Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Lingua Franca

Strive as I might, there are a few things I believe are simply not in the cards for me. Washboard abs, for one. Oh, I'm still hitting the gym, doing the appropriately named "crunches" and all that. But with such things, it's always a race between the natural anatomical processes and my own impatience. One always outpaces the other, and it's not in favor of Buns of Steel. I shall continue crunching for the foreseeable future, but I don't actually believe anything will come of it. I'm simply not that kind of girl.

There's another boulder that I fear will never be pushed to the top of the mountain, and that's the ability to truly master a foreign language. Call me Sisyphus, but I just keep backsliding.

It's been ages since I first started trying to learn Russian. Progress was encouraging at first. My knowledge growth was palpable and impressive because, like Russia's booming GDP, there's nowhere to go but up. But you plateau after a time, and you graduate after even more time, and then it's time for the tricks.

I've been trying to trick myself the rest of the way; cheat into fluency. I bought Russian short stories that I never finish reading. I play tapes and CDs of Russian music that are tossed out in favor of The Shins. I watch Russian movies, but don't block out the subtitles. Lately, at work, I've been tuning in to the live Russian broadcast on Radio Free Europe.

It's infuriating, the speed of their words. The goal is not comprehension, though, I'm just trying to get the sound in my ears, the cadence of the sentences. I try to relax my mind and erase my expectations of language and try to hear like a child. But as with the ever-loving crunches, patience wears thin.

I may just have to be content with improvising. Getting across through impressionistic improvisations the point I'm trying to make. Asking a woman on the Moscow streets for the nearest ATM (forgetting the simple "Bankomat" that adorns all these machines) by saying "Gdye blizhayshe mashina dlya deneg?" And only later realizing that you have asked for the nearest "car for money." Though you wouldn't be aware of this at first because she eventually smiled and pointed you in a direction that led to nowhere.

Asking directions in Moscow was alright; people were generally willing to help. Asking for products in a store in Moscow, however, is altogether different. The customer is always wrong, and more often than not, if you're lucky, your business will be greeted with furious scowls and mutterings and vicious, dramatic sighs. You bring your paltry purchases to the counter in supplication; moving slowly and gently so as not to incite any scorn, your lips moving in prayer that you won't be treated to a fine Russian tongue-lashing.

One afternoon, I found myself in the Muscovite western-oriented supermarket "Progress." I was buying a lot of fruit, likely because I was hung over, but who's keeping track? I had been to Progres a few times already, and thought I had the hang of things by now. Don't change your mind about buying kielbasa, and be sure to have your money ready, and you can usually get through unscathed. I didn't know, however, that when buying fruit, you must first weigh your purchases and affix the bags with stickers to indicate their price. As this is the kind of activity that in my experience only goes on at froofy supermarkets like Central Market, I hardly expected this in Moscow.

So there I am, in line at the register. I reach the front and heap my armfull of various fruits and vegetables onto the counter. Bags and bags of them. There are, naturally, many folks in line behind me. The long-suffering cashier lifts one bag to demonstratively inspect it for stickers. Seeing none, and ensuring that all in line see her seeing none, she fixes the Evil Eye on me.

I am toast.

My no-good American friends scatter like the dirty unloyal capitalists they are, leaving me to whither in the fixed glare of Cashier Lady. The blood is draining from my face, the shuffling and coughing in line behind me is increasing. I have to fix this, and fast.

Summoning all the rudimentary Russian I have at my disposal, I dramatically lift my hand and slap myself in the forehead. "Ya dura!" I announced for all to hear. "Ya ne znala! Seychas ya vizhu!" Which means, "I am a fool! I did not know! Now, I see!"

There was a moment of uncertainty, I'm sure, or at least there is one in my revisionist retelling for dramatic effect.

And then, Cashier Lady? She smiled. The tension released. Another clerk grabbed my bags and quickly weighed them for me. I had prostrated myself and sacrificed my dignity to the post-Soviet grocery lady, and it was gloriously worth it.


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