Becoming Expats in Slovakia

By: Julie Callahan - Also see author's expat blog listing

It started as a lark last spring when my manager asked if I could relocate to Bratislava, Slovakia.    My dream had been to live in Europe.  My Pavlovian response was an immediate “Of course.”  Neither my husband nor I had ever been to Bratislava.  In my mind’s eye, our European life would play out in a stone cottage in Ireland or a pied-a-terre in Paris. We grabbed this less imagined option and wrote down the hard to remember city name for our friends and family.  Their reactions were similar – disbelief wrapped in caution.  They worried we were leaving the relative safety net of the United States for a “third world country”.  It was late spring; we planned to leave by autumn.    
The dog days of summer strained under the crushing realities of living abroad for a year or two or more.  Our emotional roller coaster careened between the highs of the expectations of life in Europe and the lows of leaving friends, family, and a town and home we loved.  Who takes the dog?  Do we sell the house?  Can we get affordable lawn care and snowplowing?  Where will we forward our mail?  We spent the summer cleaning out, fixing up, and ultimately listing our home for sale.  A friend with lax rules and a kind heart took our dog who now lives in his version of heaven.  Our kids helped with the rest.  My husband and I waffled between gut wrenching decisions and plain hard work.  A lifetime of memories were cleaned out, sold, given away, donated, and tossed.  This adventure gave us the push we needed to down size our too big house and plan for the next phase of our life.  We are in our 50s.   A life which fits in a carry on suitcase or in the truck of a car has started to sound about right. It also committed us to our decision.  We merged onto a one way street.  There was no turning back.  We started to envision a daisy chain around the world, returning in some nebulous and distant timeframe.      
On September 22nd, 2011 with our life in neat piles, we hugged our college aged daughter goodbye at the Denver airport and boarded a British Airways flight to Vienna.  Our world was packed into four big suitcases, we carried on our memories and doubts. The month before our departure, in a 48 hour world wind, I had flown to Bratislava to apply for temporary residency at the foreign police and to rent a furnished apartment near Old Town.  My prerequisite work permit had already been secured remotely – just requiring a copy of my college diploma and validation of a job offer.  It seemed quite painless – an inadequate preparation for the more onerous residency process. Fortunately, my employer provides local support dealing with landlords, banks, government authorities and legal support to handle the immigration process.  Frankly, I can’t imagine moving to Slovakia without this.  

We had agreed to move to our new home sight unseen.  The curiosity of that first trip was palatable.  My husband did not join me in this initial two day adventure.  The trip from the Vienna airport approaches Bratislava from the communist scarred side of the city.  The block style housing of Petrazalka is the densest in Central Europe and during communism had the highest suicide rate in the former Soviet Union.  In my zen-like state I was streaming a travel video “The historic core is charming”.  I was banking on the veracity of these limited reports.  “The historic core is charming!” I bleated when my husband answered the phone.  “It is going to be OK!”  
The Bratislava Foreign Police office exists in the bowels of Petrazalka.  It is communism personified; deep in the stark concrete jungle surrounded by unmaintained lawn, dirty toilets, and unsmiling attendants.  All residency types are applied for and released thru this unassuming and unwelcoming building.  Payment is made by stamps purchased at the post office.  A friendly smile and “welcome to Slovakia” never materialized.  No one speaks English.  Multiple visits are required, first to apply, then for finger printing, photo and electronic signature, then to replace the lost finger prints, photo, and electronic signature, and finally to collect the card.  All documents must be translated into Slovak – birth certificate, a letter from my employer committing to cover any financial obligations I incur, FBI background check, medical exam and proof of locally acceptable health insurance.   The process is a mess.  

Ninety days after application, my residency permit was released.  Since my husband’s residency was based on my own, he was now able to start the process.  Throughout this time, I clung to my hope, “It is going to be OK.”  Bratislava is not an English speaking enclave.  I don't speak Slovak and I don't understand it - even when it's spoken very, very slowly.  When we first moved to Bratislava, this was a frequent source of frustration - at times bordering on panic.  "Can you deliver the furniture I just bought?"; "What are the lunch specials?"; "Can you tell me how to get to the train station?"  We received nothing beyond a blank stare.  When you move to a new country every day is a learning experience.  It's the same feeling I had the first day in a new school; how will I find things, which bus do I take, will people like me, will I like my teacher.  

