Some people have a knack to pick up a new language easily.
I am not one of them.
On the top of it if the language in question happens to be Czech or Cesky as it is often called, then you are, pardon the profanity, screwed.
If we stick to the greatest story ever told, and believe some old invisible man up in the sky created the world and its languages, then He must have created Czech on a particularly bad day when he must have got out on the wrong side of the bed, not having had a pleasant night with his wife/mistress/concubines/ all of them, stepped on a puddle of pee that the dog must have peed during the night and unconsciously spoiled the whole carpet which must have pissed off his wife/mistress/concubines/all of them that should have resulted in a lukewarm cup of coffee and the unwelcome job of washing and cleaning the carpet on that rainy day.
He must have ended up tearing the carpet in the process of cleaning it and must have had his ass kicked by the Lady.
To close the day the Lady must have sent Him off to sleep with the pigs in the sty.
He must have made the Czech language in those dying moments of the day as the day crept into the night.
All of you must be thinking that this is the usual hyperbole. Well, the following meme says it more perfectly for you to grasp, pardon my cliché, the tip of the iceberg.
I say is different from you say which is different from he/she/it says that is different from we say or they say or you(plural) say.
Different in past tense.
Different in future tense.
Then there are irregular words.
That follows no pattern.
And, of course, each time I deduce a pattern and ask my teacher “Are these the rules?”
She sadistically smiles, and says “There are exceptions”
“Is there a pattern to it? How do I remember them?”
She shrugs, and says, “well, you just remember them”
As if the spoken language is less daunting, the Czechs have gone to extreme lengths to make the written word more daunting, if that were possible.
Many letters wear a crown.
And certain letters are pronounced way differently beyond your wildest imagination.
A r with a head gear is pronounced as a marriage between a z and a j.
And how do you pronounce words like “chtit” or “smrk” or “ctvrtek” “zmrzlina” or “rijen”
I have not added the head gears to those letters!
My daughter has this theory. How friendly is a country? Find the words for pizza and ice cream. If that sounds forbidding run away from this country.
She has a point.
Having chosen to live in this country and started liking it, how can you not like this country where the beer is cheaper than water and that has given Milan Kundera to the world?, I had no other options but try and speak their language.
It was an arduous and perilous journey.
I say “was”, because on 22nd March 2017 I cleared the exam conducted by the government which tested my reading, listening, writing and speaking proficiency.
This account is about that nerve wrecking experience of the exam and the many sleepless nights prior to the exam.
I was reduced to a nervous wreck and a blabbering idiot as the date approached.
It was designed to make you nervous.
For the starters, the exam starts at 2 pm.
What a horrible time of the day. Could not they have selected the fresh morning hours?
2 pm! When the body wants to be in a horizontal position and embrace a good siesta.
We were seated in such a manner that seeking surreptitious help was impossible. On the other hand seeking help was out of the question. The others were as petrified as I was and more clueless.
The matronly woman supervisor looked as if she last smiled 30 years ago. Her assistant had apparently taken an oath to never smile in her life. The two prowled the hall and made as more nervous than was necessary.
To top it all, the woman who smiled 30 years ago, was giving instructions in fluent rapid Czech.
We knew we had to mark the answers and we pretended and nodded our heads as if we understood every word she said.
The exam, the present day equivalent of, Spanish Inquisition or Roman Crucifixion, was split into 4 parts.
Here I reproduce the 4 parts for your mirth.
Reading. There were 4 exercises with 5 questions each. We were supposed to read and pick a right answer from the choices given. Reasonably simple in concept. But reading a question (understanding it partly or hazarding a guess) and thinking that one understands the question is akin to accepting to a game of Chess with Kasparov thinking he is a novice. The questions are tricky. The word “na” which means “on” is often understood as a negative prefix and gently nudges us towards the wrong answer.
There are pictures and texts and we were expected to match the right text to the right picture. The caution on the top “Careful! There are five texts but six pictures” is so funny, it is almost tragic. Even two texts and two pictures could have a 100% chance of pairing them wrongly.
In Arab countries they hang a goat upside down and slits its throat, the goat dies slowly and painfully. The belief is that the meat is tender and soft if the goat is killed thus.
In part I, we were hung upside down and the first incision is administered. But they make sure that the bleeding can never result in death.
That part is two sessions away.
Listening. This part is the most hilarious part.
