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Another Cautionary Tale

This story takes place in Blinders, a bar in St Petersburg that I wrote an incredibly soppy blog about yesterday.

The month was April; the canals had just thawed and I had swapped my thick winter jacket for my very slightly thinner spring fleece. I was, predictably, in the pub, tasting the newest pint they had on draught. It was called Raskolnikov, and it was the second best beer I’d ever tasted.

“Oof,” I said.

I was keen to make conversation with Lyosha, the barman, and to practise my Russian, so I wasn’t content to leave it at that. “That’s really nice.” I realised I could stretch my Russian a little further, so I added, “That’s very tasty.”

“Yeah,” he said. He and I were the only people in the bar. I fiddled with my receipt and started folding a crane. Lyosha rearranged some glasses.

“It really is very… nice,” I said, failing to think of a third synonym. I decided to draw on this native Russian’s experience: “Lyosha,” I said, “what do you call it when something is, really, just very, very tasty?”

“Oh,” he said, “we can say it’s ахуенно [akh-oo-yen-a]. If it’s really good.”

“Cool!” I said. “Well, this beer is ахуенно!”

Lyosha laughed heartily; I was thrilled: making Russians laugh was a personal goal of mine, and not one that I achieved that often – with the exception of at my expense, when my accent crossed the line from bad to egregious. Another customer came in; they spoke in Russian too quickly for me to understand, but soon after a friend joined me and we got to talking.

“How’s the beer?” he asked.

“Ахуенно!”

I kept describing my pint as such, and my enthusiasm was met by smiles every time. This is a great word, I thought to myself. People love it.

I went to university in high spirits the next day: yesterday had been so unexpectedly full of smiles and people asking how much I liked my beer that my spirits were soaring. My teacher, seeing my uncharacteristically bright expression, asked me how my evening was. I was keen to use this fabulous word, to replicate the great reception it’d received the night before.

I replied cheerily, “Well, it was simply ахуенно!”

My teacher’s face dropped. “…Rosie,” she said, “where did you hear that word?”

“In a bar,” I replied, bemused. This wasn’t the response I was used to.

“Rosie, please, don’t talk that way,” she said.

Later, in Blinders, I told Lyosha what had happened, tone full of confusion and wide-eyed with innocence. He burst out laughing, called his friend over and had me repeat the story.

“You told me it meant good!!” I said, watching both men wipe tears from their eyes.

“It does,” he said, “but it’s not the kind of thing you say to your teacher.”

[After careful etymological study, my friends and I have concluded that the closest English translation to ахуенно is the rather charming cuntastic. Remembering saying that to my seventy year old Russian teacher will stay with me to my death bed.]

From that moment until the day I left Russia in June, Lyosha introduced me to friends, and, indeed, strangers, as the girl who said ахуенно to her teacher. The story was met with singular hilarity and disbelief.

Anyway, this is a cautionary tale to anyone who, like me, is stupid enough not to attach context to the words you learn in bars.

Have an ахуенный day, dear readers!

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Essential Russian

Before coming to Petersburg for my semester abroad, I spent many hours hunched over dusty travel guides and dictionaries, feverishly trying to memorise as many essential phrases as possible.

I knew that my two years of university of Russian, whilst enabling me to decline irregular nouns and whip out past passive participles at a moment’s notice, had not prepared me for basic day-to-day conversations. Sure, I could tell you that noun’s gender with a 87% rate of accuracy, but could I book you a table at a moderately-priced restaurant?

Could I fuck.

To give you an idea of my ignorance – and this is not an exaggeration – I had no idea how to ask to pay for something by card. The first time I was asked whether I wished to pay by cash or with plastic, I just stood there, gawping, mumbling about not understanding, until the cashier physically took my roubles from my nervous hands.

As most students on their year abroad will testify, no matter how much preparation you put in, you’re gonna feel lost those first few weeks in a foreign country. This has been especially true for Russia, where the culture shock has been even more striking than the language barrier.

That said, there are things you can do to ease your transition – amongst the most helpful of these is getting some simple phrases under your belt.

