We meet at a cafe.
He is an older man, late fifties, with a receding hairline and a weak chin. He carries a beige tote bag that zips at the top and holds in his hands a crumpled cyrillic alphabet. He is short, with a silver, expensive looking watch resting upon his wrist beneath the disheveled foldings of his faded button up shirt. The air of self importance is all too evident.
Knowing this must be him, I approach the little man.
The Russian Teacher: “Ah, Alexis! I had no way to recognize you! Let’s begin.”
He flops the cyrillic alphabet on the table before me and proceeds to remove a small book from his tote and plops it down next to the crumpled paper.
The Russian Teacher: “You are young!- how are you a teacher so young?”
The Russian Teacher: “Give me your birthday, only the month and date.”
He briskly digs into his jacket pocket and reveals a piece of laminated paper, then he looks up at me with gleaming, playful eyes.
Me:” October 22″
The Russian Teacher: “Hmmmm, ah! The King of Hearts! You are a King? How interesting. King of Hearts! ”
He says the last word, “hearts”, suggestively. I just smile and laugh nervously. I had a feeling this would be an entertaining experience. Something about older people from the USSR always indicates the necessity for a new set of lenses from which to view the world.
He promptly points to the book.
The Russian Teacher: “This book is very popular now. A female detective. It is a series. Very popular, you will like it. Now, open it and read out loud. Let’s see how well you studied the alphabet before we met. I want to check your pronunciation. I have underlined words you must know. Google translate them, learn them before we meet again. You can also check the pronunciation on Google, just press the little button..you know which?”
I nod and smile. He speaks quickly. His Russian accent is very heavy but it does not slow him down. He eyebrows rise and fall animatedly as he speaks and his eyes do not stop their mischievous gleam.
He looks expectantly at me, down to the book, and then back at me again. I don’t speak Russian. Not a word.
I pull the book towards me and open the cover, turning to the first page.
Me: “Na vot…Na-ko-netz ta-ki…Zhote-e-
The Russian Teacher: “No, stop. This X is ‘H’ not ‘Zh’.”
I had confused the letter ж with х. I haltingly repeat the words.
The Russian Teacher: “Stop. You do not sound like an American. This is good.”
I give a quick smile.
The Russian Teacher: “But you smile like an American. This is bad.”
I try to wipe the grin from my face, but it’s impossible. I’ve tried to stop smiling before, for photos, to seem serious, to make a boyfriend like me more, it doesn’t help. If I’m not smiling it means I’m gravely unhappy. At this moment, I was tickled by this ridiculous teacher sitting before me. I just wanted to laugh. The smile was broad on my face.
The Russian Teacher: “This is bad because it messes up your pronunciation. Americans speak wide- stretching their mouths from side to side. Russian is spoken with mouth closed, up and down.”
He puts each index finger at either dimple and pulls out to explain how Americans speak. Then he opens his mouth open and closed like a goldfish to demonstrate Russian speaking.
The Russian Teacher: “It is that smile. Russians do not smile so much you know.”
I just laugh. I knew this. I could always make a Russian smile…eventually.
He looks at me, eyes alight, and cocks his head to one side. Then he says my name thoughtfully.
The Russian Teacher: “A-lex-is. This is interesting..could be Russian, could be American, could be German…but Ramos is Spanish…?”
Me: “My father is Mexican.”
The Russian Teacher: “And your mother is Polish? You said you speak Polish yes?”
Me: “No, my Mother is…A-Assyrian.”
Best to keep it simple.
The Russian Teacher: “Ah ok! Interesting! ah…ok. The basics! You know ‘hello’ of course. Informal- Privet.”
I repeat. He makes me write it, to practice. I etch привет deliberately into my spiral bound notebook. He nods.
The Russian Teacher: “Good! You’re quick, that’s good.”
We go like this for some time. He says a phrase, I strain my ears to hear each syllable and then repeat it back to him. He reinforces that I must keep my mouth closed as I speak, this means no smiling. I manage. When I don’t catch on in the first or second try he hurriedly says I need to practice and moves on. He teaches in the old way. He spits things out quickly, expects me to catch on or be left behind. I keep up…only just. He gives me a lot of homework.
The Russian Teacher: “I will send you music. To speak a language you must enter the soul of the language. You change your mind to wrap around the language, you think in the tune of the language. This is the only way. And the way to do that is to hear yourself in the language. Listen to the music and repeat it over and over. Hear yourself in the language!!”
