200094_10150143869282733_4594297_n.jpgManuel is a salsa dancer/fitness guru/private English teacher/owner of his own consulting firm/father of two here in Slovakia. He’s from Chile, but his English is immaculate since he spent a good deal of his life in the US though for the past couple of years he’s been living and working in Slovakia. His Slovak is fluent and his knowledge of Slovakia, the culture and the economy, is impressive.

We meet him in the bar of a trendy hostel in the center of Bratislava. His Latino blood is up, because the waitress is a ‘hardbody’ that could  easily get a gig on the set of a James Bond movie. The place is packed with tourists and it’s very noisy. It’s been raining and outside the temperature has cooled down, but inside it’s extra steamy, a sultry summer evening.

In so far as some pretty Dutch girls at another table do not distract him too much, he’s worried about the economy. Every week a new bus full of Spanish people is arriving. Over the past 5 years he’s witnessed a lot of changes in this relatively unknown middle European country. He arrived here right after the fall of communism, when everything was dirt cheap, foreigners were a rarity, a time when gringos could make good money and live well, certainly compared to the locals. He remembers a time when he would always pay for the drinks of his students, because everything was so cheap. You could get half a liter of beer for as little as ten cents. Things are changing fast though. Prices have risen significantly, and foreigners are now flocking to this country. There are now lots of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Greek people in Slovakia who can’t find a job in their native country.

2950340_origManuel tells us about a Spanish girl who applied for a teaching job in a small Spanish village. She found out that there were 23,000 other applicants. These are stories you would expect to find in an article about the Great Depression or in a book on the Weimar Republic. Who would have thought? Slovakia becoming a haven for economic refugees from countries that used to be quite wealthy.

image4The country isn’t exactly rich, but it’s a lot better off than Spain and Greece. There are also quite a bit of Bulgarians and Romanians here, even the Dutch community is growing. Wages are low, but life around here is still less of a rat race than it is in the west. There are still a lot of opportunities for foreigners who know a lot of languages and have the gift of the gap, meaning: who know how to sell themselves. Slovaks are catching up however. Their language skills are still an issue (see the funny picture of Samko on THE board. Which board? What did his parents do to the poor guy? Did they tie him to a skate board, a snow board or a surf board?) Many of them go and study or work in the west, and when they come back they have the necessary language skills to work for a big international company, the kind of companies that have perched on the fertile soil that is Bratislava. IBM, Accenture, Johnson Controls, even Amazon.

image1This country is changing, it’s no longer the perfect hide-out for enterprising foreigners, competition is getting tougher, Slovaks are showing initiative and starting companies of their own. Manuel is doing pretty well for himself, but he needs a hands on mentality to stay ahead of the competition. One thing that hasn’t changed though: Slovak women are still stunning. There’s a knock-out girl pretty much everywhere you look. And Slovaks know how to party.

Manuel gives us a strong Latino hug and he heads home. During the weekend he’s throwing a party at his place in the center of Bratislava. An unofficial embassy of Latino spirit right smack dab in the middle of the Capital.

image3We walk away with the feeling that Slovakia, despite of the recent influx of bus loads of foreigners, is still a region made up of uncharted lands, where anything is still possible, filled with a nation that has clung to its catholic faith and has preserved a certain upbeat aliveness that we seem to have lost in Belgium, the land of hedonistic apathy on the streets and an artificial and bloated political correctness in the media. The cleanliness of Flanders and countries such as Austria might even point to a certain sterility of the soul. There’s no such sterility to be found in Slovakia, where the streets are pockmarked with holes, bumbs and craters, where you bump into lots of garbage such as abandoned couches and where you are advised to use train toilets only with your eyes closed and your nose stuffed with dried rose petals, where riding the rickety city bus will cost you a broken rib.

image2And well, feminists still have an uphill battle to fight around here. The advertisement in the picture reads: do they only look you in the eyes? Sexy breasts for 2450 euro. It’s a country full of paradoxes, because nowhere will you meet women who have more natural self-confidence than Slovak women.

How people survive here on salaries of 600 euro is a complete mystery, but they do. Look at the shiny car in the picture. Everybody around here seems to be driving brand new cars.

There’s a certain enigmatic rawness to this country that has foreigners like Manuel spell-bound.