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.