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House-Sitting in Eastern Europe: A Cross-Cultural Guide

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & House-sitting series. In this series, we discuss how cultural differences across different countries and regions can impact our members’ house-sitting experiences in those places, and provide practical advice for navigating cultural uniqueness as a house-sitter. If you aren’t already familiar with this series, you can learn more in the introduction, the first five country guides about France, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia, and our three regional guides to Asia, Latin America, and Northern Europe.

This is the tenth post in the series, and is a regional guide focusing on Eastern Europe and how unique cultural practices and behaviors might impact your house-sitting experiences in the region. For the purposes of this article, we’ve chosen to define Eastern Europe as the ex-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. More specifically, we will cover the countries with the most house-sitting opportunities, including: Czech Republic (Czechia), Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Prague Old Town - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

An Overview of the House-Sitting Community in Eastern Europe

When it comes to Eastern Europe, house-sitting is just beginning to gain steam. Countries that are home to a number of expatriates seem to offer the most opportunities, with expats engaging housesitters to care for their homes and dogs when they go on holiday or return to their home countries for visits. Indeed, the house-sitting market in these countries is primarily driven by expatriate homeowners, and - to a lesser extent - by young, urban, and international locals.

While house-sitting opportunities in Eastern Europe still generally come up less frequently than in established markets such as France and Spain, opportunities do exist, and we expect the demand for house-sitters to grow with time. That makes now a great time to apply for opportunities in the region, and use house-sitting as a way to explore a fascinating, beautiful, and unique part of Europe.

So what can you expect of the house-sitting market in Eastern Europe? We’ve outlined some of the factors and characteristics shaping the market below:

Primarily Urban: Most, but not all, house-sitting opportunities in this region are concentrated in the countries’ capitals and largest cities. There tend to be more house-sitting opportunities in Prague and Budapest, for example, than in smaller cities or villages in Czechia and Hungary. In Poland, house-sitting opportunities seem to be mostly urban, but split among the country’s many mid-to-large-sized cities. The exception to this is Bulgaria and Romania, where house-sitting opportunities seem to be more evenly divided between the capitals, smaller cities, and rural/ village settings.

Primarily Expat: While this isn’t exclusively the case, most of the house-sits we’ve seen and done in this region have been for foreigners living abroad, rather than locals. We’ll dig into some of the reasons later in the article, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself house-sitting for a Brit, Italian, or American living in Budapest, rather than a born and bred Budapester.

Of course, this impacts the house-sitter-to-homeowner cross-cultural communication; as such, this article will focus mainly on what you can expect during a house-sit in each country, rather than interactions with homeowners, who are likely to be foreigners themselves.

While the factors listed above indicate for whom and where you might find the most house-sitting success in Eastern Europe, it doesn’t shed insight into why the house-sitting market has developed this way. We’ve tried to share some thoughts on this, below:

The Lasting Legacy of Communism. Any way you cut it, the decades of the twentieth century spent under communism, and subsequent people’s revolutions, has deeply and profoundly impacted the countries of this region. While each country had its own form of communism, with countries like Hungary experiencing a relatively mild version of communism and Romania experiencing an extreme form, for example, lasting impacts can be seen everywhere. While each country came out of the communist times differently and to varying degrees of success, the impact is still noticeable in all of them.

When we lived in Prague and asked locals about some of the behaviors we noticed, we often got the same frustratingly canned response, no matter who we asked: “It’s because of communism!

Personalized Networks are Stronger than Formalized, Paid Services. Across the post-communist Eastern European countries, the informal economy is strong, reducing the need for formalized platforms for people-to-people (P2P) services, especially in smaller communities. Indeed, services provided by a house-sitter are likely filled through community members’ personal networks in many areas of these countries. The exception to this is large cities, where people have weaker personal networks, startup culture and international influences have accustomed the young and urban citizens to P2P communities such as Nomador, and there’s a higher concentration of foreign residents, who generally don’t have the same deep networks as locals.

Generous Annual Leave and Vacation Time. Annual leave in this region is generous, on par with European Union and Australian averages and far beyond what many North Americans are afforded. Across the region, minimum annual leave ranges from 4 to 5 weeks, and people often use this leave to take holidays abroad; in 2017, for example, roughly one-third of the Czech population is estimated to have traveled abroad.

