Tag Archives: cultural exchange

Knick-knacks and Kittens

Mama and Otec are in town. They just arrived yesterday. What does this mean? It’s time for another Slovak language immersion…but this time it’s personal. Let me explain.

The first time I met my husband he told me his name is Lotso, L-O-T-S-O, and then offered me the mnemonic device “You know, lotso trouble.” I immediately doubted that spelling and asked him where he was from. Slovakia. Eh? Slovakia. It’s not Slovenia—somehow, most people instantly associate Slovakia with Slovenia when my husband or I mention his country of origin. Oh, you’re from Slovakia? I have a sister-in-law from Slovenia! Really? Where did you say you’re from? Great Britain? No kidding!! I have a brother-in-law from Ghana!! What a coincidence.  Wait, I think I’ve fallen off track. Oh, yes, Laco. How do you really spell your name I asked him. Don’t worry about it, he said. Tell me, I pressed, I’m not an idiot, I assured him. L-A-C-O, he spelled it out. That’s the correct spelling. This was my first Slovak language lesson, it began with the letter ‘c,’ which is pronounced like tah next to sah and together it makes tsah. LOT-SO. Oh-tets (Otec means ‘Dad’).

We met in Egypt. To be precise, we met at a Halloween Party at the US Embassy in Cairo. We were speaking English, Egyptian Arabic, there was a good deal of French, sometimes even Russian…the atmosphere was filled with mosque Arabic, I knocked my head on newspaper Arabic, but SLOVAK? No, not so much. Laco’s English is beautiful and his Egyptian Arabic was hilarious…being a person who picks up languages easily and who has several under his belt, Laco jumps into a new language easily, joyously, and just goes for it. It’s beautiful and exciting to watch him. I’m more reserved, more measured. Although I have an ‘ear’ for language, I’m not nearly as talented as my husband, who grew up exposed to several languages and is married in his fifth language: English. That’s just craziness.

In contrast, I find learning a new language to be incredibly painful—as if I can feel it ripping into my brain, shifting things about, and carving at my very self. Do you remember Maurice? I wrote about him several weeks ago. He talked about language as something that we embody and said that he wasn’t yet ready to embody Japanese. He also said that when you are first learning a new language, you have no self. Oh, but do I know what he means!! It’s humbling, it’s frustrating, and it HURTS!!!

Laco and I had known each other for well over two years by the time we travelled to Slovakia for the first time. We had dated for two years and then sometime after getting married we travelled to visit his family and friends—none of whom, at that time, spoke a word of English (his brother can now communicate in English). We stayed with his parents and younger brother and visited his sister, her family, and several of his old friends and I spent two full weeks feeling completely overwhelmed, somewhat invisible, and far more *dependent* on my husband than was comfortable. He didn’t want to spend his time translating because he was excited to see his family and friends and had a lot to talk about with them! Here’s a typical experience on the trip: “blah blah blahski blah blahski blah blahovich” (and on for ten minutes) “What are you guys talking about?” and Laco would answer, in SLOVAK, “Wait” and they would continue “blahska blahski blah blahveny blah blahkye blah truba blah blah pochkye blah blahski blah” for another half hour until I would elbow my husband impatiently and ask “Will you PLEASE translate?!” He would kindly sum up 40 minutes of conversation with something like, “We are talking about his work” BAH!!!!

Slowly, very slowly, I started to pick up a word here and there. Slowly. Perhaps if Mr. Lotsa trouble translated more often I would have picked up more sooner…it’s hard to say. Between trips I listened closely when Laco talked to his family and friends on Skype and continued to pick up a few words here and there. Finally(it took FOREVER), I decided to get serious. That’s it! I NEED to be able to gossip with my sister-in-law! I want to talk to her about everything!! I want to communicate with my husband’s parents and his friends…I want to read Jaraslav Seifert! I want to WORK in Slovakia. So it was decided that I would travel to Slovakia—alone—and stay with my in-laws for what originally was supposed to be three months…but looks to be turning into six months starting from May. Luckily, before taking that great plunge I am blessed with Slovak houseguests for the next month: Laco’s parents for two weeks followed by (immediately—not one day off) his four friends from college. Yesterday was day one of my immersion.

