It was a command welling up from deep inside me. A compelling voice, chanting over and over: Learn to speak Russian! I ignored the voice at first. Who wouldn’t? Are you kidding me? Everyone knows that the Russian language is one of the toughest in the world. Better I should take up something less challenging, like organic chemistry. Or particle physics. But no, I had to go and listen to my inner voice, and start learning Russian.
Im glad I did.
What started it all was an inkling of an idea to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. (That’s Russia, by the way, not Florida.) How cool would that be? A trip to Russia. That’s not a story people get to hear every day. Sure, the wall had been down for twenty years, but there’s still that lingering cold war, double-agent feel about a trip to the Motherland.
But why is my inner-self insisting I learn Russian? Haven’t I ever heard of translators? Or tours? What possible good can come of such a huge endeavor as language learning? Turns out, the answer is: A whole darn LOT of good can come from it.
First, the feeling of independence. When you learn a bit of Russian, you suddenly free yourself from the reliance on tours and guides. You are free to experience things at your own pace. There’s no white-haired guide from some cruise ship you’re on, holding a little red flag high in the air so her minion of museum hoppers from your cruise can scuttle after her like sheep to their shepherd. This way, she cries out. We’re off to the African Wing. No thank you. If I want to stand here in front of the Rembrandts all day, then that’s just what I’m going to do. A bit of the local language gives you the freedom to choose where you want to go, and when. That alone is worth everything you’ll ever pay to learn Russian.
Independence has its price, but the friendships and relationships a bit of Russian will bring are indeed priceless. As but one example of countless: A young woman and her grandmother once asked me to photograph them outside St. Isaac’s cathedral in St. Petersburg in 2004. I knew just enough Russian to understand the girl’s question, and to answer her that Sure, I’d be happy to take their picture. From there, I was invited on a two-day personal tour of the city and its palaces.
We’re still close to this day, Julia and I.
As my language got better, I returned again and again to Russia, like a young musician trying to sit in with the old hands during Jam Night at the jazz club. I wanted to practice my new phrases with native speakers. To jam with them, as it were. To learn from them, and gain their respect. This kid can talk! I wanted them — the local native speakers — to say. Learning Russian had turned from a hobby to a compulsion seemingly overnight. My inner voice was no longer insisting I merely learn Russian, but master it. Developing relationships and becoming fluent that wasn’t enough anymore. I needed to be tested.
My inner voice got its wish in the summer of 2006 when I put on a guitar master class for fifty musicians in Moscow’s largest music store. Is this really where my compulsion for learning Russian had landed me? On stage, in front of a crowd of native speakers? But the presentation was a hit, and lead to a host of other opportunities.
In fact, I’m living out one of those opportunities today. It’s the end of summer 2009, and I’m writing this from Sevastopol, Ukraine. I live here, on the shore of the Black Sea, with my beautiful Ukrainian fiance. I teach guitar in town, and play in a popular local group. I’m immersed in the language now, speaking exclusively Russian morning til night with students and store clerks, my friends and my fiance. Delighted by all this chattering, and at peace in its new surroundings, my inner voice is finally quiet.