Communication Lessons: No English, no problem…

I don’t speak Slovak and I don’t understand it – even when it’s spoken very, very slowly.  

When we first moved to Bratislava, this was a constant source of frustration – at times bordering on panic.  “Can you deliver the furniture I just bought”; “Can you explain the lunch specials.”; “Can you tell me how to get to the train station?”; “Do you serve anything which is not fried meat?”.  Nothing.  Blank stares.  (though on that last one, I’m pretty sure the waiter did speak English.  He just couldn’t think of an alternative to fried meat).  Thankfully, I’ve yet to need to scream, “Please help me, I’m having chest pains and I can’t breathe”.   I’ve lived thru all my failures to communicate.  

When you move to a new country every day is a learning experience.  It’s the same feeling I had the first day in a new school; how will I find things, which bus do I take, will people like me, will I like my teacher.  Now, each time a person shakes their head “No” when asked “Do you speak English” – I take it personally.  They do speak English, they just don’t want to.  They don’t like Americans.   Maybe they’re French tourists.    

We Americans are a paranoid bunch.   

Bottom line, most people here speak Czech (it used to be one big happy country) or German (Austria is a few miles away).  They just haven’t gotten around to English – and I haven’t gotten around to Slovak.  In that respect, we’re even.  Until 20 years ago, the mandatory second language in Slovakia was Russian – English was verboten.  It takes a while to add a new language to the country repertoire.         

I understand all this, but our failure to communicate still makes life hard.  We had lived here three weeks when my husband asked one Friday night, “What do you want to do this weekend”.  Honestly, all I wanted to do was something which required no new learnings.  “Let’s do one of the things we’ve mastered.”.  We know how to take the bus to Devin Castle.  And we know how to take the bus to Modra – even if we don’t know how to eat there.  We tried, but when the waitress greeted us in Slovak – and we said “English?” – she shook her head and ran off.  After 15 minutes, we left.  I never saw her again.  I still worry about her. 

Of course, we’ve also had the opposite experience.  Some people are passionately committed to customer service.  If they speak to us very, very slowly in Slovak – they know we’ll pick it up.  I bought a long-term tram pass this weekend.  The woman looked at me the way you look at a small child who is trying to formulate her first thought.  She was patient, anxious, concerned, proud.  She knew I could fill in the form.  She believed in me.  She explained the Slovak form very, very slowly… in Slovak.  I haven’t felt this kind of love for an older woman since Mrs. McFaden helped me write “cocoa” in first grade.  Fortunately, as backup, I had my Slovak-English dictionary in my pocket.   When I completed the form correctly, she beamed.  I did it!  I made her proud.  

As time passes, I’ve learned to relax.  No English?, no problem.  Sometimes I eat pork when I expected chicken.  Or I get soup when I wanted a salad.  I took my English-speaking colleague to arrange my furniture delivery from Ikea.   It all works out.  I laugh.  It’s not a conspiracy.  Now, I relax a bit more when things are confusing.  I know it will turn out.  Someone, eventually, will be able to help me – or I’ll muddle thru until I get where I need to go.  And in the event I have a heart attack, I’m sure all these people will stop pretending they don’t speak English and save my life.  Every time I eat fried meat with cheese, I’m counting on it.

Categories: Ruminations

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8 replies

  1. Hello! I am right now in Bratislava and I am learning Slovak. So i know what you are talking about 🙂
    I am a student so I usually speak with young people and most of them are quite familiar with English! Older people, as you wrote, are not…

  2. haha…humorous article! Thankfully, here in the Netherlands so many people speak english and can switch when you look puzzled in conversation (that actually spoils some of us)..have you thought of hanging around kids (good way to pick a foreign language) or taking classes? I would be frustrated if someone brought me soup instead of salad..:-)

  3. Your page popped out when I was looking for some info about Copenhagen and I couldn’t believe my eyes that the author of the page I am at lived in Bratislava.
    I’m going through your articles and love to point out that I can’t believe the prices Bratislava has, it’s unbelievably high! I’m from central Slovakia and well, it was interesting for me to read that you consider it cheap over there.
    I love to see that you took it easy at last, I do not have that ability. And next time when you want to talk English, go to younger people. If it were me, I’d by just pleased and astonished that someone from US (or from aynwhere really) moved to BA and choosed to live here. Damn, I’d be so proud that someone knows SVK! 😀

  4. very interesting. I see the post is quite old but still…

    I found your blog thru amateurtravel and enjoyed this talk 442 so much where you were talking about Bratislava and Slovakia.
    My boyfriend studied there and I have visited this city several times… with my special guide. Im russian and in that way I can understand a bit of slovak, although for us its so funny, because the words we would understand in one way actually mean smth totally different! and there are not so many people who can speak russian in there. So I was relieved not to have to talk in english-russian there .. 🙂
    having read that “they dont like americans” – kind of funny, but being russian I can totally apply this to me and say — “they dont like russians”..
    As you said in this amateurtravel beer and so cheap! boy, I miss Bratislavas beer 🙂 I have never tried so tasty beer so cheap and I live in Germany for almost 9 years 🙂

    • Thanks so much for reaching out to me. We are returning to Bratislava for October and November of this year. Im very excited!!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. To be honest, I’ve never listened to it (I can’t stand to hear myself speak!!).

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