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E-Mail from the Russian

Being married to a Russian is like riding in the front seat of a communication rollercoaster. Woman is from Venus, Man is from Chelyabinsk. After 12 years in this country, my husband’s English is still somewhat fractured. This is alternately a source of considerable charm and tremendous frustration. Some of our most explosive arguments have stemmed from the misunderstanding of a simple idiom. (Apparently “Fish or cut bait” is offensive to some people, I really had no idea.)

I’ve been married to the Russian for ten years but I wonder sometimes if I really know the man behind the fumbling malaprops. If words are how we define ourselves, what’s it like when the words at your disposal are broken? My husband’s entire demeanor changes when he speaks Russian with his friends — he is louder and more expansive. He is the alpha male in his circle, the center of the action, the go-to guy when someone needs help or support.  He is fully empowered in his native tongue; in English, he is cautious.

I know this man loves language and literature. He recited Pushkin from memory when we first met and scolded me for not knowing a particular O. Henry story. I love language, too. I would die just a little bit every day if I couldn’t express myself as freely in a second language as I do in English. But the Russian is resilient. He perseveres, pushing through his discomfort in conversations with harried elementary school teachers and fast-talking north Jersey repairmen. He maintains composure navigating the rings of customer service hell with heavily-accented telecomm representatives. He even keeps pace when I come home from work ranting in hyper-speed PR-speak about some imagined client indignity. 

Last night I learned my guys had made an IKEA run without remembering to bring me home some gingersnaps. This is a forgivable sin and I was over it in seconds. Today the Russian sent me this email. I’ve tidied up the spelling, but only a little.

Yesterday suddenly I started to feel guilty for the fact I didn’t buy anything for you at Ikea (ginger cookies and etc.) and shared my feeling with our 6 year old who was having a dinner in the kitchen and showing his back to me. Unpredictably “mal’chisch” jumped off his stool and walked to me, took my hand, kissed it and he looked at me with the most beautiful face in the world with obvious “Smirnov” sigh in his eyes  and very calmly with kinda lower tembro said: “You’re forgiven Daddy.” (I saw, it is not the baby face anymore.)  “Don’t worry, you will do it next time.” So forgive me too, I’ll fix my mistake next time…

I believe you have a gift for language or you don’t. Vocabulary can be taught, eloquence can’t. The Russian is eloquent. I’m thinking if I listen a bit more carefully, I’ll hear it ringing clear through the tangle of his English. 

P.S. Mal’chisch is a sweet name for little boys inspired by a fairy tale character from Soviet days. Or so I’m told.

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Categories: Family, Russians Tags: ,
  1. October 1, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    ok seriously? this is the sweetest story.

  2. October 2, 2009 at 12:47 am

    I think I love the Russian. 🙂

  3. October 2, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Those Russians aren’t afraid to show their emotions. Lovely story.

  4. October 3, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Wow. So sweet….All my mom’s parents ever taught me in Russian were curse words. If I recall correctly, there’s quite a variety of synonyms for men’s naughty bits in Russian/Yiddish.

  5. October 5, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    So beautiful. I always find Russian so poetic.

    Definitely there is a lot of cultural spirit encoded in language. When I first learned Spanish it was “We go to the beach to listen to music and eat ice cream.” Russian was always, “He lives nowhere, he knows no one, and he goes no where.” Of course, maybe that’s because my textbooks were Soviet-era ;).

    And with all those declensions…that’s got to change the way a person thinks, right?

    Russian is a lush language, though…and your Russian sounds like a keeper.

    • ssmirnov
      October 6, 2009 at 12:05 pm

      Thx for the comment, Candace. I’m dying over the Soviet text book exercises! I attempted to learn Russian and failed miserably, maybe it’s time to try again. And yes, I do believe I have a keeper 🙂

  6. familycalamity
    October 6, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I live a foreign land and have to communicate in a language not my own. It’s a lot harder to be yourself. You’re just trying to make sure you get the right message across instead of trying to be witty or clever. Although I haven’t been here nearly that long. I don’t know that I’d ever be fully comfortable in arabic.

  7. October 15, 2009 at 1:43 am

    I love this – and I love that you recognize the eloquence in his words. What a beautiful man, that Russian.

    • ssmirnov
      October 15, 2009 at 11:56 am

      The Russian is spectacular. Flawed, but spectacular (but then, aren’t we all?)

  8. Karina Tweedell
    December 4, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Stephanie,
    I’ve been visiting your blog several times, but it’s the first time I finally got around to express how much I like reading your posts, especially when you tell us something about your family and all the fun and challenging times living with someone from a different culture.
    I was born in Russia. During my year in the US as an exchange student I met my husband. Now we live in Indiana, and just like you, almost every day we get to explore traditions and world views of our homecountries.
    I found it interesting that you mentioned that the Russian acts differently with Russian speakers. After you pointed that out, I realized that I probably act the same way to some extent i.e. a little different personality when speaking in my native language.
    Sorry this turned out to be so long. I just wanted to let you know that someone can very well relate to what you are writing about. Keep up your great work!

    • ssmirnov
      December 5, 2009 at 10:11 am

      Spaseeba Karina! Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. My husband and I have been married ten years and every day something new happens that reminds me that we are truly from alien worlds. I really do wonder what would happen if I spoke Russian — would be wonderful of course, though I’m not sure my husband wants me to have TWO languages with which to yell at him 😉

  9. Karina Tweedell
    December 17, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    It is a very interesting feeling when you realize you can argue in a foreign language 🙂 I find it way easier now as my husband understands Russian fairly well. He spent two years in Ukraine with me, where he was able to learn Russian and pick up a little bit of Ukrainian. You probably noticed some patterns of mistakes that occur because of different ways you can convey something in Russian and English. If you know how to say something in Russian, it might be easier to understand what your husband means. Have you considered learning the language while you are visiting your Russian relatives? I know I had my major breakthrough with English only when I came to the US.
    P.S. I hope you don’t perceive me implying that you have problems communicationg with your spouse. To the contrary, judging from your posts, it sounds like you have a wonderful marriage. I was just responding to your ‘what if’ sentence.

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