Being a product of the American education system, I am fairly good at getting by in countries that speak classical European languages. I’ve had enough exposure to French, Spanish, German (and Greek and Latin morphemes!) to be able to recognize words here and there. This makes me more than ill-prepared for a language like Czech with its passion for consonants with funny lines over them.
Furthermore, being a product of the American education system in the Eighties and Nineties, I am well conditioned to consider any person with a Russian or Russian-sounding accent as suspicious. Every Czech native may as well be Boris Badenov.
So, I’m trying to buy twelve stamps for postcards, and I’ve gone down to the front desk of our hotel to ask. The gentleman there calls the concierge – on his cell phone – to ask about stamps. They chatter in Czech (which may as well be Russian for how well I understand it) and then he explains to me that the concierge was out helping another guest but he would contact me to coordinate buying the stamps.
Wow, this feels like I’m trying to smuggle something home… they’re just postcards.
Anyway, I thank him, and head out to the street. In Europe, most of the time you have to buy your government stuff – parking, stamps, etc. – at Tobacconist shops. Conveniently, there was one next door to our hotel. I walked in.
Inside, a woman was behind the counter and there was a cloaked bald man finishing his purchase. She looked at me and said something in Czech. I replied that I was sorry, but could we please speak English. She shook her head. No English.
I fumbled with my phone for a few seconds trying to get Google Translate up (which is great when you have time to prepare), until the bald man said in pretty good but slightly accented English: “My friend, what do you need?”
Oh good, I think. Maybe he can help me translate. “I need to buy some stamps please, do they sell stamps here?”
The man picks up a sheet of stamps. “My friend, I have stamps for you. I have just bought them.”
I look at him, very suspicious. “For me? Okay. How much are they?”
“For you. Thirty Koruna each.”
I looked at him, looked at the clerk who couldn’t understand anything we were saying, and got a really suspicious feeling about the whole thing. How much do stamps normally cost? That’s about a dollar fifty; to the US that’s about right. But those just look like normal stamps. Is this guy trying to cheat me? I don’t even know who he is. He has a funny accent and keeps calling me his friend. I don’t trust him. “I’m sorry, I think actually I don’t need stamps. Thanks anyway.”
He looks at me like I’m from Mars. “You don’t need stamps?”
“No, thank you,” and I walk out.
I got about as far as halfway down the block, processing the situation as I went. I can’t believe that guy was trying to rip me off with stamps! That was just all too convenient. I needed stamps and he had stamps. What better way to make a huge profit than sell some silly tourist stamps at three times the price. He had one sheet of stamps, which was twelve. I needed twelve. The front desk attendant said the concierge was out helping anothOHMYGOD.
I turned around and headed back to the hotel. As I walked through the double doors, the bald man walked out of the concierge office and looked at me. I put on my most embarrassed face (which wasn’t hard, honestly) and explained.
“You’re the concierge!” You’re off to a great start, Einstein. “I’m so sorry, I was just confused, and I thought you were trying to sell me stamps, and it all seemed too perfect, too suspicious, that I-”
He laughed. “Don’t worry, you pay same price from me as you do from them. Come, let’s go together.”
We walked together, and I continued to vomit apologies. The shopkeeper was about to walk away after locking up her store. They chattered in Czech again, and she groaned, unlocking the door again. We walked inside and she placed the twelve stamps on the counter. The concierge said, “thirty Koruna each,” as if to test just how far this idiot’s rabbit hole went. I did some quick mental math and pulled out three 200 Koruna notes, giving two to the clerk. She gave me the change. I thought, I’ve already established myself as a complete idiot, I may as well tip like one. I gave the change and the remaining 200-Koruna note to the concierge, thanking him profusely for his help.
And that’s how I managed to pay almost three dollars each for twelve $1.50 stamps.
After buying stamps, I needed to find a pharmacy to buy some cough drops. Fortunately there was one nearby, on the other side of our hotel. I walked in and asked the clerk if we could speak English, and she, too, shook her head. This surprised me. Everywhere I’ve been, at least the pharmacists spoke some English, I’d assumed due to the need for secondary education; most clerks in pharmacies in the parts of Europe I’ve been to are actually pharmacists. Anyway, thinking quickly, I mustered a fake cough.
She thought for half a second and realized. “Expectorant?”
“No,” I said. “Like a pill.” Then I looked through the glass top of the counter and saw a pack of Ricola. “OH! Like Ricola.” I sang Ricola like the Bavarian guys in the commercial.
She wandered off to the back of the store, and came back after a minute with at least a dozen different options. Each one she showed me must have been a different flavor, with words and pictures I had no hope of understanding. One pack was pink with flowers on it, another had happy children, others I had no idea what they were. It was overwhelming. All I wanted was the Ricola.
She rang up the cough drops, and the cash register read 50 Koruna. I pulled the mass of coins out of my pocket that had me ching-ching-ching-ing around all day like a high school janitor, and fumbled through them one at a time. I had to examine each one closely, trying to find a number on each to figure out which denomination it was. I put down a twenty, another twenty, looking for a ten, and finally, “OH! A fifty.” I give that to her. She said an awkward “Thanks,” which I returned, and I was on my way.
So I guess the takeaway from this – other than I’m really not as savvy of a traveler as I might let on – is that other languages and cultures are hard. Do the best you can when you’re out of your element, and be patient with others who are out of theirs. Chances are your world seems very foreign to them. This one does to me!