Monthly Archives: September 2010

Houskygate Part II

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In the interests of balance, I returned to That Bakery and again attempted to buy my five bread rolls,  just to see what would happen.

Thanks to the readers of this blog, I now know that I should have asked for ‘pět housek’ rather than ‘pět housky’.  Whether it was my inability to decline the genitive plural correctly which so upset Pani Grumpyová we’ll never know: she wasn’t there. 

Instead I was served by a curly-haired elderly lady.  I did have to repeat my request but was prompted to do so by a polite ‘Prosím?’ rather than the Martian-shaped-piece-of excrement-identifying stare I’d endured on the previous occasion.  I even got a smile as I handed over the correct money in small change. 

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers of this blog who have supported me through Houskygate.  As I’m sure you can imagine, this event was enormously traumatic for me and I’m still dealing with the emotional fallout.  Indeed, I think I may only overcome the deep scars by undergoing a lengthy course of psychotherapy.  Either that or as one of you advised, I could just stop speaking Czech in public altogether.

My thoughts on Czech fashion are coming soon.  Unfortunately my delicate English constitution has fallen prey to the super strong Czech cold germs and winter hasn’t even started yet.  Czechman’s mum has prescribed bed rest, warm socks and lots of hot teas; I know better than to disobey her…


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I decline to decline: why trying to speak Czech can sometimes feel like a waste of time

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I think I’m going to call the incident ‘Houskygate’.

All I wanted was five bread rolls. That’s not strictly true. What I actually wanted was four bread rolls, but that would have involved saying the word ‘čtyři’ which all foreigners struggle to pronounce. So I went into the the bakery (not a butchers or a hairdressers or even a bloody sex shop) and asked for ‘pět housky’.

The woman behind the counter looks at me like I’m a Martian or to be more exact, a Martian shaped piece of excrement she would dearly love to scrape off her shoe.

She doesn’t ask me to repeat what I’ve said. Instead she turns to her colleague and says, ‘Rozumite jí?’ (Do you understand her?)

Blood boiling by now, I repeat – no, yell – exactly the same thing across the counter. My pronunciation can’t be that bad as I get my five rolls. Perhaps its the volume I need to work on.

It isn’t over: I still need to pay.  My five rolls come to fourteen crowns and I only have a 100kc note.  This is, of course, crime of the century and earns me a ‘to je jenom čtrnáct koruny, sakra!’ (It’s only fourteen crowns for God’s sake!) as though it were terribly impertinent of me to expect change to be provided in a shop where I should happen to be purchasing goods.

Why oh why, people, do I bother trying to learn Czech (and I have tried quite hard – I can decline a noun in the singular form in every single case and unlike many of my ex-pat brethen I actually know what a case is) when my reward is rudeness and public humiliation?

Phew.  That’s better.  You’re right, Ms Knedlikova, it was cathartic.

For the sake of balance, let me share a funny Czech speaking anecdote with you.  Last summer, I wanted to get the train to Brno to visit a friend.  I went to the ticket booth and asked for ‘jeden listek do Brna’.   The lady tried to charge me 1000kc, which did seem rather steep.  It transpired that this was because the woman had misunderstood and thought I wanted to go to Berlin.  We both had a bit of a chuckle about this and once again, I asked for my ticket, ‘do Brna.’  It came to a much more reasonable 300kc.  I paid and began to head off towards the plaform.

However, this time, the kind lady had sold me a ticket not to Berlin or to Brno, where I actually wanted to go, but to the town of Prna.  I promptly went back and explained that there had been a ‘chyba’ (mistake).

‘Chci jet do Brna,’ I say for the umpteenth time.  ‘Do Brna.’  In the interests of communication, I finally decline to decline. ‘Brno.’

‘Tak umíte cesky!’ the woman replies. ‘So you do speak Czech!’  I finally get my one-way ticket to Brno and manage not to miss my train.

Why didn’t she understand me?  Probably because I bothered to decline the case (i.e I changed Brno to Brna because I was going there and therefore had to use the genitive) and she just assumed no foreigner would be capable of that.  Like when I tell receptionists that I have a meeting  ‘s Michalem‘  and they reply blankly ‘Michal?’ as though I’m mentally defective.

Perhaps I just need to grow a thicker skin. 

I’m going to eat my bread rolls.


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Culture shock or culture shiver? Eight tiny ways the Czechs do things differently

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A not so spoilt and western coffee drinking opportunity in Tesco at Novy Smichov

I wonder if it is possible to experience true culture shock within Europe these days.  The answer, I suspect, is no.  However, there are those tiny little differences that serve as a reminder you’re in a foreign land.  A bit like when you try to cook in someone else’s kitchen and the knives and forks and chopping board are all in the wrong place.  So, you’ve already heard enough about the major differences I’ve encountered since moving to the Czech Republic in other posts; here are some of my Czech culture shivers:

1.  Need to tinkle?  Fear not: there are plenty of public conveniences here in Czechland which is very, erm, convenient.  Remember though that more often than not, the toilet paper is not in the cubicle itself but on a giant roll near Pani Peepeeova by the main entrance.  Don’t forget to tear off a length and take it with you ladies or you’ll end up having to drip dry…

2. As you all know, I do enjoy a coffee but I have a weakness for the spoilt and western kind, the consumption of which offers an excuse to sit down in fancy environs. I find it puzzling though that there are coffee vending machines in the strangest places.  The doctor’s waiting room.  In the metro by the ticket machines.  And even in the fruit and veg aisle of the supermarket.  Are Czechs really so desperate for their caffeine fix?

