Out and About

Out and About

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Ok, don't hate me, I realize it's been 9 months since I last posted, but time just slipped by!! I will be updating my blog MUCH more regularly now. Really.

So update on my life, I'm back home in Chicago. More on that later.

There are a LOT of realizations I made in my time in the Czech Republic, both about Czech culture and culture in general. First, I will start with all things Czech.

Now, the Czechs are in general very nice people. You will find cranky ones in Prague because they are up to their ears in foreigners, but apart from that, they are a shy buy welcoming people. The young Czechs are especially nice and (sometimes) less timid. They almost always treated me very well, and were curious about me and my life, always with an air of confusion as to why I was living in their country. Fashion, however, in the Czech Republic wouldn't compare to, let's say, Milan or Paris. Now I'm not exactly one to judge, being no fashionista myself, but compared to some of the clothing I saw, I should be on the red carpet.

These, my friends, are Czech pants.

Do you see the man standing on the left of these two women? The checked (haha) pants with giant, noticeable black patches? These are Czech pants. Mostly worn by men, but I have seen them on women a few times. They vary in color, are often orange, and the patches can also be any color of the rainbow. I have not figured out the reason behind these pants. It has been suggested that because the Czechs enjoy hiking in natural settings, like the mountains, these pants give them the support and comfort they need for their trekking adventures, without worrying about ripping a hole in them here and there.

Moving right along, I also made some observations in the public school classroom in which I taught. As I commented on in an earlier post, I only used this classroom twice a week for a couple hours, and it was used the rest of the time by a Czech teacher and a big group of 8 year olds. One day as I was waiting for my students to show up, I noticed this on the teacher's desk:

Can't you just hear The Simpsons music playing in your head right now?

It immediately reminded me of The Simpsons when Bart has to write the same sentence over and over on the board in the opening credits. But wait a minute; teachers actually make their students do this in real life? You know something is wrong with a situation if you can find that same thing happening in The Simpsons.

But what does it mean? I Google Translated it and came up with this: "I do not have to fly around the classroom." Um, unless there was a classroom of birds that I was unaware about, I doubted this translation was correct. I showed this picture later to a Czech friend who laughed and said not to take it literally, that it means a student was too hyper and was running around the classroom too much. Oooooooh, ok. So not literally flying. Right. Totally knew that. This observation made me realize that in the American culture, we often think and speak quite literally compared to other cultures, and this causes me too think too literally sometimes. Duly noted.

Can you figure out what it is trying to say? Maybe the Russian translation is better than the English one!

This, now THIS, made me want to laugh and cry all at the same time. It was located on the door of an extremely seedy, 24 hour casino/bar right down the street from my apartment, that I passed frequently. Worst. Translation. EVER. I must admit that some Czechs have fabulous English, surely even better than mine, but once you leave the city of Prague, English speakers are far and few between. This sign was definitely in Prague, and reminded me that Prague is in many ways still a very Czech city, with many of its older residents clueless in regards to English.

Lastly, and maybe less significantly, how cool is this apple??

I've never been so excited about an apple in my life.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I Love My Major

Something happened today that made me feel...smart? Special? Or maybe stupid, and uncultured...

I had just missed my tram to the center, it was one of those times where I saw it close its doors and drive away as I was approaching. I checked the schedule to find out that the next tram came in 10 minutes, and remembered there was another tram stop nearby that went to the center as well. I walked up to it, saw a tram there but wasn't sure if it was the right tram. Figuring it wasn't wise to hop on a tram that I couldn't be entirely sure was the right one, I watched it drive away as I ran up to check the schedule. Awesome, that was the right tram, and wouldn't come for another 10 minutes. So I walked back to my original spot as I figured that tram would come first.

As I was waiting, a short, stout Czech woman came up to me. I would guess she was 70 years old. She asked me something in Czech, and I whipped out my customary " nemluvím cesky" (I don't speak Czech). She was very friendly, smiled, and said something else in Czech. I took an educated guess and decided that she was asking what language I speak. I told her anglický (English), and she shook her head. She raised her eyebrows and asked, "French?" I said no. She shrugged and started walking away. I decided to play the language game with her and show her that she isn't the only one who can speak more than one language. I said " španělský" (Spanish) without much any expectation that she would speak Spanish. She turned around and said, "Ahhhh, muy bien." She then proceeded to tell me, in Spanish, that she wanted to know when the next tram to the center was arriving. I was in shock that she spoke what seemed to be perfect Spanish, albeit with a bad accent (not unlike my own!) I told her that it had come about 3 or 4 minutes ago.

She thanked me and asked me if I was from Spain. I said no, but I lived there for a while and thus can speak Spanish. She said she lived in Quito, Ecuador with her husband because he worked in the embassy there. Well, it's a small world after all.

