It’s tough to get a word in edgeways in Russia…
Finally, The World Cup is over, and I, for one, am looking forward to a return to normalcy: a reasonable weeknight bedtime, possibly some cultural or culinary outings at the weekend, not curtailed by the need to be back home by kick-off time, and, mercifully, a severe drop in the number of alpha male Russians and their silent wives in my living room.
“I thought I’d invite Sergei Bykchuik over to watch the football,” my husband mentioned casually one Saturday around 3:30 pm, just as I’d finished another epic cleaning project, and, sweaty and tired, was looking forward to a shower and some unmolested time during the back-to-back football games to finish up an article.
“With Mrs. Sergei?” I countered warily, who, I knew from bitter experience would queer the unmolested time deal. “Darling, you know, I have an article to write which I was planning to do during the early game.”
“Sergei called and suggested they both come over with some food and watch the games,” admitted my husband, squirming in discomfort, “but,” he said reassuringly, “you can just work on your article, and we’ll watch…that’s fine.”
I sighed, knowing that he meant well, but also sure that I would get stuck for part of the evening trying to entertain Polina Bykchuika, who was about 18 years old, with very long fingernails and absolutely nothing to say.
Good conversation, where I come from revolves around the maxim that “if you are interested, you are interesting,” a rule of thumb that has served me very well for over thirty years and across six continents: “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?” are excellent opening salvos. “Did you see that piece in the X by Y about Z,” can spark a spirited debate, and “I’m so interested to know what you think about the A, the B, and most especially, the C.”
This never works with my husband’s Russian friends. One of them refused to order business cards on the theory that if people didn’t know who he was, they were not worth his attention, which characterizes the mindset. I vaguely know what they all do, but would never ask, just as I would not think of asking what they think about Medvedev’s chances for a second term, relations with Georgia, or when Khodorkovsky might, if ever, be released. These would all be awkward, ill-mannered conversation stoppers. Their wives, who don’t seem to do much of anything, so there is not much point in asking, all seem terrified of being in the company of a foreigner, and even the most innocuous conversational overtures about the weather or how bad the cherries have been this year, fall flat.
I dodged the first game, pleading a deadline, but good manners dictated making a token appearance before the second. My husband and Sergei were discussing something significant to their common business interests, but, as usual, they abruptly broke off when I joined the table. Sergei, primed by half a bottle of vodka was in an expansive mood, and took over the conversation, dominating it with sweeping statements, never designed to be queried, debated, or challenged.
“Let me tell you about New York,” he said, “I was really impressed: the streets are completely straight, from one end of Manhattan to the other — ”
“– Well, except for the Village down to Wall Street,” I interjected absent-mindedly.
“Jennifer went to University in New York,” said my husband apologetically to the group.
Sergei squinted at me suspiciously, and then, changing tack began to expand on the virtues of vacationing at Valaam on Lake Ladoga.
“Fresh air…really fresh…you can’t imagine,” he announced, “We went there last summer, right Polina?” he looked to his wife for confirmation, who nodded her head silently and obediently. “You should go,” he said looking at my husband, “let me know, and my people can get you on to a blatnoi korabl’. It is just kaif –“
“Oh, I so agree with you,” I said, seeing an opportunity to make up for my New York gaffe. “That really is the best way to see Russia…Kizhi is wonderful too, I have some amazing photos — ”
“Jennifer used to be a tour guide,” said my husband apologetically to Sergei.
Sergei looked really annoyed, and I realized I’d blown it again. So, I got up and cleared the table, hoping that this more traditional wifely action would redeem me, as would the fresh bottle of vodka I fetched from the freezer and three bags of “Beer’ka” dried fish.
As the pre-game commentary got rolling, Sergei, mollified, raised his shot glass and said, “Well, before we watch, our conversation reminds me, we need to drink to all those at sea – because today is the Day of the River and Sea Fleets.”
Silence fell as I looked down into my glass of wine, and then at my husband, who knew, as well as I did, that today was the Day of the GAI: I write a blog on all the Russian profprazniki and had just polished up my post on tomorrow’s holiday: the Day of the River and Sea Fleets. I smiled and raised my glass, “Definitely – for all those at sea!”
Which was an acceptable rejoinder to a one-way conversation.
This article was first published in Russian by the BBC’s Russian Service, on their blog “Strana Russia” on June 22, 2010 under the title Вот и поговорили…A link to the original Russian version can be found here.
Photograph by Jennifer Eremeeva. All Rights Reserved