Ordering in Czech; or, Here’s to Hoping They Bring You Duck

Prague river

/Kachna/. n. Language: Czech. Meaning: Duck. Such a simple word. If only we knew then what we know now. 

Prague is what they say it is.

Whoever goes to Prague and isn’t blown away must take issue with real-life fairytales. Or the arguably best beer in the world. Or cinnamon dough desserts, castles, and bridges.

I’d been to Prague once before, and during that time many years ago, I crammed in the historical sites. This time around, while visiting for two days in March, I wasn’t under any false pretenses—I didn’t need to “do Prague like a local” or learn the unabridged history of the St. Charles Bridge. The plan was simple: I wanted good beer, good views, and mostly, good company. After all, I had reunited with my very best friend after 19 months apart, so really, Prague took a backseat. We could have reunited in Detroit and thought it was a real looker.

prague street

Prague > Detroit but you get the point.

Of course, the magic of Prague didn’t hurt the reunion vibe—not one bit.

We soaked up the cobblestone, the castle, the Easter markets. We relished in the rich flavor of a murky dark beer, a drink I previously thought could not be enjoyed. (I stand by wine.) We snapped selfies ironically but actually probably not all that ironically.

We also failed miserably when it came to Czech.

maddy me u flecku

Studying Czech and Living Czech: Not one in the same

I remember doing a case-study of Czech back in college when I was taking some fascinating linguistics class about declensions. “Fascination declensions,” you should know, is not an oxymoron.

I could talk for hours about declensions—in fact, I did in that class, and without a cup of coffee, at that—but the long and short of it is that declensions are a system of modifying nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numerals to indicate number, gender, and case. (This is why you studied business, or psychology, or microbiology. But some of us live for declensions.)

Anyway, it’s all very well and good while you’re sitting in a college lecture. It’s all very theoretical when you’re studying for a midterm. What studying Czech declensions for a week does NOTHING FOR, however, is actually traveling to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and trying to understand a damn thing.

You’d think in such a well-traveled city that you could step foot in every bar, restaurant, club or castle and be spoken to in English. And while that may be true in the very city center, the claim doesn’t hold water when you venture beyond the tourist pockets. Let me tell you, when you’re staring Czech head on in the face, with no English loan words or cognates or bilingual speakers to help you, the magic wears off a bit. A sense of adventure, not a linguistics degree, is the only saving grace.

Prague me riverfront

In Search of Duck

Maddy and I purposefully headed beyond the beautiful limits of the city center to a zone further south that was, shockingly, not pretty. Who knew ugly existed in Prague. But we had gotten a recommendation from Maddy’s Czech friend for a certain restaurant that he guaranteed would be cheaper than any place in the touristy center, as well as the best roast duck and craft beer in the city.

We trekked on foot for nearly an hour, opting to walk instead of take the metro since we knew what lay ahead. The Czechs are not known for their light cuisine.

As soon as we arrived at the restaurant, U Bansethu, and whatever meat and potato combination hit our senses, we knew it was worth the trip. But we quickly discovered we were the only foreigners there—everyone must have assumed we got lost on our way to the Charles Bridge—and that the menu was only in Czech, and the staff didn’t speak English.

Prague menu| Ordering in Czech

This is what a lot of Czech food words looks like.

In a way, these are the gems most of us search for in our travels. A real taste of a country’s culture, off the beaten track.

In another, slightly more painful way, not understanding a word of the menu means things are completely, entirely out of your control.

Studying Czech verb declensions does not help when you’re trying to avoid certain animal parts potentially served on a menu, like “heart” or “ear.” It doesn’t help when you need to ask for a triple order of dumplings (because ONE HOUR WALKING!). With a linguistics degree, you learn the theory behind a random language like Czech, but you don’t learn how to decipher the names of 20 varieties of craft beer in a country known for some of the best beer in the world. (And this degree from a college that knows how to drink.)

In a time like this, we threw out linguistic training, and spoke the only language we knew how. We went back to caveman days. We acted out duck, beak and all, in a restaurant full of Czech onlookers.

Somehow the message came across, and we got the bird.

Can a piece of poultry that succulent, that unbelievable tender, that enormously sized, mitigate embarrassment?

Why yes. Yes it can.

We can’t always have it both ways while traveling. We can’t want “off the beaten track” while also understanding everything and everyone around us. If you’re adventurous, open, and take kindly to a game of charades, taking the plunge at a local restaurant is not a half-bad idea. In the end, Prague’s best and cheapest best roast duck stuffed with semolina dumplings could be your reward.

Now what’s the Czech word for glutton?

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  • Loved reading this post, Jenny! It reminded me a lot of my helplessness when I was in Germany in April. Although a lot more closely related to English than Czech is, it was a lot harder to BS my way through German than it was for Italian or Portuguese :P

    • Thanks, Trevor! Yep, love the common roots of those Latin languages. Once I head into Slavic or Germanic territory I’m just screwed, though….

  • Maddy

    So you want to move with me to detroit? I hear they have a wicked easter market.