How studying Russian, the phrase “it happens,” (and drinking some vodka) taught me to let things go
We had a very successful trip to Russia. We made it back.
— Bob Hope
“So I see from your resume that you studied abroad in Russia. Tell me about that — do you speak Russian?”
“Um, well I try.” (Cue the nervous giggle).
That really is the best way to describe it. I try to speak Russian — whether the locals accept it as passable or spit it right back at me is another matter entirely. (I’ve had both happen to me numerous times.)
I studied Russian for three years in college, two of those intensively (and my GPA after sophomore year can bear witness). I lived in St. Petersburg for four months spring semester of my junior year (and my liver can most certainly attest to that fact.) And yet, even when I left, I wasn’t exactly confident in my language skills.
But I did leave with something else: in addition to a wealth of inappropriate drinking stories and some semi-dangerous encounters, I walked away with an intense appreciation for a beautiful language, a better understanding of a complicated nation, and an ability to just go more with the flow.
From cursive to cases: it’s all hard
The French are famous for being tough on those attempting to tame their beautiful language. I was surprised to learn that Russians have a similar line of thought (disclaimer: obviously a generalization based off of my own personal experiences).
As anyone who has made even a cursory attempt to master Russian knows, it’s a punishing, often unforgiving language. The Cyrillic alphabet. The long words. The unfamiliar sounds. Then there’s cursive vs. print. A lower case “t” in Russian looks suspiciously like an English “m”, and the “r” is a dead-ringer for a “p”. And the letters all tend to run together, so good luck with trying to figure out all of that that, (while still trying to memorize the Cyrillic block letters).
And if you’re in really deep, then the number of things to trip you up only gets higher. The lack of accent marks is puzzling, especially when you’re coming from a basis of studying Romance languages. You’ve learned a new word — but where do you place the stress? Just guess! For example, with Бабушка (grandmother), Americans often say babooshka, instead of the correct babushka, with the emphasis at the beginning. (It really bothers Russians by the way.)
Prepositions aren’t easy either. Mixing up на and в can have disastrous consequences — are you riding on the bus or on top of it? (My professor found it very funny when I confused the two.) And things get pretty complicated when you add motion to the mix.
If none of that gets you down, then the absurd number of cases (six!) and complicated declensions that accompany them certainly will.
Language challenges aside, there are some significant cultural differences to overcome as well. What’s more is that in Mother Russia, foreigners stick out like a sore thumb. Not too many Americans crawling around, surprisingly. Speaking English on the metro is a good way to guarantee a car full of people staring at you. Grocery store cashiers smirk when you try to make conversation with them, rolling their eyes and muttering something about “Americans” under the breath.
Feelings of isolation notwithstanding, being the American fly on Russia’s proverbial wall was an incredible experience. You get the rare chance to see yourself, your country, and others, through an unexpected lens.
One of my biggest takeaways from living in Russia is that things often don’t go according to plan — expecting the unexpected is the only way to get by, and going with the flow becomes ingrained into your daily routine.
You may set out to the post office to mail that postcard, only to be told that they don’t have any stamps. (Kind of the whole point of a post office, but whatever). Or you may get on your usual bus only to have it turn left instead of right, with your fellow passengers angrily accosting the bus driver after he announces that we are now suddenly following a different route today. (The same bus driver might then pull over and make everyone get off so he can smoke a cigarette.)
You might get stuck in an impossibly small elevator for a few hours. A drunk man can be on your bus at 6AM — on a Tuesday. The heat in your building might be out for three days (in the middle of the coldest winter since Hitler invaded, mind you).
In short, things just kind of don’t work sometimes.
A Russian’s response to all of this? Бывает. It translates roughly to “oh well, it happens.” (For you word nerds out there, it’s the future third-person tense of the verb to happen — быть.)
As an American, this is kind of an odd sensation. We’re used to customer service, convenience, and order. And we definitely get upset when these things are missing — we lodge complaints, we raise our voices, we ask to see supervisors. We stress about being late and we definitely expect the post office to have stamps and the buses to follow their normal routes.
But you know what? It ends up being OK if that doesn’t all work out. You actually end up learning things about yourself, and about others, along the way.
In America you can always find a party. In Russia, the party always finds you.
— Yakov Smirnoff
Sometimes the ATM eats your credit card and you have no money (and the bank attendant is extremely unsympathetic). But it turns out you have great friends who will spot you some money until you get a new one.
Sometimes a florist will refuse to sell you a dozen roses because Russians are highly superstitious and believe that even numbered bouquets are suitable only for funerals. But you learn to take this quirk in stride, and fastidiously count stems before handing a bunch of flowers over to your host mother.
Sometimes a random babushka yells at you for sitting on a stone bench in winter, claiming you will “freeze your ovaries” and be barren forever. You sit on the bench anyways, part of you secretly wondering if there is any truth hidden in that old wives’ tale.
Your host mom might throw out your favorite pair of leather boots while you’re in class, because she took them to the cobbler for you (unsolicited of course) and decided that they couldn’t be saved. But you grit your teeth, and go buy a new pair, where you may end up spending a few hours discussing the collapse of the Soviet Union in broken Russian with a lovely Georgian man.
The cab driver who dropped you off at the airport three months ago may unexpectedly show up on your building’s doorstep, buzzing up to your apartment to ask if you want to “hang out”. You cancel your plans to go out and hide out in your room, watching the Russian version of Twilight and hoping he’ll go away. You’ll relay this story to your host mom; her only concern will be that he’s from Chechnya (not, you know, the fact that he’s a creepy weirdo who remembered your exact address for months.)
All of these things are possibilities in Russia, a land where things like this can “just happen.”
In addition to walking away with a crazy set of stories (and great fodder for a future blog post), you leave with greater self-reliance, and a deeper sense that you can just handle things, not to mention profound respect and admiration for a new country.
On the day I flew back to America, I happened to be flying into JFK’s new terminal on its opening day. Chaos and pandemonium would be a fair description of the scene. The Americans on our flight from Moscow swarmed the front desk, queuing up to lodge their complaints. The Russians and I snagged prime seats in the lounge area, confident that the phrase “it happens” would get us through any ordeal.
Thanks for reading!