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Culture Shock: Slovakia refuge from mindless materialism

Emerging from the birth canal of a New York airport in December for my first visit home in over a year, I felt like a new baby seeing a strange world for the first time. Everything was so big. And these strange waitresses would not stop treating me like a child, constantly saying things like. "boy, you sure are hungry today!"
Then there were the hypnotic displays of light and colour urging me to buy everything from underwear to magazines to cologne. Overwhelmed, I wanted terribly to cower back into the plane and return to Bratislava with its cute little cars, unobtrusive commerce, even its rude waiters - it makes for a more cathartic dining experience when you hate them and they hate you. American culture was suddenly in my face... and it was scary.


This Massaging Chair retails for a mere $999 over the Internet.
photo: Taken from the Internet

Emerging from the birth canal of a New York airport in December for my first visit home in over a year, I felt like a new baby seeing a strange world for the first time. Everything was so big. And these strange waitresses would not stop treating me like a child, constantly saying things like. "boy, you sure are hungry today!"

Then there were the hypnotic displays of light and colour urging me to buy everything from underwear to magazines to cologne. Overwhelmed, I wanted terribly to cower back into the plane and return to Bratislava with its cute little cars, unobtrusive commerce, even its rude waiters - it makes for a more cathartic dining experience when you hate them and they hate you. American culture was suddenly in my face... and it was scary.

Although I adjusted after a few weeks, I was unable to shake the tendency of fixing prices to items that seemed unnecessary. For example, I might look at a kitchen with a toaster oven (sitting next to a normal toaster) and think, "I could get twenty-five plates of halušky for that."

It's simply amazing the sheer amount of crap - and there is really no other word for it - strewn throughout the average American household. Besides being wasteful, it's simply exhausting to navigate, much less keep track of. The whole country is like a museum of the frivolous, redundant, and ridiculously specific. For example:

The marginally useful knickknacks: candle snuffers, back-scratchers, lint-removers, labellers, things that glow in the dark, fake wood-burning fires, tissue-box covers, video cassette rewinding machines, lawn ornaments, foam sports paraphernalia...


The Clapper lets users control lights with a clap of the hands.
photo: Taken from the Internet

The great American fads: clapper-controlled lights, karaoke machines, cabbage-patch kids, nerf footballs, pogo sticks, TV trays, Laser-Tag, dust-busters, carpet sweepers, Chia-Pets, Velcro, Rubic's Cubes, door-topper basketball rims, mini-vans, solo-flex...

The quantitatively distorted: televisions, phones, televisions, piles of once used sporting equipment, cars, refrigerators, obscenely over-priced footwear (remember when kids were killing each other for their Air Jordan's?), guns, televisions, and more guns...

Pinnacles of American ingenuity: baseball hats that hold two cans of beer, the Thigh Master and other Sinbad-endorsed exercise products, fake plastic car-phones, motivational speech books, dolls that wet their diapers at unpredictable intervals (I'm not kidding, I've actually seen this), and of course Flowbee - the hair-cutting gadget you hook up to your vacuum cleaner...

Before living in Slovakia I never questioned the necessity of having, for example, a dish washer. But if someone now gave me the choice between $500 and a dishwasher, I'd wash by hand for the rest of my life. I might anyway. Dishwashers don't even save that much time; you have to wash the dish clean first just to put it in the washer anyway.

But Americans don't think this way. We don't think at all - we just buy. We are excellent consumers who turn anything into an opportunity to exchange goods and services. Consider our holidays: we've commercialised Christmas beyond recognition while Valentine's Day, Halloween, and Mother's and Father's Day aren't much better. Now we have occupationally oriented events like Secretaries' Week in which the boss is expected to buy tokens of thanks for the secretary.

Then there's the Internet. In theory, because it is so fast and effective, such shopping should free up time for more meaningful pursuits, like watching television or waxing one of the five cars in the driveway. Instead, it has turned into the hip and modern medium of commerce. Americans now spend hours futzing around on their computers seeing what new widgets they can buy and how fast they can get them. While home, I more than once saw people ordering expensive items off the Internet just because they thought it was cool that they could get them so fast.


The Chia-head comes complete with a hair-style guide.
photo: Taken from the Internet

Sometimes when Slovaks ask me why I am not back in the States working on Wall Street or someplace else making lots of money, I explain that for all the things we have life is not really better in America. The Americans I know are no happier than the Slovaks I know.

The usual response is a mild guffaw, meaning, "That's because all that prosperity is wasted on you thankless, neurotic Americans. Someone like me would really appreciate it." Maybe, maybe not.

Having lived in Slovakia for a year, I was determined to appreciate everything my middle-class family has during my visit. But it's just not possible. It is human nature to quickly forget the standard at which one lives. This is precisely why owning things can never be a source of lasting happiness. Comfort, perhaps. But, contentment, no.

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