A beautiful day in Frowntown
Imagine you’re walking down a street. It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon, the sun is shining. The birds are likely singing, but you wouldn’t know, because you’re listening to your favourite song in your new Airpods. You’re most likely on your way to meet a close friend you haven’t seen in ages. Now tell me, if I were to walk past you, if I were to come up to you at that very moment, would I know you’re in such a good mood? If I met you on the tram, bus, in the park or on the square, would I see your happiness?
Your daily dose of socializing at the supermarket, or not?
You’re in good old Kaufland, a local supermarket. You can see the shop assistant, who has been sitting behind the cashier for hours. She does the same work day after day. She is trying to distract herself by checking her phone at every possible moment, to see whether anybody has posted something worthwhile. She is making sure everyone knows she doesn’t enjoy the job that she’s doing. If you needed help finding the eggs, would you feel comfortable approaching her? Do you think she’d gladly help? Would she keep her opinions to herself? Would she try to be helpful?
Let’s walk a mile in their shoes, shall we?
Put yourself in the shoes of a foreigner in the Czech Republic in a typical Czech town. You are a traveller, or an Erasmus student. You name it. And you’re incredibly hungry. So you set foot in the first restaurant you find. Will there be an English menu? That woman in her late 50’s standing by the bar, is she going to speak English? Will they explain these odd-named dishes to you? Google translate found ‘Spanish bird’ and ‘Candlesauce’?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Czech people. There’s a beautiful depth to them and their culture. It’s an adventure getting to witness their personality unfold with time. And I usually go with the flow and act the same most of the time. I don’t smile in public, because that would look disturbingly odd. I don’t look at people on the street, I mind my own business. I don’t start a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop. I don’t randomly compliment someone’s coat in a retail store. I usually join in with the typical banter, where you complain about hating your job and social status and despise the elderly folk who wait in front of the supermarket 15 minutes before opening time (they tend to race to the pastry section, hoping to get the good stuff).
I have never had a problem asking for help. I’ve been very fortunate in that my mum made sure me and my siblings spoke English and Czech perfectly. The only time I spoke English in public in the Czech Republic was with my dad, at school or when I wanted to show off. But when it came to ordering food at a restaurant or shopping, I always switched back to Czech immediately. I had a completely different experience last year, though.
A new challenge, but not the best of both worlds
I started work at a language agency as a native speaker. The goal was to make the children think I didn’t understand a word of Czech, so they’d be motivated to speak in English. 60-minute lessons were fine, with proper preparation and materials. But then I was asked to supervise a camping trip to Olomouc for a whole day! And of course, I couldn’t use a single Czech word.
Let the performance begin
The trip started with a meet-up in the waiting area at the train station in my hometown. Being my typical disorganised self, I had forgotten to buy breakfast and a snack, also forgetting that food wouldn‘t be provided all day. This is where Challenge One began. I walked up to the shop assistant behind the counter at the bakery in the station. The girl was in her early 20’s, so I assumed English wouldn’t be a problem. I wanted non-sparkling water and some sort of pastry I can’t recall anymore. I started with a “Hello” and a smile.
She replied “Dobrý den”[Good day]. I didn’t think she hadn’t heard me, but I spoke up anyway. I continued speaking in English, asking for the pastry whilst pointing at it, trying to make it easier for her. She continued in Czech, asking “Tenhle?”[This one?], and “Jeden nebo dva?” [One or two?]. I was shaken. How could I explain to her that I wasn’t supposed to understand a word she had said, and that she should try a little harder. And I couldn’t do anything about it, because the childen were just meters away. She proceeded to ask more questions in Czech. Did I want sparkling or non-sparkling water? She told me the price in Czech, and asked whether I had change. I found her behaviour rather disrespectful, but I couldn’t blow my cover at the start of the day. So as a polite English citizen I smiled, thanked her and joined the group. I was full of rage and misunderstanding. Why was the girl so disrespectful and unhelpful? What reason did she have to make it so hard for me?
The daily struggles of others
My father must endure this behaviour on a daily basis. He tries to communicate with shop assistants in Czech slowly and intelligibly, but due to his English accent in Czech it isn’t entirely possible. Let me explain. The number of foreigners that try to speak Czech in the Czech Republic is small. There are hardly any in my hometown. So, people working in public services don’t have that much experience of dealing with them. I find it admirable that anyone would want to learn such a complex language. But not everyone sees it in the same way.
When my father enters a shop in our hometown and tries to order in Czech, he is given an odd look and usually a very inappropriate response. On occasion he is even corrected on his pronunciation by a complete stranger. I really do not understand where people get the audacity to be so utterly rude to someone who just wants to respect the place they live in by using the native language.
Another thing that happened during my day-long camping trip got me thinking. Our destination was the IQ centre in Olomouc. It was a brilliant place to take children. I, too, was looking forward to the experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that my experience as a native speaker of English would be slightly different from that of the others. I was keen to try to solve the puzzles, play the games with the kids and have a good time. What I didn’t know was that all games and experiments had Czech instructions only. I took my role as a native speaker very seriously. My colleague and the children would even mock me for not being able to pronounce “řeřicha“[watercress] and “roura“[hole]. So, when I came to a task I had to wait for a child to explain the instructions to me; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to understand what to do.
Let’s look on the bright side
In conclusion, I am slightly disappointed by some people’s approach to foreigners. Of course this isn’t everyone’s behaviour. Bigger cities are much more cosmopolitan and adaptable. But if as a foreigner you are about to visit the outskirts of a big city or a small town, you should be aware that people and services may not be willing to be helpful. I wouldn’t take it personally, though. It’s a cultural thing. And with time you will get to know Czech people better and see that it is just a mask everyone wears. It’s the same as being in England and everyone being polite to you. It doesn’t mean English people are genuinely nice. Fortunately, times are changing. More and more people value learning a second language. I am excited to see where this rollercoaster called life will take us. And maybe one day, we can all go into a Czech pub knowing we will be served with a smile.