Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Slovakia 2001-2006 and counting

What is it about Slovakia?

If I am to be honest when I ask myself why I came to Slovakia my mind goes blank. Of course I know why I left the UK but that is another tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, etc. But why Slovakia?

As a newly qualified teacher of English, of all the places in the world I could have chosen, why on earth did I choose Slovakia? Such is a question I’ve often been asked by Slovak students struggling to understand why someone chose to leave the 4th largest economy in the world for the sake of one of the weakest in Europe. To put it bluntly, it was because I was offered a choice by the language school where I qualified to either come here or go to China. And China, despite my adventurous nature, seemed a little too far a field for a first posting. So I came here.

Retrospectively, seeking more justification, I told myself it was because I’d always been interested in the effect of communism on human society and wanted to experience first hand its effects on a nation struggling to wake up from its nightmare. But always I knew this was not the reason, for no such thoughts had occurred to me. And despite my appreciation of the beer, and my love of the gorgeous women, they weren’t the reasons either. Indeed, due to my own, or is it Britain’s, ignorance of mitteleuropa, before I came here I was entirely unaware of these much touted emblems of Slovak glory.

And yet what interests me now, and what troubles me, are those self-deprecating questions of students, mainly young talented students, who simply failed to understand why a native born Briton should choose to leave a country that so many Slovaks are eager to escape to. While the queues of the hardy and determined waiting patiently in line for their visas outside The British Embassy have vanished, what has not is the desire, among too many Slovaks I believe, to uproot and seek a new life westwards, where it is believed the streets are paved with gold and all things are possible, and happiness and fulfilment rain liberally on all.

Surely I am not the first expat to experience the frustration of coming face to face with Slovak lack of self-confidence, about the achievements of their country and their general global status. It is expressed through a domestic and international political cynicism bordering on total disengagement and an almost dogmatic blindness to the possible ills and dangers of unbridled western influence, be it cultural or economic. Yes, it may prove in the short term interests of this country to spend a few years being the obedient servant of Washington. Yes, inward investment, spurred by low taxation and cheap labour, are doing the Slovaks a favour by raising their profile in the world. But why judge your own value by the interest shown in you by others? Nations, like individuals, should feel good about themselves for their own reasons and not because others are attracted to the opportunities you offer them.

To me, the reasons for this national lack of patriotic self-belief are fourfold, and embedded in history. Firstly there is the 900 year legacy of political invisibility inside the Hungarian and later Austro-Hungarian Kingdoms. Secondly, the influence of a Roman Catholicism emphasising collectivist values over individualist entrepreneurial ones, and content to uphold the Habsburg-Hungarian supremacy. Thirdly, the curiously delayed and late stage of Slovak industrialisation and urbanisation compared to that of neighbouring states. And finally, of course, the 40 year oppression under a Soviet controlled, Prague centred communism which, however, failed to generate a level of self-bolstering dissent and defiance commensurate to that found in the Czech lands.

Not much of course can be done about the past. What has been suffered cannot be undone. But what can be done is to move on and stop locating in oneself the cause of history’s disservice. I am not advocating that blame should be directed elsewhere. Scapegoats are not required to cleanse oneself of guilt. Blaming the Church, the Hungarians, the Russians, the Germans, the Czechs would be to merely posture at ghosts of the past for no purpose other than to cover over ones own unreconciled feelings of self-blame. Even if it was these elements’ fault in the past, so what? The past, as it is said, is history and was a grubby time for everyone. Importantly, these things are not oppressing Slovakia now, and yet sometimes it feels as if they are still, because in imagination Slovaks allow it to be so, by allowing the memory of the past to inappropriately live on in these profoundly altered and dynamically evolving times.

Unlike when I think of why I first came here, when I think of what Slovaks could and should take pride in my mind does not go blank. Although I have to admit that my mind does not fill either with that type of imagery normally associated with national prowess- thank God. I mean military imagery. That Slovakia, unlike Hungary, has not had an empire, that Slovakia, unlike the Czech lands, cannot boast a Holy Roman Emperor, that Slovakia, unlike Poland, has not at one time stretched from the Baltic to the Black seas are all reasons I would suspect that, in the national subconscious, if not conscious, mind may add fuel to the fire of Slovak self-depreciation. But why should it? Especially in a world which one hopes means what it says when it says that it has put the glory of war and conquest behind and beneath it. If anything, the relative cleanliness of the hands of Slovakia from the bloodbath of history should be something to draw a deep sense of self-respect from, if not something to take positive pride in..

When I think of the greatness of Slovakia my mind settles on the feeling that I live in a deeply peaceful, kindly, safe, civilized and gentle nation, one with a rich and various folk culture, a deep love of family and friends, an unhurried and uncluttered style of life, where I can walk drunk through one of the largest housing estates in Europe, Petrazalka, and feel entirely safe, where children instinctively give up their seats for the elderly on public transport and where, unlike in Britain, they do not think its cool to undermine and torment their teachers. I have heard it said that Slovaks are lazy and drink too much. Maybe it is because I am lazy and do drink too much, and so am not a good judge, but little in my experience bears this out. What Slovaks are is quite simple-they are too passive, not forthright, not engaged, not confident enough. Exactly the opposite from the English, who suffer, though decreasingly, from a superiority complex, Slovaks suffer from a disabling inferiority complex which, too much of the time, they seem only indifferently interested in combating. Put simply, as a nation they do not love themselves enough, and not nearly as much as they deserve to.

It is not of course that Slovaks do not take pride in their country. But my hope, whether I leave as I may in the near future, or whether I live here for the rest of my life, is that they learn, and quickly, to take pride in themselves for more than their awesome natural landscape, their prowess on the ice rink, the glamour and comeliness of their ladies and the quality of their beer. May they please take pride in themselves for being Slovaks. And may their best and their brightest please stay (and return) and build up their country and develop their potential and grow shamelessly to look the rest of the world squarely in the eye, with trace of neither irony, jealousy nor bitterness.


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