If I were to list the top 5 weirdest accomplishments of my life, right up there beside “actually rescuing a kitten from a tree” would be that time that I ordered burgers (or chicken sandwiches, rather) in Russian while in Moscow.
A bit of a backstory: when I was in high school, I took a computer programming course that I barely passed. This is another story altogether, but the highlight of that class was meeting a hilarious guy of Azerbaijani descent named Emin. I spent most of my time turning in projects late and learning little snippets of Russian from my new friend whose family spoke the language at home. From that point on, I have tried my hand at learning little conversational phrases.
Basically, the extent of my Russian skill-set is that I can trudge through reading the Cyrillic alphabet, and say “I understand very little Russian”—a phrase that comes in handy about as often as you think it would.
Last year, my wife and I had the great privilege of going to Israel. When we purchased our tickets, I was thrilled to find out that our layover would be in Moscow as I had always wanted to go and see such an interesting country. To my disappointment, we were not allowed to leave the airport without a transit visa, so all of my experiences had to be from the view of a plane or the terminals of Vnukovo International Airport.
Our thirteen hour flight took us from New York City, over Greenland and Iceland, and showed us a very comical “sunset” in which the Sun acted like it was going to set for about ten minutes before starting its ascent once again. That’s the price of flying along the 65th parallel I suppose.
Although I was filled with wonder with all over the Soviet-style mass apartments, the Vladimir Putin t-shirt vending machines, and the repetitive World Wildlife Foundation commercials with Russian celebrities that I didn’t recognize, my immediate focus was getting Adriana and I some food.
To my great amazement, there was a Burger King (or rather, a Бургер Кинг) in the airport, but there was problem. This was Russia. The menus were all in Russian, the workers spoke Russian, and I was just some random “Americanyets” who can’t fluently speak any language, much less one in such contrast to my own mother tongue.
My plan was as follows. Step one: leave the bags with Adriana and make my way over to the restaurant. Step two: stand about 100 feet back from the counter to prepare myself for what was about to transpire. Step three: Find something, anything, that I could order. My emphasis here is not on what I wanted to order, but what I could muster the ability to order.
One of the words on the menu was Тендеркрисп, so I tried sounding out the letters: “Ten” “derr” “kresp”. I located it: the object of my strategy. It seemed the word was transliterated quite literally, so as I sounded out the word I decided what food I would bring back in triumph to my waiting wife: the Burger King Tendercrisp.
I approached the counter to order from a sweet Russian woman in her late fifties or early sixties. I smiled and began with my go-to phrase: “Я немного понимаю по-русски.” Ne’er truer the words, “I understand only a little Russian.” I had been practicing my counting on the way up the line, so I followed my admission of ignorance with the Russian equivalent of “Two Tendercrisps, with fries and Pepsi. Thank you.”
She smiled a gracious and understanding smile and placed my order. That smile was very welcomed considering some folks tend to be offended when you can’t speak their language (hint, hint, Americans). I paid her with my rubles, and within a few moments, I was on my way to Adriana like a hunter coming back with caught game on his shoulder. I was victorious.
In the end, the sandwiches were still just fast food sandwiches, and I hadn’t really done anything heroic or amazing. In fact, I’m recalling this story almost to laugh at myself for feeling so accomplished about something so silly. The lesson is this, however, that fascination is a wonderful thing. We ought to search for fascination at every opportunity.
It may have been just ordering sandwiches with a bit of broken Russian phrases, but it was a neat experience, and I think neat experiences are worth a whole lot.