Thursday, November 8, 2012

Look Ma: I can read!!

Box for returning library books in central Ostrava.

Yesterday, I learnt a sentence in Czech language class that I really should have learnt during my first week here: “Prominte, nerozumím. Nemluvím moc česky”, i.e. “Sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Czech”.
Until now, I’ve just been telling people in English that I don’t speak Czech, which is of course kind of rude, but I simply didn’t know how to say it in Czech. I did learn the expression "nerozumím" earlier, but whenever I was in the actual situation where I would’ve needed it, my mind just went blank and I couldn’t remember how to say it. Now – after just over 7 months of living in this country – I’m finally able to say…..well, that I don’t understand...
This could be depressing, but Czech is not really an easy language, so I haven’t set any mental deadlines for myself for when I’m supposed to be able to speak it. Here one can get “permanent resident” status only after 5 years of living in this country, so I figure that if I speak Czech in five years, I’ll be pretty happy.

When I came to this country, I did not just immigrate: I also started a new job, which has been pretty challenging. I’ve had tons of new things to learn at work, so I haven’t had much energy left over for actually studying Czech. So what I learnt during the first 6 months or so I just kind of picked up by osmosis – so I’ve been learning in the same way a child learns his or her mother tongue. I just keep hearing a word and I start to wonder what it means and then I ask or look it up. This is how I learnt the word “prominte” – sorry. I kept hearing it and it started to bother me that I didn’t know what it meant.
I always say that I study languages simply because I am really curious and it annoys me if I don’t understand what people are saying! I started studying Greek only because of one word: "paragalo" (παρακαλώ)*. I was on vacation in Greece and I kept hearing that word and did not know what it meant - and it simply drove me I started to study Greek. Strange logic, I know.  
Now that I’m officially studying Czech, it’s amazing how I am able to understand more every day. For example I have many times passed a big sign on a garage door that says “neparkovat”. Well, I guessed earlier that it probably meant something along the lines of “parking in front of the door not allowed”. However, only today did I look at it and suddenly realize that I know that verb: parkovat (infinitive) and I know how to conjugate it (parkuju, parkuješ, parkuje, parkujeme, parkujete, parkujou). I also know that all loan words that are verbs (loan verbs?) are formed in this same way, e.g. chatovat (to chat) or skypovat (to Skype). So studying Czech grammar is really starting to pay off. Our teacher is very big on grammar and in some ways I understand her because Czech grammar is pretty much a nightmare. But more on the gory details in some later post.
Not understanding a language reminds me of not being able to read as a child: you look at text and it means nothing to you; it’s just bla-bla-bla. I’ll give one example: I drink a lot of Coke Zero and on the Czech Coke Zero bottle, there’s the text: “PRAVA CHUŤ NULA CUKRU”. I had seen that text every single day for 3 months and it said nothing to me. Then one day I was looking at it and suddenly - in a flash - I understood! This was my logic: “prava” sounds similar to the Russian word “pravda” (truth, the name of a Russian newspaper). By then I had also leant the expression for “bon appetit”: dobrou chuť. So I suddenly realized that “prava chut” means “genuine taste”, or something along those lines. And then I also immediately figured out that “nula cukru” must mean “zero sugar” ("nula" as in null, "cukru" as in sucrose). Suddenly figuring this out after having been in the country for 3 months was an amazing feeling – I guess similar to how happy a child is when he or she learns something new. Oh, the simple pleasures of life abroad….  

*Paragalo, in fact, has an identical meaning to the Finnish expression "ole hyvä", i.e. it means both "you're welcome" and "here you are" (when giving somebody something).



Friday, November 2, 2012

Pink Lady Czechs out the TP

I am reading a book called "Me, Myself & Prague" (An Unreliable Guide to Bohemia) by Rachael Weiss. It was first published in 2008, and in some ways, I don't really recognize the country she is describing. It seems different from the Czech Republic I am experiencing.

Ms. Weiss is an Australian writer (with a Czech father), who moved to Prague to write. The book is a sort of humorous memoir about her experiences in adapting to a new culture. I am only on page 102, but so far I am somewhat dissapointed: it reads a bit like a personal diary. However, since I am currently in a similar situation, i.e. trying to adapt to life in the Czech Republic, it is of course interesting to compare her experiences to my own.

As I wrote above, the book was published in 2008, but of course I don't know what year it was when she actually arrived in Prague - it could have been earlier. But it seems that the Czech Republic is changing and developing really quickly in any case. Here is just one example: toilet paper (TP). Here is what Ms. Weiss writes on the subject:

"The last bastion of communism in the supermarket, though, was the toilet paper. Called 'Big and Soft' it was neither big, nor soft. It was small, one-ply, harsh, and a grim, dark-grey colour - the colour, and texture, of a cardboard box that's been left out in the rain then dried in a furnace. It was communist toilet paper if ever I saw it."

I was at Tesco's in Ostrava today and checked out the varieties of TP. I wanted to see if I could find this "communist" TP that Ms. Weiss writes about. And, sure enough, it was there. And it was possible to buy just one roll of it at a time. It may be true that in communist times this was indeed the only TP available - perhaps it was - but I have seen this kind of horrible, low-quality TP on sale in other places too: in Paris, for example. So I would not say that it is communist TP, it's just the low quality stuff. And what I've noticed in Central Europe is that there is more variety in the prices than in Finland; in Finland you pretty much only get the good quality stuff, the really cheap products or services are not available. So it's very difficult to be poor in Finland!

But back to my trip to Tesco's: not only does Tesco's sell the low-quality TP, regular TP and every kind of scented, thick, fluffy, luxury TP on the planet, it even sells the TP in the photo: Hello Kitty TP! In fact, there is a much greater variety of TP in Ostrava supermarkets than there is in Helsinki supermarkets. Ms. Weiss also commented that no matter how hard she looked in her local supermarket, she could not find olive oil; well, at Tesco's there must be about 100 different varieties of it. So whatever year it was when Ms. Weiss found only the "communist" TP in her local supermarket - that state of affairs seems to be a thing of the past: capitalism has hit the Czech Republic big time. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is, of course, debatable. Personally, I would dare say it's a bit of both.