The top 10 life lessons I learned as an American expat in Slovakia

By: Julie Callahan

Slovakia wasn't on my “top places to live” list. I didn't discount it. Frankly, I just never thought of it. I realized Czechoslovakia split after the Cold War into the Prague half and the other half. It did not cross my mind I would someday move to the other half.

In September 2011, we relocated to Bratislava, Slovakia. My first impressions were tainted with concern: graffiti covered buildings; a massive communist block housing complex blighting the horizon; little English spoken or understood.

The communist housing of Petrazalka
The communist housing of Petrazalka

At the same time I was captivated: a lovely, and often empty, old town square; a pedestrian maize of ancient streets and Habsburg palaces; and people trying so hard to help me and welcome me in spite of our language barrier. Little did I know in those early days that this tiny, lesser known country would leave its fingerprints quite visibly on my life.

Old town Bratislava
Old town Bratislava

Here are the top 10 life lessons I learned as an American expat in Slovakia:

  1. Celebrate second place finishes. When Slovakia lost to Russia in the finals of the world ice hockey championship, Slovaks poured into the streets; trams parked, unable to move; the main square filled with flag waiving fans. My husband wondered “What would they have done if they won?” Probably the exact same thing. This was the pride of a five million person nation over achieving against the much larger world. People beamed for days. No one mentioned disappointment with a second place finish.

    The Slovak hockey team return to Bratislava
    The Slovak hockey team return to Bratislava

  2. Work to live. Money doesn't appear as a sub-text to every day life. The yearnings for a better car, bigger house, fancier clothes aren't apparent. Yet, everyone seems happy. Fun is found in the simple pleasures of a beach vacation; a Christmas market rendez-vous with friends over hot mulled wine; a token gift as a names day commemoration. Our friends live simple, and contented, lives. They work to support this modest lifestyle.

  3. Dedicate a day of remembrance to the dead. November first is “Remembrance Day”. Slovaks return home and congregate at the graves of their ancestors. Each grave is blanketed in flowers. Babies in strollers are pushed by their mother who walks arm in arm with their grandmother. They parade through the cemetery - stopping to light a cancel, reflect, and pray. It urges me to pause and consider those who have touched my life but are now gone.

    All Saints' Day
    All Saints' Day

  4. Enjoy the leisurely meal. Dinner plays out as a slow dance where no two phases overlap. We order drinks. A while later we order dinner. We ask for the check and don’t expect it until a while longer. After nearly 35 years of marriage, some nights I will say “Tell me a story.” My husband pauses to think of something before sharing an amusing tale from his youth. There are still stories I have never heard and might have missed without the slow dance of our evening meal.

  5. Live small. Life is both financially small and physically small. The first time we visited our Slovak friends’ apartment, I experienced a truly small life. In a 50 square meter apartment (roughly 500 square feet), they raised their two children through college and into adulthood. As a family, they are close. Their son causally draped his arm over his sister’s shoulder while she nestled into his chest. We were chatting after dinner and the gesture is unscripted, natural – a gesture I would never expect between two American siblings. Small apartments teach the life skills of playing well with others; sharing your things; adjusting to the need of those around you. At night, they gather around the lone coffee table and play board games.

  6. Take public transportation. We have not driven a car in 18 months. The network of trams, buses and trains is cheap, environmentally friendly, and ubiquitous I live in Central Europe, it is also a bit dirty and at times unreliable. But, I can read on it, blog on it, or sleep on it. And when it breaks down, someone else pays for the repairs freeing our extra money for weekend ventures across Europe.

  7. Seek happiness outside of material things. We moved here with a big house filled with stuff. When the house sold, we moved our stuff into storage. Now, in our small apartment, we have little room for possessions yet want for nothing. Some days we try to remember what is in our storage unit. Honestly, we can't. Our uncluttered life is a simple and happy life. Our stuff is a fading memory.

  8. Gain sustenance through those around you. Slovaks have been through a lot. During dinner, an octogenarian friend told me, “We had friends. We got by. What else could we do?” (She said this right after she told me that 25 years ago she would have been arrested for having dinner with an American). “What can I say, it's my country and I always loved it.”


