22 Joys (And Struggles) Of Life As A Foreigner In Slovakia
1) The Slovak word for "yes" is "áno" (pronounced ah-no), creating some confusion for English speakers. "Can I use your toilet?" …. "Ah, no." (Panicked, bathroom-emergency-stricken tourist runs in the opposite direction in search of the nearest Plan B while the hostess stands there confused.)
2) Another way of saying "yea" in Slovak is "hej" (pronounced hey), creating the double illusion for English speakers that locals on the street are saying hello ("Hey!") all the time and that foreigners have uncontrollable whiplash, looking around to see which of their friends has spotted them.
3) Online banking sites are stuck in the 1980s. What do you mean I have to fill out a personal note to the person or company I'm transferring money to? Why do you need my landlord's mother's maiden name and her mother's maiden name to send him money? (OK, that last one was an exaggeration, but you get the point. It's complicated.)
4) The customer service (or sometimes, lackthereof). Your meal can sometimes come complete with a plate toss and a loud, over-exaggerated grunt of utter annoyance in your direction. (It's starting to improve, especially with the younger generation, but the customer service in general needs work.)
5) The no-smiling thing. To those better acquainted with more Western cultures where all it seems to take is finding a pair of matching socks in the morning to turn one into a giddy smiling machine the rest of the day, it might seem like people here are walking around in utter misery. They're not. They just need an actual reason to smile, and they don't just give one away to a random stranger - making their smiles refreshingly genuine.
6) The number of (tasty) meals that can be made using potatoes. Bryndzové halušky. Bryndzové pirohy. Lokše. Parené buchty. Zemiakové placky. Strapačky. Yum, yum.
7) Slovak cuisine's love of sauerkraut and garlic. It's even part of Christmas Eve tradition for some to eat a clove of garlic to ensure health in the upcoming year. Bottom line: Keep an extra toothbrush (or gum) on you just in case.
8) The now infamous (thanks to social media) Easter Monday tradition involving young boys dumping cold buckets of water on girls in their town and then hitting them with a wooden stick (known as a "korbáč" in Slovak). The tradition is not meant to be painful and it is actually a quite humorous memory that girls love to hate. Plus, it is said to give women health and beauty in the upcoming year (that might explain why Slovak women are so beautiful). To foreigners unfamiliar with the tradition though, it may come off a bit disturbing.
9) The cheap (and strong) drinks. In some places, you can get a pint or a shot for as little as 50 cents, which can make for a fun (and interesting) Friday night. The most popular Slovak beers include Zlatý Bažant, Topvar and Kelt, which can contain up to 5% alcohol. Czech beers, like Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen, are also widely popular in Slovakia, but you'll get more admiration from locals if you opt for the Slovak stuff. The Slovaks also love (or some rather love to hate) their spirits, with perhaps the best known of them being Slivovice (a plum brandy) and Borovička (a spirit flavored with juniper berries) - both of which will knock any rookie foreigner on his butt.
10) Slovak women's seemingly effortless talent of walking in four-inch heels on cobblestone. Seriously though, it must be required in the secondary school curriculum. How do they do it so flawlessly?
11) Everyone's an English teacher but (almost) no one has teaching qualifications. Are you a native English speaker looking for a job? Look no further. You possess all the qualifications to teach English (almost) anywhere in Slovakia.
12) The look of shock on a Slovak's face when you (a foreigner) tell them that no, you're not a tourist, but you actually live in their country. Really though guys, the shock is getting a bit tiresome. Slovakia is a lovely country with much untapped potential to offer, and things are just getting started (especially in tourism and in the startup community).
13) The ability to travel to nearby places (and no, I'm not just talking about Vienna, Prague or Budapest) for shockingly cheap. OK, yes, you can get to those better-known cities easily from Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia), but why visit those tourist-mobbed places when Slovakia has so many other unique (not to mention cheaper) places to visit? There are many, but they include Slovenský raj (or in English "Slovak paradise" - called paradise because it is one, especially for hikers), the small town of Bojnice (complete with one of the most picturesque castles in the world and the oldest zoo in the country, along with spas), Banská Bystrica (home to the biggest club in the country called Ministry of Fun - because it is!), and Banská Štiavnica, a UNESCO heritage site perfect for a romantic weekend getaway. If you like wine tasting, visit Pezinok, just 18 kilometers and a cheap train ride away from Bratislava. In the wintertime, many of these places have nice skiing resorts that are of equal quality as the pricier ones in places like Austria and Switzerland.
14) The impressive way Slovaks take full advantage of their weekends. You'll almost never hear a Slovak say they're planning to sit on the couch and binge watch serials or movies all weekend. Most likely, they'll be cycling or hiking, and many will be working in their gardens, if weather permits. If it's cold, they'll be skiing.
15) The joy that is Horalky. Seriously, if you come to Slovakia and don't try this delicious blend of chocolate and peanut butter, you're missing out.
16) The house (or office) slippers deal (and the good-natured Slovak hospitality). If you're visiting a Slovak household, the hosts will likely give you a pair of slippers to wear while in the house. Don't hesitate - just take them (they're comfy). You'll also likely be given many types of delicious foods and homemade Slovak spirits (just say yes - it's part of the experience). Even in Slovak schools and offices, students and employees will take off their outside shoes upon entering the building and put on a pair of either slippers, flipflops or (cringe) Crocs while inside.
17) The paranoia about wearing a scarf in wintertime. During wintertime, it's like everyone is your concerned grandma. If you're caught not wearing a scarf, you will get called out. "Where's your scarf? You're going to catch a cold!" your colleague will exclaim in horror when you walk in the office with just a coat.
18) The unlimited amounts of quaint cafés. If you visit Slovakia (especially Bratislava), you're likely to spot many different welcoming cafes (many also functioning as bookstores) sprinkled throughout the city. It's a favorite pastime of Slovaks to enjoy a coffee, tea or a cocktail in a cafe on a Saturday or Sunday with friends and for good reason - they have many good places from which to choose. Favorites in Bratislava include Shtoor Cafe, Foxford (a new and innovative cafe with kitchen utensils operating as decorations), Gorilla Urban Space, and Môj Bar.
19) The number of late-night bars and clubs that are open seemingly 24/7. This isn't always a good thing (especially for your wallet), but many pubs and clubs stay open way later than in most areas of the world, and sometimes this can make for a night that ends, well, in the morning (when grannies are making their way to Sunday mass).
20) The foreign police. Enough said.
21) The family-like nature of the expat community. Living far away from home and family is tough at times, so it's a good thing that most expat communities in Slovakia operate like families. Whether you're looking for a new job, need help moving, looking to kick around a ball or two, or just need a friend to have a beer with, someone in the expat community is almost always willing to help.
22) The highly addictive nature of Kofola, Slovakia's answer to a mix between Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper. At first you're unsure of whether you like it, but before long, you're buying 1, then 2, 3, 4.....10 liters of it per week! It's a slippery slope.
Katie Perkowski has been living in Bratislava, Slovakia, for two years where she has developed a passionate love of bryndzové halušky and Slovak pivo (beer). First, she was - you guessed it - teaching English, and now she is a freelance journalist also working on a project called Loveliest Loo, a bathroom rating site with a larger purpose. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KatiePerk.