Friday, November 15, 2013

Slovakia - one of the top 10 unfriendliest countries in the world!

Earlier this year Slovakia made the list of the world's top 10 unfriendliest countries in a report published by the World Economic Forum. Countries were ranked in terms of their attitude toward foreign visitors, and while some might be shocked to see little old Slovakia on this list, it kind of isn't all that surprising. Slovakia placed 8th, while the only other European countries included in the list were Russia, Bulgaria, and Latvia.

Here's the whole list:

1. Bolivia
2. Venezuela
3. Russia
4. Kuwait
5. Latvia
6. Iran
7. Pakistan
8. Slovakia
9. Bulgaria
10. Mongolia


Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much information on how they assessed attitudes towards foreign visitors, i.e. what kinds of questions were asked and to whom. Interestingly, most of the people I've met who've traveled to Iran or Pakistan, for example, described the locals there as overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. That is purely anecdotal, obviously, but it does illustrate the need for a good understanding of how the survey was conducted if you really want to comprehend the results. Short of that info, however, it's not difficult for us (as residents of this country) to guess how Slovakia may have garnered its reputation for meanness.

We've actually spent very little time in our 2+ years in Slovakia as tourists because, obviously, we've been living here. Aside from a couple nights in a hotel in Kosice, and a few trips to touristy sites, we have rarely experienced Slovakia as tourists. But it requires little effort to imagine the sorts of things tourists here might encounter. And it's not just about the a lack of friendliness in the people you encounter - other factors can make tourists feel unwelcome too.

At any rate, below are a few of my guesses as to how Slovakia could earn the dubious honor of being placed on such a list.


Ha! You want it when?

Firstly, Slovakia has a reputation for appalling customer service. And the Slovak propensity for service with a sneer does not discriminate: you're just as likely to experience an unpleasant interaction whether you're a tourist or a life-long native. People here are becoming increasingly aware of the problem (ever since the country opened up to tourists in the early 90s foreigners have been continually pointing this out to them), but it nevertheless seems like a difficult habit to kick.

Most agree that you can probably blame 40 years of communism. You see, when everything was state-owned and shops or restaurants didn't have to compete for business because there simply wasn't much of a choice, there was no reason to be friendly, kind, or helpful to boost clientele. People had to come to your store for whatever it was you were selling because it was likely the only place in town or the neighborhood. If you hated your meaningless, soul-draining, go-nowhere cashier or waiter/waitress gig and you had no real prospects for meaningful advancement in life, why put any energy into pretending you were happy? Why even lift a finger to make a customer happy? What you had here was this sort of collective culture of misery. Shop owners/employees felt no compulsion to be nice, and customers didn't expect it. (And if you did want special treatment, you often had to resort to bribery. But that's another can of worms for another post!)

This attitude became deeply engrained within the culture and it persists to this day. Sometimes an interaction with a shop clerk can feel as unpleasant or frustrating as an encounter with someone from the foreign police or the tax office. Most of the time it's not that you're treated with overt hostility, but rather with a very palpable reluctance or unwillingness to be helpful or friendly. Often clerks will act like you're really putting them out by having them ring you up at the counter.

But I don't want to give the impression that everyone here is a dick. Honestly, for every unpleasant encounter we have, there's probably another that is, if not overwhelmingly positive, at least harmless or uneventful. Terezia was treated with considerable hostility when she decided not to buy a swimsuit from a local hosiery retailer because she wanted to shop around a bit more. But I had a delightful and easy encounter with an older lady at a flower shop when trying to pick out flowers for a bouquet for Terezia for her name day. The lady spoke zero English but was quite patient with my super crappy Slovak.

I'll never forget one afternoon in a post office when we were waiting in line to send a package. When it was finally our turn, the woman at our window just got up without even acknowledging us and went over to another woman working a few windows down and started sharing a tin of homemade cookies with her, while the two just sat there chatting for a few minutes. When their chit-chat was over, she came back to help us without offering any kind of apology.

