If All the Clichés about Russia and Siberia Were True…

…then I guess this is what my memoir would read like.

It was dark most of the time growing up. Winters started in September and lasted well into May, though that’s actually just a lie we tell foreigners since they seem to think individual seasons have a beginning and an end. Weirdos. In reality, it’s winter all the time.

The snow just piles up year after year, but it’s good that there’s so much of it, because then we can go outside, fill up our buckets and basins with it, or, if you’re lucky, maybe a baby tub currently not in use. It’s a group job, as well as a nice occasion to bond with neighbors (if there are any around) and family members. Though I wish Uncle Vanya wouldn’t come with. One ear of his shapka is dangling by a thread and you can smell the Stolichnaya on his breath when he lets out that laugh of his. Only the best for Uncle Vanya. One time he fell into the tub of snow he’d just filled, face first. We got him out, but had to dump out all the snow and start afresh.

The snow is really clean, because we live in the forest. There’s just forest everywhere. I mean, just taiga, to be completely honest. So there’s plenty of space for everyone, but that’s why you might not have neighbors, at least not nearby. We found ours entirely by chance, and then marked the trees on the way with our pocket knives, so we would be able to navigate the path and visit each other. Walking is possible, but skiing is best.

I got sidetracked. We collect the snow for water. Depending on how warm it is in the house that my parents built before I was born, it’ll either melt quickly by itself or we dump it all in the enormous cauldron in the kitchen. We have running water, but it needs to be used sparingly. The pipes burst every now and again, but that’s OK, because there’s always enough snow.

The town isn’t far away and we can go there for supplies, but we really prefer the forest. The few hours of daylight are sufficient for jaunts into the outside world or errands, and the rest of the time we eat, read, stream stuff and sleep. Yes, we do have internet, who do you think we are, cavemen? How would we get stuff delivered, otherwise? As to how the postman finds us, his problem. Never asked.

In the evenings we often sit by candlelight at the table after dinner, singing Russian folk songs. Kalinka always gets me going and then everyone starts dancing (we have a big family), so we go to bed after 2 in the morning, though it doesn’t matter, because it’s already been dark for 12 hours before that. Thankfully, Uncle Vanya is forbidden from coming over to dinner and my parents still haven’t told me why.

I’ve yet to meet a polar bear. I thought I saw one once when Sasha and I, the neighbors’ son, wandered off somewhere, but it was hard to tell because of all the snow. We did hear some growling and ran off fast. Well, Sasha ran off, then he discovered I wasn’t running with him, because I was wearing my high-heeled boots and red miniskirt, so I was kind of prancing after him. He did come back to help me, tried to carry me on his back, even, but then he said I was too heavy and that I should lay off the potato pies. The next day I threw the matryoshka he gave me for my birthday out the window when he came by. It him him on the forehead. He kept bleating outside, “But come on, nuuuu, shto, davai, kotik…”

He can bleat all he wants, I’m already looking for a middle-aged American millionaire online. Sasha is shouting something about a (Siberian) tiger outside, but I’m too busy.

 

Random Struggles in German

Even after many years of living here, I have a list of words and phrases I still need to look up. That’s actually fine by me. First of all, I’m not a computer. Second, learning a language never really stops, because it’s a process and languages are living things. Wouldn’t it be boring if you just knew all there was to know? Third, it creates interesting conversations. Fourth, it gets me my regular dose of laughing. So off we go…

Fordern and fördern – one means “to demand” and the other means “to support” or “to sponsor”. I routinely forget which is which and sometimes end up using the wrong one in a sentence. Neat trick: at the same time it’s easy for me to remember that Förderung means “sponsorship” etc., so I can make the appropriate conclusion if I catch myself in time. Otherwise I just opt for a synonym or still do that thing where my voice kind of sinks, I don’t finish my sentence and expectantly look at my (usually) native German-speaking conversation partner.

Schnurren and schnüren – well, the first only has one meaning, “to purr”, and the other one means “to tie”. Sometimes I’ll use the first one, but pronounce it like the second, and then I’ll forget the ü when I’m talking about shoelaces (a subject that pops up more often than you’d expect), which, incidentally, in German are called Schnürsenkel. They might also lose an ü when I’m trying to kindly tell someone their laces got untied, and I spend 5 seconds remembering whether the plural gets an n at the end or not. The answer is no. By the way, a friend of mine once offered a lovely solution, and since she’s German, I tucked away the phrase she used with total confidence. “Oh,” she said, pointing at my undone shoelace, “deine Schleife ist auf.” This translates as “Your ribbon came undone.” Wonderful.

