Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drinking Coffee - Slovak Style

This morning my husband and I had some guests over. I offered them coffee but then remembered I only had one kind of coffee – instant. I did have one of those French press pot devices, but I confessed I never use it and basically told my guests if they wanted press-pot coffee instead of instant, they’d have to make it themselves. Luckily for them, they knew how to use the press pot.

I only began drinking coffee when I moved to Europe at age 25. And the only kind of coffee I had in my little Slovak town (in the late 1990s) was turecká káva – Turkish coffee, or instantna káva – instant coffee.

Turecká káva is coffee made from pouring boiling water over loose grounds. You have to wait a few minutes for the grounds to settle down to the bottom of your cup after you have finished stirring. Instant coffee, also called “neska” coming from the brand “Nescafe”, was and still is today, what you will find in most Slovak homes. It’s what I had every single day at my grandmother-in-law’s home after lunch. And I like it!

Actually, I love it. I make a small cup of instant coffee every day after lunch to have with some kind of koláč. I used to feel embarrassed about my love of instant coffee. Goodness, most, if not all my American friends and relatives wouldn’t be caught dead with a container of instant coffee in their kitchen cupboards. Now I know it’s simply a matter of taste.

My Slovak mother-in-law drinks a lot of coffee. She bought a fancy presso maker for her kitchen and uses it every day. She’s a Slovak who doesn’t drink instant, but she’s the only one I know. I’ll drink her presso, but still prefer instant. Crazy, I know.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Along with Language Skills, Attitude is Everything

After only a few days back in Slovakia I’ve realized that I’ve changed.

I went into a shop with the intention of looking for a small wallet—I needed something with a pocket to carry all my euro coins. The store was empty except for the woman behind the register and another woman, also a shop assistant, who was leaning against the counter chatting with her. Since the wallets were under glass in the counter, I would have to ask the woman sitting behind to show me what she had. A few years ago this would have been a scenario that would have turned me into an anxious and uncomfortable person, or even sent me from the shop without having asked for a thing. But instead, I walked up to the counter, stared boldly at the woman behind the counter until she made eye contact with me, and then without any hesitations told her what I was looking for and asked her to show me what she had.

This time I didn’t care that my Slovak grammar was not perfect. I didn’t care that I probably had an accent and that I stuck out as a foreigner. I didn’t care that the other shop assistant was probably staring at me. I just didn’t care. And it felt great.

After I left I reflected that it really was liberating to not feel so bound by guilt of not speaking well or embarrassed by my assuredly many mistakes. But what was different? Why had I had a change in attitude? Part of it was that, with the visits from my in-laws, I have been speaking Slovak in my home for the past six months, almost daily. With all that speaking, I’ve gotten comfortable with making myself understood, no matter the round about way I said something, or the words I chose when explaining myself.

Another part may be that I’m simply getting older and past the age where I care what total strangers think of me. Still, sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m under a microscope. In our small town it’s hard to escape “the village” atmosphere. Somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knew you you, recognized you in town and told someone else that they saw you. Within a very short while the whole town will more or less know when they’ve got visitors. Not that my husband and I are celebrities, it’s just that when something or someone disrupts the flow of normal comings and goings in a small town, people notice and talk about it. This makes me uncomfortable.

I am who I am, and what I am—a foreigner in Slovakia with enough language skills to make my way around. I can even say “enough to comfortably make my way around”, but that’s entirely up to me to choose to make it so. I’ve known this for so long. Why has it taken me so long to put it into practice?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Heading to Slovakia

I’ll be in Slovakia for the next several weeks, visiting the in-laws and as many friends as I can arrange it with. I’m very excited. It’s been more than two years since I was last in Slovakia.

I’ll also be taking the time to update the book and think about future book possibilities, as well as get re-energized for providing information and posts that foreigners to Slovakia might find interesting or useful.

Additionally, I hope this trip will remind me of some of the many things I found interesting and noteworthy as a foreigner in a country so different than my own.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Czech and Slovak - Are they Mutually Intelligible Languages?

