The “Eastern versus Central Europe paradigm” is disputed by pretty much everyone who was born in the “Eastern part of Central Europe” or the “Western part of Eastern Europe”, etc. Saying something inconsiderately about this part of Europe, mixing up the regions or using the geographical definition instead of the economic or political definition of regions might lead to fatal consequences in an innocent discussion. This is a delicate matter, such a sensitive topic that makes everyone furious and you hear arguments like: “My country is not located in Eastern Europe! Look at the map, you idiot: Vienna is more on the East! Eastern Europe starts with Ukraine!”
Such statements are rooted in a general lack of self-confidence. Unfortunately you can never be tactful enough to avoid someone getting seriously offended, even though you really did not mean to degrade anyone. If the regional term was used correctly, something else would give room for offense, like which country eats more sausages, who fought more in the Second World War, or whose language is more similar to Russian, etc. The thing is that nothing is wrong about being from the West, from the South or from the East of a continent. No one is worth less or more because they were born in the North/South/West/East.
In fact, when people refer to Eastern Europe, they usually mean the countries of the former Eastern Bloc or Warsaw Pact. There is no 100% accepted definition for the region; the UN defines it differently than the CIA World Factbook and of course, every country has its own interpretation of it as well.
To avoid any confusion and for the sake of simplicity hereinafter let’s stick with the “Eastern Europe = Former Eastern Bloc” formula as trivial definition.
It is quite difficult to understand the mindset of this region and to identify with the anxiety which manifests itself in the people’s attitude towards life. This feeling is something like constantly measuring and comparing yourself to others, especially to your Western neighbors. You are fully convinced that the rest of the world looks down on you, either despises you or if they don’t, it can only be explained by the fact they don’t even know about the existence of your homeland: if they were aware of it, they would obviously criticize it.
In this region you learn very early on that if you go abroad for holidays, you have to behave much better than at home; otherwise, imagine all the horrible things that people would think about your homeland! You are not chilling abroad, but representing your own country and in order to not bring any shame on it, you really need to act very proper. While there are few places for Westerners which they can consider expensive and pretty much all places are dirt cheap for them, for you it is the opposite. You buy a lot of new clothes before vacations and during your stay you spend way much more than you can actually afford only for the sake of not being judged or looked down on, because of course, they just look at you and immediately figure out where you are from. You end up overdoing everything because you read about and know all the tourist stereotypes and you are trying to avoid them at whatever cost.
According to stereotypes the main characteristics of Eastern European tourists are as follows:
- you live on home-made sandwiches (usually with schnitzel) and canned food
- bringing your own booze from home
- always dragging your cooler bag or a plastic bag with yourself
- wearing socks with sandals
- being stingy and trying to bargain
- hardly speaking any English
- being unable to handle if some small unnecessary items are for free: you take all free candies, soaps, shampoo from the hotel, abuse the services of all you can eat and overconsume from free soft drink refill
- (there were cases of transporting potatoes for holidays from an unnamed V4 – Visegrad Cooperation – member state as well)
What makes this whole phenomenon tragicomic is the fact that no one cares, really. You are just beating yourself up with all these thoughts while for locals in these holiday resorts you are a guest, a customer whom they make their living from.
When in Western Europe, you always feel frustrated, mistreated and looked down on. You consider yourself an excluded poor immigrant, even if you are only spending a week sightseeing there and as an expat you’ll nag about how xenophobic Westerners are, that they don’t hang out with you because they hate you in secret.
All expats living in Eastern Europe immediately realize the timidity of locals whenever it comes to speaking up at work, present yourself, asking questions, standing up for yourself or just daring to speak English. You cannot even compare the general behavior of this region to the overwhelming self-confidence and “can do attitude” of Americans. While in the States kids grow up on cheesy phrases like “You can be whatever you want!”, here you grow up on frightening ones like “If you don’t study hard, you will end up as a road sweeper or homeless- you will see, how easy it is to get there or to end up in prison”. No matter what you do, society has already dragged your self-confidence down in your childhood. Don’t dream big, you will fail. Don’t raise your voice, it is still better to be a post-communist obsequious person than a overly loud individualist who will be hated anyway for his/her exhibitionism.
One of the worst outcomes is that this low self-esteem stimulates supra-nationalism and nurtures the far-right movement. I don’t think I need to get too much into this since it is well known that this region is notorious for having a very strong right-wing scene, racism and even anti-Semitism. The region still cannot be called xenophobic, as it loves expats from the EU or richer countries, but it’s not welcoming of immigrants or refugees at all.
I could write juicy phrases like “respect yourself and others will respect you”, or “don’t judge and you will not be judged”, but I would rather say: take some sips of the Easterner booze you brought from home, have a bite of your schnitzel sandwich, swing the socks and sandals off your feet and tell yourself “it does not matter”.
… or if that does not work, just take the easy way out and start / continue self-poisoning and hating.