It was early when I got to the little café near home. My batteries were already somewhat depleted and I didn’t have my power cord with me, so I didn’t figure on it being a long night.
The place was almost empty when I got there; the only two tables that were taken were the ones I normally gravitate toward. One is directly beneath the TV and close to the outlet, and the one next to it also has good access to electricity. They are both by the window, which can be chilly, but when things get smoky it’s a blessing. They also happen to be the tables that are most out of the way when things start to get crowded. (There are only six tables in all.) That didn’t seem like it was going to be an issue, however.
Soon, though, people started to arrive. One regular took over one of the two tables that can accommodate more than two people, and rounded up extra chairs. The other larger table was usurped soon after. There was talk of turning on the television. At first I thought people were gathering to watch Velký Bratr, the absurdly popular Czech version of Big Brother. Absurdly popular doesn’t even begin to describe it. Then I realized the gathering crowd was all male, except for a small knot of three girlfriends huddling up at the far end of the bar. Sports, then.
I put my head down into my story and raced the batteries. Just as the laptop gave it up, the game was starting. Fotbol. Soccer to the Americans in the audience. It was a big game, I knew, because the Czech Republic, an early favorite to qualify for the World Cup, had lost a couple of important games and was now fighting for one of the last spots.
The graphic came up on the screen: Norway vs. Czech Republic. Wait a minute, they just played Norway the other day. Is this a rerun? Luckily I did not know how to ask anyone and therefore display my ignorance. It was a two-game playoff, the winner going to the big dance.
It was crowded in there by then, but I decided to hang out and watch a bit of the game and see what words I could pick out of the conversations around me. People kept arriving, and when the game got boring there was plenty of activity around me to provide entertainment. By halftime I was sharing the table with a pair of drunk kids in their early twenties.
At the half, an older guy, a fixture at one of the barstools, saw I wasn’t working and came over and asked in czech, “Why aren’t you working? Where’s your computer?” I started to answer, but he had already assumed I couldn’t understand him and had turned to other regulars to translate. It took some time for me to get the six people all translating differently at once to understand that I understood in the first place, so they would stop explaining and let me answer. “batteries are kaput,” I said in Czech, (although the ‘Kaput’ may have been German).
“You need batteries? Batteries? I’ll get us some batteries!”
“He’s buying you a shot,” one of the kids said in English.
I knew that already. I don’t know if “Batteries” is common slang for shots or if it’s just one of those cases where anything would have been taken as a euphamism for booze. No matter, moments later I was holding a shot of Becherovka.
The night did not descend into a long and painful trail of trading shots. The game started, the game ended, the Czechs won, I talked to the drunk kids some more, I managed a few sentences in Czech, and fun was had by all. The bar closed at eleven on the dot, and we all went home.
In the two days since, I have studied my Czech harder than ever. I felt it while I was there. I was close. Afterwards I thought of many things I could have said had I had the presence of mind to dig the words up. A few more words, maybe throw in the past tense (which I hear is pretty easy), and I can have conversations in czech. Slow, painful, conversations, but that’s OK. Once I cross that threshold, I think things will speed up as I get more meaningful practice.
Today as I was walking I was greeted warmly by one of the Little Café regulars as I passed him on the street. It was early yet, and the Little Café was not yet open, so he was heading for the Budvar Pub on the next corner.