Today was one of those days. You get them in new countries where you don’t speak the language. Everything is fine, and the people you really need to talk to understand you and you them, and then “the day” arrives.
I remember in Kuwait trying desperately to tell the workman that the air conditioner didn’t work…. and labouring over the Arabic words for air conditioner and broken. A slight change of a letter can make such a difference. and for the most part, the Arab countries were easy, because almost everyone you needed to deal with spoke English.
I remember being tired and just wanting a bowl of soup at the Coop cafeteria for lunch. The Norwegian word for soup is ‘soupe”. It looks simple enough, right? No…. In Norwegian every letter (almost) is pronounced, so I needed to say “soupeh”, and I was very tired and hungry and frustrated. I’ve noticed that the more frustrated you get, the less the other person understands.
Even when I was actually getting the hang of Norwegian, I found if I hadn’t prepared what I wanted to say, the bit of French i know would jump in and spoil things. At the hotel, just before i left for Russia, I said wine in French instead of Norwegian, and drank water with my meal, because water in Norwegian is van… suspiciously close to the French for wine.
Today was the day of workmen ……… Vladmir came with a second key for the apartment as we have been making do with one, so I have to be home when David arrives or he would be left out in the cold, literally. I was also to show him the radiator that had been leaking, and ask about the broken handle on the washing machine. Key – no problem. Radiator – someone will be here at 5 to check it out. Washing machine…… bigger problem, but a phone call later and that was taken care of as well. The good thing was that I dug around in drawers and found the manuals for all the appliances in the house, including the washing machine and dish washer.
The first repairman arrived just before 12 noon. He didn’t speak English. I showed him the offending appliance, and pretty soon, he had the door off and asked for a plastic bag to carry it in. He gestured and said something about 3 or 4……. I thought it meant that it would be 3 or 4 days before he had it fixed. And away he went. Not too tough.
He was back at three pm with a new door, and had it installed in a flash. Then he wanted 3800 rubles. Oh, so that’s what he was talking about. I have about 500. Finally he gives me his name (Igor) and phone number, and I give him David’s business card…….. and know that I will have to hot foot it over to the ATM to get out some cash, but can’t leave in case the radiator guy comes early.
I have a bit of a nap…. all this waving of hands is tiring. At 5, here comes the man to fix the radiator. This is complicated (I think) a bit by the fact that it has quit leaking, but not so. He looks at it from all angles with his flashlight, hums and haws, and then in sign language (when he understood that I didn’t understand a single word of what he was saying), he shows me that the top is hot but the bottom is cold and gestures that he will have to take it out to either fix or replace it. And he keeps saying telephone, but shakes his head when I touch mine,…. and he says “moosh”….. finally I point to my wedding ring – he nods, and I go to find David’s business card. I hope that he calls David when he is at work so he can hand over the phone to someone at the office.
I know I keep using this word, but frustrating is the only one I can think of to describe the feeling of utter helplessness when there is important information to communicate and you are at a total loss to speak each other’s language. It really brings your attention to just how important communication is, and while you can smile and nod and say “hello”, and “goodbye” and “please” and “thank you”, and even “I don’t understand”, you aren’t even on the field, much less on first base.
Scheduling in my language study time has suddenly REALLY become a priority. Reading signs and trying to remember the letters is OK for the first week, but now it’s time to get serious.
Will I become reasonably fluent in Russian “pah Ruski” in three years? I don’t know, but I I’ll give it my best shot.