Saturday, 25 February 2012

On yer bike!

Once you have a skill, you can't really remember not having that skill. For example, can you remember what it was like to not be able to ride a bike? I'm not talking about learning to ride the bike, but the time before that when you weren't able to do it at all. It's impossible. For me, speaking a foreign language is the same as riding a bike. Once you get on and start pedalling it can take you anywhere you want to go.
At the moment my most hated phrase is Nemluvím česky "I don't speak Czech". Every time I go into a shop and the assistant comes over to me and starts speaking, I have to smile apologetically and say the dreaded Nemluvím česky. This is followed by my second most hated phrase Mluvíte anglicky? "Do you speak English?". I suppose for many people these would be the usual phrases they would use when abroad, but for me, as a linguist, it brings up all sorts of unpleasant feelings and thoughts:

  1. How arrogant to be in a foreign country and expect the inhabitants to speak English! 
  2. How unacceptable not to be able to say anything in their language back to them!
  3. I speak 2 other languages fluently and another one conversationally - I hate not being able to say even basic things in Czech! 
  4. They must think I am so rude and stupid!
  5. I just should be able to speak Czech!

I realise that most of the above thoughts are irrational. I have only been in the Czech Republic for a month and during that time I have had to do a lot of admin (endless hours on the phone to French bankers, removal firms etc) and I couldn't prepare myself and learn any Czech before I moved here, as we only found out last minute that my partner had been offered a job here. I have also found it very difficult to find a teacher for intensive day-time lessons. So, all in all, not being able to speak the language is not my fault.

I also mainly get positive reactions when I use Mluvíte anglicky? and some people seem quite pleased to be able to use their English with me. Those that don't speak English smile politely and leave me alone. I only had one bad experience, when the counter clerk in an office got annoyed that I couldn't speak Czech and started banging the desk saying "Český! Český!" BUT, I still don't feel that it's right to expect other people to speak English to me.

Apparently, this is not the typical expat way of thinking. Last night I was in a pub with a group of people from all over the world. It was great to talk to Germans, Russians, Romanians, Americans - you name it, they were there. I struck up a conversation with a Czech guy. When I told him about my feelings about not being able to speak Czech, he said this was the first time he had heard this in his whole life from an expat (and especially a British one) and was amazed and pleased to hear that I didn't expect everyone to speak to me in English and that I was keen to learn Czech. When I told the German guy that I was planning on learning Czech, he said "But why? You don't need it!" Why do many expats think this? To me, it's like turning up at a house party without a bottle. Sure, you can drink other people's drinks for a while, but soon they will get fed up with you and tell you "On yer bike, mate!". And rightly so.

I am really lucky in that where I am going to work in a month's time, Czech lessons are provided for free. However, I still want to learn as much Czech as I can before April, so I have signed myself up for intensive Czech lessons. Eight hours a week for the next four weeks. I'm really looking forward to it. I hope that pretty soon, Nemluvím česky will become a thing of the past.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sunday afternoon at the reservoir

Despite the thermometer showing -13 today, we decided to head out and see what the Brno reservoir is like. We just thought we would have a wander round, but were pleasantly surprised by what we found when we got there: a beautiful setting, full of people out skating and playing ice hockey! Even little cafes and restaurants full of people enjoying themselves.

Lovely sparkly ice.

After being out in the cold, it was definitely time for some mulled wine!

On the way back to the tram stop, we noticed this little hut. What is it serving?

The lady had lots of dough balls lined up, she then spins them into pizza bases and drops them in a deep fat fryer! Out comes a crispy base which she paints with garlic sauce.

She sprinkles it with grated cheese.

There you have it - a gorgeous, hot, crispy pizza-type-thingy!

What a nice way to spend Sunday afternoon. Next time we go I want to skate. Better invest in some ice skates!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Designer drinks

We spent our first week in Brno wandering around and getting to know the place. Inevitably, this involved going into the odd bar or two (or three or four). Down a side street we came across the Design Cafe. The front part is a modern furniture shop and the back serves drinks and some cakes. Through the glass we spied some people enjoying Absinthe and knew we had to come back one evening and try some.

When we went in, downstairs was full, so we sat upstairs where it was nice and bright and calm and we had a view over the bar area.

Design Cafe upper chillout in Brno

The nice waitress (in funky stripy leg-warmers) spoke English, luckily and we ordered two glasses of Absinthe with the fountain or "the ritual" as she called it.

Put the sugar onto the spoon over the Absinthe...

...and let the ice water slowly dissolve the sugar.
Sip your cloudy beverage and feel a little like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Nicely warmed up by the 65% alcohol content, we could step back out onto the streets of Brno.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The tangerine of friendship

I walk into the shoe repairer's. Well, I wasn't sure from the outside that it was a shoe repairer's as many shops (and even bars and restaurants) here don't have windows and it is a surprise as to what you will find once you open the door! The only thing I had going for me was that I had found out that opravy obuvy meant shoe repairs. *Kling-a-ling-a-ling* Ah yes, some keys, an old sewing machine: I am in the cobbler's! "Dobry den!" I take my boots out of my backpack and point to the cracked sole and make a miserable face. The round faced cobbler looks horrified and draws around the crack with a piece of chalk. Then the fun begins. I can't understand a word he is saying. This is very frustrating for me, because as a linguist, I am used to speaking other languages fluently. Czech just wasn't on the curriculum. "Er, mluvíte anglicky?", "Ne". "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" This one can sometimes yield very good results. *Kling-a-ling-a-ling* Response: "Ne". Oh dear. Man who has just walked in says "Ich spreche Deutsch" Hurrah! So, we have a three-way conversation in German and Czech and I find out that I can pick my boots up on Wednesday.

I pop back in later that week and my boots are all fixed with nice grippy soles (very important here what with all the snow and ice). "Dobry, dobry!" I say and smile. Then, the cobbler trys to make conversation with me, but he knows I don't speak Czech. A lot of miming ensues and the odd word from my Czech phrasebook. But, I manage to find out that he is Armenian, came here 16 years ago, speaks Czech, Armenian and Russian (no common languages there then) and likes to do "fitness" after work. He shows me a comical photo of a body builder to demonstrate this! This is my first interaction with a Czech person in my village in Czech and although it was really difficult, we got there in the end. As I go to leave he takes out a bag of tangerines and offers me one. I gesture "No, I'm fine thanks", but he insists. So, I put the little fruit in my backpack. As I leave I feel really touched by this offering. We didn't have many words to communicate with each other, but the tangerine said it all: I have made my first Czech friend.