As anyone who has ever attempted to speak a foreign language knows, even after you have mastered the basics, the little things are still going to get you. I have learned this the hard way, as has each and every Slovak who has patiently endured my well-intentioned mutilation of his or her language.
I wasted no time getting started. In the midst of my first perplexing week in Slovakia I informed my host mother, "I eat chicken, but I don't eat ham." At least, that is what I thought I said, but from the look on her face it was clear that either not eating ham in this country is an idiosyncrasy worthy of a mental exam or I had chosen the wrong word. What I had in fact said to her was, "I eat chicken, but I don't eat skirts," the differences between the words for ham (šunka) and skirt (sukoa) so slight as to be nearly indiscernible to my American ears.
Nearly two years after that first mishap, my language abilities have improved dramatically, but not to such an extent that I have ceased to make a fool of myself on a regular basis. Even now I am forced to pause while attempting to buy produce, uncertain of whether I am asking for grapes (hrozná) or announcing to the baffled shopkeeper that something about her stand is awful (hrozný).
Slightly more problematically, I have given up on ever differentiating between the words for entry (vchod) and exit (východ), relying instead on the appearance of dumpsters and back alleys to tell me when I have selected the wrong door. And I don't even want to talk about the number of times I have surprised my neighbours by asking if they could please explain to me what was wrong with our relationship (vz?ah), when all I really wanted to know was what the hold up was with our building's elevator (vý?ah).
Recently, while teaching a friend to make oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies, I discovered yet another example of the subtle yet striking importance a simple consonant can make. I was in the midst of dictating a list of ingredients, "...one cup of flour, one teaspoon of cinnamon, one cup of oats...," when my friend suddenly collapsed into a convulsive fit of laughter. She gasped for breath and asked if I knew what I had just said. Utterly confused, I reached for the bag to show her. "See," I said, "Vloeky. Oats. That's what I said." Close, but not quite. The word I had used was not vloeky but vložky, and with this seemingly innocuous error I had effectively told my friend to add one cup of sanitary pads to the cookie batter - an unusual recipe, to say the least.
As embarrassing as each of these verbal snafus has been, none has brought me such red-faced embarrassment as an unfortunate conversation I had roughly one year ago with a nun. It was my first day teaching at a local Catholic primary school, and I had been shepherded into the teachers' lounge to await further instructions. A nun approached and soon engaged me in one of those ubiquitous local-meets-foreigner conversations: How long had I been here? How did I like it? Was I homesick? I had been through this conversation so many times that I could practically do it in my sleep and usually formulated my answers with about as much thought, so I was caught off guard when she asked me a question I had not been expecting. The nun, looking me dead in the eye and reaching out for my hand said, "Tell me, do you have an animal?" Surprised by both the question and the seriousness with which it had been presented, I pulled back my hand and replied, "Oh no, never have. I'm away a lot on weekends, so it's hard." The nun looked both confused and disappointed with my response.
It was only after she was long gone that I, puzzled over what seemed like a gross over-reaction on her part, realised what had gone wrong. The nun had not, as I had assumed, asked me if I had an animal (zviera). Rather, she had enquired into whether or not I had religious faith (viera), to which my flippant reply, "Oh no, never have...," surely must have seemed the height of blasphemy. My epiphany came too late for me to explain myself to the startled nun and so, no longer able to amend my original statement, I resolved to handle the miscommunication in the only mature and sensible manner left open to me. Now, whenever I see a nun, I fix my guilty eyes firmly on my shoes and run.
I'll be leaving Slovakia soon, but I trust that some other well meaning but somewhat befuddled foreigner will soon arrive to take my place; confusing the local population with requests for chicken instead of skirts, and describing the situation in the Middle East, with a fatalistic shake of the head, as grapes.
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 24, Vol. 8, No. 24.