‘This is where the containers full of rubbish were. It took us months to clean up the mess. We hold workshops for children here every month.’ At the time of our tour, a slow food fair is being held in this old market hall in the centre of Bratislava; until recently it had been empty for many years. ‘It took a lot of lobbying, but the city council finally agreed to let us use it,’ Illah said. ‘What would you like to drink?’
That soup you suggested sounds good.
In the lunchroom in the market hall, she places her order with the waiter in fluent Slovakian. ‘Yes, people sometimes think I’m Slovakian. A foreigner, maybe, but probably Czech. Not Dutch.’
She moved to Bratislava from The Hague in 2005. ‘I only intended to stay for a year and a half. I remember leaving a voicemail message that said: ‘this number is no longer active. You can reach me again in 2007,’ she laughs. ‘The Netherlands wasn’t a very nice place after the Van Gogh and Fortuyn murders. Slovakia and some other countries had just joined the EU, and I wanted to find out what was going on here in the East, at the edge of Europe. My boyfriend at the time got a job here and I went with him. I started doing photography here. That’s how I got involved in the market hall project. As a photographer I have always been interested in public spaces; they are a favourite subject. I played a part in the debate about the hall.’
Illah talks to the waiter while the soup is being served.
‘You know, ’she says, ‘it’s great to be an immigrant in this country, especially one from the West. Sooner or later people have to ask “why on earth did you come here?” They don’t understand it, but they appreciate it, and they really show their gratitude. They’re so pleased that I took the trouble to learn their language.’
Grateful in what sense?
In the sense that compared with the Netherlands, there isn’t much here. The Hague hosts something like 300 festivals a year; here there are maybe 30. People are open to new influences and ideas, at least the young people in my circle are. “How can we take our future into our own hands?” they ask themselves. Well, by starting up small companies, setting up something yourself. There wasn’t much in the way of own initiative, for example, people doing something in their own street, but that is slowly changing. It’s not the same city as it was in 2005, when I came here. The brain drain has slowed, fewer people are leaving for Germany or the Netherlands. And people have a reason to come back, or to stay.’
You call yourself an immigrant, a term that some people in the West find problematic.
‘I think expat is something temporary. It usually refers to someone who works for a foreign company and earns a good living. But if you decide to stay somewhere and work at the local rate, you’re no longer an expat.” She laughs.
What is your identity? Dutch?
Yes, but my home is in Bratislava. And I’m from The Hague, but I grew up in the mountains in Arizona.’
‘For me , it’s very simple. Once you have learned another language, really given yourself up to it, your mentality also changes, and that makes a huge difference. In terms of understanding the culture and feeling at home in a country. It is important to understand the nuances, to know which issues are sensitive. For example, in the beginning I thought that Slovaks were shy, and didn’t like talking, but once I had learned the language I realised that wasn’t the case.’ She thinks for a minute. ‘I don’t have the same prejudices about social class as my friends do, and they think that’s funny. By now I can recognise language differences, but I am more open about them.’
Do you have a Slovakian passport?
No, there is absolutely no need for it within the EU. And I also have an American passport. Here I have a residence permit.’
Was it difficult to get one?
Not in theory, but to get one you have to go to the most obscure office in Bratislava, far away on the other side of the Danube where there are no buses. The process is easy, but this office’s lack of customer service is legendary. There were no toilets, no coffee. Lots of bureaucracy and stamps you had to get from someplace else so that you were always losing your place in the queue. It has improved a little now: they have two departments, European and a non-European. The European department has a toilet and a better waiting room.’
I just got here but am I right in thinking there aren’t many Africans here?
Slovakia has 3 refugee camps. I have an indirect involvement with them. But from what I’ve learned, the country is closed. I think that only 9 people a year are given asylum. It is a mix of Syrians, Ukrainians, and Africans. You are kind of out of luck if you come here as an asylum seeker. Each refugee gets 3.50 euros a day, and a visit from a psychologist once a week. There is a minimum of care provided. And the procedure is long.’
It is still more common here than for instance in the Netherlands. There is no politically correct language, for example. Language use hasn’t adjusted to the situation.’
Do you feel European?
I am half American and half Dutch. I grew up there and here. When I’m there I feel 100% European. It’s the little things. Maybe it’s the feeling of disingenuousness in America. Europe is more authentic. And yes, I also notice it in relation to things like education. I have a three-year old daughter. In America everybody thinks they know how I should bring her up. Very responsibly, very educational. Cautious, fearful, controlling. It’s different here. People are more relaxed. There are no signs in the forest telling you how old it is and which mushrooms are edible and which are not. Things are less regimented here.
They are in the Netherlands
Yes, that’s why I find Slovakia so appealing,’ she laughs.
How visible is the EU here? Was it any help at all with the market?
None at all. But that may change. The Visegrad fund has been very helpful.
Yes, it’s a cooperative programme set up in 1991 between Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The headquarters are located here. People use it a lot.
I heard this week that the turnout during the European election was less than 20%. How do you explain that?
A lack of trust in politicians is typically Slovakian. It is so pervasive that if I, as an artistic/cultural entrepreneur who is fairly used to getting positive karma, were to decide to go into politics, 40% of my friends would say: “we knew it, she’s in it for the financial gain, that was always what it was about!”Major and minor corruption, and nepotism are rampant here. And when somebody gets caught, there’s always a commotion, but it quickly blows over and then everything goes back to the way it was.’
Do you think the EU has advantages?
Yes, it’s fantastic. It has made it easy for me to live and work here. The lack of border controls has made it easier for so many people. The fact that we can travel abroad is of great value.’
In what direction should the EU be moving? Towards federalism? Greater cooperation? Isn’t that what the elections were about?
Were they? I have no idea – I’m only interested in local politics,’ she says, pointing to the market hall behind us.