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MEETING OF THE CULTURES

Living in Slovakia: Like listening to two radio stations at the same time

Pawnbroker shops; namedays and dreaded kisses with older colleagues; babies with earrings; cars parked on pavements; in-your-face advertising; inscrutable faces; roadside crosses; clapping in unison... This word 'culture' troubles me. Do I put here what I think or what, as an 'enlightened Westerner', I'm supposed to think? Where does one begin after 10 years in a country which no longer feels foreign?

Pawnbroker shops; namedays and dreaded kisses with older colleagues; babies with earrings; cars parked on pavements; in-your-face advertising; inscrutable faces; roadside crosses; clapping in unison... This word 'culture' troubles me. Do I put here what I think or what, as an 'enlightened Westerner', I'm supposed to think? Where does one begin after 10 years in a country which no longer feels foreign?

January 1993, a sharp winter, the sun shining brightly over the frozen potato fields of the Spiš region, I walked with some friends along the Hornád river towards Čingov. Arriving at a Roma settlement, I noticed some 10 or 12 lightly-dressed mothers and daughters scrubbing carpets on the frozen river. They had made holes in the ice and a few of them sang as they worked. Further along the river, a horse tramped along the ice towards us pulling a sled laden with firewood plundered from the forest. A young Romany girl in a summer dress sat on top of the wood and flashed her eyes at me as she slipped past. I was 27 and had escaped the numbing modernity of London. The whole scene was enthralling.

1996, I am at the hospital in Martin to undergo the medical tests which are a condition for getting a residence visa. The hospital is 1950s (communist, some would say, ergo inhuman and utilitarian, but to me it is pleasant, even cheerful for a hospital). But with stool sample lying uncomfortably in uhorky jar and anxiety about the chest x-ray, I have also the problem of interpreting for an American colleague:

"Tell 'em I wanna see them unwrap the needle."

"Does she think we're monkeys and still live in trees?"

"Why won't they respect the tests I had done in America at great expense?"

"We're obliged by law to carry out these tests."

"Why is it a third-world country won't respect tests done in a first-world country?"

I don't translate.

Summer 1999 and I'm walking down Prešov's main street with Sk1.3 million in cash in my schoolbag. In the Slovenská sporiteľňa bank, a woman is waiting for me; not a bank clerk but the woman selling us her cottage. Where better a place to meet and count out 1,300 thousand-crown notes? And a few minutes later, the cottage is officially ours and months of discovery await the callow Brit abroad whose practical education had never touched on things like septic tanks, gas boilers and electrical water pumps called 'darling(s)'. Is it any wonder I sometimes feel so humble in this country, so full of admiration for a nation of house and chalet builders?

March 2002 and tired of junk mail, tawdry Markíza import culture, mobile phones going off everywhere and endless talk of latest purchases and government betrayals, I slip into a dingy club which I know serves Šariš. There I meet an ex-student and she asks me to dance. The music is dire, laden with sexual innuendo and frequent f-words. But my partner is happy and dances well, tells me how she is in a folk ensemble from central Slovakia and how she loves that part of the country. Her beautiful eyes and kind face rekindle some of the joy I felt when I first met Slovak women 10 years earlier - the dismal music, backcloth of surly-looking skinheads and walls of smoke hardly matter. Talking to her, I suddenly feel that life is good here after all, that Slovak culture will survive the depredations of the Rusko generation.

As I write this (May 8th) the sun is beating down and another May drought is threatening, weather which spells anything but 'paradise in the barn'. As I was out on my bike earlier, trying to savour the state holiday atmosphere, I went past the local Kaufland which was doing lively trade. "'Victory over Fascism' perhaps, but there's no question that Germany has won the peace", I thought to myself as I compared the bulging Kaufland with the empty Jednota next door.

And this is how I feel/experience/see Slovak 'culture': that like everywhere else, it's changing, only faster. Global warming and globalization touch on the very essence of life here. "The past is a foreign country", the present is less so. Slovakia isn't a museum exhibit which can be examined and neatly catalogued. The habit of generalising about life here and making sweeping "us and them" judgements is one we Westerners should avoid. In fact we are as much part of the local culture as Teleshopping, electronic dartboards and other dubious imports.

If only Slovakia was a country of rural buses, spas, women with hairy armpits and ridiculously hard alcohol, we might be able to spout off with impunity. But this country has taken/had thrust upon it so much which is ours, that it's very difficult to say exactly what is Slovak and what isn't. Sometimes when I try to get the BBC on shortwave radio, I get some Moscow station as well and have to suffer cheesy Russian soft-rock when I'm trying to catch the football scores from England. Living in Slovakia can be a bit like that - a bit like listening to two radio stations at the same time. And while one station might be playing a tune I recognise, the other one is playing something that escapes me altogether.

This essay was picked as the winner of a recent English-language writing competition in the ex-pat resident category. The competition was run by the knihy.sme.sk site and partnered by the Sme daily and The Slovak Spectator weekly. The topic was 'Meeting of the Cultures', and invited entrants in three categories to submit a short essay on an intercultural experience or theme. The work of other winners will be published in this space bi-weekly over the summer.
The next Meeting of the Cultures column will be on stands in two weeks, Vol. 8 No. 30, Aug 12-18, 2002.

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