My favorite part of this story is that an oldish woman in the Czech Republic speaks so many languages. I'm young and vibrant and can barely speak 2. Young Czech people are great at languages, but the older Czech people usually only speak Czech, and maybe German or Russian because that is what they used to teach in school. Secondly, here I am in Central Europe and my easiest way of communicating (sometimes) is in Spanish. Thirdly, I am so glad I missed those trams, because speaking in Spanish with that old Czech lady made my day.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blackboard Issues

Well, I teach English in a public school. During lunch time, I teach a short, 1 hour English class to a select few Czech students whose parents have decided they want to pay forward a bit of extra cash so their kids can learn English for 1 hour, twice a week. I teach in the classroom of a Czech teacher, and as I teach during the lunch hour, it's empty, apart from the teacher wandering in and out, eating her lunch, and grading papers. She is a very nice teacher, always says hello to me (in Czech of course) and even gave me a piece of banana bread once! However, she speaks no English. Literally, none. I have tried saying things in English to her, just to make casual conversation, because I definitely cannot do that in Czech, and there is an insurmountable language barrier between us. I deal with it; smiling and saying hello and goodbye will just have to suffice.

However, I walk into the classroom one day and see this sign on the chalkboard.

When I first see it, I stare at it. I didn't think it was for me, because I consider myself a generally courteous person - I would never use her board and then not clean it. But then I stared at it some more and realized that of COURSE it is meant for me, who else in that school speaks English?? None of the teachers speak English, except the young one on the opposite side of the building. This teacher must have done some serious Google Translating at home. I feel offended because I do indeed clean the board, so where is the problem?

I continue as I always did, using the board and cleaning it after every lesson. Then, a couple weeks later, (last Friday to be exact), I had the good luck that one of the student's mothers (who speaks English!) dropped him off at the class. As I was chatting with her, the teacher walked up to me hastily and started going off in Czech. She seemed more worried than angry. After she finished talking I stared at her, then looked at the child's mother. I had an inkling that I knew what this rant was about, and I was correct. The mother explained that the teacher would like me to clean the board when I am done using it. I told the mother that I do indeed clean the board after every lesson. The mother translated for me and then the teacher told her that I don't clean it well, there are always streaks, and that I need to rinse out the eraser with water. I told the mother that I do, how else would I clean a blackboard? Anyway, this went on for a minute and I surrendered and said I will try harder. Quite frankly, I don't know what more I can do. Next week I will bring in some bleach and sandpaper and just go at it. Next paycheck, I'm buying this woman a whiteboard.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Locks in the CR

Locks on doors in this country are strange. Now, most people wouldn't devote an entire blog entry to locks on doors, but apparently locks on doors are a subject close to my heart. Anyway, I'm not talking about locks on main doors. I'm talking about bathroom door locks. They are quite literally locks, with keys.

I wouldn't complain, except they are not always as simple as one might hope. You turn the key to lock it, then turn it the other way to unlock it, and sometimes it doesn't open right away. I have never considered myself a particularly claustrophobic person, but when I am in a one square foot bathroom at a bar or even in my apartment and can't get out, my blood pressure starts to rise.

In the school where I teach, a little girl locked herself in the bathroom; as in, she could not open the door and kept turning the key round and round with no success. She started crying and screaming hysterically in Czech, and I felt more than a little useless. Thank goodness, at that very moment her mother arrived to pick her up and ran up to the door and started speaking to her in Czech, and a few seconds later, after some more attempts of turning the key, she emerged tear-faced and shaking from the trauma.

Some bathrooms, such as the one in this school, have a key in the lock that one must turn to lock and unlock the door. But, hypothetically, if I were crazy, I could easily lock the door, throw the key out the window of the bathroom, and be stuck in the bathroom. No one from outside the bathroom could save me, and my only means of getting out just flew out the window. The window is not big enough for a person to fit through. What would I do? How would I ever leave that bathroom without a fire squad coming in and saving me? Needless to say I have no plans of chucking the key out the window, I'm just saying, it is physically possible.

Now, whatever happened to the door knob with the lovely little button that locks the door and unlocks when you simply turn the handle? I never thought I would miss something as simple as a door lock.

Just to point out, not all bathroom doors are like this. Some have a metal bar that slides easily into a hole in the wall when you close the door, and opens equally as easy.

Although, when going into a new bathroom in a bar, I always test the door before actually closing it. And if it is a weird lock, I just don't lock the door. I have indeed been walked in on quite a few times, but you know what, I prefer that over locking myself in an unknown bathroom in a noisy bar in a foreign country.

In addition, I always always always bring my cell phone with me to the bathroom. Because ya just never know when you're not going to be able to return to your drink as quickly as you want to.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Czech Ads

I love Google. That is to say, I like Google as much as I could probably like an inanimate object.

However, I have recently been getting Czech advertisements on the side of my Gmail. So it's caught on that I'm in the Czech Republic, bravoooo! Too bad I don't speak Czech.

That's great. Excuse me while I don't bother translating this.

When advertisements are in a foreign language, I don't pay attention to them and they aren't so bothersome. Like my grandma who lost her sense of smell says, you might not be able to smell roses anymore, but you don't have to put up with odors either.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Language Barrier

I came to the Czech Republic without any knowledge of Czech, and quite frankly, with little desire to learn it. I've heard it's a simple language in that prepositions are not used much and sentence construction is easy, but I've also heard that it is difficult because, well, it is nothing like English. Or Spanish. Auto means car, politika means politics, and that is where the similarities end. Learning this language would be the definition of starting at square one, and the knowledge of it will be useful for me for exactly one year. After that, its relevance disappears. For me, at least. To make up for my lack of Czech, which I do at times feel guilty about, especially when I see my friends trying to pick up a bit of Czech, I have been working on improving my Spanish vocabulary by reading Spanish books. Spanish is a language I already know a lot of and plan to use for the rest of my life, so for me, it has more utility.