Pet Ownership is High. Poland, Romania, Czechia and Hungary are within the Top 20 dog- and cat-owning populations in the world. When combined with generous annual leave and increasing international travel, it’s no wonder these countries are expected to need more house-sitters in the future!

Cultural and Social Factors Shaping House-Sitting Experiences in Eastern Europe

Now that we’ve explored some general characteristics of the Eastern European house-
sitting market, we will delve into cultural similarities within the region, followed by the specific factors that may shape your house-sitting experience in each of the six countries covered in this guide, including:

  • Czechia
  • Slovakia
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Bulgaria
  • Romania

Before discussing each country, however, it’s worth noting that talking about national and regional culture is inherently fraught with generalizations. While national culture does play a massive role in shaping individual norms and behaviors within a country, so too do individual personalities; membership in subcultures; age, income and education; regional differences; social movements within the country; and more. When we talk about national culture and factors that may affect your house-sitting experience within each country, we’re referring to the behaviors and norms of most of the people, most of the time.

Cultural Similarities Across Eastern Europe

Indulgence vs. Restraint.
When it comes to many of the academic theories and scales that measure culture, the countries covered in this guide vary widely. However, when it comes to the indulgence vs. restraint measure, all six countries covered in this guide are “restraint countries.”

Indulgence vs. restraint captures the theory that different societies emphasize the need to resist and control personal impulses to varying degrees. In restrained cultures, such as those included in this guide, indulgence is rare and seen as somewhat wrong, and social norms help individuals to restrain themselves.

People in restrained societies may come across as cynical, pessimistic and reserved, and this is indeed a common observance of travelers to this region! Despite first impressions, it’s important to know that people from restrained cultures aren’t actually unfriendly; they simply take longer to get to know.

Age.
Across the region, age is an important cultural factor. Indeed, the difference between those who lived the formative parts of their lives under communism, and those who didn’t, can be significant. In Czechia, for example, many Czechs over 45 will speak Russian as their primary second language (although some of them will refuse to do so), whereas younger people will choose English or German as their second language.

Similarly, the older generations that lived under communism tend to be more guarded towards outsiders, whereas the younger generations are far more likely to be smiling and welcoming from the get-go.

Urban vs. Rural.
As with age, the difference between the urban and rural population is another significant cultural factor shaping the Eastern European countries. Generally speaking, in urban centers liberal political parties and internationalist policies tend to perform better; in rural areas, voters are more likely to cast their ballots for parties closer to either extreme of the political spectrum. Literacy rates, lifespan and quality of life measures, and more all vary between the urban and rural populations, with the standard of living seen in the cities not necessarily translating to rural areas.

Prague - Charles Bridge - Lenalensen, Pixabay

Country-Specific Cultural Factors for House-Sitters to Consider in Eastern Europe

Czechia
With its beautiful capital city, Prague, as a centrepiece, the Czech Republic continues to intrigue travellers, with many considering a trip to Prague a must-do on their travel wishlist. In addition to visitors, Prague has a large expatriate population, popular with young-to-middle-aged expatriates working in the city, rather than retirees who often flock to warmer areas of Europe.

Urban, international, and with a high standard of living, a house-sit in Prague, or in Czechia’s second city, Brno, will come with access to all the modern conveniences you’d find in a western European capital, including high quality supermarkets and food, a vibrant cultural life, plenty of restaurants, cafés and pubs, and a great outdoor lifestyle in the warmer months. Despite this, the Czech Republic is quite affordable, with cost-of-living in Prague sitting much lower than many western European capitals.

While Czechia’s two largest cities in many ways feel very ‘western,’ the legacy of communism is still strong, although less so with younger people. To a visitor, the most outward sign of this legacy is customer service: foreigners often comment everyday tasks in the Czech Republic, such as going to the grocery store, can be unpleasant due to the prevalence of cantankerous store employees. Indeed, Czechs themselves readily admit they’re a rather grouchy bunch! Happily, the perceived grouchiness is reserved only for people they don’t know and in impersonal situations; once you get to know Czechs on a one-on-one level, they’re friendly, helpful, and happy to talk about their country and culture.

In Prague’s main tourist areas, you’re likely to find a staff member at least somewhat capable of speaking English, Russian, and/or German (and to a lesser extent, Spanish and French). Outside of Prague and Brno, it’s best to learn some Czech phrases.

Most house-sitting opportunities found in the Czech Republic are in Prague, and to a much lesser extent in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city, about 2 hours southeast of the capital. Occasionally, house-sits come up in smaller cities and villages throughout the country.