I’ve decided to compile a list of the most important words and phrases I’ve learnt since coming here; learn these, and your time this strange, lovely country will be that bit smoother…

  • Карточкой or Наличными

This is pretty straightforward: you finish your meal and wanna pay with plastic, say the first word; if you have cash then it’s the second. This is one of those ridiculously simple bits of vocab that you’ll use every day – one of those things that is so basic that you’ll be shocked you got through two years of intensive university-level Russian without soaking them up somehow.

  • Я напилась / я напился.

Classic. Of all the Russian stereotypes that abound in the West, one of the most accurate ones is the drinking culture. Russians love a tipple. Like, it’s 4pm on a Wednesday and we’re four shots of vodka down – might as well go to the pub and turn this into a night.

For those moments when you’ve really had enough and someone’s still trying to top you up, use the verb напиться to express having drunk one’s full.

Fair warning – this might not prevent your glass being refilled, but, hey, at least you gave it a go.

  • Данетничего

This isn’t technically a word – it’s actually three words (yes, no, nothing) stuck together. It’s a great one for those whose Russian isn’t perfect; there aren’t many situations when you can’t use it, and it has the added bonus of making you sound like you know what’s going on.

It might sound nonsensical to say yesnonothing, but it means something similar to “whatever,” “yeah, sure.”

It’s one I use when I’m coming home a little tipsy and my host family ask me how my evening was, or when I mishear something someone says in a bar but can’t be arsed to ask what they said. Use liberally, is my advice.

  • … … …

Silence. This is certainly the most important “phrase” I’ve learnt since coming to Petersburg – it turns out that English speakers are oftentimes far wordier than Russians; where my classmates from home and I want to explain something verbally, Russians will often prefer silence.

The classic example is on the bus. In Britain, you board, tell the driver where you’re heading, and pay; and when you get off, you say thank you.

In Petersburg, all bus fares cost the same, so locals simply board, wordlessly hand their money to the conductor, and then get off without so much as a “Спасибо.” I got this wrong a bunch of times and it caused a fair bit of confusion.

“Tulskaya ulitsa!” I announced to the conductor as I boarded the trolleybus for the first time. She, phone pressed to her ear, eyed me in confusion. I repeated myself, and then, in an attempt to clarify, continued in my broken Russian: “I want to go to Tulskaya ulitsa.”

“…Alright,” she said, taking my money, and looking at me and my friend as though we’d just cheerfully announced our attention to set loose a hive of bees in the bus.

It took us a few trips to realise why we were getting so many funny looks. It turns out that it’s not only unnecessary to tell the conductor where you’re going – it’s outright weird. We spent our first few weeks in Petersburg convinced bus conductors in general were constantly bemused.

That said, a combination of our dreadful accents and abysmal street smarts meant that conductors recognised us as foreign; and whilst most just let us get on with it, a few went out of their way to help us out, going as far as to tell us when we were approaching our stop, and even wishing us a pleasant day. This was a far cry from the image of the aloof, unapproachable Russian I’d developed from Western stereotypes.


Learn these few simple phrases, and you too will make the most of your semester abroad in Russia!*

 

*provided you also speak decent Russian

Tоска

When you first start learning a language, it seems like for every English word there is an exactly analagous word in your target language – table corresponds with la mesa in Spanish; tea with le thé in French and so on.

For the majority of concrete nouns, this works pretty well – after all, how many different ways can a culture interpret a lemon or a moustache?

However, once you begin learning more complex, abstract words, especially those relating to the soul or to the human condition, things get more complicated. You find that you can’t translate some concepts in a straightforward manner; even more interesting is when you find words in your target language for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent.

One of my favourites of these words is the Russian emotion тоска (toska). Toska is translated variously as misery, melancholia, or, my personal favourite, as existential agony. Readers of Russian literature will certainly recognise this phenomenon as one of Russian authors’ favourite themes; my literature teacher went as far as to say that Russian stories with happy endings aren’t really Russian at all.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of such masterpieces as Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, had this to say about toska:

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

The thing, in my opinion, which makes this word more interesting, is the way that, despite the fact that we have no exact equivalent, we recognise it intuitively. It’s moments like these that I wonder what other untranslatable but somehow perfectly understandable words exist.