It's A FAMILIAR scenario - you're at a dinner party. Someone asks you "So what brings you here?". You launch into the well-rehearsed script, "Well, I've actually got links with Slovakia." "Oh really?! How fascinating!" "Yes, my mother's from the capital Bratislava, my father's from England and I've got dual nationality".
There - job done. And then come those fateful words... "Hmm... Slovakia - is that Yugoslavia?"
Now those of you who, like me, are proud of your links with Slovakia - whether it's as a result of your heritage, friendships or the work you have done there - this response from people is, at best, likely to irritate you and at worst break your heart.
Each time someone asks whether Slovakia is any number of other central or eastern European countries our identity is threatened. We walk away from such interactions wondering to ourselves "How could they be so ignorant?" And yet I would be very surprised if each of us did not at some point find this isolating, as something central in our lives is rejected.
As with many cultural misunderstandings, however, such alienation is rarely intentional on the part of whoever it is that decides to pitch an entire monologue on the concept that Slovakia is much akin to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, to those of us who have actually spent time in Slovakia such a stance may epitomise ignorance (and, of course, when you dig deeper it often transpires that these outspoken individuals have never even made the effort to visit) and yet - let's give them a break - they haven't really been given a lot of clues have they? That is to say that in the 23 years I have lived in the UK I haven't exactly been overwhelmed by the high profile of Slovakia and its people.
While there are numerous UK-based associations for people interested in Slovak issues (an example being the British Czech and Slovak Association which was set up by Alexander Dubček in 1990) the clustering of people in this way has, I feel, led to these interests being viewed as some kind of underground movement.
A significant contributory factor to this state of affairs is, I believe, media portrayal. In the UK, news of what is happening in North America and continental Europe (again, who decides these geo-cultural boundaries?) is seen to be of utmost importance. Yet the only time in recent years that Slovakia has pervaded the broadsheets, tabloids and airwaves in the UK so prominently was last year when 'problems' with asylum-seekers flared national sentiments and Slovaks seemed to be appointed as scapegoats in this social dispute.
Never mind that the figures from the UK Home Office suggest that this could be an unfounded position. Home Office research indicates that the proportion of people seeking British citizenship in the UK from Europe has quadrupled since 1992. This, according to the researchers, indicates a rise in applicants from eastern Europe. On the other hand, figures show that despite this, 'the rest of Europe' (including Slovakia, according to the classification used) only constitutes 11% of those granted British citizenship, and this includes Bulgarians and Russians, for example, who took a considerably larger percentage of applicants from 1997-2000.
It does indeed seem that many of these countries that come under the guise of 'the rest of Europe' are tarred with the same brush, irrespective of their individual situations. Bearing this in mind, the best I think we can hope for, in terms of protecting and cherishing our heritage and affiliation with Slovakia, is to smile at those dinner-party affairs and do our best to inform rather than reform.
Back in the first grade the boy sitting opposite me asked, "Where did you go on holiday Susie?" "Czechoslovakia," I replied. "Ha-ha - listen everyone, Susie went to Czechoslo-hoover on holiday!", answered the little snirp. See what I mean? Some people have in-built inertia when it comes to appreciating peoples' links with countries other than their own.
I learnt early on in life that some people just weren't going to adapt to my wavelength on this score. In fact, I've got better things to do with my time than worry about trying to change them... like mastering the genitive case for example... but that's another story.
LETTER FROM ABROAD
A bi-weekly column on life as a Slovak in a foreign country
25. Feb 2002 at 0:00 | Susie Chambers