Eerste Things Eerste

Yes, all you impatient readers (well, Bill), we’re back Stateside, and mostly recovered from the nine-timezone, two-day, train, plane, and automobile journey from Central Europe back to the Far Southwest. Planned Obsolescence’s European Vacation was glorious in most every way — fabulous food, plentiful beer, kind people, fantastic weather, and all the art and architecture one could possibly require. Pictures of said vacation may be forthcoming shortly. I can make no promises, however; living still back in the dark ages of film, I am subject to all manner of variables, including but not limited to the length of time it takes me to bring the film in to be processed, the unknown quality of the resulting images, and the forthcomingness of our good friends at Kodak (or my crotchety scanner) with the images’ digital companions.

Before the images, however, there are the languages. And here’s what I want to talk about first. Now, I’m not exactly a candidate to replace Bill Bryson as England’s favorite travel writer, but I get around okay. My first trip to Europe was made when I was ten; my last (barring this one) a year ago. However, this was my first trip as an adult (that journey as a ten-year-old was to Belgium, where the Major Multinational had stationed my father) to a country whose primary language would not be taught in a department of Romance Languages, and my first trip ever to a country whose language bears no relationship whatsoever to English.

This sounds like a small point, but it was absolutely stunning to me, to find myself in a place where the three languages I’ve studied and my grad-school courses in the diachronic development (a.k.a. history) of the English language did me No Good At All. My primary concern, prior to the journey, was getting around the Netherlands in the total absence of any knowledge of Dutch, a concern whose primariness I can only attribute to the fact that I was going there first. As it turns out, though, there was no problem, in part because of the astonishing bilinguality of contemporary Amsterdam — which I suppose only stands to reason, given that a significant segment of the city’s population is in the business of catering to the British and American stoner tourists who flood the place all year, but which nonetheless surprised me, as I never encountered a single resident of Amsterdam who wasn’t proficient, if not fluent, in English.

Supporting this bilinguality, though — and thus the fact that I never even needed to consult a phrasebook to find out where the toilets were or how much something cost — is the fact that, once you’ve adjusted to the overflow of vowels, and figured out such little correspondences as the [lijk]=[ly] thing, Dutch begins to look awfully familiar. Not sure whether the boutique you want to explore is open? The sign reading “geopenned” will give you a helpful clue. Wondering how many days a week the store does business? “Dagelijks” is not so hard to parse. Curious about the headlines? A paper announcing “Toulouse in de greep van seksschandaal” readily submits itself to your self-inflated interpretative skills.

What I had not prepared myself for was the radical otherness of Czech. Granted, English has made its inroads into Prague, too, as it became in the early Havel era the hip destination for the Gen-X expatriate entrepreneur, but step outside the usual tourist pathways and that bit of Western-centrism dries up quickly. And none of my dilettantish linguistic skills served me at all in piecing together information on signs. If you’re looking to buy some groceries, would a sign reading “železárské zbozí” or “obchod s potravinami” seem more likely? If a site is closed “utery” and “streda,” can you go today? Once you’ve managed to find the toilets, are you a “muzi” or a “zeny”? (Okay, that last one is not so much an issue, as most of the toilets you’re seeking are (a) in tourist-appropriate locales and (b) have some manner of international symbol conveying men-ness and women-ness. But do note as well that the above examples offer only an approximation of the actual signs, as Czech is riddled with accents that I cannot persuade my keyboard to replicate. Sensible OS X keeps asking me why I’d want to place an accent aigu over a y, and what on earth a hacek is anyway.) Imagine yourself, finally, in the grip of a minor but embarrassing female ailment, one you’d prefer not to have to discuss with the helpful and kind but quite formal concierge. Would you have any reason to suspect that a “lékárna” is where you need to go?

Anyway, much of my Prague visit was a venture into total, if temporary, illiteracy, a state useful for one who imagines herself a worldlijk literary intellectual to experience every now and then.

2 thoughts on “Eerste Things Eerste

  1. You know, I can’t find that anywhere. Both my guide books refer only to the Defenestrations, with no Czech equivalent. And none of the language tools I’m finding on this here web are helpful at all.

    But “defenestration” is such a lovely word I’d almost like to believe that either the English term was formally adopted there, or that the English is by some twist derived from the Czech (minus, of course, five or six diacriticals).

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