I've probably encountered just as many restaurant servers who displayed a modicum of friendliness as those who were aloof or unpleasant. But problems in restaurants can go beyond a rude or indifferent server. For example, if you set both your fork and knife down on the plate mid meal to sip your drink or to wipe your mouth with your napkin - even for a second - it's not uncommon for a busboy or server to suddenly materialize out of nowhere and whisk your plate away as fast as you can blink. I've lost a couple of half eaten lunches this way, and I learned that you've got to get in the habit of at least keeping your fork in your hand if you want to avoid this. Now, there's a chance that in Slovak culture this may not even be considered rude, but to an American, taking someone's plate away before they've finished - and without even asking first - is the absolute height of rudeness, and often ensures that the server will get shorted on the tip and the disgruntled customer will write a pissy review on Trip Advisor. (Granted, you're less likely to see this in high end Bratislava restaurants, which seem to be more attuned to the customs of more culinarily switched-on parts of the world).

These kinds of things happen here with alarming regularity (and I could come up with a zillion more examples), and you can encounter varying degrees of unpleasantness or unhelpfulness on a weekly basis. If tourists experience this kind of treatment, they're bound to remember it more than interactions that occurred without incident.

Jake Slegers from the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia was recently quoted as saying that if students studying to be in the hospitality industry here were instructed to smile, that alone would boost tourism by 50%. He was obviously indulging in a bit of hyperbole, but you get the point. Of course, it's also worth noting that the insultingly crappy wages that most Slovaks have to live with offer little reason for smiling (Slovakia is known to foreign companies as a cheap labor source). But still, most of us have some kind of crap in our lives that we're wrestling with, so why not just be nice?


Slovak hospitality and civility

What's amusing is that when Slovaks hear about these types of reports, some are genuinely shocked and go on and on about how hospitable they are, about how they receive guests with wide-open arms and stuff more food down their throats than a goose on a foie gras farm. While this can be true, that form of hospitality is typically reserved for family or close friends. And I've heard many stories from visitors who got the chance to go into the home of family or a friend and they were amazed by the kindness and generosity displayed by their hosts. But if you're a tourist, i.e. a stranger, Slovaks can be a hard nut to crack.

Yet, Slovaks do display signs of friendliness in other unexpected social situations. For example, I remain pleasantly bemused by how in Slovakia it's normal for complete strangers to walk into an elevator and say "dobrý deň" ("hello") to each other when they step in and "dovidenia" ("goodbye") when they step out. And if you don't say "hi" or "bye" back, you might get the stink eye. This stands in sharp contrast to the US, where the unwritten social etiquette usually dictates that it is forbidden to say anything on an elevator, much less make eye-contact, unless you see someone you actually know (or if you're in a residential building where you live and you see a neighbor). American elevator etiquette doesn't stem from rudeness, but more out of a sense of respect for the personal space of the strangers around you. But why in Slovakia it's suddenly okay to act civil to one another on elevators, of all places, I'll never know.

I asked my brother-in-law Tony about this and he said quite matter-of-factly, "Well, because it's polite!" I reminded him of how in the US people never talk on elevators (he lived there for many years), and asked why is it the norm in Slovakia to be kind on elevators yet it's completely acceptable to act like a jerk when ringing up paying customers. He admitted that I had a point.

I've also noticed here that in waiting rooms at doctors' offices when a person is called in he or she will often say "dovidenia" to everyone else before heading through the door, and you'll hear most people in the room quietly say "dovidenia" back. You'd never see this in the US. People usually keep their distance in American waiting rooms, probably out of fear of catching some horrible illness and/or bothering someone who isn't feeling well. But here we've got another amusing instance where it's okay to be civil in Slovak culture.

But tourists are unlikely to ever find themselves in either of these social situations, as most won't end up in an elevator unless it's in a hotel with other tourists, and hopefully, most don't end up in hospitals.


Tourism: you mean to tell me I spent all day getting here and this damn thing is closed? 

While we haven't done too many touristy things in Slovakia, the few places we have visited were almost comically uncompromising in terms of their rules and opening hours. Readers might recall on our trip to Košice last May how we weren't able to ascend the clock tower of the city's cathedral, one of the city's prime attractions, because their more flexible summer tourist hours hadn't kicked in yet. Or some might remember the Kafka-esque rules for seeing the St. James church in Levoča (a major tourist destination in the region) that contains Master Pavol's famous wood altar sculptures. Or (I didn't write about this one) when visiting Bojnice Castle, one of the country's most famous and well-preserved castles, we were told that they only let people inside in groups of 10, and that the four of us would have to wait until 6 more people showed up to take the guided tour of the place, regardless of however long that might take (and it was a slow day).

This brilliant cartoon by the ever talented Marek Bennett is yet another example of what tourists can expect when trying to visit some of the country's more remote attractions. I've heard countless stories like this, and while they make for amusing anecdotes, especially for people with patience and a sense of humor, these sorts of things still undoubtedly contribute to the perception of Slovakia as unfriendly.

