16 February 2016

Speaking English at a Czech preschool

Smalls and his friends from školka still seem to find us parents interesting.

Kája's mother, for instance, seems to attract a small crowd whenever she arrives, with many little hands desperate to touch the newborn she always brings with her.

I'm very impressed with her ability to simultaneous get her 3-year-old dressed and fend off over-inquisitive fingers.

'No, Robert, don't poke the baby's eyes.'

As for me, I seem to be known as Smalls's Mother Who Speaks English.

('But why does she speak English?' one mystified little girl asked her mother repeatedly yesterday.)

A few weeks ago, I dropped Smalls off a little later than normal and we were accosted by four little girls.

'Ahoj!' I said.

'Ahoj,' was chorused back four times.

Smalls wiggled behind my legs. I was momentarily confused about his sudden shyness, but then the onslot started - a series of questions delivered by the biggest of the four in Czech. Answers were briefly discussed among the group before the next question was fired off.

'Do you work?'
'What does Smalls's dad do for work?'
'Do you drive?'
'What is your car?'
'Is it true you speak English?'
'Are you pregnant?'

I stepped out of školka in a daze and fully intended to hide behind Smalls's legs next time.

However, Smalls seems to have decided that an offensive is the best approach. The next time I picked him up, he grabbed my hand.

'You need to say hi to my friends,' he commanded.

'That's Smalls's mama,' the friends authoritatively told each other as I walked into the room. 'She speaks English.'

'Ahoj,' I said (to show that I also speak Czech, of course).

'Hello,' one friend said slowly in English. 'I...am...Martin.'

A few other children queued up to try their English, which made me feel like some visiting celebrity.

'Hello!' 'Hi.' 'My...name...is...' they whispered shyly.

Finally, one of the bigger boys came over.

'You...' he said, narrowing his eyes as he tried to remember the right word, 'SUCK!'

Strike two, Robert. Strike two.

02 February 2016

Competitive undercurrents and the waiting rooms in doctors' offices

Over the past year, I've become something of an expert of Doctors' Waiting Rooms in the Czech Republic.

As with medical waiting rooms probably anywhere, the waiting rooms are grim and the atmosphere is strained. Fellow patients eye each other warily and newcomers get a stern look.

'Dobrý den,' those seated growl, looking up briefly from their magazines. [Translation: Oi, I'm in front of you in the queue.]

'Dobrý den,' those who have just stepped in reply. [We'll just see who the nurse calls first, won't we?]

Things get even more antagonistic at our local GP's office towards the end of the official time when she takes blood.

The whole waiting room sizes each other up, trying to determine each other's complaint.

You're not here to give blood, are you? Everyone silently accuses each other. You'd be a real bastard to not let me go ahead of you.

Patients exiting the doctor's room clutch the inside of their arm with protective triumph.

'Na shledanou.' [It was blood, you bastards. And I got in before ten o'clock.]

However, I have recently found the exception to the silently simmering waiting room.

A few weeks ago, I had to go to a special clinic for a gruesomely early appointment.

I was the first patient of the morning and the test consisted of a series of blood draws over a two hour period, so I had a chance to 1) get halfway through a book; 2) plan an elaborate post-test breakfast; 3) study my fellow patients.

6.45 am
Empty waiting room. Nurse ushers me into the room. I hand over documents and apologise in Czech for my impractically small veins and proffer the right arm as the most likely to cooperate.

'Hm, we have to do this three times,' she replied, eyeing both sides with increasing tightening lips.
Ouch. Make that four times.

7.00 am
I settle into the waiting room with my book. A few new patients shuffle in. Several older ladies. A smiling young student. All greet me with a cheery 'Dobrý den!'

And without exception, they conscientiously protest when the nurse calls them in, 'Ale, paní tu byla první.' [But this lady was here first.]

That's no way to treat your fellow waiting room colleagues! What is wrong with you people?

'Paní musí ještě čekat ,' the tight-lipped nurse replied each time with a stern look at me. [She still needs to wait].

8.00 am
The business professionals start to filter in, wearing suits and an air of importance.

The nurse comes out to call them in.

'Možná paní...' they mutter halfheartedly, with a minuscule gesture in my direction. [Maybe the lady...]

'Paní musí ještě čekat.'

9.00 am
Finally, I am done with waiting and gathering my strength before the much anticipated breakfast.

Into the waiting room shuffle an older couple whose lips are so firmly pressed together that not even a Dobrý den can squeeze past.

The woman glares at me for having the audacity to be before them, and there is a definite air of Waiting Room Competition Winners when they are ushered into the nurse's room.

And so the world of medical waiting rooms returns to normal.

But my breakfast tasted all the sweeter now that I know there is some small window of time in the early morning light when cutthroat competition is still sleeping and waiting rooms are a place of polite conviviality.