After three consecutive weeks of travelling between Prague and Bratislava, I've come to notice some strong differences between the seemingly similar Czech and Slovak people. Because after all, four hours on an 80-odd seater bus can be pretty intimate. Sometimes the person next to you is cheerful and responds to my American smile with conversation, a sort of small talk that gradually evolves into an unconventionally deep conversation about life and its many eerie surprises. Other times, I get stuck next to a grumpy old Slovak lady who couldn't care less about my problems. She just wants to read the newspaper with plenty of elbow room. You never know.
Two weeks ago I got on the Student Agency bus. Apparently I was tired, because just minutes after departure, I fell into a deep coma-like slumber. When I woke up, two hours had passed and my neighbor had left to get off in Brno. "Lucky," I though. She was not unpleasant, but I liked having the open slot. The next two hours proved to be more insightful, as I listened to the Czech driver get chatty with his assistant. Bits and pieces of their conversation made out to be awkwardly flirtatious. Pretty much the same kind of talk you hear in Czech movies, where unattractive middle-aged men make bold statements at young girls with short skirts. The girl, probably in her mid twenties, didn't seem to make anything of his tone, and continued with the flirtatious conversation, occasionally whining about her boyfriend and how he doesn't like the food she cooks.
It's always a strange realization, a real kicker to the side of my brain that handles languages, when I get off the bus in a new country. The two are so the same, yet so distinctly their own. The language itself reveals much of the thought. It may seem like a generalization, but I must insist that in my observations, these strange facts have proven true:
When you hear anybody speaking, laughing, or complaining on the bus, they are almost always tourists/foreigners.
If you do hear natives, chances are that they are Czech. Either they speak unrestricted into their smart phones or in frantic gossip to the person next to them.
In the rare occasion when one might hear the Slovak language, it is either a hushed rumble into an android phone or a restrained giggle from the cute couple several seats ahead.
So, if these people are silent during the entire trip, what are they doing the entire time? an American like me might ask.
Well, it's pretty simple. These two groups are trained since childhood to keep their lives to themselves. In my opinion, this is a lingering result of the Russian occupation during the Cold War era. Back then, anything you said or did could very well be reported to some central file. The fear of "Big Brother," was very real. Generations of children from that time have now finished multiplying, and have passed on these "manners" to their offspring. I would say it's fair to assume this for both parties. But, as noted, there is a difference between the way Slovak view this rule and the way Czechs abuse it.
Take the Prague metro, for example. People from the center and outer city are crammed into one compartment. For the most part, there is silence, but no matter what time of day you get on, chances are that you will encounter some scene happening just outside of the moving machine. Mothers scolding their children, lovers laughing loudly, or groups of men discussing some important matter or another (with strong tonal negativism, of course). In Bratislava, bus or tram stops are a place of silence. Two weeks ago, my friend Tina and I waited some five minutes for the tram toward Dubravka. There was an awkward man standing there that made us want to laugh. But instead of giggling in hushed tones, my friend led me away to the next overhang where our laughter could more appropriately be released. Once we had gotten over the laughing fit, we walked back to the scene of the crime in silence. And this, I might add, is not a girl you'd call a "goody two shoes."
These observations have helped me solidify my answer to the frequently asked question, "What is the difference between Slovaks and Czechs? Aren't you all the same?"
No, we are not the same. They are the not the same. Slovaks are a repressed people with a difficulty in forgetting traumatic national experiences. Gay men and androgynous females have difficulty finding the right niche in society, police are notorious for giving outrageous speeding tickets, and the elder folks are always rambling on about how the youth should learn to finally fit in. Czechs, on the other hand, are more liberal. Asian people are more easily accepted as part of the community, being gay is strange but not as looked down on, and there are even laws to protect the precious weed that is marijuana.
The Slovak language is fluid and spoken in a flat tone. Turn on any news channel and you will hear the monotone ramblings on a passerby being interviewed. If speaking about the Eastern accents (which vary from mild to dense), I would say that it comes a lot closer to the Russian tones. There are passionate outbursts and hesitant opinions scattered all around their dialect. These people sound happier than the city folks from the West. As for what I have heard of the Czech language, it is overall more structured and rough. When Czechs speak you can hear a sense of confidence, but laced with a heavy pessimism. For one who does not speak the language, it can easily all sound like a sad and angry story being told, almost always being followed by, "ty vole, vis co, to jo," or the like. Czech dialects and accents vary, but their overall tone seems to be one of skepticism, even if the words themselves are brighter than those of my Slovak comrades.
I am not a language expert, but I am an insider with an outside look on the matter. It's an interesting subject to me that I will continue to observe and enjoy. Vole :)