He says this with a sort of ferocity that would be intimidating if I wasn’t such a passionate creature myself. I never had a gift for grammar, preferring to roll with a language and pick things up as I go. I understood him.
The Russian Teacher: “Now, In Russian there is the formal and informal way to address you, thou. There is the informal ‘ty’ and the formal ‘vy.’ It is impolite for someone to address you as ‘ty’ without knowing you and asking permission first.”
He stopped and his eyes twinkled.
The Russian Teacher: “So if a dirty old man, thinking to be clever, calls out to you and refers to you as ‘ty’ you respond with ‘не тыкай мне!’ [Ne tykay mne!]. It means, ‘Don’t ‘ty’ me!'”
He smiles in that mischievous way again. For a man who says Russians don’t smile too often, he seems to smile a lot. I repeat and laugh. I have an inkling that the dirty old man might be seated across the table from me, but I push the thought aside and smile.
Needless to say, he asks to call me ‘ty’ just then and I was ‘ty’ thereafter. I guess familiarity moves quickly in Russian, or just for Lev.
After some time, Lev stops the repeating of the words. He reinforces the need for me to look up, learn to pronounce and learn the words he underlined in the female detective book he has brought for me. There seems to be some significance to the fact that the detective in this book is female.
The Russian Teacher: “Like music, you must feel the music before learning to play it, you must feel the language to learn it. I send you the songs! You listen and you repeat everything! I am a pianist, you know. I also wrote a book in English. You see, I have a very high IQ, 178! This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing because I am very smart.”
He pauses and gives me that humorous look underneath bushy eyebrows once more. He keeps going on his self-important rampage, hands moving swiftly now to emphasize his point.
The Russian Teacher: “But it is a bad thing too because you are always ahead! In the Soviet Union I was always number one in the city in Mathematics and Music, not that it matters. But everyone is always behind because they are not as smart, so you must wait for them to catch up and repeat yourself. I wrote this book, it is very simply written, really, but it is complex! At first it was just 10 pages, but the editor said I must chew it and chew it again and then it is over 400 pages and now people understand it- but not all of them! You must read it, you will like it, you are smart.”
I laugh and take the card with the book’s name on it along with the dash of flattery he dispensed with.
The Russian Teacher: “I am also starting a business! Here is a card.”
I take the card and read it. Matchmaking and Marriage Counseling. I raise my eyebrows at him and giggle audibly.
Me: “Do you consider yourself an expert?”
The Russian Teacher: “I am married 45 years!! The same woman! There is a Russian saying, ‘Once you begin to understand women, you are no longer a man.'”
He notices my look of chagrin.
The Russian Teacher: “But this is a compliment you see! I am not a man, I am a husband.”
I just laugh. He looks at me expectantly. I am confused. Is he suggesting I need his services? As a matchmaker or as a marriage counselor? I wonder if he had an idea in his head. He swiftly takes back the card. I smile again.
He reaches into his coat pocket again and pulls out a few other laminated papers. He hands me one which has squares of colors on it.
The Russian Teacher: “Ok, before I go. Pick a color which you think represents me right now. Go on, just pick one or two of the colors.”
At this point he seems to be perspiring, probably winded by all the talk of his book and his business. The pink of his blood vessels in his cheeks and nose stand out against the yellow of his skin.
Me: “Red and yellow.”
He hands me a different laminated sheet which has meanings printed across from colors and color pairs.
Red/Yellow- Thrill seeker, enjoys new experiences
I laugh and raise my eyebrows.
The Russian Teacher: “Now I pick for you! Red and Purple!”
I look down at the card.
Red/Purple- You seek physical pleasures, sensuous
I’m pretty sure I blush here but it’s hard to tell. I laugh and swiftly hand back the laminated chart. Dirty old man indeed. But I don’t feel threatened. It is all very light hearted there in the cafe with the sunshine peeping through the windows.
The Russian Teacher: “A-lex-is. A dramatic name, straight from the drama films and television shows.”
Me: “So they tell me…”
Apparently there was a very famous t.v. show in Poland in the 80s and the villain’s name was Alexis. All Poles exclaim this when we are introduced. I wonder if there is a similar phenomenon in Russia.
We schedule our next lesson, for Thursday, he repeats my homework, and he takes my email. The name Ashley is in the e-mail address.
The Russian Teacher: “You want to be Ashley?”
Me: “My middle name is Ashley.”
The Russian Teacher: “Alexis…Ashley…Your parents are very romantic…”
With that, he walks out the door, leaving me confused as to what that means.
The Liberated Polyglot