Who are you?
I am Nicola, a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, based in Exeter Devon, in the south west of England. I have moved around a bit before settling here in Devon, having originally come from New Zealand, and lived in Bratislava (in Slovakia) and London on the way.
It’s the fact that I lived in Bratislava that I am writing this today!
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
In 2007, after finishing my Masters degree in Philosophy, I was at a bit of a lose end and really didn’t know what my next step was going to be.There were not that many job opportunities for someone with my qualifications in New Zealand, and I had been thinking about doing a PhD somewhere in Europe, but I didn’t know where or what exactly my focus would be and I really felt that I needed to ‘escape’ New Zealand and look for somewhere new where I could have the space to think. The year before this I had been on holiday in Poland, where I had seen a lot of advertising calling for EFL teachers, as such I thought that this could be a chance to give myself some time to think about what to do, while earning a little money. I did my teacher training in Prague, and while I enjoyed myself in that city, I found it a little too busy for my then state of mind. A job was advertised for a Tefl teacher in Bratislava, which I applied for and got. At that stage I had never been to Slovakia before and didn’t really know much about the city I was moving to; but that didn’t matter at the time!
What challenges did you face during the move?
There weren’t really any great challenges to face during my move, as the school I was working for, IH Bratislava, helped me a great deal. All my accommodation, insurance, taxes etc was organized by the school, so all that was left for me to do was to buy my train ticket from Prague to Bratislava.
As such, I think that the biggest challenge for me was lifting my heavy suitcases on and off the train and not missing my end station. And for both of these I received many offers of help!
How did you find somewhere to live?
As mentioned before, the school I worked for helped me here, and I was given a room in one of the flats owned by the school. To be honest, I think had this not happened, finding accommodation would have been very difficult as I had quite a low paying job and would not have been able to afford to rent my own apartment. I had heard from other colleagues that trying to find shared accommodation could be very difficult if you don’t speak Slovak as estate agents don’t typically deal with this, and it requires you to research on your own.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Of course, and being a language teacher I worked with them as well. There is, or at least were, quite a few networks for expats in Bratislava through either the local language schools or webpages created for us. There were quite often expat events in local clubs, discos and the like, which were also quite popular with some of the locals as well.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
I really enjoyed living in Slovakia because of the locals. I am naturally a quiet, shy person, and don’t really like to talk to people until I get to know them a little better, and I think, on first contact many Slovaks, or at least my neighbour and colleagues were like this as well, so for this reason I found it very easy to fit into everyday life. One of my first friends in Bratislava was Slovak who worked in the school, and towards the end I was friends with a number of my Slovak colleagues. The neighbours in my tower block were always friendly, if formal at first, saying good morning/ evening whenever we met in the hallway. This included both adults and teenagers, which surprised me as I am used to teenagers not really paying you any notice or trying to be, if anything, unfriendly towards strangers, so this came as a nice surprise! Towards the end of my stay, relationships with some of my neighbour became a little friendlier, with one or two even coming by our flat afternoon coffee and chat.
What do you like about life where you were?
There were many hidden surprises in Bratislava, if you were willing to look. This is especially true in relation to the arts and culture scene, which was very diverse. When I lived there, there seemed to be quite a few more ‘alternative’ events taking place, such as experimental music and poetry nights, film screening accompanied by experimental poetry and commentary, and there is a great Drum and Base club (DnBSK) that held evenings in the SubClub under the castle. Likewise, if you like Bluegrass Music, as I do as well, there were number of these types of music events as well. And if your tastes are for more conventional ‘high culture’ it was very easy to go to see an opera (I got tickets to see La Boheme on a Tuesday night for less than 5 euros), a play, or a classical concert at prices that are accessible to everyone. This easy accessibility to such a rich cultural scene did make life there much richer, although you do need to make an effort to look for what is happen and perhaps travel out to the suburbs a bit to experience it.
The other thing that I really enjoyed about Bratislava was that, no matter where you were in the city, it was very easy to ‘get in touch with nature.’ By taking a short bus or tram ride, or even going a bit by foot, you could find yourself in the woods, at a lake or even by a less developed part of the river.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I am not the biggest fan of expat life, and one reason for leaving home was that I wanted to leave home! Therefore, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed to discover I wasn’t the only New Zealander there!
Also, as alcohol is much cheaper there than in other countries, expat events usually involved a lot of it! So if you don’t like drinking, then it might be quite difficult to get so involved.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
If you are planning to get into teaching, or another lower paid job, make sure the organization you are working for helps you get established as much as possible. Slovak bureaucracy and office processes may not be what you are familiar with, so to have someone there to get you through at the start will make your life a lot easier. Also you need to be aware that the cost of living is quite high, and you possibly will not end up with any savings should you get a job like I had. However having said that, it is an easy country to squeeze by on, and although I didn’t earn much money, I did have a good quality of life while there (eating and drinking out, as well as cultural events I mentioned above were well within my reach, something that does not apply to life here in the UK)
What are your plans for the future?
While I really enjoyed my time in Slovakia, I don’t have any plans to go back there again other than on holiday. However, it has made me realize that I can get by in another country where I do not know anyone, or the language. My partner is German, so it is my hope in the future to move to Germany.