In the 80s there were a slew of martial art movies that flooded the screens after one Mr. Bruce Lee made the seminal Enter The Dragon, unquestionably the best kung-fu movie of all time. For reasons unknown actors from Europe, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ralph Lundgren and the likes, trained themselves in martial arts and as if the pinnacle is attained only when they prove themselves in East Asia they ended up travelling to Japan, Malaysia or the good old China to take part in competitions that usually took place in underground arenas lit by candles and fire torches.
There was a regular Philippine looking villain, with a smooth body that was rock hard and a face that was unbelievably square with slit eyes and flowing black mane that was perfect fro a shampoo advertisement.
For those who can't recall here he is
He was immensely talented but poor chap either lost or died in all the films. Before reaching the finals he would ruthlessly kill all his opponents, never once looking at the victims, but always menacingly looking at the judges (shaven-headed and long beards) or the protagonists (the above mentioned JCVD or RL).
I am digressing.
The reference, however, has a relation to the current narrative.
In all those fights as the Philippine looking villain and the JCVD/RL faced off each other before the start of the fight, a small urchin would lift a huge wooden hammer and hit it against a huger brass gong to announce the start of the fight.
In the 20 dialogues,we were asked to listen (each repeated twice, as if the mere repetition would suddenly make the statement unravel its hidden secrets), each dialogue was preceded by exactly the same sound of the martial art film gong.
The parallel is uncanny. We are the Philippine looking villain here. Death is certain.
The conversations were casual and tricky. Merely catching few catch phrases would not bail you out.
For example, there was this one where the woman complains to her husband/boyfriend that she is searching for her mobile, and the predictable husband/boyfriend says look inside your bag, to which she replies that she did and she found her laptop and wallet. (the words in Czech for the four objects mentioned in the conversation are penezenka, pocitac, taska and mobilni – again I have written the words without the head gears ) and in the answers that we needed to pick were all the 4 objects. Despite hearing the conversation twice, we had no clue what she was searching for.
Trust the women to lose something and create troubles for others!
This torture lasts 20 minutes.
The goat suffers the second cut now, a little deeper, still not left threatening but slowly reaching there.
Writing. This one is the shortest and least painful.
We were given one form to fill with some details which is the only simple question in the whole exam.
The second was a question asking us to send a SMS to a friend seeking help in buying few groceries and to deliver it at the mentioned address at the mentioned time. The time it took us to compose that blasted SMS, in proper Czech, with all the head gears, was so long we could have gone to the nearby market and bought all those things we needed few times over.
There was no guarantee that the SMS, if read by anyone, would have made any sense either. In all probability, we had asked the shop-keeper not to sell those products to our friend who might come at the said hour from the mentioned address!
Mercifully the ordeal in part III was the shortest.
The goat had drained itself of all the blood by now and the carcasses were thrown out to twitch and die.
This chamber (drawing a simile to the 80s martial art films, the 36th chamber of Shaolin) was only for the chosen few.
The lady who smiled 30 years ago and her assistant who had taken a no smile oath evaluated our efforts and announced the shortlisted candidates who would be subjected to the speaking part.
A woman with an hourglass figure and drop dead looks came out to announce the shortlist.
When it was my turn to reach the last part, the speaking one, I saw the hourglass ready to conduct the test, while the two non-smiling assassins, took the back seat and watch my embarrassment.
She offered me three cards turned upside down, fanned out, and held out like you would hold a hand of cards, and asked me to pick one.
If I had a choice, I would have thrown away the cards, picked her up, and walked away.
I wanted to joke saying “I don’t gamble” but did not as I could not say that Czech.
It was pointless anyway. It was like telling a guy “hey listen, am going to kill you, choose from the three”; a machete, a serrated knife of Rambo category or the sword of Excalibur.
I picked one struggling to keep my mind focused on the task at hand and not to stray away as it usually did in the presence of a good looking woman.
Mundane questions like “what time will you get up tomorrow morning” “what would you like to do tomorrow” “what time is the Czech lesson as per this calendar entry” “what is the name of the restaurant from this billboard” had me tongue tied and I struggled to string few words together to make a coherent sentence.
She did not speak one word in English throughout the inquisition which lasted but few minutes while the sphinxes behind revealed nothing by their expressions.
I could have shouted obscenities and their expression would have remained the same. If anyone ever wants a female Jeeves for their home, I would recommend these two.
Then she said, in Czech of course, “that’s all” and asked me to eff off.
After a long and arduous wait, the hourglass came out and announced slowly and dramatically by calling out each number, a pregnant pause, then a ANO or NE with exactly the same expression on her countenance.
She called my number, looked at me, waited what appeared to be a million years and said ANO.
Hourglass came a little later with my certificate and congratulated me in fluent English.
Maybe I will invite her for a beer.