Tag Archives: russian

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

Advertisements

Walking home from the theatre, …

Last week’s grammar classes were spent puzzling over the intricacies of the gerund (the ‘ing’ form of the verb). As a homework intended to both stretch our linguistic ability and get the creative juices flowing, we were asked to write a story about walking home from the theatre using as many gerunds as possible.

I wouldn’t normally share my homework with you, but I must say I wrote an absolute banger and it’d be a travesty to commit it to my language folder unread. I live to serve the public.

Enjoy!

By the way, our teachers here are obsessed with us going to the theatre. It’s really weird. Like, they’ll ask what we did at the weekend, and then when we’re done pretending we did anything other than sitting at home in our pants, they’ll be like, “And did anyone go to the theatre?”

We’ve got holidays coming up this month and they asked us about our plans: “Anyone doing anything fun? Going to the theatre, maybe?”

It’s like really confusing, pointless peer pressure.
Anyway, here’s my gerund practice.

Walking home from the theatre, I decided to take a detour along the canal. I crossed the street opposite Kazan Cathedral, looking both ways to see if any cars were coming, and, noticing it had started raining, I put my hood up and walked quickly.

Reaching the banks of the canal, I saw that there were ducks under the bridge. On the pavement stood a girl and her grandmother, throwing the ducks bread. Not wishing to stand in the rain, I hurried on and the pair feeding the ducks ran out of bread and went to the bus stop.

Having skipped tea because I was running late to the theatre, I was very hungry. Outside my house was a kiosk serving pancakes. Needing something to eat, I went to the window and asked for a pancake with cheese and tomatoes. The woman cooking the pancakes took my money and started making my dinner. I watched, stomach rumbling.

Holding the pancake, I went inside. Sitting at the table, I unwrapped the food and began to eat. That’s when I noticed: the woman, not hearing my order, had given me chicken and mushrooms. Being allergic to mushrooms, I immediately vomited and had to go to bed.

-FIN-

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.

The Next Morning

This is a story based on a fever dream I once had.

It had been a heavy night.

Ella woke up, still dressed, still wearing shoes, glasses askew, absolutely hanging.

She was tangled in her bedsheets, dazzled by the mid morning light, and somehow both spread eagled and curled up: One arm was dangling off the side of the bed; the other was crushed underneath her body and had gone numb.

She barely remembered getting in last night, and when she’d flopped, fully dressed and still drunk, into bed, she’d forgotten to draw the curtains: light streamed through the window, igniting her pillow with golden fire and reminding her how dry her throat was – she felt like she’d been drinking dust. She struggled free from her blankets, trying not to notice how much her head was pounding and stomach churning, desperate for some water.

Thankfully she’d had the forethought to buy a bottle before she went out last night, and now she drank from it greedily, surrounded by chaos: her desk covered in makeup and homework and a Russian dictionary; the floor littered with rejected outfits. She closed her eyes as she drank, trying to put off the inevitable, but a couple of seconds later the full force of her hangover hit her. She felt like her brain had been roasted and her throat fried. She felt like she’d been marinated and seared in a hot pan. Stick a fork in me; I’m done, She thought as she tenderly set the bottle on the floor by her bed.

Gingerly, she removed her glasses and lay them on her unfinished jazyk smi homework. She’d almost finished the litre bottle, but her insides were still all dried up. She ran a hand through her hair, cringing at how greasy it felt, and, still sitting on her bed, began to poke through the papers on her desk, looking for a sheet of paracetamol she vaguely remembered seeing there. The arm she’d slept on was beginning to wake up, full of strangely acute pins and needles. She wanted to change out of her button-up shirt and jeans into her pjs, but she couldn’t bring herself to look for them; anyway, all that really mattered to her at this moment was getting rid of her headache and getting some more sleep.

Ella eventually found the paracetamol under a list of imperfective/perfective verb pairs. She took two with the last of the water and, kicking off her shoes and wriggling out of her jeans, hid her face under the covers. The darkness was soothing and she lay perfectly still, feeling the blood beat through her aching brain, and waited for the painkillers to kick in and allow her to rest.

 


 

When she woke up a few hours later, she felt significantly better: her throat was still dry, but her stomach had settled and her head was numb. She slowly sat up, put her glasses back on, and found her phone in her handbag. Its display lit up for a moment before going dark, reflecting her tired face: of course, she’d forgotten to charge it. She plugged it in now, and, grabbing her dressing gown from the end of her bed, headed into the kitchen.

Her flatmate, Sophie, was at the table, hunched over a mug of tea and looking worse than Ella felt. They acknowledged each other wordlessly; neither girl spoke until Ella had sat down with a cup of tea.

