“Russians don’t know how to play soccer”

The other night the boys down the hall (the computer guys) invited me to come over to watch the soccer game against Slovakia.  They didn’t tell me what time the game was, but when I got home from dinner I heard them howling in agony as Russia’s team, well, sucked.  (The photo above is of Arshavin, the “maestro” of the team– you can find online photo albums devoted to his collection of odd facial expressions).  When Russia’s team team kept trying and failing to score a goal against their rivals, one of my friends said, “Well, Russians don’t know how to play soccer.  We’re good at hockey, though”.

I forget how our conversation changed, but for Alyosha and I started talking about my first few weeks in Russia and the difficulties I was facing.  I told him that I knew, of course, that it would be challenging for me, but nothing that would be more than I could handle.  He started talking about how here, “you only need to talk to a person once and you are already good friends.”  This is a guy my age, not an especially philosophical person as far as I can tell, and yet he was talking with great love and admiration about Russianness.  Then he said something about how it’s cold and the radiator isn’t even on yet, but it doesn’t matter, because Russians are so warm!  Or something.  My listening comprehension definitely needs some work, and I sometimes miss a lot of the meaning of a conversation if it hasn’t been slowed down to accommodate me.

Don’t tell Russia, but with the help of my excellent friend J I downloaded a program called “Expat Shield”.  It lets me do things like go on youtube (banned only at school, not all over Russia, I’m not in China here, for God’s sake), download podcasts in Russian for the bus ride into the city, and watch stuff on Netflix streaming and on Hulu.  I watched a documentary about the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who took the side of the Chechnyans in the recent war, and who suffered several poisonings before she was murdered in an elevator in her building in 2006.  What an evocative movie, evocative of the tragedies that Russia’s suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union… with plenty of footage from Chechnyan terrorist attacks committed in those years.  I also watched “The Thief,” a serious, dramatic movie whose title is rendered as BOP in Cyrillic– which made me chuckle until I saw how terribly depressing the movie was.  It was told from the perspective of a little boy about a dissolute soldier who becomes his mother’s lover.  The soldier has a Stalin tattoo on his left breast and wins the child’s love and awe by telling him that Stalin was his father.  And on Hulu when I need a break from Russian I watch Boston Med, which is a documentary show about doctors and nurses at three hospitals in Boston, and it’s really awesome and has the same intrigue of any “doctor show” except that it’s real.  I highly recommend it!  Free TV!  Thank you, Expat Shield!

Anyway, there’s a Brit here who is the other “Native Speaker”– you look at your schedule of lessons, and while the other teachers are listed by name, you’re entered in simply as “Native Speaker,” or, in its more literal translation, “bearer of language”.  So this Brit tells me he doesn’t like Russians (this guy isn’t really into much of anything else, either).  He’s been living here for five years and he doesn’t speak Russian.  No wonder he doesn’t like Russians.  If he doesn’t have the language, how could he?  I don’t understand people who can live in a country and not know the language, or try.  It’s really impossible to be anybody without speaking the language– you’re really an island if you can’t express yourself.  That’s the challenge of this year for me, can I be a person here?  Will I be able to be myself when I take part in conversations, express my real opinions, and not just be the one listening and straining to understand?

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