11 June 2015

The Phenomenon of the Peeing Man

I'm originally from a very rural part of the US where, if I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road, I tended to look carefully to see if the person needed help. (Because God knows when another car will be passing by.)

You guys ok there?

In England, if I saw a car on the side of the road, I generally looked closely because, well, when the road is so narrow that you can't squeeze past, what else are you supposed to do?

I am now trying to teach myself that if I see a car parked by the side of the road in the Czech Republic, the new reaction should be to look away, goddamnit, woman, look away!

To not look away means that 9 times out of 10 you end up gawking at some stranger's dick.

(A little crude, I know - apologies, parents - but on the list of things I like to see on my morning commute, surprisingly, strangers' penises are not included).

This phenomenon of the roadside peeing man is unusually pervasive. All makes of cars, from rusted Skodas to freshly-waxed BMWs seem to have the potentiality to carry a roadside pee-er. What's more, most of them-what-pee-along-the-road seem to think that peeing towards the road is a necessary part of the procedure.

Toddlers are included in the culturally acceptable peeing group and their rights seem to extend pretty much everywhere. When we first moved to the Czech Republic, I was bemused during a visit to the Zoo to come around a corner and find a collection of ten toddlers merrily peeing on the grass while watching the hippopotamuses.

However, interestingly, women don't seem to be included in the societal acceptability of roadside relief. And it's possible that this is due to a misconception about basic reproductive biology.

I had a student last year demand that I let him leave the room during a big exam because he needed to pee. I explained that if he did that, he wouldn't be able to finish the test because my policy was that students can't leave the room during an exam.

This was an egregious assault on his basic human rights, he told me.

Furthermore, he said, vibrating with indignation, 'You have no idea what it's like because you're a WOMAN.'

Notes to self: stop looking at cars parked along the side of the road, you overly helpful fool. And try not to laugh mirthlessly at the things students say - this is quite possibly another human rights violation. 

04 June 2015

Speaking Czech with Czechs

I was on the bus a few months ago with Smalls. We were sitting next to each other, with a pair of middle age Czech women directly across from us. One of the women had been eyeing me up at the bus stop when Smalls and I were chatting. She turned to her friend and said (in Czech):

'It's terrible, all these foreigners here. It's even worse when they try to speak Czech. I heard this American woman trying to order some soup. It was so horrible.'

(Still staring right at me, and apparently attempting an American accent)

'"Chtěla bych polévku." It was awful.'

I understood most of their conversation and was sorely tempted to make some cutting remark. But then realised I would be speaking Czech with this horrible foreigner accent.

Also, I couldn't think of something suitably withering.

Fortunately, this was on the far end of my experiences so far as a foreigner muddling my way through this rather challenging language.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had to take Smalls to a dermatologist a few weeks ago. I apologised immediately that I didn't speak much Czech.

'Nevadí!' [No worries!] she cheerily replied.

I walked out of the appointment convinced I'd made huge progress because I understood nearly everything for the whole 15 minutes. I would like to claim this is completely down to me, but in reality, she was a master of Speaking Czech to Foreigners. She used simple words. She mimed occasionally. She spoke slowly and with very precise pronunciation.

Gods, she was lovely. A gem among dermatologists.

It seems to me that it must be quite hard for many Czechs to speak to foreigners, primarily because - unlike most English speakers - many haven't had much experience.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who suspects this. The government-affiliated Centrum pro integraci cizinců (Centre for the Integration of Foreigners) released a few brilliant video shorts in April aimed at helping Czechs better understand some of the difficulties of foreigners trying to speak with Czech native speakers.

The first one is self-explanatory, I think.

This second one has an American speaking Czech with the shocking American accent.

And the final one delves into the difficulties of the dreaded formal and informal variations of Czech - the people coming into the shop are speaking informal Czech, but when the man goes to a government office, he accidentally causes offense by not using 'proper' Czech.
This final video is especially interesting because it touches on some of the racial aspects of Czech-foreigner interactions. But that is a whole other blog post, I suspect.

To end on a slightly mysterious note, a few days ago, I came home from work to find this video cassette of Pinocchio resting on our front fence.

In case you can't tell from the photo, it seems to be French. Also, I feel I should mention again that it is a video cassette.

The best explanation I can think of is that one of our neighbours was cleaning out their attic and thought, 'Ah, this is perfect for our local Foreigners!'

Am I flattered that they believe I can speak French? Or offended that they think I am so backwards that I have a VCR? The jury is still out.