Some years ago, soon after meeting the Ukrainian woman whom I would later marry, I decided to learn Russian. I hoped to build enough understanding of the language to converse with her family and enrich our travel.
My first step was to acquire a colorful little tape and booklet package for beginners and travelers called Learn Russian the Fast and Fun Way (The activity kit that makes learning a language quick and easy!).
After a brief introductory chapter, which among other warm-ups introduces the Cyrillic alphabet, the lesson plan joins an improbably Russian-fluent American family on their first trip to Moscow. They are checking into their hotel, and problems begin immediately.
They’ve reserved two rooms with showers. But, they’re told, the shower in the first room doesn’t work (douche ne rabotayet). The shower in the second room is working, assures the front desk man, but the window doesn’t open (Okno ne otkrit). We then learn that the one television also doesn’t work (televisor ne rabotayet), and the elevator is out of commission (Lift’ ne rabotayet).
These would not be the last hurdles for our junketeering family as they navigate local crossroads and culture, and I had to wonder: what a silly way to introduce language and travel in Russia—which might be summed up as Nichevo ne rabotayet! (Nothing works!)
But as time and travel with my wife in Russia and Ukraine would reveal, the lessons held much wisdom—and warning. The East may amaze and delight the gentle voyager but it does not pamper. And many things just don’t work, open, close, stay put, or make sense.
On my first trip to Kiev, my future wife and I decided, instead of staying in her small suburban apartment, to rent a three-room furnished apartment in the downtown Podil neighborhood. She wanted my first experience of Kiev to be vibrant.
The old apartment building stood hunched in a line of old buildings on a busy street that offered a prime view of the Dnieper River and easy walking access to the city center. Its construction looked of pre-war vintage, so I entered prepared for the worst.
The first thing I did was to test the window. Hoorah! It opened!
Next, the plumbing, although needing a little finesse, functioned like a good soldier, and so the shower worked. Same for electricity, which hummed a strange tune but provided the needed power. I began to relax.
But the television was lurking.
During this visit, my wife had external business to take care of, leaving me alone much of the time to wander and sightsee. In addition to poking around town though, I wanted to explore Russian and Ukrainian TV, which I had never seen before, so allowed time for viewing.
I came back alone the next afternoon and turned the box on, hoping for some local programs. But instead of a picture, I viewed a bizarre pattern that broke a fuzzy screen into three horizontal sections. The top section showed the top of the broadcast image, the middle band was all black, and the bottom seemed to show the top image, only upside down.
Gotcha, Amerikanitz! Televisor ne rabotayet.
I’d been had and I knew it. But with time and new-found determination, I set to fixing it, thereby, I hoped, striking a blow for Yankee knowhow.
For hours, I pounded and shook. I twisted knobs and flipped channels. And then… I broke the code.
It was all about procedure, a procedure that required first changing channels in an ordained order then, and only then, tapping the right side of the housing with a kitchen spoon. Boom! It worked, at least until you turned it off. Then turn back on and repeat procedure.
I was jubilant, and bragged mightily to my wife and family. They applauded my Soviet-era ingenuity, a knack that everyone had to acquire back then to fix or improvise everything because, truly, nothing did work.
Behind closed doors
Doors presented another challenge in our Eastern travels, often not opening, closing, or locking. We especially had problems with sliding shower doors in hotel bathrooms, which never seemed mounted right. More than once we left bathrooms in a puddle because of sticking or off-track shower doors.
In one hotel in western Ukraine, the bathroom door itself fell off, which forced me to drag the loose door against and away from its frame every time I visited the john. I did this because of a long inbred sense of “pottesty” (shyness in the bathroom), and opening my visits to public view, even to my wife, would have just invited locker-room angst.
Train compartment doors also bedeviled us. On one middle-of-the-night trip from Kiev to Moscow sharing a sleeper with our in-laws, my brother-in-law, needing to get to the WC fast after a night of heavy spirits, found our compartment door fused shut. Try as he might, no movement. He woke me, and together we gave enough of a yank and shove to free it.
But then, once open, the slider wouldn’t budge to close. So, it was a long, noisy night from the corridor.
Entertainment—it’s what’s for dinner
Eating out could have the contrary effect—that is, things worked in excess. For example, several times, we found ourselves in well-intentioned restaurants, where management, seeking to add ambience, offered live musical entertainment, sometimes elaborate entertainment. The problem was that in some of these restaurants the number of entertainers exceeded the number of diners.
Two incidents stick out: first in Moscow’s famous Prague Restaurant, reputed to be one of Stalin’s favorite restaurants and, when we were last there, a tribute to red velvet pizzazz.
It was the night before Orthodox Easter, so my wife and I expected some curbing of clientele. But we didn’t expect to be one of only two parties in the great stage hall-restaurant—the other group being what looked like a local “underworld entrepreneur” surrounded by three glam girls in crepe cocktail dresses, who downed champagne and billowed cigarette smoke in every direction.
We ordered the “live fish” (zhivaya ri’ba), which, when the waiter brought it to our table for inspection before cooking, really did show lots of life as it furiously slapped and flopped around on the plate. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the dining courtesy of first giving you a sneak peek at the very poisson so, for a moment, panicked that dinner was now being served, and that dinner was a frightened fish.
(My wife later raised the possibility that the fish they brought was really a ringer who mimes the whole “live fish” act so that the kitchen can cook and serve another long-dead, not-so-fresh fish. After this actor’s two minutes of fame, he is then returned to his tank, where he gills contentedly until the next performance.)
Despite the tiny audience, the celebrated Prague stage show had to go on, and go on it did. In this case, the show was a twenty-piece orchestra and a doll vocalist with a repertoire that would put a sweat to Wayne Newton.
Imagine the scene: large nightclub, big band sound and booming vocals, leading to BIG showbiz finish, followed by… timid applause from two fish diners. (The other gentleman and his champagne-sluicing trio had, sometime after the first number, ceased paying attention to the stage and instead entered into a long and loud dispute about something that may or may not have been linked to the evening’s specials.)
Worse, the singer’s gushing thank-you’s and professions of appreciation to their wonderful audience of two made us squirm in our red velvet seats. We couldn’t take it. We finished our meals, waited for intermission, and hightailed on tiptoes, while the other party continued to down drink, blow smoke, and challenge each other. “An unforgettable evening,” I blurted to the maître d’ as we grazed him on our rush for the street.
Later, in a visit to a Yalta restaurant, we again found ourselves the sole patrons and audience for an enthusiastic male singer/keyboardist. The young song-stylist belted out favorites in Russian, French, Spanish (Besame Mucho, of course), hoping to connect with his audience of two, who were mostly wishing they could have lunch in peace.
But when he announced, in three different languages, that he accepted requests, we saw our chance. My wife approached the stage, greeted him kindly, and said that our request was that he take a well-deserved break —using the excuse that with so few people his time would be better spent doing something else. With that, she passed him a generous ruble note, to which he beamed and headed for the boardwalk.