“False Friends”

My Czech mother-in-law spent some time with us last week and I am so proud to say that I was able to communicate with her in Czech without any difficulty during those times.  Gone were the days when we had to resort to body language just to be able to express what we wanted to say.  My Czech grammar isn’t perfect, but my language proficiency is at a level where I can communicate and be understood.

New Czech Step by Step: A Basic Course in the Czech Language for English-speaking Foreigners

However, in my continuing quest to learn the Czech language, I would have to say that one of the most challenging aspects is the existence of “false friends”  These are words that may sound similar in English and Czech but entirely have different meanings.  Thanks to this book, I can now refer to some of these words when confronted with a situation where I am not really sure about the meaning.

Here is an illustration of my point.  Although English words such as doctor and medicine are also doktor and medicina in Czech, other medically important words have “false friends.”  For example, if you want to say “ambulance, ” you cannot say ambulance (pronounced ambu-lan-tse)  because it means outpatient department.  The proper term is sanitka  which might be confused with sanitary in English.  In Czech, kontrola means check-up which can be confused with control in English.

You might hear somebody say he/she finished highschool in a gymnazium because a gymnazium is a secondary school, not a gym.   List is a leaf or a piece of paper in Czech.  Seznam is the proper word to use if you want to say list, as in list of things to buy or list of things to do.   While a host is the one who is hosting a party, a host is a guest in Czech.  A šéf  (pronounced “chef”) is not a chef but a boss.   The one who makes the food is a kuchař.

And never ever say kurva if you want to say curve because it means whore in Czech.  The proper term is křivka.  But perhaps the funniest “false friend” is preservativ  which you may confuse as preservative in food but actually means condom in Czech.  Preservative in food is konzervační in Czech.

About 2 years ago, I had my own funny experience with these “false friends” at a conversation with an older woman who was my former neighbor in the other house we used to live in.  In one of our small talks, I told her I was cooking pasta (toothpaste in Czech)  for dinner.

Tongue in Czech

Tomorrow I will be starting my first formal lessons in Czech. After being here for almost 2 years now, it is amazing how I survived without speaking the language fluently. Of course I can get by with knowing how to count, say one phrase or two, or maybe even converse with my broken Czech, but if I really want to make something out of myself in this country, I have to speak the language like a native.


Another motivator is my son’s fluency in Czech. Since he has been in school, his Czech fluency has greatly improved. Pretty soon, I would like to be able to help him when he does his homework. His awareness of Czech and English as 2 different languages is very amusing. One day he asked me: “Mommy, what is gulas (Czech dish) in English?” I answered: “It is still gulas, but spelled as goulash.” But of course, it is difficult to explain spellings to a 2.5 year old, as he is not even able to read yet.

Me being able to speak Czech fluently will also take a lot of load off my husband’s shoulders.    All through the building phase of our home, he had to arrange everything from buying the land, getting the permits and looking for a builder.  On top of that, he has to go to work since he is the breadwinner of this family.

My current Czech knowledge is enabling me to go to the store and do groceries, bring my son to school , go to the doctor and even befriend a few locals.    This time, I would like to be able to go to public offices, make negotiations, and perhaps even write essays in Czech.  Very ambitious, I know.  But I will get there….somehow.

When In Doubt, I Don’t Open My Mouth

Last week, I had my first salon visit with no special help from a Czech speaking individual.  On my previous visits, I always had some form of assistance – be it from another English speaking salon customer or my husband.  Contrary to his liking, I used to drag my husband to come with me to the salon whenever I needed a hair procedure done.  You can’t blame me.  With my limited Czech, I don’t want to come in for a haircut and come out with a perm.

We are here in Czech for a year now and even though I didn’t get any formal language education, my day to day interaction somehow increased my vocabulary and I can now navigate my way through places and “important ” domestic tasks, like buying bread for instance. 🙂   So, I finally decided to brave it out and set up a salon appointment all by myself.

In setting up my appointment, I initially tried calling one of the salons I found on the internet.   Although their website was in Czech, google translator helped me out and translated it for me.  Because the website can be translated, I immediately thought that maybe they speak English.  When I dialed the salon number, a nice lady from the other line answered the phone in Czech.  After we exchanged pleasantries, I immediately asked:  “Do you speak english?”  To which she flatly replied: “Ne”.  So I was forced to speak Czech.  As I struggled through my Czech, I was not able to make an appointment because according to her, the schedules I wanted were all booked.  Hmmm.  I wondered if I may have misused some words or mixed up the days.  Unfazed and determined to make the appointment, I personally went to the salon to book it myself.  While I was there, she opened her schedule book to skim for vacant slots.  This gave me the opportunity to take a peek and pointed out to her days that are favorable for my schedule.  Alas!  I got a hair appointment.

