For a little over two weeks – August 3 through August 19, 1991 – I lived in St. Petersburg, USSR, with a woman I’ll call Tatiana Petrova, age 32. She spoke English well, having studied it since second grade. She had her Masters in English and taught at a naval academy of submarine cadets.
The only words I ever heard her mix up were “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” She must have learned them at the same time and never pegged them accurately, for many times, she’d say something like, “Now, yesterday, when we go to shop. . . .” She had asked me to correct her every mistake, so usually I did. About these two words, I finally told her to remember the song I sang to her: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. . . .”
I suddenly felt foolish for having brought up those lyrics. She lived in Russia; she knew tomorrow’s troubles. And tomorrow’s and tomorrow’s.
Tatiana particularly liked American colloquialisms. Because she learned British English, these had never been taught to her, so when I complimented her on her mother’s pickles and I talked about how my mom used to pickle my dad’s cucumbers, she was intrigued by “to pickle.” I explained, and she wrote it down in her journal. Then I told her that “to be pickled” meant to be drunk.
“How can that be?” she asked, confusion in her face.
“It’s a metaphor,” I told her, unable to explain why some expressions in America seem to have little to do with what they describe, but they offer up a picture.
She then told me of a traditional Russian dish called “the fish with the fur coat.” She described it to me and then called her friend Larisa and told her to make it for our supper.
That night we had it, a big platter of the fish with the fur coat on. It looked like a Jello mold frosted in sour cream with watercress, thinly sliced cucumbers and dill on top.
They explained how it looked to them like a fur coat on a fish. “We Russians are very metaphorical, too,” Tatiana said to me with her upward tilt of the chin that I translated as either pride or defiance.
Tatilana wrote in her journal an expression I used in general conversation, making me realize what a trite person I could be. “Just a fluke,” I said to her about my good fortune in traveling to Russia. She wrote in her journal “pure luck.” And to “miss the boat,” she deciphered as “falling in the water because the boat already left shore.” She laughed loudly at “good old boys,” and immediately called Larisa and then Katya to tell them, “America has many bureaucrats, too! Fat mishkas (bears), not too bright but very greedy.”
“Out of the blue,” I said about a black marketeer in Palace Square who sold me the Russian tee shirt I’d been looking for. She wrote it down as “out of the sky, like a miracle,” and then said to me, “Don’t buy from them. They are mafia.”
“Mafia,” I asked, dumbfounded. “In Russia?” At that time, I thought of the Mafia as a United States problem with an Italian connection.
“That’s what we call them,” she said. “We know they deal in stolen goods, and they always want dollars. This makes it harder for us. Besides, we think they are controlled by the government. The government blames all our deficit of goods on the mafia. To us, that means they control the mafia and use them as the excuse.”
“The scapegoat,” I said. And she wrote it down, nodding. I had heard her use “goat” for many people in the government, for shopkeepers, and for rude neighbors. Scapegoat apparently made sense to her, for she needed no explanation.
When a young student arrived at Tatiana’s to be tutored, I told her that she was a “moonlighter.”
This intrigued her. When I explained that the expression came from people who work in the daytime and take another job at night to make ends meet, she nodded, scribbling quickly, and then wrote, “make ends meet.” She was insatiable and told me she would be using these Americanisms to instruct her cadets in the “sub-language” of American English!
When Russian women did dishes, they rinsed and immediately placed them on a rack in the open cupboard above the sink. There was no bottom to the cupboard, and the dishes drip-dried into the sink. I told Tatiana it was ingenious, as it meant she had to handle the dish only once.
She asked how I dried dishes. “In the dishwasher,” I said. She laughed until she cried, and I had to wait until she finally sputtered out that she didn’t own a dishwasher, she WAS a dishwasher. I said, “Oh, dear, now you’re making fun of me.”
And she wrote that down, wiped her eyes, and said, “ We ‘make fun’ of each other all the time. Katya tells me I am a pig because, in front of an Amerikanski, I spill red wine on my kitchen curtains.” She held up the purple-edged end of the lace curtain wafting over the kitchen table and smiled at me. “But I tell her you spill blackberry jam on the placemat and that we have that in common.” She flipped through the pages of her journal and found what she was looking for, pointing at “bad shape.”
I laughed with her. “Yes, we are both in bad shape. We are pigs, right?”
Tatiana and I also talked a great deal about American authors she had been allowed to read – all our classics: Hawthorne, Cooper, Poe, Emerson, Twain, London. The list stopped about there, she said. “We are not to read modern literature from the West.”
But she wanted to know the current authors and what they said. I gave her a list, maybe 20, and told her I would send their books, along with The Story of English, a book I figured she would love, for it explained about English all over the world and how it had taken on its own flavor wherever it was used. She looked at me with her sad, dark eyes and said, “I would love it. But none of it will ever get to me.”
I looked away, for I knew it was true. Their postal system was as full of leaks as their condoms, and after 70 years of Communism, no one knew how to fix the workers’ cheating, the governmental interference, or the technology.