I really dislike not being able to speak Czech. I am inquisitive/nosey by nature and dislike not knowing what people on the metro are talking about, what my secretary is saying to her friend over the phone, and what the newspaper headlines are. Although Prague is generally incredibly English-friendly, and young people in particular have an astonishingly good grasp of spoken English, I was struck again today about how certain situations are made so much harder by lack of common language.
The hurdles crop up when you least expect it. At work, everyone speaks English except the nice man who comes round in the evening to empty bins. I know enough pigeon Czech now to thank him and wish him “Dobry Vecer” (Good Evening). Anna has recommended to me a brilliant doctor who speaks very good English and he turns out to be more forthcoming than my English GP ever was at explaining what is actually wrong with me (nothing much, don’t worry) and so I came out of the surgery with a far better idea of what was going on than ever before. Filling out the social security forms, standing order slips, application for permanent residency and other bits of bureaucracy (you can see why Kafka wrote the sort of material he did here…) was a real Czech treat, but in these more formal situations it is perfectly acceptable to use a translator, or a very kind secretary, to help you out.
It is the informal situations where my own linguistic shortcomings, and the strengths of my Czech counterparts, are most obvious. Pilates this morning was a case in point. I turned up early and introduced myself (in “Czenglish”) to instructor Petra. She has the body of a goddess (and all from Pilates, which is basically just breathing and stretching, right?) and so I am keen to learn as much as possible from her, which will require understanding what she says. I explain that I am pretty new to Pilates and don’t speak “much” Czech. I must really stop saying that – repeat after me “I do not speak any Czech, I do not speak any Czech”. Lovely Goddess Petra says (in perfect English) that this is fine, and that she will explain things to me as we go.
Fast-forward twenty minutes and I am SO embarrassed. Whilst Petra is able to explain almost everything to me in English (the fact that she knows the words “pelvis”, “abdominal muscles”, and “lumbar vertebrae” is in my view, testament to the Czech education system – language classes must have changed since I was at school), she is unable to do so at the same time as talking Czech to the other 20 ladies in the class. Her focus on me – a non-native speaker and a complete novice (turns out my Pilates is as basic as my Czech) – is drawing disapproving tuts from the rest of the class. So, whilst I lie red-faced on the floor, in actual agony from all the stretching and breathing, Petra resorts to talking to the rest of the class whilst “adjusting” me into the correct pose. Foot flexes, abdomen tilt, neutral spine – she says it (in Czech) to the rest of the class but just manipulates me into the position that I should be in. Its all rather close and personal and mightily embarrassing, especially as I had initially attempted to hide my uncoordinated self at the back of the classroom but Petra has bought me down to the front where everyone can see this spectacle and keeps telling me to relax RELAX!
Embarrassment aside, Pilates will be very helpful for both body and mind. After only one hour, I can now recognise the numbers one to eight (everything is held for a count of eight) and am well versed in “nádech nádech vydech VYDECH” (breath in breath in, breath out, BREATH OUT!!!). There is nothing like repetition (and having somebody grab your leg and force it to bend in a way you never thought possible) to really hammer home these new phrases. It is a tactic I might suggest to our language teacher.
Will I be going back next week? Hell yeah! Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were Petra’s abs. Sign me up.