To Eat, To Learn

Dave and I started Czech classes last week, and we’re slowly learning mluvít česky. We’re in an intensive class—five students, five days per week, three hours per day, for two weeks—with a lovely instructor (extremely patient and very encouraging, with kind eyes and an easy laugh).

So far, we’ve learned some basic phrases (Jsem spisovatelka a kucharka. — I’m a writer and cook.); numbers; parts of the day (ráno, odpoledne, v noci — morning, afternoon, night… not to be confused with večer — evening); days of the week and months of the year; a metric ton of adjectives (David je vysoký a inteligentní. — David is tall and intelligent.), and a bunch of verbs, plus the four patterns for conjugating them.

It’s a lot, and my brain is like a saturated sponge. But still, I keep adding more.

Friday’s class was a highlight for me because I learned something truly fantastic:

There are separate Czech verbs that mean to eat breakfast, to eat lunch, to eat dinner, to eat a snack, and to eat, in general.

I have mad love for the honor and respect paid to the act of eating in Czech culture. Take a bite of this!

snídat: to eat breakfast

obědvat: to eat lunch

večeřet: to eat dinner

svačit: to snack (my favorite!)

jíst: to eat

and, of course…

vařit: to cook

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of being melodramatic in class and declaring—with a sigh of mock exhaustion—“Vařím každý den, každé jídlo.” (I cook every day, every meal.)

I’m also partial to the verb číst (to read) which is pronounced kind of like cheese-t. It’s an irregular verb so gets funky when it’s conjugated. ‘I read’ is “čtu.”

In class, I am equal parts delighted and abashed. Learning new things feels like a celebration, and I collect vocabulary and grammar rules like a chipmunk hiding acorns in her burrow. My notebook is full of scribbles so I’ll remember how to modify my sentences with phrases I use all the time in English: ‘about this many’ or ‘no problem.’

But it’s incredibly humbling to know that, at this point, I can’t speak Czech as well as an average four-year-old. And while I intellectually understand what we’re learning—and I’m pretty damn good at memorization—I’m having the devil of a time speaking the words at anywhere near conversational velocity. I also realized today that when I conjugate verbs, I close my eyes to try to visualize the chart from my notebook.

Basically, if you want to have a conversation with me in Czech, it takes a really, really long time, I squeeze my eyes closed like I’m murmuring a prayer, and my sentence structure is as rudimentary as can be: subject –> present-tense verb –> (adjective) –> object. It’s been 26 years since I took my last French class in college, and trying to learn a new language—and a Slavic language, at that—is humbling. Exhilarating, but humbling.

In fact, this international move is a constant exercise in ego eradication. It’s kind of like doing the breath-of-fire kriya in kundalini yoga ALL THE TIME. Ultimately, I know this is all a very positive experience. The only way to learn new things is to embrace the potential for embarrassment and fumble into mispronunciations and awkward social situations… with a willing smile and a well-practiced “Prosím vás,” the extremely polite way to show respect while I bungle the language and culture.

Last week, words in Czech were mostly indecipherable: The letters looked like alphabet soup, and I could have sworn they moved around while I was trying to read them. Today, I walked through the neighborhood, sounding out previously unreadable information, and I made a few people in shops smile with my clunky but good-intentioned pronunciation.

New goal: Be able to read Jane Eyre (a.k.a. Jana Eyrová) in Czech… some day.

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  • Lynn Curlett says:

    is evening and to eat dinner really the same word? I love that you are sharing what you are learning – as I sit here in Montana, it is a hoot that I read and try to say each word. When you come back, you should go back to the Czech Stop between Austin and Dallas to get pastries and chat with the locals!

  • Martin says:


    That’s not right, “večer” means evening, to eat dinner is “večeřet”; “I read every night” should be “čtu (si) každou noc” -just a detail 🙂 Anyway, good job! Don’t you worry, Czech is sometimes difficult even for us, can’t really imagine learning it as a foreigner…

  • Linda Gilmore says:

    I love that you are sharing your joy of learning with us. I also have a question. It seems that I am no longer receiving your email newsletter, even though your website confirms that I am still subscribed to it. I have checked my spam folder, and it is not there either, so I’m not sure what the problem is. Please let me know what I should do. Thanks!

    • I checked my list, and you’re still on it… the problem is me 🙂 I haven’t sent a newsletter in a few weeks because we’ve been too busy here. But when my Czech class is over (next week), my schedule will get back to normal. Thanks for your patience!

  • Stephanie says:

    I loooove Slavic languages. Sounds like you retain languages like I do; reading and writing are a breeze, but listening and speaking are a struggle. I wish you luck! It sounds like loads of fun!!

    • Well, I think “breeze” might be giving me too much credit, but YES! writing and reading are WAY easier than speaking for me. I’ve memorized all the rules and it all makes sense, but getting it out my mouth properly is SO hard.

  • Julie says:

    Just wait, when you start dreaming in Czech you know you are on your way! Total immersion in language and culture is the best way to learn. A year from now, you will be in awe of how far you have come!
    I really enjoy reading about your new adventures—did you enjoy your time in Poland?

    • Ha, yes! One of the women in my class went to a French school, and she said she used to dream in French.

      We did enjoy Warsaw, although it was a very fast trip. We enjoyed some great meals that inspired new recipes that I want to share. That’s always the mark of a good trip.

  • Charity says:

    It is delightful to read about your adventure in learning a new language. I visited Prague in 2012 and it was like being in a “foreign country”! Beautiful, though.