I took two languages in high school: Cajun French and Russian. Specifically Muscovite Russian, because later in college I took St. Petersburg Russian and was mocked by my pronunciation of a few letters. I might have the Moscow and Petersburg backwards. Anyway. I took French of a sort, and Russian of a definite sort. I don't remember much French except when other young people talk--like other young people learning French. No way could I look at French and tell you what it said, for instance. And listening to it? Ridiculous. Cajun makes you a ridiculous French speaker.
So then Russian--in high school I took 1 year of Russian from an Army captain, who promised us this would count for at least a year of college Russian. We all knew better, knowing folks who had taken 4 years of high school Spanish and skipped maybe one semester of the stuff in college.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my university and they were using the same textbook we had in high school--Russian For Everybody, a Soviet-era text--and yes, I was too far ahead to start in Russian I. Or Russian II.
Or Russian III.
I walked into Russian IV the next spring, with one of those sad catch-22s in front of me: I needed at least 2 semesters of a language to graduate, but Russian V wasn't offered on a regular basis. As an education major still tied to the Arts & Sciences requirements, I needed Russian V directly after Russian IV. So I took it as an independent study and did a lot of translating.
A lot of translating.
I was telling Gretchen and Zelda about it on the way home from our Mah Jongg weekend, in reference to Fiona's dyslexia and what colleges accept sign language as their language requirement (a post for another day). But I was talking about the translating, which was a lot of Soviet-era stuff like you'd expect:
Oleg went away suddenly to Novosibirsk to work in construction. They built many apartment houses there. When is Ivan Ivanovich going to visit Oleg? I don't know when Ivan Ivanovich will have a vacation from his job at the library. Which of the kalashnikov models is your favorite? I would love to purchase a new one but right now I am just browsing.
Those sorts of things. I'm only joking about the gun. But when I would read these and translate them into English, I would ponder their heaviness. Life sucks in Russia, I concluded. It is gray and dreary and the children go to tacky daycare rooms while their mothers work in the factories. One of the first verbs I learned was rabotat (transliterated badly there): to work.
I say a few of these things, sum them up, for Gretchen and Zelda. Gretchen laughs. She took a lot of French, real French. "It was all croissant and cafe au lait with us. Food." She went on to talk about translating from French novels and poetry.
Putting French bakeries out of my mind for a moment, I reflect on what food words I remember in Russian. Milk. Water. Bread. Pancake. Butter. Some cognates...not much.
Definitely no poetry or novels. Everything felt like an informative pamphlet. But I know how to work (rabotayu) and listen (slushayu). I know where to work. When to go to work. Where my children will stay while I work. Where I will go when I'm too old to work.
What I will work for? Nichivo.
I love Russian. I love moving inside that language a bit, the only foreign language I got comfortable enough with to dream in. Maybe one day I'll go back to it. Find some poetry. Or some good food.