Excerpt from the Journal of Olds – The Language Barrier

Sat aboard the No. 304 train from Moscow to Irkutsk, not quite 24 hours into the 4 day journey – the longest stretch of our Trans-Mongolian route – I figure I have ample time to reflect on my experiences in Russia so far. I say ‘so far’ as while this leg aboard the locomotive will see us depart European Russia the country is so vast that we will still be in it when we reach our destination, albeit in Siberian Russia on the Asian continent.

A few observations to set the scene:

–          All Russian men smoke.

–          Very often, in European Russia, the sky is grey.

–          It is cold.

Minor generalisations aside, there’s no doubt that we are progressing toward increasingly significant language barriers. While in Berlin we could essentially speak English, and Krakow was very similar, Russia is proving to be an altogether different proposition. St Petersburg was still fine really. It feels very European and I believe this is by design – architecturally at least – as Peter the Great had the place built from the ground up as a capital city and invited architects from across the continent to exert their collective influence over its structure and buildings.

At this point I’ll take the opportunity to declare all my blogs as completely unsupported by any research / evidence – it may well be Geoff the Great for all I know, but I was told Peter, or at least I heard Peter…and I’m pretty sure he pulled in architects from around Europe. Feel free to point out the holes.

The local populace grasped English far better than our feeble attempts to speak their native language. I have to digress again and say that there’s no expectation on my part; I’m [hopefully] not the stereotypical Brit abroad that feels all should have a firm grasp of English. It’s just undeniably difficult to communicate. The whistle-stop nature of the journey at this early stage prohibits all but the most basic lingo to be memorised from one country to the next. I’ve tried – with varying degrees of both effort and success – to pick up enough to be polite. Spasiba [“Thank you” – and thanks Lynne @ grs] can be an incredibly versatile word when you’ve little else to say.

Where St Pete’s was accessible, Moscow was much more difficult. Pointing and holding up fingers [for counting, not insulting…well, not always] was often the order of the day and at one point we actually left a cafe because we had no way to communicate and had passed an alternative with an English menu a few steps earlier. Shameful I know, but the brief nature of our time in these places at the moment is definitely a factor here – we had only a couple of days in St Pete and Moscow and the desire to make the most of it [and the desire to avoid a nasty surprise] curbs the amount of effort I’m prepared to put into anything as inconsequential as lunch. Perhaps I’ll reach a new level of Zen at some stage where I’ll want nothing more than such a gamble, but I’m not there yet.

To underline the language issue I am fully aware that China will be a far greater challenge but one that I am up for and the time constraint will be significantly relaxed – technically when we reach Beijing we’re no longer on the clock, and can choose to take as much or as little time as we want in a place. The cost restraint becomes paramount then – and of course whether it’s any good.