A few months ago I was working in an office and I got fed up. At first I was happy to get the job, as I had been looking for work for a while and these days it’s hard to find a job in Ireland (when talking with friends I don’t ask what job they have but if they have one). Plus the money was really good so I started off enthusiastic. But after a few weeks I was worn down and fed up. Part of it was specific to the job, I was in a backroom completely cut off from the rest of the company with only one other person to talk to. But the job itself was incredibly dull and monotonous. It was a brainless repetitive job that you could train a monkey to do. Worst of all, it was pointless. It didn’t serve any real purpose or do anything useful, it was essentially shuffling paper all day.
So I decided I needed to get out. I have the rest of my life for boring office jobs, so I can take a year or two out to travel before I get tied down with commitments. I wanted to do work that I actually cared about and that I felt was worthwhile. I was younger than the people I was working with, so I could take two years out and come back to the same place. So I thought, what the hell, why not travel, see other cultures, learn other languages, live in other countries?
So I went traveling to various Esperanto events over the summer. In fact, I spent six weeks going through the middle of Europe speaking Esperanto, making friends and having a good time. While there, I heard that there were some people in Slovakia looking for a volunteer to work in Esperanto, so I said why not? Esperanto is something I really enjoy and I thought it’d be a great experience.
So I moved to Slovakia. I’m working with E@I, an organisation that runs language learning websites like Lernu for Esperanto, but also some for Slovak, Czech, German and others. There’s two other volunteers and three full time staff, from all over Europe. In fact, the office is almost an advertisement for multiculturalism with no two people from the same country. We have people from Poland, Slovakia, France, Russia, Ukraine and Ireland.
Esperanto is the language of the office and on rare occasions Russian or Slovak is used (but not English, in fact I’ve hardly spoken English since I’ve moved here). I find it funny to read people claim that Esperanto is dead or it can’t work as a real language, while here we are, pretty much living in the language. We work all day through it, we live together using it and when we hang out in our free time, we use it. A big deal isn’t made of it, it’s just used like any other language. It’s funny that I can just go about my daily life and forget that I’m using a constructed language few people have heard of.
I will be helping to organise Esperanto events such as the 101st World Congress in July, but at the moment I’m mostly proof reading. As the only native English speaker in the office, my job is to look at sites like slovake.eu and mluvtecesky.net and see if the English makes sense and correct it if not. I’m actually learning a lot about my own language through this and seeing how English works. Like most native speakers, I don’t know the rules of English, I just look at something and can tell if “it sounds right”. But in this job, I have to figure out whether one form is acceptable and another isn’t, whether the word order matters and the difference between the way I talk and textbook English.
The office is very laid back, with no strict start or end time, nor is there someone breathing down your shoulder checking how much work you’re doing. You’re simply given a task and it’s up to you to do it. There is no clear line between work and leisure because we also live together, hang out together and go on various trips etc. I’m part of the European Volunteer Service, so I don’t receive a wage, just free accommodation and pocket money to hold me over. Everything is so cheap, that I can still save money. Beer is only a euro, even in a pub and you can get dinner in a restaurant for less than a fiver.
I’m living in a small town called Partizánske, in the middle of Slovakia. The most striking thing about is that it is full of apartments. I mean they are everywhere. Apartment blocks aren’t that common in Ireland, especially outside Dublin, but it seems pretty much everyone in Partizánske lives in them. I’m in block number 148 and I’ve seen blocks numbered over 1,000. You have to go to the outskirts of the town to find houses. An advantage of so many apartment blocks, is that the town is incredible centralised and everything is close by. The office is literally one minute walk away, as is the town centre. It only takes about five minutes of a walk to get to the main shops and only 15 to get to the business estate on the outskirts of the town.
The amount of apartment blocks unfortunately means it is easy to get lost as they all pretty much look the same. There aren’t many landmarks that aren’t rectangular apartment blocks. For example, to go to the shops, I go out of my apartment block, past an apartment block, take a left at the apartment block, go past a line of apartment blocks before taking a right at the apartment block.
Apart from apartment block, the town has that other relic of Communism, a massive factory that’s now empty. It used to be a shoe factory that once employed 10,000 people, but now it’s mostly empty and derelict. In fact the town was created in 1939 to house the shoe factory workers and renamed by the Communists in honour of the partisans who fought in World War Two. There is a mostly closed train station (why is it that most train stations in Europe are mostly closed? While traveling around I noticed that in most towns there’ll be a large building but only a tiny ticket office will be open). The town also has a lot of nice parts too, such parks, swimming pool and a river. There’s a loudspeaker that plays music and gives out local news every so often. There’s a cinema that shows one film a day, a gym where everyone looks like a bouncer and a gypsy part of town that came with the usual warnings I’m used to hearing about Travellers in Ireland.
The only problems I’ve had are very minor such as the odd fact that milk inexplicably turns sour much faster over here. I’ve tried a few things like switching shop, making the fridge colder and drinking more tea. I might even have to drink UHT milk, but it hasn’t come to that yet. Or the strange habit shops have of closing for the weekend and early in the evening, which makes me wonder how working people are supposed to buy things. There doesn’t seem to be too many young people in the town, probably because there’s no college.
The biggest problem is with the language. Contrary to what most native English speakers believe, not everyone in the world speaks English. Most songs on the radio are in English and shops often have their names in English, even if no one there speaks English and none of the products have names in English. That seems to be about the limit of it though, most people don’t seem to speak English.
Not speaking the local language really complicates even the most basic things. Even trying to buy something can become messy if the cashier tries to talk to me in Slovak and I can only grunt in response. Once I was mistaken for a Russian and another time they refused to let me join the gym for reasons I couldn’t understand. I feel like bit of an idiot and quite left out when people chat away normally in Slovak. It’s almost like being a child again, in that I usually need someone with me to translate if I want to interact with the outside the world.
So I have to learn Slovak, which if you haven’t done so, isn’t easy. Slovak is a language with less vowels and a lot more k, d, z, v’s than English. There’s also a lot of letters not in the English alphabet like š, č, ž, ý, á, í, é, ú, ä, ô and it even has apostaphes in the middle of words. For example the word for juice is džús and other Slovak words I’ve come across so far are srdce, chcem, vnuk, hľadať, šťastie, ťažký, vľavo, jazyk. It’s also a very flexible language with each word having a different form depending on the gender or case. So the word for nice can be pekný, pekná, pekné, pekného, peknej, pekných, peknému, pekným, peknú, peknom, peknou or peknými depending on the context.
Mind you all, languages look strange at the beginning and after a while (hopefully) I’ll get used to it. On the bright side, at least it’s easier than Czech, Polish or Hungarian, so it could be worse. The alphabet isn’t too complicated and the pronunciation is fairly phonetic and similar to Esperanto. One advantage is that it is a very concise language and takes far fewer words than English to make your point. For example “He is going there” is simply “Ide tam”. If I wanted to go somewhere where everyone spoke English, I would have stayed in Ireland.
So that’s my thoughts on living in Slovakia after a month (I’ll be here for a year) and overall I’m enjoying myself. The work is enjoyable, the people are friendly and it’s a new experience.