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!