I love Russian. I love the sound of it and the feel of it. It’s a language more beautiful than tiramisu is delicious, and that is saying a lot.
My love for Russian, like many passionate affairs, is one-sided. Spoken by me, that language to melt your sins …stumbles.
Exhibit A: Visiting Moscow that first time, I fall desperately in love with peach juice. At a kiosk, I request “the juice of the fruit of the orange paint.”
Yes, Russia enamored me; I sank into linguistic bliss. Back in the US, my professors signed me up for two intensive classes, and before long I was overwhelmed and had resorted to triaging words, studying “important words” and ignoring “irrelevant words I shall never use in my entire life.”
These last included those pertaining to the household, most particularly bed furnishing.
Foolish child. Thrice life would show me the error of my choice.
Russian Life Lesson One: Crime and Punishment
One particular week, when Russian Speech focused on “the apartment” Intermediate Russian was centered on crime. Jolly, I know.
We had just learned how to use the instrumental case to indicate the means by which a crime is committed (ie with a knife). This was fascinating, and so I ignored my upcoming oral exam in the other class.
I did have a plan, though. I often have plans, and they are often genius. In this particular case, the plan was to duck low and cram as many words as I could while the others were tested first.
This genius, cutting-edge plan was destroyed by my professor’s unfortunate predilection for outsmarting me.
“Ruth,” he said as I ducked in and made like I was invisible, “you can start. Please describe your apartment and your roommate.”
I thought on my feet. Which was quite something, considering I was sitting on an entirely different part of my body.
“My apartment,” I said in flawless Russian, “is beautiful.”
I looked at him with resolve and he nodded, doubtless waiting for me to describe my carpet, my duvet cover and my remodeled kitchen. But I had other plans. “But my roommate is a murderer!”
His pen stopped moving over his pad.
“She is a skinhead wanted by the police for theft, and she embezzles money, and I suspect that on Thursday she killed my cat.” Blessedly, I suddenly remembered a household word and whipped it out for my A+. “She killed it—by toothbrush!”
I was told to stay after class.
Russian Life Lesson Two: Meanwhile, In the Bedroom…
A week later, Intermediate Russian turned to “your house,” and my weekly quiz included the following unwelcome question: List four things found on your bed.
I thought hard.
- another bed
- my husband
- my lover
- my chauffeur
I got half a point for my husband.
Russian Life Lesson Three: The Curious Case of the Mustard
A year later, I picked up a book by Ivan Bunin and tried to read it without a dictionary. Not far into the story, I noted an odd thing. Namely—talking mustard.
“D,” I asked a friend, “is Bunin supposed to be surreal?”
“Um, yeah, I think so,” D answered, and like a total dork, I didn’t check.
A month later, I’m in Moscow again for a wintery semester. The city isn’t exactly easy on strangers, so I welcome a weekend trip to Saint Petersburg, that gorgeous Venice of the East that Peter the Great built.
The train ride inevitably brings the weary traveler into the imperial city around 6 or 7am, and the first thing I did upon dropping my luggage in the room was to take a freezing cold shower (for lack of hot water, not a masochistic preference) and roam the city.
When I returned at night, I noticed a slight problem. Gentle Reader, my bed had nothing on it. No other bed, no husband, no lover, no chauffeur, but also, and this was at least as regrettable: no sheets, no blankets and no pillows.
Have I mentioned it was winter? Have I mentioned that I have never—TO THIS DAY—bothered to learn these critical words?
I braced myself and went downstairs to ask for some bedding. Before I reached the rather strict matron in her office, I snuck up to the guard, hoping for an ally.
“Sir Guard?” He clearly was rarely addressed this way and hid a smile. “What is it called in Russian, that small thing on the bed that is under your head?”
“Under your little ear.”
Um, well, if you want to go there. “Yes, under my little ear.”
“Under your little ear.”
I try to discern if he’s a pervert or just mad. “Yes, the thing under your little ear, what is it called.”
“It’s called under-your-little-ear,” he explains slowly.
“Oh God,” I say in English. “No wonder I never learnt that word.”
I thank him and tip-toe to the temperamental matron’s office. I knock. She’s not pleased to see me.
I smile hopefully. “Thank you again,” I say. “I’m sorry for interrupting you, but I do not have an under-your-little-ear on my bed, or any of the other things.”
She’s irritated, very irritated. “Why didn’t you tell the mustard!?”
I gape. What is it with Russians and mustard?
“The mustard was on your floor today! Why didn’t you tell the mustard THEN?”
I’ve never considered telling mustard anything before. I don’t know where to begin answering this question. My stupefaction is only aggravating the situation immensely. I try to have a rational conversation. (Things always go wrong when I am forced to take this step.)
“I… I didn’t know that I should tell the mustard.”
“Oh? And who would you tell?”
Well, not the mustard.
“Now that the mustard isn’t here—now you want [insert immediately forgotten words for bedclothes]!”
“I can tell the mustard. Is the mustard in the kitchen?”
“The mustard WAS everywhere! In the kitchen, in the bathroom, everywhere!”
“And now? Is the mustard in fridge or in the cupboard?”
She’s really angry now. “Why would the mustard be in the fridge? The mustard has gone home!”
My brain, already exhausted from the long day, is beyond fried. It’s whizzing like a crazy deflated balloon. She begins to stomp out, grumbling loudly about my lack of consideration. I follow in a stupor. She grumbles along the corridor and past the friendly guard, who I barely see in my dizziness, and she grumbles up the stairs where I dazedly stop.
And then it occurs to me. I see a vision of a hot dog stand with a sign advertising ketchup and mustard. And the word for mustard is…different.
My Russian lessons brain began to scroll through short stories by Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, and then it arrives at the answer; and there at the bottom of the steps I grabbed the word (so similar!) by its beautiful font and shout it up at her.
Most unexpectedly she storms down to shake me in laughter and I am half-hugged, half-heaved up the stairs.
I’d muddled the word. What I’d thought meant mustard was actually another word I’d considered irrelevant and useless: “cleaning lady.” No wonder she thought me crazy (or rude) asking if the cleaning lady lives in the fridge.
Perhaps it is no wonder that my love affair with Russian is a one-sided affair. At least I have my bed, my husband, my lover and my chauffeur to keep me warm.
FYI: the two words were: gorchitsa (mustard) and gornichnaya (cleaning lady). Come on, they’re awful similar. 🙂