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Culture Shock: Foreign customs still alien after ten years

This is who I am: a modern Slovak (European) woman slowly gaining self-confidence and entering the fascinating world of work. Excited to join the international community and to learn about foreign cultures, I travel around Europe, I eat international cuisine, I read fancy foreign lifestyle and fashion magazines, I learn trendy foreign expressions, I wear sneakers with my skirts, placing comfort over style and ignoring my grandmother's muttered comments that I look ridiculous.
After years of wearing a dour expression (ah, communism!), I am now training my facial muscles to create a wide, sincere smile like Texas Ted. Sometimes, though, I look around at the foreigners in Slovakia (with their sneakers and skirts, their trendy expressions and their Texas Ted smiles), and I wonder what it is that still separates us.

This is who I am: a modern Slovak (European) woman slowly gaining self-confidence and entering the fascinating world of work. Excited to join the international community and to learn about foreign cultures, I travel around Europe, I eat international cuisine, I read fancy foreign lifestyle and fashion magazines, I learn trendy foreign expressions, I wear sneakers with my skirts, placing comfort over style and ignoring my grandmother's muttered comments that I look ridiculous.

After years of wearing a dour expression (ah, communism!), I am now training my facial muscles to create a wide, sincere smile like Texas Ted. Sometimes, though, I look around at the foreigners in Slovakia (with their sneakers and skirts, their trendy expressions and their Texas Ted smiles), and I wonder what it is that still separates us.

It is strange that we Slovaks should be feel a barrier with you foreigners in this country, given the extent to which we worshipped your culture in the past. During my childhood in the communist era, I watched "Dirty Dancing" and "James Bond" thousands of times on Austrian TV, the only western TV which we could get in Bratislava. I was the coolest kid on my block with my collection of Coke and Fanta cans. I queued up for hours to buy a bootleg Madonna tape, and played it until I had memorized those sappy lyrics. I was not alone in any of this.

Our passion for your culture did not abate following the 1989 revolution. Movies like Wim Wenders' "The Sky over Berlin," black jeans that could be bought legally in legal shops, the 'indie' music of the Happy Mondays and the Smiths, U2 concerts in Vienna - we spent more than money on these things, and took home more than clothes and records from our shopping trips.

But almost ten years later, I find myself amazed at how different foreigners are from Slovaks, despite our attempts to emulate you. Things that we fret over (going to the dentist, repairing a car) you solve with a telephone call and a breezy acceptance of how much it will cost. On the other hand, things that are normal for us (poor restaurant service, rude clerks, dirty public toilets) draw squawks of indignation from foreigners.

Perhaps the difference between us can be summed up in the question which you perpetually ask: "Where can I get something to eat after ten in the evening?" Slovak answer: "Almost nowhere. Who is going to remain working in a restaurant late at night to feed you? Just because you have money in your pocket doesn't mean you can change the rules of business that we follow."

The reason that this exchange is so typical is that it illustrates how far apart foreigners and Slovaks are on such simple matters as late-night restaurants. You can't imagine why someone wouldn't open up a restaurant to cater to hordes of hungry bar patrons. We resent your challenging the way things are done here, and we cling to our rules as if they were more important than life itself.

The same principle governs our different expectations of life. You spend (for us) appalling amounts of money on fresh fruit salads and Evian water while we are content the whole summer through with apples and bananas. We live in cramped flats in Petržalka, where the entrance door to each building has neither handle nor glass, while you look for something 'a little upscale' in the centre, close to the butcher's, the hairdresser's, the grocer's and a tiny neighbourhood restaurant.

It's not just about money, though. Sure, you have more of it, but even if we had more money we wouldn't spend it - we would guard it jealously, doling it out in little portions as if we were afraid of all of the good times it could buy. Indeed, one of the biggest differences between us is in the gusto and freedom with which we live our lives.

You seem to work every night until seven, to cram every weekend with activities like a trip to Budapest or a bowling tournament in Vienna. I tend to spend most of my weekends in the city with my grandmother, making strawberry jam and discussing the price of sugar. I waste incredible amounts of time on things like searching for a telephone box that works, something that I never find myself doing in London or Zurich.

Sometimes your gusto for life is amusing (I mean things like travelling to Vienna to go bowling). You are so grateful for everything, so interested! When you are travelling around Slovakia, you will listen agog to a history lecture about a railway station in some forgotten village, or a discourse on the linguistic origins of the phrase "drž palce." If we were to visit the backwoods of my own country together, I would be depressed by the train ride while you would get a kick out of sticking your head out of the window and letting the wind blow your hair around. Sometimes we are a bit disapproving of your sense of freedom, but more often we are envious.

If there is a lesson in all of this it is that Slovaks may emulate foreigners but are never in danger of losing whatever it is that makes them unique. For so long, many of us worshipped western culture and felt that it contained the solutions to the problems that plagued our lives.

Now we know better, and are richer for that knowledge. While I will never go bowling, and never spend 100 crowns on a bottle of Evian, I am forever grateful for the influence foreigners have had on Slovakia. After spending time with foreigners - and their silly shorts, their uncritical outlooks, their disdain for rules in general - I will never again worry about my chunky legs. I will travel to China and not worry about how I will fit in to a strange culture. And I will discuss politics in public without feeling that I have to watch my mouth.

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