Why Slovak?

February 23, 2019 § 3 Comments

That’s what the teacher asked, suspiciously, as I sat at the table. “It must be love,” she surmised, by which I think she meant “You are trolling for young girls.”

I didn’t care. One of the harsh facts of trying to learn Slovak, aside from the conviction of native speakers that you never will, is the profound distrust that an interest in such a niche language engenders. I had my well-practiced answer, though, designed to drive the inquisitor insane. “I don’t really have a reason.”

“But surely you must have a reason. Some girl perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but not.”

That no salacious details were forthcoming, the next disappointed line of inquiry was trotted out. “So you need it for your work?”


“What do you do?”

“I’m a lawyer who represents bicyclists hit by cars.”

This was almost as suspect, and certainly as dissatisfying as refusing to admit that I wanted a Slovak girlfriend. “Are you living in Slovakia now?”


“Where are you living?”


“And you are staying here in Bratislava on vacation?”


“You are working here?”


If you could measure exasperation, which with blood pressure I guess you can, she would have been pegging out on the exasperometer. “Where are you staying then, and why?”

“In Vienna.”



“Then why are you coming to Slovakia?”

“To study Slovak.”

“But how long you are here?”

“About four hours.”

“You cannot learn Slovak in four hours.”

“I know. But all I want to do is study. That’s why I hired you.”

“And then you go back to Vienna and come back here again on Sunday and study with me for four more hours?”


“And then what? I am married.”

“That’s all. I go back to Vienna.”

The teacher pushed the chair back and held my gaze. “You can tell me,” she said. “Why you are studying Slovak? Are you American spy?”

“If I were I wouldn’t tell you, or if I did, I would be a pretty terrible spy.”

“You are spy in love with young girl.”

“No, and no. Can we start our lesson now?”

“Yes but you must tell me truth. Why you are studying Slovak?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Because Slovakia is a one-hour bus ride from Vienna.”

“This does not make sense.”

“You didn’t say it had to.”

“Why it makes a difference how close it is? No one speaks Slovak. You see? We are here at Cambridge English School in Bratislava. Everyone learn English. If you want Slovak lessons, that is very strange.”

“Everyone in Slovakia appears to speak Slovak, like Peter Sagan. And you’re a Slovak teacher, so presumably I’m not the first student. And you brought a textbook, Krizom-Krazom, that probably wasn’t published just for me.”

“Yes, of course there are such students but they are proper students with visa and girlfriend. You are old man with no girlfriend and no visa, only studying Slovak and strange hat. Why?”

“Because it is close to Vienna.”

“Why Vienna?”

“My son and his wife live there.”

“But Austrian speaks German, and your son lives there, not here, and he is speaking English to you anyway. Why are you not learning German?”

“I already learned as much of it as my brain will hold.”

“So you are merely interested in Slovak because it is close? But are you so often in Vienna?”

“No. Twice a year, max.”

“Then how can you use this Slovak you are spending so greatly time and money to learn?”

“If you would start the lesson, I’d be using it right now.”

“We will start, we will start. Soon. Have you another teacher?”


“A pretty girl?”


“Ah-hah! So you are in love with her! And you come to Bratislava to learn Slovak to talk with her better?”

“No. She lives in a little village far from here and teaches me on the Internet. She is a professional. I came to Bratislava to get some live practice instead of taking lessons over the Internet all the time.”

“You can tell her you love her. Slovak girl will not get angry.”

“I don’t love her. She is my teacher. She has been in a serious relationship for ten years. She is 25 years my junior. I am married and a grandfather.”

“It is okay. Slovak girl will not get angry when you confess such love as bringing you from all the way in California for your wooing.”

“Can we please start the lesson? I have to catch the bus back to Vienna at 1:40.”

“Thank you for telling me about your secret love. It is very pretty story. Can you count to ten?”


“Okay, please begin.”

“Jeden, dva, tri …”



Dead language

July 11, 2018 § 7 Comments

Weird follows me around like high interest on a bad credit card. Some of it is my own making, but not this time.

In preparation for our trip to the Kingdom of Sagan I have been taking Slovak lessons on the Internet since January. Everyone thinks this is weird, especially my teachers.

“Why you wanna learn Slovak? No one learns Slovak.”

“Slovakia is next to Austria and I want to branch out.”

“I know where Slovakia is. But everyone speaks German or English, and everyone else Russian. Why you don’t learn Russian?”

“Because studying Slovak is weird. That’s why.”

When all other explanations fail I just tell them I love Peter Sagan. This always works because he is the most adored Slovak ever, sorry Andy Warhol.

“Oh of course. He’s world popular champion.” Then they confide, and I have heard this exact thing from three different teachers: “Anyway, Slovak is Esperanto for Slavic languages. Easiest to learn and can learn Russian, Polish, Croatian, any Slavic language easily. And every Slav understand Slovak.”

Riiiiiiight. Suuuuuuuure they do.

Of course Slovak is about as easy to learn as ballroom dancing in heels, blindfolded, on a high wire.

Slovak teachers aren’t the only skeptics about the practicality of learning a language spoken by three million people in a tiny, landlocked Eastern European country. My pal Ol’ Grizzles was especially negative.

“Dumbest fucking thing ever,” he said. “Useless as tits on a boar. Why don’t you learn how to change a flat in less than hour? Helluva lot more practical than fuggin’ Slovak, for fuggsake.”

“You never know,” I said. “Someday it could prove really useful.”

“Sure,” he said. “So could the zither. But between that and a quick tire change, go with the tire change.”

Minding my own business

So there I was sitting at Gate 135 MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS AS USUAL. The flight was nonstop on LOT, the Polish airline, to Warsaw and we had gotten there early. Way early; only a couple other people were there.

As I sat there MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS an old man wandered over, holding a tattered piece of paper in his hand that said “Nadia.”

He stood in front of me, which was weird because the gate was almost completely empty. Finally I looked up when I couldn’t ignore him anymore. “Hi,” I said, preparing for the weird.

He pointed to my phone. “Phone?”

“Yes, it’s my phone.”

“My phone?” he repeated.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “My phone.”

He smiled. “My phone. No English.”

We weren’t getting anywhere, or at least nowhere I wanted to go. “Polish?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Belarus.”

I was stymied for a second until I recalled my teacher saying Slovak was the Esperanto of Slavic languages. I took a flyer. “Do you speak Slovak?” I asked in Slovak.

He smiled big. “No but I understand it.” Weird thing was, he was speaking Belarussian, but it was so similar to Slovak and our conversation was so simple that I understood him easily.

“My daughter,” he said, waving the scrap of paper with the phone number on it. “Can I call her on your phone? I don’t have a phone. I want to tell her we are okay. She lives in Virginia.”

“Sure,” I said as I dialed. “Does she speak English?”

“Perfectly,” he said.

So I rang up Nadia. “Hello?” she said.



“This is Seth.”


“Seth Davidson. I’m here at the airport with your dad. He wants to let you know he’s okay. Just a sec.”

I gave the old man my phone and they talked for a few minutes, animatedly. “Thank you,” he said, handing back the phone.

“You’re welcome,” I answered, pondering the utter uselessness and impracticality of Slovak.



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