“It’s a deep ‘h’, like ‘huh’.”
“Nie huh, hhhhh!”
I make a sound akin to a chain smoker clearing their throat but I can tell by the look on my bemused instructor’s face I am not even close. The “ch” letter sequence in Slovak will surely be the death of me or at the very least, make me sound like a confused chain smoker for the rest of my life.
Twice a week, I take Slovak lessons at a bilingual high school in Petržalka. The lessons are provided by the Immigration Center and free for non-EU citizens so by the time the lesson starts, most people are sitting two to a desk.
A majority of my classmates are from Iran while others hail from Taiwan, Ethiopia, and even Tunisia. In fact, I’m the only native English speaker in the course. The mixture of cultures in this tiny classroom, decorated with flags, antique furniture and a headless mannequin wearing a Soviet uniform, is both unusual and extraordinary but when our instructor Ján begins the lesson, we’re all just classmates struggling to learn Slovak.
During one of the first classes, the friendly Iranian woman sitting to my left asked me if we had any homework and then if I was indeed American. When I replied yes to both questions, she laughed and said, “Our countries are enemies but we are friends!” This important declaration was followed by a selfie and haphazard comparison of notes. Turns out Persian bears little resemblance to English and Slovak while my cramped writing style is plain illegible.
After class, we followed behind the pair of Brazilian friends who always have trouble exiting the school. The big glass doors say “push” but the Portuguese word for pull is more or less “push”. We all took light in their confusion but now, I too have to stop and think sometimes before I push/pull/bang open the door.
Most of the time, learning Slovak consumes every fiber of my being but when I started traveling on my own after college, I gave myself one very important rule that I’ve slowly started building on: learn the word for “thank-you” in every country I visit. Whenever I said “mulțumesc” in Romania or “hvala” in Croatia, locals would beam with a mixture of surprise and gratitude. I would smile in return and revel in our small moment of understanding, soon realizing that language is not merely a means of communication or a continuation of culture; it’s an extended handshake, a promise, a mutual effort to bury borders, push past politics, and truly understand and appreciate one another.
So let language, even if it’s just a mispronounced thank-you or a string of tongue-twisting Slavic sounds, shorten the distance to a truly meaningful, selfie-cemented friendship, provided we make it past the push/pull conundrum at the door.
This piece was recently published in the Keene Sentinel as part of my Back to Bratislava column.