“How’re you feeling?” asked Sophie, her tone making it clear how her day was progressing.

“Hanging.”

They sat in silence for a while. Ella felt grubby – she was still wearing yesterday’s shirt under her dressing gown, and her aching feet told her that she’d been dancing (where? for how long?) last night. So far, as if retreating from her throbbing mind, she’d not tried to remember what they’d done, where they’d gone, but now, without trying to, she seemed to remember a dark, narrow club on Dumskaya and a lot of Moscow Mules. She’d definitely thrown up at some point. There’d been a karaoke bar, and quite a few shots. She remembered clambering into an Uber with Sophie and trying to make conversation with the driver in her bad Russian. She remembered the balloons being sold in the clubs, the women dancing on the table.

She couldn’t get it straight in her mind, though. The things she remembered were nothing more than fragments; she knew there was a lot more, but the more she concentrated, the faster the memories drained away.

They’d walked along the frozen canal at some point, she remembered suddenly, wincing. When they’d arrived in Petersburg, their teachers had warned them not to walk on the rivers. Who’d walk on the rivers? she’d thought, but now she’d gone and done it. Well, she’d lived to tell the tale, though.

“What did we do last night?” She asked finally.

Sophie didn’t respond for a while. “Everything,” she said.

That seemed likely. Ella sipped at her tea, wondering why her arm wouldn’t stop hurting. She must have slipped on some ice yesterday night and not noticed how badly she’d bruised it. The pavements were uniformly covered with black ice, and all the British students had been warned about falling when drunk and waking up with hypothermia. Sophie was on her phone, jabbing half-heartedly at the screen.

“Did the others get home alright?” Ella asked, feeling lost and lonely without her own phone.

“Yeah. They left before we met up with the Nottingham people. I’m trying to figure out what we did.” Sophie had opened her maps app and was examining her location history. “Blinders, Mishka, Dumskaya…” She tapped on a location off Nevsky Prospect. “Huh. Do you know what this is?” She slid her phone over – apparently, they’d spent a couple of hours somewhere before getting a taxi home.

“Dunno. Try Googling the address.”

Now her stomach had settled, Ella was beginning to think about food. She imagined herself eating different things, trying to gauge what she could take without upsetting her delicate constitution, and realised that she was ravenous. She knew that there was nothing but onions and smetana in the fridge; maybe they’d go out to get something. It was already gone two o’clock so the lunch rush in the stolovayas would be over – they could go and eat their weight in mashed potatoes. The thought cheered her up significantly and she finished up her tea.

“It’s a tattoo place,” Sophie said suddenly. They looked at each other in surprise. Sophie laughed nervously. “I guess one of them from Nottingham got ink.” Ella didn’t say anything, trying her best to remember any of the Nottingham students they’d met, let alone what tattoo they’d got.

She was too hungry to think very hard, though. “I’m gonna shower, then let’s get some food,” she said decisively. She left Sophie texting the group from last night, trying to figure out who’d got what tattoo, and went into the cold bathroom. For once, she thought she wouldn’t mind that the shower never had any hot water: she desperately needed to wake up.

She let the water run as she shrugged off her dressing gown and began unbuttoning her shirt. Her arm really did hurt – she wandered over to the mirror to see if she had a bruise.

At the exact same moment she saw the tattoo, Sophie knocked loudly on the bathroom door: “Mate, don’t freak out…”

А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ш Щ Ы Э Ю Я

Looping around Ella’s forearm, in the most stereotypical soviet script imaginable, was the Russian alphabet. “Shit,” she said. She let Sophie in, and the two of them examined her sore arm.

“Shit,” said Sophie. She leant back against the sink. “Shit.”

They stood there for a while, the shower still flowing.

Suddenly Ella started laughing. “Fuck me. What the fuck.”

“At least you know you picked the right degree.”

“Sure.” Then, “My mum’s gonna fucking kill me.”

They looked at the tattoo again. Ella couldn’t be sure it was real: it looked so much like it had been drawn on with a marker pen. She wanted to rub it to see if it’d come of with soap and hot water, but it was too tender – and this, she reflected, strangely calm, implied it was genuine.

“Wait,” said Ella abruptly. She was confused. She looked at the alphabet again, twisting her arm to see better – something wasn’t right.

Sophie seemed to have realised the same thing. “Where’s the soft sign?” she asked.

They counted the letters: only 31 – she was missing two, the hard and soft signs.

“Fuck,” said Ella again.

The two girls, utterly lost for words, stared wide-eyed at the tattoo in the mirror. The incomplete alphabet, stark against Ella’s pale skin, drew their eyes and it was a long while before they could look away.