I was very proud recently when the principal of my school declared me a “polovina cizinec,” which means “half-foreigner” – this is meant in my favor, in that I have managed to be half as foreign as other foreigners.
In Czech Republic, that is a HUGE accomplishment.
(Sidenote: I’m pretty sure “polovina cizinec” is the only phrase I have ever seen that is completely devoid of accent marks. A huge relief for once.)
Still, it’s easy to revert back to one’s silly ways when confronted with the following situations.
Toilet or bathroom?
When you are in a public place you would not ask for the bathroom, a classic American mistake, but the toilet. There are a few ways of saying this, but I often use “WC.” This is an abbreviation for “water closet” which I think every American knows and laughs about (what is a water closet? A closet filled with water?) but has never used. For me there was even an added level of confusion because in uni I worked at the Writing Center, which I always shortened to WC.
So if you want to brave the European lingo, don’t say, “Where is the double-u-c?” You have to ask for the “veh tse.”
Great – you’ve located that door or hallway which leads to the toilets! You are on a roll – go you, you fancy foreigner. But wait – you’ve seen something that stops you in your tracks.
Am I a Z or an M? A D or a P?
(Z – woman, M – man, D – lady, P – sir)
Better figure it out fast, b4 u p.
Speaking of which, Czechified international words
*One of my first few months here*
I was supposed to meet a friend in Brno, but hadn’t started paying for data. I couldn’t get in touch with her so I went in search of wifi. I found a small pub that was nearly deserted, so I was sure the bartender wouldn’t mind helping me out. I spoke very little Czech at the time, so I asked simply, “Víte wifi heslo?” (“Do you know the wifi password?”)
The problem was, she didn’t understand me. And I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. Doesn’t everyone know what wifi (why-fy) is?
Czech is very phonetic, so you have the tilt words at a 90-degree angle from English in order to be correctly understood. Some examples:
wifi = vee fee
sci-fi = see fee
IKEA = ee kay ah
chihuahua = chee va va
I will never use a money exchange again (except in desperate situations) after my experience in Wroclaw, Poland.
I got off the train after an entire night of traveling (during which I had to transfer 4 times), and was in dire need of coffee. Only problem? No moneys, and no ATM in sight.
These agents expect you to be confused by the currency, and Polish small change (groszy) is literally small. Tiny, even. It’s difficult to keep track of how much you actually have, but it’s a red flag when you are getting lots of coins, as more coins does not necessarily mean more money.
Imagine if someone gave you a ton of pennies, a regretfully useless part of American currency, instead of quarters.
Long story short, I had been ripped off big-time.
Thankfully, Starbucks is an international coffeehouse, and the English-speaking baristas were exceptionally patient with me as I counted out massive amounts of small change for my blessed filtered coffee.
The Goldilocks Principle of Politeness
I love this postcard – it’s hanging on my fridge as I write.
Every culture has got its politeness norms. Americans and Brits are very different from each other, as we are from Czechs. It’s difficult to know how to achieve the Goldilocks golden mean of politeness – how do you know when you’re being too polite, or not polite enough?
Should you feel awkward for using your computer in a café or restaurant?
Where do you tip, and where would it be offensive to tip?
How do you check your map without looking like a damned tourist? And how do you stop people to ask for directions?
“Wait, I studied for this…”
One of the most common and frustrating experiences is remembering the word you want to use right after the person you’re talking to has either
a) switched to English, or
b) given up on you
Káva s sebou, literally “coffee with me,” has become remarkably popular here in CZ. Most places have signs that say “you can even take it with you!” But rewind to clueless Chloe’ when she didn’t know how to pronounce s sebou:
“Can I have it ssssssssssssssssssebou?”
“Do you speak English?”
Yes. Yes I do.