Pretty sure I have mentioned how excruciatingly painful it is to exist in a country where you don’t understand the language – especially if you’re a hopeless people person. I tend to get repetitive on this blog, but to sum up for those who are joining my rants for the first time: not being able to talk to people is the worst thing ever. And not just because it cuts you off from everyone at a really basic level, but because one of my only strengths is being able to communicate really well (with as much self-deprecation as happens on this blog, I think I’m allowed a pat on the back) and now I’m stripped of it. So having this imaginary zipper over my lips makes me feel a bit like a fish … my mouth keeps opening hopefully but nothing comes out. Kind of like my first debate round.
Conversation takes effort to begin with. Now try it without knowing the language. It’s hard. For everyone.
While helping Marilyn in the kitchen earlier this autumn (and I use the word “helping” very loosely, because no matter how much I do, she is always a thousand times more productive than I am), I confided in her some of my frustrations. I don’t know what I was expecting her to say as I watched her from the sink of soppy water my elbows were resting in. (She basically stops the rhythm of space and time when she’s working, conducting the cosmos in her own magnificent orchestra of productivity. I mostly just watch. I’m sort of like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice except … No, I’m exactly like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice).
She said, “Well, you know you have to keep trying.”
A simple truth I didn’t want to hear. Trying is work. How do I explain how uncomfortable my lunches can be? My conversations with other teachers span the four questions I know how to ask and, if I’m lucky, I understand most of their answers. I’ve gotten really good at nodding and smiling with the laugh that says, “I think what you said is funny but I can’t decide how I want to respond so I’m just going to chuckle appreciatively and nod.”
Most of the time I feel a bit like a sinking ship or a lost penguin or something else completely hopeless and disoriented.
But because I knew Marilyn was right, last October on a very dull Monday, I walked into the empty cafeteria during my free period and decided to try again. The only two people in the caf were the školníky – janitors. The older one had inadvertently interrupted my conversation class the previous week and we had used one of my students to translate a short conversation. The younger one I passed quite frequently in hallways but had never met. I don’t know why, but they always seem to eat their lunch alone, even when other teachers are there.
As I neared them with my tray, they wished me “Good taste” and I asked if I could sit down with them. They were very agreeable and after clarifying that I don’t really speak Czech, they assured me that they didn’t speak English either. That was the start of what has become a bit of a weekly ritual. Every Monday, the one day my free period overlaps their lunch hour, I will sit down with them and have a meal so awkward I think it may actually send readable radio waves to satellites in outer space. We usually talk about the weather because I’m pretty good at saying, “It’s cold today,” or “It’s warm outside.” Sometimes we talk about Christmas plans or family or work. But we only get so far because the little that I speak is still far better than the little I understand. So usually all three of us sit in complete silence.
I can’t even describe how painful these lunches are for me.
On my last day of school before coming home for Christmas, I was hurrying out of a crowded cafeteria when the školníky appeared out of one of the restrooms, having fixed some type of plumbing issue, I assumed. The older one was dripping from his elbows to his fingers. He gave me a big smile.
“Dobrý den,” I said, walking past.
“Wait a moment,” he called in Czech. “Please wait.”
The two argued for a minute and I didn’t understand what they were saying, but the older one kept motioning to how wet he was and finally the younger one nodded and took off down the hallway stairs.
“Wait a moment,” the older one said to me again, a Cheshire Grin on his face. He wiped his hands off on his shirt and extended a mostly dry palm for me to shake. “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and very good health.”
I paused, trying quickly to translate the phrase into English in my head.
“Aha!” I said, and then in Czech added, “Thank you, and to you too!”
“What is it in English?” He asked . . . He was obviously stalling till the younger one got back. I translated it for him.
Wringing his hands a little awkwardly he grinned at me again and I smiled with patience.
“We have something for you,” he tried explaining in Czech. I figured
Finally, the younger one showed back up with one hand behind his back. Through a huge grin, he too wished me a merry Christmas, happy New Year and good health with a handshake. Then he pulled out a little packet of Raffaello’s white chocolate.
I was so touched, I was speechless (not that I could have said much anyways). I thanked them profusely for the thoughtful gift and I hope they understood how much I meant it. They were glowing like candles as I wished them a merry Christmas and turned to walk away. I was glowing too.
This is why we try. Not for the chocolate – although that’s not a bad endgame – but for the people who are affected by our efforts. I don’t get why they would enjoy the company of someone who barely spits out two sentences per meal or how they can stand the frustration of trying to talk with someone who does not understand what they’re saying. Maybe they just appreciate that I sit down with them and try. Maybe that’s all anyone really cares about – knowing they are worth the effort.
As far as Christmas gifts go, four little pieces of chocolate are hardly the prize reindeer. But it was nice to know that to someone, I was worth the effort of a present. And that’s the best kind of gift.