Irina Potanina. English notes from a Ukrainian woman

English notes by a Ukrainian woman. Part 2: “A tongue will lead to anything.”

22.06.2022Irina Potanina

After Russia's attack on Ukraine, saving her two sons, Irina Potanina - a Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer from Kharkov, author of more than 30 works of fiction in various genres for children and adults - moved to the UK at the invitation of relatives. Now she works in a small cafe, believes in the imminent victory of her country and keeps a personal diary. Excerpts from it Winter shares with readers. This one - the second one - is about how insidious the English language can be and how benevolent the English are.

You can read the first part here.

When I was a kid, it made me laugh that the English in school textbooks talked about the weather all the time. Now I know there really is a lot to talk about.

The wildest inclement weather in half an hour is replaced by sunny coziness, which, without losing a bit of light, may well suddenly turn into hail …

You could write a dissertation on the varieties of rain here. Here he is cheerfully drumming, saying, come on, look how beautiful it is all around, the world is full of creative challenges, it’s time to get involved. Here, all cold, as if recognizing that someone close under fire, nervously taps out a pitiful: “Please, please, let it go!” Here he angrily mats all around, as if having read that Kharkiv is being bombed again, and openly from the territory of the Russian Federation, which means that the city will never be safe….

Right now, by the way, it’s exactly that kind of loudly bellowing cussing downpour, and I’m already soaked all the way to the bike seat. There’s no time at all (rushing after a morning job to wake up the kid and get him to school), but I give up and climb under the trees.

– Hi, Irina! – coming from next door. It turns out that one of my cafe’s regular customers, a long-haired, classic hippie-looking Pete, is hiding from the water wall here. He adds: – Blablablabla amazing!

Or rather, he speaks quite clearly, but I only catch the last word. I know it means “delightful,” decide that of course it’s about me (yes, I’m amazing, because I was so dashing between the drops with my wet head held high), automatically make eye contact and exclaim like a coquette: “Oh, thank you!” A second later I realize that he was actually being ironic when he said “the weather is amazing. What did I say thank you for, you ask?

In general, my relationship with English is easily described by the status “It’s complicated”. Even the simplest maxims reach me a little late. Not to mention words I didn’t know before.

For example, a colleague asks me to fetch “tii tavl” from the first floor. I can hear tea clearly, I realize I need something tea-related, so I load the teapot, brew, cups and tea bags onto the tray.

– Thank you! – says a colleague, taking a waffle towel off my elbow (I wear it there willingly, as a tribute to the waitress dress code from old movies).

Yeah, turns out “tawl” means “towel,” which is what they call a “tea towel” here. Let’s remember….

I nonchalantly put the tray with all the brought items next to it – it’s not like I suddenly discovered the bartender’s lack of teapots and brought everything to him. That’s how it works.

I misunderstand – that’s half the battle. You can ask again, anticipate, slip in an online translator…. Worse, I am often misunderstood as well, and it is almost impossible to track this moment. General impeccable politeness leaves no chance to improve pronunciation in this country: no matter what nonsense I say, they nod affably in response, as if everything is clear. Only once did the chief “burn” in response to my long tirade by saying:

– Yes, yes, Irina, of course. As always I have no idea what you’re talking about, but don’t worry, yes, of course we’ll set it up….

Aah! What do you mean, “as always, I have no idea”?!?!?!

I recently found out that my sure (sure) sounds like sugar to them, and it’s a little weird to them that I keep bringing up sweets in response to “could you do this and that”. Or, here, I once complained to a colleague that I had little work to do in the morning, and I don’t even have garbage in the kitchen – she immediately ordered a delivery of cabbage. Turns out I pronounce garbage as cabbage. Holy cow…

Igor is the hardest in this sense. My younger son, while living in Ukraine, was just getting ready to become a first grader (we go to school at age 6), so he read and wrote very little, and from English words he knew counting, colors and a few curses from computer toys. Now, in an English school, he’s adjusting as best he can. I found something like a dictionary in his briefcase recently (words in Russian letters and translations next to them): “Hot – sweat, Cold – cold, Taerd – sleep, Sick – sick, Happy – smile, Sad – sad”… Yes, yes, sad. Moreover, Igoresha has that character when everything has to be learned on his own, and he does not want to respond to my attempts to give a correct translation.

