This past year I’ve had the same question asked of me constantly. The ever so infamous ‘What are you doing next year?’ that every other graduate has heard hundreds of times. Except, for me, there’s always another follow up question. In response to my telling them I’m going to Slovakia for a Rotary Exchange, I frequently hear “Where’s that?” or “Oh…did you want to go there?” Unsurprisingly, many people haven’t heard of Slovakia, or don’t know where to find it on a map. Many others are quick to think it’s not a peaceful or stable country, because of its past association with Soviet rule and its split from Czechoslovakia, which many think occurred as a result of some sort of conflict or war.
In reality though, Slovakia is a beautiful, peaceful, and humble country with a very high human development index and standard of living, and very recently was named the fastest-growing developed country in the world. Because of its small population and size, it’s easy to understand why not many people know about it, but that’s what this post is for! I’m going to talk a little bit about this lovely country that will be my home for a year, so you can have some background and context while reading my future posts!
*Note. Souvlaki is the delicious barbecued kebab, which is Greek. No relation to Slovakia, much to my Father’s disappointment.
To start off, Slovakia is a small landlocked country, about 1/3 the size of Saskatchewan. It is located in the heart of Europe, and borders the Czech Republic to the Northwest, Austria to the West, Hungary to the South, Ukraine to the East, and Poland to the North. It has a population of around 5 million, and is mostly comprised of mountains and rolling hills. It is known for its mountains, castles, underground caves and hot springs, hockey team 😉 , and much more. It’s capital city, Bratislava, is located on the Westernmost side of the county and has around 500,000 inhabitants.
Slovakia is often still incorrectly referred to as Czechoslovakia, when really the two countries of Slovakia and Czech republic have been separated for several decades. Some more history on that: Czechoslovakia first formed when Hapsburg-ruled empire collapsed in 1918 following World War I. In March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, established a puppet state out of Slovakia. The country was liberated from the Germans by the Soviet army in the spring of 1945, and Slovakia was restored to its prewar status and rejoined to a new Czechoslovakian state.
After the Communist Party took power in 1948, Czechoslovakia was held under Communist rule, and differences started to emerge between the two separate sides of the country after power was centralized in the Czech side. In Jan. 1969, the Eastern nation became the Slovak Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia.
Nearly 42 years of Communist rule for Slovakia ended in 1989 when democratic political reform began after a peaceful revolution (titled ‘the velvet revolution’ due to its smooth and easy resolution) saw the overthrow of Communist Rule. After that, discussions between Slovak and Czech political leaders turned to whether the Czech and Slovak republics should continue to coexist or be divided into two independent states.
After the election of 1992, it was decided the republics would split, and in 1993, the split occurred in what is known as ‘the velvet divorce’ because of its similarly peaceful and uncomplicated resolution. Thus, the two countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia were born. In 2004, Slovakia officially joined the EU and NATO.
Now that you’ve had a small history lesson, some more facts about Slovakia.
In the Slovakia, the dominant language is Slovak, which is similar to other Western Slavic languages such as Polish, Croatian, and Czech. They use the Latin alphabet, as we do in Canada, but with additional accented and diacritic characters adding up to a total of 46 letters (all phonetic, luckily for me). As with the other Slavic languages, it’s very difficult to learn, as the grammatical structure has little resemblance to English or other Western European languages.
As stated early, Slovakia is largely comprised of mountains, with the High Tatras in the North being the most famous. There are several other mountain ranges in the country, and lowlands on the Southwest and Southeast corners of the country.
Industry in Slovakia is largely in the services sector, but it also has a strong industrial presence, especially in the manufacturing of cars. Since 2007, Slovakia has been the world’s largest producer of cars per capita, manufacturing over 1 million in 2017 alone. 250,000 people (around 5% of the population) are employed directly or indirectly in the automotive industry.
Up until the last few years, Slovakia was largely unnoticed as a tourist destination, with only around 5 million tourists reported per year, mostly from neighboring countries. However, it is now considered a hidden gem of Europe that has rapidly growing prospects in the tourism industry
The dominant religion in Slovakia is Catholicism, which about 60% of the population identifies as. Other prominent groups in the country are atheists (13%) and Protestants (9%). As can be expected from this, ancient preserved churches are also a staple visual attraction in most Slovak cities.
The most recognizable aspect of Slovakia to us Canadians is their hockey team, which has played against Canada many times in various leagues. It is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Slovakia, along with football/soccer. Since 1996, the Slovak National hockey team has won one gold, two silver, and one bronze medal in the IIHL World Championships. They also placed 4th in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
And there you have it! A very basic overview of the country that I’ll call home for a year. I tried to cover as much as I could think of, and its already a pretty long read, but if you’d like me to add something or have any questions leave a comment below!
I will do a separate post in a few days on Banska Bystrica, the city that I will be living in for most of my exchange. Until then, Dovidenia! (Bye!)