When reading house-sitting postings, be prepared for a different way of describing house sizes: 2+KK means the house is 2 rooms, plus a kitchen (likely a 1-bedroom flat, with a living room and kitchen).

Good to Know:

  • Shopping centres are generally open from 9am to 9pm every day of the week. Supermarkets keep similar hours (although likely opening somewhat earlier), and shops generally aren’t closed on Sundays. Small corner shops called Potraviny stock basic grocery items, and are open later. Banks are generally open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
  • Pharmacies, called lékárna, are generally only open on weekdays, and are the place to buy all medicines, including over the counter basics such as Ibuprofen. Shops such as DM and Rossmann are good for picking up other goods, such as shampoo and soap, but do not stock medicine.
  • Many Czechs will treat lunch as their main meal of the day on weekdays, ordering a set meal and eating something light for dinner. These set meals are offered by many restaurants, are quite large, and are often a great value.
  • The Czech Republic uses the Czech Crown (Kč / CZK), not the Euro. For current exchange rates, check XE.com.

Slovakia High Tatras - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

Slovakia
“Married” to Czechia for more than 70 years, Slovakia gained independence in 1993’s so-called velvet divorce, which peacefully dissolved Czechoslovakia to create the independent states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Much smaller than its former spouse both in terms of territory and population, Slovakia nonetheless has a lot to discover. With a population of only 450,000, the capital city of Bratislava is much smaller than other regional capitals, making Slovakia a great choice for those that prefer smaller cities and villages.

While Slovaks, in general, seem to be perplexed by foreigners that take an interest in their country (one British expat in Bratislava says his Slovak father-in-law claims the most interesting thing about living in Slovakia is dying!), the outsiders who have made this small country their home are much more effusive about their adopted home. Just beyond Bratislava’s doorsteps, for example, house-sitters will find an abundance of forests and nature to explore. Hiking in the High Tatras mountains is a highlight for any active traveller to the country. And the country’s younger generation is increasingly entrepreneurial, changing the face of its cities with new businesses that continue to improve the quality of life of residents.

As in the Czech Republic, customer service is a common complaint about life in Slovakia, and Slovaks can come across as reserved and hard to get to know. While the economy is booming and there are a number of international companies headquartered here, corruption is also rife, and many Slovaks seem to wonder if their country came out of communism as well as it could have.

Most house-sitting opportunities in Slovakia are in Bratislava and the surrounding region; perfect for house-sitters looking to explore a small and relaxed capital city and region.

Good to know:

  • Small food shops are generally open from 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, with extended hours on Saturday evenings and closed on Sundays. Large supermarket chains generally have extended hours, and don’t close on Sundays. Banks are generally open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm or 5pm.
  • Pharmacies (lekáreň) are generally only open on weekdays.
  • Just one hour from Vienna, it’s no surprise that Bratislava has a great café culture; the city is a great spot for coffee lovers interested in café hopping!
  • The smaller of the two countries that made up Czechoslovakia, Slovakia has a lower international profile than the Czech Republic - something Slovaks are keenly aware of. Recognizing that Slovakia is a distinct country with its own culture will go a long way in endearing yourself towards Slovaks.
  • Slovakia uses the Euro.

Budapest Chain Bridge - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

Hungary
Most house-sitting opportunities in Hungary come up in the country’s political and cultural capital, Budapest, as well as bedroom communities such as Szentendre. For those who want a smaller town experience, opportunities also come up around Lake Balaton, the much-loved and beautiful freshwater lake about 90 minutes southwest of Budapest, nicknamed “the Hungarian sea.”

With a population of approximately 1.7 million, Budapest offers an excellent standard of living, great transportation, and a vibrant social, cultural and food scene that could keep you busy every night of the week, if you want. The city also has a well-developed tourism industry, which means Budapesters are used to foreigners; you can mostly get by speaking English in the city centre. Despite having most of the conveniences of a western European capital, cost of living in Budapest is much lower, making this a great house-sitting destination for those on a budget.

Generally speaking, there is a stark divide in terms of standard of living and incomes, lifestyle, and mentality between Budapest and its environs and the rest of the country. After a smooth and enthusiastic transition to a market economy following the collapse of communism, Hungary is currently in the midst of a national political upheaval, with the populist Viktor Orban’s government famously declaring itself in favor of an illiberal democracy. While Orban’s Fidesz party won the 2018 national election handily, he did not win the support of Budapesters, further highlighting the divide between the capital and the rest of the country.

