“Slovak/Slovene for a year” is a section about those who have experienced one of our countries as foreigners. We will share their stories with you, so you can take a look at the countries from the foreigner perspective.
The first post we have chosen is written by a Polish student of both Slovak and Slovenian languages who lives in Slovakia.
“Our knowledge about Slovaks is comparable to our knowledge about Chukchi.”
I usually don’t like those wise words squeezed into quotation marks, but I have to admit – that sentence, written by Polish linguist Roman Zawiliński in his book Slovaks: Their life and literature (illustrated) from 1889, is an exception. A good one. Although I’d personally modify it a bit, because it’s not only the lack of knowledge that matters here. It’s also the lack of will or motivation to change it.
So, Mr. Zawiliński, allow me to transform your idea: Our interest in Slovaks is comparable to our interest in Chukchi.
But let’s leave poor indigenous people of eastern Siberia behind and focus on Poles and Slovaks. Beginning with Poles, I’d selfishly begin with myself:
I’m a 23-year-old male coming from an ordinary mid-sized eastern Polish city, where nothing really happens, nothing really changes and nothing really amazes. I am quite sure that people take me as a relatively normal guy with one exception. It’s the fact, that I’ve decided to move away to Slovakia, that makes people wonder what the hell is wrong with me.
Visiting Slovakia is undoubtedly a very common thing for Poles. We invade our southern neighbours as tourists, we hike in Slovak part of the Tatras, we relax at numerous thermal pools, we explore caves, castles et cetera, et cetera… And that’s what I used to do with my family as well. My dad had been taking me on trips to Slovakia bunch of times when I was a kid and I really enjoyed my indistinctive role of a Pole conquering all those typical tourist attractions that (mostly northern) Slovakia has to offer.
But it all changed when I attended high school and became more aware of a fact, that the world itself is much more interesting than I initially thought. And that’s why I started to think about Slovakia. It just made no sense to me, that this country is just about mountains, caves, castles and spas. What about history, culture, language, mentality? And most of all – what about ordinary people living there? I knew nothing but a one thing. I knew, that I wanted to learn more.
Basically that’s why I’ve decided to attend Slovak studies in Cracow, Poland. I was one of about ten people, who have done that that year (considering there’s about 40 million of Poles, it says a lot about our interest in Slovakia, doesn’t it?). I learned the language, made many Slovak friends, explored more non-tourist aspects of Slovak life… And I sort of fell in love and got used to all the facts I learned and moments I experienced. After three years of studying in Poland (and a wonderful 4-months-long Erasmus stay in Bratislava) it was clear to me – I need to go there for good.
So here I am, continuing my studies and living in Bratislava.I’d say it’s like a marriage. I have sort of married Slovakia and decided to share my life with its pros and cons. But what are those pros and cons?
There is a saying that grass is always greener on the other side (and it has its equivalents in both Slovak and Polish). I could totally relate to that, as mountainous Slovakia always seemed more interesting to me than relatively flat Poland. All those mountains, hills and plateaus not only present the beauty of that country, but also make me feel that each valley has something unique to offer, that something new and different waits for me behind that next mountain. And it’s true! Majority of Slovakia basically consists of hundreds of valleys, with each one preserving its own folklore, cuisine and dialect. For a country about six times smaller than my motherland it’s a really interesting mixture, and it still surprises me.
