MONDAY, JULY 16, 2012
When I was working at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital in the ’80s, we started getting an influx of Russian-Jewish patients, the start of their exodus from the USSR. BI had one Russian interpreter on staff at the time, Jane, called Zhana in Russian. The patient load became impractically heavy for her so the hospital decided to recruit other interpreters who could at least provide the essential information for incoming patients, ask the essential questions and get the patients settled until either Zhana or a doctor showed up. As none were forthcoming, the hospital hired an instructor and made a course in medical Russian available to whoever wanted to learn it.
I signed up for the course, and while it turned out to be a worthwhile experience for reasons to be described later, the actual course was so limited, so focused, that today, unless I needed to ask you “Do you have your blue card?” or advise you “Don’t worry: the doctor (or Zhana) will be here momentarily.” (Doktr [or Zhana] seichass pridyot!) I would have been at a loss.
True, there were other phrases that could have been useful outside the hospital setting: “Take off your clothes and lie down, please.” “Open your mouth [and say ‘Ah’].” “You are pregnant,” (either with or without the prefix “Ksazhilenyiyu” or ‘Unfortunately.'”
As a language nut, I was stricken by what I considered to be the brutal nature of the language. In those days I felt it lacked grace and graciousness, and even a sense of person, there being no verbs for “to be” or “to have” in the present tense. Think about that: no word that says “am,” as in, “I am happy.” No verb for “have” as in “I have a nice car.” Okay, maybe no one actually had cars except for the privileged few, but how about no way to say “I have a lovely pork chop for tonight’s dinner that the twelve of us can share!”
I’ve since learned that no such lack of nuance exists. Although I never got to the point where I could read The Brothers Karamazov, or The Idiot (one of my favorite novels; it really spoke to me) in Russian, the translations proved there to be unfettered freedom in shades of expression.
The basics of hospital emergencies being learned, some of the students in the class were eager to expand our knowledge of Russian, so we implored the Russian teacher to consider another “semester,” with us paying for the classes ourselves. The teacher, a charming, smiling-eyed Russian woman of a certain age, a former teacher of English in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, agreed, and so we were happy to have another six weeks or so of lessons. These were held at her apartment since the hospital wasn’t sponsoring them.
The classes got only better as they progressed. Eventually, Ada, the instructor, decided that Russian culture and cuisine were important in learning the language, so she began providing dinner for us (at no extra charge — she had become fond of us, and we of her) and on occasion we had a visitor/friend of hers from the old country, so as to experience another person speaking the language and other viewpoints, etc.
One particularly hot July evening, we slogged (or did we slosh?) over to her apartment for our class hoping she would finally relent and turn on her air conditioner. For some reason, although there were air conditioners in every room, she had yet to use any of them while we were there. I opined that it might be because she had spent all of her life up until recently a mere stone’s throw from Siberia, and she welcomed any warmth at all.
She showed us into the non-air-conditioned and rather close and stifling living room, and graciously informed us that “It will be just few more minutes. The soup is almost ready!” As she turned to leave, we turned to one another, eyes wide and mouths agape. “Soup?!” we whispered in unison. Other silent moanings and writhings took place briefly, until she summoned us into the kitchen.
Like dead men walking we slumped in the kitchen, but found three bowls of ice-cold beet borscht awaiting us, replete with fresh dill, cold hard-boiled eggs and even ice cubes, to keep it cold. We happily partook, and almost as one we asked “How do you say ‘This is delicious!’ in Russian?”
Another evening we were greeted by a visitor, a gentleman from the former Leningrad, an engineer who had as yet not found work in the US. He seemed very congenial (also those smiling Russian eyes!) and the conversation proceeded rather nicely until Hildy, my fellow student, took out a pack of cigarettes and proceeded to light one.
This was back in the day when smoking wasn’t a gross or capital offense, and even smoking in someone else’s apartment without begging for permission first was quite normal. Grigory, our co-host for the evening, jumped up and burst over to Hildy, saying, “GIVE ME, please, a cigaRETTE!”
Again as a group we recoiled, this time in surprise and also a little bit of fear, as his aggressiveness took us all by surprise. Hildy surrendered a cigarette post-haste, eyes still wide.
At this point our teacher, the lovely Ada, eyes still smiling, softly advised Grigory that, in English, it’s polite to ask “May I have a cigarette?” rather than using the imperative form of the verb, telling someone to give you one.
Just another difference in language use, but to Grigory it seemed we were unduly alarmed. “But I said ‘please’!” he countered. At that point we all laughed and shortly after, another notable evening, one of the highlights of my life, came to a close.
To this day, I have no idea how to express “May I have…” in Russian.