I have no words

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I'm in Russia, and getting here was tough. It was like it was Day One all over again, except much much harder. I got to bed late after the Bog Hash and was already a bit defeated. The airport hotel in Dublin turned out to be tricky to find, and what I'd hoped would be an early night, a warm bath, and an evening of free wifi didn't really pan out (arrived late, no bathtub, wifi intermittent). Plus, I was exhausted and bore wounds from head to toe from nettles and other assorted prickly bog flora*, and I had to set the alarm for 4:15am to get the shuttle to the airport.

The wait at the airport in Dublin, and the flight from Dublin to Budapest and the layover in Budapest were all a grumpy, apprehensive, ill-tempered haze. I do recall sending out a few plaintiff text messages along the lines of "Right now I'd trade adventure for a pub, and give change in the bargain." Eventually though, I was on the flight to Moscow, so I just had to suck it up.

And then we landed and it was, to use the vernacular, time to get my game on. Luckily as we were in our final approach I started to get a bit excited. Some of the dread and melancholy shook away and I was able to hit the ground running, until I got to Passport Control, and then things ground to a halt. I stood in line for ages (the Russians could learn a thing or two from Brits about queuing), and finally got to the front only to discover that I was supposed to have filled out a key bit of paperwork on the plane. The flight attendants had been handing out papers, but not to everyone, so I assumed they knew who was supposed to get them. It turns out that was, er, incorrect. I stepped out of line, filled out the form (in duplicate) and the Russian Customs Official grudgingly let me in.

The train from the airport was easy - there were big English signs pointing the way, and the ticket office was obvious, and there was only one train, and it said "Moscow" right on it. (Actually, it said "Mockba", but that's what Moscow looks like in Cyrillic letters). Easy peasy. I settled in and consulted the guide book again to prep for the next phase - the metro. And that's when it really started to sink in - as I sped away from the airport and its bilingual signs. I watched the city unfold and everywhere I looked were these crazy symbols that looked sort of like words, but also really not.

See what I mean?

I knew from the trusty LP** that the metro maps might include Cyrillic and Roman names for each stop, but the signs in the stations themselves are only in Cyrillic. As the LP also says:

"Russian grammar may be daunting, but your travels will be far more interesting if you are at least take the time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you can read maps and street signs."

Ok, it turns out that it doesn't count as "learning the Cyrillic alphabet" if you only crack open your phrasebook on the flight from Budapest to Moscow, some time after an impromptu nap and the serving of an unidentifiable meat and cabbage offering provided as supper.

So there I was on the train, alone, and speeding towards downtown Moscow. And that's when it hit me: I have no words here. I think I'm a highly literate person, with a reasonably extensive vocabulary. I like words, and I like using them to express myself. Suddenly, I had no words and it dawned on me: "This is what it's like to be illiterate." Imagine trying to navigate through life "reading" billboards, street signs, menus, and safety instructions that look like they're written in wingdings. You know the symbols mean something to someone; in fact, they mean something to everyone except you. It was scary. I've got a new found respect for anyone who's pulled themselves out of that black hole.***

So I started to reach up out of my little mini black hole (beige indentation, maybe). I managed to make it to the correct interchange station, and I managed to find the right line to transfer to, and even the right platform .**** Luckily, the car I got on after changing lines was much newer than the one from the train station (which felt like it was from the 50s. Gratifyingly Soviet). The new car had an interactive map that lit an indicator under each station's name as the train passed through it. So I didn't have to crane my neck to try and spot the one place on the wall in each station where the name was displayed, I could just follow along in the display. This gave me a bit of time to relax, and study and listen. And after a few more stations went by I was actually able to start to pick out the station name in the announcement played as we arrived at each stop. And then I was even able to look at the Cyrillic on the signs and the Roman version in the guide book and hold the correct pronunciation in my head long enough that I could just start to see the Cyrillic letters as they are supposed to sound. It was like the clouds parted a very tiny bit, and it was hugely gratifying. I'm barely at the A-is-for-Apple stage, but it's a start. (Oh, and actually A is for Yablaka. Or possibly Yablakee.)

Finding the hotel from the metro was not hard because it's freakin' enormous (8,000 beds - Europe's biggest), so it was pretty easy to spot. And I even ventured into a small convenience store and picked up a beer and a bag of chips (R75 in total - cheap! In fact, the beer was cheaper than chips. R30 for beer, or about one Canadian dollar for 500ml.) I was stunned to see that it was almost 11:00pm by the time I was checked in, and the plane had landed on time at 7:30pm. But by the time I made it up to my room with beer, chips and a wifi internet card, I was pretty damned pleased with myself. I will admit there was some jumping up and down.

Beer and chips. The universal language.

And the room was nice, though a bit too warm (It's actually summer here. Ireland - are you listening?), but with a bathtub and shower and lots of convenient power plugs and really, I felt pretty damned good.

So I made it to Moscow. As I post this I've already bee here for almost two full days, so there's lots more to tell. But that night I felt like I'd climbed a fairly big mountain. And I'd like to personally thank every individual around the globe who's taken the time and put forth effort to learn my language, so I can jet around the world and still manage to buy a beer where I land. Thank you.

No, really. THANK YOU. In fact, can I buy you a beer?

* That has was madly fun, though. I was up to mid-thigh in black, peaty water a few times. More on the Bog Hash in a separate post, I hope, but just let me say that the guys who did that run in shorts are certifiable. I was lucky enough to be loaned a pair of tights and I still came out scarred. I wish I'd had some tall socks, or possibly a full haz-mat suit.

** Lonely Planet Guide Book. Alas, Rick Steves does not venture this far, or when he does, he doesn't write guidebooks about it. Besides, I can't find his stuff over here anyways, and all the cool kids carry the LP. Actually, the really cool kids travel with no guide book, but I think they spend a lot more time sleeping on park benches than they admit.

*** Jacques Demers, I'm talking to you. And thanks for the '93 Cup.

**** How did I manage to do that with no back-tracking, in a foreign language and alphabet, yet I could not manage to travel in even the vaguely correct direction at any time in Glasgow?


Liam said...

Glad you made it safely to Moscow, and the scratches will heal in time. We had a hangover hash on Sunday, and you missed the Lovely Ladies Competition at the CanalFest in the nearby Village, not to mention Elvis.

Will follow your travels attentively, and who knows, some of us from Dublin might fall across you on a bench somewhere in the next twelve months!

Anonymous said...

You are truly my hero Pam! Might have to meet up with you somewhere next summer, or this winter depending where you are :)

Unknown said...

So enjoying your blog. Have fun!
Mother Russia, duzo dobre!

Natalie Duhamel, HHC said...

Pam, seriously... You're so freakin' cool. I'm glad you made it, and wish you many awesome adventures. Pam is in RUSSIA!


Phonella said...

Pam is in RUSSIA! I just had to say that again. Congratulations dear, you're doin' absolutely great.

Chris said...

Now you are truly traveling...you don't know the language at all and you are still doing fine! Awesome!

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