I moved to Bratislava a little short of one year ago. My motives for moving here were mostly of personal nature, rather than due to lack of good job opportunities; I’ve since noticed this seems to be a pattern for most Bratislava-based expats around my age.
My general belief is that Bratislava is a city of significant potential, which is not used to its full extent. At the same time, it’s a place where development happens every day; one can see that not only from the multiple cranes and construction sites around, but also from the way society seems to be moving forward. That makes it a quite exciting place to be, especially if you are not a seeker of routine-based stability around you.
The list below comprises of the top and bottom 5 aspects of expat life in Bratislava. These are not pulled by any statistical survey and just reflect my own humble opinion and perspective. They encompass different aspects of daily life here and will hopefully be useful to anyone considering moving to Little Big City in the near future!
Bratislava is seen by many companies as a cheaper counterpart to Munich and Vienna. As a result, more and more of them found big locales here, opening plenty and varied job vacancies. Contrary to its richer, more established neighbors, Bratislava is not yet equally saught after as a work destination. That makes it ideal for fresh graduates to look for some first hands-on job experience. Many of my friends and colleagues came to Slovakia with little to no prior experience and claim that they would never be able to learn so much and feel ownership of their daily work in bigger cities. The situation seems to be getting better every year and moving between companies to climb up the hierarchy/salary ladder is common practice.
I’ve lived many places in my life and I can safely say that none of them was as conveniently located as Bratislava. It lies in the very heart of Europe, only one hour from Vienna, three from Budapest and four from Prague. It might not have direct access to the sea, but the Adriatic coast of Slovenia and Croatia is not that far away either. Basically the city works as a stepping stone for unlimited travel opportunities, both during winter and summertime. Slovakia’s own Tatra Mountains are a delight to visit and, while you are at it, why not drop by Poland as well? Bratislava Airport is new and growing fast, offering cheap tickets to many European cities. Much of my blog is dedicated to Bratislava-based trips, this being a very good indication of all the above.
As I meantioned earlier, the motives that drive most expats to Bratislava are similar (if not the same). Many of my colleagues are extremely well-travelled and informed people, whom I can have very good conversation with. We understand each other’s challenges and problems and that makes me feel like I always have someone to fall back on. Additionally, it is great to reflect on past experiences together, as well as organize activities and trips together to introduce each other to places you like in or around the city. In this sense, my working daily life here is no different than what it was in Germany and, trust me, I worked in a very multi-cultural team there!
Food is a very important factor that really contributes to my well-being in every place I live. Although Slovak cuisine is not the most unique and healthy in the world it’s undoubtedly tasty, affordable and filling. It is also very good for those harsh winter months, as much of it is based on soup and stew dishes. But even for those who are not into Central European food, Bratislava offers it all. There are great burger or crepe places, Italian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese restaurants, as well as a few brilliant vegetarian/vegan joints. Also worth mentioning, by law local companies have to cover about 50% of each employee’s lunch. The amount is usually given in a card or meal vouchers, which can be used in restaurants and supermarkets.
If you ask me, Bratislava has the ideal size. It is a city of about half a million and it’s pretty walkable, especially if you live downtown. Even for those living in Petržalka or Ružinov, work is usually a 10-minute tram ride away. Additionally, the Slovak capital enjoys all the benefits of a big city. Restaurants, cinemas, shopping options, museums, bars, theaters, all within reach. Contrary to other Central European cities traffic also seems to not be that bad for most of the day. I find Bratislava to be very stress-free in this sense and totally recommend it to those looking to escape the hassle and bustle of big European metropolises.
Undoubtedly my first and biggest disappointment since day 1. I was never a capricious or difficult customer but Slovaks seriously cannot handle even the best of us! This applies to almost everywhere, from restaurants to public services. I’ve seen extreme cases where waiters literally yelled at someone for asking for an extra napkin. In another instance, a waiter told me and my company he had no available tables, when the restaurant was half-empty! The funny thing is that waiters still expect a tip at the end of this sadistic experience. The few times I got good service in this town, I made sure to tip generously; this way I am trying to passive-aggressively convey the message that this behavior should be repeated. Much like with Pavlov’s dog experiments, now that I think about it.
Initially I wrote the title as “Xenophobia” but then I found it to be too harsh. Slovakia, as few other European lands, stood under foreign rulers for most of its history. In such cases newly established states strive to strengthen the national idea upon independence; this is exactly what has happened in Slovakia but, unfortunately, to a further extent than what I find necessary.
As my Slovak is still work in progress, I possibly often get mistaken for a member of the Hungarian minority. The attitude and comments I get from some people are simply unbelievable. There is a saying here targeted to “foreigners” which I’ve gotten more often than what I’d like to admit: “In Slovakia, (we speak) in Slovak”. I’ve recently managed to cope with this by joking about it, but it’s honestly quite hurtful. It’s also interesting to see how few mixed couples live in the capital city. The vast majority of Slovaks would only settle for another Slovak – even a Czech wouldn’t do!
Mingling with Locals
Or rather not mingling. I happen to work for a company where the ratio of Slovaks to foreigners is about 50-50%. The divide between these two halves was very unexpected to me. My local colleagues mostly hang our with each other, have lunch together etc. The rest of us, the expats, simply have to stick together. I know as a fact that this is not due to Slovaks being snobbish people; I’ve had solid chats with some of them on a one-to-one basis and they were very kind and talkative. It seems like this is more of a collectivism issue – possibly also related to the paragraph above.
Not mingling with locals is problematic for a few reasons. First of all, it keeps reminding you of your fragile position as an expat. Secondly, it creates a big divide between large groups of people, which is never a good thing. And, lastly, it leaves you quite helpless if you happen to be in need of help from someone that knows the city and its ways better than you.
Usually when people think of life in Slovakia they expect it to come with affordable living costs. In Bratislava this is definitely not the case with everything, rent being an unfortunate exception. From what I’ve understood the issue here is the very high housing demand. As the city became wealthier thanks to large companies and tourism, the housing sector is in full bloom. However, until that market becomes obsolete the prices just keep rising. A 25m2 studio in the city center can easily go for 500-600€/month (thankfully including costs). Considering the average net salary as of 2016 was 700€, you can imagine this is pure madness. When job hunting or negotiating your salary, definitely consider your housing needs.
Contrary to other big cities like Vienna, Munich or Prague, you’ll find Bratislava to be a little “blunt”. Especially in the wintertime, it seems like there is literally nothing to do but eat and drink. Some artistic scenes, mostly theater, are quite developed in the city; however, as you can imagine, the offer is exclusively in Slovak language. There are cases of small locales that try to stir things up a bit, for example by offering stand-up gigs in English. Thankfully, cinemas here do not dub films, so at least this remains an option. I heard people say that the city is improving in this field, which is great if it’s true. For the time being, I usually have to jump over to Vienna for a good exhibition or concert.
Bratislava is a very up-and-coming Central European capital with a lot of potential. It is not a cosmopolitan or thrilling city but it has this cool charm of feeling both like a laid-back small town and a busy urban center at the same time. It also is a quite safe city, making it ideal for newbies in the whole expat lifestyle. Moving here might not change the life of those who have already lived abroad before, but for those of you who want to make the big step and gather some first valuable work experience in a foreign country this is a city to get started. Lastly, it is exciting to see the city change literally everyday; the development of new urban planning projects, modern housing and office complexes and hip eat & drink joints will eventually make the Slovak capital a more competitive and desirable place to live.