HOW healthy is the Slovak favourite fried cheese (vyprážaný syr) with french fries (hranolky)?
photo: Brian Jones

A FEW weeks into my Introduction to the Slovak Language class, war broke out. Civil war, that is - teacher versus students - with no peaceful solution in sight.

Our teacher was a trim and rather severe looking woman called Martina (not her real name). Martina did not have a face or personality that smiled easily; in fact, her down-turned mouth seemed fixed in a permanent grimace. To a group of Americans brought up with the principle of 'smile whether you mean it or not', Martina's dour expression made her slightly suspect.

On the first day of class Martina introduced herself not only as our language teacher but also as a cultural liaison, someone who would help us adjust to our host country. She encouraged us to discuss with her anything that struck us as odd and we, perhaps foolishly, accepted her offer at face value.

Why, we wanted to know, did the girls stare at us as we walked down the streets in running shoes and shorts? Did Slovak women have something personal against comfortable shoes? Also, we had noticed that older Slovak women often do not shave their legs and underarms. Why not? Did all Slovaks guzzle slivovica like it was suddenly in limited supply (as they often insisted we do) and if so, how did they ever make it to work? And why was it that, when we smiled at passersby on the street, they refused to greet us in return, or even acknowledge our presence?

We began every class day with a free-flowing rant session, generally unscheduled, during which we attempted to make sense of our new environment. Our attitudes shifted from curious to confused, from excited to flustered, as we attempted to fit in without freaking out.

At first, Martina responded favourably to our questions, attempting to help us sort out the difference between atypically rude behaviour and simple culture clashes. But soon she became defensive: She took everything we said personally, responding to our questions as if they were accusations.

Rumours reached us that she had gossiped about us, repeating the details of our private conversations. We came to view Martina as a traitor and limited our interaction with her to discussions of vocabulary and grammar. Class time became an exercise in territory control - we stayed on our side; she stayed on hers.

Each class day brought a new deterioration in relations until the situation reached its final, ridiculous zenith.

In a last-ditch effort to expel the hostile atmosphere that had suffused our recent lessons, we took a fieldtrip to a nearby Chinese restaurant. The stated purpose of the lunchtime excursion was to review words for food and cooking practices, but we all knew the real reason. If this did not bring the two sides together, nothing would.

The lunch began on cordial, if not entirely friendly terms. After placing our orders we took out our notebooks and jotted down words like piecť (to bake), smažiť (to fry) and grilovať (to grill). Instead of moving on to the Slovak word for mix or freeze, Martina interrupted herself to note, "Grilling is the most unhealthy method of preparing food. It is interesting that you Americans do not know that."

That did it.

Perhaps it was her haughty tone, the insinuation that "we Americans" did not know something so obvious to her. Perhaps there was something in the water. Most likely, the collective stress of the past few weeks had caused us to take complete leave of our senses.

Martina's health note hardly qualified as fighting words, but in our heightened state of tension, all rational thinking went out the window. To us, this had nothing to do with the questionable health properties of grilling; this was an attack on the very essence of our country. What could possibly be more American than a good old-fashioned summer barbeque? You attack grilling; you attack us!

"Grilling is unhealthy? How can you say that?" shot back one of the students, seething with self-righteous anger. "What about fried cheese and french fries? As if Slovak food is so good for you. Ha!"

Martina's frown lines deepened as the conversation took several jarring turns for the worse.

Every slight or insult from the past few weeks, real or imagined, was thrown down like a gauntlet. The accusations flew, resulting, ironically enough, in the only honest conversation we had ever had. It was, in fact, a conversation we should have had weeks ago, minus the hostility, when the tension in the classroom first started to build. Had we been able to listen to one another, calmly, we might have not only been able to resolve our petty conflicts, but also learned a valuable lesson about cross-cultural communication. Too bad we were all too busy fighting our silly little battles to notice.

We never did patch things up with Martina. But we did, I hope, learn a few lessons from her: Watch what you say, as even the most innocent comments can wound. Forget everything you think of as "normal"; social norms don't apply across borders. And, last but not least, be careful at the barbeque. Yes, yes, Martina was at least partly right; certain methods of grilling can produce carcinogens.

But in the interest of world peace, please don't mention that to any visiting Americans. It can get ugly.