The Slovene postal employee was taking a very long time to figure out what to do with my four postcards to the U.S. He studied them. I think he actually tried to read them. He flipped them over and looked at the pictures. Twice, he showed them to the coworker at the next window. He made several tentative entries on the cash register. The last number displayed was not the one he finally quoted.

I should have remarked on all this. I should have said, and could easily have said, "Zakaj berete moje razglednice? Cena je nižja e zgodbe so boljše?" ("Why are you reading my postcards? Is the postage lower if the content is better?") Or, "V Braziliji delajo hitrejše." ("They do this faster in Brazil.") Or just "Zelo drago" ("Very expensive"), which at about $9 it really was.

But I didn't say anything like that, or even anything at all. This reticence is why I have never really become conversant in Slovene.

In countries where most people speak your own language, and speak it well, it is hard - and perhaps also vain - to insist on trying to speak theirs. Yet that is no excuse. You have to wade right in. Even if you are unlikely to understand what is said to you in reply. It's either that or just wait for foreigners to confuse you first!

When that delivery-truck driver hove to as I was marching up the Mirna River valley, and gestured the offer of a ride, I should not have smiled or shaken my head. I should have gone around and, through his window, said "Hvala. Ampak raje grem peš do naslednje železniške postaje. Ali veste, e je bližu?" ("Thanks. But I'd rather walk as far as the next railway station. Do you know if it's close?"). That wouldn't have been so hard. And the question is yes-no: how much could this foreigner confuse me by answering it?

Well, a lot, if he came back with a rich review of train movements, and in them I failed to discern the name of the station I was actually looking for, the one whose name I'd seen an hour earlier and then forgotten. But so what? You don't - I mean, I don't - need to plot conversations three jumps ahead. They're not chess matches. Also, I did remember the name of the station right after my immediate target, and he is a fool who ducks an opportunity to say "Tržiše" in any context.

So: be precipitate, because you'll get to say cool stuff sooner rather than later, possibly on your own terms. (I guess now I'm giving you the opposite of this piece's title.) Oh, and also bring a dictionary, even if it's heavy. I always bring mine to Slovenia, but for some dumb reason hadn't put it in the mochila for today's hike. I might have benefited from it when, south of Sevnica on the Sava riverside path, that path abruptly ended with a guardrail and a sign with a slash across a red circle. Pedestrians and cyclists were forbidden to cross...something. Or pass over...something. Prepositions are to my mind the hardest part of foreign-language speech (although interjections are close). Here, the prepositional phrase was preko ograje.

Which means "over the guardrail." Which was what I'd guessed. Over the guardrail was the roadway I'd planned to take down to Brestanica, and I guessed that the true intent of the sign was to keep hikers and bikers off that roadway. I was probably right, and in turning around and rapidly developing Plan B for the Mirna I wound up having a very pleasant morning after all, and yet this is not the way to conduct a linguistic exploration. My guesses may have perfectly accurate but I hadn't actually learned anything in Slovene from a Slovene.

My only excuse here was that there were no Slovenes around to ask. But I must confess: had there been, I would likely have continued my silent solo intellectualizing anyway. I am so bad! Earlier on this trip, walking the path along the Savinja between Celje and Tremerje, I did see quite a few walkers, and riders. (And people just up the hillsides digging something out of the ground - but what? I never asked!) I was marching hard. It did occur to me, as I frequently approached and overtook people, that I should beg pardon, reassure them I wasn't racing them anywhere. But I couldn't remember how to say "in a hurry" in Slovene.

It's v naglici, which if I'd had that dictionary I could have looked up, and it may be preceded by nisem, "I'm not". It hardly matters whether this would have made any sense to Slovenes, or - if not - they volubly disputed my claim. The point would have been just to have pitched something into the air that someone could bat back.

And when you got foreigners doing that, you're making progress. But be sure that what you pitch first are words rather than actions. Shortly after my arrival in Celje, I jaywalked, and right in front of a cop. Through the passenger-side window of his squad car he glared and said, "Gospod!"-something-something-"rdei lui!" Had I known no Slovene at all I'd've still caught the "Sir!" and the "red light!" It probably helped that I'd completely forgotten how to say "I'm sorry" in Slovene - my dumb-show and my obviously not looking like a local in a town where there are tourists got me no worse than a further hard stare and a grudging smile. But this is not the way to conduct oneself anywhere.

© 2014 J.A.Hutter

Pictures from this trip
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