Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fluent Enough

“He is having an operation in your leg,” said Andrei’s wife in English. She was explaining why Andrei hadn’t been by to pick up the New Yorker magazines which I save for him. She spoke a mix of Russian and English, and I tried to respond by doing the same.

“Potom kogda ja dayu zhurnali yeyo?”

Liina was seated on the couch and positively howling at the conversation. Not that her Russian is that much better: it’s just that nobody’s is as bad as mine.

As a fisherman and a lover of rural Russia, I often understand a good deal of the Russian language. I just can’t speak it. But if my partner in conversation is patient, I have never had trouble communicating the point I need to make. And in almost every instance, Russians have shown great patience with me. Like three years ago when they arrested me.

I was camping and fishing in the Russian arctic when two fishing inspectors landed in a helicopter and asked why one Canadian was alone on the tundra. “Yesli võ vernitye sleduzhii nedel,” I told them, “zdyes ochen mnogo gariyachi estonski parni.” They thought that was pretty funny and so they asked me for a drink. I gave them each a cold beer which had been soaking in the river and that loosened them up enough that they weren’t shy about demanding vodka. One wanted to repeatedly stand and make toasts to “druzhba” between America (same as Canada in his mind) and Russia. Not wanting to insult them, I responded by raising my glass “za rõbalka” and “za zhenshina,” and soon we were all so drunk we had to sit on the ground. Then they asked me if I had any “pornograficheski zurnalõ,” and I had to confess I didn’t. “Rõbalka zurnalõ?” they queried. I didn’t have those either, but I had to admire their priority ranking in reading material.

I once lived in Kiev for six months where I had the perfect opportunity to learn Russian. I took a private instructor but soon got bored with the standard language texts. After all, I knew enough to get around, could point and grunt in stores when required, and considered myself “fluent enough” for every activity except negotiating contracts (which I did in English, anyway) and getting a good haircut (which were always crap, even in my own country). And so my language teacher and I skipped to poetry. Nina, my instructor, gave me poems from Akhmatova’s Evening and Plantain to memorize, but I liked Pushkin better. “Na holmah Gruzii” felt like something you’d recite to your fellow fishermen while standing atop high, windy ground. A feat I in fact performed for the Russian fishing inspectors, since it turned out we had six hours to kill together until their helicopter returned. By the time it arrived we were fast friends, and they promised to return a week later to meet the gariyachi estonski parni. Which they sure enough did and then promptly arrested me for a visa violation. They couldn’t get the Estonians on anything worthy of extradition, so I was the only one to be taken out on the helicopter, filmed the entire time by a team of Russian television journalists from the program Vesti. They wanted to interview me but I had to demur. “Võ gavoritye pa angliski?” I asked, to which they replied in the negative. “Võ viditye kak ja gavaryu pa russki. Kak mõ delayom intervyu?” They saw my point and so they only filmed me packing my things and being whisked away to the police station.

Everyone couldn’t have been more friendly, which I have been told is not always the case when you’re arrested in Russia. They offered me food and served me coffee while we all sat around in a room trying to figure out how and when I entered their country and why my name wasn’t on the manifest of one of those fancypants, thousand-dollar-a-day fishing camps where westerners pay to catch salmon. After having established that I was not a rich foreigner, not a terrorist, and that I was living in Estonia, the supervising officer (an Armenian woman) determined she could now write the protocol. This entailed a long list of questions, which included all my family members’ names and birthdays. It seemed to deeply disappoint the Armenka that I did not know my parents’ birthdays. “No u menya yest ochen mnogo armenski drugi,” I said, as if that might compensate. She didn’t appear to believe me, so I named them: “Abalian, Shadigian, Oganyan, Voskanian, Zehtabian.” The names read like a poem, and she melted before my eyes. We were now best friends.

She spent ten minutes on one question which I could not understand, finally rising in front of me to cross her fingers in a hatch pattern, as if showing bars of the prison cell window I would occupy. “Nyet, spasiba!” I cried, and she exploded in laughter. Later I determined she had been asking if I had ever done prior prison time. Luckily, she answered the question on my behalf in the way of an innocent man.

Later that evening I was paraded before the top miliits officer. He was impeccably dressed, wore shined shoes, and was topped with a forashka, the military hat the size of a serving tray. He listened patiently as the Armenka presented my case. He looked me over, noted verbally and in writing that I was not a danger to the motherland, fined me one thousand rubles, and offered his hand. “Izvinitye,” I apologized, “schto võ dolznõ rabotat sevodnya vecher.” He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s my job,” he said.

They did not deport me, though it did take two days to find a friendly helicopter pilot who would take me back out to the tundra. I remember well my triumphant return to camp. As we made the landing approach, I saw my fishermen friends scramble under bushes in case it was another raid. And I remember vividly how the pilot threw me a salute as he lifted off back into the bluebird sky. For at least a moment, I felt I understood the beauty of Russia and just how deep a Russian soul may run. And I was grateful for how tolerant they are of those who abuse their language as they pretend to attempt to learn it.

It’s said that prison is the fastest, most efficient way to learn a language. I’m glad I didn’t get the chance to find out. There are other opportunities, too. Like talking with Andrei’s wife. Or with Andrei, who is having an operation in my leg. Or chatting with a babushka on the tram. But to my eternal shame I’ve not taken advantage of those opportunities. Instead, ya sidu i zhdu, hoping that the language will come to me.


Illustration Cyrillic Sea by Hilde Kokk De Keizer. Read this story in Estonian in Postimees. Dept. of Shameless Commerce: Inherit the Family available from Amazon.