BRATISLAVA – I stopped in a local sports shop yesterday to buy my older son a birthday present: a Slovak hockey jersey. (Yes, I’ve been bitten by the Olympic bug. See Feb. 19 post, “The Thrill of Victory”)
I wound up in a pleasant conversation, in Slovak, with the shop clerk and his buddy. After my hiatus to study some Cantonese (see Sept. 22 post, “Easy For You To Say”), I’m regaining the sea legs with the Slovak language. Four months away set me back. Yet during this unexpected chat, I felt it return to me.
Where I stumbled, I could see the friend furiously recalling the English he’d learned in high school. So, we bantered, and I heard all about their Slovak friend who’d lived in the U.S. for 30-some years, fathered two children – both U.S. citizens – but was then deported back here. For some reason. That part escaped me. But I understood the gist!
(I settled on a 20-euro jersey of Slovak Marian Hossa, a leader of the current Olympic team. I later showed my son online how Hossa plays professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. I figured, he needs to know just how cool this over-sized jersey really is. He caught my drift … and wore it as pajamas last night.)
With the jersey tucked under my arm, I moved on to a café: time for some espresso. I plugged in at a table next to three pleasant-looking young women. Speaking Hungarian. Their mother tongue. So pleasant to my ear, since I hear it every day, between my wife and our kids, and often between our sons. (Me, only when I scold them – in code.)
In need of the WC, and someone to guard my laptop, I couldn’t help but brandish a bit of my own Hungarian. They were surprised, but pleased: Bratislava is officially only about 4 percent ethnic-Hungarian, but many others hail from mixed Hungarian-Slovak families. Plus, there aren’t many of us among the foreign community who happen to speak Hungarian. (I’ve got one friend here who speaks it extremely well. Like me, he married a Hungarian; unlike me, he learned to speak the language well.)
Between the look these women gave me, and that earlier chat in the sports shop, it made me appreciate one of the least-known things about rather-unknown Bratislava: its glimmer of tri-lingualism. The Slovak capital – known historically to the Austrians as “Pressburg,” and to the Hungarians as “Pozsony” – sees two historic rivals co-existing pretty well, despite political tensions (see “Resisting the Hungarian Card” post below).
The most convincing evidence for me? In reporting from two dozen countries, I’ve learned that a reliable barometer to inter-ethnic relations is whether the minority feels free to speak its mother tongue before the majority. At home is one thing; in the street, it’s another. In Bratislava, as the young women yesterday proved, no problem. In the southern countryside, nearer Hungary’s northern border, it’s more complicated, exacerbated by an unreasonable Slovak language law.
Still, between the Slovak, Hungarian and English that more Slovaks seem to be speaking, it helps explain why the trilingualism we find in Bratislava makes it such a simpaticky environment for raising our kids.