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139: We Moved to Bratislava, Here’s what it’s Like

Three months ago, we left all our things (except what we could stuff into eleven suitcases that each weighed exactly fifty pounds) in the basement of our cabin and hopped aboard a flight to Bratislava, Slovakia for a new adventure. We had been waiting for over a year, since we first planned to leave right as COVID swept across the world.

I’ve been thinking of adding a little segment at the start of the podcast about our experience, like “The Scoop from Slovakia” (a play on my constant quest for gelato), but it’s hard to know what to tell you about life overseas in just ninety seconds. So I thought I’d go ahead and share a whole episode on the subject. If you’re interested in teaching abroad, love travel, or are just curious what it’s like to live in a country that’s only been a country for a few decades, this episode’s for you! If you’re here strictly for the creative teaching ideas, I hear you. Don’t worry, they’ll be back in the next episode.

You can listen in on the podcast player below or on your podcast platform of choice. Scroll on for the pictures!

The Job Search Process

So let’s start at the beginning. There are a few ways to go about finding a job overseas if you’re new to the process. The easiest is to work with a job placement agency. You register with their company, upload your resume, teaching philosophy, diplomas, and letters of recommendation, and then they start making connections for you. You’ll get regular emails with possible job placements you could follow up on.

For example, I might learn about an English teacher opening in Switzerland, a department chair position in Dubai, and an English tutor position in China in a single day. Then I can click through to the job descriptions and learn more about the schools, and decide if I want to follow up.

If a position is attractive to you, you write an email to the contact person at the school explaining why you’re a perfect fit, and let them know what job fair you’re going to be at (at the moment, these may well be virtual, but for us, they were at big hotels).

If the school wants to meet with you, you may go back and forth a bit by email, or even have some online meetings before meeting at the fair. The big placement agencies host these fairs, and they are quite an experience! Representatives from schools around the world book rooms and do back-to-back interviews all weekend long. You can show up with contacts and plan to meet certain schools, but you can also show up and get interviews right on the spot. It’s a crazy experience, going to hotel room after hotel room to sit on king-size beds and talk about life in Peru, Thailand, South Korea, etc. By the end of the weekend, you may well have multiple job offers or contacts to continue the process with.

So which agency should you register with? We have used Search Associates, though they seem to be falling a bit behind the modernization of the process now. This time around my husband found his position through Carney, Sandoe & Associates, which also places candidates in the United States at private schools. There’s also International Schools Services. As you choose an agency and peruse opportunities, keep in mind that your education background will play a role in which schools you can work in. Just as in the U.S., many schools are happy to accept teachers with a strong background and degree(s) in their discipline, while others require certain types of certification in education.

When you get into the advanced states of interviews, be sure to ask the questions that are really on your mind. You need to know what kind of health coverage you’ll have, if the school will help pay for your children to go to an international school, whether they will help you find an apartment or give you a house on campus, etc. I once asked the head of school in Bulgaria if I would be able to buy strawberries at the grocery store. Silly? Maybe. But I just had no idea what it was going to be like to move to an area of the world I had never visited.

On Travel

For us, our time(s) abroad have been very focused on travel. The daily experiences of life are often more challenging – navigating new systems, language, etc. (more on that in a moment), but that has felt worth it to us because of how much of the world we get to see. When we moved to Bulgaria, we were able to visit twenty-two other countries over the course of our two year experience. About once a month we would pack our bags and head to the airport, then spend the ubiquitous long weekends in Cinque Terre, Dublin, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, etc. Knowing these trips were constantly on the horizon helped us over some of the harder parts, and generally recharged our batteries.

This time around our experience is similar. We chose Bratislava so we would be able to drive to many places with the kids, and we’ve been able to zoom out on weekends and breaks to see Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj in Slovenia, Budapest in Hungary, Rovinj, Zagreb, and Zadar in Croatia, Prague in Czechia, and Vienna, Hainburg and Podersdorf in Austria. Though this time around we visit more playgrounds and beaches, and fewer museums, we love getting to see the world with the kids. We eat gelato and wander around, pay to jump on the public park trampolines, feed pigeons, hit the beaches, and take pictures of everything. We often wrap up our days with pesto pasta and movies in our airbnbs instead of going to fancy dinners, but it’s just as fun in a different way.

On Daily Life

So how different is it, really, living in Bratislava? Great question. Well, to be honest a lot is the same. People are busily raising their children, grocery shopping, going out for coffee with friends, hiking their local parks, and going to work, just like at home. But of course, it feels pretty different, especially at first. It takes time to get used to things – like the smell of different laundry detergent in the air, using bank transfers to pay for many things instead of credit cards, calling with Whatsapp instead of the regular phone, navigating slightly different traffic norms (and soooo many traffic circles), when to dress the kids in which versions of their school uniforms, how to ask for the kind of haircut you actually want, which shows you have access to on European Netflix, etc.

