beanbag chair

Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down

– or –

On a more serious note

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I started this blog about a year ago, largely out of kindness to my loved ones, who’d been the only outlet for my terrible humour for far too long. Inflicting myself on the general public instead, while bad for society as a whole, seemed like the best way to keep my relationships with my friends and family intact.

 

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Just some of the people liberated from my sense of humour by this blog

 

A lot’s happened since then – I went on my year abroad, spent time in Brno and Petersburg, decided to take a year out from uni, and moved to Prague to find my fortune (update: as yet, unfound).

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Jerry the cat digging my yellow top

Geography aside, it’s been a big year for my personal growth: I got a couple of tattoos, discovered beer and techno music, fell in love a bunch of times, came out as bi, and stopped wearing natural colours.

This year, whilst dramatic and at times frightening, and – especially in the last few months – not without its low moments, has been by far the best of my life. Even the rough moments have been mitigated by more long-lasting wellbeing and contentment than I can remember having.

I’ve never talked about serious stuff on this blog, partially because I wanted to try my hand at being genuinely funny and partially because I know that the readership is largely made up of people who know me personally – and that makes it weird. Lately, though, I’ve been really craving a platform for more well-rounded self-expression – I suppose that’s why I’ve not posted anything for so many months: because I really haven’t been feeling all that funny.

blue moon

I’m trying to keep moving forwards in terms of mental wellbeing, and I feel like this could be a good forum to work through some stuff. In particular, I’m spectacularly bad at remembering techniques to lift my mood, even the ones that’ve helped me before.

The title of this post, and the page where I’m going to post links to mental health/mindfulness blogs, comes from a book by the Korean monk and professor Haemin Sunim.

cover

The book is a compilation of Sunim’s thoughts about modern life and advice he’s given on social media, at mindfulness events, and to his university students.

It’s a lovely book, both because of the written content and the beautiful illustrations that accompany it. One of the things that stuck with me so strongly was the idea that our mindset shapes the way we see the world – that’s why, when you’re feeling rushed, the whole world seems to move and breakneck speed, but when you’re relaxed, everything is much more chill.

There were times in Sixth Form when I did genuinely feel like the world was a grim and unforgiving place. I’m sure that objectively good things must have happened to me then, but all I remember are the bad marks or dirty looks, or the day the canteen ran out of coffee.

It works the other way, too: I particularly remember a couple of times in St Petersburg when I arrived at the stop at the same time as the bus did, or got to the crossing just as the green man appeared, I thought to myself, with a warm feeling, “That’s just how my life is at the moment.” Even though I surely had as many experiences with unlucky timing as I did with perfect timing, I only really noticed when things went perfectly – I guess because everything else was going so well, it was easy to perceive of the world as a pattern designed to make me comfortable.

I’d been introduced to the concept of mindfulness before, by teachers at sixth form and counsellors/therapists, but the concept never seemed particularly powerful to me, and, honestly, I never put a lot of stock in it.

Even that idea which I found so powerful, that one’s mindset dictates the filter through which we perceive everything, would’ve seemed insensitive and reductive to me. What you’re saying, I’d have thought, is that the world seems depressing because I’m depressed.

That’s one of the frustrating things about mindfulness: it’s so simple that when you’re in crisis, it just sounds like platitudes. Once the world starts to brighten a bit, then you can take more active steps that’ll help you out.

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Maybe that’s why Sunim’s book appeals to me now – because you can’t employ mindfulness techniques when you’re at your worst, but when you’re somewhere a little better, you can be more open to them. Nowadays, even when I’m in a pretty bad place, a combination of medication and perspective helps me recognise that it’s not a permanent state. butterflu

That said, a big reason why I enjoyed this book so much is the way I got it. A couple of weeks ago, I was visited in Prague by a close friend of mine. Oll’s visit was preceded by the roughest time I’ve had for a while – I’d been feeling self-destructive in a way I hadn’t for a while. Oliver and I met in St Petersburg, when we were on our semester abroad there, and after that he’d returned to uni in St Andrews whilst I’d moved to Prague on leave from my university studies.

Knowing I was going through a tricky spell (I’m aware I use a bouquet of euphemisms to refer to depressive periods, but the real words are too scary), Ollie’d brought me, along with his infectious joie de vivre, a gift of five books individually wrapped in yellow paper.

“Unwrap them when you’re feeling good,” he said, “and then you can have them to look forward to.”

