To Curse or Not to Curse?

Monday, 14 February 2011

One of the first things many language learners enjoy discovering when learning a language is all the bad words.  While this can undoubtedly be entertaining, knowing bad words in a language can also be useful.  Knowing when someone is cursing at you is important if you want to avoid confrontational or even dangerous situations.  Knowing when to use an appropriately strong and effective word can also make a point when necessary.

But just because you know how to curse in a language, does that mean that you should? A recent article states that cleaning up your language can contribute to one’s professional success as well as make the world a better place.

While living in Russia the decision of whether or not to curse was one that I found myself contemplating.  I quickly learned numerous bad words in Russian and how to use them in everyday conversation.  But I also realized that there’s somewhat of a taboo against women using foul language.  Most of the bad words I heard were used by men and when I tried to speak using such words some people admonished me.  While I thought incorporating bad language was a part of learning the language and speaking like a native speaker, apparently some words aren’t acceptable even if other people use them.

Although I can’t say there were any negative repercussions because I used the words sparingly and among friends, I can see the potential for the use of bad words to cause problems.  So, when in doubt, no matter what language you speak, don’t use bad words.  It’s not a bad idea, though, to educate yourself about this aspect of a language so you can understand what others are saying or to know which words to avoid.

What experiences have you had learning bad words in another language?  In your culture is it acceptable for some people to curse and not others?


10 Things I Never Did Until I Lived in Russia (Part 2)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Continuing from my previous list, here are 10 more things I never did until I lived in Russia:

1) Didn’t sleep in a “real” bed. Due to the small size of many Russian flats, space is limited and furniture sometimes performs double functions.  The most common is that of the sofa bed.  I found that many people didn’t sleep in what I would call a “real” bed.  Instead they slept on a sofa, futon, or other bed-like piece of furniture.  This didn’t present any problems until I moved into a new flat, decided to buy a bed and was met with incredulity.  Some people couldn’t understand why it was important for me to have a bed.  But when given a choice between a bed and a sofa, I chose the bed.
2)  Read cheesy books. The selection of books available in English in Russia is often quite limited, even in big bookstores like Dom Knigi and Biblio-Globus.  This meant that sometimes when I was so desperate to read something in English, I ended up reading books that I can only describe as cheesy.  Books that I would never read if I was in the United States and had more variety.  But sometimes you just need to read a book in English!
3) Saw my coworkers and boss naked. See my previous post on nudity.
4) Ate at McDonald’s. I don’t if there are any significant differences between McDonald’s in the United States and the ones in Russia but, in my opinion, the food at the ones in Russia tastes better.  It seems to have more flavor and is not as greasy or sickening.  I don’t eat McDonald’s when I’m in the US but doing so didn’t seem quite so bad while living in Russia.  Maybe it wasn’t even healthier, but it definitely tasted better and also gave a level of comfort and familiarity, despite the small differences in taste.
5) Knew Russian celebrities. When I was studying Russian as a university student, I was oblivious to a lot of Russian popular culture.  My professor played several popular films and songs in class so I was aware of a few things.  But while living in Russia, I quickly absorbed knowledge of popular films, who the actors, actresses and TV personalities were and other random knowledge.  Knowing about these things was also helpful in order to feel a part of the conversation, to understand jokes and make cultural references.
6) Drank tea. Like most people, I’d always associated tea with England.  I had no idea that Russians drank so much tea.  While I rarely drank tea on my own, it was something of a social activity at work and I soon found myself mindlessly drinking cup after cup of tea throughout the work day.  At home I never drank tea but always kept some on hand in case I had Russian friends visiting.
7) Drank sparkling water. Before I came to Russia I enjoyed drinking sparkling water but it wasn’t something I did that often.  It’s not standard in the United States and can be difficult to find in shops and restaurants.  But in Russia it’s almost the norm.  When ordering water at a restaurant or from a street vendor, it’s important to verify whether you want it to be sparking (with gas: с газом) or still (without gas: без газа).  Sparkling water is also the same price as still and is relatively cheap.  Consequently I ended up drinking copious amounts of it and came to enjoy it even more than before.
8)  Took a gypsy cab. In Russia there are official taxi cabs and then there are gypsy cabs: cars that ordinary people drive but are willing to offer you a lift for a price.  I never took them alone but, when traveling with friends, sometimes found myself in some random person’s car.  It was an interesting experience that while shocking at first, soon became the norm for transportation when taxis weren’t available.
9)  Drank straight vodka shots. Many are aware of the connection between Russia and vodka.  Before living in Russia, I rarely took a shot of straight vodka.  If I did, it was at a party or club with the sole intent of becoming drunk.  But in Russia I found myself taking shots at lunch or dinner and was told not to sip but to swallow the whole shot.
10) Had people be surprised I was skinny. In the United States most people expect you to be a certain size.  Your body is only commented on when it is either too big or too small.  Americans are known to be obese and Russians are aware of this.  I’ve always been petite but no one said anything about it until I lived in Russia.  One woman was surprised to find that I was American and said, “But you’re not fat!”  She seemed genuinely shocked as if being fat were a requirement for being an American.

