Unlike certain parts of the world that have submitted to linguistic imperialism, Russia doesn’t have a particularly high concentration of English speakers or English signage, so in order to be able to function, we are learning Russian. And because we are nerds (and because we are cheap – Rosetta Stone is hella expensive), we are using a college textbook that comes with video materials featuring all the synthesizer music, terrible acting, and questionable camera work you have come to expect from educational media over the years.
Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is actually a pretty simple affair, since there are free websites all over the place that will help you out. Cyrillic is wonderfully phonetic, and while Russians regularly bulldoze over entire syllables in speech, it’s fairly easy to sound words out accurately once you have a feel for what you are doing. It takes a few hours of study, but once you start getting it, you can go on Russian websites and feel like you can see the Matrix. Russia has a lot of American brands and the language itself features quite a few borrow words, so you feel like a champ when you realize that this:
just says “Pizza Hut.”
Because the college term is over and public schools are still going, I have gotten all the way to Unit 7, while my husband is still in the middle of Unit 1. I give him a bit of a pass since this is actually his third language. (Too bad his second language–German–is useful in exactly none of the places we’ve lived in the past decade). What this means is that while I am learning the Imperative Voice to bark orders in the threatening manner characteristic of Russian characters in Harrison Ford films (“Close the window! Write a letter! Translate this homework assignment!” I bellow, doing my best Gary Oldman impression), Ed is still in what I like to call the anomic-aphasia stage of learning Russian. Instead of forming sentences, he is learning to point at objects and guess what they are. “Is she shirts?” he queries. “Nyet,” I say, “That is a teapot.”
The DVD that comes along with this program features a group of young people, one of whom is an American visiting Russia. I sincerely hope that Russians treat me precisely like the Russians in this video treat Kevin. Which is to say like a giant bearded baby.
When Kevin is greeted at the airport by Tanya and Sergei, Kevin counts his bags as he loads them onto the cart so that we might learn how to count to three as well. “Raz, dva,” says Kevin, and Sergei delightedly chimes in, “Tree!” Because Sergei is helpful.
As they drive through a suspiciously traffic-less Moscow, Kevin and Tanya continue to point to objects and locations and name them. At some point, Sergei realizes that it’s time for us to learn to pluralize nouns and reflects eloquently on the fact that there are roughly as many banks in Moscow as there are Starbucks chain restaurants (a lot). “Eto bank. Eto bank. Banki, banki, banki,” he says, which is Russian for, “If the shaky Cypriot financial edifice ever collapses, we are f****d.”
Eventually, they arrive at the apartment Kevin is renting for the summer (we learn in the textbook that the family who owns this apartment is on vacation and Tanya’s sister Olya found it for him through a friend, which sounds reliable), and Tanya shows Kevin around. Kevin, who is still suffering from stroke and/or malaria
symptoms, mistakes the bathroom for the kitchen. Like you do. Then he decides that it’s time for us to learn a present tense verb, so he proceeds to point to every appliance and electronic device in the apartment and ask if it works. It is then that we discover that, as in English, the verb that tells you whether or not a piece of mechanical equipment is functioning is the same word you use to describe what you do all day provided you are employed, which has me weirdly depressed all of a sudden. “Telephone rabotayet?” Kevin asks. “Holodnik [refrigerator] rabotayet?” Later, he asks Tanya if she rabotayets, to which she replies that she is a student.
At one point, they stand awkwardly close to one another on the balcony overlooking Moscow, and some part of me starts shipping the two of them. But just as things start heating up, Tanya realizes it’s time to FO and leaves Kevin alone to fend for himself. Kevin starts looking through the photo album of the family who actually owns the apartment. Like a creep. Then there is a knock on the door, and Kevin finds said family standing in front of
him, not on vacation. Uh oh! (Side note: why does the family knock on the door of their own apartment before entering? Is this a custom in case jet-lagged American hipsters are squatting in your house? Russians seem very polite.)
Brand photos from here.