How you say... ?
They say that if you want to keep your brain flexible and nimble as you age, learn something new, like a foreign language or a musical instrument. So I’m learning Russian. Our younger son Gus has been living in Russia for the past five years, and is getting married in July to his long-time Russian girlfriend Katya. We like her a lot and are excited about going there for the wedding (more about that below.)
I took Russian senior year in college, and always regretted that I didn’t study it earlier, because all we could learn in that span of time was the Cyrillic alphabet and mostly present-tense sentence construction. But even that little amount has remained stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain and is now coming back to me, making this second attempt at learning a little easier.
My goal is to learn enough Russian to be able to have a very rudimentary conversation with a Russian speaker who also knows English, so I can ask “Kak skazat…?” “How do you say…?” To that end, I’ve been taking lessons, via Skype, with a native Russian speaker who lives on the Peninsula, and trying to speak Russian with Gus and Katya as part of our weekly Skype visits. I also have the Duolingo app on my phone and iPad, and there’s always Google Translate, although you have to be careful with that.
For example, I asked Katya how you say, “I’m so excited about the wedding” in Russian, and she said, “We don’t have a word for that in Russian” (meaning excited). I thought it was a joke at first, but she’s serious. You can say that something is very good, or perfect (add exclamation points), but not that you’re excited about it. I double-checked using Google Translate and got, “I am agitated.”
Russians are not dispassionate people. They revere their poets and composers. The word for “arm” in Russian is “ruka,” and the word for pen is “ruchka.” The pen is like an extension of the body, that’s how important it is to their culture. We’ve been to Russia twice – once in November when the weather was gray, rainy and very cold, and yet people had left fresh flowers on Tchaikovsky’s grave at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, and at the base of a statue of Pushkin, the poet who died in a duel in 1837. The same was true on our next visit in June, during the White Nights. How can a people who are so romantic and passionate about art and music not have a word for excited?!
Of course part of learning any language is learning how to say all the bad words. The Russians have one in particular that politely translates into “This is a complete disaster.” Katya and Gus tell me that I will hear it a lot now that I know it. Maybe I’ll try it out myself and see what happens. Things could get exciting… or perfect!