A friend of mine moved to Prague from England a few years ago. He had been living with his newly pregnant wife and working with an IT firm when an opportunity came open in the Czech Republic. Both of them wanted to live here but because she had just fallen pregnant he agreed to move a few months early to set up their life and ensure an easy transition.
He found the transition easy. He started work, made new friends, found an English speaking doctor and, most importantly, found a moderatly sized flat on the fourth story of an beautiful old building in Vinohrady, a quiet neighborhood on a hill just above Václavské Náměstí, the bustling heart of Prague. His was a typical building for this area: built in the early 20th century with large rooms, tall ceilings and expansive windows. The only down side was the tiny, rickety elevator so common to these old buildings.
Elevators in Prague are on a different safety standard than in America. For instance, they don’t require two doors: internal or external. In some old office buildings there are elevators, without any doors, which are in constant motion like the floating platforms in a Super Mario Bros game; you have to jump on and off without it stopping. More common to residential buildings are elevators lacking internal doors allowing one to touch the wall from inside the moving elevator. My friend had the later in his building.
He settled into his life as an expat quickly, discovered the fantastic beer in the park across the street, started exploring the city and vastly enjoyed the fact that he was the only English speaker in his building. He was doing what we all do when we first arrive in Prague and time flew. No sooner than he had gotten accustomed to life as a foreigner than his wife arrived excited to join him in their new life.
On her second day in the city the two of them made plans to go out for dinner. As they were taking the elevator out of their building it suddenly ground to a halt between floors. Since there was no internal door on the elevator they could see the top of the door second floor and the bottom of the one on the third but they couldn’t get the elevator to start moving again.
The elevator was tiny, uncomfortable and quickly started getting hot as they tried to get it moving again. My friends wife started to panic and asked her husband to call for help.
“Somebody help us! We’re stuck!” he called, momentarily forgetting that they were the only English speakers living there.
“I could do that,” she said, “Say it in Czech, you’ve been here three months. You know ‘help’ right?”
At first he was puzzled and a little embarrassed. He didn’t know what to say. He’d been lax in his studies. Suddenly he had an inspiration and began to shout “Pivo!”
After a couple minutes an old Czech man tapped on the window of the second floor door and said something in Czech. Encouraged by this contact he continued to shout “Pivo! Pivo!”
After another couple of minutes the elevator jerked to life again and came to stop fully on the ground floor. When the door opened they found the old man waiting for them. He spoke to the briefly in Czech and then handed my friend a beer.
His wife thanked the old man profusely (in English) and they went on their way but she was a little puzzled why he had been given a beer.
It’s not easy to learn a new language but there are certain key words we should all know. The word for ‘help’ in Czech is pomoc. The word pivo means ‘beer.’ I think my friend learned the more useful of the two.