It’s All Czech to Me!
Prague and Liberec, Czech Republic
Like many of my stories in the Czech Republic, this one began in a pub, but not in Prague. Rather, a hostelry in Liberec, under the Hotel U Jezirka. This place had its own brewery in its courtyard, a huge shed with a copper-coloured brewing tank and a man with a white coat who could be observed checking the concoction as though it were a new kind of drug which, if added to the nation’s beer supply, would guarantee him domination over the Bohemian and Moravian lands. Alcohol it certainly was, and I loved the unpasteurised, cloudy beer with its hoppy taste. Another unusual feature of the place was the logo stamped onto the beer glasses. This showed a group of people posing as if for a photograph. Their stiff demeanour did not go with the easy-going informality of the bar, where there always seemed to be a swirl of people and a flurry of empty tankards exchanged for foaming ones.
This evening, I was sitting alone at a table and getting thirstier by the minute. Had I done something to upset the waitress? Her Carmen eyes avoided mine. Her brown legs always passed by my table without stopping. After twenty minutes of this communication war, I was starting to feel uncomfortable. After half an hour, I was about to hiss at her or even make rude hand signals at her before I left, when two men walked up to the table and asked me if I would mind them sitting there. I replied that you would am delighteded. The victims of my Czech sat down opposite me and concluded that from my mashed Czech I could only be a foreigner. They immediately tried to deepen their acquaintanceship.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” asked one of them.
“Ne. I’m English.”
There was a slight pause, as the two men weighed up what to do next. Englishmen were an unknown quantity in this part of Liberec, but this was not going to phase them for long.
“England! I speak England good.”
“Aha,” said I.
“Aha! Yes, aha…You like Romy girls?” said the Czech, looking with me at the waitress.
“Yes, but she doesn’t like me. No beer!” I shrugged my shoulders and indicated the empty table in front of us.
The two Czechs laughed. “Waitress,” said the second. “She Communist.”
“Shh,” hissed the first.
She seemed to realise that we were talking about her, since she came over to our table now. The more talkative of the two men ordered three beers, “one for my friend over here,” he insisted. Though the expression on her face gave nothing away, that settled matters for the evening.
The discussion could only get better from then on. Over a beer or six, and rather good schnitzels, we managed to communicate with servings of sign language, seasoned with the occasional word, and garnished with expressions of delight and disapproval. The only words of English (apart from the ones they had already uttered) the two locals spoke were: business; Spitfire; pilot; Czech; good; bad; revolution; Queen; Freddie Mercury; Beatles; rock music; football; yes; no; Manchester United; Liverpool; Europe; Hitler and Sudeten (both German, surely); Winston Churchill; London; and Communist. In spite of this limited vocabulary, we were able to discuss a) the last one hundred years of Czech history, b) the best bands in Britain of the sixties and seventies, c) the improvements in the Czech Republic since the changes, d) how much better the Czechs were at running small businesses than either the Russians or the Poles, e) how well Manchester United and other clubs were doing in the Cup, f) how we were all great pals and I had to meet their beautiful wives and go with them on an expedition somewhere and g) the little-known fact about the people immortalised on the beer-glasses. Everyone knew they ran this pub and its little brewery, but those of a more recent beer persuasion would not have known their pre-Velvet Revolution credentials.
“Communists!” shouted the more talkative man, pointing furiously at the glass as if only the beer prevented him from hitting it. “Communists!”
“Shh, shh, shh!” The other one hissed like a frightened cat.
“Communists!” yelled the first, slamming his fist on the table with enough venom to rattle the glasses, “no good!”
“Shhh…?” pleaded the other. He looked nervously around him, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention.
“Communists,” said the man, more calmly now, though he was still scowling at his beer.
We all considered this information. I looked again at the stiffness of the Stalinist but bourgeois family and wondered how long ago this picture was taken. If they hated the commies so much, why were they drinking their beer? What the hell did I know? I was just your average punter. I was about to expand on my thesis about not really being an expert on the Czech Republic, when the more taciturn of the locals changed the subject by resuming the topic of Czech history in an earlier context.
“Bam, bam, bam! Spitfire, Plzen,” he said, and the code-breaking continued.
After more of this, it was becoming clear that it no longer mattered what we were talking about, we were so beer-blitzed. The realisation hit me that we had managed to communicate for two and a half hours with no loss of understanding. We had not been phased by the language barrier, and had tackled the task of getting ideas across with an energy and vitality I had not seen in a while. It emphasised what a poor teacher I still was: teaching was as much about communicating ideas effectively as anything else, and I had managed to cover more ground in two and a half hours with two strangers than I probably would with some of my students in a year. The thought did not depress me. On the contrary, it made me aware, if that was needed, that the challenge of teaching was far more subtle than I had previously guessed. Of course, it helped during the conversation that I had known something about the Second World War and football ï¿½ but even so… There was a world of difference between knowing, and making others understand what you knew. A genius of a mathematician could be a terrible teacher. Likewise, an expert linguist. Not that I was either of these, but it was an example. I, however, had just had a stimulating “conversation” with people who spoke practically no English.