  9. Practice empathy. I can not understand what Slovaks have endured. I visit the monuments to those killed trying to escape communism, and I listen to their stories. But I can not imagine having lived their lives, and I can not relate to the residual emotions. Our friends don't like to bike through Petrazalka. While for me it is a blight on the city scape, it elicits no similar gut wrenching reaction. I try to understand the local actions and opinions in the context of history – to cut people the breaks they likely deserve. Yet I realize empathy is an elusive goal.

  10. Understand the ties which bind. Each December kids run and skip into town for the Christmas market. They grin as they stuff themselves full of fried food and hold on with all their might as the winter winds snatch at their new balloon. Watching them, they look just like kids in the United States skipping off to visit the state fair. I grew up as an American in the 60s and 70s. The world was divided into two teams: our team and the Soviet team. We thought they were so very different from us. But these nearly invisible threads connect all of us – including this American to my current friends and neighbors who grew up on the other side of that invisible, yet painfully real, dividing line.

Would I rather be writing a top 10 list of how to select the perfect pied a terre in Paris or where to find the best pizza in Rome? Maybe. And some of these life lessons could have been learned in the more glamorous confines of western Europe. But other lessons are uniquely Slovak or at least uniquely eastern European. I wouldn't trade my home of the last 18 months for any other. My time in Slovakia has been, I hope, transforming.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJulie Callahan is an American expat living in Hungary. Blog description: My husband and I are US expats living in Bratislava and exploring what's next as we end our corporate America life. I blog about life in Slovakia, things to do and see in and near Bratislava, and where to go from here.
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Contest Comments » There are 10 comments

Pat wrote 9 years ago:

very nice Julie!

Aidan Larson wrote 9 years ago:

Julie, I love #4, and not at all because I too, am addicted to the leisurely meal and happy time spent around a dinner table. I loved it because of the stories and the beautiful, time-worn romanticism in the fact that your husband of 35 years still has stories to tell you...and that you have the time to listen. This is one of life's biggest luxuries and I, like you, would not trade it for anything money can buy. I'm following you now and can't wait to see what else we have in common. All the best from a fellow American abroad. Aidan

Meghan wrote 9 years ago:

A thoughtful post from a very thoughtful and well-written blog. Thanks for the window into life on a side of Europe that many of us aren't familiar with.

Beth Patafio wrote 9 years ago:

I love that you and pat have embraced the culture and taken the mindset to "live with and among" the locals. the lessons experienced are priceless. thank you for sharing them. great read.

Ryan wrote 9 years ago:

I have been following the blog from day 1. This was a great post and very sincere. Excited to see where this next chapter in Budapest leads!

Pam Prettyman wrote 9 years ago:

Julie -- My grandparents were from Ujak, Slovakia. We were told that side of the family Czech. I have wanted to visit for years and your blog makes my desire to visit even greater. Your writing is superb. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for brightening my rather dull working day, Pam

Polly Huber wrote 9 years ago:

Some 25 + years ago I had occasion to " retreat" alone for a week in the simplest of surroundings. Upon returning home I found the presence of doors on kitchen cabinets an adornment and consequently realized all of the other adornments within a home. Thank you for a reminder of the really important aspects of our lives. This is a thoughtful, provocative, and brilliantly written work of art. Thank you, Julie. (May I add that today I came upon a beautiful, monogrammed towel belonging to you that you gave to me when you were about "to enter the 'no possessions' phase." Odd that this happened on this same day. ....and thank you for the enclosed beautiful note. ). Less is really more.......

Jane wrote 9 years ago:

Julie, It was great to see you and Pat in Budapest. It's clear to me that you are not only having a wonderful adventure (as your blog clearly illustrated), but you are sharing a wonderful partnership. That shows, too, in your writing. Thanks for sharing with me. Jane

Josh wrote 9 years ago:

Great post. Love the idea of celebrating second place. It's like that touching moment from Cool Runnings. The real victory is in the fight. Thanks for reminding me of that.

Doug Meyerdirk wrote 9 years ago:

Reading your blog gave me a lump in my throat. It reminded me of so many of the reasons why I fell in love with the Slovaks and Slovakia. I spent more of my life in Bratislava, Slovakia than in any other place, 19 years. Though temporarily living in Budapest we own a house in Slovakia, and there is no other place that feels more like home to me.

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