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SLOVAK MATTERS

Hardly working on the first of May

AS SOMEONE who emigrated from Slovakia in 1969, I relished the opportunity to explore the mysteries of one the biggest holidays of the communist era - the sviatok práce (work holiday). Having grown up with the capitalist equivalent (Labour Day), my first thoughts were of the paradox of the literal translation.
It brought to mind a story that took place shortly after my family emigrated to South Africa. During his first week of work, my father, when asked by his new boss how things were going, proudly replied "I'm hardly working." And so it was in those days, I thought, that as in the west, the holiday of work was anything but work.

AS SOMEONE who emigrated from Slovakia in 1969, I relished the opportunity to explore the mysteries of one the biggest holidays of the communist era - the sviatok práce (work holiday). Having grown up with the capitalist equivalent (Labour Day), my first thoughts were of the paradox of the literal translation.

It brought to mind a story that took place shortly after my family emigrated to South Africa. During his first week of work, my father, when asked by his new boss how things were going, proudly replied "I'm hardly working." And so it was in those days, I thought, that as in the west, the holiday of work was anything but work.

Although under communism the 1st of May was a holiday, most people were expected to prepare for and participate in the various activities that took place that day - the main one being a banner-carrying procession through the streets of each town (see article this page) Banners (transparenty) sporting slogans (heslá, also used for the English 'password') of the time were proudly carried past a tribunal made up of high-ranking communist officials. Banners such as Nech žije 1. Máj - sviatok pracujúceho ľudu celého sveta (long live the 1st of May - holiday for the workers of the whole world) and Nech žije sviatok pracujúcich (long live the holiday of workers) proved that creativity and self-expression were not at issue here.

Other slogans proudly displayed on banners were Budujeme socializmus - so Sovietskym Zväzom na večné časy (we are building Socialism - with the Soviet Union forever), Proletári všetkých krajín spojte sa (proletarians of all countries unite), Práci Česť (honour to work), and Buduj Vlasť - Posilníš Mier (build your homeland - you will strengthen peace). I often wonder just how many people actually believed the message in these slogans. Then I just as often recall sports fanatics at western stadiums doing 'the wave' and cheering for their 'team', and it all somehow becomes clear.

Some of the more humorous slogans have to include: Kto stojí na chodníku nemiluje republiku (he who stands on the sidewalk doesn't love his republic, ie 'Keep walking, man, keep walking'); Kto nejde s nami ide proti nám (who doesn't go with us goes against us, or if you ain't with us, you's against us); Gottwald a Široký nech nám žijú naveky (Gottwald and Široký, may they live forever, which makes one wonder if Široký's name wasn't used just for the rhyming effect, "široký" also meaning "wide" in Slovak); So Sovietskym Zväzom na večné časy a nikdy inak (With the Soviet Union forever and never any different - I guess this one's date of expiry was 1989); Usilovnou prácou za svetový mier (hard work for world peace - the phrase "hard work" brings to mind "hardly working" and in this context just automatically gives me the giggles); Práca šľachtí človeka (work makes a person noble - "šľachta" is the term used for "nobility", which last I heard was not attainable by working); Budovaním komunizmu za svetový mier (building Communism for world peace - this one is just plain silly); and finally, my favourite, Mládež - buditeľka rána! (Youth - the awakening of the morning! - to this day I have yet to meet a "Yout", as Joe Pesci would say, that has seen the sunrise - at the start of their day, that is).

Other amusing work-related sayings, some still in use today, include Komu sa nelení, tomu sa zelení. (He who is not lazy will be green - as in a bountiful harvest), Bez práce nie sú koláče (without work there will be no cake), and Práca - chlieb pre dušu (Work - bread for the soul).

Old posters are also a great source for rib-tickling slogans: Cez našu dedinu americký agent neprejde (no American agent will get past our village), Nehovor o tom čo robíš - nevieš kto ťa počúva (Don't talk about what you're doing - you don't know who is listening to you) and Ruský jazyk - jazyk pokroku a mieru (the Russian language - the language of progress and peace).

So there you have it, the lexicon to May 1st communist slogans and some philosophical advice to boot. I know I learned that I should keep walking on the sidewalks (is standing in the street ok?), watch what I say, and keep an eye out for American agents in villages. But most importantly I now know that by hardly working I will be green and have lots of cakes and also bread for my soul.

Long live Gottwald and the wide one!

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands May 13, Vol. 8, No. 18.

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