PRAGUE, The Czech Republic — Remember the TV show “Stump the Stars”? It was a pantomime contest featuring celebrities like Morey Amsterdam, Lucie Arnaz, Ed Begley, Carol Burnet, Sebastian Cabot and Hans Conreid.
In a half hour’s time, the contestants were to provide clues, without speaking, that would identify a movie, novel, geographic location, etc.
The teams paired off and came up with some highly creative gesticulations to convey the answer to their team. Usually, the contest, also called “Charades” would start with the leader indicating, through mime only, whether the answer was a book, movie or TV program.
There are still remnants of that ’60s program, in the Trujillo family, as we try to get information across to people whose language we don’t understand. I’ve written often about our experiences in Denmark, where our oldest son, Stanley Adam, and his wife, Lisbeth, are raising two daughters. I’ve mentioned the difficulty in my trying to explain to store clerks especially, what I need, as many over-the-counter products don’t carry English translations.
In our travels, I’ve tried to do my homework in advance, learning that gateau, for example is French for cake and not cat, that Krankenhaus is the German word for hospital, and indeed it SOUNDS like a place one would rather avoid. But in Copenhagen, where Stan continues to take lessons, he explains that even if a word is spelled exactly like (what we might think is) the English equivalent, the sounds don’t always agree.
This week we’re in Prague, a city of 1.2 million residents whose language is far stranger to us than any other we’ve experienced. Unlike Denmark, we’ve found that few public signs — on billboards, signs and in traffic — give the English version.
Back in Denmark, on our first visit to Fields, a Danish supercenter, I was shopping for butter but couldn’t find it in the many acres of store. I asked a clerk to “take me to your butter,” but got a blank stare. Whereas most of the people I’ve stopped and asked for directions or other information, answer in good English, this gentleman did not.
And that’s when I did my Charades routine that would have made Sebastian Cabot drool. Or so I thought. I whipped out an imaginary slice of bread, gestured a deft movement with a butter knife and moved it toward my mouth. I got a blank stare, even though the clerk immediately repeated my gestures exactly. As I recall, it took a Danish customer to solve my charade; he told the clerk I was looking for “smoer.” The spelling is not exact, as the word requires a letter we don’t have in English.
Regardless, we accomplished the mission. And through even more gesturing, I believed I buttered him up over the successful transaction.
In previous columns I’ve also mentioned that our middle son, Diego, visited Stan on his own, several years ago, and the first time we went through a supermarket checkout, he dumped a pile of change at the checkout, making sure the pack of gum he was buying would be covered.
Miscommunication is common for us American tourists who have discovered that whereas in Sweden and Denmark, even natives, especially the young, often speak English among one another, they don’t seem to in the Czech Republic.
Today, Sunday, we went to a town square to watch mimes and magicians. They were speaking English, we surmise, because their audience seemed to be tourists, like us.
On that subject, Stan told of his embarrassment in wanting to buy a dozen disposable diapers for his then-newborn, Ellen. Unable to find the item on the shelves, he asked a clerk, who produced the same expression as the butter-finding clerk years earlier. Of course, as our son explained the ordeal today — not to mention the embarrassment — we all cracked up. There’s something quite amusing when one describes the gestures required to show the process of diapering an absent baby.
This afternoon, we entered a place called the Palladium, a mammoth supercenter boasting 200 stores. My wife, Bonnie, picked out a few hard rolls and placed them into a plastic bag. The Czech checker apparently asked Bonnie how many rolls she was buying. “Eight,” I answered for her. Blank. She repeated the question. I tried it in Spanish: “ocho.” Immediately she caught on and rang us up. I was tempted to test the woman’s multi-lingualism as providing the words for “eight” in German and French, two other languages with which I’ve dabbled.
Before we checked out, the woman, using only gestures, pointed out we ought to take an extra bottle of purified water, apparently because she had rung up seven instead of six. Now, we of course are familiar with policies in Las Vegas, when one NEVER breaks up a set; it would be like removing two eggs from a carton and trying to pay for only 10.
The woman had made an error in the count and asked us to break up a set (there, it’s done all the time) and buy seven, rather than having her rescind something “already rung up.”
So we lugged home an extra liter, but watching the clerk do her version of “Stump the Stars” as she explained what had happened was indeed amusing. I believe the clerk herself enjoyed her routine and appreciated the attention.
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We’re enjoying our week in Prague, taking in sights that played a significant role in World War II, with the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, from 1938 through 1945. We’ve stood on spots where executions took place, during the lifetime of a couple of us.
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Eight of us Trujillos are staying in a three-bedroom suite in an old downtown hotel. Last night a diminutive resident of Prague, who apparently didn’t have a place to stay, knocked on our door.
He asked, “Can you cache a small Czech?”