Are the Czech and Slovak languages similar enough to be mutually intelligible? Well, I think it depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I’d say, definitely not.

From the time I moved to Slovakia and over the four to five years I lived there, many times Slovaks would insist that Czech is so similar to Slovak, that once you knew one language, you’d have little difficulty understanding the other. Well, I thought, that sure would be cool. I’d learn Slovak and then I’d be able to automatically understand Czech.

Hmm. A year went by and then two, all the while I’d be watching Slovak TV and see a Czech movie or Czech TV show and realize that though I could understand some Slovak, I couldn’t understand a single thing in Czech. Hmmm. More time goes by and still, really nothing. What was all that talk I heard about the languages being similar? Why couldn’t I understand any Czech?

Slovaks grew up being exposed to the Czech language. Children watched Czech language cartoons. TV shows and films in Czech are widely seen. At university students sometimes study from Czech text books. Of course this was really advanced while the two countries were united under Czechoslovakia. In present day the exchange is less so but still exists. With all of that exposure it’s no wonder that Slovaks understand the Czech language almost as native speakers.

After my husband and I moved to California, we lived with a roommate who was from Prague. My Slovak husband and our Czech roommate communicated by each speaking their own language. It was only after living for one year listening to Czech that I finally began to understand something. Now I can hear some similarities but I wouldn’t go so far as to say if you understand one language you will understand the other.

The Slovak language and the Czech language belong to the group of “western-Slavic” languages. Polish is the other member of this group. I’m certain that if Slovaks and Poles would have been exposed to each other’s language as much as Czech and Slovak are, then people would be saying that Polish and Slovak are so similar that if you speak one you certainly can understand the other.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Slovak TV - What to Watch When You Don't Understand a Thing

My father-in-law is staying with us for a few months longer. He understands little to no English and so watching American TV holds little interest. Thankfully, my husband is very computer-savvy and has hooked up the internet to our TV. There he connects to the Slovak TV station Markíza and my father-in-law can watch all the Slovak TV he wants with just a click of a mouse.

But let me back up a little and explain about Slovak TV in general. In addition to the cable subscription that of course allows access to more than a hundred stations in several different languages, there are three broadcast television stations available through terrestrial broadcasting:
In my opinion, Markíza seems to be the most popular channel. Many people watch the evening news at 7pm on Markíza and watched Superstar – The equivalent to American Idol, when it was on.

I watch the Slovak evening news almost every day and understand so little (sometimes nothing). It got me thinking as to what shows I think are good when you don’t understand much but want to be either entertained, and/or practice your Slovak skills. Here’s my list (in no particular order):
  • Modré z neba (Markíza) A person writes in to Markiza, asking them to make a wish come true for a deserving person they know. Make sure to have a handkerchief handy, this show likes to make people cry, guests and viewers.
  • Bez servítky (Markíza) Five people who, over the course of five days, each host the other four for dinner. Each meal is rated and whoever has the highest score at the end wins a cash prize.
  • Česko Slovenská SuperStar (Markíza) The equivalent of American Idol, this season’s reality singing-contest show finished in January. Due to the overwhelming popularity, however, it will certainly be back. This last season was different in that Czech Superstar and Slovak Superstar shows combined to create Česko Slovenská SuperStar with castings in Prague, Brno, Bratislava and Košice. Moderators and judges were both Czechs and Slovaks. I really liked seeing this collaboration. Not only did it widen the talent pool, it was a great opportunity for cross-cultural exchanges between Czechs and Slovaks.
  • Pošta pre teba (STV) A person wishes to publicly express something to another person and who has just found the courage to do so. The show brings people together, such as a sibling who haven’t seen the other in decades, a person renewing an old friendship, or someone simply thanking another for profoundly changing their life.
There are plenty of game shows on TV but I haven’t found one that I’d particularly recommend. There are also plenty of American TV shows that are dubbed into Slovak. If you are familiar with the shows, it might be interesting to watch them in another language.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Conversion Equivalents and Using Numbers in Slovakia

Those of you who have traveled and shopped in other parts of the world where the systems of measurements and units are different know that you sometimes have a double challenge: asking for what you want in the local language and knowing how much to ask for. Converting the different kinds of measurements can take some getting used to, but obviously this gets easier with time and practice. Slovakia utilizes the metric system, the same as other European countries.

