Monday, May 16, 2011

Local tourist: Brighton Beach

My grandfather sailed to the States from Russia as a toddler in 1912. Unfortunately, he died before I was old enough to ask him everything I now wish I could about our ancestors and his experiences growing up as an immigrant in Detroit. I don't know exactly why his family left the Volga basin; I was once told they were ever-so-politely ushered from the premises due to involvement in clandestine political activity, but I recently began to suspect that this story may have been concocted to tickle the imagination of a preteen with an unhealthy thirst for novels set in war zones. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the question was left unanswered in a brief family history written by a relative I never met. Said document did, however, inform me that a few of my relatives learned the hard way that stealing wood from the tsar's forest would get you shipped off to Siberia. Something to keep in mind.

Even though I'm aware of very few of the specifics of my own Russian heritage, I've always had a very romantic -- and very amateur -- fascination with my grandfather's homeland. I have a small collection of matryoshka dolls that occupies a shelf in the computer room at my house in Minneapolis -- the very room where, back in middle school, I harnessed the power of dial-up internet to learn how to scrawl out my name in Cyrillic letters. Years later, my Bulgarian friend V. joined the literacy effort, a move I'm sure he regretted every time I attempted to stammer my way through one of his newspapers or books. At one point, we got it in our heads that we were going to learn Russian, win the lottery, and ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad out into the sunrise. We ordered workbooks.

I never made it past Lesson One. (If you ever need to know how to say "this is a modem" in Russian, I'm your woman.) Nevertheless, I still firmly believe that one day I will learn Russian -- or at least enough Russian to book a ticket on the Trans-Siberian. In the meantime, I have Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is a neighborhood in southeast Brooklyn known for its large Russian-speaking community. I've been wanting to explore the neighborhood ever since I caught a glimpse of a few Russian storefront signs during a recent visit to Coney Island. Yesterday, with finals at last behind me (!!!), I had my chance.

A few blocks after stepping off the subway at Avenue X, I began spotting Cyrillic on store awnings and bus stop ads. Pretty soon, I was hearing Russian everywhere. I wandered into the Black Sea Bookstore at the corner of Coney Island and Brighton Beach Avenues and, after flashing an apologetic smile at a staff member who addressed me in Russian, asked to see books for children learning to read. Although it immediately became clear that even the most basic Russian kids' books were beyond me, the very friendly and patient staff dug out this cheery animal flashcard set, for which I gladly forked over $4.99:

My new menagerie and I set out for a stroll along Brighton Beach Avenue, a bustling commercial artery lined with specialty food stores, European shoe shops and lots and lots of pharmacies. I stopped in at M & I Specialty Foods, where the upstairs buffet was nothing to write home about but the bounty of Russian edibles was delirium inducing -- especially the extremely well-stocked candy mezzanine. Next was the enormous St. Petersburg, where I browsed long aisles of CDs, vintage Soviet posters, and books; the children's selection was, predictably, just as intimidating as Black Sea's.

Afterword, I took the animals to the boardwalk, where we strolled past beachside Russian restaurants

and visited the most elaborately decorated public bathroom I've ever seen.

When I got home, I flipped through my new flashcards and encountered a problem: It's hard to learn a word from a picture if you can't tell what the picture is. Most of the animals on the cards are your garden variety tigers and hippos, but this one, on the other hand, had me puzzled:

My guess was "evil fish," but a translation website tells me that "pike" is more like it. Which raises another question: How copious is Russian preschoolers' knowledge of fish species? Call me a sorry excuse for a Minnesotan, but they're all still just "fishies" to me.

In addition to making patent my woeful ignorance of all things scaled, my trip to Brighton Beach rekindled my urge to get serious about learning Russian. To be honest, I doubt this is a very realistic goal at the moment -- but I did pull out my old workbook this morning. So, if anyone out there knows of a Russian book in which a pike and a hippo discuss their new modem, please pass along the title. I just might be able to read it!


Anonymous said...

My family is really into ancestry and genealogy and I still don' know why they chose to leave Germany, or Sweden, or France, or whichever European country as I'm a descendant of many. I do know that just two generations ago, my family still spoke their native languages (those would have been the children of immigrants) and once I perused a bookshelf belonging to my great-uncle for books in German to bring to my class. I found what looked like an old medical text that had some of the most hilarious treatments for everyday ailments.

eve.oz said...

well, there are a lot of things you wouldnt want to know about Russian. I live in Post-soviet country, and I know, that my ancestors (and yours too) were not living... there were surviving. And Siberia, Its totally true, lots of people lost their live there.

eileen said...

And this is also where I went to nursery school! I spent every morning playing in that sand before heading inside to meet my classmates Malva, Svetlana and all the rest.

Glad you had a good time, and hope you get to learning Russian some time when you have time!

MisSy `ala* FriBBLe~ said...

What a great read. You had me laughing quite a bit with your clever wit. I live on Long Island and have never ventured over to Brighton Beach, but now my interest is definitely piqued.

Lodo Grdzak said...

They eat a lot of fish in Russia. There's not much else to eat there!

erinchristl said...

I'd love to visit NYC and the surrounding areas, the cultural diversity sounds amazing.

On a personal note, I'm half-Fijian, visit Fiji all the time, and speak barely a few sentences of the language. It's not as major an issue as needing to learn Russian as most people there speak English, but my grandmother lives on a remote island where they hardly ever need to use English so she doesn't anymore. Sure, I know when to 'sit down', 'eat' and 'move over', but it does make me feel a little guilty that I can't conduct a simple conversation with my own grandma.

Natallia Ts said...

What a treat was it to read your blog post! So funny, and yet so touching.

I hear your longing to learn more about your Russian ancestors.. and your desire to learn Russian as a way to connect with part of their lives.

I'm Russian myself, so your story about the fish sounds hilarious. Yes, everyone knows this particular type of fish. Russians don't have to be fish experts to recognize this type of fish - it is a popular character of several Russian fairy tales. I hope this explains the "mystery"...

My wish for you is that you give a try to learning Russian language. It is fun, and you will get to know a lot of things that are very different.

Best of luck, and thank you again for your making me smile!