On the outside, Hungarians can come across as cold and closed, but once you get to know them, they’re generally quite lovely. Younger Hungarians tend to be more open and effusive than the older generation, and those you meet in social situations (as opposed to transactional situations), are more likely to show you their true, warm selves.

Good to Know:

  • Shopping centres are generally open from 9am to 8pm or 9pm from Monday to Saturday, and supermarkets keep similar hours, opening around 8am until 10pm. Most shops have shorter hours on Sundays, and are closed on public holidays. Small corner shops, referred to as ABC shops, are often open 24 hours and are generally your only option for basic groceries on a public holiday. Banks are generally open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm to 6pm; some have limited Saturday hours.
  • Pharmacies, called gyogyszertar, are mostly open on weekdays only, although some have Saturday hours. For most over the counter medicines, you’ll have to ask a pharmacist, with foreign language abilities varying by individual pharmacist. If you know what you need, it’s easiest to Google the generic name or Hungarian brand name ahead of time to ease the process. Shops such as Rossmann, DM, and Mueller vary in their opening hours; most DMs in Budapest are closed on Sundays, but Rossmann and Mueller tend to have limited hours.
  • As in Czechia, Hungarians enjoy going out for lunch during weekdays, and most restaurants will offer large and affordable 2- or 3-course set menus for less than 1300 forints (approximately €4). Most restaurants post their set menus for the week on their Facebook pages.
  • Hungary uses the Hungarian Forint (Ft / HUF), not the Euro. For current exchange rates, check XE.com.

Warsaw Old Town - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

Poland
Poland seems to be one of those countries that travellers are consistently and happily surprised by, and we’re no exception: Polish cities have always impressed us for being young, energetic, and hip. It’s a country we’ve loved traveling through, and somewhere we’d personally like to spend more time.

With cities that see fewer international visitors than nearby Prague and Budapest, Polish cities are somewhat less busy with tourists, and have more of an undiscovered feel. Given that Poland is one of the largest countries in the region, there is also plenty to explore.

Most house-sits in Poland tend to be concentrated within the country’s cities, with opportunities arising in Warsaw and smaller Polish cities around the country. With a strong medical education system, some of the smaller Polish cities are full of European and American students completing medical school, with house-sitting opportunities arising during university breaks. Of course, the capital is also popular among foreigners: one-third of non-EU foreigners call the Warsaw region their home in Poland.

In general, foreigners who live in Poland tend to sing the country’s praises - a great sign for anyone interested in a longer term house-sit in the country. When asked what some of the best things about life in Poland are, the answers reinforce the idea that Poland is an attractive house-sitting choice:

  • Great food at an affordable price. Poland offers high-quality raw ingredients, produce and complete meals for fair prices.
  • Locals are quite friendly and helpful, once you get past an initial shyness.
  • Beautiful architecture and natural attractions, and an interesting history and culture, ensures there’s a lot to discover around the country.
  • Widespread competency in English makes it easy for non-Polish speakers to get around in the cities, especially.
  • Poland is one of the safest countries in the world.

Good to Know:

  • Shopping centres are generally open from 10am to 10pm and weekdays, and 9pm on weekends. Large supermarket chains are generally from 8:30 or 9am until 11pm (weekdays) or 9pm (weekends). Banks are generally open 10am to 6pm on weekdays, with some offering limited Saturday hours. Although most shops are open some Sundays, this is changing, and partial bans on Sunday operations are being introduced.
  • Pharmacies, called apteka, are quite common in Poland, and 24 hour pharmacies exist in major cities.
  • For a filling an affordable meal in Poland, head to the nearest bar mleczny, or “milk bar,” which serves large and traditional Polish meals for €4 or less.
  • Poland uses the Polish Złoty (Zł / PLN), not the Euro. For current exchange rates, check XE.com.

Veliko Tarnovo Bulgaria - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, house-sits seem to come up in both urban and rural settings, so those looking for an urban adventure in Sofia are as likely to find something suitable as those interested in a rural experience.