A few days later, back in Prague, and my Czech girlfriend, Katcha, decided to make our relationship official, so to speak, by introducing me to her mother. Just to make things less comfortable, Katcha’s mother was a psychologist.
“Does she speak English?” I asked Katcha anxiously.
“Then how will we communicate apart from you translating?”
“She speaks some French. Do you?”
“Yes, a little, but it’s not much good.”
“I don’t know how good her French is, but I’m sure you’ll be able to discuss things.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Discussion French is quite advanced.”
Then I remembered the Czechs in the pub and their ability to communicate. Maybe she had the same talent. Maybe I could learn something from her and transfer it to my teaching.
“What are you thinking?” asked Katcha.
“I was contemplating the crisis I’m having in trying to teach English. There must be a solution.”
“Yes, there must be. What would you do if you were you?”
“I would change jobs.”
“Why? Is it so bad?” She produced a basket of kiwi fruit and put it on the table.
“Maybe not. I don’t think I’m settled enough yet.”
“Okay, but I am sure things will improve.”
Katcha’s mum, Eva, greeted us with a matron’s grin before she clucked around her kitchen in search of cooking. She chopped and baked and talked as she made us welcome. Unlike Katcha, she was plump, but by no means very plump.
“Parlez-vous français?” I asked.
“Oui, c’est magnifique!” she said.
“Oui, c’est ca.”
“Ou est-ce que vous avez étudié le francais?”
“Ah ha. Etes -vous née a Prague?”
“Oui – c’est magnifique!” she laughed.
That was that, so I tried a new tack.
“How ir you teeday?” I asked, in Czech.
“What’s so funny, Katcha?”
“I’m sorry. It’s your pronunciation. It’s ‘how are you today,’ not ‘how at you, toady.'”
“At least he’s trying,” said Eva, and the conversation continued in Czech, with Katcha translating. “I recently went with some friends,” said Eva, ” to a concert given by Lucie Bila. She sang the usual nostalgic Czech numbers, but also some American songs. An American friend with us told us that her English pronunciation was so bad that he could not make out one word.”
“Yes, that’s because Lucie Bila doesn’t speak any English,” explained Katcha after translating.
“It would be like me trying to sing in Russian,” I said. “I would be worse, though, because my voice isn’t in the same league.”
About six months later, back in Liberec for a teacher’s conference, I was walking into the same bar as previously, and there were my drinking companions and friends. I sat down next to them and started to talk to them.
“Plzen. Beer. Good!”
“Ah! Ah! Ah!” agreed the young business people.
“Actually, Czech mine is gooder than last time.”
“You speak Czech now!” said the quieter one.
“Not many. But enough.”
“My friend. Maybe you’ll understand us better. Our plans for a zrmmmm”
They mimed a picnic.
“Oh, yes, yes. What it about?”
“We’ll go with our wives.”
“I bring my girlfriend.”
“Good idea. What’s her name?”
“Is her English good?”
” She can translate, then! We’ll celebrate the future picnic with abeerrightnow.”
“We will celebrate the picnic with a beer now.”
“They’re coming shortly, on a tray,” snorted ‘Carmen’ who was passing the table at that moment. She moved off malignantly.
“A magnificent woman, that,” said the more talkative one. “A pity she’s got the waitress disease.”
“Yes, I thought she had her eye on you, John, for a moment.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We thought she liked you!”
“Ah! You joke! I think you she likes,” said I to the quieter one. “She gets…er…” I mimed fluttering eyelashes…”when she see you.”
The men roared with laughter.
“Are English women like Czech women?”
“Women in general are…different.” I said.
“And complicated,” said the talkative one. “Everywhere.”
The beers arrived. Carmen added three more slashes to the bill, and then moved off.
“What does Katcha do?” asked the more talkative one.
“Photographer,” I said.
“So my friend, does she take pictures of you?”
“Not much. She ask me sometime stand and pomp.”
The two men looked at each other, bemused.
“Ah! I think you mean pose,” said one of them.
“Yes! Pose!” said I. “But usual no me. I no good in camera front. I give bad face.”
“You make a face, so do I! My wife always tries to tell me: ‘say cheese’, but I end up looking as if I have said ‘voodoo!'” He mimed an ugly face to help me understand what he was saying.
“Maybe that’s what you wanted to say in the first place!” said the other.
“Oh, no. I love my wife.”
“My wife also likes to take pictures, and she likes to put me in the middle with our two kids clambering all over me.”
“Clambering?” I asked.
He stood up and mimed.
“I like this, but like my friend here, I don’t always smile at the click of a camera. I also take pictures of the family and friends. Snapshots, of course. I prefer them to video. Video to me robs the moment than captures it.”
“That’s very profound, but our friend here hasn’t understood a word.”
“So, our picnic,” said the less talkative one. ” We’re still having fine weather. How about next week?”
“It depend on job,” I said.
“Ah!” they said knowingly.
“Week after next I know.”
“I try to arrange. Difficult”
“Okay. So we meet here again same time next week and discuss plans then?”
“Yes,” I said.
I never did go back to Liberec for one reason or another, and the picnic idea never came into fruition. Katcha and I were together for three years, and my Czech improved a lot as a result.