Note to self: If you want to make deconstructed hamburger salad (p. 38 in Well Fed) with ground beef, it's best to learn the Czech words...Read More
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.