Received this card in the mail the other day for a reliable taxi service:
The other day, an Ukrainian friend told me that he now understands why the Russian language baffles foreigners who attempt to speak it. He pulled out a book he was reading for work that had something to do with contextualized marketing. Directing my attention to a paragraph, he waited for my response. The paragraph, in Russian, showed the reader that there can be 166 variations or forms of a word in Russian.
I responded, “This is my life.” My friend was astounded. He said, “You have the word “book”, for example. It is always “book” in every sentence! The word never changes. There is one form. We have 166!”
We were not comparing apples to apples. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that to use the word “book” properly in Russian, you have to select from a grammar table of something like 72 endings to narrow your choice down to 12 endings, and then to 1 final winner, and let ‘er fly.
I have had several encounters with the traffic police in Ukraine; it is inevitable if you are alive, you have car, actually drive it, and try to obey the speed limit. In this country, as in Boston, the key to longevity in life is called defensive driving. As a Ukrainian friend advised me, “You have to understand on thing about Ukrainians and driving; it is a matter of life and death. They have to get one car in front of you or beat you to the traffic light.”
Driving defensively returning from L’viv with my sons and their friend Slavik, I unfortunately saw the wave of the black and white baton by the policeman. This is the way they pull vehicles over going 90 kph. I was honestly shocked because I was going 90 kph in what I thought was a 110 kph zone, plus I was moving with the traffic. The officer told me that the speed limit was 60 kph. What? Where was the sign indicating the new speed limit? Of course, it really doesn’t matter. I refused to accept the verdict, so I had to go to the police car and speak to the other officer while baton waver kept up the good work.
I jumped in the car and greeted the officer in Russian. He looked at my passport and asked if I understood Russian, and I told him I did. He then asked me if I spoke English. With a puzzled look on my face, I replied, “Uh. Of course.” The officer then switched to English and spoke it rather well. I was busted. I asked him about the signage for the new speed limit, and complained about how the village signs were not visible, which indicated a speed limit of 60 kph. He did not have a good answer, but they had to make their money for the day.
When I returned to the car, the boys asked me why it took so long. Of course, I was protesting and defending the cause of justice. They told me that while I was in the car, the officer pulled over four other cars, and those drivers just rolled down the window and gave him money, and continued on their way. I guess it is sort of like special toll for using the highway.
Recently we were in Istanbul, and decided to try the shish kebab there. There are tons of restaurants that serve this Turkish specialty and we were “recruited” or “invited” to enter one particular restaurant. The waiter’s English was rather weak, but God created us with index fingers and gave people the ability to create menus with pictures. God knew this combination would come in handy after the tower of Babel incident. Anyways, we successfully ordered the lamb and chicken kebabs which came with salads. The waiter was about to leave, but he had not asked if we wanted anything to drink, perhaps due to the language barrier. I asked slowly, “Can we order something to drink? What do you have to drink?” He replied, “Sir, we are an islamic restaurant and we do not drink.” I used my precious index finger to point to bottles of water behind the waiter and responded, “Could I just get some water?”
I find that people are appreciate the effort to speak Russian. Once in while, a Ukrainian, being extremely helpful, respond unusually. The other day, Sabrina and I were trying to locate a store that sells quality beanbag chairs. We had the address, but we could not find the place.
I saw a security guy who allowed cars in past the gate. I said, in Russian, excuse me and asked him if he knew where this company was located because I could not find it. He immediately started to point in the right direction, which indicated that he perfectly understood my question, and then he paused. Looking straight at me, he asked in Russian, “Do you understand Russian?” I know he was trying to be helpful, but before he started talking, he wanted to make sure he was not wasting his breath.
I wanted to say in Russian, “No. I cannot understand Russian. I just speak it.” Knowing he wanted to help, I responded quickly, “Yes! Yes! Of course.” He was convinced, and gave us good directions, which I understood.
One of the challenges living here is dealing with two new languages, Ukrainian and Russian. We are learning Russian, but all the signs, bills, and notices are in Ukrainian. In our building, all the important notices are posted in Ukrainian. This is really important when the notice is posted next to one of the elevators, because the elevators in our building are notoriously unreliable. Usually they work, but sometimes they take a day off.
When Ingrid and I returned the other day, we saw a hand-written note posted next to the large elevator. The notice was in Ukrainian and in cursive. We did not want to get on the elevator because you can get stuck in them if they are finicky. I scanned the notice, hoping that I was about to receive the gifts of tongues to interpret, and lo and behold, I saw a word that I knew in Ukrainian. It was a major break through; the notice said that the elevator did not work past the 10th floor. Was this a gift or a sign? How did I recognize the key verb and avoid the perils of the elevator?
As I explained to Ingrid that is the exact same phrase, posted over every single urinal, in the building where our church rents a room each week.