Since I remembered how stressful and exhausting those first few visits to Slovakia were (on the first visit I would repeatedly escape to my room and HIDE!! My brain was melting!), I tried to think of a strategy to make the immersion more ‘manageable’ (ha ha). Yesterday I got the great idea that I would try to learn five words and two phrases each day (language learning is SO not that controlled). Although I know that immersion cannot be contained it helped me feel less over-run and intimidated because I no longer felt pressured to listen *really hard* whenever anyone was speaking…which, with Laco’s family is CONSTANTLY!

Everyone in Laco’s family is so excited that I have made a serious commitment to learn Slovak and they are all working hard to help me. His Mom brought me Slovak language learning books that his sister tracked down for me (these are NOT easy to find—Slovak is definitely not a popular language to learn–if availability of language learning materials is any indication), a Slovak-English phrasebook, and a popular magazine to ‘read.’ His dad is helping me (ha ha) by teaching me single words and then telling me how to say those words in Russian and Hungarian as well! Today I told him, “No Ruski!! No Hungarian!! Slovenska is enough!”

What does ANY of this have to do with knick-knacks and kittens? Oh! That’s a literal translation of one of the phrases I learned today: tchotchke matchki (spelling??), which is the equivalent of the English phrase “bells and whistles.” So, rather than arm myself with a bunch of language learning accessories that keep me locked in my room and out of the natural, real-time linguistic environment I am simply jumping in and catching whatever I can. At the end of the day, I’ll curl up in bed, write in English, and have chocolate and red wine for dinner (well, at least that’s what I’m doing tonight). Cherveny Vino! Nazdravie!

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What Can You Do?

Several weeks ago a friend of mine was in a car accident here in Japan. Well, her car was stopped at a red light when another vehicle struck it. There was enough damage for it to be a hassle but she wasn’t injured, the other driver wasn’t hurt, and she wasn’t worried too much because she knew her insurance would cover the repair costs. Soon after the accident she got smacked again with a little culture shock: She was assigned 5% responsibility for the accident. It turns out, that in Japan each party is assigned a percentage of responsibility for an accident no matter how ‘innocent’ one may be. My friend really thought this was funny—it drove her husband nuts—but she just thought it was interesting and funny. “Five percent!” she laughed, “What’s the point?!”

What is the point? Well, I suppose the point of it is that the moment a person decides to join that community of drivers she becomes a part of that group and is responsible for anything that might happen while she is on the road. The very fact that she is driving and has decided on some level to accept the risk that an accident might happen makes her responsible. I think I love that. I think there is a deep truth in that that many of us raised in cultures that don’t write group orientation into something as pedestrian as traffic legislation (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun) could really benefit from reflecting and chewing on. Maybe throw into practice a little.

Is that too abstract? Imagine it’s a Johnny Cash song and we’re flying along some highway with hair splitting the wind and for a moment, a beautiful moment, a clarity settles in your feeling and your vision and you can sense in perfect and tangible detail that you are living. You are living because you have chosen to, you are on the highway, the boulevard, the back road or the cul de sac because you put yourself there and you are at the very least 5% responsible. Do you see what I mean?

Once I received news that blew a hole through my subtle stomach. The ache was so deep I could barely breathe and everything went blurry. We learned that we couldn’t make our own babies and it felt like the baby I always imagined I would one day grow and raise died. It wasn’t only the baby that died but, seemingly, the mother in me died. For months I could barely breathe. I couldn’t do Yoga, I couldn’t taste my food, I couldn’t compute my history…I was flailing and flailing until my arms became so exhausted from all the flapping they forced me into a resolution: If I can’t have a baby, what can I do?

What can you do? It sounds so trite…but I think my gym teachers were being quite freaking radical when they told me “There is no such thing as can’t”…perhaps they really were just thinking of street hockey and dodge ball but really what can I do?

The moment I asked myself that question and began meditating on it, the hole in my stomach transformed itself into a blazing sun that fuels me, keeps me warm, and keeps me up at all hours writing, thinking, working.

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