Four Magical Words and the Alphabet: UK Language Imbecile’s Continuing Croatian Catastrophe

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The difficulties of the Croatian language strike again…

Photo credit The Word Point

Fresh from my baptism of fire first ever Croatian lesson last Monday, I was lucky enough to visit Rovinj over the weekend.

I had been in this neck of the woods once before to attend a festival at the amphitheatre in Pula, but as you can imagine, I don’t remember much about it. Rovinj is a beautiful little town with winding, medieval streets, an abundance of charming art galleries and seafood eateries galore. I felt this was the perfect opportunity to practice some of my new-found language skills – particularly with regard to ordering food.

”Izvolite” grumbles the bakery shop assistant, with the sort of casual half-smile you would expect from someone who has served yet another tourist a burek.

“IZVOLITE!” I blurted out with instant regret as I receive a swift dig to the ribs from my partner and wish the ground to swallow me up. This is not how you respond to such a question. In English it appears rather silly:

Assistant: ”How may I help you?”

Me: ”How may I help YOU?”

This could have gone on for some time. It’s not necessarily a difficulty in languages though – however hilarious the assistant might have thought my futile efforts as I turned an alarming shade of beetroot. Exactly the same thing happens when someone wishes you a “happy birthday”. How many of you have beamingly replied with “happy birthday to you too”?! It really is terribly embarrassing, and yet our brains are conditioned to do so. I blame Christmas.

Of course, the correct response should have been to tell her that I would indeed like one breakfast burek and that will be all. I should clarify here that breakfast burek is just a normal burek but I like to eat them for breakfast. Anyway, after I’ve completely fuddled my opening discourse, everything goes totally out the window.

“Errrrr…I’ll have one of those please” I sheepishly half-mumble, stabbing a finger in the direction of the meat variety behind the counter glass. Self-assessing my performance as I exit the store, I realise there
wasn’t a Croatian word in there at all. Progress has not been made.

I’m obviously not even close to using anything I’ve “learned” in the classroom just yet, as my brain tends to shut down, panic and fall at the first hurdle. It’s hardwired to be terrified of failure, and is thus reluctant to make any attempt whatsoever. Such inability to remember even the most basic of foreign language phrases reminds me of a time I met a rather beautiful French girl in a hostel in Bulgaria.

Wanting to impress, I spent the whole day on google translate attempting to learn how to say “I think you’re beautiful” in French. “Je pense que tu es belle, Je pense que tu es belle, Je pense que tu es belle, Je pense que tu es belle, Je pense que tu es belle” all day long repeating the phrase, trying desperately to commit it to memory before the evening’s festivities would surely offer me a chance to strike.

When the opportune moment came and she stood patiently awaiting what I’d built up to tell her, I managed to cluelessly stammer ”Je pep pa pee pea pee pa” before yelling ”I THINK YOU’RE VERY BEAUTIFUL” and running away. Whole. Day. Wasted.

This week, in my continued torture session, we revised our basic numbers and learned how to count up to 199. I used the term “learned” extremely loosely. You’ll find this is a regular occurrence.

However, counting appears to be pretty straightforward, as you “simply” break down the tens, and sort of cobble it all together. To say 27 for example, you say the 2, plus the 10 and then the 7. Dva deset sedam. Perhaps the most useful knowledge gained so far, as now I can say the number of the apartment I live in when I stumble out of a bar at four in the morning. Except by that point, my head will be mush and I’ll just shout ”twenty-seven” at the cab driver while making aggressive charades gestures with my fingers.

The Croatian alphabet is hilarious, isn’t it? Seven extra letters I think? All those little diacritical marks (I just had to look that word up) which change the way the letter sounds. Some of them are downright preposterous and I think you’re all just having a laugh at my expense. “Č” and “Ć” for example. What’s all that about?! You should be having a word with yourselves.

Our tutor did admit to there not really being that much difference and even Croatians sometimes don’t really notice it. What a relief that is then. I’ll be sure to continue to order ćevapi or čips in exactly the same way.

To finish, we were given a very useful handout on the four magical words; izvolite, molim, hvala and oprostite, and I’m going to make it a mission this week to really commit them to memory. With the best will in the world, I always intend to revise the previous lesson, but as we’re all climbing the stairs towards the classroom of doom, not one of us has looked over anything we went through last week. Now that I have a handout though, I’m going to do it. I promise. It’s all in the handout.

I’m going to scribble little post-it notes and stick them all over the apartment, covering any hideous graduation pictures in the process. I will do my homework this week miss; I don’t want to risk getting the slipper again.

So, tune in next week when I won’t have learned anything by then either.


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