December 16, 2012

Cyrillic Signatures

This week, I sent a card to a Ukrainian friend. And when I went to sign my name, I got as far as the equivalent of 'Bren...' in Cyrillic and stopped.

I couldn't for the life of me remember how to write out a 'D'. I'm still not sure I have it right. 

I felt like I was losing my marbles a bit. 

You see, I know how to write my name in Cyrillic. I've written it out hundreds of times. It's the one thing I can actually spell in Cyrillic.

In 1995, I entered Ukraine for the first time to teach English on a summer trip. Only English teachers and a few students seemed to be speak English, at least where I was. The Soviet Union had since collapsed, but to me, as a naive American college student, things still seemed shaky.

I didn't have a lot of control over the entire summer situation, so I wanted to at least have a little control over how I communicated. Until that summer, I had never felt like a strong communicator -- I was born with a cleft palate which left me a little nasally. Kids made fun of me throughout school and in fact when I applied to work in Ukraine I was initially turned down because the organizer felt that people wouldn't understand me. 

(I was a little baffled by this, considering that it seemed nobody would understand anybody who spoke English, in any case.)

I think deep down, I wanted to prove people wrong. I could communicate. And I would do it well. That first summer there I struggled. People spoke Russian, Ukrainian and their own dialect of Transcarpathian. Some days, I returned to our house, proud of myself for learning three new words, only to discover I had learned the same word -- just in three different tongues. 

From then on, I decided to only learn Russian. While I know I offended a few nationalists along the way, I figured that I would get to use Russian far more in my life than Ukrainian. And indeed I have. Russian came in handy many times and still occasionally does.

Conversationally, I was pretty good. I was able to at least communicate which tomatoes I wanted in the market, where I was going and when I may actually get there to my friends, and I could give some pretty decent directions and the time of day to complete strangers. 

Something was missing though. I needed to learn how to actually write these foreign letters. 

In between summers trips to Ukraine, I took a short Russian course in England to force myself to learn to write. I had the alphabet down, but nobody actually prints in Cyrillic. Everyone writes the equivalent of cursive -- and the cursive Cyrillic alphabet is very different to the printed one.

Eventually, I learned how to write enough Cyrillic to get by. My name, of course was essential. I was proud of myself for being able to fill out the Cyrillic customs forms and to sign my name at border crossings, so non-English speakers could read it. 

You can understand then why it came as a great shock to me when I couldn't even remember how to write my first name this week. 

I'm giving myself a little slack, since I haven't been to Ukraine for seven years. I'm hoping the recipient of my card on the other side of the world cuts me some slack too. I suspect I ended up spelling out 'BrenBa' instead of 'Brenda'. Oops.

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