I no longer expect people to speak English.  Bottom line, most people here speak Czech (it used to be one big happy country) or German (Austria is a few miles away).  They just haven't gotten around to English - and I haven't gotten around to Slovak.  In that respect, we're even.  Until 20 years ago, the mandatory second language in Slovakia was Russian - English was verboten.  Post communism, once learning English was permitted; English teachers were a rare commodity.  It takes a while to add a new language to the country repertoire.  Living in a previously communist country, getting to know the locals, and hearing their stories heighten my empathy.  It is hard to be judgmental from the perch of my comparatively easy life.              
As time passes, I've learned to relax.  No English? No problem. Sometimes I eat pork when I expected chicken.  Or I get soup when I wanted a salad.  I took my English-speaking colleague to arrange my furniture delivery from Ikea.   It all works out.  I laugh.  It's not a conspiracy.  Now, I relax a bit more when things are confusing.  I know it will turn out.  Someone, eventually, will be able to help me - or I'll muddle thru until I get where I need to go.  

Then, nearly a year after leaving Colorado, our home sold.  We made an appointment at the US embassy and signed power of attorney to our 24 year old son to execute the sale.  Five minutes and a hundred bucks later, we had his notarized power of attorney.  In a few weeks, we became homeless.  In the stroke or two or three of a pen, our home went from us to a nice young family ...  a new baby, maybe a puppy down the road.  I'm sure they told their friends they bought it from an "elderly couple" whose kids are grown. I'm fine with that.  That's us.  We've lived their life.  It's their turn to celebrate birthdays in our dining room, plant flowers on our front porch, bake cookies in our oven, flush goldfish down our toilet.  The night of the closing I was sad - or perhaps melancholy – mulling on the memories of the place we raised our kids, celebrated 13 years of Christmases, sat up waiting for teenage drivers to return safely home.  It's a bit unsettling to have no address - no grounding identity in that physical manifestation of "home".   My home is now inside me - my memories and values and remaining dreams.  It goes where I go.

Saturday morning, I woke up singing Tom Petty.  "It's time to move on.  Time to get going.  What lies ahead I have no way of knowing".    That's our life now - endless possibilities limited only by my own limited imagination.  I announced to my husband I was over it.  The day will come when I'll crave the idea of home once again - I'll yearn for roots and a backyard to plant them in, a mailbox to collect my Christmas cards, a kitchen to cook a family dinner.  That day is not now.  The people living in my home will do the things I've already done.  Some day they'll be the elderly couple selling their home to the nice young family.  It's the way the world turns
We’ve now lived in Bratilsava a year.  A time when we couldn’t find Bratislava on a map is a dimly flickering memory.  We forget most of our friends still can’t recall exactly where we live.  This city has become such a part of our lives we believe - by extension - it must be part of everyone’s life.  I think we’re both different people from the ones who flew up the stairs to our apartment and double locked our doors plotting a safe outing later in the day. We have learned to ignore the thin layer of grime and graffiti and see the town for what it is - a safe and happy home.

We have learned our similarities outstrip our differences; all kids laugh as they run through water fountains and they cry when their balloon bursts.  Adults worry about paying the bills, caring for aging parents, and dealing with sick babies.  We aspire to the same goals and dreams; a good job, a roof over our heads, food on the table, a relaxing summer vacation.  And when we strike it rich, we all buy big and expensive cars.  There seems to be something fundamental in the human DNA that converts new-found wealth into possessions.

We have learned we can spend virtually every minute of every day together and be completely content.  After years of comings and goings – raising three kids, working jobs, taking care of a silly large home, managing the commitments of volunteering and community service, we enjoy our time spent each evening over the leisurely paced European meal.  We've learned to like the slow dance of dinner accompanied with the varied pace of conversation.  With all our commitments peeled away, daily life is distilled to its essence.  And that essence is still good.

We have learned that life and people and places can be a cup half empty or it can be a cup half full.  Most days, we get to choose.  Most people react to the choice we make.  We wear that choice on our face, in our attitude and demeanor, in the way we treat people.  When we are friendly and happy, people almost always respond in kind.

