Czech Republic: Communication Breakdown

This is the fourth in a series of essays by globe-trotter Kevin Nguyen, who is currently studying at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. After encountering the difficult Czech language, Kevin searches for alternate forms of communication to compensate for his linguistic ineptitude.

My two-week, 4.5 hours-a-day “Intensive Czech Language” course has left me woefully unprepared to converse with non-English speakers around Prague. The professor’s boyfriend, an expat street magician from Western Massachusetts, explained that even after living in the country for five years, he can barely hold a basic Czech conversation. Expecting to learn the language in two weeks was, it seems, a little farfetched.

Granted, learning Czech serves little purpose outside of the Czech Republic. There are 12 million fluent Czech speakers in the world. The Czech Republic has a population of 10.3 million. Even neighboring Slovakia speaks a different form of Czech. Regardless, I’ve made it my goal to learn enough of the language to get by.

The class equipped me with basic phrases like jak se máš? (how are you?) and dobrý den (good day), but I find myself cracking under pressure when I get the chance to use them. Instead, I fire off the one phrase I remember by heart.

“Mám rád jazz” (I like jazz).

Sadly, there’s never really an appropriate situation to say “mám rád jazz” unless someone actually asks your opinion on jazz.

In the Czech Republic, over-the-counter medication can only be purchased at a pharmacy. It’s not much of an inconvenience, since you’ll never have to search for long to find one. There’s a drogerie near the Hrad?anská metro stop. The pharmacist is a short woman, roughly in her fifties.

“Do you have Zantac?”

Nemluvim anglický” (I don’t speak English), she answers.

I try asking for ZAN-TAC again. From a drawer under the counter, she places in front of me every single type of medication that begins with the letter Z. After a quick scan, I realize that none of them are what I asked for.

Then it hits me. Medication here is socialized. Government-regulated generic pharmaceuticals take the place of brand names like Zantac. Any antacid will suit my needs, so I try explaining the concept of heartburn to the woman through exaggerated hand gestures and arm motions.

“You know, heartburn. It’s indigestion caused by stomach acids that causes a burning in your chest. People think their heart is on fire,” I say, “but it’s actually in your esophagus.”

I’m not sure why I thought the words ‘indigestion’ and ‘esophagus’ would be in her basic English vocabulary. I ask for a pen. I draw a heart and a flame, which only confuses her more.

I write down the name Zantac, and the pharmacist punches it into her computer. She pulls out a box of rantidine hydrochloride. Seeing the line that has formed behind me, I decide to take my chances and buy it. Luckily, it ends up being exactly what I’m looking for, only costing me 40 korunas ($2), much cheaper than Zantac is in the States.

“The James Bond Café should be right here.”

Everyone seems disappointed. The street is silent, and there’s no sign of the poorly-named bar anywhere. Could the guidebook map be wrong? I tell everyone to stay put while I walk up the street and look for it. Around the corner is a man with a scruffy beard sweeping the front steps of his apartment (in the middle of the night?).

“Do you know where James Bond is?” I ask.

The man shrugs and answers, “Nemluvim anglický.”

“James Bond Café is supposed to be on this street corner. It’s a bar.”

I receive another blank stare.

I hum the James Bond theme song and imitate Sean Connery by pretending my right hand is a pistol.

“Oh, James Bond!” he answers, pointing down the street. “Closed one year ago.”

I guess it should’ve been more obvious. Despite a glowing review in my guidebook, I can’t imagine any place called James Bond Café staying in business.

Sometimes Czech people use the language barrier against me.

One of the few treats I’ve found in Prague is the Euro Hot Dog. It’s similar to an ordinary hot dog, only the bun is replaced with a hollowed out baguette that serves as a pouch for your sausage. For 20 korunas ($1), it’s the perfect snack.

I tend to crave these after leaving a bar or club. Street vendors along Wenceslas Square in New Town are open late, allowing them to prey on the multitude of hungry, drunk tourists. After paying the attractive blonde vendor for my Euro Hot Dog, she attempts to cheat me out of 100 korunas in change. It’s difficult to argue with her. She pretends to misunderstand me, but eventually concedes. I’ve had two or three similar experiences around this area of Prague.

After discovering the unfortunate closure of James Bond Café, we find another bar in the neighborhood of Žižkov called Akropolis. Atmospherically, the place is smokey and dimly-lit, but comfortable. There’s a small dance floor, and the DJ is spinning an eclectic range of music from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Smoke on the Water” to Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” With inexpensive beer and a healthy mix of locals and tourists, Akropolis is one of my favorite spots in Prague. The Thursday night crowd is relaxed and fun.

I meet a couple of Czechs who compliment my dancing ability. Apparently, the standard for dancing is very low in the Czech Republic. They introduce themselves as Petr and Martin. Petr’s English is impeccable, and upon inquiry, he explains that he lived in Washington D.C. for three years in his teens.

“It only took you three years to learn English? I hear it takes much longer than that to learn Czech,” I say.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Petr answers. “Have you picked up any Czech while you’ve been in Prague?”

I think for a moment. “Mám rád jazz.

Petr and Martin shoot each other quizzical looks. Suddenly, they both burst into laughter.

“All you can say is that you like jazz?” Petr asks.

I nod. They keep laughing.

“That’s too funny. I need to buy you a beer for that,” Martin offers.

As I’m drinking my free beer, I realize that I’m sipping away at my linguistic incompetence. At least Czech folks will always know how I feel about jazz.

Read more from Czech Republic.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.