Saturday, April 16, 2011

Beauty and the Beast

So when I'm learning new languages I go through phases of really kicking ass and taking names and then phases of being totally lazy and wishing I could study via osmosis. 

Luckily, learning a foreign language in the country it's spoken in kind of has osmosis-like properties in that you're surrounded by it constantly and sort of pick it up and/or figure it out because you have to.

That said, people always ask why my friends and I are even bothering to learn Czech. The Czech Republic is the only country which uses the language and the population is barely pushing 10 million. And people here speak English.

But I know in America we're a lot friendlier to immigrants who at least appear to be trying to learn English, so I figure it's best to apply the same courtesy in other countries. Even when I just visit another country I at least learn to say, "Hello," "Thank you," and "Sorry" in their native language. (Which is why I can say "Thank you" in so many languages!) 

If I'm going to live there I'm going to at least try to figure this mess out. I might not be awesome (damned "ř" sound is going to be the death of me) but I get an E for Effort, dammit.

Well, in one of my more ambitious phases of language acquisition, I opted to create flashcards and take them with me everywhere. I spend quite a bit of time on buses and trams so honestly, this is a great idea because it gets me something like 2 to 3 hours of study time per week. 

I was on the tram one day trying to teach myself adjectives when the tram suddenly became crowded. There was a guy about my age sitting across from me who was looking at my flashcards curiously. When the tram stopped at a rather busy top and a ton of people filed into the car and took up the remaining seats around me, including a man who, in retrospect, was clearly homeless.

He smelled absolutely foul and I kept having to turn my head to breath without gagging. It was awful. 

Now I will say at this point, most Czech people, and probably most people in general, would have gotten up and walked away, but I was too damn tired to stand on the tram. That and it's hard to go through flashcards when you're standing and trying to keep your balance.

So I decided to be polite and grin and bear it. 

Eventually the homeless guy caught a glimpse of my flashcards and decided to tell me how awesome he thought it was. Unfortunately, he thought I was Czech and trying to learn English and therefore began yammering on and on in Czech to me. When he finally paused for a response, I just looked at him dumb founded, mouth agape, and said "Nerozumím." (I don't understand.)

He looked at me rather confused.

"Nemluvím česky." (I don't speak Czech.)

Then he laughed and started talking again. The guy my age across from me finally explained to him that I don't speak Czech. He asked me a couple of questions and translated to the homeless man in an effort to get him to leave me alone. I tried in broken Czech to explain that I'm an English teacher and I'm learning Czech.

Why not practice when I can right?

Then I returned to my flashcards thinking the crisis had been averted and I could go on in peace. Wrong.

The homeless man kept watching my flashcards. When I came to the word ošklivý, he stopped me, pointed at the card and then to himself. Ošklivý means ugly.

Despite the fact that the man was clearly a little tipsy at two in the afternoon (though this is the Czech Republic and therefore that is not exactly all that unusual) and probably hadn't bathed all week, I'm American and we have a tendency to be overly polite to strangers when cornered. (Odd when you consider that evolutionary principles imply this would be a negative attribute.) So I smiled, shook my head and replied, "Ne." 

'Cause really, what else do you tell the smelly homeless man trying to strike up a pantomimed conversation with you on the tram?

I continued and when I came to the word příjemný, he stopped me again, pointed at the card and then pointed at me. Well, hot damn, the homeless guy thinks I'm pleasant!

Luckily this happened right at my stop so I simply replied with a mostly sincere, "Děkuji," and took off.

Oh, encounters of the Czech kind.


  1. even though i've heard this story before, i really loved this post.


  2. I loved this post too! (And I love that you're learning Czech!)

    And, I do not know how I would have handled the homeless man pointing to ugly! That would be so sad!

  3. Thanks, loves! Flan: Come to Prague.


Have any thoughts on this post? Let me hear it!