Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Along with Language Skills, Attitude is Everything

After only a few days back in Slovakia I’ve realized that I’ve changed.

I went into a shop with the intention of looking for a small wallet—I needed something with a pocket to carry all my euro coins. The store was empty except for the woman behind the register and another woman, also a shop assistant, who was leaning against the counter chatting with her. Since the wallets were under glass in the counter, I would have to ask the woman sitting behind to show me what she had. A few years ago this would have been a scenario that would have turned me into an anxious and uncomfortable person, or even sent me from the shop without having asked for a thing. But instead, I walked up to the counter, stared boldly at the woman behind the counter until she made eye contact with me, and then without any hesitations told her what I was looking for and asked her to show me what she had.

This time I didn’t care that my Slovak grammar was not perfect. I didn’t care that I probably had an accent and that I stuck out as a foreigner. I didn’t care that the other shop assistant was probably staring at me. I just didn’t care. And it felt great.

After I left I reflected that it really was liberating to not feel so bound by guilt of not speaking well or embarrassed by my assuredly many mistakes. But what was different? Why had I had a change in attitude? Part of it was that, with the visits from my in-laws, I have been speaking Slovak in my home for the past six months, almost daily. With all that speaking, I’ve gotten comfortable with making myself understood, no matter the round about way I said something, or the words I chose when explaining myself.

Another part may be that I’m simply getting older and past the age where I care what total strangers think of me. Still, sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m under a microscope. In our small town it’s hard to escape “the village” atmosphere. Somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knew you you, recognized you in town and told someone else that they saw you. Within a very short while the whole town will more or less know when they’ve got visitors. Not that my husband and I are celebrities, it’s just that when something or someone disrupts the flow of normal comings and goings in a small town, people notice and talk about it. This makes me uncomfortable.

I am who I am, and what I am—a foreigner in Slovakia with enough language skills to make my way around. I can even say “enough to comfortably make my way around”, but that’s entirely up to me to choose to make it so. I’ve known this for so long. Why has it taken me so long to put it into practice?

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