Czechs and Slovaks: long divorced but still close

Twenty years after their Velvet Divorce the Czech Republic and Slovakia maintain exceptionally close ties. The two countries’ presidents have made a tradition of planning their first trip abroad to the former sister state and the two countries’ governments hold a joint session every year to discuss matters of common interest. In the eyes of Czechs, Slovaks are the most favored foreign minority in the country. But do the close to 100,000 Slovaks living and working in the Czech Republic feel at home here? To find out I met up with Martina Gregorova, a young Slovak who now calls this country her home. I began by asking her how it all came about.

“I have been living in the Czech Republic since 2003. The initial reason why I moved here from Slovakia was my university studies. I started my MA degree in Brno at Masaryk University and then I met a Czech guy whom I fell in love with. So after finishing my MA degree I moved to Prague to live with him and started my PhD studies here at Charles University.”

Slovaks are the most popular minority with Czechs. The two peoples spent more than 70 years living in one country. Do you feel at home here?

“I do, but the main reason for that would be my husband and the fact that we have a home together. To me home is where the people whom I love are, not necessarily the society of the given place.”

If you were to compare the two people’s mentalities and their way of life–in what ways do they differ and what do they have in common?

“I do not have as strong an opinion on this as a lot of people around me. A lot of the Czechs I have met seem to think that Slovaks are much more emotional, softer and in some ways wilder, more connected to nature, if you want to put it that way. I am not sure about that. I think this is a stereotype to some extent because you also have Slovaks who are not emotional, though on the other hand there may be something to it. I don’t know. I don’t see much difference to be honest, culturally speaking. I think both countries belong to the central European space and have that mentality, so to me they are actually quite similar. “

Has anyone ever slighted you in any way or made you feel that you are a foreigner in this country now that it is no longer Czechoslovakia? Do you feel comfortable speaking Slovak here or do you try to avoid it?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I speak Slovak still. I use Czech when I write, for work, for professional reasons but in oral communication I use Slovak. And my experience is mixed. I have met people who told me that they love to hear my Slovak, that they miss Slovak a lot and think it is a beautiful language so why not use it or continue using it even if you are in the Czech Republic, but unfortunately I have also met people who said they were of a strong conviction that if you come to this country and settle here permanently you should learn the language and use it on all occasions.”

Martina you are living in what we call a “mixed” marriage. Has that ever been a problem? Because sometimes people from different cultural backgrounds have a problem making the simplest everyday decisions…

“I wouldn’t say so. I think the two mentalities, the two cultures are very similar and so there is no significant cultural gap between the two of us. And, if we are different, then it is more in terms of who we are as individuals, as people. It is true that I am different from my husband –much more energetic and lively and impulsive, but we complement each other nicely. And I honestly do not think that it has that much to do with our cultural backgrounds. I think it is more about who we are as individual people.”

When you have children one day is it important for them to be bilingual? Will you be speaking Slovak to them and want them to be aware of their cultural heritage?

“I haven’t made that decision so far but I have been thinking about it a lot because I am a philologist by education and so linguistic matters are of importance to me. I think the best way would be for him to speak Czech and for me to speak Slovak so that the child is conscious of the two cultural backgrounds; conscious of the different cultural backgrounds that make him or her so to speak. So I would prefer keeping Slovak so that the child learns Slovak and is bilingual.”

High Tatra Mountains,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Is there anything that you really miss very badly that you go back to Slovakia for –apart from your family and friends, of course?

“As a nature lover I miss Slovakia’s high mountains, so occasionally we go to the Low or High Tatra Mountains. It is not like I really miss it – when the occasion arises and I feel like doing it then I simply go. So it is not a matter of nostalgia, just something that I love about Slovakia and that is worth seeing and experiencing in Slovakia. And sometimes I miss Slovak. I miss having more people around me who would speak the same language as myself so that the difference, the “otherness” of me would not be so obvious. But other than that, I think I am fine.”

Martina, Czech and Slovak politicians keep emphasizing that even 20 years after the Velvet Divorce the two countries, the two peoples have above-standard relations in every way. I am not talking about business now but relations on the human level. Do you feel that Czechs and Slovaks have a very special relationship still or are the bonds coming loose?

“I think they are coming loose. Merely on the linguistic level I am experiencing it more and more, especially in Prague, though not so much when I am in Moravia. People do not understand you, or they say they do not understand you, and you have to repeat your sentences two or three times before they get your meaning. So on the linguistic level, we are definitely losing the close relationship that must have existed under in the communist era when the two nations were part of the same country. Also, the mere fact that as a Slovak you now have to go to the foreign police and deal with the hassle of getting a residence permit doesn’t make you feel at home. It IS a different country. Sometimes Czechs will tell me that it was the Slovaks who wanted the divorce. But I am not so sure about that, because, at least the people I know best (and those are people from the western part of Slovakia) definitely were not in favour of the country splitting. I think it is a great pity that people were not given the chance to decide in a referendum whether they wanted the split or not. Because now there is some kind of tension surrounding the issue of who wanted out, with Czechs asking Slovaks –well, why did you want to split, then? I am not convinced that this is precisely how matters stood. “

Photo: Vojtěch Berger
The two peoples spent over 70 years in one state. What do you think that time together gave them? And what do you think they lost and gained by the divorce?

“Well, it is very difficult for me to say. I have an opinion, but I am not sure it is well-grounded. But sometimes it is said that Slovakia lost out economically; that we needed the Czechs to be economically stronger and materially better off. But you would have to ask an economist if this is really the case. But, anyhow, I am an idealist and I think that a lot was gained by that unity simply because of the cultural exchange, the fact that you learn to love certain aspects of the other culture with which you live but also the fact that you learn to tolerate some other aspects that you may not like so much. So in that sense I think that there were many more pluses than minuses from the unity of the Czechs and Slovaks.”