Summer nights at the chalupa, and late good mornings

MARIE-HÉLŢENE CÔTÉ is Canadian from Montreal, Quebec and has been living in Slovakia for three and a half years. She is currently working as a lawyer in the Bratislava office of Linklaters, an international law firm.

photo: Sectator archives

MARIE-HÉLŢENE CÔTÉ is Canadian from Montreal, Quebec and has been living in Slovakia for three and a half years. She is currently working as a lawyer in the Bratislava office of Linklaters, an international law firm.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What is your favourite place to visit or go for a trip?

Marie-Hélene Côté (MHC): Spending the weekend in a chalupa (traditional village house) in Terchová (Malá Fatra). I love the morning trip to the potok (creek) for a wash and some fresh water, goulash cooked on an open fire pit, sharing the outhouse with the occasional spider, the sound of rain on the tin roof, the beautiful unspoiled surroundings and, most of all, the welcoming people.

TSS: What surprised you the most when you came to Slovakia?

MHC: Asking someone "how are you" in the usual North-American absent-minded manner, and finding myself bombarded with a litany of complaints about health, relationships, the weather, but mostly the recurrent veľa práce, málo peňazí (lots of work, little money). I was also struck by the old town's humble beggars, the way they kneel as if in prayer; by the man selling newspapers on the street yelling "nech sa páči" with the funniest voice, and by Rudi, the street musician who plays rock and roll on a one-string guitar using a comb.

TSS: Have you had any embarrassing moments or language faux pas with Slovaks?

MHC: Many, and despite improving my command of the language, I still do. For instance, I persisted until last week in using the greeting dobré ráno (good morning) until about noon, although I could not help but notice the air of puzzlement on most people's faces. Someone finally got up the nerve to tell me that 9 a.m. was the utmost limit for such a greeting; anytime after that falls under the more generic dobrý deń (good day), which I suppose makes sense in a country where garbage men start their shift at 2 a.m. and butcher shops open for business at 6 a.m.

TSS: What will be your lasting memory/memories of Slovakia?

MHC: Hot summer nights shared with friends in a garden in Trnávka, eating klobása grilled on the barbecue, drinking home-made slivovica, discussing politics, the economy and the pace of reforms, returning home filled with pride at having survived yet another evening speaking nothing but Slovak without the slightest trace of a headache. I'll also remember the Christmas market on Hlavné námestie, eating pancakes filled with liver pate and drinking varené víno in the cold of winter.

I'll remember Hviezdoslavovo námestie, which has been a mirror of the city's evolution during my time here. It used to be a rather dark and run-down park. I remember once seeing a lady harvest the daffodils from the flowerbeds and later that day sell them downtown - her contribution to the privatisation efforts I suppose. The square has since metamorphosed into a beautiful public place that is a vibrant revival of the traditional korzo. I will have lasting memories of opening all our windows on late summer afternoons and letting the music of the band and the good spirit of the crowd fill the air.

TSS: What are you taking home as a present from Slovakia?

MHC: Hugo, a little Roma boy we adopted a year and a half ago. He has brought tremendous joy to our family, and the occasional jealous fit from his older brother. Most Slovaks we know were at first stunned when we told them about our plans to adopt a Roma boy. In an attempt to find a positive comment, more than one remarked "euhhh... he will be talented in music". As it turns out, Hugo is quite musically inclined, but he is much more than that too. All Slovaks who have come to know him - neighbours, friends, colleagues) find him endearing. The fact that Hugo is a gypsy has never been an issue for them; for us, it is something to respect.

photo: Sectator archives

WENDY KEAVENEY is British and works as Personal Assistant to the Defence Attaché at the British Embassy in Bratislava. She has been living in Slovakia for nearly two and a half years.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What is your favourite place to eat and drink?

Wendy Keaveney (WK): Bratislava has many good restaurants with friendly service. I enjoy the grilled food at U Filipa. The Zwaan has great steaks and mussels and the revolving restaurant at the TV tower is a good way to show Bratislava to visitors.

TSS: What Slovak dish or drink do you like?

WK: Garlic soup in bread and properly done bryndzové halušky are my favourites. I'm not so sure about the dumplings. I prefer the white wine as some of the reds I find a little heavy.

TSS: What is your favourite place to visit?

WK: I like to go to Červený Kameň via Modra and back via Smolenice. Devín is a lovely place to visit, especially by boat. I like going to central and northern Slovakia for longer trips, especially the Liptovský Mikuláš area and Dolný Kubín.

TSS: What surprised you the most when you came here?

WK: The high standard and variety of cultural events. I cannot believe you can go to the theatre and see a different opera or ballet each evening.

TSS: What advice would you give to a foreigner who comes to Slovakia for the first time?

WK: Explore and make the most of the beautiful places before too many people discover them and the area becomes too overcrowded and spoiled.

TSS: What is the main difference or similarity between Slovaks and people of your nationality?

WK: Slovaks laugh more, are less greedy and class conscious. Generally I think people are more caring and seem better mannered than in the UK.

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