On the day itself, I was prompt in keeping my scheduled time.  But since I booked very close to their closing time, I was the only customer there.  The lady who did my hair was very nice as she patiently listened to me explain what I wanted with my hair.  I explained it in 3 sentences:  “I am here for a hair appointment.  I need a hair coloring procedure.  Please make sure to cover my gray hairs.”    But to make sure she did not misunderstand what I was saying, she gave me a catalog to pick out a hair color.  After I picked out my choice,  she immediately started working.

Then we both shifted to “mute mode.”  She didn’t start talking nor did I initiate a conversation.  It was the weirdest hour and a half that I’ve ever spent in a salon.

One of the peculiarities that I find among Czechs is that they would rather ignore you than admit that they can’t speak your language.  In Europe, it is a requirement to speak 2 other languages other than your own.    English, being the most common language spoken by foreigners is recently being taught in schools as an elective.  But still, a great majority of Czechs don’t speak English.  My hairdresser was probably one of those that don’t.  Or maybe she was more conscious of her accent that’s why she didn’t talk to me.

On the otherhand, I am normally a very friendly and talkative person.  But I opted not to talk for fear of making a mistake or appearing rude.  I have a penchant for misusing words.  I once interchanged čočka (lentils) with kočka (cat).    I also once went to an optical shop and after the optician said she didn’t speak English, I said “to nevadí” (it doesn’t matter/nevermind).  I was later on told that it is not polite to use “to nevadi”  in that context.  So, I guess it’s better not to use certain lines if  I am not sure how to use it.

Thus, the appointment started with a nod and ended with a smile.

Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

“All the best for your name day!” That’s what the title means.

Here in the Czech Republic, everyday is somebody’s name day.  So technically, Czechs have 2 celebrations of their existence – the day they were born and their name day.   Although name days commonly bear less importance than birthdays, quite a few people still celebrate it.  Based on my research, it is either celebrated by giving flowers and chocolates or if the person is older, by going out with friends and co-workers for beer.

It is interesting to note that in the past, parents were compelled to choose the names of their children based on the name days in the calendar.  Any highly unusual name needs the approval of a “special office” before a child can be baptized or registered using that name.

I don’t have a name day.  If I were Czech, my parents would’ve appealed to that “special office’ to get my name approved.  It is not on the Czech name day calendar.

If  fate was written in the stars, Jakub’s name was written on the sand.  As I was noting down schedules on my Czech calendar this morning, I just realized that today is Jakub’s name day.  I wonder what I’ll do to celebrate it.  I cannot buy him flowers or chocolates nor can I go out for beer with him.

What would you do if I were you?

“Utikej, Pani, Utikej”

Two weeks ago, my running partner, a.k.a my son, decided to quit his job.  I used to be able to put him on the jogger and do a short run with him.  However, now that he is stronger and more active, that has become impossible.  I stopped doing it because the last few times I did, he wailed like a hyena and yelled, “pomoc! pomoc!”  (Czech word for “help!”).  He prefers being part of the action and that involves getting out of the stroller.   Hence, I can never have a decent run when he is with me.

Back when I used to do races, I ran with the pack.

However, due to the recent time change this past weekend, I am now able to do my outdoor runs.  This is because my husband is now available to take care of my son while there is still daylight.  Thus, I had my first post winter outdoor run today.    It was great!  But I know it will hurt tomorrow.

This was because I pushed too hard.  I wouldn’t have if not for the old guy who told me, “utikej, pani, utikej.”  (Czech for “run, lady, run”).  The thing was, there were 2 other runners in front of me.   The old guy probably thought I was one of them.  I may have looked like I was trying too hard because my tongue was out like a mad dog and I was sweating like a rapist.  Whatever it was, he decided to give me a boost of encouragement.    I intended to tell him that I was not running with them, but before I can translate my thoughts, I was already past him.   A few minutes later, when I reached home,  I was gasping for breath.  I knew I overdid it when my husband thought I was back so soon.  When asked how my run went, my answer was almost inaudible because I was still catching my breath.  Then he told me, “Oh honey, I forgot to tell you not to push too hard.”  But I did.  This will definitely hurt tomorrow.

Adventures in Czech Language

If I were to describe the Czech language, challenging is an understatement.  It is totally different from the languages that I know. They have words without vowels.  My first encounter of a challenging Czech word was with “zmrzl,” the Czech word for frozen.   With the difficulty of this language and the sub zero temperatures we’ve been getting, I’m zmrzl.

