Let’s Drink Vodka In My Summerhouse!

I’ve been behaving myself lately. Sure, I did let rip at a certain public transport provider via Twitter a couple of months ago (although I still maintain that my anger was entirely justified) but in recent weeks I have kept my lips buttoned on more than one occasion.

I have found this to be a very pleasant feeling; indeed, I have even begun to feel a small pang of pleasure when I’m able to restrain a loud “F*ck!” and replace it with a mild-mannered “Oh, darn it!” And I have the fellow citizens of the world to thank for my new less-sweary outlook. I used to keep my social profiles heavily locked-down; an international man of mystery, living off the grid, always using a pseudonym and a faceless avatar. I wasn’t a troll by any definition – simply vile people – but it was undoubtedly easier to have a rant about some sort of absurd first-world problem when nobody knew my name. Back then I could happily let off some steam about the difficulty I was having, for example, locating a jar of Pesto in Waitrose when I didn’t have the nagging worry that a solicitor would begin drafting a letter the very moment I tapped ‘post’.

Postcrossing.com is a website where members are provided with the randomly-selected addresses of strangers around the world. As a member you send the chosen recipient a postcard with a few words about yourself or your town. In return your address is given to another stranger, who will in turn send you a postcard – it’s postal ‘karma’ on an international scale. I’ve blogged about the site before. Some people request cards for their babies in order to create albums for them as they grow. Children occasionally request cards for school projects. Some people make special requests for recipes, stickers, transport tickets, city maps. I’ve been a member of the site for three years, and my dribble of cards became a steady flow, and has now developed into something akin to managing a boy-band fanclub in the early 90s; a torrent of cards and envelopes from people all around the world. To date I have sent 364 cards, but I’m currently winding in my use of the site as it’s a hobby that has begun to cost a small fortune. My last visit to the Post Office cost me £27.

Via Postcrossing I would receive the occasional card from Russia, every one of which intrigued me. Russian text (Cyrillic) simply looks cool graphically. Having read Chris Hadfield’s book at Christmas, and then seen Gravity, my interest in the International Space Station had been reinvigorated. Russia features prominently in anything to do with space exploration; though current world politics has meant NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos aren’t on speaking terms right now. At the same time, negative news coverage surrounding the Sochi Olympics was a constant in the news schedules. Russia was undoubtedly an intriguing country. Yet, to me at least, it was still just a cold distant place where miserable people wore fur hats, drank copius amounts of vodka, and suffered spectacular car crashes in Soviet-era Ladas. But perhaps I was being rather naive, maybe I was making stereotypical generalisations? Short answer, yes I was embarrassingly far off the mark. So, what to do about all of these little influences pushing me towards all things Russian?

I’ve already done a blog about my spectacular and freakish ability to find and develop a new hobby within hours and turn it into an obsession almost overnight. Perhaps ‘trying new hobbies’ is actually a genuine hobby in its own right? If so, it’s my favourite hobby by far. With that in my mind, the solution to my lack of Russian knowledge was surprisingly obvious – I Googled for a local tutor to teach me to speak Russian and I signed up for lessons there and then. Yes. That happened. Strangely, my interest in speaking Russian triggered Google to begin displaying sponsored ads for the security services, ‘Understand Russian? Russian Intelligence Analysts – Help protect the UK at MI5.’

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A second language is a strange sidestep for me. I was crap at languages at school. I finished my French GCSE with the ability to say, “Bonjour, je’mapelle Tom” and “Oo-where la gare?” That’s all. That is the sum total of what I can remember from five or more years of lessons. I went on a school trip to France. My group were all sent into a newsagents (tabac?) in Dieppe to buy stamps. We had no understanding of the currency (nor the language, clearly) so the bastard short-changed every one of us. We then had to stand outside whilst our teacher went in and had a bloody big argument with him. For some peculiar reason the school curriculum then shoehorned in a single year of German just before our GCSEs. I enjoyed German a little more than I did French. However, I cannot recall a single word of it bar “Vorsprung durch technik”

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I was aware that learning a new language wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but Russian makes me want to cry and bang my head on the desk. The Cyrillic alphabet is surprisingly not difficult to grasp, its complex appearance belies the relative simplicity of reading it. Western words spelt phonetically in Russian have been very helpful to learn! Hungry? Grab a BigMac in Макдоналдс, or maybe a meatball sub in Субвэй. Thirsty? Pick up a капучино from Старбакс*. Thus, I can plausibly read aloud Russian text as though I have at least some remote understanding of its meaning. However, Russian grammer is convoluted to the point of triggering nose-bleeds and temporary loss of mental faculties. I jest, I’m sure I’ll figure it out one day.

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But in all honesty, learning a new language in my thirties is actually a humiliating and embarrassing pursuit. I can see why the British find the prospect of learning languages so daunting. By default, learning to read and write is an exercise in feeling like an idiot, and the Brits traditionally shy-away from the risk of looking foolish. At the age of 32 it is disconcerting to follow a line of text with my finger, pausing and shrugging whenever I reach a ‘big word’. Worse still is the exercise of placing the correct words underneath pictures of fruit; I simply keep in mind that once I’ve completed the task I can get back to finger-painting on my pasta-picture. 

When asked, in Russian, “Tell me something about yourself” I will draw a complete blank for several painfully awkward seconds before making my answer fit the vocabulary I possess, “I love vodka, and caviar on blinis. At weekends I enjoy watching television and drinking white tea, and socialising with my friends at my summerhouse in Moscow.” It’s early days, but I keep in mind that I already know far more Russian than my sum knowledge of French and German. In French I can merely ask strangers for directions to places I could locate far more easily with my phone (a development not foreseen in the school curriculum of the 1990s). Yet in Russian I can already confidently order vodka, caviar, a variety of exotic teas, and invite new friends to my non-existant summerhouse. So, that’s all the essentials nailed right there.

*McDonald’s, Subway, Cappuccino, Starbucks.

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