RICK Zedník wasn’t born in the former Czechoslovakia. He doesn’t speak Slovak as a native language. And he doesn’t even live in Slovakia now. But his recently granted Slovak citizenship is important to him: so much so that it inspired him to write a book in which he explores his own identity through the story of the Slovak branch of his family tree – and the country that was once lost to him, but which he rediscovered not only for himself but for his family too. Zedník, one of the four founders of this newspaper, talked to The Slovak Spectator about his recently published book, ‘A Country Lost, Then Found: Discovering My Father’s Slovakia’.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What does it feel like to be a Slovak citizen?
Rick Zedník (RZ): When I became a Slovak citizen, I was surprised by how much I felt moved by this simple change in administrative status. The closest thing I could compare it to, as I say in the book, is becoming a parent. As when I became a father, also when I became a Slovak citizen, nothing was different about me physically. But very suddenly, my identity changed. When you go from being someone’s child to having a child of your own, suddenly something is fundamentally different. When I gained Slovak citizenship, I suddenly started introducing myself differently, and thinking about myself differently. And for me, to be Slovak specifically meant to represent a country that has made huge progress over the past two decades. Where citizens of eastern Europe were until very recently stigmatised in the west as unsophisticated, this is not the case any longer. Instead, Slovakia has become a source of inspiration for how it has developed economically, politically and culturally. I’m very proud to introduce myself as a Slovak citizen.
TSS: What was your motivation to become one?
RZ: I was motivated by both sentimental and practical factors. I first started to consider it in the late 1990s, when I was living in Slovakia and falling in love with the country. As I connected with the Slovak side of my family, gaining citizenship seemed the most symbolically important way I could affirm these roots, which were becoming an increasingly vital part of my self-identity. The practical benefits to gaining this status also became increasingly interesting, especially as I live in another part of the EU (Belgium). This combination of sentimental and practical reasons kept me motivated to complete the process.
TSS: People who have been through the process of getting Slovak citizenship usually say it is a bureaucratic hell. What was your experience?
RZ: The process was very frustrating, time-consuming and expensive, but it could have been relatively painless if I had been given good advice from the start. Throughout the process, different officials gave me different guidance, without taking care to understand my situation. I was told that I had to collect official copies and translations of all sorts of documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, criminal records, and academic qualifications. So I chased people in four countries to gather these historical records, only to be ultimately told that most of them were unnecessary. In my case, one document mattered more than any others: the document that showed my father had lost his Czechoslovak citizenship four months after I was born, hence proving my father was a Czechoslovak citizen at my birth, thereby entitling me to Czechoslovak citizenship then and Slovak citizenship now. Once I showed this document, the process moved quickly.
TSS: What led you to write ‘A Country Lost, Then Found’?
RZ: When I moved to Bratislava in 1994 to work as a journalist, I took many notes of my experiences and perceptions. I did not know what I’d ever do with these notes, but I held on to them nonetheless. Then, in 2010, when I became a Slovak citizen, I was very moved by the shift in my personal identity. So much so, that I wrote about it in an essay which was published by the Wall Street Journal. Several friends read that essay and encouraged me to expand it into book form. So over the subsequent two years, I returned to the notes I had taken in the 1990s and researched many other documents and found enough material to gather them into this book.
TSS: What does the book mean to you personally – is it more your family memoir, or rather the early history of Slovakia as told by an expat?
RZ: I wanted the book to be both. At one level, I wanted my family, especially my kids, to have a record of their Slovak family’s history. But I also felt that Slovakia has been under-represented in English-language literature. And that my family’s story closely mirrors the country’s history over the past century. I hoped that I might make Slovakia’s history come alive through the intimate story of how the major political and societal changes affected a single family. So it is very much a memoir, but it is also meant to be a kind of journalistic first draft of history.
TSS: In your book you mention many things that struck you as surprising or even shocking on your first trip to Bratislava after 1989. Still, what do you remember as being the most curious thing for you then?
