Na sheldanou & Other Words in Czech

Czech Books

The two week, intensive Czech language course I have to take for my study abroad program started this week. Before coming here, I always joked about having to take this class because I had no idea what I would do with my knowledge of Czech, but now that I’m learning it, I’ve fallen in love with the language. Part of it, I think, has to do with the way I misinterpreted Czech culture. I imagined them as brash people, but in reality, they’re quiet and private but, generally, quite nice. And they truly appreciate people putting in the time to learn their language, which really helps to encourage you through the struggle.

Unlike my time learning Spanish, I’m actually getting to be immersed in the language by being in a country surrounded by the people who speak it, and in this context, I’ve realized that learning a language is a lot like learning to act.

New words in a language are like looking at a script for the first time. You have to fully understand what it is you’re trying to say, and you have to become confident in your ability to remember those words and express them the way they need to be expressed. For example, we were sent out yesterday by our wonderful Czech teacher, Luděk, to ask for directions to certain streets. We were supposed to pick up on directional words, such as “rovně” (straight) or “doprava” (right), and then respond by saying, “Aha, takže…” and then repeat what they had told us.

I was so unsure of myself going in that I just walked past tons of Czech people without asking them for directions. Every time I considered approaching someone, I would suddenly forget the words, “Promiňte prosím vás” (Excuse me, please) or “Kde je…?” (where is insert street name here?). When you think of speaking in Czech to real Czech people, you become self conscious in the same way you might having to try and express certain emotions or give specific intonations to lines from a script.

It takes a lot of time to really become comfortable with the phrases you’re using in new languages and being confident that you’re pronouncing them correctly or using them in the right contexts, but as it is with acting (and really everything in life), practice makes pretty darn close to perfect.

My roommate and I went back to Kozlovna today for lunch where we made a weak (though it was a lot of effort on our part) attempt to order and communicate with the waiters and waitress in Czech. They were extremely kind about it. They smiled, fixed our pronunciation, and told us the Czech terms for words we only knew in English. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in my stay here.

Here’s my advice from my experience so far: For any one who is trying to learn a new language, I would highly suggest finding an environment in which you can comfortably practice speaking that language with someone who knows it well and will, gently, correct you when you make mistakes. You’ll always be uncomfortable for the first bit of learning something new, but unless you struggle through the awkwardness and the fear, you’ll never get better at it.

What’s also great is giving yourself the opportunity to see that language used in a practical sense. I always hated learning languages in grade school, but I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I never saw how they could be useful to me. Being in a situation in which you need to use a language you’re learning can help you fall in love with it–or at least appreciate it a little bit more.

Find more pictures of my travels in Prague here. (I’ll be updating the album until I leave the country.)

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Prague

When I first thought about studying abroad–even before I got to college–I would never have guessed I would end up studying in Prague. Honestly, the only reason I ended up coming here to study was because it was the only intensive film studies program abroad to which my college was connected, but now that I’ve been here almost two days I can say that I am glad this was where my studies directed me. It’s not just because I enjoyed the beer at Kozlovna tonight or because I am intrigued by the city’s open imperfections that contrast its beautiful and intricate architecture. Instead, I am glad to have decided to explore a culture that I would not otherwise have learned much about from my cultural cave in the United States.

Last night at dinner, a group was discussing what Czech people thought about Americans and what Americans thought of Czech people. While I found the response of my fellow U.S. citizens to the latter discussion superficial, it did make me consider the fact that I know very little about the Czech Republic and its people–so little that I had few preconceived notions of what they were like. This, of course, is not entirely bad. The reality is no one can know something about everything (though too many of us seek to prove otherwise), but in general, I feel that the rich history of the Czech Republic is overlooked as lesser to that of other states, especially those in Western Europe.

There are so many things the Czech Republic has to offer–historically, culturally, and otherwise. It’s a beautiful city in itself (pictures will come — I’ve decided to not carry my camera around until I’m slightly better acquainted with the city), but there are also many interesting stories in its far and recent past, including the Velvet Revolution, after which Václav Havel–the namesake of Prague’s international airport–is named, and the films of the well-known Miloš Forman and other Czech directors and their involvement in the Czechoslovak New Wave film movement.

I won’t go into all of it here, but if you’re interested in European history or culture (especially film) I would highly recommend you spend some time reading up on it. What I’ve listed here are pretty important to Czech history but feel free to explore it further.

Chef’s Table: Insight into Inspiration

David Gelb became a documentary directing sensation with the provocative Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film that uses low depth of field shots of sushi and inspirational quotes from their chef, the famous Jiro, to create a thoughtful piece on what it means to dedicate your life to something. (The film is leaving Netflix instant in a bit over a week, so I’d suggest that you watch it there while you still can.) Since then, he has teamed up with Netflix to create the equally beautiful documentary series Chef’s Table. Gelb has only directed one of the six episodes in the series’ first season, featuring Italian chef Massimo Bottura, but they’re all brilliant portrayals of the struggles of the craft. His episode is my favorite so far (though I’ve only watched four) because it so closely resembles Jiro in its cinematography (though Gelb was the cinematographer on Jiro whereas Bottura’s episode done by Will Basanta) and the beautifully slow pacing of its storytelling.

