One of the great side benefits of mountain climbing is the cultural experience in 'off-the-beaten path' destinations. Language is often one of the more challenging aspects of this, and in Russia, is perhaps a degree harder than other places we have been - the Russian alphabet is different, and proper pronunciation requires the speaker (at least to me) to have had a few shots of vodka (voktee). Needless to say, there is always some fun to be had trying out a new language, and the inevitable missteps along the way. David clandestinely studied Russian for three months before departing. Me - I crammed for two hours on the flight from Germany to Moscow and downloaded an 'app' on my phone.
And so it begins ...,
Sitting down in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant we started the first test drive of our versions of Russian. Hmm - there were perogies, vereniki, amongst other dishes easily recognized in many homes in Steinbach. This was easier than it looked - decode the Cyrillic alphabet and voila. It is interesting to note how many languages you revert to in some settings though - after ordering food using the internationally accepted pointing method, when asked whether we would like some voktee, we responded with an emphatic "Si". To not leave our new found mastery of Russian under-utilized, I took care of bill discussion - it was my time to shine with all the cramming done on the flight. моя бритая обезьяна будет платить - which we now understand translates to ' my shaved monkey will pay". Our very patient guide just about spat her food across the table laughing. Hmmm - we need to work this phrase into more conversations.
Please and thank you, and other standard phrases were coming more easily on our third day. We headed off to the airport to fly south to Mineralyne Vody ( see earlier blog for amusing reports on this airport). At the airport we came to our next challenge - we needed to get some items from a pharmacy.
The first item was ibuprofen - we use this for altitude sickness . Yep - my app beat three months of studying straight out of the gate - take that Rosetta Stone. David asked in Russian for the ibuprofen and the older lady behind the counter promptly dropped two options in front of us - 200 mg and 400mg. Bingo - 400mg would do the trick nicely thanks!
The next item was a little more vexing to all concerned. Clearly, convenient 'branding' of certain (ahem) afflictions in the west haven't been fully adopted in east just yet. I dropped the phrase 'cold sore ' into my trusty translator and showed the written translation to our kindly lady behind the counter. "герпес" looks pretty innocent until you hear it announced out loud to the growing line of people at the counter - in Russian it comes out like GERPIES which is remarkably like the less acceptable English equivalent. Some people who were previously pushing into line instinctively took a few steps back following the announcement. To ensure I wasn't confused, she said it again as she dropped four options in front of me. So, discretion still ranks below efficiency in modern Russia - I will remember this in the future. Luckily the lady beside me tapped me on the shoulder to provide her recommendation on choice. Now all I need to do to escape this crowd is pay and melt back into the terminal. Not so fast though - the calculator came out and indicated 420 rubles. No problem, and I handed her a 500 ruble note. Still , there was a problem which my storekeeper points out. More pantomime and lots of hand gestures - I am pretty sure she hasn't mentioned the G word again. David and I still don't know what the issue is. Growing more frustrated she then reverted to the standard approach when a foreigner has difficulty understanding what you are saying - just say it much louder - shout if you must.
Hmmm..still don't know what we are missing here. We are at an impasse ....
Then to the relief of all concerned, a kind stranger gave me 20 rubles in coins and pointed at the lady.
Smiles all round, she now had the correct change, I had my gerpes, and 100 rubles in my pocket. SUCCESS.
I expected there should be applause after breaching this massive hurdle but alas it would be a private success (unlike my герпес). It's not every day you get to enjoy the roller coaster ride of language and pharmaceutical products!
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
- Mark Twain