Rebuilding Society After Communism, One Greeting at a Time

by Kate Sedgwick

Life in the Slovak Republic is a bit different than what I imagined when I was living 5,000 miles away before coming to the country with my husband, the U.S. ambassador. I am not entirely clear what I painted my new world to be, but it hasn't been a disappointment. Nothing is totally easy moving to a new community, as friends, family, and the familiar are temporarily gone, but the upside is a fascinating culture, new surroundings, and work with a different gathering of friends--although the latter hasn't come as quickly as I had hoped for in my little corner of the world. This country of 5.5 million is part of the European Union and NATO yet only 22 years out of Communist rule. They have made great strides and are now the fastest-growing economy in Europe.

I often wonder, as I walk by their modern Parliament building, what their sessions are like and how they conduct their business. One day, I am going to ask someone to take me inside for an education in the running of their government. I have a lot to learn. But not speaking Slovak (I am trying) could impede my learning curve--or flatten it. Oh well, worth a try.

Sedgwick_PM_2-14.jpgThe new prime minister, Iveta Radicova, is a sociologist by training and was elected in June by the leading coalition party, SKDU. She is the first woman elected leader and for many reasons, we are cheering her on from the sidelines. With this country and my own homeland at times, I want progress to proceed quickly--time is passing, let's get this show on the road. And then I slow down and remember the PM paraphrasing a former professor of hers in which she says something to the effect that you can change the politics in six days, the economics in six weeks, but it takes many decades to change society.

Speaking of changing society, the people in this country are very kind but somewhat reserved. I especially noticed it on my walks in the park with a neighbor. We each nodded to our park friends and said, "dobry den" (good day), but got not or not much acknowledgment. It became a bit more noticeable when we saw the same people each day. So I thought I'd better slow down my "dobry dens" so as not to be the presumptuous American. After all, I am just a guest here.

But, still curious about this, I asked a Slovak friend, and he said by all means keep it up, and they will trust and then respond. He reminded me that with 41 years of Communism, trust in the society has to be built up again. During those years, often even neighbors didn't speak to each other, so our way of meeting and greeting can get lost in translation. Well, I followed his cue and--success! My neighbor and I now have park friends. Something has changed in my life here, and I'm glad I reached out and engaged my wise acquaintance in conversation, listening to his advice. Otherwise, I wouldn't have my new friends in the park. I think I'll do an observational study as I walk. I'll categorize those who speak and don't speak by gender, ballpark the age, and whether they have a dog or a stroller. It will be interesting to watch the results.  No scientific gold standards of statistical significance so far, but enough participants who speak to keep me walking and engaged. That's a piece of good news.

Kate Sedgwick has a Master's degree from Harvard in Public Health.  She has been involved in HIV/AIDS work and now lives in central Europe with her husband, US Ambassador to Slovak Republic.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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