A brief tale about Brno public transit, irresponsible gardening practices and paintbrushes.
The word sounds something like “shtye-tets” and I said it over and over to myself as I sat on the tram to Brno’s Královo Pole district on an Autumn day in 2004. I had just learned it the day before and had developed the ability to say it to the satisfaction various Czechs I knew that I felt confident going into a shop with it. I was still a newcomer to the Czech lands and language, having arrived only a few months before.
Though I was saying it under my breath, it had clearly been heard by my most immediate fellow passengers. An older fellow sitting across from me glanced at me quizzically from over the top edge of his tabloid while a young mother made a slight but perceptible move to place herself a bit more between her toddler and the strange man with the štětec fixation.
Along the way, the tram passed some unkempt looking garden allotments. Most had a ramshackle looking tool shed in a corner of them and many had semi-derelict looks from the uncut grass and other once domestic vegetation that had been left to grow untended on the land.
Have you ever thought about the risks of walking through long grass? Not natural grass growing wild on the prairies and steppe, but long domestic grass of the sort someone has let grow as it pleases. It’s clearly growing on land that belongs to someone, or once did. It also shows signs, in subtle and not so subtle ways, of human involvement both recent and ancient.
Languages are like that.
While long abandoned machines sit derelict in the grass corroding away, likewise do archaic words sit unused in a language long after their replacement with only a few elderly souls knowing how to use them properly if at all. Just as a long collapsed barbed wire fence lurks just out of sight ready to jab and scratch the unwary rambler, so do unfamiliar grammatical barbs lurk in a language to humble the non-native speaker.
It’s not all bad though: Just as you can find a beautiful flower in amongst the blades of long grass, so can you find beautiful words that are a joy to say and leave you shaking your head at the inadequacies of your own language. Take for example the Czech word “pupek”; while lacking the grace of a tall lily, pupek is a delightfully simple little flower that grows in bunches low to the ground. Pupek is simple, undemanding and enormous fun to say. It’s also the Czech word for bellybutton.
Just as an observant wanderer might find an old coin with value well beyond initial appearances indicate, so can the observant learner of a language find unassuming everyday words with higher value hiding in plain sight. As lucky linguistic coins in Czech go, there is the wonderfully flexible “prosím” which can be used to cover a range of pleasantries in requests, offers and invitations as well as make you look quite polite while you may be making a rich mulch of whatever else you’re trying to say when you’re new to Czech.
I had also located in the long Czech grass, through complete intention, a “štětec”. Štětec isn’t a flower and it isn’t pretty to look at or say; it’s a fruit with a tough fibrous husk and woody stem that makes you work for it. It tastes alright, but leaves you wondering if it was really worth the effort. It also happens to be the Czech word for a paintbrush.
Familiar tram stops were announced regularly along the line northward: Česká…Grohova...Konečného náměstí...Nerudova...Štětec...Klusáčkova...Tererova…
I was given pause when I heard the announcement for the “Štětec” stop. I knew this line well and was quite certain there was no stop at all between Nerudova and Klusáčkova, much less one named after a paintbrush.
I returned to my previous singular thought:
I stepped off the tram at the Červinkova stop and tried to recall where the paint shop I knew to be in the area was. I found it after a few moments and stepped through the door, prepared to used my new instrument of Czech vocabulary in earnest.
After exchanging greetings, the shopkeeper asked how he could help me. The moment had come, I opened my mouth with a degree of confidence I should have thought better of:
I laid one of my prosím coins on the counter like a poker chip and placed my bet:
“Prosím, hledám šty..ts..ch,” I said it with etiquette if not elocution. My words translating approximately to “Please, I’m looking for a pn..bs..sh”.
The proprietor regarded me patiently and easily matched my bet by playing a prosím coin of his own, through it asking me to repeat myself. It was to no avail; the word I had spent so much time and risking ridicule on public transportation to perfect had, with the help of my tongue, betrayed me at this critical moment. With each attempt I made to clarify my request, the more the two of them conspired against me.
Prosím coins alone were clearly not going to win this day for me. I had to up the ante. It was time for body language:
With determination, I held one hand out as if it was holding a paintbrush with the bristles pointed upward and gestured emphatically to it with the other and said the Czech equivalent of “I need this” and made the motion of dipping the brush and making up and down strokes in the air.
“Nerozumím,” came the reply in Czech, “I don’t understand”. He’d thrown down a chip that confirmed the stakes had gone up.
I was suspicious of a bluff, but decided to give that spot of stale air in the shop a second coat. I added to my previous wager by first positioning my hands as if they were holding a four litre pail of paint and set that invisible pail on the counter and declared: “To je barva”, which translates into “It is paint”. I picked up my invisible paint brush, reaffirming to the shopkeeper my desire to have one, dipped it in the invisible paint and proceeded to brush the air a bit slower to make sure I didn’t miss a spot this time.
“Ne, nerozumím,” was the shopkeeper’s reply, “No, I don’t understand”. A look of subtle bemusement crossed his face and I began to feel as if a penny had dropped and I had been too engaged in painting the shop’s air and too committed to winning my prized paintbrush to hear it.
Highly suspicious that I had, in his quiet shop , transitioned from commerce to comedy; I threw my last prosím coin for that day into the pot and prepared to apply a third coat for good measure. I went through the motions as before while he watched.
As I was making the final strokes to complete my third coat, a young lady appeared from the back of the shop and I was about to find out exactly how deeply overdetermined I had become in my mission for a paintbrush.
“You’re looking for a paintbrush, right?” She asked me in near perfect English
I blurted out my clumsy response: “Nemluvim moc česky, Mluvite anglicky?” In that stark moment of synaptic reflex I realised that I had not recognised my own language being spoken to me and told her I didn’t speak much Czech and asked if she could speak English.
The proprietor’s face shifted back and forth between the look of claiming victory and the look of trying to get me to play yet another hand.
I was too deep in by this point. I had nothing left to bet with, but was too close to my prize to simply walk away.
“That was English.” The young assistant replied, taken somewhat aback and looking slightly indignant.
What would have been an awkward silence was averted by the bell on a tram running along Purkyňova street outside ringing out as if to shake me back to reality. I brought my palm up to cover my face in disbelief that I had not identified my own language a moment before. It was an appropriate gesture; my foot had located the rake left in the long Czech grass by some careless gardener who knows how long ago and I caught the handle square in the face!
Despite the rake to the face, fortune had smiled upon me and etiquette demanded that I smile back:
“Yes, I’m looking for a paintbrush.” I confirmed to her sheepishly. She promptly placed a selection of brushes on the counter in front of me and I made my selection.
With a bit of mutual laughter while she rang my purchase through and questions about where I was from and why I was in the Czech Republic, I took my purchase and left the shop in good spirits.
Once back in the centre, I made my way to Tesco via the “Mouse hole” tunnel under the main train station. Making my way through the department store’s shelves, I cast an eye in the direction of the hardware section and froze on the spot.
An entire aisle of paintbrushes lay before me, free to select from with no need to ask anyone. They hung there, on their hooks, trying in vain to mock me. I was having none of it. I looked at my shoulder bag, where my hard won paintbrushes were safely held, and smirked at the ones in the aisle in front of me.
“Štětec...štětec...štětec…” I said under my breath as I patted my shoulder bag and smiled.
My brushes were better than them. I had brushes that had made me work for them, brushes I could respect.
I had brushes that had made me earn them. I had brushes that I had long since forgotten what I wanted them for.