He gave me a sixth book, which was unwrapped. This one wasn’t from him, but from a friend of his, Rachel. Although Rachel and I’d never actually met face to face, nor, at that time, even texted each other, I felt like I knew her from what Oll had told me – she featured in a lot of his stories, either as a regular at his coffee shop, another person dancing at the raves he and his friends organised in St Andrews pubs, or, most often, as a good mate to have a pint with.

It turned out the feeling of knowing each other through Oliver was mutual. Rachel had gone to the bookshop with him when he went to buy my gifts, and she’d got me one too. I was honestly shocked by the gesture – even before I’d taken the book out of the bag, I was composing thank you notes and plotting ways to by her a pint.

The book she’d bought was, you guessed it, Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down. (After all that build up, it would’ve been really weird to reveal that she’d got me a Mr. Man).

Still overwhelmed by the generosity of a person who was, technically, a stranger, I opened the book where it had been marked with a sticker:

 

you are neither your feelings

Remember that you are neither your feelings nor the story your mind tells about you to make sense of them. You are the vast silence that knows of their emergence and their disappearance.

Rachel didn’t just get me the book: she marked specific passages she thought I’d find helpful. Honestly, I’m still disbelieving of how kind that is. Like – this girl has never met me, at all.

Despite Sunim’s suggestion to read his book slowly, with many pauses, I ate the whole thing in one night as Oll worked on his philosophy essay. There are parts of it, perhaps because I’m still struggling significantly with my mood, that I simply couldn’t understand; but the whole thing was written in this singular tone of calmness. I felt soothed by Sunim’s tranquil words, and Rachel’s generosity.

I know it’s a book I’m going to revisit multiple times over my life – I’ve already reread it once – and I wanted to share it, and the, frankly, remarkable story of how I got it, with you.

When life disappoints, rest a while.

 

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Bland Stuff

Insultial Czech

This title combines the words “essential” and “insulting.”

You don’t have to tell me; I know I’m a wordsmith.

Amongst pedagogues, there’s a school of thought that suggests students learn languages better when they’re not constantly forced to repeat boring phrases. You know the kind of thing:

Teacher: Hello.

Student: Hello.

Teacher: How are you?

Student: I’m well, thank you. How are you?

Teacher: I’m fine.

That’s the kind of shit that rots your brain after a few repetitions, and students quickly lose interest – especially children and teenagers whose concentration span is low at the best of times, and non-existent when they’re being forced to say the same boring stuff again and again and again and aga-

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bored

Anyway, some thinkers believe that students are kept motivated and interested by being exposed to more colourful language – in effect, by being allowed to repeat crazy stuff like this:

Teacher: Howdy.

Student: Y’a’right.

Teacher: How’s it going?

Student: I’m sick of the sight of you. What’s going on with you?

Teacher: Teaching cretins like you makes my blood fizz.

For some reason, this approach isn’t favoured at the language school I work at, so I’m forced to stick to the conventional “Hello, how are you” greetings.

That might sound ridiculous, but the idea behind it is that students will remember grammatical structures and vocab much better if there’s something interesting about them. Sure, students taught in this way might not be able to speak to anyone without insulting them, but they’ll turn up to each class with joy in their hearts and dazzling language engraved in their brains.

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Colourful language!

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a nice sample dialogue for you to enjoy. It takes place between two friends; friend B wants to go for a coffee and friend A is a bit of a vůl. It’s short; it’s snappy; it gets right to the point. Never say I don’t put enough effort into lesson planning.

Kamarádka: Ježišmarjá, ty jsi tady.

Kamarád: Kečáš. Chceš na kávičku?

Kamarádka: Kéž bych mohla, ale vlastně nechci.

Here’s the translation.

Friend A: Jesus, it’s you.

Friend B: Stop chatting shit. Do you wanna grab a coffee?

Friend A: I wish I could, but I really don’t want to.

Anyway, the theory is that you’re way more likely to remember the na + acc. structure for events if you’ve been exposed to this kind of example. Of course, this doesn’t work if no one’s bothered to explain what that structure is and I absolutely will, right this minute!

So the thing you have to know about Czech is –

Oh, shit, that’s my bus! Sorry, gotta run.

Love,

Rodge

(I’m not good at swearing in Czech so here are my sources:)
https://news.expats.cz/czech-language/czech-swear-words-and-put-downs/
https://www.czech-stuff.com/czech-swear-words/

 

Bland Stuff · living abroad

Essential Check

I study Czech, Russian and Polish at university, and most people’s response to that is, “Why, though?”

