Saturday, January 23, 2010

I'm cheating on my first love with Russian

I’ve been learning French for several years, and I adore the language. I’ve grown to really like my classmates and a number of us have now been through four or five terms together. We’ve fallen into a happy routine of taking turns to bring the wine each week and laughing over it as we confess our latest vocabulary faux pas. It’s possible I may even have developed a leetle, tiny girl-crush on my teacher, a beautiful and charming lass of French Indochine heritage and strange musical tastes. She once played us the Jacques Brel song Ne me quitte pas and was perplexed that we thought it a cheesy old load of nonsense with weird stalkerish undertones.

But this term, I’m cheating on my first love because I’ve finally found a night class in Russian. I’ve had a strange yearning to learn Russian for years. Recently, it became almost overwhelming as a result of watching this fascina
ting BBC series, in which Jonathan Dimbleby spends 18 weeks travelling from Murmansk to Vladivostok. I know very little about Russia, apart from the corners of its history I traversed in the course of an undergraduate paper on the Napoleonic Wars. Also, some odds and ends about Catherine the Great, although I never fell for the story that she was crushed to death while trying to have sex with a stallion (this is one of those scurrilous myths that often get attached to powerful women, and despite all evidence to the contrary, never seem to die).

I imagine all Russians to be like Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, all smouldering gangland staunchness and chewy Russian consonants. Either that, or like the icily elegant socialites Dimbleby meets in St Petersburg, who dismiss Western democracy and American consumer culture with a disdainful wrinkling of their White Russian noses. I’ve never been to Russia but a visit to the Hermitage Museum is definitely on my list of things to do before I die. That, and swilling French champag
ne in the Baroque dining room of some decaying St Petersburg hotel that’s seen better days.

Oy. I just had a look at the Hermitage website. The Cyrillic script is utterly mystifying. At least with French, you’re on somewhat familiar territory, even if the particular letter combinations and the accents create different spoken sounds from English. It’s just occurred to me how much of a challenge it’s going to be to learn this entirely new alphabet - like learning to read all over again!

Image: The almost impossibly fairytal
e-like Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg (eat your heart out, Walt Disney). Apparently, it got this rather gruesome moniker care of being the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination.

17 comments:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Different alphabets have always scared me off...

Brian J. said...

Having taken a little Greek, I can generally puzzle out the pronunciation of any Russian I come across. No idea what any of the words mean, of course, but there you go.

Susan said...

I studied Russian for several years in high school and college, culminating in a semester in college where I was taking Latin, French and Russian! Anyway, it's a great language, not always icy or mafioso-ish, but also amazingly sentimental. And it's worth learning the language just to be able to read Pushkin in the original!

Digger said...

I think you're terribly brave to jump to a language with an entirely different alphabet! My sister just finished graduate work in Russian, has been there a few times, and is fluent. I volunteer to pick her brain on your behalf, if you ever need!

dr ngo said...

Huzzah for Russian, I guess, but why bother? Russians admire soul, and anyone that dismissive of Ne me quitte pas has no soul.

I'm just sayin'.

Bavardess said...

Brian - I didn't realise the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets were so similar.
Susan - I'm thinking taking the Russian course will cure me of my admittedly stereotyped view of Russians! It's definitely one of those languages where a single word seems able to express a huge range of ideas/emotions.
Digger - I might take you up on that, though I'm sure for this semester, at least, we'll be doing nothing more complex than variations on learning 'What is your name?' and 'What would you like to eat/drink?' (Vodka, of course!)
dr ngo - it's the total abjection in that line 'let me be the shadow of your dog' that gets to me every time. In my own defense, I do love Brel's "Le port d'Amsterdam", so maybe I have some soul after all?

stu said...

I've never been that good with language learning. Even my Latin is a horrible, hit and miss affair. I've never tried Russian, but my brief wanderings into the pictograms of Chinese and the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egyptian have shown me just how fun things can get when you don't even have a recognisable alphabet to play with.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Hmm, Viggo Mortensen as the new face of Russia - that would do wonders for tourism. But you're right, there is much to see, and just the small problem of enormous distances to cope with. I gather that groups of Old Believers were still being found in the 1990s, some who had been hidden away in Siberia for so long that they hadn't heard of the USSR and communism.

Good luck with the studies. How wonderful to be able to read Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov in the original. I found the short stories, in particular, really enlightening about the mindset of Russia and Russophile countries of Eastern Europe, even today (and even read in English). There seems to be an enduring Russian-ness which is, as ever, an enigma.

There is supposed to be a bas-relief of Catherine the Great with a stallion on a building in Bucharest, however I was unable to locate it on a visit to the city.

ZACL said...

Finding a weird little Russian hotel will be no problem...there's plenty of time warps in St P called semi de luxe.

The Church you mention, looks more real than marshmallows when you see it and the surrounding area and nearby outdoor market is interesting, tho' the market is more inclined to tourists.

Set aside two or three days for The Hermitage and do book a guided tour during your first visit. I didn't bother with the crown jewels.

The Pushkin Museum is worth a visit, much of the exhibit literature is in French as that was the court language of the day.

The Main Post Office near the Hermitage is worth popping your head into. The main P.O. on the Nevsky Prospekt - not the same place - is the only one I have ever been into that did not have any postage stamps to sell. That's how I eventually discovered the interesting one, mentioned above.

Last, but not least, take The Rough Guide to St Petersburg with you if you visit; it was my visiting bible and worth its weight in gold.

Bavardess said...

White Horse - I think Tolstoy and co. will remain beyond me for quite some time in the original Russian. It took me a few years of French to move past the Asterix comics. Interesting story about the bas-relief in Bucharest, though my mind boggles at exactly what it would show.
ZACL - thanks for all those great recommendations. I'd definitely allow a few days for the Hermitage - 10Km of galleries can't be covered in a day!

a stitch in time said...

Well, then it appears I have a strange musical taste too - I dearly love "Ne me quitte pas". But if you find it weird and stalkerish, have you listened to Boris Vian? Those are some nice texts (non-stalkerish too).
As to learning Russian - go, Bavardess, go! It's never bad to learn another language... I tried to learn Czech a while ago, but somehow got off the track again. Maybe I should go for it again...

Bavardess said...

I think 'Ne me quitte pas' is definitely one of those 'love it or hate it' numbers. Either that, or we Kiwis are a bit too cynical for our own good sometimes. Thanks for the tip re: Boris Vian - I haven't heard of him, but I'll check him out.

rootlesscosmo said...

Christoff is Bulgarian but for concentrated Russian-ness I think this is hard to beat:

http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=187464

Texts and translations at

http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/

Bavardess said...

Rootless - thanks for the link! I love hearing new and different music - especially stuff that's out of the US/UK mainstream. I'm off to have a listen now.

tastedthefruit said...

Despite warnings from many friends -some of whom have studied it as well- I too am cheating on my language-loves with Russian.

It just sounds *so* lovely! Sigh.

Plus, people actually *speak* it, unlike Old English/Norse/Irish.

Minnie said...
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