Little by little, I’ve started to find my way around. I know where I can park downtown and how to avoid destruction by tram. I can get the kids to school and back without using my GPS. I’ve located stores in various malls where we can get what we need. I love our little Italian grocery store a few blocks from the house. I know where to stock up on bagels (however, it’s in Budapest!). We’ve met three other families with kids that we’ve played with. We have a bank.

The hardest thing, bar none, has been figuring out the health care system. During our two years in Bulgaria last time, I think we only went to the doctor one time. This time around, it seems like someone in the family has been sick almost every minute, and we have had to find our way through many language barriers to get prescriptions and advice. To be honest, it’s the one thing that makes me question whether we will be able to stay for the three years we have planned.

On Language

Did we study Slovak before we came? Yep, sure did. We used the Mondly app and practiced throughout the year, teaching the kids vocab and hanging up little signs around the house. But the reality is that pretty much everyone we meet under 40 here speaks English that is so much better than our Slovak that we don’t really try. Every store, every restaurant, seems to have at least one friendly person who can help us, and we have been fairly overwhelmed just staying even with everything, that we haven’t put additional time into serious language study like I thought we might.

The same has been true everywhere. We know how lucky we are to have our language be so prevalent here, and I appreciate it daily. Whether we are in Vienna, Lake Bled, Zadar, Prague, etc., we always try to learn polite basics in the local language so we can be friendly and respectful, and then we find people simply switch into English.

On Food

Oh man, the food! This is one of my favorite subjects. For sure, there are a few things we miss – like Cheez-Its, pulled pork, and roast turkey with cranberry sauce (I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving). But there are soooo many fun new things. Wood-fired Italian pizza, golden crepes with nutella and bananas, lemonade filled with fruit slices and mint leaves, chocolate-cream filled coconut macaroon tarts, apple strudel, plum gelato. We skew heavily toward sushi, pizza, pastry, and gelato everywhere we go.

Little by little we are also finding out where to get the things we miss. There is an international grocery store in Vienna called Julius Meinl’s that has Skippy Peanut Butter, marshmallows, and Cream of Mushroom soup, and a store in Bratislava called “The Candy Store” that specializes in American things, like Chips Ahoy and soft brown sugar (which is not really a thing here). I’ve discovered at last what the Slovak packages look like for Cornstarch and baking powder, and found chocolate chips (sort of) and vanilla extract in the Christmas baking section of a grocery store in a small town in Austria. It’s all quite an adventure.

On Bringing Kids Overseas

Moving overseas was crazy when I was twenty-six, and maybe crazier now, with two kids (9 and 6). But we really wanted to show them more of the world and have them experience what it is like to be part of other cultures. They are learning about country borders, languages, different money, history, and international relations just by living their daily lives, and that means a lot to us. Do they understand everything going on around them? Not necessarily. They go to an English-speaking international school, and their school week is not so different than it was before. Then on the weekends we are often off to some new place, where they will be hoping to find fun souvenirs and exciting playgrounds and treats. We want them to like their new home, and we know they are adapting to a lot, so we rev up the fun whenever we can, and try to expand their worldview at the same time, whenever we can.

Their international school is an incredible place, and I love that they are getting to know kids from all around the world. It cracks me up to hear my daughter say things she learned at school in a British accent, and to hear her explain to me that “crisps” are potato chips. Their school is one of the things I love most about being here, although of course there have been challenges with helping them adapt to a new school and make new friends (just as with any move).

So far, neither of the kids has expressed any wish to leave Bratislava or move back home. They have, however, been pressing for a puppy very constantly…

On the Kindness of Stangers

Over and over since we moved overseas, we have found kindness from strangers. People have helped us to find doctors, to find baking ingredients, to find teachers, to find friends, to find our way. Being new to this country hasn’t made people dislike us or turn their backs to us, quite the opposite. Though many Slovaks express their surprise that an American family would choose to move here, it is a kind of pleasant surprise.

I’ll never forget one kind older lady who was selling colorful popcorn at the zoo. The kids had been excited to buy it all morning as we explored, and we stopped by to pick it up on our way out. We had only been in Bratislava for a few days, and I didn’t have Euros with me, just a credit card. I asked it she could take my card, and she said no. The looks on the kids faces were pretty obviously devastated, but I explained to them and we started to walk away. Though I doubt the lady knew what we said, she could tell how disappointed the kids were. She called to us in Slovak and I turned around. She handed me a bag of popcorn for the kids, no charge, and said something kind and friendly (I could just tell) in Slovak. It brought tears to my eyes.

Well, that gives you a little peek into our days. As I sit here at my desk in our new house, I’m a bit freezing because we haven’t figure out how to turn up the thermostat, and I’m a bit worried, because my son is back at school after two weeks away from a combination of illness and fall vacation. But I am wearing my jacket, sending him good vibes, and wondering if we should go to the Tatras mountains, Salzburg, or the Canary Islands for winter vacation.

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