life here is quite cheap compared to Austria," he said. "Slovaks are nice people, but we don't know much about each other. People in Portugal know about the Czech Republic and Prague but not much information about your country is available."
Viana agreed with Mundroj on the friendly Slovak mentality and said that the countries shared other features. "Both are relatively small countries, and in the 1970's and 1980's we went through an economic transformation much like the one you are experiencing now."
Vizváry noted that improved contacts between the two countries could only be expected if Slovakia manages to persuade Portuguese businessmen that the country is not a dangerous place to invest their money (see related story, page 1).
"We participated in the signing of the June 1 treaty on mutual co-operation between Portugal and Slovakia," he said. "The consulate is active in promoting business opportunities in Slovakia, and we hope to establish a broad and lasting cultural co-operation between the two countries."
If more native Portugese come to Slovakia, the cultural differences will likely result in the foreigners longing for aspects of home not found here in Slovakia - the sea and fish were mentioned by both Viana and Goncalves. Besides that, of course, they'd both like to meet more of their countrymen here while sitting over a beer and discussing their impressions of life in Slovakia.