Tablett and Tablette – the first one means “tray” and the second one means “pill”. The second one was easy to remember, because the Russian word is very similar, not to mention the English one. But these are also the reasons the first one confused me at first. At the same time, the article of Tablett stuck in my memory from the first time I heard the word. Go figure.

Schnacken – this is northern German, which means I was hearing it very soon after arriving in Hamburg. Another example of how far the textbooks in class can take you before you have to dive in for real, whereupon the lessons start all over again. Was this the German pronunciation and adaptation of “snacking”? Nope, it means “to chat”, but it’s also used in a work context between colleagues who either know each other or assignments they are expected to work on together well.

Two examples which showcase my inventions basically influenced by translating English from my head into my German speech.

Relativ neulich was “pretty recently”, but it’s not used. Just neulich or vor Kurzem. Noted. I’d gotten away with it for a couple of years, though. So either no one noticed, or they were all patient and polite, not wanting to offend me, waiting it out, taking their time, analyzing what I’d said and making lists…

Ein ernstes Stück Fleisch – this innocent literal translation of “A serious piece of meat” while describing a fantastic hamburger (yeeeesss) dinner caused a lot of mirth and became a, dare I say, beloved quote. Ein ernstes Stück Kuchen (cake), ein ernstes Stück Käse (cheese). You name it, it works.

 

Weekday Morning: Stream of Consciousness

Love summer and that morning light, so much easier to get up than in winter. Every season has its place, but this is just so nice, even if it did rain the other day, but I don’t mind, as long as it’s not windy, because then I can’t walk peacefully under an umbrella, and I’ve always loved walking under an umbrella since I was a kid, but only when it’s not windy, because then you’re not walking, you’re fighting, and then the umbrella breaks, and you’re drenched, and you have to get a new one. How many umbrellas have I bought in the last 11 years of living in Hamburg?

And there’s always that person, maybe one in 5, who will ask you in puzzlement, “But why do you use umbrellas, don’t you have a raincoat?” No, I don’t, I have an outdoor coat, but I somehow don’t feel like getting a raincoat, because I consider the only proper raincoat I had was the one we got when I was 8 during the most colossal downpour I had ever seen in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and we got a set in different sizes for the whole family, they were bright yellow and had Mickey Mouse on the back, and I’ve never wanted to get a new one since, even after I outgrew my raincoat…

Where was I? Does it look like it’s going to rain? Go to balcony, open window, look out, sniff the air, that one always works, check the weather app, hmmm, I guess I’ll just pack the umbrella, maybe this time the one with the dots that change colour when it rains on them, so cool, I was so surprised when my best friend handed me that thing when we were out for my birthday, I know where we live and that it’s a rainy city, but why an umbrella…

Must not forget the cup of ginger tea, it used to burn when I’d drink it, but come corona and suddenly I’m downing that thing every morning like orange juice in the olden days and now it’s practically the same as drinking mint tea, wonder if it influences anything, but my friends have been talking about drinking it for years and I did feel weird the other day when I forgot, though it’s funny to remember how back in Russia I steadfastly refused tea the more it was commented on that I didn’t drink it (“WHAT? You don’t drink tea?”), and then I moved to my student dorm here and suddenly it was the key to socializing in the kitchen, get a cup, a teabag, turn on that kettle, start chatting, chat more as the tea steeps, who knew, and now I have several bright boxes lining my kitchen cupboard, though I didn’t get them for the packaging alone, hah, but what’s so bad about liking a pretty box…

OK, so how did I end up with two bags again, but I can’t walk to work in those heels, so I’ll pack them in the tote and walk in those sneakers, but honest, I just want to wear those heels, so I’ll change shoes in the office, and the tupperware with lunch still fits, though I’m glad I made enough for two days, so I won’t have to carry any food with me tomorrow, YES, done, and did I put my mask in my bag…

Actually two masks, because what if I use the first one and it gets all icky and you’re not supposed to wear it again anyway until after you wash it and it dried, but what if I need to go to a shop again, so ta-da, TWO, it’s funny how I was so annoyed when they were first introduced as obligatory in some places and I spent two hours making one, now I have 7 of them ready, and I do wonder if it will just be a thing, so added to the already extensive list of all the things I pack into my make-up bag which barely contains makeup (gum, hairbands, bigger hair band if it gets hot and I need to put my hair up, band-aids, lip balm, travel-sized hand sanitizer) is now this and people asking “So what kind of mask do you have?”