We plan to keep moving.  My time here is about to end.  I have accepted a two year assignment in Hungary.  I’ll repeat my work permit process. My husband and I will complete the temporary residency process.  We will learn new words for hello, goodbye, please and thank you.   We will struggle for some period of time as we learn to do things over again. This time our highs and lows will modulate.  We know what’s in front of us.  When this next job ends, the cycle will continue.  We’ll need to plot our next caper.  At some point, I’ll focus on what I’ll be when I grow up, where I want to live, what I want to do.  But honestly, for now, those thoughts aren’t on my radar screen.

A friend suggested we are living our lives in reverse - doing in our 50s what we should have done in our 20s - a real life Curious Case of Benjamin Button.   It works for me - to live with the faith and abandonment of youth tempered with the appreciation and perspective of age.  Someday the soles will wear off our boots and the wander lust spirit will quiet.  Someday I will want home and hearth.  I'll stop reading travel books and magazines and the Thomas Cook European Train Table.  That day might be in weeks, months, or years.  For now, I plan to live without the constraints of an anchor.  I'll take what I need - a passport, a Skype phone number, a camera, a journal and my husband. I'll take the sun on my face and the uncertainty of where I'll sleep next year.  Send my mail where you like - I'm off living my life in reverse.

About the author:

Julie Callahan lived in Evergreen, Colorado until 2011 when she,and her husband Pat, relocated to Bratislava, Slovakia where Julie works for a major US corporation. They travel and blog as a team under the heading "The World In Between: People, Places and Life Transitions." Julie blogs while Pat takes pictures. Together, they are trying to figure out "what's next?"
Blog address: Twitter: @aWorldinbetween
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Contest Comments » There are 3 comments

Meghan wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Julie, I wrote one of the other entries in the contest and skimming the list, clicked on yours because it intrigued me that you'd gone to Slovakia. I found your essay very moving and heartfelt. Even though our situations have been different, I related to a lot of the emotions. Thanks for writing this and sharing it, and best wishes with your adventures!

Leighton wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Julie, I found your article randomly when doing some research on moving to Slovakia. I found it to be inspiring and very heart felt, your experiences sound amazing and i'm incredibly impressed that both yourself and your husband took such a plunge in search of new experiences. To give you a bit of back story as to how i found your article: Basically i am from the UK and my girlfriend is from Kosice and over the last few months we have been discussing a possible move to Slovakia...maybe permanently. This has arisen due to her being in the UK for 8 years now and it became apparent that the long period of absence from her close-nit family was starting to take its toll. I visited Kosice last December for the first time (yes. Was a long time coming!)and to be honest i loved it, i was welcomed into her social circle and family like i was a long lost friend/cousin, it was truly overwhelming for me and i had never experienced such hospitality in my life. Anyway enough of me rambling on! If you ever need any help with certain eastern european mysteries please let me know (i'm not an expert myself but i have acquired an amazing network of knowledgeable friends, mainly through my girlfriend). And likewise i will be following you on twitter to gain more insider knowledge! We'll be back to Kosice in May, either taking a train in from Bratislava or travelling in from Budapest (any hints or advice appreciated!). The blogs are brilliant, i will certainly be checking in from now on!

Jon wrote 9 years ago:

Hi, Just a quick note - the immigration process for foreigners coming to Slovakia may seem labyrinthine, but it has /nothing/ on the bureaucratic nightmare that is US immigration. There are so many ridiculous forms that it has now become standard to pay $5 grand for an immigration attorney to sort it out for you, and if you lose your job you must leave the country within ten days. The language barrier works both ways too. Don't put your experience down to being in an ex-communist country, put it down to being on the other side of the planet. You already have a huge advantage coming from the richest part of the world, and speaking the most dominant language of the planet. Try ordering a meal in New York, or waiting for furniture, if you only speak Slovak. "Learn English," you say? Just like I'm sure you now speak fluent (or even any) Slovak. Forgive the somewhat bitter tone, but so many Americans are so hypocritical when they head abroad. Of course your questions are met with a blank stare. You're speaking an entirely foreign language to hapless strangers. It's the functional equivalent of a man stopping you on the street in Chicago and asking you where the train station is in Hebrew.

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