Slovak Matters: travel lessons - in Slovak and otherwise

The family warned me that eastern Slovakia was dangerous, but I thought it must be safer than continuing as the object of their hospitality.

Reynolds takes to the road to improve his Slovak.Reynolds takes to the road to improve his Slovak. (Source: Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash)

Frustrated with my progress in Slovak and feeling hemmed in by Bratislava, I hit the open road (vydať sa na cesty) on an August day for a 10-day tour through Slovakia (po Slovensku). Train and hitchhiking (vlak a stopovanie) were to be my modes of transportation. I would study Slovak every night, and engage strangers in long conversations. After having lived in this country for a year and a half, it was time, linguistically speaking, to sink or swim.

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The first leg of my trip began, appropriately, in Martin, the birthplace of the Slovak language in 1848 and centre of a region where the purest Slovak is spoken. Locals, for example, tend to roll their 'd's, 'l's, 'n's and 't's whenever this is required by a mekchen, meaning that the ľ in doľava - to the left - is pronounced doh-lyava, compared to the hard Bratislava 'dollava'. I had a vague connection with a family in Martin that had agreed to put me up should I ever be passing through.

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In one of his travel books, Bill Bryson writes that the most intractable quality of the English is their insistence that England is a big place. The opposite was true of this Martin family, who demanded I stay for more than a day and carted me here, there and everywhere (kade tade) through Slovakia, insisting our destinations were so close it would be wasteful not to see them all. We visited Levoča's churches (kostoly), which were just a kúsok (lit. a small piece) from Spišský Hrad (castle), collected mushrooms (zbierať hríby) in nearby mountains, and drove to Orava Hrad, which they again insisted was only a kúsok from Martin.

During my stay I was assailed by Slovak hospitality (pohostinnosť), which meant, first of all, being offered slippers (papuče). Even though I consider walking barefoot one of the joys of indoor living, I accepted the flip-flops to put my guests at ease, who seemed to believe that going without footwear was a sure route to dying of pneumonia. I also made sure I mastered the correct occasions on which to put on my shoes (obuť sa), take off my shoes (vyzuť sa), change my shoes (prezuť sa), and took care not to say to much on the virtues of being barefoot (bosý) compared to shod (obutý).

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