I once pissed off a Chinese friend by telling her the best thing about China was that if you wanted to pick your nose there, you could just go for it. After a long discussion, I finally conceded that maybe it was just one of the best things. Certainly, however, it was the main up-side to all the spitting, snorting, and picking practiced by millions in that filthy but lovely land.
Similarly, I have found an up-side to what many foreigners find the most difficult part of their Slovak experience; the incessant, annoying, depressing complaining of the residents who live here. The silver lining is simple; If you want to be depressed here, that's just fine. If you want to bitch about something, that's good, too. No need to pretend you are happy all the time in Slovakia. Anyone who does, in fact, will most certainly be viewed as either crazy, foolish, or just not sophisticated enough to realize how bad everything actually is.
Contemplating going back to America, I remember with a shudder what happens to depressive complainers there. We medicate them. It is simply not OK in the States to wander around without motivation. Years ago, therapy was prescribed to such under-achievers. Now, more often than not, they are put on pills. The end result is that you often never know what people are really like. After years of knowing someone, it is not uncommon to find out the happy person you meet everyday is actually enhanced by a little seratonin releaser or a daily dose of lithium.
Kids who are too loud are put on Ritalin, while adults who pout get Prozac. Here if you are not living up to your potential- grab a beer. No one else is, either.
You know, for the first few weeks I was in Slovakia, I was as happy as a lark. I found the trams quaint. I loved waiting for the bus at Šafaricovo namestie, where the Baroque buildings had some fading splendour and the sun could almost be seen over the river. From my office window, I could see the Bratislava castle, the vineyards covered with snow. Tesco had a lot of food. I considered the design of the SNP bridge "heroic."
But when I would talk to Slovaks, they would invariably be complaining- sighing about the government, the lack of Western-level facilities, the lack of sophistication of their countrymen. Then the foreigners I met, already having learned about this Slovak "up-side", went at it too; making snide jokes about unfriendly sales help, bad drivers, and how most restaurants won't let you order french fries without an entree. Guess what? The complaining was contagious. The next thing I knew, I had taken to swearing "Jesus Maria" like my new friends every time the telephone wasn't working and wondering why I had chosen to come to this grey, luster-less land.
Slovaks also tend to blame everything on Slovakia, as if things are better elsewhere. Sometimes, that is just an illusion. For example, after the eclipse, when I was convinced I had damaged my right eye by looking through cheap Hungarian-made special glasses, a friend took me to the local clinic to get an exam. Upon being asked to wait about 45 minutes, my companion shook her head. "Slovakia," she said, as if that word alone said it all. I tried to explain that in America we wait two hours and then are asked to pay $60 for such a service, but she didn't seem to care. Here, they nicely accepted my friend's insurance card on my behalf and I paid nothing.
Of course, there are good things about shared depression. For one, the sense of community. For example, most Slovak university students are under the impression that their education stinks. The up-side is then they don't have to waste time working too hard. And because the system doesn't breed competitiveness, stronger students don't mind helping weaker ones pass by giving them answers on tests.
In Slovak culture, I learned, there are traditionally four personality types. The Sanguine, who is extroverted, active and generally content, the Melancholic, who is often dreaming or depressed, the Choleric, marked by nervous energy, and the Phelgmatic, who is relaxed and stable enough that he doesn't care too much about life's troubles. Around here, neurotic worrying and pessimistic behaviour are just two human traits among many.
11. Oct 1999 at 0:00 | Sharon Otterman