Last Updated on June 21, 2019 by Emery Schoenberg
Last week I came down with a cold. My nose was runny, my head hurt, my throat was sore, but most importantly I couldn’t sleep. Missing one night of sleep can be a detriment to your mood, work ethic, and general energy levels. Missing two nights of sleep in a row turns the most mundane and ritualistic of tasks into an unconquerable hellscape of responsibility that can make a defeatist out of the biggest optimist you know.
Anyway… Earlier last week I missed two nights of sleep due to a nuisance of a head cold. After my second consecutive night of being awoken at 3:00 AM by my own inability to breathe through my nose, I decided I needed to take action. No longer was I going to be passive; no longer was I going to let this cold define my week.
In the United States, buying cold medicine is not a big deal for me. I’m 20 years old. The amount of times I have driven to a pharmacy to buy myself medicine are numerous. I know what works, what doesn’t, what aisle to go to, and how much it is going to cost. But I’m in Prague, and I only know enough Czech to come off as vaguely polite. The morning after my second night of missed sleep, I bit the bullet and walked to a Czech pharmacy called a Lekarna.
As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted by an upbeat woman who chirped a cheerful “Dobry den!” to me as I crossed the threshold. “Dobry den,” I responded, in a painfully suppressed American accent. I took a quick look around at the shelves and decided in short order that I would be better served to simply ask the pharmacist what I should buy. Everything was in Czech anyway, so buying something based on branding or name was out of the question.
As I approached the counter, she asked me in Czech if I had a question. “Yes,” I said. “Do you speak any English?” She paused for a second, and then smiled a little bit. “Ne, not really,” she said.
This precise moment is when hindsight hit me. It was, in fact, insensitive of me to assume she would speak English. I should have looked up Czech branded medicines. I was incorrect to assume equivalent medicines to things like Nyquil would exist by name in the Czech Republic. As I stood there at the counter mouth-breathing, all of this became shockingly clear to me in an instant.
Rapidly realizing that language barriers are very real, I did my best to mime to her what I needed. I started by pointing at my nose. She nodded. Good. Step one out of the way, and it wasn’t going half-badly either. The next step in describing my symptoms was to tell her that my nose was runny. So, like a ridiculous idiot, I started to point at my nose and jog in place.
I knew how big of a mistake this was right when I started. Her confusion was palpable. I stopped jogging in place and again pointed at my nose, then my head, then my throat. She motioned for me to wait and about a minute later came back with a box of medicine.
Lacking any spare energy to try again, I purchased the first medicine she gave me and thanked her as profusely as I could in embarrassingly broken Czech. I then had my 10 minute walk home to reflect on my fatigue-induced lack of forethought.
What was I thinking? Walking into a Lekarna woefully unprepared, expecting someone to accommodate my lack of planning in a language that they don’t speak? I like to think that a well-rested version of myself wouldn’t make these mistakes, but I think I might just be hiding behind that excuse. Either way I think this interaction was, if nothing else, painfully necessary.
I think of myself as a socially conscious person, but experiences like this show me that I am a product of the culture I was raised in. To me, expecting people to speak English is a reflex. Realistically, it shouldn’t be. Luckily for me the woman behind the counter at the Lekarna was kind enough to help me despite my frankly disrespectful approach to our interaction.
If the roles were reversed, how would I have acted? She was understanding and kind in a way that I can’t promise myself I would be. What if someone came up to me at my job and asked for help while speaking virtually zero English? I think I would be immediately frustrated, or even angry.
In hindsight, I truly appreciate her understanding. More importantly, I don’t ever want to force someone to accommodate me like that again. I can say with confidence that this experience taught me to be prepared, not only for ease of communication, but more so out of respect. Even if I have to communicate using extremely broken Czech, I would rather be able to say that I tried.
That night, I took some of the medicine that the pharmacist had sold me. I slept like a big ignorant baby that had finally learned a lesson in cross-cultural communication and respect.
This post was contributed by Emery Schoenberg. Emery is currently studying abroad with AIFS in Prague, Czech Republic for the summer.