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SLOVAK MATTERS

A word to the nepozorný Watch your step

WHILE hiking the Ve3ký Choe mountain recently, I chanced upon a family of bears. But here's the amazing thing: they did not eat me.
This came about, mind you, purely by accident. Entering a small meadow, I was seized by one of my annual springtime sneezing fits. These are violent affairs, often including 10 body-rattling convulsions that, as the case may be, create a rich timbre heard throughout an otherwise silent forest.
After regaining balance I noticed that my outburst had scared something up a tree 40 metres away. The small evergreen was quaking under the significant weight of an animal that could not have been a squirrel. Five seconds later a bear cub plopped out of the branches.

WHILE hiking the Ve3ký Choe mountain recently, I chanced upon a family of bears. But here's the amazing thing: they did not eat me.

This came about, mind you, purely by accident. Entering a small meadow, I was seized by one of my annual springtime sneezing fits. These are violent affairs, often including 10 body-rattling convulsions that, as the case may be, create a rich timbre heard throughout an otherwise silent forest.

After regaining balance I noticed that my outburst had scared something up a tree 40 metres away. The small evergreen was quaking under the significant weight of an animal that could not have been a squirrel. Five seconds later a bear cub plopped out of the branches.

It was an obvious newborn, staggering awkwardly on its ungainly little legs. I felt blessed to have witnessed this scene. But then came a terrifying thought: where's mamma bear? I turned and saw her less than 30 metres away standing on hind legs peering in the direction of the startled cub. Another baby pawed the ground, then looked up and locked eyes with me.

Five seconds and 100 metres later I had sprinted back down the hill in a stride comparable to that of a cheetah. The bears did not follow.

Now, for most people this may seem like a small feat. But for me, the fact that my limbs are still my limbs is a tremendously lucky one. For over the past several months while preparing the Spectacular Slovakia 2002 travel magazine, I have learned a very disturbing lesson: I am a danger to myself (Som sám sebe hrozbou). In this case, had it not been for my hay fever I would walked straight into that bear cub (the tree it climbed straddled the trail I was approaching). And never mind that I had managed to enter a tiny patch of grass without noticing the immediate presence of several potentially hungry bears.

The problem is that I am hopelessly careless (nepozorný). Combine this with another new discovery - namely, that I am scatter-brained (roztržitý) - and hiking alone in the woods is a dangerous proposition for me. It is not just that the trails are steep and the woods full of bears. For me, everything holds the potential of disaster.

My most recent pitfall occurred outside Eiemany. Passing a patch of snow, I scooped up a handful and began sucking on the ice - a bad idea for the nepozorný, who need total concentration on what is for us the challenging act of placing one foot before the other.

So while deciding which bit of ice to bite off next, I walked straight off the path and tumbled five feet down a cliff. My shin still bears red scar tissue as a trophy.

Being nepozorný does have its benefits, though. Mainly, it seems to amuse others to no end. I am now regularly asked how many times I walked into something hard and immovable on my last trip. Just today, in fact, while telling a friend about those bears, I said, "Guess what happened to me last week!", to which he responded - without hesitation - "Si spadol" (You fell down).

Then again, being nepozorný is unfortunate because my body is running out of space for my growing collection of scars (jazvy) and wounds (zranenia). While hiking in Slovenský raj national park, which is known for its steep, narrow gorges, I fell off a ladder. That was over a month ago. Yet even now when I do something strenuous - like breathing - the right side of my rib cage stabs me in angry protest.

It should be noted here that nepozorný and roztržitý are not the same as nemotorný and neobratný, which mean uncoordinated. Dictionaries also list netaktný under clumsy, but this describes a person lacking tact, someone who will barge into a serious conversation and lead unwilling interlocutors down an unrelated conversational path.

I am neither, but I am undoubtedly nepozorný and roztržitý. My friends like to remind me - because I need reminding - that I am mimo (literally, withdrawn, fig. 'out of it'). They know well that glazed-eye look suggesting that I am no longer sitting in that chair opposite them, a look that caused my ex-girlfriend to snap: 'Na eo myslíš teraz' (What you are thinking about now). Luckily, I usually can't remember.

It's not my fault, though, I have an excuse: this travel magazine. After all, I have 150 pages - I think - of text to write. There's a lot on my mind. The unfortunate result, however, is that I do regrettable things that often leave me looking like an idiot (or hlupák, somár).

But that is not the point of this story. The point is, naturally, something that I have long ago lost track of.

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 June 10, Vol. 8, No. 22.

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