Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don't be Sad That Uncle is Petrified

I try really hard not to be judgmental. As a traveler, it's basically an obligation. I even have to be careful not to pass judgments on myself, which can be difficult. I've been hanging out in post-Communist/Soviet-controlled countries for the last three months and while Americans might think that these places are dangerous and unsavory, I can assure you that there is a mutual sentiment here against America. (Cold War anyone?)
Before I get into my point on tolerance, let me tell you a little about where I've been, just for the sake of suspense...

Slovakia (The Slovak Republic) is a fairly new country, so anyone born in the 1980s has seen a lot of impressive changes. For example:
Here's Michal. Michal speaks decent English. (He happens to be my boyfriend, which is why I'm using him as an example) Michal was born in 1980 in Bansk√° Bystrica, Czechoslovakia. He was born under Communist control, which means when he was five years old, he had to swear an oath to Brother Russia to serve and protect his country and communist ideals. Russian language was required in schools (although this changed when Michal was in school- his class was the first to begin learning English) Commodities were rationed. He remembers people waiting in long lines at grocery stores for exotic and limited items such as oranges, and if a family wanted a car or some new furniture, it could be years before they could get it. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution started, which ended the communist government in Czechoslovakia. Then in 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully separated and Slovakia became in independent nation. That same year, the European Union (EU) was officially formed under that name, and in 2004, Slovakia entered the EU, adopting the Euro as official currency in 2009. Ahhh, Slovakia, A Land of Contrast. And they speak English! But only in theory....

So the country where Michal was born no longer exists, and the government there has made a radical leap from communism to capitalism and democracy. The EU governs most things, and whereas before, Slovakia could brag about having the best butter and milk in the land, now it's being sold to Poland, and Slovak shops mostly carry Polish butter and milk. (As a side note- Slovakia has a great climate for agriculture and farming. Almost anything can grow. But I dare you to find Slovak-grown vegetables and fruits in a supermarket there. The same is true in America, where citrus grown in Florida is shipped to California, and California-grown citrus is shipped to Florida. When I hitchhiked with one truck driver hauling melons from CA to FL, he joked that trucks carrying the same loads are constantly passing each other on the highways. It doesn't make any sense, but that's money for ya...)
Slovakia is still a fairly poor country. Of the 17 countries that use the Euro, Slovakia is the poorest. It's also pretty small, with about 5.4 million people. But there have been a lot of changes in the last 30 years and things are often not very cohesive. English is taught in schools, but even young people have trouble with English. Perhaps English is more commonly spoken in the capitol, Bratislava, which is the only city that enjoys steady foreign tourism. However, in other cities such as Bansk√° Bystrica, it's almost impossible. I was lucky to have Michal with me to translate and teach me some basics. He learned English when he was in the UK for one year, but it's far from perfect. Often our conversations completely relied on a translation book, which meant they were frequently derailed. It seems difficult, but we are both patient people, and we ended up avoiding a lot of needless drama. (When you can't be understand by someone, you can't unload your neuroses on them.)
When he wasn't around, I spend a lot of my time avoiding too much communication and relying on hand gestures to indicate what I wanted. Shrugging was also a popular choice. I know how to say "I don't speak Slovak", which is extremely helpful in getting people to sigh and walk away from you, or laugh, depending on their mood*. For three months I heard almost no English from a native speaker. I will even go so far as to say that for the last nine months, I've heard very little English from a native speaker, especially an American. (Icelanders have good English, but it's just not the same without regional slang.)

Yesterday I hitchhiked to Krakow, Poland, and spend some time in a cafe waiting for a friend to arrive. Krakow is a very popular tourist destination. Probably because Poland is a very cheap country, it's popular with British school groups and stag partiers. That means there is a ton of native English to be heard. The Polish in Krakow are also generally willing and able to speak English, so that makes things easy.
During my time in central Slovakia, I would nearly break my neck when I heard someone speaking English, spinning around to see who it was. It was always a fun and exciting way to meet and talk with someone. Being understood is very underrated! So when I was in the cafe waiting for my friend, I was momentarily shocked to hear two American girls speaking, and then later, a group of British girls talking.
And here's where I finally get back to my point on being judgmental....
The Americans were saying some of the stupidest things I've ever heard. I won't go into details, but imagine 16 year old girls having what they think is a very serious debate about ethics and philosophy. Throw in some "like"s and "whatever"s, and that was basically it. The British girls were equally enthralling with their conversations about how much they hate the other girls in their class, and how they hate people who complain about stuff, and like, omg, it's so cold outside!
I've never been sadder to understand people in my life.
On the 23rd, I am taking a flight back to the USA, where I expect to be able to understand most of what's going on. I'm a little worried. Not because I might hear some stupid crap (I think most conversations are probably pretty stupid), but because it might actually be weird to understand and be understood. I've been speaking a really simplified, slow version of English for almost a year, with the addition of some unidentifiable accents, and it's difficult to get back to normal. I'll probably be the one who ends up sounding stupid.

*Here's some advice: If you travel to any country, the most useful phrase you can know is "Sorry, I don't speak/understand ___". I can say this in Icelandic, Polish, Slovak, Czech, and French. It's always one of the first things I learn. It sounds a little ignorant, but you can learn all of the basic phrases, numbers, and foods you want and still be completely clueless when someone talks back to you. When you say "I don't understand" in their language, people will either attempt English, help you in some other way, or go away. There's not much anyone can do beyond that. If you travel, know this phrase!

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article and i love seeing how you seem to have a different point of view.

    Being european myself and having travelled a lot and lived in different countries i always felt like a lot of people from the UK and the USA think that knowing english is a must for everyone. I saw some pretty rude episodes where english natives were bashing someone because they had a really weird accent or because he/she didn't speak their language pretty well. All of this in a non english country.

    Being open minded and trying to understand different cultures and languages is all travelling is about, to me.