The problem with phrase books is firstly you have to frantically flick to the relevant page (hoping your topic is included), and then piece together the sentence. Secondly, you have to be able to pronounce the phrase correctly, taking into account the prolific use of unfamiliar zh, v and rrrr sounds in Russian speech. Finally, even if you successfully complete steps one and two, the chances of understanding the response to your question are slim to none. Even if that response is repeated several times in increasing volume levels.
Our guidebook speaks of wonderful places of interest but the town names are in English and our Atlas in Cyrillic; cue painstaking conversion letter by letter (ю is a letter?!?) to translate the place, then locate it on the map. Take for example looking for signs for the town of Жиздра. Our initial description would sound something like this “spider, backwards N, three, chimney, P, A” when in fact it is pronounced zheh-ee-zeh-deh-rrr-ar. Add to this the fact you’re travelling 80kmph on a motorway and signs are infrequent at best and you have a real navigational challenge. We now have a series of post-it notes stuck on the dashboard listing the upcoming towns in Cyrillic and have learnt to recognise essential words such as “Centre” “Stop” and “Diesel” through repeated observation.
Verbal communication is by no means the sole way to interrelate with local people. We have experienced some memorable interactions; laughing with a husband as his wife waded miles from the lakeshore in an attempt to reach deeper swimming water, the bemused couple who on seeing our rooftent invited us to their home to stay with “tea, coffee… vodka!” The giggles of an ice-cream vendor as she realised she had given me a cone plus double its value in change and hilarious pictionary-style ‘games’ indicating details of city directing, diesel filling and grocery purchasing. Occassionally ‘Lost in Translation’ but as the days go by in Russia, increasingly finding our way.