The honest answer, that I don’t know – it just seemed interesting, never seems to satisfy anyone. And, reader, if you know anything about me, you know that I live to please: an unsatisfactory conversation is a weight on my very soul. I’ve started brainstorming better answers:

  • “I love beer.”
  • “I really like chess and I thought it’d be related.”
  • “My grandfather/uncle/childhood friend/goldfish was a Slav.”
  • “I love vodka.”
  • “I want to work as a spy. Wait, I shouldn’t have said that. I mean, I want to work in banking.”
  • “War and Peace changed my life. No, I’ve not read it. I mean the TV show.”
  • “I’m just super into pickles.”
  • “I’m an aspiring nesting doll.”
  • “Solidarity, innit.”
  • “Why do you think?”

This last one is particularly interesting – the ideas people come up with are always way better than anything I can dream up. One suggestion sticks out – someone asked if I’d chosen Czech, Russian and Polish because of the potential for puns.

It’s true: of all the ~6,500 languages spoken on Earth, the three I’ve devoted my education to are amongst the most pun-rich. Puns, of course, rarely translate into foreign languages, which is one of the hardest facts I’ve ever had to come to terms with.

For our own education and enjoyment, though, I’ve decided to translate all the homophones of “Czech” I could think of into Czech. Enjoy this meaningless list of vocab.

  • Czech (adj.)

český

  • Czech (noun; language)

čeština

  • Czech (noun; Czech person)

Čech / Češka

  • Cheque (noun)

šek

  • Check (noun; situation in chess)

šach

  • Check (noun; inspection)

zkouška

  • Check (noun; control)

kontrola

  • Check (noun; a mark, usually a tick)

křížek

  • Check (noun; a lengthwise separation of the rings in wood)
I didn’t manage to find a translation for this; that might be for the best.
  • Check (verb; to inspect)

prověřit

  • Check (verb; to mark with a checkmark)

zaškrtnout

  • Check (verb; to control or limit)

kontrolovat

  • Check (verb; to compare)

kontrolovat

 

Isn’t learning fun?

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This is an unrelated picture of a bear I saw in the zoo in Brno last year.
living abroad · useless but interesting

Nonessential Czech

They say there’s no such thing as irrelevant language study, but even I’m struggling to imagine how you’re gonna fit this one into your regular Czech needs.

etareta.jpeg

Because I have low impulse control and not enough hobbies, I recently acquired a used camera from the 1940s. I have absolutely no idea if it actually works, partially because I don’t understand cameras at all, and partially because it was only ever sold in Czechoslovakia and so all the instructions I can find are in antiquated, jargon-heavy Czech.

Luckily antiquated, jargon-heavy Czech is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Let’s explore the mysteries of my camera together.

This is a diagram of the camera I bought. I thought I’d go through and translate the different elements, although, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ll understand the English translations much better than the Czech.

You might think this is a giant waste of time, and I might be inclined to agree – but, hey, at least it keeps me occupied and off the streets. If I weren’t doing this I’d probably be committing acts of vandalism or stealing sweets from the corner shop, so.

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1. Navíjecí točítko k posunu filmu (po snímku) o políčko dále.

Coiling spinner for moving the film along a frame after taking a picture.

Coiling spinner is one of those pieces of vocab I’ll remember for the rest of my life and never, ever use.

2. Odjišťovací knoflík blokovacího mechanismu navíjecího točítka.

Release switch for the locking mechanism of the coiling spinner.

Wow, it turns out coiling spinner just keeps coming up! Totally worth the ten minutes I spent googling navíjecí.

3. Optický hledáček.

Optical viewfinder.

This question might just betray my ignorance, but what other kind of viewfinder could there be? Auditory viewfinders still haven’t entered mass production.

4. Počítadlo provedených snímků.

Used film display.

Display might be a melodramatic description of a little spinny thing that tells you how many more shots you’ve got left.

5. Točítko k převinutí filmu zpět do kazety.

Spinner to rewind film back into the cassette.

Two spinners seems like a lot.

6. Zámek víka komory s uvolňovacím knoflíkem.

Lock to the lid of the chamber with a release catch.

Interestingly, the word zámek can mean both lock and castle; so it’s reasonable to imagine that this camera could contain either a lock or a fortified building with a moat and that.

7. Spouštěcí páčka závěrky.

Startup shutter lever.

Alternative translations: “startup closing financial statement lever” and the rather intriguing “startup diaphragm lever.” Isn’t language magical.

8. Páčka k natahování závěrky.

Lever to wind the shutter.

Again, I’m assuming from the context that zavěrka means shutter in this case, and not closing financial statement or diaphragm, neither of which are traditionally used in camera manufacture or, indeed, wound.

