From Russia With Love …. Part 1: Language barriers
I always used to keep a diary. Every day for years. At some point the discipline dissolved. It has been in my consciousness for a while though to use the opportunity of blogging to write daily. Learn to swim without the buoyancy aid (aka excuse) of an elusive muse and just do it to quote, not Nike, but my venerated and inspirational boss and teacher Steve Kenis.
Seneca defined luck as ‘when opportunity and preparation meet’. I agree. I don’t believe there is any such thing as chance. So when the opportunity to come to Russia presented itself along with years of preparation (learned the language at school – more of that later), read the great works, studied the history, drank in the plays, was endlessly fascinated with her current affairs, I was on it like a piglet on a truffle.
So, Day 1 which is actually being written on Day 4 of my Russian Odyssey:
We arrived on Friday afternoon and I shivered as I touched the ground for the first time. Anticipation. Excitement. Amazement. Through immigrations quite quickly and I even managed a spaceba though the concentration required to achieve it was so intense that I bished the automatic get-out gate and Two Brains overheard the two immigrations officials having a good laugh at my expense as he took his turn. I certainly couldn’t blame them for that – a bit of free slapstick entertainment should never be begrudged. And our bags were literally there for the grabbing as we walked past carousel number 2. Hold that thought – there was no waiting. Through the green stream and there was Sergey waiting on the other side. Sergey did his PhD at Harvard in Two Brains’ Lab and had taught himself to speak English before he left Russia. His accent would put most native English speakers to shame – he sounds so close to an English Duke with only the merest smidge of rich rolled Russian vowels gilding his voice. He achieved this with hour on hour on hour on hour in front of the mirror forming the words and listening to himself speak. Dedication. Certainly not luck!
We took the train – fast and clean into Moscow centre and then the Metro (say it Myetro for full Russian authenticity) and my mind began to blow. The tube stations in Moscow are beyond stunning. Built in the 1930s they are deep, huge and palatiously appointed. The trains are fast and furious and have a wonderful retro feel to them. The seats are functional and not uncomfortable though to say they are comfortable might be a stretch …. And thence to the hotel. We are staying in Tverskaya district which is the main drag, akin to Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Mayfair in London, at the Moscow Grand Hotel – these days a Marriott. It is lovely. Elegant. I notice the security – we walk through metal detectors whenever we enter the hotel, past stone faced guards. The coaching entrance is littered with Range Rover Sports with blacked out windows and every breed of high-end glossy big fluid-bodied status-grabbing car you can imagine. It reminds me of L’Hermitage in Monte Carlo. Exhausted as one ever is after sitting on planes and trains for the day we went for a wander but decided to eat in. The food excellent, the wine, even though not ostentatious, is imported and doubles the bill, the service the loveliest part. I learned my first lesson (remember what I said about the luggage carousel). In this country, the moment you finish your glass, your plate, your bowl from no-where comes the waiter (or his feminine doppleganger) and away goes your detritus. It is so clearly rude to leave a finished plate for ANY more than a hairs-breadth of a second and to begin with it is a teeny bit un-nerving. English is spoken of course (this is a Marriott so it will be a prerequisite of employment that English is spoken and understood) and the waitress, very young, forgets how to say ‘finished’ when referring to a valpolicella that we wanted with cheese (which included something akin to a blue edam which I don’t have the words to describe nor the will to ever try again). She was flustered by this lapse. As we left I said to her ‘your English is VERY good’. She nearly burst with pride – how little it takes to make someone feel good about themself in any language.
Note: The top picture is actually a photo of a post-card I was too overwhelmed to remember where the camera was, let alone how to use it when we walked into Belorusskaya from the airport express. The pictures at the bottom are Mayakovskaya station and the pictures were taken by Two Brains
By the sound of it, you’re not slumming it, then?! I didn’t realise that you knew Russian too (how much I find out about you through social media!). I have a degree in Russian, but dating from pre-Tolstoy days, so would hardly understand a word, if transported out there … Anyway, it seems that at least the transport system is as good as I remember it – and the restaurant service, evidently, infinitely better! Enjoy!
As my story here unfolds, Michael you will realise my Russian is now tenuous. I did it to O Level and then in 6th form as my academic option. My father and I carried on reading books together until he died. I have not looked at it since (11 years) so being here is taxing the little grey cells somewhat! We hav emuch to compare I think between your time here then and mine now 🙂
I took Russian in the vague hope that it might be useful career-wise. In the event (although it is becoming more important again), it never really served me (except when leading a couple of school trips out there, but even then there were English-speaking Intourist guides who led us everywhere). However, studying Russian got me out there several times, which was a wonderful experience (except for the cuisine!) and inadvertently led me to learn Czech, and I still go to Prague two or three times a decade! The other huge bonus was cultural: I adored much of the literature, so, in the end, I gained quite a lot, even if not in the way I had planned!
The literature was always the lure for me (not that I took the language to the giddying heights that you did) … but Pushkin forwards (and some of his forebears) captivated me. It’s all about the Russian soul …..
Returning to literature etc., it amazed me how a people, geographically not far removed from Britain, could be quite so different! I particularly loved Gogol, Tolstoy & Dostoyevsky – but, boy!, could they be depressing at times!
Interesting post. You paint a picture very different from the popular image of a run-down, dismal place of crumbling concrete and cold cabbage soup. Sounds fabulous!
I’m quite un-popular in most things, by which I don’t mean people don’t like me (that would make me paranoid) but rather that I don’t tow party lines. Really – this place is neither run-down nor visibly heaving with gangsters – I recommend a visit for those that are able or willing 🙂