But it’s time to get back to Pete and our misunderstanding about the weather:

– I’m sorry,” I said, as usual, ashamed and confused, trying to explain myself. – Believe me, everyone in my country has excellent English, and it’s only me who has problems… I try, but my skills are still not enough for full-fledged coma… coma… – I forget the word and utter something like “communicating”.

– Your English is excellent! – assures the interlocutor nonchalantly. – That’s a hell of a twist: “communicating.” We don’t even have a word for it here. I don’t think we even have one at all.

English humor. And you’d never know if Pete was joking or if he really thinks it’s a sign of good English to make up new words.

You can expect anything from him as the guy is very atypical. Before the pandemic (and into his thirties), he worked in an office somewhere, had a decent salary, but after finding a better job, wanted to change companies. He submitted all the documents, and then… At the new place he was not hired (“sorry, we are on the verge of bankruptcy”), at the old place they threw up their hands (“you left, what do you want from us”), in social security. The service was told that since he had good money in his account for the last three years, let them (that money) take care of him now. Pete ended up with no job, no savings, and even no place to live. Or rather, he took up residence in a local church. Gives lessons to people with mental illnesses, organizes street rock concerts, takes friends (at their expense) to cafes, showing local sights. And, you know, he liked living like that!

I’m aware of the whole story, not because we’re close, but because Pete tells it loudly to every friend he brings to our café. And even with my level of English it became clear even on the tenth time.

Now Pete, by the way, is not talking about himself. And I’m awfully grateful that he tries to use uncomplicated words and (apparently for my understanding) quotes from all the famous movies:

– It is only by losing everything to the end that we gain freedom. And she’s beautiful! The world has already realized the evil of global corporations. It’s your life, and it’s getting shorter every minute at the office. But what do we see? People want to be made slaves again. Facebooks, Googles… – they’re opening new jobs all the time. They don’t care what kind of expert you are, they care what kind of servant of the system you can become. Why would we do that? For a standard of living? О! Everything you need – fulfillment, happiness, harmony – will come on its own once you get in the right place in life. Just be yourself. You – it’s not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. Do what is right for the real you and if it is good and kind, all will be well with you.

This, of course, brings to mind my friend Yura. Where’s a freer and a better man? Just like Pete, here: blond-haired, patched, with a perpetual light from bright blue eyes and a kind smile. Loved orienteering, games, bikes and pretty pictures? – I invented a photo-velokwest, which for fifteen years played old and young from different cities. Dreamed of adding modernity to these games? – Quit his high-paying job, made his hobby a profession, converted all functionality to smartphones, and attracted countless more participants. Did you catch the start of the war in Kharkov? – Immediately he turned the game into reality: “in the headquarters” guys called civilians, clarified requests, and he made purchases and ran around the most dangerous points of the city, delivering humanitarian aid to those in need. Was the most charismatic quest organizer, became the most effective volunteer.

When his car was hit by a shell and his children (little Maya, whom he adored and called “Mayets”, and young Vova – a faithful assistant to Dad in all creative endeavors) were left without a father, my confidence in the harmony and justice of the planet was shaken….

– You agree with me, don’t you? – Pete asks.

Not wanting to lie, I say something to the effect that, yes, we’re on the same wavelength, and I’m terribly glad that there are still people in the world who feel and believe everything so correctly… And I run away. It’s still raining, but my jet lag is a great excuse for not explaining anything.

I pedal as hard as I once did at the finish line of Yuri’s game, and, damn it, I catch myself thinking that I got only bad things out of the conversation – Facebook and Google (or rather their vacancies for non-specialists) are firmly stuck in my head and don’t give me any peace.

You can read the continuation here.

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