A few years ago, Son and I were standing in line to the Ferris wheel inside the Times Square Toys R Us, and just as we walked up to the gate, it was closed for the ride, so we had to stand there, and wait, and engage in some serious smalltalk with the ticket person.
“Hey, guys, where are you from?” asked the young lady.
Now, that’s become a very difficult question for me to answer, which is probably a sign that I still should say that I come from Finland, since only a Finn would take a casual questions so seriously, that he has to think about it, so he won’t be spreading untruths or lies.
Most often I say that I’m Finnish, but that we live in Sweden – because it’s the truth – and that’s what I told the young lady as well.
“Oh, Sweden,” she said. “Nice.”
“Wait, is that the one with the chocolate,” she then added.
“No, that’s Switzerland,” I said.
It’s not always easy to know. Austria, Australia, who can keep up with all that? Being here in Bratislava for the hockey World Championship, I’m fascinated by my own ignorance. How little I know about the Czechs, the Slovaks, and their time as Czechoslovakia.
Yesterday, I was chatting with a Finnish colleague at the rink, and he mentioned that he’d be curious to know whether the Slovaks, as hosts, took the biggest dressing room for themselves, and – just as importantly – whether they gave the smallest one to the Czechs. In Quebec City, Canada took the biggest one, and gave a smaller one to Russia.
“You think?” I said.
“Well, isn’t the Czech-Slovak relationship like what we have with Sweden,” he said.
Finland is nation that doesn’t really like any of its neighbours. In broad terms, Russia is the bully in the East, Estonia is the very poor cousin in the South, and Sweden is the fancypants showoff in the West. And Norway? Well, the border Finland shares with them is way up in the North where nobody lives anyway. So, who knows, they might be fine.
But the question I’ve been asking myself since I landed is exactly the one my colleague asked me: Is the Czech-Slovak relationship like the Finland-Sweden one (as seen from Finland)?
Or, to put it in another way: In 2004, I brought a Krtek puppet home from the World Championship that was played in the Czech Republic. Krtek being the black Mole, the strong and silent type, who gets into all kinds of adventures with his buddy, the Mouse.
Son loved it, but Daughter loves it even more. When everything else fails in the morning, when she doesn’t want to get up, if I find Krtek, and wake her up, she’s Little Miss Sunshine. But if I keep telling the Slovaks how great Krtek is – even if I call him Krtko, his Slovak name – will they be offended? Even
“Petr,” I asked the young man driving the Skoda. “Which country is Slovakia’s biggest rival? Which country would you really, really, really like to beat in, say, football?”
Petr, one of the many, many volunteers at the tournament, works at a bank, but is using his vacation time to drive ignorant foreign reporters from the arena to their hotel.
“Hungary,” he said. “Absolutely Hungary.”
“Not the Czechs? Like, what if it was Slovakia – Czech Republic final here, what would you think?”
“Well, I’d like to see Slovakia win, I would be very happy. But if the Czechs won, I would be just happy,” he said.
Petr told me that his sister lives in Prague and is married to a Czech man. Their children speak only Czech which annoys Petr’s mother, even though Slovaks do understand Czech – and vice versa, if the Czechs choose to do so. During the Czechoslovakian times, people learned Czech from the TV, and even today, Slovaks watch Czech TV.
The Czechs also watch Czech TV.
“You know, if a Slovak moves to the Czech Republic, after four days, he’ll be speaking fluent Czech,” Petr said.
“But if a Czech person moves to Bratislava, after forty years, he’ll still be speaking Czech,” he said and laughed.
We were quiet for a minute. Then I asked him about the car. I always ask the drivers what they think of the car they’re driving. In Canada, the drivers raved about the Skodas that had been brought over specifically for the World Championship, as they weren’t sold in Quebec. In Switzerland and Germany, it was an OK car. Over here, it’s nothing special. It’s an old Czech brand.
“When we split up in 1992, the Czechs got all the factories, but they were always the rich part of the country. Nothing’s changed,” Petr said, as he pulled up in front of my hotel.
I thanked him for the lesson, and said I’d be happy to hear some more.
“Any time,” he said. “I’m car number 26,” he yelled after me.
Of course, my conversations with Petr and my Finnish colleague prompted a new question I now need to find the answer to: Who does have the biggest dressing room?