April 7th – From Russia With Love

I doubt it will have escaped anyone’s notice that John and I are participating in a charity motorcycle ride to Russia this summer. There is plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet about this trip, so I won’t bore you with details here*.

Our journey will take us through many countries and will, naturally, bring us into contact with speakers of a variety of languages. Now, while it is true that English is the most widely spoken second language in Europe, it is also true that we will be spending the majority of our trip in countries where Russian is the principal or second language. And, since I have a particular horror of not being able to communicate or even read road signs, I have equipped myself with a mini Russian language course from the BBC.

When we moved to France in 2007, it had been so long since I had visited any country whose native language was neither English nor French, that I was quite taken aback when, on a day trip to Huesca in Spain, I couldn’t read the restaurant menu. And, when John’s mum came over at Christmas, a trip to the Boya supermarket just across the border, turned into pure farce after she offered to buy us lunch.

The thing was that, although Betty had booked herself in for 10 days with us, she doesn’t really like France. Or perhaps I had better qualify that as she doesn’t much care for things French. She likes the wine, of course. And, food-wise, we were safe as long as the principal ingredients were eggs, cheese, potato or bread. Even so, my efforts to entice her with a traditional raclette dish failed spectacularly. It may have been a coincidence, but use of my “Jour de Fête” electric raclette machine resulted in a street-wide blackout, so omelettes became a staple feature of our daily menu.

Options for entertainment were dwindling and nerves were beginning to fray, so I suggested a booze run to Spain. Betty, I knew, liked Spain, having once owned a timeshare Tenerife …Thus, having bought up as many litre bottles of vodka and cheap brandy as we could justify bringing back in the car, we set out to find a restaurant for lunch.

We were guided to a sunny table on the enclosed terrace and given our menus. Betty studied hers with a degree of irritation, before asking me to call the waitress back for “the English menu”. I said I wasn’t sure that there would be one. “But all those holidays, Betty, don’t you understand a bit of Spanish?” “Of course, they will” she insisted, “all Spanish people speak English!” Well, in case any of my readers are under a similar misapprehension, let me assure you now, they don’t.

Eventually we ordered our meal by touring the dining room to peer at what was on other people’s plates, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. We tried a variety of Latin-sounding words for water, only to be served lemonade. Betty’s misery was compounded still further when, as usual, she attempted to improve her meal with a liberal quantity of salt – only to have the lid of the salt pot fall off in mid-sprinkle. Cue a lot of raised voices and gesticulation.

Determined that we should not repeat any part of that embarrassing exercise, I trawled eBay for a second-hand Spanish course. Needlesss to say, it remains quite a long way down my to-do list.

So, back to the present. I’m pleased to report that I can, with reasonable confidence, say “hello” and “goodbye”, “how are you”, and “I’m fine, thank you”, in Russian.

“I’m fine, thank you”. Why is it that, no matter what language you are learning, you are always taught “I’m fine, thank you”? On almost every foreign holiday I’ve ever been on, there have been mornings when I was anything but.

Alongside, “I’m fine, thank you”, any decent holiday vocabulary ought to cover “my head feels as if it is about to explode, and my mouth feels like the bottom of a parrot’s cage … thank you”. Mind you, my Russian phasebook does thoughtfully include “I think I’m going to be sick” and “Where’s the toilet?”. Additionally, if I’m arrested by the police, I now know how blame someone else.

My favourite, under the “Safe Travel” section, is a page devoted to Bond films. I’m not quite sure how useful phrases like “So we meet again, Mr Bond, but this time the advantage is mine”, or “Your plans for world domination are sadly mistaken”, will be, but I might learn them just for fun.

*To learn more about our 6,500-mile ride from Moscow, Scotland, to Moscow, Russia, visit www.offonaweeride.com.

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