This is going to end in tears. I plan to go to Russia soon. I know only a single word in Russian, nyet, which of course means “no,” my favorite word in the English language. Actually, I also know vodka and borscht. I know what the first is. The second is a little hazy. Is it a type of sports car?
I’m always a bit insecure visiting foreign countries never knowing the host language. Because I never know it. Even in Spain, France and Germany, I go equipped with maybe four words and phrases — yes, no, please, thank you, do you speak English? — and that’s it. I’m terrible that way, afraid to fumble and bumble the sacred words of another place. I do my best, and thankfully English is such a dependable lingua franca. Even Turkey was a breeze, and I did miraculously all right in Japan and China. Vietnam teemed with English, so that was swell.
But Russia, oy. (Yiddish, that.) Those words are long, even the short ones are long. And they’re in Cyrillic, not Latin. I searched “most difficult languages to learn” and Russian ties with Ukrainian as, get this, “Simply Arduous.” They come in third place. At number one is Polish, named “Extremely Hard.” Number two is “Very Hard,” with Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian tying. (English, incidentally, is number eight at “Basic to hard.”)
“Simply Arduous” is right. I scroll the travel guide’s little baby glossary in the back of the book and my stomach knots. I’m going to have to carry around a small slip of paper as a cheat sheet just for “hello,” “yes,” “thank you” and “please.” See this for greetings:
How do you memorize all this? I’m sticking with Preevyet — “Hi!” — over the tongue-tangling Zdrastvooyte for “Hello.” There’s just no way. I’ll probably only wave, pretend I’m mute. “Yes” is a thank-god simple da. I can do that. And “thank you” is spa-see-ba — that looks manageable. “Goodbye” is Da sveedaneeya — not going to happen. Instead I will smile, shake hands and say, Paka, which is “Bye-bye.”
Call me a language wuss. I’m over it. I bone up, some, and I always do fine. I’m obviously not a big talker abroad, unless my interlocutor speaks English, then we have a fine old time. Russia just seems different. I’ve read repeatedly that you’ll have the best luck with English-speakers among millennials, students and the like, which makes sense. That’s how it was in Japan and China. Young people are learning the language and they absolutely love to practice with native speakers. I’ll be avoiding all locals with wrinkles, paunches and tweed berets.
When the language barrier is too great to bridge, I have on my trips resorted to producing my Moleskin journal and, I swear, taken turns drawing pictures with my new friend. I recall a woman in Lyon, France, trying to explain to me that gas, or petrol, was very expensive. She drew a car and a gas station pump and added exclamation points around the tableau. I got it. Other times, as in Tokyo, we’d write down words in the most elemental English, from movie titles we should see to places we should go. I tried to explain Woody Allen to someone, so I drew his iconic, bespectacled head. It worked. It’s a blast, these exercises in primal communication.
Russia, I hope, is no different. I look ahead to the awkward pauses of miscommunication, the stammers and even the throwing up of hands and parting ways amicably. I hope there are more da‘s than nyet’s, but even so I’ll have my notebook at the ready for my own version of Pictionary.