Language Barriers

standing guard
Maybe if I hide, I won't get yelled at.

So yesterday I was sitting innocently in the restaurant next to the hostel in Cesky when I was taken to task for not knowing Czech. Keep in mind that this place regularly hosts English-speaking backpackers, though it is a local hangout as well. I came in with my laptop and set up shop at one of the tables near a power point so I could begin blogging. As my computer was starting up, I ordered a small plate of wedges from the girl behind the bar, whose English is far superior to my Czech (which is nonexistent), so we communicated in English.

After I had been sitting for a few minutes, a scraggly man stumbled past my table (at four PM) and asked me what I presume was a question. I shrugged my shoulders, palms raised, shook my head, and said “I don’t understand.” Doom and gloom descended over his face, and he immediately began shaking his finger at me.

“Czech czech czech czech,” he said. “You are here and you don’t know? Czech czech czech.” More finger-shaking. “You should try.” (said very angrily) As he stomped up the spiral staircase to the toilets he continued to rant. “You no even try! Czech czech.” His voice faded into the air as he vanished above me.

I felt a bit sad. It is not my goal to offend anyone, and so far I didn’t think I had. I made a weak effort with my French in France, threw out a few ‘Dankes’ and ‘Bittes’ in Germany, and have done a lot of smiling in the Czech Republic to try and compensate for my lack of knowledge.

Maybe he’s got a point, though. I haven’t tried at all since I’ve been here. Czech is not linked to any language that I am familiar with, and as soon as I learn a word, I forget it. So many people speak English, or at least enough English to complete a transaction, that there has been very little effort on my part the whole time I’ve been travelling.

Even worse, there is Czech in my family – my middle name is Vlach, and I am only a few generations away from actual Czechoslovakian relatives. The only word my Gramma remembered was ‘Nazdar,’ which I have since learned is the English equivalent of ‘Ahoy’. So far I have not found an adequate situation in which I can apply this knowledge, though I did make an attempt during the rafting trip. Are you familiar with the blank, confused look? This is what I got.

If I lived here in Cesky Krumlov, I’d probably get kind of annoyed, too, bloody tourists crowding the picturesque streets. So from here on out, I am resolving to learn the basics while on the bus to any new destination. This means learning the following phrases:

Thank You
I’m Sorry
I don’t speak German/Italian/Croatian/Slovenian (?)/ Czech
I am American but I didn’t vote for Bush so please stop blaming me

I think maybe a few cheat sheets with pronunciation guides are in order. Flash cards, maybe?

When he came back down the stairs, we resolutely ignored each other. I guess mutual animosity requires no spoken language.

Tomorrow: on to Austria, so I’d better brush up on my German.

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  1. Although this might have been an overreaction by the man, I always try to learn some basic phrases before going to a country in order to avoid such situations. Usually, they are included in any printed or online tourist guide and people are much friendlier if addressed in their own languages.
    Good luck in Austria! (But attention: Not every typical German word is so typical in Austrian German… 😉 )

  2. We want to see evidence of you speaking in Austria….!
    Can you (on camera)
    A. Ask for a beer
    B. Ask for directions to the station
    C. Tell a guy he looks cute (you don’t have to do this one if you think your boyfriend will be annoyed!)

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