It's amazing how much you can say when you don't know what to say.
We are on the train from Bratislava, heading east to see Slovakia's High Tatra mountains. Sharing the compartment with us are two Slovak male business types, casually dressed but looking very serious. We have exchanged perfunctory greetings--my wife using about half of her 20-word Slovak vocabulary--but the two are focused on work. One is totally absorbed in transferring data from the newspaper to his spiral-bound notebook, occasionally calling his friend's attention to something in the paper. My wife and I settle in with our novels.
An hour into the trip, the guy with the notebook puts away the newspaper and suddenly asks us, in English, "You have . . . nameday?"
Nameday? By way of clarification, he points to his companion. "Joe," he says.
Ah, he wants to know our names. "Janice," I say, pointing to my wife, "and Jerry."
"No, no, no." He hugs his head in frustration. He once knew the English words, but now they just won't come. He sighs and makes a pouring motion with his water bottle. "You have . . . ?" indicating that he needs a cup. No, we apologize, we have no cup.
From his luggage Joe produces a bottle of Slivovice, the kerosene-colored Slovak plum brandy, and he makes a similar pouring motion. Suddenly I remember that I do have a cup, the little plastic shot glass on the bottle of cough syrup we packed. I dig it out of my shaving kit and Joe fills it. The four of us beam at each other. This is class. Janice and I empty the glass (gasping--it's potent stuff!), and Joe refills it, over our polite protests.
Joe leaves the compartment, and we attempt more English conversation with his friend. Where are we going? Poprad. Ah, it's pretty there.
Joe returns with four plastic glasses and a bottle of Fanta orange soda, and he pours a round of Slivovice and Fanta orange. The taste is reminiscent of something you'd try to sneak into the junior prom. The other guy, meanwhile, has assembled all the necessary English words. It is March 19, Saint Joseph's Day, and today everyone named Joseph gets to celebrate. He points again at his associate, raises his glass and says, "Happy Joe Day!"
"Happy Joe Day!" we repeat, and we drink to Joe and to Joes everywhere.
We ride in silence for a while. Then Joe's friend points at us and asks, "Where from . . . ?"
"America," we respond. He nods impatiently. He knew that. "Washington," we add.
His face lights up. "Washington!" I figure he's going to say something about the White House, President Clinton or Monica Lewinski, but he holds up his notebook, which for the first time I notice is labeled "NBA." It seems he is in charge of his office basketball pool.
"Washington Wizards!" he says (actually, it sounds more like "Vashington Vizards"). "When you win, we win!" Out comes the Slivovice again.
Thank goodness the train has a designated driver. Soon we arrive at Poprad and say goodbye (do videnia) to our new friends.
Epilogue: Nobody was more disappointed than Janice and I that the Wizards failed to make the playoffs this year. Gentlemen, wherever you are, better luck next season.
And let us be the first to wish you "Happy Joe Day."