I've been told by a few people who've been here longer than we have that some of these tourist attractions simply aren't interested in attracting more tourists, and they don't particularly care if they lose money by driving tourists away with their uncompromising hours and rules. A lot of these sites are able to get enough funding to sustain themselves (pay the employees, keep the place clean, etc.), so they're not overly reliant on money from tourists to stay afloat. That means there's very little incentive to be more flexible or accommodating with tourists, regardless of how difficult it was for them to get there. And many also agree that this stubborn inflexibility is another holdover from communism.

What's ironic about this is that Slovakia is still desperately trying to boost tourism so it can reap the economic benefits. Its annual tourism figures are low compared with neighboring countries that have far more to offer, and Slovakia's attempts to market itself have been futile at best. Compounding the problem is that a good number of the worthwhile attractions outside Bratislava are far, remote and sometimes difficult to get to, and some of the transit connections from region to region are inadequate, and in some regions freeways haven't even been built yet, which can make even driving from one site to another an epic endeavor.

Basically, you have to be really committed to exploring Slovakia, and you have to be up for a bit of an adventure if you really want to see anything outside the capital, and you've also got to remain flexible for when that thing you really wanted to see is unexpectedly closed. Most tourists simply hit Bratislava for a day while en route from Prague or Vienna to Budapest, but the conditions here aren't likely lure them deeper into the country.

Of course, it also doesn't help that even the main tourist center in downtown Bratislava has been known to be out of maps on occasion - the one thing you can guarantee that pretty much every tourist that goes in there will be looking for.


No English

It's rare to find English-speaking people at train stations and bus depots. Now, I would expect this in smaller towns or villages, but in Bratislava it's totally inexcusable. For better or worse, English has become the lingua franca in Europe, and many tourists speak some English, as do many employees in places that cater to tourists in other countries. I've actually been surprised by the vast number of locals who do speak English, but they are overwhelmingly younger, in their 20s and 30s, and they are generally better educated and work at higher paying jobs. A lot of the folks you see working the windows at train stations or bus depots tend to be middle aged, and people from this generation are less likely to know English. This can obviously make things difficult if you're a tourist with questions about how to get somewhere.

Speaking of train stations and bus depots, both the main train station and bus depot in Bratislava are scary, depressing, small, dingy, inadequate, and utterly bleak gateways to the city/country, both inside and out. Even if the staff at the train station bent over backwards to be helpful, a typical tourist would still want to get the hell out of the place ASAP.


Racism and a lack of diversity

There have been several incidents of hate crime over the years in Slovakia that may have made some people think twice about traveling here. Back in 2000, a couple of Japanese tourists were physically assaulted in Bratislava by white supremacists (click here for details of this and other hate crimes from that time, and here's another article). More recently, an African American man playing for a basketball team here was the victim of what appeared to be a racially-motivated attack in a bar in Nitra earlier this year, and in 2008 an African American woman was the victim of a harrowing attack in Košice (click here for details on both incidents).

The singer of popular rock band Elan said in a 2012 interview that he had his gun ready to protect his family from some influx of Chinese immigrants that he was anticipating (I wonder if he is pen pals with Ted Nugent?).

These, of course, are just a few of the more extreme examples; the majority of non-caucasian tourists (most of whom seem to come from east Asian countries) go through Bratislava every year without incident. Racism, however, is nevertheless another potential problem. We've observed a kind of latent racism or intolerance that is, lamentably, a little too common in Slovakia, and while hardline racial extremists are definitely a minority (although they do organize marches around the country several times a year and occasionally run for political office), we've been shocked at how many well-educated, well-traveled and seemingly normal people we've met who turn out to harbor knee-jerk insensitive or intolerant views.

The problem is that Slovakia is an extremely homogenous society, both racially and culturally. Two world wars saw hundreds of thousands of Jews and many European ethnic groups (Hungarians, Germans, etc.) literally forced out of the country. The tightly controlled borders during 40 years of communism meant that very few people from other countries came here, while the regime's intolerance towards Jews led to many more of them fleeing. Today, most of the country's Roma population live isolated in separate ghetto-like communities and have limited contact with ethnic Slovaks. There is a Vietnamese community here (originating from student exchanges with Vietnam during communism) and an increasing number of Koreans thanks to the Kia factory in Žilina, but you can go for days even in Bratislava without really seeing any minorities. This has made Slovakia a disconcertingly Caucasian country, and coming from the culturally diverse Bay Area, I'm still not used to mostly just seeing white people everywhere.

