I have been growing up in a world that was strictly divided into an Eastern and a Western part, although I wasn’t really aware of that. I was born in Kassel, a city not far from the intra-German border and thus at the crossroads of political world views. It’s not like the other part of Germany ever played a big role in everyday conversations. It was just widely accepted that there, beyond that fence, there was another world to which we weren’t invited and that was all there was to it.
An environment marked by scarce knowledge and little interest is a fertile breeding ground for prejudice. And so, in the minds of many people, everything behind the fence, regardless of whether it was Czechia or Siberia could be summarized under the “Eastern Europe” tab. Also, Eastern Europe could be tagged as being cheap, unattractive, having torn streets and broken houses. In fact, you’ll still find that idea in many heads today.
Oh, and one more thing everybody knew. People there never smile. Which in turn could only mean one thing, that they were unfriendly, those Eastern Europeans.
To take the suspense out of the story, let me tell you up front, that this bias is partly true and partly untrue. For many years after Germany reunited, I never ventured farther east than to Berlin, but then I broke that by-now invisible border for me and have since visited Czechia twice, Poland once and Ukraine five times. Yes, I am aware that Poland and Czechia technically aren’t Eastern Europe, but rather Central Europe. But… see above. The old ideas about Europe’s two halves are still existing in many heads and I’ll adopt that distinction here.
In fact, seven of my twelve most recent travel experiences are Eastern European ones and I wouldn’t want to miss a single one of them.
The first time I have been in Kiev, Ukraine, it was March and it was a grey one. Wind gusts would chill you to the bones, there were spots where the snow hadn’t yet melted and there were puddles forming in the cracks on the sidewalk. One thing I noticed after taking the ride from the airport into town were those ancient, battered mini buses they had for public transport. Not so much the buses, but the people inside. All of these passengers looked grey to me, too. All of them were staring ahead, with no apparent focus and the entire scene looked very depressing to me.
I made many friends in Ukraine and honestly didn’t meet anyone there whom I didn’t like. People will invite you into their circles with open arms as soon as you begin to know them. They will be interested in what you have to say, they will invite you to join in on whatever they plan they entertain and they will go out of their way to help you if you need something. After a while, I told some of my friends about the people on the bus and how that scene had looked just sad to me. They laughed and then explained to me that it’s a cultural thing.
In the Soviet era and beyond that, it was wise not to give away too much about yourself. People didn’t want to attract unwanted attention and it was often safer to keep for oneself. Moreover, masculine ideals were and are still going strong in these countries and it’s considered unmanly to smile to foreigners. Out of these habits grew a certain reluctance to smile at people on the street, it was even kind of offensive in certain circumstances. That’s why people may seem a bit distant at first or even repellent.
Throw in the fact that communication can sometimes be difficult if you don’t speak the local language because most of the people older than 30 never had a chance to really learn English and you can see where the prejudice about Eastern Europeans being unfriendly may come from.
Which doesn’t mean that it’s true. I felt very welcome in Ukraine, in Czechia and in Poland and I never met anyone in these countries who acted unfriendly to me. That’s despite the fact that I have seen travelers acting quite arrogantly there – which in fact bothers me much more than a local not smiling at me (it also explains why some locals are skeptical of tourists). I guess that it maybe might take some extra effort by a foreigner in Central and East European countries, but that shouldn’t be asking too much. After all, looking behind the facade should be one of the chief reasons for travel in the first place.