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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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