Bratislava, Slovakia – This week, Kafkadesk sat down with Boudewijn ‘Boudy’ Dekker, a Dutch expat in Bratislava who holds an insightful blog on his adoptive country: The Curious Dutchman. He was kind enough to tell us about life in what he calls “the hidden world in the heart of Europe”…
Who is behind the Curious Dutchman? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Boudewijn Dekker, although pretty much no Slovak, or any foreigner for that matter, can pronounce my first name, so I generally move through life as “Boudy”. I am a father, husband and writer, in that order. Next to my daily office job and taking care of my family, I am actively writing about Slovakia and my life in this country, under the The Curious Dutchman name. Writing has always been a passion of mine, together with other creative hobbies like playing music and photography.
So what brought you from the Netherlands to Slovakia? To paraphrase you, why are you here?
During my studies at the university in the Netherlands I met a beautiful Slovak girl whom I ended up marrying a few years later. After a one-year stint studying in Glasgow, Scotland, I had to decide where to go from there, as there is very little work for someone with a Medieval History degree under his belt. The decision was very simple – be with my girl in Slovakia. So, in September 2012 I packed my bags, took the night train from Utrecht to Bratislava and never left. Since then, we moved around in Bratislava, married in 2015, settled down in Vajnory, and very recently became parents of a beautiful girl.
Congratulations! Now, Slovakia and Bratislava seem to be less popular destinations for expats and even tourists than, let’s say, Prague and Krakow. Why is that?
I have wondered about this a lot over the past years. Although I haven’t found the full answer yet, I think it is a complex one. It will be a combination of historical developments, different priorities by the government, lack of belief in its own potential and perhaps even misdirected funds. When Czechoslovakia split in 1993, all eyes were on the newly created Czech Republic, whereas Slovakia was considered its weaker brother. Vladimír Mečiar’s reign as Prime Minister in the 90’s did not help Slovakia’s image either. Somehow, whenever Slovakia is in the news, it is always for a bad reason. No
Apart from the Curious Dutchman! You call even the country “the hidden world at the heart of Europe”…
Think about it, everyone has associations with Slovakia’s neighbours, either through famous food/drinks (goulash in Hungary, Wiener schnitzel in Vienna, Czech beer), famous cities (Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Budapast, Kiev), political atrocities (Poland in the second World War, Ukraine in the recent battle for the Crimea) or embarrassing presidents (Czech Republic). No one has associations with Slovakia, other than the old Czechoslovakia, recent (negative) international media attention… and perhaps Peter Sagan.
And do you like it like that or do you wish it was better known?
Whether this is a good thing or not is a question that can be answered multiple ways, depending who you ask. A Canadian friend of mine, who visits Bratislava frequently, once told me that the “unknowness” of Slovakia gives the country a charm other countries don’t have. Mass tourism might destroy this charm completely. Although that may be true, I do believe Slovakia deserves to be recognised for what it has to offer (which is a lot, I might add). An increase in visibility will show an increase in visitors, which will show an increase in income, which can then be used for the further development of the country.
What about the Slovaks, are they envious of their noisy neighbours?
I don’t think so. Most Slovaks I talk to are in fact happy they don’t live in one of their neighbouring states (perhaps Austria excluded) because they see at least politically it can be worse. I don’t believe for a moment that “Bratislavčania” wish Bratislava would have the same influx of tourists as Budapest or Prague… but things are changing, six years ago my wife and I could walk through Bratislava in the weekend and literally be the only one crossing Hlavné Namestie. Now, this has become a memory of bygone days… but I try not to be too bothered with bumping into umbrella-ed tour guides telling their tours why they should rub Čumil’s head.
On your blog, you say you are trying hard not to live in Slovakia as a “foreigner”, how hard is that? Is it easy to be integrated? How crucial is it to learn Slovak?
Not so hard, actually. Especially in Bratislava, foreigners are pretty well accepted, especially if you show willingness to integrate in society. Here you need to distinguish between foreigners who are here to stay and those who live here for a year or so and then move on, never having the intention to build a life here. If you want to build your life here and you are willing to overcome the Kilimanjaro that is Slovak bureaucracy, it is easy to do so. Slovak language is definitely important, primarily when you need to deal with official institutions… Bratislava is also a very inviting city, liberal when it comes to foreigners and open-minded to other cultures.
You also say you want to understand what it means to be Slovak. Any answers yet?
I think this particular goal of mine has been an overambitious one from the start. I have always been very interested in other cultures, how other people think, why they do what they do and why they don’t do what the outside world thinks they should do. Traditions are very important to me, so understanding the traditions of other cultures have been a particular interest for years as well. Slovakia, being as unknown to others as it is, is perfectly suited for this kind of investigation.
However, can you ever know a different people to the point you can say “Now I know what it means to be Slovak”? I don’t think so – it is a bit like massive multiplayer online RPG video games: in a world which is endless in its opportunities, the journey is far more interesting than reaching the finish…
Why do you say that many Slovaks seem to have difficulties with priding themselves on being Slovak and are even sometimes ashamed of it?
Many Slovaks are astonished when I tell them I have absolutely no intention to move back to the Netherlands and that I want to build a life here with my family. The common response is “Slovakia is a stupid country, with stupid people, with stupid rules, with no money, and therefore no real future for the young”. Over the past years, I have realized, that the fact that Slovaks, especially the younger generation, are not priding themselves on being Slovak is very politically charged.
No Slovak will deny that Slovakia is a country of astounding beauty. Many Slovaks, however, will take issue with the political situation in this country and therefore don’t wish to associate themselves with people leading the country as well as with people voting for these “leaders”…
Speaking of which, following the murder of Ján Kuciak, Slovakia came into the international media’s spotlight, but possibly for the wrong reasons. Same goes for the presence of the Night Wolves biker gang in the country. How are you affected by this “darker side” (corruption, gangs, crime, etc..) of the country? As a foreigner, do you get involved against it or is it better to leave it to the Slovaks?
Every country has a dark side. Slovakia is not unique in that. However, the impact it has had on the country in the past year was enormous and difficult not to feel touched by. I honestly feel strongly connected with the future of Slovakia and its people. Slovakia’s future is therefore my future, my wife’s future and, even more importantly, my daughter’s future.
So I do get involved. I have written about the political events in the beginning of 2018. I have marched against the government. I have rung my keys on the SNP Square in Bratislava. I have voted in the local city elections. It would be arrogant and ignorant to leave the issues of the country to the Slovaks. If you truly wish to integrate in Slovak society, you need to take a stand. Otherwise, you are just another foreigner in this country…
Finally, and most importantly, Slovak beer or Czech beer?
Even though you can always make me happy with a cold one from the Czech Bernard family brewery, my beer-heart is currently occupied by Slovak artisan beer. I love the small breweries from around the country, creating amazing beers.
Do check out The Curious Dutchman for more fascinating insights and stunning pictures of “the hidden world in the heart of Europe”… trust us, it’s worth it!
Read our other interviews from across the region:
Improv in Krakow: “The magic is that everything happens only here and now!”
Budapest Micro: “Our goal is to bring people from different walks of life together”
English Touring Theatre: “It’s a really exciting time to be involved in theatre in Poland”
Warsaw’s Experient Explorer: “I want to bring community together in an organic way”