Stop Telling Me My Name is Complicated

As always I can’t avoid various pop culture references popping (ha) up in my head during a topic of discussion close to my personal experience, and in this case it’s definitely the chorus of Say My Name by Destiny’s Child.

I worked with someone once who, striving to be polite and avoid mispronouncing my name, reverted simply to addressing me with “You” most of the time. Which is fine, and which I classify as sweet, but since he had a sense of humour, after a while I started singing “Say my name/ Say my name” at him whenever he spoke to me. When he actually did use my name, it turned out he was able to pronounce it correctly all along.

I wrote recently about things people ask me once I say I’m from Russia, and as often happens in these cases, I also have a Russian name. Actually, if you dig deeper and have time, I might tell you about the Greek origins of my name, its versions in other European languages, its connection to a few other female and male names, but that’s not the focus of this blog post and I’m already talking enough about myself aren’t I?

The Russian name means that there are combinations of letters in it which might be unfamiliar to some people and which further lead to pronounciation that they haven’t come across before. This leads to several scenarios after my introduction, from saying it wrongly repeatedly and trying to convince me this is how it works, to hopefully asking me if it’s actually another name. Um, no. But the response that I ultimately had a problem with and spent some time analyzing was, preceded by a squinty eye or a bewildered look, “What? Hmm, too complicated”, “Too difficult”, “What? No, I can’t say that.”

Now, I understand that in most cases people were simply being frank and in their anxiety to do well all sorts of chatter slipped out. That has happened to me before as well. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, I’ve never told anyone whose name was new to me that it was “complicated”. I’d simply repeat my hello and then possibly ask during a quiet one-on-one moment how to pronounce the name. And the experience described above has only made me more sensitive, at least I hope so.

My name is not complicated. You just haven’t heard it before. You might not know or remember the existing European versions of my name. Breathe deeply once through your nose and give yourself some time. It’s OK to ask me to repeat it or to let me know you want to get the pronounciation right. In fact, I consider the latter courteous. It’s a polite sort of honesty that is immediately disarming. It also puts anyone at ease, because you are paying attention to your conversation partner. Just don’t force your firm opinions on me.

It might be useful, in general, to stop assuming you’re the first person telling me this. Do you really want to be part of the group who make the same comment over and over? Don’t get me wrong, interest is fine, but it only takes a few seconds to distinguish yourself by making an effort.

Why am I writing about this? Well…Within a few months after I first arrived in my new city I caught myself adding “Yes, it’s a bit complicated” after my introduction as soon as I saw a person pause or ask “Pardon?”, thus cutting off what might have actually been a different interaction, and saying something that I didn’t think was true, essentially lying about myself. I got a nickname which was pronounceable for those around me at the time, but which I ultimately disliked, because it didn’t feel like me. Luckily I shed all of this and met people who simply dealt with new names respectfully and maturely.

I like to stick to simple facts. My name is not complicated. You just might not have heard it before. It doesn’t sound like something that fits in to a paradigm you might have in your mind. But don’t worry, I’ll gladly repeat it to you.

And then we can discuss YOUR name.


Ballet Workout Number 13

Oh my God, you can see just how long it’s been since the date under the last post about ballet workout number 12… But true perfection cannot be rushed. I’m back.

The classical music starts playing (oh, bliss), because I’m once again in the class taught by the trainer who gets me. Her elegance is immediately obvious before she even starts moving and she makes even a simple black training outfit look chic. She starts with the warm-ups, bending, arm movements that make me wonder how she looked dancing on stage.

I enjoy every second, but predictably I rapidly feel it’s been a while with my whole body. At least I can definitely still stretch, I tell myself, I’m not stiff, I just need some… renewed practice. Still, the peaceful atmosphere, the large mirrors, the music all bring me a bit closer to the world that fascinates so many. I get lost in a daydream of another world where I might be able to do this…”Stay on your back, swing your right leg over your left one and try to reach your heel with your left hand.” Heel? I hope I can get halfway down my calf. But it’s OK, because “…be careful, we don’t want anything to…” She pasues delicately. “…tear?” I croak helpfully. Bingo!

We stretch and do the attitudes I’ve missed, flex and raise our legs until I’ve perfected my drunk grasshopper pose so much even I’m impressed by myself.

It all feels very nice at the end, though the delayed soreness reaction surprises me a little, but maybe it’s better because I wanted to enjoy getting back to the workout.


Things People Ask You When You Say You Are Russian

A few years back I already partly touched on this subject, since some of the suggestions I made were based on my experiences at parties and any kind of social gatherings with people I didn’t know well. Time has passed and I have collected some more questions that I received as soon as I mentioned my Russian roots. And I’m including the answers to these questions here as well. All is about to be revealed…

Do your parents work in the oil industry?

I understand where this is coming from and if you’re trying to be funny, you might succeed if I like you, but no. The oil industry is not the only industry in the country with available jobs.

Does your dad work in the oil industry?

See above. I notice you’re not asking about my mom. Or my sisters, female cousins, aunts etc. Do you have a problem with women working in the oil industry? Do you feel like an intense discussion about issues with how women are still being viewed in the workplace? Are you trying to put some distance between us right now? Where are you going? Come back!

