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The Limitations Of A One-Word Vocabulary

August 11, 2012

There’s only so much you can do when you are reduced to communicating with single words. This evening makes a nice case in point.

Can you tell what street corner you’re standing on here? This is the one corner of this intersection that is marked.

I needed to get back to Brno. I know the word Brno. I also know vlak, (train), jizdenka, (ticket), and can recognize the words for station and platform, but can’t really use them. I figured that, if my ticket said Brno, (which it did), and if the train said Brno on it, (which it did), and if I asked someone on the train, “Brno?” and they replied, “Ano,” (which they did), well, then I must be on the right train.

With heuristics like that, there are a lot of things we could convince ourselves of. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure we do.  But this is no time for epistemology.

You don’t need a phrasebook to know that you’re getting close to the train station, here.

Sigh. Damned advertisers… the only people who make me wish I couldn’t read.

So when the ticket inspector clacked open the door to my cabin and said, “Jizdenka, prosím,” I was not worried in the least. On the morning trip to Prague, when the inspector stamped my jizdenka and handed it back to me, I’d casually replied “děkuji,” warranting not so much as a glance before he moved on. It was therefore puzzling and embarrassing tonight when he looked at my ticket and began hectoring me in Czech, until my stunned, bovine expression brought him up cold, and he asked, with a sigh of weariness, “English?”

I nodded. “Děkuji,” he said, trying to somehow hand me back my ticket and get away from me at the same time. I began to try to communicate—I have no idea how I thought I was going to accomplish this—but his pained smile told me he just wanted the whole thing to be over. “Děkuji,” he repeated. I’d never until this occasion heard thank you stand in so eloquently for, For the love of God, man, just be quiet. Go elsewhere and trouble others.

I imagine these people know where they’re going.

After he left, I pored over my ticket like old Sir Whats-His-Nose must have inspected the newly discovered Rosetta stone, but I couldn’t find a damn thing weird about it. Incomprehensible, yes. Weird? Not in the least. I shrugged it off and went back to watching Track of the Moon Beast on my laptop.

After a while, I couldn’t concentrate on the movie because it seemed like we should be getting to Brno soon, and I didn’t want to miss my stop, just so I could see a guy in a gorilla suit, who was supposed to have been turned into a T-Rex by a meteorite, pull mannequin-arms off people who didn’t look frightened. (It’s not as good as it sounds.)  So I repacked my suitcase and put on a coat. (I love that I need a coat here in August! Take that, Texas!) Sure enough, the train pulled into a good-sized station and most of the few remaining passengers got off.

I started to step off, but something didn’t feel right. It was dark, and I had only seen the Brno station in the day before, (I have a terrible visual memory, even under optimal conditions), but the signs did say Brno… and yet they also bore another name, one that I didn’t recognize. The signs on the platforms tell you both where you are and where the train is headed, but it’s not always apparent to the illiterate foreigner which is which. (Go figure.) The passengers  had scattered like leaves in a brisk wind and it seemed like the train was going to get moving again at any second. I spotted another rider down the corridor and called out anxiously, (wait for it…), “Brno?” There was a bit of confusion at first as to whether I was asking if we were in Brno or the train was going to Brno, (on account of the one-word problem), but the nice man conveyed to me that Brno was still another hour and a half down the line.

LIGHT BULB MOMENT. Aha! So that’s why the ticket taker was flustered. I was taking the long way. Like, two or three times as long.  You’re charged here by the kilometer. So I was stealing kilometers from the railway.

Well, not long after we got moving again, the agent passed through the cabin and I managed to convey to him, with a combination of skilled theatrical gesturing, and the words Praha (Prague) and Brno, that I now understood that I had taken the long way by mistake. His face relaxed and he smiled. We were friends.

Almost the last guy on the train. I like to think that—as long as I keep my mouth shut—I could be mistaken for a Czech salaryman on his evening commute. Except that guy would know which train he was on.

