These Languages…

Now well on the way towards Krakow, having crossed tiny but tall Slovakia in two days.

Where, in the shadow of the High Tatra mountains – rising as suddenly out of the land as Scotland’s Cuilins seem to do from the sea in Skye – special thanks to Milan and Melania Oravec for their exceptional welcome.

They’re the couple standing in front of their guest house in Nova Lesna – both in their mid-70s, multi-lingual, and needing to keep doing this work to supplement their very meagre pensions.

They take mainly Polish, Czech and Russian tourists, skiers and walkers, though I hope they’re less generous to them than they were to me.

Despite a full evening meal and B&B, stimulating conversation in Russian as we watched ManU beat Chelsea in Moscow, and rather too much Slivovitz and beer, Milan refused to accept any payment at all, saying he’d learned a lot too and had enjoyed the company.

I have to say that Milan and Melania somewhat redeemed the Slovak experience for me. This is not a country that feels comfortable with itself, and on the whole I felt a good deal less naturally welcome here than in either Hungary or now Poland.

Where, as another of the pictures illustrates, the churches (this one in the stunnningly beautiful Beskid mountains at Kroscienko) are BIG.

Poland nearly 20 years after the end of Communism feels much wealthier and at ease with itself than Slovakia – roads, houses, conversations, pride in appearances – and I guess that also has to do with the two countries’ very different and long histories.

Slovakia gained faltering nationhood really only in the late 19th century, where the Poles have been at nation-building for a millenium.

The Poles stood up to their various conquerors. The Slovaks, on the whole, were subservient, nursing resentment towards
Hungarians under the Habsburgs, then, after the First World War, Czechs, then after 1948 Czechs-and-Russians. And now perhaps the EU?

Stuff for a much longer treatise or radio programme…

Two other thoughts as I try to get my head round Polish again, 25 years after trying to learn it during the Solidarity days.

One is the power of nature and, yes, of climate change. The other picture above is of devastated former pine forests on the south slopes of the High Tatras, destroyed in 10 minutes in 2004 by a masively powerful storm.

It’s a disaster most of us in the West, I think, missed. But it’s changed the face of the Tatras for several decades, and the locals are still in mourning. Shape of things to come.

And the final thought – Heavens, it’s hard switching languages.

This part of the world has more languages per square metre than anywhere else in Europe – Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, German, Croatian, Roma, Russian, Serbian, and several shades between.

Trying to say even thankyou in the right one is like reaching in the dark into a box full of odd socks and trying to pull out a pair. You think you’ve got hold of a red one, and it comes out blue. Djakujem piekne instead of dziekuje bardzo , or even worse, koszonom.

Still, just a week or so more and I’ll be back on linguistically much safer territory as I head for Berlin and German. But I’ll miss the variety and the colour of the New Europe.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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