Embarrassingly, us Brits too often rely on others knowledge of our mother tongue when travelling. With every good intention to communicate with the natives, we armed ourselves with phrase books and even spent the last few weeks prior to our departure driving to work listening to a ‘Леарн Руссиан’ CD in favour of the breakfast show. Russian is the largest native language in Europe and spoken by 144 million people. Unfortunately, following our initial attempts, this statistic is highly unlikely to rise to 144,000002.
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.
Striving to taste local cuisine yet being faced with an indecipherable menu is a frustrating predicament. On one occasion we had to settle with ordering “one meat, one fish” to a confused waiter. Dictionary in hand, a second determined attempt to decode a basic menu took so long the kitchen had closed and we were left with a bag of crisps. You would think supermarkets would be easier, being able to see the food items, but twice we have poured drinking yoghurt into our tea and bitten into cheese pastries to accompany a beer only to discover they’re custard. Then we discovered the canteen; a traditional eatery for workers, these bustling eateries are self-service with all the food on display in various counters; salad, soup, cold food, hot food and dessert. Extremely good-value (around £3 each) we are able to try all the typical Russian cuisine we had only read about until now (even if some of it looked as unfamiliar as it’s Cyrillic name).
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.