I’m liking the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenges. Every picture tells a story, don’t it. This week’s theme is Foreign, which is what I was this summer.
I spent the month of July in Prague studying the Czech language. I was the only American in a class mostly full of Russians, and I never knew whether they were speaking to the teacher in Russian or in Czech. One of them, a college student named Svetlana, drove most of us crazy by constantly scratching the air with her overlong fingernails and calling out, “Mám otázka! Mám otázka!” (I have a question!)
The other students were from France, Germany, and Japan, trying to learn Czech, their third (or 4th) language, via English, their second language. But none of the Russians spoke English, and they made up two-thirds of the class, so we were really learning Czech through some combination of Czech and Russian, which stirred up some serious Cold War feelings within me. (That was a joke. Sort of.)
While in the Czech Republic, I wanted to go to Česká Skalice, a two-hour train ride from Prague, and the town where Božena Němcová grew up and got married. And where, in fact it was Rok Boženy Němcové: The Year of Božena Němcová, who died 150 years earlier. It’s a small town in the Czech countryside, and I was pretty sure no one would speak English, so it wasn’t until the fourth and final week of language study that I felt bold enough to venture there on my own. I skipped a day of class and bought a train ticket. And pretty much immediately got lost.
I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to get me back to the train station.
At last I met two cyclists, a couple who had stopped to check their maps, and I used my three-and-a-half weeks of Czech to ask them “Nevite, kde je Muzeum Boženy Němcové?” But no, they did not know where it was. I showed them my map, and asked, “Kde jsme?” (Where are we?) But they didn’t know that either.
Then, in what felt like a perfectly literary moment, I found an older woman in her garage painting a chair. It felt like a literary moment because here I was, seeking the author of the famous Czech book, Babička (The Grandmother), which was set in this very town, and here before me was a grandmotherly figure who might be able to help me. So of course I said the first thing that came to mind: “Mám otázka!”
But it worked! I understood as she pointed tady (there) and then doleva (turn left) and then doleva again, and then na prava (it’s on the right). I understood that it would take about deset minut (10 minutes). And I made it.
But perhaps the best part was when I returned to class the next day. I hadn’t told anyone that I’d be gone, and when we started class with our conversation practice, one of the Russians, Evgeny, started the discussion by asking where I’d been the day before. He said: “Stýská se mi po Kelcey.” I missed Kelcey.
And I realized I’d missed them too.