Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2016 at 11:56am by Darren Baker
Czech the Children - Chapter 2 -There are few bears in the Czech Republic, but just talking about them can be trouble enough.
I resolved before going back to come back. It was no pull of heritage or anything like that, a “being among my true people.” After all, I only had the name to go on. Rather, it seemed as if the whole country had woken up to the fact that in the post-communist world they needed English to get by. They never really had any use for the Russian they had to learn all their lives, now they really had no use for it. So desperate had the search become for English teachers that in some cases Russian teachers were told they had a week, maybe a month, to learn English if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Given the typical American pushiness for every opportunity that arises, it was no surprise that thousands met this call, lured by the opportunity of getting a paid holiday abroad, with plenty of beer and getting laid, and all they had to do was talk to some high school students. No grammar, no homework, just come in and talk about everything Americana, whether food, sports, music, TV. Hell, even prostitution and homelessness if you wanted.
This I definitely wanted, because when I was knocked off the perch of my ambition at McDonald’s, I went into a complete freefall to where my new goal in life was to do absolutely nothing if I could get paid for it. My mother was for me going back and, needless to say, so was Leon.
During our visit, I had met a Czech English teacher from a high school in North Moravia who first pitched the idea to me. We stayed in touch after I got back to the States; it took a couple of months for him to make the arrangements with the school and the authorities, and by the end of summer I was on a plane back. I met the school administrators, was set up in a comfortable single room at the school dormitory, met my classes, and settled into life abroad.
It was a truly golden age. To be an American in those days, even one with a Czech name, was like walking into Valhalla. Everywhere you were fed and fêted and given more drink than you can imagine. Inevitably, it came to an end as the country became privatized and much of the wealth ended up in the hands of the few, as would be the case anywhere.
With capitalism, moreover, came a shocking new work ethic. Under socialism you worked eight hours and went home whether the job was done or not. Now you didn’t go home until the job was done. Before, job security was the glue that kept everything together. Now it was watch your ass.
That’s when the exodus of American flunkies began. By then, I was firmly entrenched and making an effort to learn the language. Now, I had studied some German back in high school, and my teacher told me that it was the fourth hardest European language to learn. Over here, one of my colleagues at school told me offhandedly that Czech was the fourth hardest language to learn. I’m not sure which one deserves the honor of fourth place, but I do know this: God help those learning one of the top three.
Just look at the seven cases of grammar. In English, a bear is a bear is a bear, but in Czech, a bear (medvěd) changes form whenever you feed him (medvěda), walk with him (medvědem), talk with him (medvědovi), or even call out to him (Ahoj, medvěde). Two bears and you’ve got twice the trouble. This declension has to be applied to every single article, adjective, participle, and noun in Czech, based on whether it is masculine, feminine or neuter, all the while remembering to follow one of the four sample forms indicative of each gender. Oh, is that all?
Okay, every language has its idiosyncrasies. English is admittedly no piece of cake for people who have to learn the difference between see and sea, saw and saw, and seen and scene. In English you went, you were going, you have gone, you had gone. In Czech, you just went.
In the beginning, I had my students do most of the talking for me. They were happy to hang with me because they could practice real English and hear firsthand accounts of the things they were now seeing in television. For those times when I was alone and in a tricky situation, feigning ignorance was usually the way to go. Like the morning I took a shortcut on the railroad tracks and these two cops on the beat stopped me. The one with the prissy moustache did the interrogating.
It was clear I was doing something wrong and his flutter of fingers could only have meant, “Your papers, please.” So I handed over my American passport and both were impressed until they saw my Czech name. Thinking I was one of those conceited émigrés who come back and think they own the world, he started lecturing me, I suppose, on showing a little respect for the laws of the motherland. All I could do was shrug and say, “Me no speaky Czechy.” He gave me a long, suspicious look, not sure whether I was pulling his leg or not, but handed me back my passport and, judging by his snarly tone, told me to get lost.
And so I had my first experience with what might be called rule number one in this part of the world: avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs, even if you have a gun.
I suppose it was only a matter of time, but even the dream job for loafers was beginning to lose its luster. When the next school year rolled around, these teenagers, who seemed so curious and polite when I first arrived, were acting bored or aloof every time I tried to engage them in meaningful talk about their everyday lives. Some of the problem was the flood of American TV series about teenage angst. Wow, their parents don’t understand them, either!
Where the Czech mom and dad might bemoan the new pressures of working in the modern world, their kids were bemoaning everything. This sucks, that sucks, you gotta be kidding. Never, in all the history of mankind, did young people have it as difficult as they did. Even though I wasn’t that much older than them, I was a representative of authority and so naturally became a target as well. I realized that fact as the amount of Czech being spoken in my presence grew more and more. And since I was learning more and more, my suspicions were aroused whenever a group around me started snickering.
“Wait a minute,” I might interrupt them. “Isn’t that the word for asshole?”
I grew so fed up that I was contemplating going somewhere else. What ended up changing everything was the red-faced beaver. He was this little man, probably in his fifties, with two very prominent upper front teeth, who was clearly more of an alcoholic than the handyman of the dormitory he was supposed to be. A water line in my room had busted, forcing him to turn off the supply until he repaired the pipe. It was supposed to take a day, but a month passed and all the boozy beaver did was make excuses in a slurry of words that made no sense. So I asked a Czech friend to interpret and they made no sense to him, either. The management of the dormitory brushed my complaints aside until finally I warned them to have it fixed by the end of the month or I was out of there.
My threat earned me just another shrug. I forgot these people came from another world, which can be best summed up with the popular joke about a woman who calls the plumber to fix her sink.
“Sure, I can fit you in ten years from next Tuesday,” he tells her.
The woman freaks out.
“No, not then. The electrician is coming that day!”
It was a culture of it-will-get-done-when-it-gets-done. Today I thank the beaver and this culture, for his failure to rise to the occasion forced me to put the word out among colleagues that I was looking for a place to live. One of them knew this young lady who had an apartment to rent. The rest you might say is history.