I’ve mentioned cuisine. No doubts, it’s that one thing that always keeps me positive about the fact, that I’ve made a right choice moving there. Although tourists mostly have a chance to get familiar with only few of them, there are millions of tasty and original dishes. It’s not only about bryndzové halušky or vyprážaný syr. There’s more. Have you ever tried a magnificent koložvárska kapusta? Or sweet, delicious skalický trdelník? It’s hard to say how many times I’ve enjoyed my bowl of one of many Slovak soups, like šošovicová or cesnaková polievka. And I’ve mentioned only a tiny part of Slovak dishes’ world…
Of course, one might say that it’s a pretty heavy cuisine. But that’s why I like it. Some may also argue that many of those dishes can be found also in Hungarian/Czech/Romanian/other cuisine. And that’s true, most definitely. Could it be that Slovaks just stole the ideas from other nations? No way! It’s just the effect of a pretty complicated, yet very interesting history of Slovakia. Something that most of us do not acknowledge, as quite many Poles tend to say that Slovakia’s history began after gaining independence…
Pardon my French, but this sort of b******t is something that drives me crazy every time I hear it. Not only Slovakia and Slovaks have history, but it’s also very complex, very diverse, very interesting. First Celtic settlements, Medieval Duchy of Nitra, Great Moravia, Kingdom of Hungary, National Movement, Hungarian Revolution, Czechoslovakia, Tiso’s Slovak Republic… I could talk about it for a year or so, but It’s all already written in history books. I guess one can agree with me, that thinking that Slovak history began only after they gained independence is comparable to thinking that a human begins his life only after he leaves his parents’ home. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Poles tend to find Slovak language funny, as to us it often sounds like a child struggling to speak our mother tongue. It gets even funnier when you realise that Slovaks think exactly the same about Polish (which most Poles don’t acknowledge, though). So here we are, laughing at each other’s speech and looking at each other’s like we’re sort of funnier versions of ourselves. Yet, we get along pretty well and no wonder I’ve met many wonderful people in Slovakia. I guess this is something that attracted me most. We’re a bit different, our habits and mentality may not always be the same, but all in all it’s pretty easy to make friendships there, as Slovaks and Poles mostly like each other and are both considered open and easy to socialise with.
And then there are those cons I’ve mentioned before.Little things I either can’t fully understand, or simply don’t really like about Slovakia. As I said, it’s like marriage… You love it, but at times some things make you hate it.
Bureaucracy. Sometimes I have a feeling that Slovaks simply take their never-ending long-lasting visits to thousands of offices as a natural part of living. For every single matter there are tons of paperwork and although I’ve met many kind and polite clerks (frankly, most Slovaks say that it’s impossible there), there was never any other way than following all those complicated bureaucratic rules. I’m not trying to say that this matter is ideal in Poland. No, it’s not. It’s just worse in Slovakia…
Politics. Something you’d always like to avoid, but will never be able to do so here in Slovakia. And it’s not only because there are so many bad guys in the government, bad guys in the opposition and basically bad guys trying to convince you they’re the good guys. It’s not only that people here find it refreshing to debate about them. That’s nothing new for a Pole. But there’s something that worries me more. I noticed some sort of radicalization among Slovaks. It seems like you’re either pro-West (Hooray to Uncle Sam and the EU) or pro-East (Save our dignity, good old mother Russia!) here.
It doesn’t help that all those well-known conspiracy theories are so popular among many Slovaks of all generations, that I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry about it. It’s my personal opinion of course and some might disagree, but I just don’t like discussing politics in Slovakia. It happened too many times that a decent man surprised me with some ridiculous conspiracy theory and desperately tried to convince me that it’s true. Not cool at all.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. Not a very serious one, but definitely fits this short list of things I don’t like/don’t understand. I’ve never had my dinner in Poland before 2:00 PM. Correct me if I’m wrong, but nobody I know from Poland has it earlier in the day. In Slovakia on the other side, it’s absolutely normal to go for a dinner at twelve or even eleven o’clock! It’s awkward to a Pole, believe me. I’m still struggling to fit this daily routine, but the results are – roughly speaking – dissatisfying.
Nevertheless, my marriage with Slovakia is a happy one. I do acknowledge all the reasons we’re together and I remember them every day. It doesn’t matter that we don’t always get along. It was my decision to move here and I don’t regret it. Slovakia indeed is a country full of interesting things and despite its small size and the fact, that not many people in the world actually care about it, I just can’t be bored in here. And I’d love it to stay that way, because Slovakia, even with its darker bits, is totally worth living in.
Wojciech Suski, 2016