It appears that my life is such a mess that I can make total strangers tense within seconds of meeting me. But I have often found that when people realize that I don’t really give a damn and I’m just enjoying the ride, they lighten up and laugh along with me.  The ticket taker came along later to make sure I knew we had reached my stop and we parted with friendly waves.  I got to say dobrou noc (good night) to someone for the first time, though, thinking about it just now, I realize that I mispronounced it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    August 11, 2012 11:29 am

    You are adorable.
    I adore you.
    Carry on.

  2. Katie Morrison permalink
    August 11, 2012 1:30 pm

    good lord, the language! (biting nails) HUGS. and you are adorable, I agree with Jeff.

    • August 11, 2012 1:35 pm

      Well… it’s a breeze compared to Mandarin? I’m really enjoying being immersed in it, even though I can barely understand a word. When I do catch something, it’s very exciting.

  3. haemony permalink
    August 11, 2012 1:54 pm

    I love these posts! I am not sure I could be so brave as you, so willing to “go with the flow,” as it were, even up to making mistakes and risk being called a stupid American. LOL It gives me warm squishies to realize that you’re doing it, you’re in another country without much of a language clue, and it’s not the end of the world. 🙂

    • August 11, 2012 2:50 pm

      Thanks, Tiffany! It’s true, it’s not the end of the world. Most of the stuff we worry about, if it comes to pass? We adjust and life goes on.

  4. Sibyl White permalink
    August 11, 2012 2:39 pm

    Funniest, saddest, poignantest thing, this entry. I laughed so hysterically it scared my cat.

  5. August 11, 2012 8:40 pm

    I’ve done a similar thing on the Long Island Railroad. Even when everything is clearly marked and you speak the language, it’s easy to get on the wrong train.

    • August 11, 2012 9:04 pm

      That’s true! They really should have someone who glances at your ticket before you get on, rather than sending someone around to berate you after you make a mistake. The transit system in a new city is always disorienting, even if you speak the language.

      It supports my theory that people are very poor at imagining themselves as outsiders. In my travels, I’ve found it extremely rare that a person is able to give the kind of directions that are useful to someone who has no knowledge of the place. I think this extends even to the trained professionals who design rail and bus systems.

  6. August 11, 2012 11:41 pm

    You are learning a new language & having such an adventure!

    • August 12, 2012 4:26 pm

      Thank you for reading! I am enjoying myself immensely. And having this journal really helps me feel less isolated. Going abroad is not nearly the leap in the dark it was, say, even 20 years ago.

  7. August 12, 2012 2:05 pm

    Uncle David, this is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I someday hope that I will have the guts to do something like this, (my best friend and I are planning to fly the coop to London as soon as we can legally drink in the U.S., but that doesn’t involve any foreign languages, does it?) I’ve spent the last half hour reading all of your posts and looking at pictures. Keep having fabulous adventures. Mucho love from Denver (and Arizona in a few hours) <3.

    • August 12, 2012 4:07 pm

      Why, hello, Claire! What a nice surprise! I am so glad you are enjoying my journal.

      I encourage you to go overseas, if that is what you want to do. I wish that I had known how feasible it is when I was much younger. (Oh, well, better late than never.) The world is becoming more user-friendly all the time. You may live to see the handheld Star Trek universal language translator sold in kiosks at airports.

      If you plan to go to the UK, I encourage you to watch all the British film and TV you can, to help you catch onto the accents, idioms and customs. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who described England and America as “two nations divided by a common language.”

      And I hope it goes without saying that, if you are ever passing through a city I am in, you have a safe and free place to stay, for as long as you like. One of the few regrets I have about my gypsy lifestyle is that I have’t had the chance to get to know you and your cousins very well. I hope one day we can remedy that.

      Keep up the good work; I hear you’re quite the scholastic champ. Give my love to your folks and Oma.


      Uncle David

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