Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Little Bitty Egg

Reading through my old commonplace books written in a preblog time, I found this story from my pregnancy with Caroline and thought I'd share.

The other day I went to a corner store that has just opened up close to our apartment. We needed eggs, milk - the standards I suspected even a local grocery would carry. After picking out my favorite boxed milk and admiring the displays of pickled cabbage and Coca-Cola products carefully arranged, I still could not find eggs. So I went up to the deli counter and mentioned to the lady in my most polite Czech that I would like, if at all possible, some eggs: "Chtela bych vejce."

Now, the way you say "vejce" in Czech sounds a lot like "vaysay" and it's a pretty easy word to pronounce, so when I made my request to the counter person, I was surprised at how startled she seemed for a grocery store employee. But then she looked me over and told me (also in Czech) that yes, in the office I would find them.

It takes me longer than it should to translate a simple sentence back into English, but after only a few seconds spent considering the ceiling tiles and humming aimlessly, I had jumbled all her words together enough to figure that we were in what might be called a communication breakdown. I knew for sure that most little stores in Prague didn't keep their eggs in their offices - they kept them on the floor right next to the cleaning products.

I started talking about hens, round objects, small children, any word or phrase I could think of to somehow clear up the confusion. The lady, perhaps thinking I'd lost my head and memorized a thesaurus of oddly related Czech terms, came around the counter, grabbed my basket and marched me off towards the office. My heart sunk, the baby kicked in objection, and I realized I'd obviously violated some obscure local shopping etiquette and was going to face the manager and be told all my sins.

I considered bolting out the back through the loading dock, but then I'd have to leave my milk and sugar behind, and after all it was such a convenient location for a grocery store. Suddenly we stopped, no manager in site, and I came out of my miseries to find the grocery lady triumphantly pointing out the "VaySay" (WC).

Illumination dawned! She'd decided that I was a pregnant woman in need of a bathroom!

I'm pleased to report that after I drew several pictures of eggs and chickens (the office came in handy after all) we solved all communication errors, and, both rather red about the ears, returned to the store to find the eggs so I could check out. They were next to the cookies, not the cleaning supplies - an important lesson I tucked away for future purchases.

I also learned that, though "vejce" is pronounced "vaysay", no one except television commentators uses such a formal version of the word. "One little bitty egg", or "vajíčko", is apparently the term of choice amongst the smart shopping set of Prague.

Thankfully, my Czech has improved since those days, but we still find eggs in all sorts of unconventional spots in the little groceries around our neighborhood.


tuckova said...

I love that mistake!

My friend wanted to buy hand-painted eggs for his friends back home; he was having some trouble finding them because it was wintertime, but he was still hoping to find them somewhere in Prague. Running into a student on the tram, he expressed his dilemma. This led to a discussion of why he was looking for them: Czech eggs are so unique; yes of course we have them in the States but they're not painted; they're hard to find in the winter, but they would make a nice decoration for the tree.... on and on, with his student trying to understand why this nice young apparently sane person wanted to carry toilets back to Wisconsin.

Anonymous said...

That was fun to read. Hey! You with your awesome do you say "Give me a kiss" ? I collect the phrase in different languages (though I've forgotten several of them).

Julia said...

It is a great mistake. I can totally imagine the confusion of the poor student wondering how Americans hang toilets on trees!

Liz, you say "dej mi pusu" for "give me a kiss." I hear this phrase from Caroline all the time.