My Dad has a saying. Actually, he has a lot of sayings but this one has always stuck with me.
“People are like moose in the forest,” he told me one night while he was cooking mushrooms. “They may be big and have antlers; they may be stamping the ground and huffing with steam coming out of their noses. But it’s just because they’re scared. People are always more scared of you than you are of them.”
Until this year, I never had to worry about people being quadrupeds. Due to my special ability to talk the ears off a wall combined with my slight social incompetence which blinds me to awkward situations, I have never been afraid of people.
But something changes when you can’t speak the language. Suddenly everyone starts looking like they have antlers and might run you over.
I get incredibly flustered at school because in the short distance it takes me to get from my classroom to my office, or from my office to the cafeteria or the bathroom, I run into dozens of people. Most of them are tiny and unthreatening, but they are so numerous that it can be overwhelming. (Seriously, the animal analogy works on so many levels here. I’ve also compared getting stuck on the stairs when the second or third grade class goes out to PE with being a train on the prairie waiting for a herd of bison to pass). They all cheerily shout “Hello teacher!” and I say “hello!” back to each of them. Notice how I’m nervous and we haven’t even switched from English yet?
Then there are the teachers. Most of them know I don’t really speak Czech, but that doesn’t stop me (or them) from trying! The problem is, after a tough class and a herd of children on the stairs, meeting a teacher is like meeting a bear after you’ve run a marathon and then hit yourself in the head several times.
If I stammer through a “dobrý den” without looking too nervous then they inevitably throw out a follow-up question or statement. What do they say, you may ask? I have no idea. I just smile and nod and walk quickly away. This is not an exaggeration.
I will literally get within ten yards of my office door and have to tell myself, “Walk, don’t run. Walk, don’t run.”
Then I shut myself in and lean my back against the door in case a moose tries to knock it in, taking deep breaths for several seconds before I can stand up and shake it off.
There are two days of the week when this doesn’t work. Those are the two days when the music teacher is in school. His office is right across from mine. I haven’t met him officially yet but I’ve sputtered at him incoherently several times and he’s been polite enough to respond without too much disdain.
It’s hard to describe how intimidating the music teacher is. He looks a little like Ichabod Crane and he cuts a very sharp silhouette in the school hallway as flips his keys in his hands when he’s on hall duty. It’s impressive. The music classroom is on our hall – which is awesome because it means I get to listen to a concert basically all day – so I know he’s talented. I can hear him and his choir of little moose from the safety of my cozy chair in my secluded office. This makes the encounters even more intimidating, especially because all he knows about me so far is that I am fluent in sputtering.
Maybe I’m just a more flappable person than the average human, but sometimes remembering how to say, “How are you?” or even, “Hello,” in another language when you’re stressed or under pressure is impossible. I could be meeting Glinda the Good Witch of the North in that last ten yards to my office and I’d still have trouble verbalizing real words (in any language), but it doesn’t help that the last ten yards are right in the path of the music teacher.
I just want to be able to communicate with people. To laugh at a joke someone makes at lunch because I understand it and not because everyone else is laughing (although, I do that in English too).
Sometimes teachers come up to me and ask if I speak other languages (German, Russian), because they want to be able to talk with me. I have to tell them that, no, Americans only speak one language. (I do speak Spanish with the teacher from Uruguay who shares an office with me, but I only understand 70 percent of what he says and I don’t respond unless I know we have several minutes to figure out how to say what I’m trying to say in Spanish).
So, when I got invited to a concert at Obecní dům with some of the younger teachers in the school, I was surprised that I didn’t hesitate to say ‘yes!’ An evening with three women whose English (though better than my Czech) is not precisely fluid? What if I turn into the awkward fourth wheel (yeah, watch me make fourth wheels become a thing)? What if I have nothing to say, or worse, they pity me for having nothing to say?
But if for nothing else than the sake of trying and the chance to put on a pretty dress, I got dolled up and rolled myself out to Prague Center.
The first thing we talked about was hair and shoes. That’s a language every woman understands. Then it was the building and the coat room. We talked about champagne during intermission and how hungry we were. Before I knew it, the concert was over and we were trooping through Prague on heels looking for pizza and laughing about how turned around we were.
I don’t remember how much of our conversation was in Czech and how much was in English. I know we went back and forth a lot, and I know I didn’t get everything. But not a single moment was awkward or moose-ish.
Putting yourself out there is hard no matter what language you’re using, but sometimes you have to strap on your prettiest shoes and just do it. I enrolled in a Czech language course for November because I’m serious about learning this language and really getting to know the people I work with and the students I teach.
So the next time I see Ichabod Crane outside my office, I’m going to say ‘hello.’ Maybe he just needs to know I’m not a moose either.