3. Caraway seeds (kmín).  They put the things everywhere.  Sometimes you’ll find them in the cylinder shaped bread rolls (rohlíky) the Czechs love to munch for breakfast or mixed in with boiled potatoes, presumably in an effort to liven them up.  They taste ok, I suppose.  Just don’t make the mistake that I did when shopping here and buy them when what you really want is the indian spice, cumin.

4. Net curtains.  According to Czechman’s mum, only gypsies don’t have net curtains.  Make that gypsies and British residents.  They just seem desperately old-fashioned and kitsch; I’d rather have everyone stare into my living room than put some up.

5. Tipping. Unlike in England, you don’t leave money on the table, you tell the waitress how much you want them to have when you pay your bill.  So to clarify, if your lunch comes to 85kc, you could hand over a 100kc note and say ‘devadesát korun’ (ninety crowns).  Or if you want to be uber-Czech, you could just not bother with a tip at all (I’m joking, don’t lynch me please…) 

Czechman much prefers the British system of leaving the cash on the table as he feels uncomfortable letting the waiting staff know just how much he appreciates their service (or lack of).

6. Padded doors.  I visited my friend’s panelák recently and when I went to the loo, I felt like I had accidently ended up in a cell in a mental ward.  Why the padding?  Is is for soundproofing to prevent embarrassing sounds echoing down the corridor?

7. Pubs.  Table service!  Hurray!  No more traipsing up to the bar everytime you want another drink and waving your ten pound note hopefully at the barman in the hope you might get served before doomsday.  And in a Czech pub there’s (nearly) always somewhere to sit down too. 

8. Paying for things.  I’m still puzzled as to where exactly I’m supposed to put the money when I’m paying for something in a shop.  In England, the most polite thing is to place the money in the shop assistant’s hand; putting it on the counter implies that you think they’re dirty and touching them would contaminate you.  Here though, there seem to be little plastic trays by the till designed for customers to place their cash in when paying for goods: is that what I should be doing?  Is it ok to hand over a note that’s all screwed up in a ball or should it always be completely unfolded?  These questions of etiquette keep me awake at night…

I know I promised you my thoughts on the Czechs and their sense of, erm, style.  However, I decided to go for something a bit more light-hearted this time while I mull it over (phrasal verb alert! – this one means ‘to think about’ or ‘to consider deeply’ Czech readers) as I’m afraid if I write something thoughtless I’ll be torn to pieces. Anyway, watch this space: my thoughts on double denim and socks with sandals are coming soon…

Don't forget to take some loo roll with you or you'll have to drip dry...


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English or Czechlish? Seven deadly sins committed by Czech speakers of English.

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Look! I found mushrooms! Perhaps my soul is Czech after all! Anyway, this post isn’t about mushroom picking, popular Czech autumnal pastime though it is. At least not exactly.

I spend a lot of time listening to Czech people speak English. It is my job after all. Patient, professional and courteous as I think I am (99% of the time at least), there are a couple of common errors that Czechs make which really grate on my nerves. In the interest of – well, I’m not really sure what exactly – helping others? having a bit of a moan? – I’m going to share some my pet hates with you all here.

1. Notebook. This is a small item made of paper. It has pages. It cannot be plugged in nor hooked up to the internet. Notebook means blok, in British English at least. Please *stop* using this word when you want to say laptop.

2. Meeting, appointment. You do not have a meeting with your friend at the cinema tomorrow. Or an appointment. You have meetings at work. Equally, you make an appointment with your doctor. Or your hairdresser. Or your accountant or chiropodist or tax inspector.  An appointment is not a social arrangement. Ok?

3. Schoolmate.  This word does exist in English but we never use it.  We would always say, ‘someone I was at school with’ not ‘my ex-schoolmate’.  It sounds very weird – perverted almost – to listen to a fifty year old man talking about how he’s going to have dinner with his schoolmates, former or otherwise on a Friday night. I imagine them all sitting around their local hospoda in school uniforms acting out bizarre fantasies. Stop it. Now.

4. Fantasy.  Speaking of fantasies, avoid telling someone English that you have a lot of them.  Unless you find them overwhemingly attractive.  The word you’re probably looking for is ‘imagination’.  ‘Fantasies’ in this context has unfortunate sexual connotations.

5. Pick up mushrooms.  You do not pick up mushrooms.  Unless you managed to collect so many of them that a couple of fungi fell out of the basket onto the floor and you had to bend over to retrieve them.  You pick them.  ‘Pick’ is the verb you require.  Given how it’s even more of a national sport than hockey you should learn to discuss it correctly.

6. SMS.  Although this acroymn stands for Short Message Service, unfortunately, native speakers of English *never* talk about sending each other an SMS. We send a text or even just text each other. 

7. THE Czech Republic.  I know articles are difficult.  The more I teach here in Czechland, the more pointless I think they are.  However, if you miss them out, you’ll sound like you’re speaking some kind of  ‘You Tarzan, me Jane’ English.  Which I’m sure you’d rather avoid.  So while confusing most countries don’t take the article (the turkey being the animal rather than the place) please, please, please remember that it’s always THE Czech Republic.  And don’t even think about saying ‘In Czech’ , when you want to talk about your native land unless you really want to upset me.

I know how difficult it is to try to learn another language – hey, I spend everyday at the moment battling with your four genders and seven cases – but just by making some very, very small changes you can instantly make yourself sound less alien to a native speaker and let’s face it, we’d all like to find that magic shortcut to sounding less foreign if we can.

Apologies if I sound like a grumpy pedant today and thanks to everyone who has replied to my Czech language related queries in the comments section. Quirkier, hopefully more amusing posts will soon follow. I can feel something brewing about Czechs and their sense of style (or lack of…)  Here’s a little visual taster…


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