January 27, 2018 § 3 Comments
There is no reason on earth to study Slovak. I know this because when I mention that I am studying it, people ask, reasonably, “Why?”
“Because it’s next to Austria, where my eldest son lives,” I say.
“And I plan on visiting there.”
“And it’s always fun to learn a little bit before you go, you know?”
Blank look, followed by new topic.
Today my wife and I were in the car driving to Sacramento for the second annual Deb Banks Throw a Leg Over Recovery Ride. Deb was hit and catastrophically injured by a drunk driver a few years ago. She has made a 98.287% recovery and it’s important to mark the milestones.
Last year we marked it by freezing our butts off and riding to Winters. This year we will also freeze our butts off but will do something called Round the Mountain, which supposedly has a mountain and 63 miles and 3,600 feet of climbing. This year Yasuko wanted to do the ride with me. Her longest ride ever is 35 miles and I didn’t want to scare her so I told her that it would be about 40 miles and flattish. I didn’t tell her the name of the route.
Six-plus hours is a long time to sit in the car and make conversation, but we tried. “How are your Slovak lessons going?” she asked.
“Who is that one teacher who always sounds like she’s making you read from the textbook?”
“Oh, that’s Marika.” I have three teachers.
“Why does it always sound like you are reading from the textbook?”
“Because she makes me read from the textbook.”
“Is that a good lesson?”
“What about your other teachers?”
“They are fantastic.”
“Why do you keep using Marika?”
“Because she is really nice and super cheap and because sitting and reading the textbook is useful. I’d never do it on my own. It’s like an hour of forced study.”
“But isn’t it boring?”
“Life is boring.”
“You are spending so much time on Slovak. Is it really useful?”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because it is not useful.”
“You do a lot of that.”
We rode along for a while and played “spot a hawk.” After many hours and a ton of hawks, not to mention crows, white pelicans, turkey vultures, shorebirds, gulls, and egrets, we got to Sacramento. She was hungry and I was hungry, and she had found a cafe on the Internet called Selland’s Market-Cafe.
As we drove down J Street she shouted, “Look!” and pointed at a sign.
I looked. “What?”
“That sign! It says Cafe Marika!”
“Isn’t that the name of your teacher?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, it is.”
“I wonder what kind of restaurant it is?”
We were in a line of stopped traffic and peered at the window glass. “It says ‘European Cuisine,'” I said. “Pretty big footprint.”
“I bet they are Slovak!”
“I doubt it. Not here in Sacramento.”
“Let’s go in! It might be good!”
“What about the Market-Cafe?”
“Let’s go in!”
I rounded the corner and parked. We walked up to the cafe. It was really tiny. I peered through the window. There were only two customers. I shrugged. “Let’s try it.”
I pushed the door open and the two customers looked up at us. The owner was leaning against the tiny counter and his wife was behind it. I can only read about ten words in Slovak, but two of them were written large and in chalk on a menu board: “Dobre chut!” it said, which means “Bon appetit!”
“Ahojte!” I said, which means “Hello politely!”
Their faces froze. I have seen surprised and shocked faces in my life but never has a room fallen as completely silent as that cafe when I let loose with one of my ten words of Slovak.
“Ahojte!” said the owner, finding his tongue.
Now I was in that familiar bog of having said something in a language I only know fragments of. I desperately searched my Slovak memory bank which was pretty easy since it was a rather barren cupboard. “Volam sa Seth,” I said, idiotically introducing myself. “Ucim sa po slovensky,” I added, even more idiotically, as if anyone cared that I was learning Slovak.
Out came a torrent, not of Slovak, but of Czech. I stared blankly and everyone relaxed. I was obviously not a spy, or if I was, I was a horribly inept one.
Still, the effect of having someone waltz in and greet them in Slovak remained. We began to talk and soon the two customers chimed in; they had been dining there for decades. “Why do you study Slovak?” the owner asked.
“It’s next to Austria,” I said. They waited, unlike my American interlocutors, not at all surprised to be told the basic geography of a continent they had grown up in. “My son lives in Vienna and we’re going to visit next summer and I want to visit Slovakia so my policy is to always study a little bit before you go.”
“I’m from Vienna,” one of the guests piped up in German. “Do you also speak German?”
I said I did and we were off to the races. His partner was from Munich; they had emigrated 35 years ago and been together ever since. To make it even friendlier, the German’s name was the same as my son’s, Hans. The food came, delicious chicken curry for me and Hungarian ghoulash for Yasuko accompanied with rice, thick slabs of bread, and spaetzle.
Before long we got to arguing about immigration in Europe and in the U.S., a genuine argument between strangers about things they felt strongly about but were able to discuss without getting upset or namecalling or storming out, or unfriending on Facebook. They had good points and so did I, and it struck me how good it felt to disagree and discuss things with people who know how to talk, who have traveled, who speak other languages, and who have lived on both sides of the immigration fence.
At one point a couple walked in and the Austrian went silent out of respect for the owner, obviously not wanting to scare away new business with our animated volleys. But the owner was having none of it. “Keep talking!” he commanded. “This is good!”
After a while his wife brought out coffee, and unlike the dark dishwater that most American cafes serve up, this was strong and pungent, fresh and rich. “Would you like some strudel?” she asked.
“Prosim,” I said, thereby exhausting my complete Slovak vocabulary.
She laughed and brought out two pieces of homemade strudel that were better than any pastry I have ever eaten in my life, effectively pausing my two-month abstention from tasty sugary foods.
When it came time to pay the bill we were all great friends until I reached for my credit card and the owner pointed sadly to a sign: “No credit cards.”
I hadn’t brought any cash, but Yasuko had. As we left, the Austrian said, “If you like Austrian pastries you must go to Konditorei in Davis. They have the very best, and they are from Vienna.”
We left, stuffed. I turned to Yasuko. “I suppose that’s why I study Slovak,” I said.
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