April 9, 2019

Jak se řekne česky?

I know a woman who likes to tell people that she “lived” in Prague… because she stayed there for a month during the time she traveled around Europe. Living in Prague doesn’t mean breezing through for a month, and everything is whimsical and easy. To say you lived in Prague, you need to have dealt with the known hell that is registering with the foreign police and the visa process. (Or, pre-Schengen Zone, if you were ok living “in the black,” you crossed the border every 90 days and got scowled at and questioned by German border police on the train.) Living in Prague meant, as a foreigner: maneuvering the bank system, only being allowed a pay-as-you-go phone and not a mobile service contract (though that’s probably changed now), spending half a day figuring out which post office to go to to pick up packages and which line to stand in once you got there, dealing with culture shock, having a metro pass instead of pay-as-you-go-tickets, knowing every inch of the city by heart, being able to walk from one end to the other without getting lost, knowing tram lines that were NOT the 22 or 23, forming lifelong friendships with Czechs (which takes more than a month), going to Czech cities other than Český Krumlov, getting insurance and doctors appointments, having a favorite kino (movie theatre), knowing neighborhoods other than “Expat City” (aka Vinohrady), and on and on. Living in Prague means having to deal with the nitty gritty details of every day life.

You cannot say that you lived in Prague, or anywhere really, if you passed through for a month and lived on the surface.

I also want to say, “You cannot say you lived in Prague if you didn’t learn the language,” but let’s face it: there were thousands of people living there (I’m looking at you Americans) illegally and who never bothered to learn the language after years of being there. Czech is hard (whine, whine). It’s a serious pet peeve of mine when people want the bragging rights of living in a place but don’t want to make the efforts of speaking the place’s language.

Me, standing on a path along the Vltava River in Prague, 2004.I was there for a full three years, from May 2004 to June 2007. In that time, I consciously avoided expat communities and English-speaking places. I had started a knitting circle there (true story!), the first official Prague Stitch & Bitch. (There was another woman that took credit for it after I left, but it was me and my friends who created it.) They were a mix of nationalities: American, British, Polish, Czech… but apart from that, I became friends with many of my students and other Czechs I met along the way. My students were adults working in the various companies where I taught English as a Second/Foreign language. Americans are generally known for smiling too much and looking crazy for it, for befriending people too quickly but not meaning it. I was never that type of personality – I take a long time to open up to people and to trust them. Americans used to complain about Czechs for being “dour” and not smiling. I loved Czechs for this – I still love Czechs for this. You know where you stand with a Czech person. You will not be their best friend the moment you meet them and they won’t pretend that you are; but you can become close friends over time and they will be your friend for life. I don’t keep in touch with many people, in general, but I still stay in contact with friends, including several Czechs, from that time.

I began learning Czech as soon as I knew I was moving to Prague. I bought all the Pimsleur Czech tapes, and I found a Czech language tutor in Philadelphia before I left. I met with my tutor every week for a couple months while my ex, who was planning on coming to Prague with me a month after, had no interest in joining me. But I diligently did my Czech lessons and listened to those tapes every single day for a few months. When I landed in Prague, I got another Czech tutor as soon as my TEFL certification program was done. I got the Czech Step-by-Step book, which remains the best Czech learning tool out there, in my opinion. I did a weekend-long, private Czech intensive learning course, and I spoke Czech every chance I got: in restaurants, on the street, with friends, etc. There were times that my ex and I would be out, and he’d attempt to order something in Czech – the server would look at him quizzically and say “what?” I’d repeat it for him and the server would nod and leave. My ex would then turn to me and say, “That’s exactly what I said!” but no, no it wasn’t. I have an ear for languages, for pronunciation, for the ever-so slight changes in inflection that most people miss. (Because I know he still “checks in” on me: my ex hated having me around because I always blew apart the lies he told in an effort to paint himself in a different light. I made it hard for him to tell stories and pretend to be things that he wasn’t, or better at things than he was. I also made it hard for him to pretend he was learning Czech then.)

But more importantly: I wasn’t just learning Czech because I lived there, I had fallen madly in love with the language. I loved to hear it, I loved looking at it with all it’s hooks and accents, the lack of vowels. I loved showing off my mastery of the infamous “r s háčkem,” which is still a point of pride. I loved repeating the Czech tongue twister, like a parlour trick, for all my Czech friends: Strč prst skrz krk. (That means “stick a finger through your throat” and yes, there are no vowels.) My friends loved when I did that, because they loved that I was trying so hard to speak their language. At one point, the director of the language school that I worked for asked if I would be up for teaching English to absolute beginners. Teaching English to beginners was usually a task for Czechs, because they wanted teachers to be able to explain and speak in Czech, as needed. It felt amazing to have my efforts recognized in that way, to be told that my Czech was noticeably enough to take on that new role.

It’s been nearly twelve years since I left Prague and I’ve lost, or thought I lost, most of what I knew. Though there are words and phrases that have permanently stuck to my lexicon. I still curse primarily in Czech (and boy, do I know some good ones). Our dog is a German Shepherd, but she’s of a Czech working line of police dogs – I didn’t know this until after we’d gone to see the puppies and chosen her… but of course! So I trained her with commands in Czech. Most of all, whenever I’m learning a new language or forget a word in French or Spanish or German… my brain immediately reaches for Czech. When I go through Russian lessons, it’s easy for me to remember words because many of them are close to Czech. When I say that I’m learning German and people mention how hard the grammar is… I laugh, because German has fewer “cases” than Czech. German is a piece of cake after Czech. I was by no means anywhere near fluent, I was barely out of the upper beginner category, but I used it in a daily, working capacity more than any other language I’ve learned. I briefly had a roommate who was a Czech policewoman. We’d often sit on the couch getting drunk on her parents’ homemade slivovice while we took turns practicing Czech and English. I had a 7 month rebound relationship with a Czech military policemen (oh, the stories I could tell…) with whom I practiced Czech “by the pillow.” His family didn’t speak much English, so I would spend weekends at their cottage in Šumava listening to nothing but Czech. Mluvím trochu. Rozumím moc.

Maybe because I was briefly in Prague a couple of years ago or because I’m working on Russian… but I’ve had a renewed interest in Czech lately. As I’ve casually poked around with online Czech language lessons, I’m surprised at how much I remember. Even during our two days in Prague, a side trip from my month in Berlin, I was amazed at all the words coming out of my mouth when we went out to eat and when moving around the city. I was thrilled when I spoke in Czech and servers responded in Czech, rather than switching to English. My Czech was rough around the edges, I’m sure, but it’s still solid enough to be understood. And I still have my magic “r s háčkem” skills. I think a longer visit to my old home is going to be necessary in the next year or so.

Český jazyk will always have a very large piece of my heart. I don’t have much reason to keep my language skills fresh, but it makes me so happy to be able to speak it when I’m in Prague. I think that hanging onto the language is proof to myself that I was there. Sometimes it feels like I wasn’t. Ach jo, Pražička…

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