A peek at the West Slavic world

The Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. Slovenske seems to be the Slovak word for Slovak, which makes you wonder what their word for Slovenian is. Photo (c) Bernard O'Shea

The old Slovak National Theatre building in Bratislava. “Slovenske” seems to be the Slovak word for “Slovak”, which makes you wonder what their word for “Slovenian” is. (My internet translator tells me the answer is “Slovinske”). Photo (c) Bernard O’Shea

Normally if I were to go on holiday I would opt for a Romance-language speaking country, partly because from a communications point of view I feel comfortable in that environment, and to give myself more exposure to and practice in the local language. But of course you have to broaden your horizons and stray from your comfort zones, and there are so many other interesting places and languages in the world that it would be a pity to ignore them.

A nice Hungarian goulash moments before being devoured by Bernardo!

A nice Hungarian goulash moments before being devoured by Bernardo!

Very recently, thanks to a prize I won about a year ago, I had the chance to visit the Czech Republic and Poland for the first time, and to see more of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, with partial support from Emirates airline, Rail Europe, and the tourist boards of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. During this time, apart from visiting some really beautiful and interesting places, I’ve eaten lots of wholesome food – spicy sausages and cabbage and goulash with dumplings, roast meats and more roast meats, and a delicious type of sweetbread known as tredelnik, which is cooked on a rotisserie and coated with sugar and various flavours (cinnamon, walnut and almond, for examples).

I have, of course, sampled the famous local wines and beers. Everyone in the Czech Republic seems to think Pilsner Urquell is the best beer, but I found a better brand…

Bernard tastes great, trust me! Photo: Bernard O'Shea

Bernard tastes great, trust me! Photo: Bernard O’Shea

I took my Lonely Planet Europe phrase book with me – it covers 15 languages (including my five Romance languages) but unfortunately Slovak is not one of them. Sad to say, for my tired old brain, it took a lot of memorisation, trial and error (error being the key word here), to be even able to say “good day”, “how are you”, “please” and “thank you” in these languages. And one of my gripes about language phrase books is that they give you the words parrot fashion, without explaining the grammatical structure. So, to give a very simple example, with the Czech greeting “dobrý den!” you have to do a bit of research to confirm that dobrý is the “good” part and den is the day bit of “good day”. Likewise, there is often little indication of which phrases apply when speaking to a man or a woman, if there is gender differential in the language.

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Photo (c) Bernard O'Shea

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic is a great place to visit. Photo (c) Bernard O’Shea

I also find this particular Lonely Planet book weak in the sense that coverage of the greetings – which in my opinion are the most important words to know, the ones you want to use to win over people with politeness and show that you are making an effort to get to know their language and customs – is scattered and patchy. In my opinion, the greetings should be the first words given in a phrase book, not “Do you speak English?”. Czech and Slovak are pretty similar – not surprising, considering that until only recently (1993) the two countries were one as Czechoslovakia – and there is some linguistic crossover into Polish, as these languages belong to what is known as the West Slavic language group. German is the official language in Austria, of course (my appreciation of German increased while I was there) and Hungarian is pretty much a rule unto itself, although it is vaguely related to Finnish and Estonian.

DSCF4660These languages, particularly Polish with its apparent lack of vowels and proliferation of “weird” (to an outsider) clusters of consonants – for example, czy mozna przygotowac means “could you prepare?” – must seem strange to those who speak English and Romance languages. I was expecting them to sound harsh on my ear, but from what I heard spoken and on radio, this was not the case at all. Like many languages, they are mellifluous in their own way.

In the Czech republic I bought a 2CD compilation of the hits of 2014 titled Top 20.cz (Ceskych a Slovenskych Hitu). The first CD featured Czech artists, and possibly Slovak ones too, the second international ones. Here’s a track that I like from the former by Divokej Bill, a group that my online translator tells me goes by the name of Wild Bill, and the song title is Wake Up!

Here’s a version illustrating the lyrics – sing along everyone!

It wasn’t all Slavic languages though. In the Roland Cafe in the main square of Bratislava, where we dined one night, there was live music featuring a duo singing, of all things, in Portuguese. Their repertoire was mainly Brazilian, such as songs by the likes of Marisa Monte. It was like being in Rio de Janeiro.

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