Do you speak Russian?


Do you speak/ understand Polish/ Ukranian/ Czech?

I’m afraid the answer is no on all counts. They are different languages and you have to learn them to be able to understand and speak them.

Is it dark all the time in winter?


But are your days shorter?

Only in winter. Like in Europe.

When do you guys celebrate New Year’s Eve?

December 31.

When do you celebrate Christmas?

January 7.

But why?

Because we celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

Does your name mean something?

Not as a word, but otherwise…how much time do you have?

Wow, how come you don’t have an accent?

Vot do you mean?

So, are you from Moscow?

No. There are many other cities in the country…

What’s a “babUshka”?

“BAbushka” is a lovely word that means “grandmother”. It is used to address your own grandmother or in general to talk about older ladies.

Do you always put jam in your tea?

Why don’t you like whistling indoors?

Because we have a deeply-seated, old superstition about whistling your money away if you whistle inside. We might not all be religious, but in general we’re a superstitious nation.

Did you see Russia’s performance during the last FIFA World Cup?

No, I’m afraid not… I was too busy watching Manuel Neuer.


10 Years in Hamburg: 10 Things I Learned Here

10 years in Hamburg! 10 years of living in Germany’s jewel of the North, eating Franzbrötchen (local pastry), buying a new umbrella at least twice a year (it rains regularly), saying Moin (local greeting), walking around the Alster lake and river, loving Hamburg Airport for not yet being big enough to need a shuttle train or bus, getting tipsy from sunshine when it makes an appearance, not being able to drink sparkling water (it hurts and only makes me thirstier). Oh, Hamburg.

A friend recently asked me if these 10 years felt like a long time to me. The honest answer is yes and no, or jein in German – a combination of ja (yes) and nein (no). I remember my first few months here very clearly, as well as the years that followed, but I also feel the weight of all that I’ve experienced and achieved, in a very reassuring sort of way. I guess the conclusion is that I respect what was, appreciate what is and look forward to what will be.

It’s funny to look back and see that the two times I pondered whether I made the right decision in coming here, several years apart, were both caused by experiences which I’m sure would not have led me to such dramatic thoughts today. On the other hand, during a difficult phase when my future truly was suspended in midair, I never once doubted that I wanted to be here.

So just what have I learned while living here? Well, to narrow it down to 10 points…

  1. Say Moin! It’s short, it’s got just one syllable (I’m a big fan of short greetings, so effortless, so elegant, so quick, so easy in this busy city life on the go) and it’s undeniably local. You can say it almost anywhere – in shops, when you enter a bakery, in a club, and it might even soften up the grumpy clerk you need to approach for paperwork and whom the whole student dorm recognizes the moment you describe him. I didn’t say it as often during my first year here, but it would pop out all the time as soon as I traveled somewhere else. Not necessarily a good idea in Bavaria… But in Hamburg, and mostly anywhere else in the North, Moin!
  2. Unless you really want to, you don’t necessarily need to buy a ticket for the harbour boat trip tour. Your local HVV ticket (full-day one is the best option) is valid for ALL types of transport in Hamburg, including the ferry! There are ticket machines right on the ferry as well. So hop on at Landungsbrücken station and cruise back and forth along the Elbe as long as you please. Go to the top deck if the weather is dry. This is also a great way to unwind after work and enjoy an unexpected Indian summer.
  3. Franzbrötchen, a type of local sweet pastry with sugar and cinnamon, are constantly discussed, ranked, tested and covered by a variety of good local websites. Buy one, try one, or buy several and try them all, pick one or don’t, get in to conversations about them. Try the ones with extras like chocolate or crumble if you’re feeling adventurous, though I think in the end the original always wins.
  4. Labskaus is a traditional Northern German dish, and for years I’d find myself talking about it to people without trying it. I’d seen pictures, of course, and the moment I did eat it, I discovered it was delicious, somewhat in discord with what you think when you see it first. Have no fear.
  5. You will always find an umbrella in Rossmann or Budnikowski, those two drugstore chains sprinkled throughout the city. And trust me, you will keep needing one. Unless you prefer raincoats. Either one is indispensable around here. Occasionally getting drenched creates a sense of community and team spirit.
  6. I have always loved being near the water and Hamburg firmly cemented this fact in my adult life. The Elbe and the Alster cover any mood you might be in. I have lost count of how many times I’ve walked around the Alster in particular.
  7. No, people are NOT cold here. They just take their time sizing you up, and don’t forget you can do the same. Personally I like this, and it might be influenced by the fact that I’m an introvert, though a very communicative one. After some careful observing and that first coffee or drink you might find that you’ve met a wonderful friend who is still there ten years later. Patience!
  8. If you find yourself talking to a fan of one of Hamburg’s two football teams (St. Pauli or HSV), and you don’t follow either, plus you don’t know your conversation partner too well, perhaps it’s a better idea to listen to the person for a while first. Or indeed just listen, instead of blurting out, “Wait, don’t they keep losing?”
  9. There is a very high chance that your favourite band or singer will make a tour stop in Hamburg.
  10. It’s enough to be able to sing just a bit of Hamburg, meine Perle by Lotto King Karl to feel like you belong here. Everyone around you will join in and sing the rest anyway.