Friday, April 14, 2017

Communication and Miscommunications

It has been pointed out to me that we are slacking on the blogging... I know, I know. It's just that we have settled into a routine here, so there is less that really stands out to blog about! Plus, I've been updating Facebook and Instagram pretty frequently with photos of our daily excursions, so that kinda takes the wind out of my blogging sails.

For those of you who are not followers on my social media accounts (I tend to keep those reserved for close friends and family - sorry!), I will try to post more of the day-to-day happenings here on the blog.

A little Italian-American food for my birthday

We have made a few new friends in the past couple weeks - graduate students from Kalmyk State and elsewhere ("Hi, friends!") - which has really helped to lift my mood because THEY SPEAK ENGLISH! I admit, I was feeling pretty homesick last week. I miss the ability to go out on my own and easily communicate with people, and I have had a couple situations here where people were trying to communicate with me and I just. don't. understand.


Once was on the marshrutka, on my way to meet Ted at the university. It was getting pretty crowded, and the woman next to me was trying to tell/ask me something, and I didn't know if she wanted me to give up my seat, or get off the marshrutka, or if she was just asking which stop was mine...??? There were "walking fingers" gestures and everything, but I have no idea what she was saying. When I did try to get up and maneuver myself out of the way to offer my seat at a busy stop, the door operator was pushing me back into the van, thinking I was trying to get out before my stop. To be fair, she was trying to help me find my correct stop, but it was kind of a gong show, if you know what I mean, and I just felt so helpless.


Another time was here in our own apartment. We have discovered that people don't knock here. Like, at all. Ever. Not anywhere. Students walk into Valeriy's office while he is having meetings. Patients walk into doctor's offices while they are seeing other patients. No joke. When we were at the dermatologist's office getting our medical check-up, Ted literally had to block the door while I disrobed to be sure that no one walked in on my half-naked body! And, at home, people have walked into our apartment several times when we forgot to lock it from the inside: the house-mother, the security guard, and this week, the water delivery guy.

Ted was at the university giving a lecture and I was in the apartment watching Netflix. Luckily I was dressed, because all of a sudden I hear our front door swing open and someone announce themselves as they came in. By the time I got out of the bedroom and around the corner, the water delivery guy was in our kitchen, unscrewing the lids of our water jugs! I was confused. Had Ted ordered more water without telling me? We hadn't yet finished all of our previously delivered water, so why would he? Maybe he ran into the guy on the way out and told him to just go ahead and fill our jugs as long as he was here?

Ted was lecturing, so I couldn't reach him via text or phone call. All I could say to the delivery guy was "Nyet, nyet." ("No, no.") I couldn't explain that we hadn't ordered water. I couldn't ask him if my husband had spoken to him. I couldn't tell him to leave. And my feeble "nyets" were not deterring him. He was adamant about filling our water jugs, and he was clearly in a hurry. He hastily poured water into our three empty jugs (the 4th was still full) and then was looking around for more jugs to fill. I thought he was looking for our usual 4th jug, which was already full, so I brought him our "bathroom water" jug that I usually fill with boiled/filtered water for teeth-brushing and mouth-rinsing. He filled that one up and then was showing me 8 fingers as he spoke in Russian.

I thought he wanted payment, so I took him to our entryway bench where we keep our rubles change and started collecting 80 rubles. He indicated NO, I had not understood, and he again showed me 8 fingers while saying something in Russian. I got out my phone translation app that you can speak into (Google Translate is the BOMB) and told my phone in English "I don't understand." It was translated to Russian, which I played for him (which, I'm sure he didn't need to hear because DUH! It was obvious that I didn't understand). Then I held the phone in front of his face so he could speak Russian to it. He said his sentence, and the phone translated it to something like "water still remained." In my confusion and state of anxiety over this whole interaction, I could not for the life of me figure out what he was trying to tell me.

By this point he was frustrated - I was holding him up from his other deliveries - so he dashed away and quickly inspected our kitchen, porch, and bathroom. Not finding whatever he was looking for, he grabbed his water delivery jugs, took 45 rubles from our pile on the bench, and hurried out the door.

Later, as I was telling Ted about this interaction, we decided that he had probably come to the wrong apartment. He was probably supposed to deliver water to someone else who had 8 jugs, so he had been looking for the other 4 jugs, which we don't have. I hope in the end that he found the person who actually had ordered the water, because I hate to think of them without their drinking water.


Despite what it sounds like, I have picked up a little Russian - the words and phrases I hear frequently. It's usually when there's no context and no cognates that I can't figure out what's going on. I've learned how to say the basics - hello, goodbye, please, and thank-you. I've learned the words for the foods we most commonly eat - milk, bread, potatoes, chicken... Ted taught me how to order things at the magazin (like a mini convenience store) because everything is behind the counter, so you have to ask for it. 

Panorama of the magazin - yep, that's the whole store!

I can ask people, "How are you?" and I can understand their answer - good, so-so, okay. I can listen for my stop on the marshrutka, and I can say, "Excuse me," when I'm trying to hand the door operator my fare. And I know a few random words here and there that help me understand conversations - archives, graduate student, children, she, house, I will, I have...

Even as I slowly pick up oral Russian, though, reading the Cyrillic text is a whole other story! For example, the word for "cherry" sounds like /veeshnya/. If I were to approximate the spelling in the English alphabet, I would spell it: Vishnia.

But no. Here's the word on a juice box:

Вншня (cherry) sounds like: veeshnya
Яблоко (apple) sounds like: yablukuh

I'll write more on this later in the context of shopping. I am slowly figuring out the sounds that each letter makes, as I learn more Russian vocabulary and compare it to written text, but it's slow going, especially since many of the letters look similar to English letters but make completely different sounds. Like W for the /sh/ sound and H for the /n/ sound.

So that's all for today! I keep bugging Ted to write a post about his research and work here, so if you're friends with him on social media, get on his case about that! ;)


  1. Not knocking is a sin. Not being able to communicate would make me crazy. Good thing you have lots of patience. Hope your birthday dinner was fun. Did you sing karaoke?

    1. Of course I sang karaoke! I sang "Let's Hear It For the Boy" and Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back." Ted and I sang Tom Petty's "Free Fallin," and then I helped out our friends on "Don't Speak" by No Doubt - that one was fun!