If you were czech, you would have recognized the title of this episode as a reference to Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke. Last night I was surrounded by strangers who spoke no English, and I tried to tell a joke in Czech. It was my most ambitious attempt to communicate orally outside my lessons.
It didn’t work very well.
I had been listening to the conversation around me, not really hoping to understand a great deal, but at times I knew enough about what was going on that had I been able to form sentences more quickly I might have had something to add. Of course, by the time I had assembled a candidate sentence, conversation had long since moved on.
More often, I would catch words I knew (or knew I should know), standing out like little islands of comprehensibility in the swirling ocean of conversation. (Czech, in fact, when spoken by several people at once, does sound a bit like the surf.) On one occasion, I caught a few words that, when combined, were amusing: “… I bought … five kilograms … piece … zebra … nine crowns …”
I prepared my sentence ahead of time, and sure enough not long after Jirka came by and asked me if I was understanding anything.
“I understand everything!” I exclaimed in Czech, which got a chuckle. “For example…” That caught people’s attention, because I actually pulled off the pronunciation of například pretty well, and it’s not a common word for non-speakers to know. In the following silence my mind went blank. “Moment…” I said, stalling for time, which got another chuckle, a polite one, and I was free to stumble through my joke. “For example, I heard one woman say she bought 5 kilograms of zebra—”
“You mean Žebra,” Jirka interrupted. “Ribs.”
I could have replied, “oooooh, ribs. That’s not so interesting, then.” That would have been funny. Instead I pressed on with the story the way it was scripted in my head, but even after insisting that I had heard zebra, everyone assumed I meant žebra, and the joke came out as someone buying a shitload of ribs for only nine crowns. Which isn’t terribly funny. “I understand everything!” I finished, and got a courtesy laugh, and conversation went on without me.
That’s not to say I would have been adaptable enough to jump on the punch line opportunity in English, either, and I did trot out a fairly complicated sentence that leaned heavily on my new past tense skills, which surprised the folks around me. So it wasn’t all bad. It could have been better, though. It could have been Žert.