Sofia is a city that seems to polarize traveler opinions: those who love the city, defend it passionately by pointing out the city’s hip cafés, history and architecture, and food. Others, however, recommend getting out of the capital as soon as possible to discover Bulgaria’s other cities and many highlights, from the gorgeous Black Sea coast to the much-loved cities of Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. With such a diversity of opinions about Bulgaria’s largest city, surely you’re best to go there yourself and come to your own conclusions!

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of cultural difference in Bulgaria, compared to the west, is the yes/no head nod/head shake. Whereas in many countries around the world, a head nod indicates yes and a head shake indicates no, in Bulgaria the opposite is true, which can be confusing to foreigners at first!

Similarly, Bulgarians don’t typically smile at strangers, and consider people who do to be rather simple. Don’t mistake this as unfriendliness - Bulgarians, in fact, are a very warm and friendly bunch who just happen to be non-smilers!

Although Bulgarians have a high level of English proficiency, especially in cities, it’s worth noting that Bulgarian use a Cyrillic alphabet, making it difficult to read signs and labels if you don’t study up before hand. Despite being rather intimidating to look at, the alphabet itself isn’t that difficult to learn, and will make a big difference in terms of your stay in Bulgaria.

Worth noting, pollution is a significant issue in Bulgaria, which is important to consider if you have respiratory or cardiovascular health problems or a compromised immune system. In fact, Bulgaria has some of the highest (relative) premature deaths attributable to air pollution within the European Union.

Good to Know:

  • Shopping centres are generally open from 10am to 10pm, every day of the week, with smaller shops closing earlier and remaining closed on Sundays. Banks are generally open until 5pm weekdays.
  • When it comes to second languages, Bulgarians are most likely to speak Russian or German, with English as a distant third.
  • Bulgaria uses the Bulgarian lev (BGN), which is pegged to the Euro. For current exchange rates, check XE.com.

 

Romanian Anthanaeum Bucharest - Photo Credit: wandertooth.com

Romania
Romania is another surprise hit for many travellers, and has become increasingly popular as an up-and-coming destination over the past few years. Travelers love the undiscovered feel to many Romanian destinations, affordable prices, wealth of attractions, pretty cities, towns and nature, and the friendliness and openness of locals, especially those under 45 or so. In our experience, Romanians are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and love it when foreigners visit their country and express curiosity about their culture!

Whereas in Czechia, Poland and Hungary, you can expect to see most house-sits come up in the urban centres, it’s our experience that many house-sits in Romania come up in smaller, rural areas and small cities, and are almost exclusively posted by expatriates with a large piece of property and (possibly) animals in need of a house-sitter. Additionally, many of the housesits we’ve seen come up for Romania are for longer-term postings, and may come with caretaking duties for expats who need to return home or leave the country for longer stretches. This makes Romania a fantastic house-sitting destination for those who want to get out of capital cities, enjoy the slower pace of rural life, and are happy to care for animals beyond cats and dogs.

Interestingly, Romanian is a Romance language. While many Romanians speak English - especially younger Romanians, and those in cities - the similarity between Romanian and French and Italian (and to a lesser extent, Portuguese and Spanish) makes travel in the country somewhat easier for those who speak those languages.

Good to Know:

  • Shopping centres are generally open from 9am or 10am until 10pm, every day of the week. Large supermarket chains are generally open until 10pm, with smaller shops closing earlier. Banks are generally open until 4pm weekdays.
  • While some shops and restaurants accept cards, your best bet is to ensure you have enough cash on you to cover a purchase. Smaller shops often don’t have enough change to break large bills, so break them in large super markets, and try to get small bills from the ATM or when exchanging currency.
  • Romania has some of the fastest internet in the world, making it a great location for those who need to stay connected during a house-sit.
  • Romania uses the Romanian leu (RON). For current exchange rates, check XE.com.

Final Thoughts

A diverse region with fantastic architecture, interesting cities, and spectacular natural attractions, Eastern Europe’s growing popularity among travelers and house-sitters is easy to understand. Add to that great food and affordable prices, and it’s a wonder the region isn’t busier than it is. Whether you’re interested in a rural experience in Romania, exploring the nightlife in Warsaw, or hiking Slovakia’s High Tatras, Eastern Europe is worth your time and attention as a house-sitter, and is growing in popularity. Having lived in Prague and Budapest, I can say this is one of my favorite regions in the world, and encourage you to add it to your house-sitting bucket list!


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

Living as full-time travelers for three years, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, recently settling in Budapest to focus on their business creating travel-themed adult colouring books and writing their travel blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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