This week we received word from our friend Katka Fišerova that Žofka and Mark have been awarded (by the Office for Slovaks Living Abroad) the certification of “Slovaks living in a foreign country.” The title couldn’t be more fitting, at least for Mark. We have been working hard to continue our routine of interweaving our lives with things Slovak, but where we used to just soak up the atmosphere in Nitra, now we must make a conscious effort at every turn to bring the Slovak into our lives. Perhaps it is a typically American thing, but we have not been greeted at home with as much curiousity about our experiences abroad as we might have expected. When Mark’s colleagues ask him about it, the question gets a curious twist: Is he experiencing culture shock coming back to Wisconsin? I guess he does look a little dazed now as he works to establish a new set of priorities. Building a new research agenda, something that he can really give himself over to, will be a first big challenge in reconciling to our new situation. Finding what can be preserved and developed further from our Slovak experience will be another.
But there are other shocks that seem to be just a result of the difference between Slovakia and the USA. Though some things can be expensive in Slovakia, especially with the ever stronger Slovak crown, it is nevertheless possible to get along quite cheaply there, where people live in closer proximity, where low rent doesn’t necessarily mean low rent district (cheap digs, yet nice neighborhood), where travel by bus or train is a viable option, where the experts charge modestly for their services, and where recreation is not so much an industry but just family down time.
As Mark plans for a Fulbright conference on “People and the Planet,” we are especially sensitive to the size of our carbon footprint back here in the states. Once again, travel by car has become mandatory, even though we live close to school. Mark can bicycle to work, but groceries, doctors, cell phone vendor, auto mechanics (not to speak of entertainment options) are now 30 to 40 miles away in Janesville or Madison. We live in a nice little apartment complex which seems to have a fairly large student presence. Here home addresses correspond strongly with class distinctions. Across our street is a neighborhood of new condominiums–populated almost exclusively by well-to-do retirees. The new housing district down the street and across the highway harbors young professionals and their children.
Walking with Zofka is now a more solitary activity. In Nitra every trip down the stairs and out the front door brought us in contact with neighbors, shopkeepers, solicitors, pollsters, and just curious strangers. In Whitewater we walk down the vacant sidewalk until it ends, cross into the quiet street, down to the nicely appointed park . . . where maybe on weekends there might be another family or a couple of kids stopping by.
Culture shock. . . . maybe it boils down to this: we now live in a land where money flows much more freely and where whatever society you have is only that which you seek out. Americans seem to have more of an opportunity to create their own individual worlds. Many use this power to surround themselves only with what is familiar. The spaces in-between seem to increase the sense of isolation. Mark’s Mom, who has been visiting us this week, will be heading back to her home tomorrow a day’s drive away, leaving her Slovaks in a foreign land to their own devices as they work to integrate themselves back into this new lifestyle.