For these reasons, and probably more, I have not mustered up any interest in learning Czech, to which my trilingual German roommate snickered and stated that I am indeed a true American. I arrvived here without even knowing how to say hello, yes, or no, which, looking back, seems absurd to me now, considering how useful these words are. However, I came to Prague ethnocentrically thinking that more people would speak English than in reality really do.

I have picked up some useful words and phrases mostly because my survival instincts kicked in. Ano is yes. Ano is a lot of fun, because the way the Czechs pronounce it, it sounds like how I pronounce "I know" and so the rare times that I hear Czech people talking on their cell phones in public, when they answer the phone, to my untrained ears it sounds like they are stating to the caller that they know why they are calling. In addition, ano in Spanish means anus. Spanish is not my native language, so I try and imagine using the word "anus" in place of yes, and don't quite know how I would do it.

Dobry den means good day, but it is used as hello here. Ahoj (pronounced ahoy) means hello, but is only used for close friends and family. Prosím (proseem) means please and here's the really fun one: thank you is děkuji. I still have to Google Translate this one to get the spelling. The first time I looked this up I listened to it a million times, but could not say it. The thing with děkuji is that every person in the Czech Republic has his or her own way of pronouncing it. When I first got here and heard everyone pronouncing this word, I thought there were 14 different ways to say thank you, but in reality, they are all the same word. I've adapted to saying you-kwee or yicky, but the ways of pronouncing it are endless. The "d" is silent, by the way, and "j" sounds like a y. At this point I don't ask why, I just try to accept.

Lastly, and most importantly, about a week ago I learned how to say "I don't speak Czech" in Czech. This is probably an oxymoron, because by saying this, I am indeed capable of speaking some Czech. I have had at least half a dozen people come up to me and ask me for directions, even when my headphones are in, to whom I have stared, removed my earplugs, and said slowly, in English, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Czech." I must look Czech to them, which is a major contrast to Spain, where people rarely asked me for directions because one glance was enough to tell them that I am not a native. This is some annoying irony because I can actually speak Spanish and, believe it or not, give directions, at least around Granada, where I have spent so much time, yet in the country where people do ask me directions, I can't speak the language. Store clerks and train ticket-checkers often say something to me, and I don't like smiling and shaking my head in a confused manner. So I decided to learn how to say: nemluvím česky (pronounced neh mloo veem chesky). After meeting a nice Czech girl who told me how to pronounce it correctly, I can now say it, um, decently, although far from like a native.

Knowing how to say this has been one of the best decisions I have made in this country. Czech people really appreciate when I speak their language, albeit a very pathetic and conversation-ending phrase. Instead of trying to decipher my English "I don't speak Czech," they know right away that I am a foreigner and don't have to waste time trying to figure out why I can't seem to communicate with them like a normal Czech person. For example, the ticket-checker on the train today said something to me, and I told her this phrase. She smiled, said something that was probably the Czech equivalent of okay, and left me alone.

I think I've hit the plateau of my Czech knowledge. I still need to learn good night and goodbye, but I'm in no rush. However, today I learned 6 new Spanish words from a Spanish newspaper. In conclusion, bilingual is just fine for me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chimney Man

The other day something happened that has made me reflect and appreciate life a bit more. My boyfriend and I were sitting on the Prague subway chatting in Spanish and there was a man who seemed to be a manual laborer, perhaps even a hobo, with a gray one-piece suit on. As is par for the course, we had lost track of what stop we were at and started wondering out loud in English where exactly we were. Well, this man was sitting next to us and I could tell during the conversation that he was interested in what we were saying. He jumped into our conversation and told us in some broken English that the stop we were looking for hadn't arrived yet. He asked if we didn't mind, could we tell him what language we were speaking before we switched to English. We said Spanish, and he seemed satisfied with the answer. He said, "I make chimney man" which I quickly corrected (must be my inner English teacher) to be that he is a chimney man, ahem, worker.

Something like this, minus the hat

Normally, it seems that the Czech people that speak English work in higher paying jobs than the chimney sector. This made me think about how this man knew English...perhaps he learned it in school, perhaps he needs to speak it with his customers, or perhaps he has an interest in English and has managed to pick up some of the language himself. I feel bad for him though - it seems that he is a bit stuck in his job. Is he happy being a chimney man? Can he work in another job if he wants to? He speaks some English, so could he move to an English-speaking country if he wanted to, to work? I assume that being a chimney man does not pay very well, and I ask myself what options he has in his life.

All of which makes me grateful for the options that I have in my life, for the fact that I have flexibility in where I live and in what I do. Who knows, maybe he is happy "making chimney man" in his life and wouldn't trade it for all the jobs in English in the world. I shouldn't push my thoughts into his head. His head is not mine, and after all, we probably think differently.