When winter came and the air started getting dry, I went to an electronics shop here in Kolin and went looking for a humidifier.  With my limited Czech, I asked a salesperson if they had a humidifier.  I didn’t bother to find out what the word for humidifier was because I thought it would be the same thing.  The sales person didn’t know what I was talking about, so I went on to explain: “voda na vzduch” (water for air).  Still didn’t get my point across.  Maybe it was my accent.  I went home frustrated and explained the whole situation to my husband.    He said he’ll buy it for us.  As it turns out, there is a Czech word for humidifier: “zvlhčovač.”  Who would’ve thought.

I’m glad that my worst mistake in the Czech language happened in a private conversation with my husband.  In an effort to help me learn Czech, he would oftentimes speak to me only in Czech.  One day after coming home from a trip, he asked:  “Honey, mame jidlo?”  (Honey, do we have food?)  I cooked lentil soup that day so I replied. “Ano, my mame kočka.”  (Yes, we have cat).  My husband’s expression was beyond explanation.  The Czech word for lentil is “čočka”, and because of the similarities in pronunciation, I said cat instead of lentil.  When we discussed it later on, he jokingly told me:  “I knew what you were talking about but I wanted to make sure. You told me that in the Philippines, you guys eat dogs.  So I wasn’t sure what else you eat.”    I guess he does have a point.

The Cannabis Effect?

I guess i spoke too early when I kept on telling people that winter this year isn’t too bad. For all I know, the worst is yet to come. This week, the temperature forecast says that temperatures may dip as low as -30C. Whoa! Back in the Philippines, I thought 20C was already cold. Back in California, I thought 15C was already cold. Geez, I have yet to experience what -30C feels like.

Together with this cold climate is very dry air. I always have to turn on my humidifier and always make it a point to moisturize Jakub’s skin and my skin whenever we go out or whenever we wash up. I’ve had problems finding the right moisturizer because the brand I used in the US is not available in all the stores. I keep on trying several brands in search of the right one.

Recently, I found a variant that uses Cannabis as one of its key ingredients. Out here, you don’t just smoke it, you use it to moisturize your skin. A very interesting thing though: As the label says, “……it encourages the regeneration of hands.”  I am not sure if that was a typo or simply just the “cannabis effect.”

Children Do Say the Darnest Things

I almost freaked out yesterday when Jakub uttered the four-letter-word: “F**k”. I thought to myself,  “Goodness, did he hear me say that word?  Has he been watching too much TV?  Did his dad say it? ”  It has been my policy in this family not to say those words in front of Jakub.  I want to raise a well-mannered, polite and well-behaved child.  I don’t want him to have a foul mouth.

Then, he did it again this morning.  This time, he was pointing to his books.  I didn’t make a big deal out if it so he will think it’s not a real word and will soon forget it.  As I was reading his picture books with him, it became increasingly clear where the word came from.

Jakub's picture book

He simply combined “frog” and “duck” , and came up with “f**k”.  Kids do say the darnest things!


Český is the Key

I will cross the bridge when I get there.” – Me, 2009

I am now finding myself swimming in cold water.  In this new place I now call home, I find it hard to ever do anything because of my inability to speak Czech.  This past week has been rough.  Combined with all the hormonal changes I was experiencing and the pressure to adapt into my new environment, I found myself experiencing bouts of enormous sadness.  Without my husband, I can pretty much not go anywhere because I don’t speak the language.   If I get lost, I will not be able to get home.  Out here, almost nobody speaks English.  Even the American movies shown on TV are dubbed in Czech.  If I wanted to define myself in this country, I have to start with learning the language.  Český is the key.

I had been forwarned.  When Jiri and I got married, he had been bugging me about learning Czech.  I started but never finished.  It seems like there has always been an excuse whenever I sit down to do so.  I was always stuck at Chapter 4.  I thought learning Czech was easy because I already speak other languages.  I always prided myself of being a fast learner.  However, Czech language is very foreign to me.  I had to re-orient myself with everything I already know.  But it is a very beautiful language.  It has 36 alphabets, 26 of which are the standard Roman alphabets.  There is almost a word for everything.  Though some words are almost spelled the same, they can mean different things if you are not careful.  For instance, I told my husband:  “Hey hon, the sign says Horky.  It must be hot out there.” (Knowing that “Horký” means “hot.”) He then explained to me that “Horký ” means  “hot” but “Horky” means “Hills.”  I guess a whole lot of challenges are awaiting me as I try to learn Czech.