In addition to its many science programs, Eagle Hill Institute  in Steuben, Maine, offers concerts throughout the winter and spring. I’m looking forward to a violin and cello concert this weekend (March 18, 2017) because one of the performers is from Russia.

When I was in my 40s, I took two years of college Russian and connected with a handful of Russians from St. Petersburg all the way to Nizhniy Tagil, the latter of which is located on the border of Europe and Asia. I’ve had wonderful conversations with my Russian friends via both email and Skype. One even visited me here in the U.S. She now lives in New Jersey.

I have quite a collection of Russian books — some in Russian and some in English about Russia. Several were gifts from my Russian pen pals.

Life being what it is, however, I got out of practice. I faced some medical issues in 2014 that threw me out of my practice and study routine. I’ve been meaning to get back to it but what usually happens is I put it off because of the time and energy required to really do it right. I have an email from my friends in Nizhniy Tagil in my inbox. I haven’t answered yet because I really want to answer in Russian but I know how much work that’s going to be. And so I’ve been putting it off.

Two days from now, however, I will face that old sink or swim moment. I do hope to at least introduce myself, in Russian, to performer Sascha Zaburdaeva. Of course, introducing myself may be all I can do at this point. But I suppose it’s a start. I might be able to impress Americans with a few words in Russian here and there but the real test comes from speaking with a native.

I’ve acquired a small collection of khokhloma, a form of Russian folk art in which wooden or ceramic pieces are decorated with bright colors, often with a black or gold background, thanks in part to visits to bazaars and other events at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.

Once, while visiting St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for a bazaar or festival, my friend Jane introduced my daughter and me to a Russian speaking member of the congregation.


I froze.

My daughter, Kayleigh, had the presence of mind to answer in Russian and so maybe I didn’t look like a total dope. Ok, well, at least she didn’t. At that point, I knew I had to get over my fear of speaking Russian with real Russians. And so I found my Russian pen pals through Livemocha, a free language learning website that has since been acquired by Rosetta Stone and closed.

Fortunately, however, while the site was still active I did get over my reluctance to speak Russian with real Russians. My first pen pals, Misha and Oksana (the ones from Nizhniy Tagil) made me feel comfortable right away. Their English is better than my Russian was even at its peak, but this allowed us to have some more deep and meaningful conversations about culture, history and politics. I had another pen pal, Sergei, in Volgograd and I was pleased to say that my Russian was better than his English. That helped me build confidence. Another wonderful part of this experience came from the fact that few Americans study Russian language. The Russians I met on Livemocha were so thrilled to find an American with an interest in their language that many wanted me to correspond and tutor them in English. I actually had to turn down most of these requests. I simply did not have time to help them all.

I suppose it’s rather uncommon for a middle aged person to begin studying a difficult foreign language. However, I’d call it судьба. Pronounced “soodBAH,” this word loosely translates as “fate” or “destiny.”

Cheburashka is a famous Russian cartoon character that I’ve come to love. My Russian professor once even suggested I go on to study the character in depth.

It was my daughter who got me interested in the language when she was in middle school. I found a community enrichment class at a local community college and, because Kayleigh was too young to drive, I decided I may as well take the class with her. I fell in love with the language and, after the class was over, Kayleigh and I continued with the teacher privately before ending up in our respective Russian classes.

The irony is that my mother, who died almost three years before Kayleigh was born, had studied Russian in college. I don’t know why she studied it or what she hoped to do with it. She was not of Russian descent. Her family was Italian. I never mentioned my mother’s interest in Russian language to my daughter and, since they never met, Kayleigh had no way of knowing the family history when she set out to learn Russian herself.

My mother died by suicide and we weren’t close, so the bond of Russian language is one of the few positive things I share with her. For that reason it’s important for me to get back to work to keep it alive. So here’s hoping that I won’t freeze Saturday night when I attempt to talk to Sascha.

Ты и Вы — this is a Pushkin poem we studied in Russian class. It’s about whether to use the formal or informal version of the word “you.” A former newspaper editor of mine described Russian text as the result of a typewriter gone mad.


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