Thursday, July 8, 2010
Touch down at Pulkovo Airport (LED). Hired car driving me to the hotel in the middle of the city. Nose pressed to the window, staring out at unfamiliar landscape into a gray light. Drab, overcast, partially raining. A new city. A new country. The billboards are the only color albeit unintelligible. A foreign language. But I spot a word I can almost read. Then another. Like a child I phonetically sound out each syllable & guess at the unrecognizable leftovers. By the time we reach my destination the startling revelation that I can read Russian becomes apparent.
Now before you jump to any conclusions I have a major character flaw. I have studied several languages in schools: French in high school, German at university, Japanese in adult education. Gotten "A's" even. Listened to the audiotapes & enlisted tutors but still cannot recite a single coherent sentence. Don’t even speak English good. So I was as surprised as you are.
Rewind the tape. The saga began some 34 years ago. I got a little pissant assignment to photograph in Greece. Except for what I read about in mythology I knew nothing about the place. Luckily I had a friend who was Greek & I convinced him to return home & act as my guide & translator. A convenient arrangement. Unfortunately he was very handsome, so on the trip over he seduced a girl on the plane & I never saw him again. Relying on his help I had done minimal preparation & research beforehand. So I was screwed.
The airport public address system called my name for two missed flights but I had no clue. So after flying to the island of Crete I was functionally illiterate. I could not read or understand anything. With difficulty I booked a room, rented a car & got dinner. I played charades & Pictionary for all communications. I was forced to drink an eight ounce tumbler of ouzo. (But that’s another story.)
In the morning armed with a map & a hangover, I set off on my adventure. The natives told me to turn left at kkkhanyah. I immediately got lost. Then suddenly on the road ahead I saw a sign. Xavia. Five years of college Physics & fraternity hazing flashed before my eyes. I recognized the Greek letters. I had no idea they would ever be useful beyond mathematical equations. For the rest of the trip I was engrossed by every newspaper headline & billboard in my purview. Maps were child’s play. I recall this miracle in my book travel+PHOTOGRAPHY: Off the Charts.
Eventually you use everything you learn. Cyrillic was developed from Greek & Latin in the ninth century. Maybe two thirds of the alphabet. Since that time serfs, Romanovs, Bolsheviks & Communists have fluctuated in & out of history's darkness. I lived through the Cold War & all the falsehoods my politicians & teachers tried to foist upon my childhood. CCCP was a vast ogre. Travel has dispelled most of the myths I was fed by my elders. And ironically I always wanted to see Russia for myself.
So in Saint Petersburg I rode the subway & devoured the menus just because I could. I heard not a word anyone vocalized but I deciphered what I saw. Not only faces & places but their graphics, movie posters & magazine covers. Before I left home I had learned the phrase “thank you”. Sitting in a restaurant I interpreted the trash can lid’s courteous translation.
Now in case you are wondering “what is the big deal?” For me this was equivalent to the archeologist discovering the Rosetta Stone. At least it was better than completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Words are not me. What had all my life seemed merely gobbledygook opened an avenue into a cloistered culture & there was no shortage of reading material. It took me four days, passing the same storefront to figure out how to pluralize a word. (I’m not the brightest bulb in the box.) I perused photographic magazines & even purchased favorites like Rolling Stone. (Lady Gaga in Cyrillic is actually interesting.)
The strange backward “N’s” & upside down “L’s” slowly evolved into a libretto with the final score being “TCHAIKOVSKY”, “DOSTOEVSKY” & “PUSHKIN”. Now my small brain may soon revert back to my ESL/language challenged ways but I will have unique pictures of comrade Lady Gaga for a long time.