With my first Slovak summer approaching in 1999, I was warned by expats who had endured the brutal summer of 1998 of a hellish season to come. I was made to imagine a Bratislava of steaming-hot asphalt, fainting senior citizens, trams packed and sweaty like saunas, broken down old buses, and boiling-hot auto parts sloughing off cars in the afternoon sun. And through it all, per local custom, I would have to wear long pants.
Only the sauna-tram part turned out to be true, and yet three years later I still can't decide if I enjoy (vychutnám) or endure (vydržím) summer. The problem is the heat (horúčava) and the humidity (vlhkosť), exacerbated by overcrowded public transportation (preplnená verejná doprava) and too little air conditioning (klimatizácia). Summer in Slovakia (leto na Slovensku) comes too late and stays too long.
The greatest linguistic challenge posed by leto is zmrzlina - five muscular consonants strangling a single enclosed vowel.
I use zmrzlina, which means ice-cream, to impress my friends back home that I can speak Slovak. What I neglect to say is that a vowel is voiced between the 'm' and 'r', making the pronunciation 'zmerzleena'. Of course, a fortress remains to be stormed - an unbroken three-consonant chain including a rolled 'r'. Once you can pronounce zmrzlina, you're in the Slovak language big leagues.
Those in the minor leagues can still order ice cream. Just ask for a cone (kornútok) and however many scoops (kopčeky) you desire. In most places you can indicate the flavour by pointing at foreigner-friendly pictures. I recommend orechová (hazlenut), stracatellé (chocolate chip) and karamelová (caramel).
The greatest linguistic gaffe that comes with summer involves the phrase "I am hot". Literally, this would be ja som teplý, which is slang for "I am gay". What you probably want to say is je mi teplo, which literally translated back to English means "it is to me hot".
It's interesting that in English 'hot' is slang for sexy. It reminds me of the famous 'bird' mix-up. Bird is slang in Britain and Australia for a beautiful woman. But walk down a beach in Slovakia and say nice bird (pekný vták) and your friends will think you are commenting on a man's crotch. They'll either think you are teplý (if you are male), or bezočivá (brazen) if you're a woman.
Once you've got feeling hot down, take a shot at the language's more colourful phrases, such as 'I'm sweating like a donkey in a suitcase' (potím sa ako somár v kufri). Slovaks like nothing more than to complain all winter about the cold and then bemoan the summer horúčava and potenie (sweating). To this end they have invented a roster of colourful phrases. Here are five personal favourites:
1. Je tu dobré peklo (It's hot as hell in here; lit. It's good hell in here)
2. Leje zo mňa (I'm sweating buckets; lit. It's pouring off me)
3. Pražím sa na slnku (I'm frying in the sun)
4. Kúpem sa vo vlastnej šťave (I'm bathing in my own juices)
5. Potím sa ako sviňa vo fraku (I'm sweating like a pig in a tux)
The heat reminds me of Slovakia's most egregious flaw as a country: no coastline (žiadne pobrežie). It's too bad Slovakia can't swap locations with the Greeks or Croats for the summer. (Thanks to the diplomacy of actor and honorary consul Andrej Hric, Slovakia does enjoy tip-top relations with the Seychelles Islands. Maybe something is in the works.)
So far Slovaks have compensated by building swimming pools, or bazény or kúpaliská or plavárne (so many they apparently needed three synonyms). If you prefer bathing in the altogether (kúpať sa nahý) you'll find Slovak lakes (jazerá) more accommodating. The Bratislava region's Čunovo and Rusovce spring to mind.
Whether nude or in a swimsuit (plavky) you are sure to catch some rays (chytať bronz, lit. to catch bronze). Don't forget to use sunscreen (opaľovací krém): you want to be tan (opálený), not burned red as a lobster (spálený červený ako rak).
Of course, Slovakia's greatest summer joy is not sunbathing nahý or ordering a kornútok of zmrzlina or damning the horúčava. The ultimate pleasure is the country's lax attitude toward work: three-hour lunches in the pub, long weekends stretching into Wednesday, idle, unsupervised afternoons checking e-mail near an oscillating fan. In what other country can you cut out of work at three and be the last one to leave?
30. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds