A Little Frayed At The Edges

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.

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13 Responses to A Little Frayed At The Edges

  1. taitai4life says:

    Totally relate. Argentina was not so hard for me because with my French and Italian I was able to make myself understood. Then we went to an English speaking country so again no problem. But when we moved to Beijing and i couldn’t understand anything or even read (not easy to even replicate what’s written wgen there is no letters), all of a sudden the terrible two stage on my own children made totally sense: you know exactly what you want to say but cannot express it. Very humblying :-). Celine

  2. Evelyn says:

    Kathi…I have never been in the position of not being able to communicate, so I can only imagine how frustrating it must be. I’m sure with your determination you’ll be ‘talking’ before long.
    What I can empathize with is the ‘language barrier’ that often exists between repair people and the rest of us.

  3. Wow – that has to be very FRUSTRATING!!!!!!!!! However you have to admit that your washing machine got fixed VERY QUICKLY!!!!! Any quilt related stuff there and how big is the city you are living in??????

  4. Expatters says:

    It’s wonderful that you recognize that this is a stage-most would be in tears by this point. 🙂 You will get the language thing sorted, I am sure of it.

  5. Sue says:

    OH DEAR. . . How frusrating you must be. . . .I remember a similar time I had at the Madrid airport. . . flight was delayed, coulndt find my way to the domestic section. . . ended up mising my flight. . . I found out that tears do NOT increase clarity and high school spanish tends to disappear\ after a few years and college German. . . Hope your tomorrow is better.

    • You reminded me of an encounter we had one summer in Germany, waiting for a train when the one we wanted to catch had been cancelled. No one on the platform spoke English, and we really wondered if we would make it back to our hotel that night, or be sleeping on a bench at the railway station. Luckily we caught it and our connection and slept soundly in bed.

  6. Lori says:

    Kathy – I have never been in your situation other than trying to buy fish in Portugal (which is nothing compared to what you are dealing with!) and can only try to imagine your frustration. Have you looked for a translation website where you could type in your questions and have them translated to Russian? It probably wouldn’t help with what they are telling you but I might make it easier for you to have your message understood. Hang in there, it will get better! I do really enjoy “travelling” with you through your blog – thank you for taking the time to keep us updated! Hope you can find some quilting related stuff in the town soon!

  7. Cecilia magor says:

    Ah Kathi, I sympathyse, been there… I admire you for trying to learn Russian, good luck ! Xxxx

  8. Wow! I understand. Just yesterday a fellow showed up at my apartment door and when I opened it, I could see his face fall as he thought how will I tell this foreigner what I’m here for. Anyway, he could say insecta and spray so I knew it was the pest control person. Thankfully he didn’t want to spray the apartment ( I was still eating breakfast at the time), but only to use what looked like a glue gun to put a tiny bit of roach repellent on some bits of paper to put in the cupboards by the sink. No problems. We were able to work it out.

  9. Hope says:

    so your adventure has begun, and you did well. I know you will conquer the language.
    where are the quilt shops? enjoy!

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