So am Belgian, and am in Slovakia. Both countries are in Europe. You would think there are not that many differences, aside from the language and the food, but there are plenty of subtle differences. By the way, a good Belgian friend has just completed a journey that took him all over the world. Without me asking he said: ‘Slovakia was the hardest place to meet new people and have contact with the locals.’
I am not surprised!
1. People bump into you, because you have a different idea of personal space
In Belgium people leave you more space. This is changing with the influx of foreigners, especially from African countries, but Belgians have a lot of personal space. A no go zone around a person’s body that every other member of the culture respects. In Slovakia this space is smaller. So when I go shopping people bump into me. I get very uncomfortable in places with lots of people because of this.
I also find it hard to walk in and out of public spaces, because for some reason I find it harder to guess which way a person is going, so again I risk bumping into people. This is also because people don’t make eye contact around here, see point 4.
2. The actual distance may be closer, but the verbal interaction distance is way bigger
It’s very hard to talk to people around here. It’s usually one way traffic. You ask questions, they may answer, they don’t ask many questions back, except as to why someone from the west would possibly want to be in Slovakia. They are simply not creative in a dialogue. They don’t add much to a free flowing conversation. Has communism stamped this out or is this a sign of an agricultural society that’s only recently been industrialized? They never fail to ask why I am here. And they make it sound like an accusation. Like, you must be making the biggest mistake of your life OR you are somehow making a lot of money in some nasty way. To be honest: only the underperformers from the west come and work in Slovakia. Here they can build some career. In their home country they are nobody, but over here they can be mister big shot, because they are from the west. International companies even send their employees over here as a form of punishment! (I have this from a very good source, a Slovak guy high up in the pecking order at an international firm). So it’s kinda normal that people are suspicious.
They also ask if you have a girlfriend and what you do for a living. That’s it. Most will never even ask your name. If I didn’t enjoy being in this country because of Zuzana and her family, because of some odd antropological interest, some encounters with women who are my type, a type that doesn’t exist in Belgium, and quite possibly some masochism and general lack of self-esteem I would leave this country immediately. The country for me is the United States, a city like San Francisco for example, or even a city in the south, some place in Virginia. I’d rather risk being killed in a mass shooting than be surrounded by people who apart from expressing formalities are mute.
3. Modesty. Belgians are spoilt, full of themselves and feel incredibly entitled to get all the goodies in the world, but Slovaks are taciturn, hard, distant, modest and very hard-working.
Everybody is always working around here. If they are not at their regular job, they are doing some translation or helping out in a bar or redecorating somewhere. It’s very hard to meet someone here and play a boardgame for example. They don’t do that. They work. They eat. They drink beer. And maybe they watch movies, but with Slovak or Czech dubbing, so that foreign influence is kept to a strict minimum.
Especially young Belgian adults have this air about themselves as though nothing could possibly go wrong, as though the world is at their feet. This is because their mummies and daddies did absolutely anything for them. Belgians are some of the most pampered people in the world. I have become allergic to Belgians between 16 and 40. So damn spoilt, not a fucking care in the world, they all seem to have some easy well paid job and they all constantly travel, but without actually learning something about foreign cultures.
This entitlement trend is coming to Slovakia as well, but so far most people are still very careful, not smug and they realize they are not the biggest thing since Napoleon.
After having lived in Slovakia I would never go back to Belgium. The overall pamperedness would get on my nerves all the time. Whenever I fly back to Belgium I avoid young Belgian fellow travellers like the plague. It’s like they don’t know anything at all about life and live in some sort of magically rosy bubble.
4. Slovak people do not make eye contact. And that’s bloody annoying.
When I walk around on the streets of, say, Gent, Belgium, everybody makes eye contact. It makes you feel like you exist, like somebody finds you worthy enough to recognize you are a human being, that you are somehow part of the same species. It’s comforting.
Not so in Slovakia. People look away. Especially the women bury their head in the ground. It makes me feel like some criminal, like some very real threat, when I pass them. Really not pleasant. And of course, it makes meeting new people all that harder. It’s the same everywhere you go. The only way to get to know new people in Slovakia is to get drunk. Don’t expect anyone to loosen up without alcohol.
5. You can offend people in a myriad of ways… it’s very stressful and I often feel offended myself, because my intentions always seem to be interpreted as evil
Slovakia is an extremely formal country. It shows in the language. You have vykanie and tykanie. You use vykanie if you want to keep the relationship as formal as possible. I personally fucking hate it. I do it, but it’s like throwing up thick glass walls between you and the person you’re talking to. Even more distance… it’s already hard to get to know someone intimately, but over here they make it extra hard. If you switch to tykanie at the wrong time in the wrong place you are definitely going to offend people. That’s just one example.
If you invite a woman over to your place, you will be understood as having said: ‘hey, I want to rape you’. Weird! Women around here will do anything to not be alone with you. So if a woman DOES want to be alone with you, it’s for sex. You are not completely alone with a member of the opposite sex in a space with a bed nearby for anything else than sex. Weird country!
It’s much easier to be friends with Belgian women. You can have fun, they have a great sense of humor and they are interested in many different topics. Since sex is easily discussed, it’s very easy to determine if it’s just friendship or something more. Easy. Ok, they don’t spend hours working on their looks and that shows, but boy, Slovak women are nice to look at, but if you want to have fun, go for the Belgian woman. You won’t feel like you’ve been hired to entertain her. There will actually be some interaction.
Other ways to offend is to expect something in a shop. If you casually ask a clerk if some item is in stock, and they don’t have it, it’s like your fault that it’s not there. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism, maybe they assume you’ll complain, so they do a preventive strike and snap.
People around here feel really easily pressured. So if you ask a simple question they get very defensive and touchy.
An other odd thing, is that Slovak women are constantly complimenting each other. So, don’t think they are all lesbians, it’s just something they do. I don’t even know if they mean the compliments. It’s usually about clothing. They don’t compliment men, and men don’t compliment other men either, except jokingly. So if you’re a guy around here, you’d better not be dependent on compliments to prop up your ego. As a foreigner you do get compliments for knowing Slovak, but that’s it. Older women might call you a handsome guy, but that’s just to be polite, they don’t mean it, it’s just a reflex.
All in all, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to move to Slovakia, unless you have a fascination for Slavic languages and want to live in a culture that seems the same as in the west, but really isn’t.
I’m quite a sociable guy and I can safely say that I do not have even one real Slovak friend. There are some that I get along with very easily, and talk to fairly often, but real, actual friends?
I don’t like beer all that much and I don’t go mountain climbing.
If I do have Slovak friends they are women -I know, men and women can almost never be friends-, with an uncharacteristic level of openness. Quite rare. Slovak women are definitely not as driven and opinionated as Dutch women, and they are certainly not as entertaining and easy-going as Belgian women. The exceptions you do meet are of course breathtaking on all levels.
I teach at many different international companies (before you get annoyed: I don’t make a lot of money, you don’t have to assume I’m bragging, your blood pressure can go down again, am not special, don’t worry) and I meet quite a few women from other cultures now, and this distance and general unapproachbleness seems to be very specifically Slovak. Romanian, Kazach, Moldavian, Bulgarian, Portugese… All so much more open. But ok, these are also expats, and perhaps expats are just more open to new experiences in general.