This is my second contribution to The Daily in a series of articles about my experience and the pros and cons of living in Slovakia!
As with many ex-pats, first impressions of this country were ‘mixed’, to use the term loosely. An ‘Eastern Europe Twilight Zone’, was the phrase that first came to mind as I touched down at midnight in Bratislava airport.
I was not greeted with Starbucks or McDonalds, but a dark arrival lounge with an instant coffee machine and some questionable looking ‘taxi drivers’, just waiting to charge extortionate fares to the poor naive tourists and drunken stag parties that wobbled through arrivals after a few too many beers on the plane.
As an ex-pat in a foreign land, basic language and communication was the initial hurdle to overcome. I had learnt French and German in the past, but Slovakian I soon came to realize, was not going to be that easy. In fact, at first, it seemed nigh on impossible!
I admit, these first few months of wandering around supermarkets with absolutely no idea of what was what, and having a cold sweat at the thought of perhaps ordering a pizza, I did perhaps think I had made a huge mistake. Why leave ‘good old England’, where small pleasures such as tea bags, Sunday roast dinner and a morning paper through the door, were so easily attainable?
Ah, the wonders of hindsight! In my 2.5 years living here as an English ex-pat, it is incredible how much my opinion has changed.
I learnt quickly that the mentality here in Slovakia is one that can be misinterpreted. I was, as I am sure most ex-pats experience, prone to asking why most people looked so miserable and why the main topic of conversation was usually money or death! I noticed a smile here and there on the streets, though, and feel that with the arrival of a bit of western thinking over the last few years people seem a great deal more ‘open’ and positive minded!
As I sit and write on the Eurovea boulevard, the sun is shining and the riverbank is packed with young, happy and trendy individuals. Smiling couples walk by, there are dogs and children everywhere, and the bars and restaurants struggle to serve the surplus of customers drinking fresh lemonade and cold beer, whilst soaking up the sun on the outdoor bean bags. Two young men walk past in shorts and flip flops, hand in hand…..times are definitely changing! London it is not, but this country has definitely got character!
Fate has brought me here …. just like many hundreds of ex-pats. It’s incredible really. The culture and people are so very different to the modern western life in Britain and America… but I notice there is a certain type of person who can embrace this cultural change and make it an advantage for them and family! Here, almost anything is possible! There is not the rigid red tape system you find in England and every day I meet children and adults from all over the world adapting to and accepting the way of life. The more time I spend here, the more I see it’s really actually not as bad as some Slovaks will tell you. My friends and family who come to visit me in this strange ‘little big city’, always say the same thing without fail … ‘it’s like being on holiday here!’
Wandering the cobbled streets of the Old Town in Bratislava and discovering the hidden alleyways and old churches, I sometimes feel as though I am on the set of a Hollywood movie! Of course, life is not always ‘like in the films!’
I have had to become quite adept at dodging the enormous craters in the road and accepting most dishes I order will usually come with fried cheese…whether requested or not! But if you are ever in need of a friendly face, there are plenty to be found! The ex-pats I meet have all been so supportive and helpful, recognizing that as a newcomer here there are certain tips and techniques adapting to life here!
I discovered a great English book exchange, Next Apache, where you can while away the hours with a coffee or cold beer whilst surrounded by hundreds of books. The staff and clientele are friendly and open and the ambience is one that embraces newcomers. There is always a space at the bar to sit and chat to people from all over the world about what had possibly brought them to Slovakia. And some of the stories are truly incredible!
Socialising with the natives is slightly different! Most introductions begin with the question, ‘why would you move to Slovakia?’. Many of the people I meet dream of leaving the country to move to a ‘real city’. For example, London, Paris or New York! Ah London, a city where ‘the streets are paved with gold!’? Yet here I was, leaving those glittering streets, for a life in strange and small Bratislava! However, I can most definitely say I never saw any golden streets in all my years as a Londoner, and give anyone a day traveling on the London Underground in Rush Hour and I am pretty certain they would also loose any idealistic ideas that it is a ‘city where dreams come true!’. Give me the electric tram and a Slovak bus any day!
So that’s me….I compare the quality of life here with what I had in England and its incredible. For an extortionate amount of money I was living in a tiny, damp, rat infested flat in London, struggling for work and felt I might as well have taken wads of money every morning and flushed them down the drain! Travel alone was my entire salary and forget a casual meet up at the pub….prices of food and drink would leave you with a guaranteed empty pocket! And now? I hear you ask….well I have a lovely flat in Stare Mesto. I have work. I am admittedly struggling with this crazy language that when I ask what the basic rules are the answer is….’none’. But I am happy…..it’s not where you live….it’s what you make of it….and the more foreigners I meet here the more I am convinced this is true. I have met those who fled here to nurse a broken heart, other came to support their spouse who was offered a job here, I even know some who just needed a new start and thought, ‘why not Bratislava?’. And why not indeed!?
My Slovak Father in Law, recently told me that the most exciting thing about living in Slovakia was dying! Morbid, yes! But typical of the older generation’s mentality here. Yet as I sit here and watch the Danube sparkle in the sun, and watch the smiling faces around me, I think that I have moved to a land of life, potential and promise, for the natives and the foreigners alike!
Watch out for my next article on Life as an expat in Slovakia!