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Culture Shock: Marrying an expat takes patience

As a young girl watching Soviet war films on television, I dreamed of marrying a courageous Russian soldier. That young girl might have been quite surprised at the eventual reality, for I ended up falling in love with and marrying that Russian soldier's Cold War enemy - an American.
When I first met him (Daniel), we had several problems to overcome. In addition to our cultural differences was the communication handicap of not being able to speak each other's native language. At our first meeting, we both paused in front of the restaurant door smiling at each other. I waited for him to enter - in Slovakia, the man should go first to check if it's safe for the woman to follow. Who knows? There may be a fight or a killer waiting behind the door, and the man should protect his woman.

As a young girl watching Soviet war films on television, I dreamed of marrying a courageous Russian soldier. That young girl might have been quite surprised at the eventual reality, for I ended up falling in love with and marrying that Russian soldier's Cold War enemy - an American.

When I first met him (Daniel), we had several problems to overcome. In addition to our cultural differences was the communication handicap of not being able to speak each other's native language. At our first meeting, we both paused in front of the restaurant door smiling at each other. I waited for him to enter - in Slovakia, the man should go first to check if it's safe for the woman to follow. Who knows? There may be a fight or a killer waiting behind the door, and the man should protect his woman.

But not with my American. Rather, he opened the door and gestured gallantly for me to go first because (as I learned later), in America it's 'Ladies first.' We hesitated, then moved simultaneously and got stuck in the doorway like a pair of Siamese twins.

Other misunderstandings were soon to follow. When he came to Brezno to meet my parents for the first time, they were shocked when he addressed them using the informal "tykať", calling them by their first names. He wasn't yet familiar with the formal "vykať" form that we Slovaks use to show respect. I shudder to think what my parents would have thought had he not been a foreigner.

Many additional faux pas were committed by my American guest that evening. In Slovakia, we have a saying to describe hospitality: "A guest visiting a home is like God visiting a home." We offered everything we had, including wine, cabbage soup, and food just to make him feel welcome. So when he suddenly got up from his chair, took a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water from the tap, and sat down again at the table with a half-filled glass of water before any of us had a chance to serve it to him, we watched in horror; my mother felt she had failed in her duties as host.

My husband learned another lesson later that evening when my father produced a bottle of Slivovica (Slovak plum brandy with an alcohol content over 50%). Not a big drinker, he was forced to drain every glass dad filled. In Slovakia, it is custom to refuse refills twice before accepting on the third offer, but if you refuse the third time the point will be taken. Not wishing to be rude, my husband earnestly refused only once per shot. My parents and I were left struck with awe at this American who could drink as much as a Russian.

But the next morning when he woke up and dragged himself into the kitchen, his bedraggled look told the real story. Daniel had gotten very drunk and was now paying the price. My mother poured him another glass of Slivovica as Daniel groaned, but this time he refused to drink. My mother insisted, telling him the alcohol would kill flu bacteria and soothe his stomach. Still, Daniel wouldn't drink.

Of course, this is not to say that I had an easy time grasping the cultural differences when I visited his family in New York. I soon learned that American hospitality differed from Slovaks'. One evening, for example, Daniel's mother prepared a dinner of hamburgers on the grill, chips, and a big salad. The meal looked delicious and I was quite hungry.

Daniel's mom invited me to eat (I now understand) when she said to me, "help yourself." However, I was accustomed to the Slovak version of hospitality by which food is constantly shoved in front of the guest's face. I waited... and waited... and waited to be offered a plate. No offer came. Everyone ate well except for starving me. When the situation was later explained to me, I then understood why Daniel had got himself that glass of water.

Renata Stoll is married to The Slovak Spectator's Senior Editor and co-owner Daniel J. Stoll.

By Lucia Nicholsonova
Special to the Spectator


"Well, you sure picked the right guy to marry - a foreigner with a Canadian passport and a fat bank account." That was the sentence I heard most often before my wedding last April. "You sure knew who you were marrying - a guy who gave you a 7,000 crown winter coat and who's trying to buy the two of you a flat." That's the sentence I've often heard since.

It's difficult, and indeed sometimes impossible, to explain to my Slovak compatriots that while I do have a husband with a Canadian passport, he also has empty pockets. His pockets are as bare as those of most young, recently married Slovak men who earn Slovak money working at Slovak firms.

Not to say that I haven't noticed a few differences between my being married to a foreigner and to a Slovak man. For one thing, as the wife of a non-Slovak I don't have the right to complain in public about lack of money, because the reaction is just ironic comments; for another, if I look at the prospects of our marriage, I see empty, empty pockets continuing a long, long time in the future... One of the reasons for this is that my non-Slovak husband, in comparison with most Slovak men, is perhaps too honest when it comes to money.

A girlfriend of mine asked my husband for a little favour - to write a small article in the culture section of The Slovak Spectator about the opening of a gallery selling Indonesian and African art in the Old Town (the gallery was owned by her boyfriend). It was a question of maybe a few hundred words, for which she would pay my husband 3,000 crowns. From my experiences with other Slovak journalists I was sure it wouldn't be a problem. I was thus surprised, as was my girlfriend, when my non-Slovak husband turned down the money, passed her on to the advertising department, and told her that if she wanted a paid notice given she could buy an ad like anyone else.

Another unique aspect of our marriage is that every female sales clerk and waitress seems to feel that I am the most cheated-on loser ever to marry a foreigner in Slovakia. The problem is my husband's familiar and friendly behaviour - what he calls normal courtesy, but what for these women is flirtation. I witnessed this in one Old Town shop, where my husband in his heavily accented Slovak explained earnestly to an enraptured sales clerk how tough it had been in Mexico to find clothes in his size... With a sneer she glanced at me with a look that said, "he likes me, tough luck for you."

Luckily, however, if any of these blonde dreamers wanted to steal my husband, they might encounter two basic problems. First, my non-Slovak husband takes marital fidelity much more seriously than 90% of Slovak men. Secondly, learning to accept a non-Slovak man for what he is takes both patience and training.

It's completely normal, for instance, for my husband to wear ripped trousers to polite gatherings, or to spill red wine down the front of a business suit at a formal party. It's also completely normal for him to wear his running tights and sweaty running jacket to a grocery store, then complain to his wife that patrons were giving him strange looks. He doesn't do these things because he's trying to be different or because he's ignorant - he just expects people to take him as he is and not how he looks.

But while I have been trying to show my friends they are wrong in thinking I married into wealth, in a certain sense they are right. Perhaps it is because my husband is a foreigner that I am allowed to work part time when I 'should' be home looking after our child. That's not common in Slovakia.

Perhaps it is because my husband is a foreigner that I am not a frustrated feminist. My non-Slovak husband respects me as a woman, a fellow-journalist and a mother. Maybe because I have a non-Slovak husband I also fear infidelity less and less. That, too, is uncommon in Slovakia.

Finally, maybe it's because my husband is a foreigner that I don't have to fear not getting along with my mother in law, who lives in Costa Rica, far, far away. And that, let it be said, it not common in Slovakia.

Lucia Nicholsonová is the wife of The Slovak Spectator's Editor-in-Chief Tom Nicholson.

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