9. Zaostřovací kroužek se stupnicí vzdáleností v metrech.

Focusing ring with degrees of distance in metres.

Here’s an example of where I’m let down by my photographic ignorance. I’m sure there’s a proper way to say that without sounding so stilted – I just have no idea what that might be.

10. Časovací kroužek.

Timing ring.

What’s the most important part of comedy timing

#realjokes

11. Stupnice clon a stupnice času.

Aperture and time scales.

12. Clonová páčka k nastavení žádané clony.

Aperture lever for setting up the desired aperture.

I wish I could think of something funny to say about this but I’m too embarrassed about not knowing what aperture is. I reckon it has to do with some kind of opening, but I hesitate to speculate further.


Whether or not that was a giant waste of time, whether or not we’ve learnt anything today, at least we all had fun reading about coiling spinners.

living abroad

Jára Cimrman: The Master

city vintage filters czech republic

One of the nicest things about studying for a degree as niche as ‘Russian and Slavonic Studies with Czech and Polish’ is you acquire a lot of very esoteric information, and I’m more than happy to spread this unusual info around. I consider it a responsibility, as well as a privilege, to disseminate some of the weirder stuff I’ve learned in the course of my degree.

(I finally bothered to look up what esoteric means. It’s a bangin’ piece of vocab and, ironically, quite widely applicable.)
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Some top-shelf domes in Suzdal.

To the delight (or chagrin) of my friends, I’ve been known to hold court for hours on such varied subjects as “The Made-Up Animals of Jaroslav Hašek,” “Doctors-turned-authors in Russian Literature,” and “My Struggles with the Letter Ř.”

My peers are dazzled by my description of what different coloured onion domes mean in Eastern Orthodoxy; disgusted by my recounting the shortage of toilet paper in communist Czechoslovakia; disturbed by my passionate run-down of the grisliest deaths of Slavic literary heroes.

I wanted to use this platform to introduce you to a Czech national hero, a man whose impact on Central Europe and, indeed, on the world generally, is literally unbelievable, but who is largely unknown outside of Czechia’s borders.

(I’m not misusing ‘literally’; I genuinely don’t think you’ll believe what he got done in his lifetime.)

I’m talking, of course, about the inimitable Jára Cimrman: the greatest man you’ve never heard of.

Who is Cimrman? It’d take all day to list his accomplishments, but luckily for you, I’ve got fuck all to better to do than clumsily translate his cs.wikipedia page.

Cimrman, like many Czech historical heroes, has dubious claim to Czech nationality by today’s standards; he was born in Vienna at some point between 1853 and 1859 to a Czech tailor and Austrian actress. Cimrman considered himself culturally and nationally Czech, although he lived during a period when Czech national identity was repressed by law – the Czech lands formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It’s somewhat shocking that Cimrman never received meaningful recognition during his own lifetime, given the extent and scope of his various successes. He is now considered one of the eminent playwrights, poets, musicians, teachers, travelers, philosophers, inventors, sportsmen and criminals of his age.

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I nicked that last sentence word for word from this website

I don’t have the time or the typing skills to provide you with a comprehensive biography of this man, but here’s an abridged list of his greatest achievements.

Jára Cimrman

  • proposed the Panama Canal to the US government;
  • composed a libretto for an opera (also named the Panama Canal);
  • reformed the school system in Galicia;
  • constructed the first rigid airship (in cooperation with Count Zeplin);
  • investigated the lives of cannibalistic tribes in the Arctic;
  • once, when fleeing said tribes, missed the North Pole by a mere seven metres, making him the first human to nearly reach the top of the world;
  • created the world’s first puppet show in Paraguay;
  • and established the Viennese School of Criminology, Music and Ballet.

And that’s not all! Cimrman is also credited with

  • serving as assistant to Pierre and Marie Curie;
  • inventing yoghurt;
  • corresponding with George Bernard Shaw over a number of years;
  • creating the philosophy of Externism;
  • advising Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table;
  • and developing a primitive version of the internet – since the computer had not been invented yet, he was forced to use a network of telephones.
(I told you you literally wouldn’t believe this man’s achievements.)

It’s said that when Graham Bell invented the telephone, he found three missed calls from J. Cimrman.

No surprise then, that when Česká televize launched a public poll in 2004 to determine the nation’s favourite Czech, Cimrman received by far the most votes.

Yet, in a scandal similar to that surrounding the infamous ‘Boaty McBoatface’ poll, ČT refused to award Cimrman the prize. And why? Because, they claimed, the poll was intended to seriously honour Czech national heroes, and, they added, Cimrman didn’t qualify anyway, for the simple reason that he was made-up.

