A Warm Welcome to Slovakia
Mara Stieber / December 28, 2018
(3 min read)
(The author of this story is an exchange student from Luxembourg, studying at University College Maastricht. Mara has spent one semester at BISLA, and comments on her experience in Bratislava)
Before I came to Bratislava, Slovakia meant for me a blank spot on the map of Europe, the continent in which a fair deal of my twenty-two years life has been spent. I chose to spend my semester abroad in Slovakia since it was one of the only destinations of which I had no stereotypes at all. However, while the lack of stereotypes may sound positive, it went hand in hand with an almost total ignorance of the culture and the history of the country. Thus, my suitcase filled with warm winter clothes and my mind with anxiousness, excitement and curiosity, when I arrived in Bratislava. Fortunately enough, some BISLA students volunteered to show me around the city and teach me the basic rules of survival.
It was on this very first city visit that I was first introduced to Bratislava as a slightly hostile city. “Don’t go there, that is where people get mugged and a person was murdered last year” was one piece of advice, given to me just around the corner from the street in which I now lived. In the weeks that followed, I heard from some classmates and acquaintances that Slovak people generally do not like foreigners very much, and that xenophobia is a rampant epidemic in the country. At the same time, I also heard often that Bratislava in itself is a bubble, and that it is very different in the rest of the country, that it is much more open-minded than other places.
I slowly developed a much more positive attitude towards the people I encountered here in my daily life, and was grateful for every smile and every kind word spoken to me.
Three weeks into my stay however, I had not yet experienced a moment when I did not feel welcome. There was only one instance, in which I felt some sort of hostility towards me. I had asked somebody for directions, and instead of just pointing me into the right way, the person started shouting “no English, no English!” unmistakably gesticulating for me to go away. At the supermarket, I was also wondering whether the reason the cashier did not say a word to me, or even look at me once, was for the reason that I did not speak Slovak. However, when I noticed that the said cashier was the same with all other customers, whether Slovak or not, I realised that her distanced manners did not have anything to do with me not being from here.
Thus, I started trying to understand people’s distance more as a cultural and social custom, or an individual characteristic, rather than as their dislike towards me as a foreigner. I slowly developed a much more positive attitude towards the people I encountered here in my daily life, and was grateful for every smile and every kind word spoken to me. Especially when it comes to service in cafés and restaurants, most waiters were outstandingly friendly and accomodating.
I am aware of the fact that I am white, and except for my lack of command of the Slovak language, I hardly differ from a Slovak girl on the outside. I do believe that if I had a different skin colour, or if I was wearing a hijab, things might be different. I do not want to downplay the experiences of violence and hatred that other people, externally more “foreign” have to endure in Slovakia. From my own experience, I must say, however, that Bratislava sometimes maybe welcomed me in an indifferent, but never in a hostile manner.
I believe that this is something that the people of Bratislava should be proud of, and see it as a token of their hospitality. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, and therefore the figurehead of the country. Stories like mine show that although there are certainly problems with xenophobia in Slovakia, there is hope, and that it is possible as a foreigner to experience a warm welcome to Bratislava.