Saturday, September 26, 2009

Russian Passion

I am currently addicted to playing Scrabble with my Facebook friends.

I'm really not that adept at plotting creative words here and there but I love seeing how my friends' minds work. Obviously, Lorraine and Stacy were the girls who knew how to do the "word problems" in high school algebra and from whose tests I tried to cheat.

Algebra nightmares such as:

"A vendor sold cashews at $5.80 per pound, almonds at $4.20 per pound and peanuts at $3.00 per pound. How many pounds of each would he have to use to arrive at a mixture that sold for 8 decimeters per kilo on the Kelvin scale?"

Oh my god!

Then there would be Lorraine and Stacy, plunking down x and y that equaled something else that equaled 8.00, divided by 4.2 which equaled z ,
tra la-la-la-la
, quick as a bunny, boom! they'd have the answer.

Meanwhile, I'd be left in the dust wondering what a 'pound' is.

But I've always had a fascination with languages. That's why I love my Scrabble.

Ever since my first Latina baby-sitter, Lydia, told me that dulce meant candy, I was hooked on the fact that “this” meant “that”.

One would think that growing up it South Texas where over half the population was bi-lingual, my second language would have been Spanish.

But no. The Latino kids of my generation, while completely bilingual, were never required to speak Spanish full time. It was of mere convenience.
Their parents had to.
My friends did not.

Therefore, I was never required to converse in Spanish at all (except for really vile curse words) though I was continually exposed to it while growing up (mostly with really vile curse words.)

In college, I was required to study a second language or take math. Since math made me cry, I chose German. I was a music major and German was the language of lots of music, (not Spanish) so I chose it over the other.

I loved it.

It was the first time I got to pronounce vowels with umlauts and to learn of nouns in the dative case. At the same time, I was majoring in music, singing Brahms and interpreting 20th-century Schönberg piano notation on the keyboard.
Num-num-num. I ate it up.

While in my early 30s and living in Dallas, I became close friends with two Russian families who had immigrated to the U.S. and spoke very little English. The mother of the family was a renown pianist from Moscow who spoke English very well. Marina and I were both in our early 30s.

She was my entry into the Russian language. We were both pianists and that was our common denominator. Music was our first common language.

Food was our second language.

Not unlike Julia Child, I embraced both with quite a passion. Some of the unique Russian food items were:

Poor-man's caviar (ground, roasted eggplant mixed with tomatoes, garlic, and onions)
Dumplings filled with chicken livers and doused with vinegar;
Homemade blinis so thick with egg and cream, filled with sour cherry preserves, or
Savory blinis, really eggy and rich, rolled around thin slices of raw onion and raw bacon (oh my god!) That was good.
Ukranian borscht - a thick beet soup studded with garlic, onions, ham, and sour cream, and a
Northern Russian variation of wienerschnitzel -- rather than pounded veal, ham was used, lightly battered and fried in butter then doused with a light, sour cream sauce, woody mushrooms, with a spike of really hot horseradish mustard.
Dessert -- open-faced, dark rye pastries filled with rice pudding and raisins (they really looked like . . . well . . . . female genetalia.)

Stroganoff never made an appearance, nor was mentioned.

I worked with her uncle Victor at the bank and it became my job to teach him the subtleties of the English language. (By the way, our consonant “h” is completely foreign to all speakers and I haven't any idea how anyone manages it at all. )

I spent weekends with Marina and her family, cooking with her Russian grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English and yet taught me loads about cooking. Marina and I collaborated on the piano together -- she gave me private lessons in the rigid, athletic technique that was taught in Moscow. (How rare and valuable is that!) and I did my best to convey Western notation with our expressive mindset that she’d never been exposed to before.

We had a ball.

Meanwhile, I took a private language course in Russian and practiced with Grandma (Asha). Believe me, there is no better way to learn a language than to have to speak it to a grandma who is teaching you how to cook!

I loved my Russian friends and wanted to embrace their culture as much as possible. I wanted to learn Russian. I really did but it was difficult at the ripe old age of thirty.

While living in Dallas in the early 90s, learning Russian just seemed to be sort of controversial and I embraced it. At times, I felt a little like Lee Harvey Oswald and, I must admit. enjoyed it a little. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and the 36 letters of the Russian language. (It’s pretty easy, actually.)

Then I practiced writing in Russian. I have to admit that I became a bit obsessed with it. Printed Russian is SO different than hand-written Russian.

I really enjoyed re-learning how to do all that in another alphabet. I don’t mean to brag (but, okay, I WILL brag here) but I also worked really hard at developing a very nice script at Russian cursive.

My Russian grammar and language is absolutely horrible, but it looks awfully nice.

Lee Harvey Oswald lived in Russia, was obsessed with being able to communicate in Russian, but just look at his horrible Cyrillic scrawl:

Now, here's a close-up of my handsome Russian script:

And here is a one-page letter.

Doesn't it look like it could go on the Declaration of Independence?

For a while, I corresponded with a pen-pal in Siberia who lived in the large city of Krasnoyarsk. (That's west of Irkutsk, just so you know.) The thing is, when I was corresponding to my friend in Russia, my letters would often not arrive by post to that remote city. I felt like I had wasted all my effort at learning to write in Russian until. . . .

We figured out that it was much more efficient for me to write my letters in Russian as usual, then scan them and email the scanned copy to him. He would then read his email (my handwritten letter) at an Internet cafe in Krasnoyarsk.

Instant communication (sort of) without the hassle of that pesky Siberian postal system.

It was more efficient for me to write my letters than email a message. Have YOU ever tried typing on a Cyrillic keyboard? Besides, my handwriting was pretty.


I wonder what awful grammatical atrocities Russian kids are texting to each other nowadays.

I'm sure I could find out and try to text someone there, but no.

I really don't want to see the bastardization of the language that Lee Oswald and I worked so hard to learn.


At 10:38 PM , Blogger Bad Alice said...

You do have pretty handwriting. I'm impressed with people who can connect with foreign languages. I tried German in college after seeing the movie Wings of Desire and reading Rilke. It sounded so pretty. Well, it sounded so pretty when other people were speaking it. Russian was quite the thing when I was in college - Russian studies, Russian lit, and so forth. Cold war, you know.

At 12:09 AM , Blogger Miss Healthypants said...

"Meanwhile, I'd be left in the dust wondering what a 'pound' is."--best line ever! Made me laugh. :)

Also, you have very nice Russian handwriting. :)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home