A Slovak Happy Birthday

A slovak birthday party

Igor toasts Vlasta

Of course we went to Bratislava last weekend. Vlasta celebrated her 50th birthday by throwing a party for her friends. We could not miss it.

Besides, Vlasta’s friends are our friends now, one of the best gifts of the last three years. She cooked up a feast and entertained us in the store she and her husband Igor own in the back corner of old town Bratislava. We knew everyone at the party and had a blast.

In this sea of Slovaks, we are the sole Americans, which makes for some interesting conversations. A few of our friends speak English quite well, most just a bit, and others not really at all. We all stumble along gamely, the better English speakers jumping in to translate when needed.

Everyone stood in a circle while Igor toasted Vlasta. Then they sang a song which, to me, sounded like a cross between a national anthem and a marching song. I whispered to Gregor, Vlasta and Igor’s son, “What is that?” He whispered back, “It’s Happy Birthday.” Duh.

We feasted on meats and biscuits and cheese in all its various forms. My favorite was an assortment of cheeses diced and tossed in mayonnaise. Next time my doctor asks, “What on earth have you been eating”, I’ll need to remember this. Vlasta is a wonderful cook and a perfect hostess. On her birthday, I refused to worry about my next cholesterol test.

Every single guest arrived at the party with flowers. Thankfully, without knowing this tradition, we had stopped for a bouquet. When Vlasta received a third bunch of flowers, I sad, “Vlasta, oh no, another bunch of flowers.” As she accepted the tenth bunch of flowers, I laughed, “Vlasta, thank goodness we brought flowers!”

Our friend Martin arrived with his wife and sons. Martin is the life of any party with the looks of a rugby player, you would never guess he is an attorney. He runs around grinning mischievously as he offers, “Phone call?, Phone call?” – shorthand for a shot of whiskey.

At the bar, which doubles as the Music Forum’s check out counter, stood a line of whiskeys and wines. After serving phone calls to all takers, Martin ran across the narrow alley to the neighborhood pub, returning with this hands and arms loaded with beers which he proceeded to hand out to the crowd.

By the end of the night, Igor laughed that Martin was now working on drinking “the entire switchboard.” Martin, is always concocting plans to get together. We promised to return to bike the nearby rural vineyards of Austria. Martin, like all our friends here, make us feel special. The most special people in the room.

We never lit candles or formally cut the cake. There were three desserts; poppy strudel, poppy chocolate cake, and cheese cake. The last option was for those who do not consume their body weight in poppy seeds – which is most likely only Pat and me.

Until I moved to Slovakia, I thought poppy seeds were a garnish, sold in a small, shaker jar, and used in discreet and countable increments. Slovaks buy poppy seeds in five pound bags, and eat them by the cup full. I’m slowly warming to poppy seeds. For Vlasta’s birthday, I ate the chocolate and poppy seed cake and realized I am slowly becoming Slovak.

Around nine o’clock we broke away and returned to our hotel. Pat and I always leave a bit early to allow time at the end of any party for the entire group to speak Slovak. I consider their willingness to converse all evening in English an amazing gift, but we do recognize it must be challenging (an assertion they would rigorously dispute if I ever mentioned it).

The longer we keep coming around, the easier the language barrier becomes. Small groups break off and chat in Slovak, our group is generally a mix. I pause so that Igor can turn and translate for Vlasta. Her English is coming well, but the complicated stories require some explanation.

I feel less and less stressed by the language differences. At times, it’s nice to switch my brain off with no expectation that I am following the conversation. Europeans are much more relaxed in this environment. Bratislava is a 20 minute bike ride from German speaking Austria. In Colorado, I’m a 1000 mile car ride from Spanish speaking Mexico. Of course this makes a difference in our language comfort zone and expectations.

As we headed out the door, we yelled back to Vlasta one last time, “Všetko najlepšie Vlasticka! . Wait, no. I dreamed that.

We gave her a big hug and wished her “Happy Birthday”. A fantastic evening. We would not have missed this celebration for the world.

Slovak birthday flowers

Vlasta accepts yet another bouquet


Categories: Insiders Bratislava

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