Anytime you are traveling to a new country, you are bound to be shocked by something. It may be associated with the landscape, the architecture, or even people’s everyday habits. As a foreigner coming to Slovakia, I have experienced all three.
Before I get into what exactly shocked me about Slovakia, I should back up a little bit and say that I am an American. Before deciding to travel to Slovakia and eventually live here, I had done some traveling in Europe. I naively thought that since I had been to some other European countries, I was ready to spend a lot of time in Slovakia. Little did I know that I was entering into a completely new way of thinking, way of behaving, and way of experiencing life in general. I was initially overwhelmed, but many of these early shocks no longer surprise me. I have actually come to appreciate and enjoy most of them. Let me explain.
Shock number 1: CASTLES
Let’s begin with my favorite shock when I first came to Slovakia. Castles. Hundreds of castles, and mansions, and ruins everywhere in the country. It is difficult to go on a road trip and not see one. I love weaving through the hills and picturing what these castles would have looked like when they were built in the Middle Ages. If you are from a country without castles, you will be blown away. They are truly amazing.
Shock number 2: DIVERSE LANDSCAPE
As I mentioned earlier, I am from the United States. I live in an area that is filled with hills so for me, the area around Bratislava, Trnava, and Nitra look similar to where I am from. What did shock me though, are the vineyards. They are everywhere in this area and are so beautiful to walk through. I was also shocked to realize that if you drive only a few hours towards central Slovakia, you will reach the Tatras. The landscape is completely different there because of the huge mountains and pine trees. It can feel like you are in a totally new place even though you are only a few hours away from where you started.
Shock number 3: SLOVAK TRADITIONS
It is time to start getting into the shocks of Slovak culture. For me, this began with learning Slovak traditions. During Christmastime I learned that Christmas markets take place everywhere, people have a special meal and exchange presents on Christmas Eve, and that Christmas lasts for two days (December 25th and 26th). I really enjoy this time of year in Slovakia because of all the festivities that take place for this holiday. (I would also like to give a huge shout out to my mother-in-law for her amazing food.)
More so than Christmas, Easter traditions were shocking for me. Traditionally on Easter Monday, men and boys threw water on the women and girls to bring them health and beauty. They also whipped them with willow branches. This seemed very unusual to me, but today it is a much more lighthearted event. Many women and girls will be sprayed with perfume and will be gently hit with willow branches. It is seen as something fun and many women and girls actually enjoy it and find it fun to run away and hide together. I am still not entirely sure how I feel about this tradition and will need more time to get used to it.
Shock number 4: SOUP, SOUP, AND MORE SOUP
Soup. Every. Single. Day. Most Slovaks enjoy lunch around noon and will have soup before a large meal. This was originally very strange to me since this will happen even on the hottest days. I am now so used to it that I will sometimes have soup twice a day because I like it so much.
The types of soups that are eaten here were also new to me. Many Slovak soups have a watery milk broth and some type of vegetable in it, such as potatoes, green beans, or mushrooms. I had never had a soup like this before coming here so it took some time to get used to, but now these soups are incredibly normal to me.
Shock number 5: FLOWER POWER
It is impossible to go into a Slovak’s home and not see fresh flowers. Most people LOVE them here. Of course, it is normal in the United States to have fresh flowers inside, but Slovaks really take this concept to a new level. I used to think that buying fresh flowers was a waste of money, but now I often have them because they really brighten my day.
Shock number 6: PRODUCTION GARDENS
In America, many homeowners have beautiful lawns with sprawling green grass. Here, not so much. Instead, it is really common to see houses with production gardens whether it be a few apple trees, some grape vines, or entire gardens filled with onions, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many people in Slovakia enjoy gardening as a pastime. They use all of the food that they grow by cooking it right away, making preserves, or giving it to family and neighbors. This concept is not so common in the United States and I really wish that it was. Food grown in your own garden is a thousand times better than what you can buy in the store. This is a huge positive shock for me.
Shock number 7: CONCRETE HOUSES
If you mention wooden houses to Slovaks, they will think about the traditional Slovak homes. If you ask me about wooden houses, I think about my own home in America. In the area of the United States that I am from, most homes are built with wood or brick, but here the main material that is used is concrete. Concrete is used more often here since it creates better insulation and does not burn as easily. When I first came to Slovakia, every building and house looked the same and it was hard for me to remember where things were since I did not see much of a difference between structures. Over time, I have been able to distinguish places more easily.
Shock number 8: SOCIALIST ARCHITECTURE
If you are coming to Slovakia for the first time, you should be aware that Slovakia is a post-communist country. Even though Slovakia has become increasingly more progressive and many new, innovative buildings have sprung up throughout the country, it is important to acknowledge the fact that there are still buildings, monuments, and artwork from the communist era. Although I had traveled to several other post-communist countries before coming to Slovakia, it was still shocking to see this architecture every day. Since I did not grow up with socialist style architecture, this took time for me to get used to. Some of the buildings from this time period are really interesting to me. Others, were and still are incredibly intimidating. I think it is important to keep perspective by understanding the history of Slovakia, while also seeing the steps the country is making to move forward. This way, you are sure to enjoy your experience here even if some of the architecture is not your favorite.
As a side note, if you like baroque and neo-baroque architecture (like me) Bratislava is filled with buildings in this style. The beautiful detail-work from the Austro-Hungarian Empire is exquisite. I could go on, but this is not an art history article and we have other things to discuss.
If you are interested in seeing socialist architecture in Bratislava, definitely check out our other article on the topic.
Shock number 9: THE SLOVAK LANGUAGE
This shock may seem silly since obviously Slovak is the national language here, but Slovak is not really spoken in the United States so it was surprising to hear it everywhere. Other than English, it was more normal for me to hear Spanish in America and it was initially hard for me to distinguish Slavic languages in general. Now, after learning some Slovak, I can often tell the difference between the Czech and Slovak languages.
Shock number 10: SLOVAKIA FEELS LIKE HOME
After deciding to leave my country and become an expat, immigrant, foreigner, whatever you want to call me, I am shocked to say that Slovakia feels more like home to me than any place I have lived before. Even though some people may find my habits and ideas to be weird, I feel a deep connection to the people I know. I truly feel like people are here for me in ways that I did not even know I needed. Of course there are things that I miss about my own country, but I finally feel like this is my home. Living here has really changed me for the better and I would never have it any other way. I would actually like to end this by saying thank you to my family, friends, coworkers, and everyone involved in Welcome to Bratislava, for helping me along my journey in ways that you may not have even realized were helpful. I have never felt more like myself and am forever grateful for my new perspective on life all because I came to Slovakia.
Author & Photo credits: Kathryn Baurhenn
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