This means that the concept of racial diversity is still kind of foreign to many natives, who just aren't used to seeing or interacting with ethnic minorities, nor are they as hip to the concept of embracing diversity or interested in the offerings of other cultures. Again, I'm absolutely not trying to paint all Slovaks as racists, but you can encounter a varying degrees of insensitivity (sometimes genuinely unknowing) here. That some mainstream politicians here have embraced racist and nationalist sentiments and policies obviously hasn't helped.

On a few occasions Terezia and I have noticed locals pointing, giggling, and one time even catcalling at muslim tourists in the Old Town, especially when the women were wearing face-covering niqab veils. Because muslims aren't an everyday sight (Slovakia is the only EU country without a single mosque), some locals seem to freak out a little over it.

I don't want to delve too deeply into this can of worms right now, and of course, pretty much all countries struggle with racism to varying degrees. Luckily these more vicious attacks aren't a weekly occurrence here. Yet, when they happen, you can bet people are going to hear about it, and it is going to shape the way people perceive the country, with the result being that some ethnicities might feel a little unsafe or unwelcome here.

Some gay and lesbian people might also feel a bit wary traveling here, especially after ~70,000 people showed up to a mass anti-abortion demonstration in Košice in September which had "traditional family" (i.e. anti gay marriage) as one of its main themes. The LGBT community here is feeling like they are slowly making progress, and indeed, the situation in Slovakia is far better/safer than in Russia, to cite one example (Slovakia did not make any of the "least gay-friendly nations" lists that I saw, yet it's not likely to make any gay-friendly lists anytime soon). But acceptance of the LGBT community and support for expanding their rights still have a long way to go here. (See my post about the Pride march).


Uncompromising shopping hours

I sort of hesitate to bring this one up because I don't think most tourists are likely to encounter it, but it could still potentially throw unknowing visitors for a loop.

Most independently-owned non-chain shops are closed all day Sunday (which is common throughout Europe), but are only open for about 3-4 hours Saturday morning. Many of these stores are only open from 9-5 during the week. This means that if you, like most people, work a typical 40-hour week from Monday to Friday, you've basically got a 3-hour window on Saturday morning in which to get any shopping done.

Thankfully, this does not apply to any of the big supermarket chains, fashion retailers, or any shops in malls, which stay open all through the weekend. But seemingly all independent shops refuse to take advantage of the fact that the weekend is usually a great time to shop.

Terezia's mom explained to me that during communism weekends were considered sacred. Sundays were obviously out of the question, but putting in time on a Saturday was also unheard of. My immediate reaction to this was, hadn't anybody heard of staggered weekly shifts?

This attitude has carried over to today. The only real exceptions are restaurants and some of the bigger museums. But I've been told that you can't even have a company picnic or other sort of work-related event on a weekend because literally no one will turn up.


Pozor! Watch your step!

Finally, Bratislava's crumbling and neglected infrastructure (mainly in terms of the cracked, potholed, jagged, warped, divot-filled, and slippery-when-wet sidewalks and streets) is clear evidence that the city isn't going out of its way to make tourists feel welcome. You can read (and see lots of fun pictures) all about this in my Pozor! posts, the most recent of which you can find here.


At any rate, many of these factors really could leave tourists feeling like Slovakia could care less about them. And given that this country's attractions are relatively fewer compared to what you can find in the Czech Republic, Austria, or Poland, that's sure not going to help with the lack of tourism, nor will it pull Slovakia off the list of unfriendly countries. Maybe after a few generations this will change. But until then, we'll have to take our bryndzové halušky with a side of 'screw you!'

4 comments:

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  2. Jeff, I am also a Californian from the Bay Area living in Slovakia and have been here for a little more than two years now. What a great blog you have - your wealth of information and insights into Slovakia are impressive. I've joined your site and will be reading more! Hope to bump into you around town sometime.

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    1. Hi Ryan - small world! Thanks so much for reading the blog and for the kind comments. You're probably pretty accustomed to all the "You're from California? Why did you move here?!" questions from locals.

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    2. Yes, I get that one pretty frequently as a matter of fact! I'm always interested in meeting other expats, especially Californians! Let me know if you'd be interested in meeting up sometime. My email is rgonzalez27@gmail.com.

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