Between my junior and senior years in college, I flew to Moscow one summer and moved into a tiny Moscow flat that belonged to friends of a friend. What possessed Lena and Misha to suggest that we move in with them and their daughter for an entire summer, I'll never know. Really, I'll never know, because my Russian was so bad at the time that I pretty much never knew what was going on around me at any given moment.
(Also, as I re-read the paragraph above, I wonder what inspired my parents to consent to this crazy scheme. Perhaps I simply told them I was going to the movies and they never realized I was gone for the entire summer? I can't quite imagine how I convinced them to let me do such a crazy thing.)
It was a fun summer, but a frustrating one, because I was pretty much on my own in the city with not enough language skills to keep me afloat. I learned some odd words that summer. One day, for example, I bought some of my favorite, hard-to-find ice cream bars from a street vendor and then started running for home with them, trying to get back before they melted. I had six bars, three in each hand, enough for my whole family, and when I tripped on a broken curb, instead of trying to protect myself from falling hard, I tried desperately to keep those precious bars aloft. I flew through the air and landed hard, peeling the skin off of both knees, both elbows and one cheek. As I lay on the sidewalk, bleeding and stunned - but with ice cream intact - three little babushki started clucking at me. "Ay, lapochka," one said, and while it sounded sympathetic, I had no idea what a lapochka was.
I half-limped, half-jogged back to the apartment, where I looked it up as I ate my ice cream. It turns out lapochka means "little paw." It has since become one of my more favorite terms of endearment.
I also learned the word for "coup" that summer, because a coup started on my second-to-last day in Moscow, knocking the Communists out of power and eventually bringing an end to the Soviet Union. When I woke up that morning, Lena was in a panic and Misha was nowhere to be found. Lena kept pointing at the television, which was full of static and nothing else, repeating the word "perevorot." I thought maybe there was no electricity? It took a long, long time to understand that there were tanks on the streets, and the government was gone, and no one knew what would be coming next. It was a scary time to be without a language, trying to understand what sort of trouble lurked just outside the front door.
There was one other day that summer that stands out for me. We were invited, the friend and I, to spend the night with some other friends of his at their dacha - basically, a rustic country house. We took a train, and a bus, and maybe a taxi, too? until we finally reached their middle-of-nowhere village, where we proceeded to have a stereotypical Russian night. The friends brought sausages, and pickles, and potato salad, and enough vodka for everyone to down their own bottle. Seriously. Think on that, my friends. One bottle of vodka per person.
Everyone proceeded to get happily, sloppily drunk. Even I had a couple of shots in solidarity, though vodka has never been my thing and I'm not much for middle-of-nowhere drunkenness with strangers.
They were all good drunks, these new friends of mine: cheerful and happy and full of jokes.
And herein lies the problem.
As the night progressed, the jokes got funnier and funnier. Everyone was rolling on the floor, tears streaming, knee-slapping, as joke after joke flew across the table.
Everyone, that is, except me.
I couldn't understand a single joke. They were all in Russian, you see, and even when I understood the words, I simply didn't get the humor. After awhile, the friends realized that I couldn't understand what was funny, and they made it their mission to find a joke I could understand. One of them would tell a joke, everyone would laugh, and then they'd try to explain. "He was at the Kremlin," they would say, by way of explanation, "do you understand?" (I didn't.) Or, "that's funny because it's a play on that famous Pushkin poem, you know it?" (I didn't.)
It went on for hours and hours and hours before they slowly began dropping, too intoxicated to find their way to their beds. And I was absolutely, unutterably miserable. I don't think I'd ever before felt so completely alone.
I awoke the the next morning when the sun rose. Everyone else snored drunkenly while I sat outside and watched the mist creeping around the village of painted dachas, wishing myself anywhere but there, wishing myself somewhere where I understood what was so funny, where maybe I could crack a joke or two myself, to feel part of instead of just apart.
That party was more than 20 years ago, but I still remember how lonely I felt that night. All these years later, vodka still tastes like loneliness to me.
I thought of that long-ago night on Wednesday evening, when I was asked to attend an event at the National Library. Not only was I asked to attend, but I was required to open the event, to introduce the guest speakers.
I did it, in English, translator by my side, staring out into a sea of faces and stumbling through my introductory remarks. When I finished, the director of the library indicated that I was to sit beside him, front and center. I sat and listened as the guests of honor began their speeches, in Arabic, from the dais. There were four chairs up there, with four bottles of water and four name placards, but only three men sat up there. The fourth seat was empty.
About ten minutes in, my colleague from the Embassy leaned over and pointed to the fourth name placard. "That's your name on the placard," she whispered. "I think you were supposed to be sitting up there."
Oops. I didn't even recognize my own name and title, and of course it never occurred to me that I needed to be up there. So I stayed where I was, in the front row, and listened as the first man gave his speech. He was funny. Hilarious, even, judging by the laughter all around me in the audience. He gestured broadly, waving his watch and looking down at the crowd in such a way that even I almost thought I was going to get the joke.
But no. The humor was lost on me. So I sat, right there in the middle of the front row, unable to even sneak a peek at my email to distract myself. I pretended I could understand everything he said. I laughed when they laughed. I nodded when they nodded. I clapped when they clapped. The woman next to me said "he's very funny!" and I agreed.
But the whole time, I was thinking back to that long ago night in the Russian countryside, when I felt so stupid and un-bilingual and lacking in humor.
This time, though, instead of feeling down, I got out my notebook and started writing notes to myself in Russian. I guess I probably just wanted to prove to myself that I might not understand everything, but I understand some things just fine - some things that no one else in that audience could possibly know, even.
It made me feel better. And it whiled away the time - two whole hours of speeches in Arabic before we even got to the reception!
I was giving a talk a few weeks back, to some university students who are here in Jordan and wanted information on working for the government overseas. One of them asked me if I had a defining moment when I knew I wanted to live overseas, or when I knew I could survive it. I didn't even have to stop to think about it. For me, that moment came in the spring of 2002, one year into our second overseas tour, when I was driving around town in Yerevan, Armenia, with a carload of local friends. We were laughing and joking, all in Russian, and I cracked a few jokes that made the whole carload of people bust out laughing. And I felt, back then, like I belonged, because we could understand each other and laugh with each other. It was the first time when I felt like I could really, at long last, speak Russian, like those years of hard work had paid off. It was the opposite of the dacha experience for me. It was belonging and friendship and laughter. Sitting there in the front row on Wednesday, I tuned out the speeches for awhile and I wrote, in Russian, about that moment.
It got me through.