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SLOVAK MATTERS

On wintertime, warm drinks and sneezes

The first snows of winter have arrived in Slovakia, and with them the first kýchania (achews) of the winter cold season.
The good news is that Slovaks are a solicitous people, especially when confronted by chorí (the ill). But if you want to cash in on free over the counter drugs from neighbours and doctor's certificates excusing you from work for weeks at a time (ospravedlnenka), you'll have to learn to name what ails you.
Chrípka is the flu, although it sounds more like a small bird to me. Nádcha is the common cold, hnačka diarrhoea and horúčka a fever. Stuffy nose (plný nos) nearly translates literally, and kašeľ is a cough. (The verb kašľať also means to disregard something, as in Kašlem na to. Už pracujem na to 14 hodín. Idem domov. [I don't give a damn anymore. I've been working on this for 14 hours. I'm going home.])

The first snows of winter have arrived in Slovakia, and with them the first kýchania (achews) of the winter cold season.

The good news is that Slovaks are a solicitous people, especially when confronted by chorí (the ill). But if you want to cash in on free over the counter drugs from neighbours and doctor's certificates excusing you from work for weeks at a time (ospravedlnenka), you'll have to learn to name what ails you.

Chrípka is the flu, although it sounds more like a small bird to me. Nádcha is the common cold, hnačka diarrhoea and horúčka a fever. Stuffy nose (plný nos) nearly translates literally, and kašeľ is a cough. (The verb kašľať also means to disregard something, as in Kašlem na to. Už pracujem na to 14 hodín. Idem domov. [I don't give a damn anymore. I've been working on this for 14 hours. I'm going home.])

Headaches and throat aches and every other kind of ache are handled by the verb bolieť, to experience pain. Bolieť is a little tricky because it takes as its subject the cause of the pain and as its object the sufferer of the pain, as in bolí ma hrdlo (my throat hurts, lit. the throat hurts me).

I raise the point to illustrate a broader peculiarity: Slovak - especially where the body is affected - has an abundance of such phrases in which the emphasis is placed on the event happening to the individual. It's almost as if people are victims to their bodies (pichá ma v bruchu, I'm having stabbing pains in my stomach, lit. it stabs me in the stomach), possessions (spadlo mi pero, my pen fell, lit. my pen fell to me) and surroundings (je mi tu teplo, it's hot in here, lit. it is to me hot here).

This takes a little getting used to for the native English speaker, who expects his nose to run, not his nose to run to him (tečie mu nos), his head to ache, not his head to ache him (bolí ma hlava) and that he feels sick, not that it be sick to him (je mi zle, lit. it is to me bad).

You'll need to develop a feel for this just to say I'm cold (je mi zima, lit. it is to me cold). Slangier expressions include drgľuje ma (lit. it is shaking me) and the perplexing Je mi kosa (lit. it is to me scythe.) Zima ako v Rusku (cold as a Russian winter) and studený ako psí čumák (cold as a dog's sniffer) are grammatically simpler but equally piquant ways of saying the same thing.

If the cold manages to get under your fingernails (zima sa mi dostala pod nechty), as Slovaks say, and you catch a cold (prechladnúť), you'll have to rely on over the counter drugs that can be quite different to what you're used to at home. I recently took something for my stomach called čierne uhlie. It turned out to be plain old-fashioned coal. The old standbys aspirin (acylpirín) and Ibuprofen (ibuprofén) are available for combating pain.

If the pills don't help, you're at the mercy of a nearly bankrupt medical system and the theories of well-meaning friends. For every illness there are a hundred Slovak home remedies (ľudová liečba). I am inclined to label most of these old wives' tales (Recepty starých mám), yet in recent days I had a strong horúčka broken by a recept starých mám that required me to lay in a cocoon of soaking-wet towels for nearly an hour. It was to me scythe, but it worked.

Slippers (papuče) are Slovaks first and last line of defence against getting sick. There is a saying that it is conceivable for a Norwegian to have a sauna and no house but not a house without a sauna. I think you can safely substitute the word Norwegian for Slovak and the word sauna for 'heaping pile of multi-coloured, multi-sized slippers'. Good news for your feet, but a strain on your Slovak, since the language has separate words for taking off (vyzuť sa) and putting on (obuť sa) footwear. A typical exchange:

Nemusíš sa vyzuť...

(You don't have to take off your shoes.)

Ale si aspoň obuj papuče...

(Well at least put on slippers)

One of my favourite Slovak winter words is palčiaky, which means mittens. In recent years the pronunciation has morphed into pálčáky in honour and jest of today's Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities, the Hungarian Coalition Party politician Pál Csáky.

The all-time best winter Slovak word, however, is hriatô. The ô is pronounced like 'whoa', which reminds me of the America cartoon character Elmer Fudd, who pronounced his R's as W's.

In the Liptov Region, a dialect is still spoken in which hundreds of words end in ô. It's pwiceless.

Hriatô, incidentally, is a winter drink of white alcohol (typically vodka or slivovica) boiled with grease and water, served and purported to be healthy.

Enjoy the word, enjoy the wine, and don't forget to wear papuče.

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.

The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands December 24, Vol. 7, No. 49.

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