These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

After four years, businessman regrets not having learned Slovak

Dag Ole Storrosten, 46, regrets that he didn’t put more into learning Slovak when he arrived. Now at the end of an almost four-year stint as the head of the

Nextra, the Telenor-owned Internet communication service provider, Storrosten admits to having felt at times a little isolated from the local culture with his family. “Living as expats is rather like living on an international university campus where people stay for a few years and then are off to a new place,” he says.

“If I were to start over again, I would perhaps invest more into local friendships here in Slovakia,” says the Norwegian, adding with a wry grin, “I’m starting to do that rather late. Most of our friends here come from the international community.”

Storrosten first arrived in Bratislava in June 1998 ahead of parliamentary elections that September. While Slovakia was at the time ruled by the Vladimír Mečiar government, unpop-ular in the West for what was seen as undemocratic behavior, Storrosten’s firm Telenor already had a base in the country and a business strategy of going after a foothold in central Europe.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to assess the market here. We believed we had a lot of data and a good overview and thought the market was promising. I recommended to the firm that we move in, because Telenor already had an operation here and had achieved some success, and because the elections in September returned a government that looked promising,” Storrosten says.

“The main driver for us was to move into central Europe before any of the other big telecom players. This was early in the very high-growth dot com period, when the market was really hot and the players were all out there to take a position. For us it was much more natural to come here early rather than start fighting in more mature major European markets like Germany or the UK.”

Once installed in a hotel room in the Slovak capital, however, Storrosten said he found he knew less about the country than he thought.

“I thought I knew a few things about central Europe, having as a youngster traveled regularly to Berlin in East Germany. I thought I had a better perception of where Slovakia was in the transition from communism to capitalism than I did. Like the Americans in the beginning trying to liberalize Russia by Harvard Business School MBA books and then realizing how different Russian society was - there was no perception of how a capitalist society should run, very few people in the system had the knowledge they needed, and there were no tools in place to regulate the market.”

Not that he was at first given a real chance to improve his knowledge of Slovakia: “While I was commuting back and forth to Norway every Monday and Wednesday I had no chance to see anything at all. I was like a stereotypical businessman rushing to and from the airport in Vienna, on the phone in the car, rushing to several meetings and then back again on the plane. I was expected to present Slovakia to the company and to know quite a lot, realizing that although I soon knew quite a lot about the Slovak Internet market, I knew next to nothing about the cultural parts of Slovakia.”

But after Storrosten decided with his family in August 1998 to move to Slovakia for the longer term, he began to see the country through new and more appreciative eyes.

“There was the excitement of coming here and living in a hotel, at night watching the lights, taking in the smell, which really reminded me of old East Germany. There weren’t many people in the streets after 11 in the evening. I have to admit it was a bit romantic for me. Part of the excitement was getting into being here, happy I wasn’t in Prague or Budapest, which at least on the surface were already too far along in their development towards a western type of city.”

For Storrosten’s family, which arrived early in 1999, the move was a struggle, but not as bad as it might have been without help, the businessman confesses.

“We as a family had no introduction to what we would face. That was fine, we did our homework, I had been here half a year, we had lived abroad before, and we knew it would be difficult. We also had a great support system, people who could do things for us, which is very different from coming here on your own.”

Despite the professional help, however, Storrosten says Slovakia still offers some serious challenges in business culture.

“When people promise you they’ll do some-thing tomorrow it means they’ll try; this week means they might try; next week they’re not even thinking about it. That’s something you learn very fast. Also to have everything on paper, signatures and so on. Trust relationships are quite different,” says Storrosten.

For Storrosten’s wife, who was looking forward to not working for a while and to spending more time with their three kids and her hobbies, Slovakia was something of a challenge linguistically, especially with a husband who was frequently absent.

“She had a lot of uphill work when she started to go shopping and just handle living here on her own,” says Storrosten. “I went to work early, came home late and traveled a lot, so she didn’t see me, had to handle the daily life with the kids and so on.

“But later she learned how to work with the shopping lineups, she found an international community which we both love. Really, these people have made such a difference for us, I would much rather be living here than commuting from Austria. It’s a very colorful community, and if you want to get to know people better, you should try the network of the International Women’s Club. The women meet, drag their guys in, you go on trips together, we guys don’t have to talk business all the time but get in our tennis and our golf.”

Despite the couple’s best efforts, the move was also a major trial for the children, who had to fend largely for themselves at a new school and immersed in two languages (English and Slovak) that for them were foreign.

“The kids had an uphill battle the first half year, mainly with the language. They came to an international school, where English is spoken, and where there was no one to take care of them as new kids on the block, no kind of welcome or introduction except for a crash course in English. It was tough, because with kids from 5 to 9, everything is so emotional, and it’s so important to get off on the right foot and have them enjoy the move.”

Almost four years later, Storrosten says, the entire family is feeling torn by the prospect of moving home away from the friends they have made, and from the excitement of setting up in a new country. If he had one piece of parting advice for newcomers, Storrosten says, it would be to learn Slovak.

“In the beginning I didn’t take the trouble to learn Slovak. I tried, had some morning sessions with a distinguished professor, but my work consumed me, and I really had neither the energy nor the time.”

Storrosten says he still does not know much about the inner workings of the Slovak soul. “I am definitely getting more humble about painting a stereotypical picture of Slovakia Every time I hear foreigners painting a simple and clear picture I think - you are new in town. Perhaps I am becoming more influenced by Slovak life, perhaps I am discovering how versatile the people and the culture really are.

“Looking back I would really advise people to learn Slovak. If you’re going to be here for two years, it makes such a difference to be able to communicate with people in their own language. I really feel I lacked a dimension without this. Even though you are not perfect in any sense, it makes a huge difference.”

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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