Saturday, March 7, 2009
The Museum of the Foreigner
I had written a draft of this post with a different title, but the title above is from my students. We spent some time in class doing an artifact analysis of items pulled from my purse, and then had to imagine how to interpret my apartment here, based on those items, ranging from my handy carry bag to a hand-drawn map showing me how to find the train to the plane. One of their suggestions was that my apartment could be, "The Museum of The Foreigner," and another, "The Museum of the Great Change from Homeland to Fatherland." So in that spirit, here's how I manage!
I've had many Ukrainians and Americans here say, "How do you get around if you don't speak Russian or Ukrainian?" so I thought I should share my tips on navigating a city of almost 3 million people when you don't speak the language. Because, almost every day, I go somewhere I haven't been before, attempt to purchase an item I don't know the name of, or meet new people.
Kyiv's Metro is clean, fast, and goes close to almost everywhere I need to go. Once I learned to recognize the word of my home subway stop, the stop where I teach, where the transfer stations are, and a few stops in between, I was set. I could get at least close to any location. Funnily enough, I was always getting directions to meet someone outside the metro at the McDonalds and for a long time I thought those directions were just for me--but no, everyone uses that as a meeting place.
Young People speak English
In Ukraine, English is mandatory in school at a very early age. So most older people speak or remember small bits of English, but almost all young people are eager to practice and learn more. So when I'm lost, or need directions, I approach young people. Even on the overnight train to Zaporizha, my compartment-mates remembered a bit of their school English--enough to ask me what I thought of President Yushencko.
My students in particular have been great guides into different aspects of Ukrainian life. They're smart, their English is excellent, and they have lively senses of humor. We discuss politics, family life, Soviet times and more.
I don't mean my city map or my Metro map, which are both useful, but my collection of hand-drawn maps by friends and colleagues that get me where I need to go. Need to go out to the suburbs to buy a printer? Michael draws me a map. Need to go to the train station? Ihor draws me a map.
I'm not much of a cell phone user at home, as (hard as it is to believe for many here in Kyiv) I live somewhere where I don't get reception. What are cell phones good for? Well, first to call when you're lost and you're late. Second, sometimes to even recruit a translator over the phone. When I had to send a package to my apartment-mate Michael in Slavutich, I make my way to the bus station, find the bus that says Slavutich (which is totally not how you would spell it in Russian or Ukrainian), call Michael, who speaks Russian, to explain that he'll meet the bus and pick up the package (and by the way, this is just one of Ukraine's great informal systems to make things work. Lots of things don't work, but lots of things do).
Learning the Context
Although I'm only up to a few words of Russian, I do understand certain questions people ask me in certain situations and know enough to answer. "Do I want a bag?" asks the check-out girl; "Are you getting off?" asks the person standing behind me in the subway car; "Please," to pass your money forward to the mashrutka driver. So, pretty much, I know the appropriate yes or no answer. And, there's always something to be said for the puzzled, quizzical look from me, which usually draws some pity and occassional annoyance.
For my workshops, I've worked with a translator--different ones each time, and in every case (and many thanks to Ihor, Olha, Irina, Sasha, Olisa and Tanya--I think that's everyone) they've brought great good humor and enthusiasm for the job. They've translated difficult concepts on the fly, helped me understand Ukrainian ways of thinking, and generally, have made my life so much better! Above, Olisa and Tanya from Hortiza.
As I slowly learn the Cyrillic alphabet, I'm actually able to sound out some words and have found many connections to English. So a word that looks like Pectopah, really is, once you know the alphabet, Restaurant, and sounded out phonetically actually does sound like that.
Friends and Colleagues
Finally, better-than-great friends and colleagues. In particular, my apartment-mate Michael, my newly arrived from home apartment-mate (and Michael's wife) Amy and my friend Irina have helped me navigate almost everything. And at many of the museums I visit, I've discovered that, although we start with translations, as people become more comfortable with me and with conversation, that the conversations become a mix of languages. Unfortunately, I only operate in English--many people understand English but are nervous speaking it, because there aren't necessarily many opportunities to converse with a native English speaker. So I think, once they discover I'm a friendly person, interesting in learning about their museum and their work, the conversations fly!