No, I DO need all three notebooks, it just feels strange to be without them, and I love my day planner even if the notes in it look somewhat different these days…

What did I want to do, why am I standing here with the dishtowel in my hand…

I’ll take the scarf with me, don’t want to touch the door handles even if I was “adventurous” yesterday and touched the one on the door preceding the elevator foyer, shiver me timbers, such excitement, and it was actually scary that time the water was turned off for an hour, and I got up automatically to go to the bathroom and then realized in horror I still couldn’t wash my hands, and my bottle of hand sanitizer was empty, of all the first world problems…

Where’s the dishtowel? I think I asked that question 20 minutes ago…

 

Disney Wisdom That Will Set You for Life

I mean, really, what else do you need?

The Lion King

The basics.

Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Simba: But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.

Aladdin

Things to know.

Jafar in disguise: You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you? The one who has the gold, makes the rules (add disgusting wheezing laugh).

Bambi

Manners.

Thumper: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.

Sleeping Beauty

Skillfully telling your family you met someone.

Prince Philip: I said I met the girl I was going to marry. I don’t know who she was, a peasant girl, I suppose.

(Shortened quote follows)

King Hubert: You’re a prince, and you’re going to marry a princess!

Prince Philip: Now, Father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century. Nowadays –

King Hubert: Nowadays I’m still the king, and I command you to come to your senses –

Prince Philip: And marry the girl I love.

King Hubert: Exactly!

The Little Mermaid

Understanding teenagers (because at some point we’ll all need to).

Sebastian: Teenagers. They think they know everything. You give them an inch, they swim all over you.

Pocahontas

How to make friends and share hobbies.

John Smith: Pocahontas, that tree is talking to me…

Pocahontas: And you should talk back!

 

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Diary Note #1

The ringing of my mobile phone woke me shortly after 7 AM. This was, on the one hand, fine, even timely, because the dream I was having was really weird. On the other hand, it was completely unexpected. A slightly unfocused glance at the screen confirmed it was my dentist’s office…and I just let it ring. Because I didn’t know why they would be calling at that hour.

A little while and one voice message machine later ( “We planned an hour for you, please call back, thank you,” said someone in a disgruntled voice who had clearly gotten up very early to be there on time), I called back and managed to backtrack and untangle the mystery. Sometime in April, when new coronavirus cases were still popping up in Hamburg like mushrooms and the social distancing was in full swing, the practice was abstaining from its usual opening hours, politely requesting patients to call if they needed to come in after all. I assumed, somewhat happily, I confess, that my upcoming 7 AM appointment was cancelled and went about my business. “But no, that notice was for other procedures,” I was told. We rescheduled and remained friends.

Yes, I know they work with masks and sanitize their hands anyway. But three weeks ago I still couldn’t imagine going there, unless I absolutely have to. I had been waiting whether Germany’s contact ban (in effect, the social distancing measures) would still be in place after June 5, the day the government planned to discuss yay or nay. They were prolonged until June 29. There is progress, however, for me. Today I was in that dentist’s chair like no time had passed at all. Had it? “Do you work in an office?” the assistant politely asked, nodding at my skirt.

Why yes, I do, yes. No longer from home for about a month now. Working in pajamas, like actually for my job, isn’t something I can do. It takes away the special quality of pajamas for me, the sundayness (just freestyling here) of spending time at home immersed in a creative project. At the same time, not to make this all about clothes, but there were items I hadn’t worn for a long time: skirts, dresses, heels. Putting them on again felt like recognizing someone after previously seeing her only from a distance (no puns intended).

The security guy I’d gotten used to in my local supermarket isn’t there anymore, disinfecting shopping cart handles and then wheeling the cart over to you. Now you take one yourself, disinfecting either with the travel-sized sanitizer you made a habit of carrying in your pocket or the napkins provided by the store. I still smile at staff underneath my mask if I catch someone’s eye and the last time I was finally able to shop without remembering why all these regulations are in place. Two door handles were touched with a bare hand, now that was a big one for me. Wash hands at home, unload groceries, wash hands again, disinfect the handles I touched, wipe down the kitchen table, and I don’t even go through the list in my head anymore.

The movements at work come naturally to me now. I’m finally able to let my mind wander a bit longer somewhere else before sitting down at my desk. Dump stuff, wash hands, clean desk, keep a distance, hope for the best, feel grateful for simple politeness and consideration when people ask if it’s OK to get on the elevator with you or step aside to let you pass in a narrower space.

It should be so simple, right? You get up, brush your teeth, get dressed, head out, walk a familiar route, greet familiar people. So why does it take so long to connect yourself mentally, emotionally to all this? Probably because it might take the same amount of time to readjust as the time spent working from home. Simple things have taken on a new kind of significance after not being able to do them for a while. They do say it’s the little things. Otherwise, I might have to pull a Kindergarten Cop on myself.  “Stop whining!” “There is no bathroom!”