Here are a couple of things I learned about using numbers in Slovakia that are different from what I was previously used to at home in the US:
  • The system for writing the date is day, month, and year. In Slovak, a date can be written as 26. máj 2010 or 26. 5. 2010; and occasionally you might see a date written with a Roman numeral for the month: 26. V. 2010.
  • Large numbers require a space between the thousands, for example 14 326 664; or a period rather than a comma to separate the thousands, for example, 14.326.664. The comma is used instead of the period to mark a decimal, for example, 19,50%.
  • Slovakia utilizes Daylight Savings Time along with the rest of Europe. The “summer-time period” of Daylight Savings Time in the EU begins on the last Sunday in March and ends on the last Sunday in October. Slovakia is located in the CET (Central European Time) 1 time zone. It is one hour ahead (+1) of London, +6 of New York, +9 of Los Angeles, –2 of Moscow, and –10 of Sydney. The twenty-four hour clock or “military-time” is used quite often, both in spoken communication as well as written.
  • The standard electric current is 230 volts/ 50 Hz. If you are planning to bring a laptop computer that functions on a lower voltage, it shouldn’t be a problem to use in Slovakia. Most modern laptops can automatically sense a change in voltage and adapt. You only need a plug adapter that attaches to the prongs to plug into the socket particular to Continental Europe. Check your laptop AC adapter for the information on input. If it reads input: 100-240V, then you’re fine. Check your nearest retail department store or the Internet for a set of plug adapters. For any other electrical appliances or devices that need an adapter to work outside of your country, the best advice is not to bring them at all. It’s simply too much bother to deal with power converters and to find additional plug adapters.
Depending on your knowledge and experience, the measurements you may or may not have to practice converting are the following:

  • Temperature: Fahrenheit to Celsius
  • Linear measurements: inches, feet, and miles to centimeters, meters, and kilometers
  • Weight: pounds to kilograms
Because I’m somebody who always likes to be prepared (and because I’m something of a nut when it comes to printing out small pieces of paper with information on it), I’ve created tables and charts for converting basic measurements like temperature, weights and measurements and stuck it in the back of my book, "The Foreigner's Guide to Living in Slovakia". I can’t tell you how often I’ve referred to these tables over the years. Even today I have the temperature conversions table up on my refrigerator. This is mostly because of my in-laws who are always asking us what the temperature is and comparing it to where they are.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Culture Shock and the Expat in Slovakia

So here’s a scenario I hear about often (and have experienced myself):

You are moving to Slovakia or some other country that is new for you. You are so excited about the move and are distracted about all the details of settling in, such as finding a place to live and getting all your stuff packed and moved, finding a decent job that’s going to pay the bills with some left over to travel a bit, getting acquainted with some of the locals and getting exposure to the culture and cuisine, becoming familiar with your new neighborhood, traffic and comfortable with the public transportation system, experimenting with foods and becoming familiar with products in your local grocery store, and adjusting to a new currency.

And then all of a sudden it hits—A feeling of depression, or self doubt that you’ve done the right thing in making the big change. Or possibly a sadness because you miss your family, your home, or “your people” back in your home country. You get home-sick, sometimes bad enough that it makes you consider cutting and running.

What do you do? Try to ignore it? Wait for these feelings to go away? What is culture shock, anyway? Can anything be done to help minimize the negative feelings associated with it?

Everyone experiences culture shock at some level. I received an email from a woman who was originally from Slovakia but had lived in the US for more than 10 years and had just recently moved back to Slovakia with her American husband. She wrote to me asking if I knew of any groups where she and her husband could meet other expats. She said her mindset had changed over the last several years away from typical Slovak life and that a lot of thing were driving her crazy back in Slovakia. For her and her husband, finding other Americans would help in their transition to Slovak life.