RZ: There were many physical things that struck me, but I was somewhat prepared for most of those. What I was not prepared for were the behavioural differences of people. I write about two specific examples. One was my grandmother's paranoia that someone tapping into my phone conversation might hear me tell my parents about the goods my grandmother had bought for me. The other was the fact that customers in shops were not able to touch the goods for sale – they had to ask the surly shopkeepers to hand them the items from behind counters. These both demonstrated a fundamental lack of trust in fellow citizens, which I found shocking and sad.
TSS: You have had first-hand experience of Slovakia’s early years – as an independent country, but also as a country in transition to democracy and market economy. In your eyes, what are the biggest changes that have happened since then?
RZ: Several obvious ones are so important that they deserve mention nonetheless. First, the fact that there is now no border between Slovakia and Austria would have been unthinkable before 1989. And now you have Slovaks choosing to buy homes in Austrian villages and commute to Bratislava because those homes are cheaper than homes in Slovak villages! Second, before 1989, the restrictions on Slovaks’ ability to travel and take money outside the country were severe. Now, Slovaks take their money and spend it in shops in Paris, Frankfurt and Milan without even changing currencies – this would have been mind-boggling 25 years ago.
TSS: The story of your book evolves around your relationship with your grandparents – a very close relationship. How do people divided by cultural differences and by a language gap still manage to connect and establish close ties?
RZ: It is all about desire. Before 1989 I had little interest in exploring my grandparents’ world, because it was off-limits to me. But when it opened up and the opportunity arose, I was hungry to learn all that I could as quickly as I could. Where language and cultural gaps used to divide us, they became points to bond over and topics to discuss. My grandmother in particular badly wanted to teach me her language and she wanted to share things about the culture with me. And I was an eager student. In the book, I also mention that I grew up a short bicycle ride from my American grandparents. So I knew them very well. My relationship with my Slovak grandparents suffered especially by comparison. So I was eager to make up for lost time and bring a greater equilibrium to my understanding of the two sides of my family.
TSS: This newspaper is an important part of your Slovak experience too. As you point out in your book, by co-founding The Slovak Spectator you chose entrepreneurship rather than a job with some established publication. How did it influence you later in your life?
RZ: I had never been interested in business before my three partners and I started The Slovak Spectator. I thought business was all about money and numbers, which did not especially interest me. But through the experience, I realised how creative entrepreneurship is. It is about building organisations, developing products, and helping people. I took our responsibilities to thousands of readers, dozens of advertisers and our small staff very seriously. There were no structures to cover for us if things went wrong. We had to find solutions and implement them ourselves. It was a fabulous education, which has shaped the way I think about not only my work but also my life outside of work.
TSS: What does Slovakia mean to you today? Have you ever considered moving back here again?
RZ: I have always been fond of underdogs. When I was 7 and becoming a baseball fan outside of New York City, I was not interested in the champion Yankees; I became a fan of the smaller, less famous Mets. They had more to prove, more room for improvement. That appealed to me. I feel similarly about Slovakia. At major sporting events, I get much greater joy from Slovakia’s successes than I do from the United States’ successes. I vividly remember how excited the country was when canoeist Michal Martikán won independent Slovakia’s first Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Coming from the US, I found the country’s enthusiasm and humility very refreshing. “Pound-for-pound”, as they say in boxing, Slovakia is as capable as any country in the world. But its relatively small size makes success on the world stage more elusive. So I revel in Slovakia’s successes, because I know they are not easily won. I know they are usually against the odds. That makes them more satisfying when they come.
Would I move back to Slovakia? That is not an easy question, because now I do not make decisions only for myself, as I did in 1994. Now, I have a family to consider. My wife and I loved our six years in Bratislava and we bring our kids to visit every year. We have no plans to live in Slovakia, but nor do we have any plans to live in the countries where we grew up: the USA in my case, the UK and Canada in my wife’s case. But if my book is about anything, it is that you cannot know what forces out of your control will bring. You should never say never!
11. Feb 2013 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani