PRAGUE — Czech Republic was the first country I visited that wasn't either Latin or Germanic. Czech, as I found out the hard way, is a very tricky Slavic language, one of those that rarely lets you deduce the meaning of a word and in which entire sentences seem to have been written by somebody with severe cognitive issues.
If you don't believe me, here are a few examples:
— No, I've never heard of the deep web.
— Ne, já jsem nikdy neslyšel o hlubokého webu.
— What did you put in my drink?
— Co jste dal do pití?
— Please, do not take my liver, sir.
— Prosím, neberte mé játra však, pane.
I started in Berlin, Germany. The train journey to Prague's central station is enough to make anybody exhilarated or a little scared. The script changes little by little until you start realizing that either you dropped acid that somehow confused all the letters on the signs, or you've entered the Czech Republic.
When everything goes according to plan, it's actually rather easy to become enthralled with such a different language. There are an infinite number of possibilities, and it's a lot easier to meet new people in bars, for example with the always efficient, "How do you say cheers in your language?" But if things start going off the tracks, the interest in exoticism devolves into an abyss of despair, and with one magical step, you find yourself unable to find a living soul who speaks English.
That's what happened to me after I dedicated a reasonable amount time to figuring out the city's public transport system. (Trying to memorize the names of the surrounding metro stations when your phone's battery is giving up isn't the best idea.) I reached my Airbnb rental and discovered that the hosts had forgotten about my arrival and were unreachable. I waited for two hours, entering and exiting the building thanks to considerate neighbors, and I found a café with Wi-Fi to allow me to pursue a plan B.
I was thrown out of the café at 10 p.m., when it was already very dark outside and the employees wanted to go home. I ended up staying in a remote neighborhood with a guy who would later send me Whatsapp messages on a daily basis to ask if I'd "already picked up a Czech chick." After an exhausting day, I had what every traveler needs: somewhere to sleep and a stranger to ask me inappropriate questions. What more could I wish for?
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Is that clear? — Photo — Infinite Ache
The next day, showered and ready to explore the city, I started meeting other tourists who were also desperately confused by the language. I reached deep inside to embrace my best altruism and swore that whenever I'd see somebody lost or looking for information, I'd offer to help.
The project started well: I met an errant explorer on the tram and directed him toward his hotel across the city. In a restaurant, I helped a couple decipher the menu using Google Translate. In just a few hours, I became Prague's Superman, without the six pack and super powers.
Living up to my new, Good Samaritan status, I became the hero of two helpless Japanese girls standing in the middle of the sidewalk with gigantic suitcases. Or at least I tried to. They were trying to make sense of their city map. But when people don't even know they're holding the map upside down, you know it's going to be a slog for them.
I came closer, but they completely ignored me. When I finally offered to help, I was sprayed with a series of piercing "no no no no no no no no no nos." They moved away from me, leaving their luggage where it was, as if I'd been holding a gun to their heads. They made all sorts of hand gestures to tell me to go away, saying stuff in Japanese. I tried to explain myself: "I'm just trying to help some strangers in the street because when I first arrived in Prague myself ... " but I failed miserably. They were only moving further away, each time a little faster, while I was trying to give my best rendition of "it's not what you're thinking." Thanks for nothing, pop culture.
About 40 minutes later, I returned to the spot, and there they were, sitting on the curbside. But they at least holding the map properly this time. I didn't stop. One moment I had been Superman, the next Godzilla. I left them behind in that alley.
And I'm fine with it. As Confucius famously said, "It's no use trying to help those who don't help themselves." Not even in Prague.
This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to email@example.com.