Good Day, I Have Butter

and sometimes I have to do it all in COLORWe are eating at a meat restaurant in Český Krumlov, the historic town where a year ago my brother and I convinced vampires to get into a picture with us sans pantaloons (see: Pantless in Krulmov, Aug 25, 2011). This time, I am here with my sister and my friend S. A current ban on spirits in the Czech Republic pretty much guarantees remaining in pants, as does the fact that I’m with my sister and not my brother.

My sister has an interest in languages; she speaks French, some Italian and got one of the highest scores on the city Latin test when she was in high school. So she’s observant and questioning about pronunciation, grammar and vocab. S has just moved here to teach ESL so he is fully interested in this linguistic discussion. Trying out a question for the waiter, my sister announces to the table: Dobrý den, mám máslo = Good day, I have butter.

I erupt into laughter and when I translate they join in with hearty guffaws. When the waiter comes, we do not present him with our edict.

Thirty minutes later we are standing in our pension room and the woman who owns it is showing us around. I am speaking with her and this is what happens:

“Oh, mluviš Český?” Oh, you speak Czech? She looks impressed.

I experience a paralysis brought on by several issues: I want to be honest, I want to impress my friends and this woman, I don’t want to eat crow after the butter incident, and I don’t want to look like a schmuck who has lived in a country for eight years without learning the language fluently. I try somewhere in the middle. “Jo…?” Yes…?

And from this interaction and my confident answer she foolishly opines that I am able to speak Czech. So, now she’s speaking Czech to me and I am trying my best not to spontaneously combust.

After a moment, I find what most other second language speakers find when forced to converse: I am not dying. I am actually following the woman’s discourse and answering questions. I engage her in a somewhat natural conversation instead of muttering broken Czech phrases at her shoes. Spontaneous combustion has not yet occurred.

And then, just when my confidence is becoming real, I call her a whore.

I have written in this blog about the sneaky propensity of language to trick you into saying embarrassing things. And every language has it. The languages I know surely do, as evidenced by things I have heard students utter in English (i.e.: I am so horny today! = I am so happy today!*) and things I have recently said in Czech (Wow, you are a whore = Wow, that is weird).

So here’s the thing with language: you have to make mistakes. It’s the only way to improve. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows this in theory, but it is a different story when you’re inadvertently questioning the sexual morals of the woman who is giving you a room for the night.

Still, as long as the listener and the speaker accept it with good-natured humor, then the mistake will probably end up teaching the speaker something useful. For example, I will never forget that while divný is used when something strikes you as weird, děvka is used for a woman who probably offers her sexual wares to everyone but you.

In any case, it’s all fine in the end. Well, as long as I have butter, that is.

* Modern R&B’s fault. The influx of American movies and music to the Czech Republic have made teaching ESL more difficult and often awkward. Especially if students have listened to any Gangsta rap or watched a Quentin Tarantino film.

  1. #1 by Marcelle on September 24, 2012 - 2:46 pm

    Ha! While trying to organize a trip to the rainforest in Ecuador, I mistakenly asked the travel agent when we got to make the ‘pussy’ (chucha) instead of ‘drink made from yucca’ (chicha). I think she was more embarrassed than I was.

  2. #2 by Damien Galeone on September 24, 2012 - 2:53 pm

    Hey! You once asked me where to make the pussy! What kind of game are you playing here, Marcelle?!

  3. #3 by Lonnie P on September 25, 2012 - 4:23 pm

    Brill. Totally. I’ll never forget my fling (or so I thought) with a Mexican beauty who said to me “Me molestas” (you annoy / bother me) which, of course, I perceived to be the Spanish imperative form to mean “You molest me.”

    The next few minutes became awkward, but in the end it all worked out. At least that’s how I prefer to remember it.

    And a good day to you, too, Mr. Butter Salesman!

  4. #4 by thomas klein on September 27, 2012 - 12:24 am

    i just spoke to your father when he didn’t have his fingers in my mouth. i read senseless. he said i should check out the blogs. so here i am. tommy klein

    • #5 by Damien Galeone on September 27, 2012 - 10:35 am

      Welcome to the Monkey House, Tom!

  5. #6 by Jeremy Nicholson on September 27, 2012 - 5:47 am

    I have found myself getting quizzical looks from various latino cooks over the years when, in my attempts to communicate in my poor kitchen spanish, I would end up insulting their mother/sister/dealer by mistake. Always a good for a laugh or two when it happens in the middle of performance reviews.

    • #7 by Damien Galeone on September 27, 2012 - 10:36 am

      I think I have been party to a few of these mishaps, but in Joe Mama’s Jive. I think we should make a push for the linguistic society of America.

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