Unlike many shows about chefs and cooking, this series focuses more on the background and thought process of the chef in question. Every episode features a different chef, ranging in location and type of food from traditional, fire-roasted Argentinian cuisine in Patagonia to Japanese kaiseki in Los Angeles. What I love most about Chef’s Table is that it isn’t a show just for foodies. While the gastronomical images will give you what is technically known as a food-gasm, the series also hits many of the problems we face as a result of the human condition by showing how these chefs had to struggle through life and their craft in order to reach where they are now.

Honestly, I am the type of person who makes themselves a PB&J for lunch every day and makes barely seasoned baked chicken and tofu & spinach soup for dinner (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy good food as well). And I still love what I’ve gotten out of Gelb’s series. As with Jiro, each episode imparts to us the knowledge of how to work toward our best self while also demonstrating the importance of stepping back from the world and taking things at a slower pace. Great things are not accomplished through entitlement, we learn, but through years of hard work that define us as individuals.

Something beautiful that I’ve learned from both Jiro and this series is that we will never reach our best self–and that’s okay. It is more important that we recognize there will always be room for improvement and continuously strive to be better. Jiro, for example, lives the life of a “shokunin.” Literally, this means “craftsman” or “artisan,” but as author Tasio Orate clarifies, being a shokunin “means not only having technical skills but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.” This understanding of the word suggests that constantly becoming better is not about being the best. Developing your craft, then, is not done for momentary awards, which are ultimately unfulfilling, but about contributing to society–a trait visible in Massimo Bottura. (You can see how much I love this guy.)

Bottura’s episode begins on him discussing how he saved Modena, the city in which his restaurant is run, by creating a parmigiano-based risotto after an earthquake hit in order to sell the cheese that would have otherwise been useless. (The practice of making such a risotto, as a learned from one of my foodie friends, is so common now it is not considered strange, but back then, it was revolutionary.) His attitude as he tells the story is in no way cocky and it is clear that he seeks no praise for his actions, but it is important to note that his pursuit to become a great chef led him to accomplish this social service. He does not discuss his accolades–there are only short, noninflected references to their existence–but rather makes a point of telling a story of how working with food can positively impact society.

This, rather than the mouthwatering images that linger on the screen, is what we need to take from watching Gelb’s documentaries: developing our crafts–whatever they may be–is not about gaining recognition or awards; though those things may come, what we really should be focused on is the impact of what we do on society.

If you haven’t seen Jiro or Chef’s Table, I suggest you watch them as soon as possible.

Let Me Tell You A Story

Once There Was A Little Girl

Once there was a little girl from the Southern United States, and one day, she realized that at some point in her life, she was going to have to decide to be something. So she started to search. How do you decide what to be? she wondered. Money was important. This much she knew. So she searched online high-paying professions, though in more words because she wasn’t yet sure what such “being” was called. A veterinarian, she decided. This is what I should be. She liked animals. (They were cute.) And it made her sad when they were hurt. So why not be the person who fixed them? But one day, she accidentally caught a glimpse of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and decided that being any sort of doctor was too gruesome for her (but again, not using such a big word).

Now this little girl’s favorite uncle was an author and illustrator of children’s book, and he was her favorite because he was cool and would draw her pictures and sneakily put her name and her cousins’ into his books. I like drawing, too, the little girl thought when her uncle came over once. Maybe I should be an author and illustrator like my uncleSo she tried this too. Her art teacher at school taught her basic book binding and she would write stories and draw pictures. But she never seemed to have the patience to finish these stories or pictures enough to develop her craft, and soon this pursuit was dropped as well.

Much of the little girl’s life continued like this. She thought about many professions, including news anchoring, website designing, and being the lead singer of an alternative rock band (which was eventually discarded as a result of her waning interest in alternative rock). It wasn’t until early high school that the little girl found what she really wanted to be–this time knowing to call it profession.

She had another uncle–one who had married into the family and who she also deemed “cool.” Unlike her other uncle, this one was pursuing the profession of authoring books for adults, but he also had an extensive knowledge of film (the critical side, not the technical). He would talk to her about film every time she was visiting and tell her all the amazing new films coming out and why they were important. She hadn’t realized before that film could be so intricate–that it could reach so many people in such a deep way. I want to do that, she decided once and for all. I want to make movies and share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with the world around me.

Since then, the little girl has been trying her best to learn all she can about film, and she has come to find how related it is to many of the other things she tried to pursue and many of the things she now enjoys. She’s not where she wants to be yet (and as she’s learned from her recent viewing of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, she probably never will be) but that’s okay because there will always be room for improvement. All the girl hopes to do now is take what she loves and do it, and she’s decided that maybe she’ll write about it along the way. Maybe like once a week. (But really, she will. That’s what this blog is for. Just FYI.)

I don’t think I need to tell you: that little girl was me.