Expat groups can help you get in touch with others from your own country, or those who are English speakers anyway. In Bratislava there is a group called Bratislava Expats. This group started up right after I moved back to California so I never got to go to any of their events so I don’t have personal experience with them. I am familiar with their forum, however. They usually meet at the cafe Next Apache located somewhere not so far from the Presidential Palace. Contact them and see if anything is going on in the near future.

Another good website for Americans is for the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia. They have events that are really great. Of course they have really nice parties or picnics for major US holidays like the 4th of July (in the past they’ve hosted a great outdoor event at Bratislava Castle) but they also host very interesting talks about the growth of the City of Bratislava or how Slovakia is adjusting to the euro, etc. Most of the time these events are open to the public.

And there is an American football league in Bratislava. I wrote a blog post about it. There’s also a great American football league in Vienna.

There are also good websites that provide forums for expats or other specific country information such as a list of popular blogs by expats in various countries. Expat Women for example, has links for over 1,000 expat women blogs on their site. Expat Women is a website that helps women living overseas. They’ve got readers’ stories, country resource pages, their own inspirational blog, and loads of motivational articles.

Expat-blog is dedicated to expatriates who want to share their living-abroad experience and to those who want to live, study or work in a foreign country, or just discover how life is on the other side of the planet. They’ve got forums, living abroad guides, and an “expat network” to help you make new contacts in your destination country. Sometimes surfing through pages on Slovakia provides more information than you ever realized existed.

But what else can you do proactively to deal with culture shock?

For me it was important to understand that culture shock in itself shouldn’t be considered as an entirely negative experience. Feeling symptoms of culture shock means that you are sensitive to differences from your own culture and have the capacity to gain deeper self knowledge as well as to be enriched by another culture. This sensitivity provides an important opportunity for learning; it’s something like growing pains.

Additionally, after living abroad for 5 years, I came up with a list of tips that help me deal with it. Here they are:
1) Keep active. This is particularly good advice if you are feeling symptoms of culture shock such as depression, extreme homesickness, or wanting to withdraw from people (culture) that are different from you. Join a fitness club, go sightseeing, or take a language class.
2) When you need a break from culture overload, take some time out for yourself: make yourself your favorite foods from home, watch a favorite movie or T.V. show.
3) Try to make friends with locals. It’s to your advantage to go out of your way to break through that barrier and work on making friends. For some, this is often easier said that done, but friendships are important in helping you get over culture shock and to learn about Slovak life. In addition to that, friends lead you to meeting new friends, which is a good thing.
4) Keep an open mind and try not to fixate on how things are done back home in comparison to your adopted home. As I have heard it so eloquently stated, “You’re not in Kansas so don’t act like it!” Not only does complaining not solve anything, it makes you a bitter and unpleasant person to be around and makes locals defensive and antagonistic.
5) Remember that part of your education is to learn to decipher foreign customs and try not to let the differences annoy you. Some people can adapt easier to new surroundings than others but everyone can get frustrated or feel out of place from time to time, particularly when upsetting things happen. When you aren’t familiar with the customs it’s easy to get frustrated at another’s seeming lack of respect. For example, I’ve had this reaction before: “I don’t understand it. I refused an offer for a drink and still he keeps asking me to have one. Didn’t they hear me the first time? These people are so pushy!” Later I learned that if you are at someone’s home, it’s customary for a host to offer you a drink of an alcohol, and your host will not feel like he or she has done their job until you accept at least one drink.
Finally, travel and living abroad are extraordinary opportunities for growth, self knowledge, and life-long experience. Some people think that you need to be adventurous or willing to take risks to travel or live abroad. This was never my philosophy; you just need to have a little determination, do some planning, and be flexible. In return, the value gained from traveling and living abroad is impossible to measure. Not only do you gain insight and appreciation for other cultures, but time away from your own country often makes you aware of who you are and the significance of where you come from.