Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Features

Fun with Phonics

By Marie Thompson Stoline

Before we ever watched Lost in Translation at the local movie theater, we experienced "Adventures with Andre.”

"Hello. It is Andre. You said I could come for visit. I am here at train station…. Can you come to find me?”

Andre is a Russian gentleman who had graciously acted as our driver while we were on a trip to Russia. Now our casual invitation to “come see us if you are ever in America” had materialized in this phone call. As it happened, our 20-something daughter and my elderly mother were both visiting with us on that same fall day in 1990.

"Oh, dear,” exclaimed Mom, her eyes wide. Her worst fear had just come true: the enemy was within the gates! Then, true to her Iowa traditions, her next question was: "What do Russians eat? I’ll set the table and put out what we have while you go get him.”

We picked Andre up and brought him to our home—just in time for leftovers. “Left-overs? Left-overs?” he queried. “I do not know such word.” We explained somewhat apologetically that his unexpected arrival meant we hadn’t prepared a proper dinner. He glanced over the table filled with dibs and dabs of previous meals (a bowl of stew, some salad, cottage cheese). “Oh, I understand now,” he smiled. “Leftovers means ‘old food.’ We have same Russian custom.”

While we ate, Mother asked, “Sir, what worried you the most about coming to visit our country?”

"Well,” Andre replied thoughtfully, “I was afraid there would be many rubbers in the street.”

Rubbers? Rubbers? We all stared silently into our plates. Our daughter began to giggle…then Mother began to giggle. Finally, Andre asked why they were laughing at him.”

"Oh, we’re not laughing AT you,” our daughter said. “It’s just that rubbers is a slang term for condoms.”

Mother’s back stiffened, and she sniffed primly. “In my day, people didn’t talk like this at the table!”

Andre clarified his statement by finding a synonym. “I meant the crimers (criminals).” We all blushed and laughed, and the Cold War began to thaw right at our kitchen table.

The Cold War. The Iron Curtain. It’s hard to describe just how paranoid we were in mid-century America. The years following World War II were a time of ideological conflict with a nation then known as the Soviet Union. Capitalism versus Communism, with overtones of military might but no open warfare. Our economy flourished in the rush to re-establish domestic tranquility, but we felt the perpetual shadow of unease that “THEY” might come to overtake us at any moment.

Who were “they”? Why, the Communists, of course! More specifically, the Russians—given that they had used post-war chaos to usurp a large portion of the globe’s surface that had formerly made up several independent states of Eastern Europe. Collectively, these units now functioned as the political entity of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). And all this went on behind the “Iron Curtain”—out of sight, but never out of mind. Spies on both sides had a heyday, trying to learn the opposition’s secrets.

From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, news media kept us well informed of Russia’s growing arms buildup. Our leaders assured us that our own national defenses would remain strong, but we felt intense concern for our personal safety. Once the additional atomic threat surfaced, our little community in central Iowa established a Civil Defense system. Volunteers stood watch on top of the fire station to guard against enemy aircraft. We learned “duck and cover” in air raid drills at school. When the Soviets launched the first unmanned satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, we were encouraged to study harder on scientific subjects to counteract the Russians’ perceived advantage in those fields. After all, if they could beat us into space, what else might they be able to do?

Fast forward to the mid-1980s. The old Soviet Union is crumbling under its own weight of oppressive policies and inefficiencies. A few brave Westerners have actually visited Russia and returned to report on a much different way of life. They describe rigid regulations and unsmiling citizens in clean, but featureless, cities—with marvelous relics of previous grandeur preserved for their historic value. So we jumped at the chance to take a whirlwind visit to Moscow/Kiev/St. Petersburg. Here was a chance to peek behind that Iron Curtain.

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, only confirming the long-held suspicions of our families back home. “You see, it really is a dangerous place! Those Russians are just not like us. They’re warlike and ruthless. You’ve done well to get home alive. We hope you’ve learned your lesson.”

Instead, our respect and affection for the Russian people was only deepened by our experience. Russian citizens, after all, had had the vision, courage, and tenacity to seek a new way to govern themselves. The resilience and resourcefulness of those we met were impressive. On additional trips, we discovered common ground in environmental concerns. We shared appreciation for the fine arts and bluegrass music. When it became easier for Russians to travel, we invited new acquaintances to come stay with us. And, now, here was Andre—FUN-ICS had begun!

Even a simple shopping trip for socks held amusement. While Andre perused the large array of colors, fabrics, sizes, he became somewhat flustered and began to mutter, "Socks, socks, socks….” Given his accent, this self-talk actually sounded like “sex, sex, sex….” In the midst of his monologue, another shopper appeared around the corner of the display. Her eyes widened and she backed away in haste. Her expression said that she thought she’d encountered a dangerous fiend on the prowl.

We invited a Russian student at our local college to come for a potluck with friends. “It will be very informal,” we assured her. “No need to fix anything fancy.”

"Potluck? Potluck? I do not know such word.”

"Well, everyone brings a dish and we all share the food.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the phone line. “You know, no self-respecting Russian woman would ever invite people to her home if she did not have enough to feed them!” Thus did we learn that “culture shock” can work in both directions…and our student friend came to appreciate an American custom. By the time she finished her studies, she said that potlucking was one of the best ideas she was taking home with her!

On another occasion, we offered a Russian dinner guest a second helping. “No, thanks,” he replied with a smile, as he made a throat-slitting gesture with the side of his hand. “I am fed up.” In this case, of course, “fed up” meant “filled up.”

My own initiation into the hazards of translation came on a visit to Russia in 1992. I was traveling as part of a humanitarian delegation and had no time to learn a language prior to departure. Instead, I hired the wife of a graduate student to tutor me in Russian. “I just need a few words and phrases,” I told her. “I’ll memorize them phonetically and you check my pronunciation. Okay?”

"Sure. No problem.”

So we set to work on the basics: telephone, bathroom, how much does it cost…etc. My tutor even offered some extra phrases and cultural background, knowing that I would meet officials in our Partnership City.

"You will be introduced at City Hall,” told me. “The mayor and his colleagues will shake hands and say ‘ochen pri-yat-na.’ You should bow slightly and respond, ‘pah yay-dom peets-piva.’”

And so, when I found myself at City Hall, I did as she instructed, making my way down a receiving line of gracious men and women, all very polite. As we exchanged greetings, they smiled broadly and shook my hand with sincere warmth. My long-held stereotypes of “chilly Russian demeanor” evaporated.

As we stood aside waiting for the next activity, my guide/interpreter smiled and shook his head with a gesture of disbelief. “You Americans,” he said. “We were always taught that you were much different from us. Now I have had a chance to see this with my own eyes. It is amazing. You are so free. You are so much more open than we are as a people.”

"What do you mean?” I asked in some bewilderment.

"Well, when you were introduced to our officials, you invited each of them to come and drink beer with you!”

Yes, indeed, that is what “pah yay-dom peets-piva” means: “Let’s go home and drink beer!” The joke was on me.

Given the Cold War as we knew it, it is amazing to know how many relationships between Russians and Americans are now based on shared values, mutual concerns—and good humor. Our own positive experiences point the way to a more peaceful world. Along the way, let’s continue to enjoy “fun-ics.”