By Sonya Dubinina
So I was trying to find a battery charger for my Canon battery in Prague and luckily there was a camera shop but a block away from my house. I purposefully walked into the shop, dutifully waited my turn, and eagerly enquired about a charger for this specific battery, which I had brought in to avoid any and all confusion, linguistic or otherwise. An associate with the best English informed me that they in fact do not have it in stock but they’d happily charge my battery for me right now. “What a nice touch,” I thought to myself as I wrote my name on a sticker, which went onto the battery. A couple of hours later I dropped in to pick up my now charged battery only to find a nice lady in her 50s at the counter. She spoke so little English that I had to sign, sing, and dance to describe my situation. To no avail. We clearly were not understanding each other, and so the woman called someone from the back room. A serious looking man walked up to the counter and point blank asked me in the most casual manner: ”What’s your problem?”
And this, kids, is why you travel.
No, not to be spoken to rudely in a tiny camera shop in a city whose citizens amaze you with their great drive and ability to learn your language simultaneously with their impressive lack thereof. That is to say, some arduously learn English since early childhood and some utterly don’t give a damn, you ought to speak Czech if you plan on living in Prague, buddy. I’d gotten chewed out in the emergency room on that very subject by a doctor (with good enough English to treat me) for having lived in the country for 4 whole months and not mastered the obscure language spoken by fewer people than live in my current city of residence. But I digress.
The man at the shop was not at all trying to be rude, even though it may seem as a requisite for shop ownership in the Czech Republic at times. The service had gotten much better in the recent years I hear. You see, these people spent a number of years in a communism coma, which causes service workers to exhibit unparalleled rudeness detrimental to good business and or profit. He was merely soliciting information pertaining to my dilemma. His English was good enough for basic functions, not polite business transactions. You’ll come back, nice foreigner. Or not, eh, more worry-free fluent Czech business then!
The amount of confusion one experiences as a foreign national in a country, whose first language is not at all English, can be staggering. Fortunately, Prague has been inundated with English-teaching and overpopulated with English teachers in the last 20 years. Almost any native English speaker you meet in Prague is an English teacher, and boy are you surprised when it isn’t so. In my first month in Prague my two roommates and I would often find ourselves lost on the curvy old town streets among the beautiful awe inspiring buildings. We’d stop a young looking person and ask for directions and nobody, nobody ever said: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English.”
Of course, there is a sizeable population still in need of our help.
The awkward song and dance you have to do as you invent new sign language for you and your counterpart abroad seems its own form of art. You laugh, they laugh, you move your arms frantically to describe whatever it is you’re looking for, they answer in a manner less clear, and everybody has a hoot! You begin to appreciate the kindness of strangers more than you ever would back home. When do you even meet strangers anymore? You are the stranger – sitting in your car, walking down the street in your headphones, staring into your phone all the time… When do you give somebody a chance to help you out? When you call the AAA guy once a year for a free tow when your car fails you? You talk to your GPS more than you do to you fellow man, woman, or child.
Whenever you hear someone talk about a particular group of people, you generally hear sweeping overviews such as: Moroccans are so hospitable! Russians may seem rude at first but they’re so hospitable! People of Tanzania are so nice and very hospitable! Trust me, everybody is hospitable. People are generally good. They want to help you, especially if you’re on their turf and you’re demonstrating your vulnerability – you’re lost and you need their help. I have yet to encounter a rude person who’d deliberately misdirect me or dismiss me completely. I have, however, had a person go out of their way and follow me and make sure I go the right way.
This is my awkward and jumbled effort to say this: get out of your comfort zone and travel abroad because you will have experiences. Now, I am not saying they will be life altering amazing experiences, mostly they’ll be small and forgettable. But they will be unusual, interesting, and emotionally charged one way or the other. They will complete and vary up the quilt of your life.
Sonya found plenty of castles and a long snowy winter in Prague last year. Frankly, she just didn’t care to reminisce about being snowed in and animal skin-clad for 7 months out of the year, and so here she is – a lizard in the sun, the rising sun of Japan that is. She is now spending her days in Tokyo confused and often lost, mesmerized, and bewildered.