Related: I Might Have To Become A Vegetarian, in which I committed to learning how to ask people to repeat things.
Rarely do Estonians come to the conclusion that my Estonian is better than their English. Often, though, they let me continue until I get stuck before demonstrating their linguistic ability by shifting to fluent English. I have become used to being able to start in Estonian and switching to English once the conversation gets complicated. So when I walked into the bakery at Rakvere, I was happy to say hello in Estonian and see how far I could get.
“Tere,” I said. When she smiled back at me, I pointed at a tray.
“Mis see on?” What is that? It was obviously cake, so I tried to get more specific without actually having to form a sentence. “Maasikas?” Strawberry?
“Jah,” she said. She asked me in Estonian if I would like some.
“Jah,” I said. “Üks tukk.” One piece.
I didn’t understand her next question and asked her to repeat it. When she said it again, I caught the word siin which means here. That one word gave me enough to work out her question based on context: Did I want my piece of cake to eat here or to take away?
"Siin, palun." I smiled, quietly thrilled that I was having an entire conversation in Estonian. But then her next question killed me. It was so unexpected and she spoke so quickly that I wasn't able to pick up on a single word. As you know, I have recently been practicing my questions, so I knew how to deal with it.
"Palun korrake?" Can you please repeat that?
She did, pointing at the cake. We had agreed that it was strawberry cake and that I wanted one piece to eat here. What else could she possibly be asking? I gave up.
"You got me," I said in English, laughing to show I was good-natured about it. "That's as much Estonian as I have."
She blinked at me and waved a knife. There was no smile. Apparently, switching to English was not an option.
She pointed at the cake impatiently and presumably repeated her question. The first word was kuidas which means how. That did not actually help to narrow it down.
I wanted to ask her to please speak more slowly. This is a very useful phrase which I have memorised: "Palun ütelge mulle veidi aeglasemalt." Very useful but also very long and full of words that I don't really know. Stressed and on the spot, my brain had frozen, even though logically I knew we were only talking about a piece of cake. My flashcards hadn't prepared me for this.
"Palun," I said, please, and then paused.
She glared at me.
I gave up on verbs and muttered the only word I could remember. "Aeglasemalt?" Aeglane means "slow" and in context, aeglasemalt would be acting as an adverb to mean more slowly. Surely she could work it out from there.
She raised her eyebrows and looked at me and then the knife. She shrugged as she turned to the cake and very, very slowly brought the knife down. With a quick glance at me to make sure I had noticed, she pressed it carefully through the cake to separate a slice for me.
It was only as she handed it to me on a small plate that I understood that she had been asking me how I wanted the cake cut. Big piece, little piece, the corner with the extra crust? Although my response must have seemed bizarre, at least I had finally answered her question.
I paid, keeping my mouth firmly shut until it was time to eat the cake. It was, I had to admit, beautifully cut.