Anyone for a cheap lager or being sold off to a wealthy businessman with a penchant for gruesome murders? Didn’t think so… Somehow Bratislava has been framed by movies that do it no justice. In fact, did you know Hostel is entirely filmed in Český Krumlov, a town near Prague? If your opinion of Bratislava is all stag dos and dodgy hostels it might be disappointing!
It’s been thirty years since Slovakia was under a totalitarian regime, but outsiders still regard this country as under-developed, poverty-stricken and positively falling apart. I’m not sure I had an opinion, negative or otherwise as I boarded a train to my new home in its capital of Bratislava. I made the move with Henry without ever setting foot in the country, just one job interview and a recommendation by a friend who lived locally. In ten days, we registered to work in the country, found a new apartment and started working as English teachers – an elusive nomadic tribe found all around the world.
In our first week there we had the experience of waiting at the foreign police to be registered. The sitting room was apparently less grim than the building it used to reside, but waiting from early morning to afternoon in one room crammed with other foreigners trying to do the same was quite the introduction to Slovak bureaucracy. We were told to bring a couple hundred euros to show we had money to stay and sign a form to say we wouldn’t take money from the state. Nobody spoke English and suddenly I got a taste of being the outsider.
When it comes to my British sensibilities my first moment of ‘oh, it’s really just like home’ was seeing a Tesco supermarket. I could buy Marmite and proper teabags instead of needing two teabags per cup of weak so-called English breakfast tea (a common occurrence on the Continent). New Slovak friends we made through work proudly compared their drinking habits to that of a Brit, they could drink even us Scots under the table! These little reminders of home and new friends took the sting out of feeling completely out of my depth. I quickly found with a few phrases to get started I met lots of English speakers, as it is often the common language between people from various countries. I also got the feeling the bars were used to English stag parties slurring orders at them.
Like any capital city in Europe, Bratislava has gorgeous architecture in its old town, remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, castles and a mountain range that encompasses the city which has grown around the banks of the Danube River. Contrast this with Soviet-era imposing structures like the UFO bridge which albeit a symbol of new Bratislava is still a sore reminder for the Jewish population, whose community was flattened to make way for a highway and bridge.
Still, you hear horror stories of how unfriendly, how very un-European and even how dull it is to visit or live here. Humbly, the city has a warmth neighbouring cities like Vienna lack, it’s like one big hug being here. It’s fascinating and holds an extraordinary place in history as a fighter from empires, to war and under regimes its risen to become a European business hub, with a forward-thinking young population. Hipster coffee shops? Got ‘em. Craft beer? Brew ‘em. Crypto-currency cash machines? I’ve not even seen that voodoo in the UK!
The longer I stayed the more I craved to get to the nitty gritty of what was modern day Slovakia in relation to its tumultuous past. I started to help my friend with her language exchange and met more locals who wanted to have conversation for free and the number one question aside from ‘what do think about Brexit?’ (shoot me now), was ‘why do you choose to live in Slovakia?’ with a tone of disbelief that anyone might choose to move here. My reasons were always, at first, I had zero preconceptions because I knew so little about it and since coming to Slovakia, I love the lifestyle – it’s cheap, it’s very green and everyone seems so fit and healthy! I can’t fit into any jeans in the shops. Not even high street chains we get back home and I’m average for a woman in Scotland. So yeah maybe I’m fat here, but I love it.
No explanation ever felt enough though. The locals still see the inner workings of the country. A government caught up in corruption scandals, then again, I’ve witnessed mass protests and the election of a woman president poised to fight corruption. The city is thriving compared to what it had been pre-Euro with flashy shopping malls and infrastructure work. My friend described it beautifully. When she was a kid she would walk into a shop and there was one brand of bubble gum. Now she can walk into a glistening supermarket and see what other European countries were accustomed to – rows of sugar filled crap, but at least there’s a choice.
As a foreigner and outsider, you also notice a lack of diversity. There are generations of Vietnamese and Chinese families, but there’s been no real influx of people moving in and as big businesses base themselves in Bratislava there’s a change happening and it’s spreading out into the rest of Slovakia. That scares some people, there’s a large contingent of conservative and right-wing views about opening the country borders when jobs in more rural parts are less and less. What I see though is a country that’s great at retaining tradition, I’ve been to proper parties in smaller Slovak towns that put Glastonbury to shame. I’ve also met so many Slovaks who want to stay and make the country the best version of itself as it evolves again.
Yes, it’s different, a bit more brash and a small country to boot, but stereotypes were made to be debunked and if people would only just stop confusing Slovakia with Slovenia then maybe tourism would pick up. In all seriousness, although it was a challenging start, and it’s not the place I’ll settle, it was an opportunity to witness a country in the throes of development and I can’t wait to return as a visitor and see it flourish.