Wednesday, November 01, 2006


All this talk about Iran reminded me of the time, almost exactly a year ago, when I was as close as I've ever been to the place. I was down in Lankaran, in the very south of Azerbaijan.

There are two things I remember about Lankaran, Azerbaijan. One is the exciting nearness of Iran (a rather pathetic theme in my life: I get my kicks from orbiting the forbidden at a demure distance), and the second is that it is the first time in my life I've been utterly and completely unable to communicate.

Tried to grab dinner at a hotel restaurant, but the menu was only in Azeri. I asked the waiter in Russian about various dishes—everyone I met in Azerbaijan had spoken Russian thus far—and he looked petrified. Turns out, it was Farsi or Azeri or nothing. This sounds, I realize, entirely unremarkable, but it was unprecedented for me. In all the places I have ever gone, I was either able to rely shamefacedly on English, communicate in Russian, or get by with simple bits of the local tongue or place-names.

But with this waiter, nothing. It's an indescribably helpless feeling, being stripped of that basic faculty. Like I'd just lost a leg but kept trying to stand on it anyway, not able to fathom that it's not there. I am sorry to say, I involuntarily pulled the ugly-American-with-a-twist and continued repeating words in Russian, certain that he'd get it if he only tried hard enough. I ultimately pointed at some kebab or another at random and hoped for the best.

It's odd enough to live in a linguistic environment in which you can communicate, but are not fluent. Prior to my year in Georgia, I hadn't really appreciated how much my personality would change when I could not rely on subtleties of meaning, wordplay, sarcasm, innuendo. There, I was intensely agreeable, always smiling to exuberantly communicate good intentions where my words failed. With most of my Georgian friends I spoke simple English and adopted their phrasing and, although I really don't know why, I almost never cursed. (My terribly potty mouth has returned in fine form now that I'm stateside. So has my scowling and general unpleasantness.)

Back home in the U.S., one of the early unexpected moments of elation came when I comfortably chatted with a salesperson in a store and then even called her back to slightly adjust my request. No silently rehearsing words under my breath, no steeling myself for questions I can't completely understand, no covering embarrassing gaffes and misinterpretations with exaggerated shrugging. I had my language back, and I felt incredibly powerful.

Now that some months have passed, that thrill is gone. But recently I wandered into a Latino-owned grocery on my corner and ordered some ground pork from the butcher, only to find he didn't know a lick of English. Spanish was about a decade ago, and so I stuttered some words and I shrugged apologetically and we both laughed exaggeratedly and I pantomimed until I remembered how to say half a pound. I had lost my language again, but the game was back, and I felt incredibly nostalgic.


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