By: Ian Edgley – Flyer in Russia
This semester I am studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the language barrier has made me both laugh and cringe.
Experienced travelers told me not to worry. They said that everyone spoke English in Europe, that English would work in a tight spot when my elementary native language proficiency failed. While true in Western and Central Europe, this is not the case in Russia.
After my first day of class, I set out for home on the metro filled with false confidence. I was doing rather well retracing the path my host brother had shown me during a dry run the night before, until confronted by the nightmarish labyrinth known as the Novocherkaskaya Metro Station. This station sits beneath a busy traffic center, having no less than eight exits to the street above. My familiarity with the area was limited. I had only walked this way by night once before, the problem further exacerbated by the nearly identical grey Soviet era buildings that compose the city’s outskirts.
A typical St. Petersburg drizzle began, so I quickly found a bus. On Russian buses an individual known as a “validator” sits near the en¬trance, collecting money and swiping public transit cards in exchange for bus tickets. In my best Russian, I asked the validator, “Excuse me, can you tell me how to find Novocherkaskaya House 16?” He just stared at me. I repeated the phrase slowly, paying special attention to my conjugations, using the proper form of “you,” checking that I had used the correct declension. Again, I was met with a blank stare. Frustrated, I asked other passengers only to be met with the same expression. To no avail, I exited the bus after being carried nearly a mile away from my metro stop. With the now-downpour slowly soak¬ing my shirt I realized my mistake: I confused the verb “Na-ee-tee” (?????), which means to find, with “Na-pe-sat” (????????), which means “to write.” I had been asking people how to write my address…
My Russian professor has described Russian grammar as a ‘long dark tunnel,’ and so far, this has been true.
While frustrating, the language barrier can be comical. Ordering food at a restaurant is always an adventure. My limited knowledge of food vocabulary forces me to order based on solely images on the menu. I rarely know exactly what I order. Normally, after scanning the menu, I pick out an appetizing picture of a dish. I motion for the waiter or waitress, point to the picture and say “eto, pozhaluysta” (???, ??????????), which means “this please.” The mystery dish arrives, and after consuming it, I learn new vocabulary. Through trial and error I have learned the vocabulary of ingredients I like such as smoked fish and the terms of things I dislike such kolobki. Kolobki is only what I can describe as sweet, clumpy, cottage cheese used in desserts. In Russia, avoid order anything that you suspect has a sweet filling. It will most likely not be custard or cream.
Climbing and overcoming the language barrier is, oftentimes, laughable. The most memorable occasion is when my host brother Valera and I were talking about American musicians. He is proficient in English, only needing occasional clarification. During our conversation, he asked if I knew, “Kanye the rapist.” I gave Valera the same look that the Validator gave me on the bus. I was unsure if Kanye had some kind of new allegation, but after additional explanation, I realized he meant to say “rapper.” We both laughed after explaining the difference.
Any language barrier is daunting. This is especially true when the language is something so radically different from your native tongue. My Russian professor has described Russian grammar as a “long dark tunnel,” and so far, this has been true. Yet, while stumbling through this tunnel, sometimes I find something that makes me laugh.
To read the first post from FN’s Flyer in Russia, click here.