That’s right, as you might have begun to suspect at some point during that litany of achievement, Jára Cimrman never actually existed. He was invented by a theatre group in the 20th Century, but since then he’s captured the nation’s heart. Real he may not be; but hero he certainly is.

 

living abroad

Essential Czech: Hello etc

Picture the scene: you’re in the Czech Republic.

round analog clock
I’m including pictures to help your imagination

You’re on holiday, visiting your sister/daughter/niece/friend/partner-in-crime, the esteemed blogger Ro Daniels. Blogging isn’t paying the bills so she’s gone down the mines. You’re all on your own.

You want a pint/coffee/postcard/doughnut. You head to the appropriate establishment, and on entering you’re met with the cheery smile and (you assume) friendly greeting of the staff. This stops you in your tracks – you want to reply, but you’re tongue-tied and you don’t know how!

Never fear. The subject of this Tuesday’s class is G R E E T I N G S. After reading this blog, you’ll be able to appropriately salute people from all walks of life. Hold tight!

Hello

Here are some phrases to deploy on meeting someone.

Dobrý den

This is what I’d describe as the standard greeting. It literally means, “Good day.”

As a bonus, it’s a cognate with a bunch of other Slavic greetings, like Dzień dobry in Polish and Добрый день (dobry dyien’) in Russian.

Dobré ráno

Good morning.

I usually use this sarcastically, because I so rarely consider mornings at all good. (Not an ideal situation, given I’m meant to be bushy-tailed and ready to start pouring coffee at 6am.)

Incidentally, to my ear, all spoken Czech sounds passive-aggressive, so my early-morning sarcasm just helps me fit in.

Dobrý večer

Good evening.

Hello and Goodbye

Czech is nothing if not efficient: here are some words that can mean both hello and goodbye.

Ahoj

Yeah, like what pirates say!!! Which is especially brilliant since the Czech Republic is landlocked. I don’t think river pirates exist.

Čau

This is pronounced exactly like the Italian “Ciao.” Pretty sure that can’t be a coincidence, but I’m not an etymologist and my Googling fingers are tired.

Nazdar

“Hallo!” or, “Cheerio!” People give me slightly weird looks when I say this, but I don’t care because it’s just such a cool word.

Ta-ra

I’m off.

Na shledanou

Tricky for foreigners to pronounce. I tend to stick to the rather informal Čau, even when it’s not strictly appropriate, but I’m so scruffy and disarming that I reckon I pull it off.

Dobrou noc

Nighty night!

For brevity, you can just throw out an offhand “Dobrou!”

 


 

Now get out there and start greeting people.

living abroad

Essential Czech

When I lived outside the UK last year, I was a student on her semester abroad. I was an Erasmus participant, and, as such, contributed to the Russian/Czech economy mostly by spending tonnes of money on beer and Ubers for when I overslept and needed to get to class in a hurry.

Everything is different now. I live in Prague, not as a student, but as a worker. I’m no longer a mere observer of Czech culture, but rather an active participant – and, as such, I contribute to the Czech economy mostly by buying litres of beer and paying for taxis when I wake up hungover and need to get to work.

It’s a whole new world, let me tell you.

Now that I’m living here on a more long-term basis (read: until I run out of money or Brexit forces me to flee back to the UK), my friends and family are faced with the prospect of visiting me in Czechia.

Prague has a lot to offer international tourists: incredible architecture, cheap beer, leafy parks, low-cost alcohol, fascinating museums and galleries, inexpensive pints, ancient churches and monasteries, and the highest pub:person ratio in Central Europe.

Unfortunately, as I’m no longer a student with no obligations, but a serious English teacher-cum-grumpy waitress with bills to pay, I can’t show visitors around the city with the same freedom before.

Whilst central Prague can easily be navigated without a single word of Czech, in suburbs and other towns, English is more rarely spoken. As such, I’m gonna start posting a couple of words of Czech a week here, so if you’re related to me, get out your notebooks. I will be unsympathetic to your cries that you don’t speak the language as I abandon you in Hlavní Nádraží.

I was going to start off with the alphabet, since it’s full of weird letters, but I thought this first lesson should be somewhat more fundamental.

Commit this to your memory:

Dám si jednou pivo.

I’ll have a beer.

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Dám si velké pivo.

I’ll have a big beer.

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Dám si mockrát pivo.

I’ll have many beers.

 

Stay tuned for other essential Czech phrases, like, “Where’s the toilet?” and “We demand independence from the Austro-Hungarian oppressors.”

living abroad

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!

living abroad

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

living abroad

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.