Flirting in a Foreign Language You Don’t Speak
Unless you’ve arrived in your new country with your Significant Other, firmly ensconced in a relationship, you will eventually be involved in some flirting either initiated on your part or as the recipient from a possible foreign paramour. And cultural differences will abound. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. (Can’t help the Friends of Dorothy
reference as we are in the midst of the 2nd Annual Prague Pride Week.) American courting rituals tend to be less respectful and more in-your-face than in European cultures. I use the term “courting rituals” loosely. Does anyone actually woo anymore?
In the American bar scene, there’s the last call round-up. And not to say that doesn’t happen elsewhere at closing time, “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Of course bars and pubs are not the only place people go to meet prospective partners, temporary or long term. You can literally turn the corner on the street and run into a date-worthy person. When I arrived in Prague, I first turned to the expat community. I read threads and conversed with fellow international expats and did go on a couple dates. There’s also the numerous and growing international online dating sites that highlight local singles such as Badoo, Plentyoffish, and the godfather of them all, Match.com. I’ve tried a few of these and am left with the sense that online daters are usually hiding some social flaw. It’s best to just get out and make face time. Smart phone apps feature GPS-based sites such as the gay-popular Grindr, which lists available men within specified meters. I haven’t found a comparable site for straights, and I’m not sure why that is. Comments?
But I didn’t come halfway across the world to date Americans or even English speakers really. Akin to embracing the local cuisine of my new home I wanted to savor the indigenous locals. I met my first Czech boyfriend mere months after I arrived. I was with a group of friends at one of my favorite Prague pubs, U Zlateho Tygre, not only an homage to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, but a favorite of Czech locals paying homage to the excellent Pilsner they serve. In true Czech fashion the tables are long, and the place is popular so you likely end up rubbing elbows with friends you’ve not yet met.
I was at first struck by the adorable double-eye blink Czech guys present as their form of winking. Maybe the wink has been culturally exploited in Western lands to the point that it can seem lecherous, but I was sucked in by the blink alternative. Honza (not his real name, to protect the innocent/guilty – and the most common Czech male name anyway, throw a rock hit a Honza) was sitting at our table in an animated conversation with his Czech buddy. After his initial blink we exchanged smiles and toasted a couple beers. And after signalling our unfettered wedding fingers as proof we were both available, he took my phone number. Which was interesting since he spoke no English and my Czech vocabulary was limited to please and thank you and where’s the toilet. He even called me later that evening which was amusing and frustrating.
We ended up dating for the summer. He lived about 20 minutes outside Prague, so I usually only saw him on the weekends. The first few dates were chaperoned by my Czech/English dictionary and notepad drawings. He even invited me on a weekend trip to visit his family in Týn nad Vltavou, a lovely village in the Southern Bohemia part of Czech Republic. On the 3 hour bus ride I had him teach me Czech words for fence (ohrada), tree (strom) and such. In the village absolutely no one spoke English, but we all seemed to get along. Honza was somehow able to translate into our morphed communication of Czenglish. I was even given the honor one evening of being in charge of the official fly swatter in the pub full of locals. I think they were impressed with my impeccable aim honed with practice since I couldn’t really join the conversation.
But it was the language barrier that was the inevitable downfall of the relationship. The daily text messages (Google-translated on the sending and receiving) dwindled until I quit hearing from him all together. He no longer answered my messages, so I was never quite sure why it faded away. And it wasn’t so much of a relationship to mourn. I never fully knew what was on his mind beyond what he was making for dinner.
I do have friends who have made it work in a bi-lingual relationship where neither is anywhere near fluent or even conversational. A lot can be said for the benefits of body language! I’ve been to dinner parties where the conversation was a mesh of 3 different languages and yet we all got along famously (copious amounts of wine tend to smooth over lack of fluency).
Flirting across the world, or at least Europe, can be so different among countries. As an expat even just passing through you can experience the exuberance and physicality of Italians or Greeks to the Muslim austerity of Turkey or Egypt. Here in Czech Republic family ties and values are strong, so don’t be surprised if your new boyfriend still lives with his mother, though not entirely for economic reasons as is becoming more common Stateside.
The funniest Czech language anomaly is that no literally means yes. Ano, yes, in Czech is often shortened to no. The negative response no is ne. I haven’t had this put me in any truly hazardous situations. But I’m sure there are some interesting stories out there, yes? no?