ONE of the foreign media's favourite questions to ask Slovaks in 2004 was: "How does it feel to be in the European Union?"
This is an enigmatic question, to say the least, and one to which I long believed no satisfactory response existed. But this changed a few weeks ago when a Slovak told me over steaming mulled wine: "Well, it doesn't really change anything, except that now I feel strange when I hear the Ode to Joy [the EU anthem]. Actually, when I hear it I want to jump up and impale myself on the orchestra."
Did my acquaintance bear the EU and the ideal of unity among humankind any ill will when he said this? No, he was just expressing himself with typical dark Slovak humour, a humour so dark that it can be difficult to read at all.
The Ode to Joy, a poem by Schiller set to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, has the "idealistic vision of the human race becoming brothers," according to the EU's Europa website. The anthem demands that drooping spirits stand to attention when it kicks into full swing. "By killing myself on the orchestra, I would become one with the music," my companion went on cheerily.
The rest of the conversation developed like this: Only when you are unsatisfied do you have the drive to achieve something, and the projects or goals you realize (in this case splniť) bring you pleasure.
Happiness, on the other hand, comes from satisfaction and the absence of worry. In this state you stagnate or, to put in the Slovak way, you become a knedloš, a doughy dumpling that swells to fill a mould.
It follows then that if you are happy you are already dead. So if you feel happiness upon hearing the Ode to Joy then, your life must be over. After you realize (in this case uvedomiť si) this, the logical next step is to impale yourself on the bow of the lead violinist.
Is this wily (ľstivý) cynicism the root of the pessimism so often associated with Slovakia? There is something unnerving, for example, about the decision to name Bratislava's MR Štefánik International Airport after a man who died in a plane crash. Certainly such a christening would not go over in the US, where positivity is demanded.
Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the habit (zvyk) of US citizens, unnerving to Europeans, of constantly smiling. This custom (also called zvyk) stuck in the mind of the celebrated French theorist Jean Baudrillard. "Smile and others will smile back," he wrote in his memoir of America. "Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say, nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference, shine out spontaneously in your smile."
Many Slovaks find the empty American smile insincere or even downright infuriating. As someone schooled in the automatic US smile, I take a stubborn stance in response and tell myself "nedaj sa" ("do not give in"). At times I feel like I am trying to kill every grumpy person I meet with kindness, or at least two rows of pearly whites. I get so fed up with cold waiters you could say that "I have full teeth of them" ("mám ich plné zuby"), the Slovak way of saying I'm fed up.
In my defence, I have gotten used to many Slovak social habits, such as staring strangers in the eyes for periods of time so long they would give a US native an anxiety attack. Try smiling around strangers in Slovakia and you are likely to get a similar result. "What are you smiling about?" ("Čo sa smeješ?") they ask nervously, brushing their hair into shape self-consciously and wondering if they have said something stupid.
If the US smile is empty, this is especially true of the sales smiles served up, for instance, by counter staff in fast-food restaurants - "service with a smile".
Slovaks are right to point to this smile as a falsehood, one that Baudrillard called the "institutional smile" of intimacy where there is none. It is emblematic of consumerism's superficiality.
But the everyday US smile is nothing so monstrous (obludný). People in the US merely smile first and ask questions later. They are friendly at the outset but sincere only when they really get to know someone. If they never get to know them, the logic goes, at least they were polite.
The opposite is the case in Slovakia, where the people see it as a lie to be friendly to someone only to forget about them later. If one hangs in there with them, though, meaningful smiles are sure to come.
It is in this spirit that a newly unified Europe should take pessimism and threats of suicide to the strains of its utopian anthem; wait for Slovakia to get to know you and the country's friendliness will abound.
24. Jan 2005 at 0:00 | Eric Smillie