Welcome to the Dacha

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Today we went to our friend’s dacha in Sergiev Posad.  The traffic wasn’t bad and we arrived surprisingly quickly.  As we drove through the town and into the country, more and more dachas became visible.  I was surprised because they resembled average houses that one can find in America, as opposed to flats which tend to dominate here.  For some reason I had always thought that dachas were located in the middle of nowhere, that there were no other dachas around and the land was very private.  But that wasn’t the case.  Instead, there were what looked like little communities of dachas.  They were clumped together and separated by fences.

Our friends’ dacha in particular shares a plot with two other dachas that also belong to their family and a banya.  I was very surprised to see that it looked unfinished on the inside.  There were boards visible everywhere, the floor was made of wood just nailed down and you could see the electrical wires running up and down the wall.  The stairs to the second floor were simply a staircase with boards nailed on.

The plumbing as well was something new.  I guess I had imagined that a dacha was just a small house, fully furnished.  But here there is no running water and the toilet, for example, was a portable toilet which must be emptied.  The kitchen sink, too, had a pail underneath to catch the water that went down the drain.  Running water was brought in from outside and poured into the tank above the sink.  Twisting a small tap brought out water which had been heated inside the tank.  There was no sign of a stove, just two hotplates that sat side by side and were heated with electric.

As we began to prepare food, I soon saw what a hassle it could be to live in a dacha.  I found it hard to believe that so many Russians find coming out to their dachas a relaxing experience.  When I expressed my dismay, even my Russian friend said that you buy a dacha to kill yourself because of all the problems that come with it.

While preparing food, I found myself feeling a bit useless.  The Russian women were taking care of everything because they knew just what to do.  I offered my help as much as possible, but mostly felt inadequate.  I didn’t know what ingredients went into the salads or even how to cut the vegetables.  It seemed like there was some unwritten rule about how to slice cucumbers and tomatoes and all the Russians knew it but me.  But I reassured myself that it was my first time so I watched and learned for next time.

Later I learned the rules of what to wear to the dacha.  While there was electricity, there wasn’t a lot of heat.  The weather is still cool and one room had portable heaters in it but the rest of the dacha was quite cold.  Everyone else had been to a dacha before and came prepared for this.  I was so cold, but our friends had a bunch of extra clothes on hand to remedy this problem.

In the evening we ate a wonderful dinner of shashlyk, salads, bread, fruits and vegetables.  Then we watched a movie on a projector and sang karaoke.  The amount of technological equipment there really contrasted with the rustic nature of the dacha and showed how both old and new Russia were coexisting together and how changes had been incorporated into dacha life.

The Mystery of Italian Men

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Today I received several phone calls from Tony, a guy I met while on holiday in Italy.  But I still can’t figure out his strange behaviour.  Now why would a guy calling a girl be considered strange behaviour?  Well, because he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian (except from some very simple phrases).  So, needless to say, we can’t really understand each other.

I know I wrote about how we were able to communicate in Italy despite the language barrier.  But speaking in person is one thing, speaking over the phone is quite another.  I can honestly say he’s probably called me more than 20 times in the past few weeks.  He’s also sent some text messages in Italian which I am at least able to understand due to online translators.

Recently we exchanged e-mails and have sent a few messages back and forth.  This has been relatively successful due to online translators as well.  And yet he keeps calling me!  Why, I wonder.  When I do answer the phone and we talk, he seems perfectly happy to ramble on in Italian.  Even if I say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t speak Italian” in Italian, he doesn’t seem to get it.

So I can’t help but wonder why he’s doing this and if I’m missing some important element of Italian culture that would make it all suddenly so clear to me.  So I got online and looked up information about Italian culture, Italian men and experiences people had dating Italian men.  I didn’t find any answers but I did discover a few interesting things:

  1. Italian men are more romantic but also more physical.  They expect to have sex sooner and are more passionate than most men.  [I know this is a stereotype and it doesn’t adhere to all men, but I found this information on numerous sites and numerous women with Italian boyfriends said it was true so there you go.]
  2. Italian men have a very close relationship with their mother.  If they take a girl home to meet their mother it means they are serious about the girl.  Their relationship with their mother often gets in the way of their relationship with their girlfriend though.  Also girls should never complain about the food the mother cooks.  [I found this one particularly surprising.  I had already known that Italians are very close to their families, but I didn’t know about this.]
  3. Italian men want a girlfriend/wife who can cook and clean in addition to being very beautiful.  These seem to be requirements as opposed to bonuses.  They want a girl who is similar to their mother in this way because they respect their mothers and, therefore respect women who are like their mothers.
  4. Italian men like to chase a girl, prove their worth to her and actually win her over.  Dating is like a game and girls must prove themselves to be worthy prizes to be won.
  5. Italian men are very put together.  They have nice clothes, wear nice watches, sunglasses, drive nice cars and are well-groomed.  They know how to take care of and present themselves.

Of course many of these may simply represent stereotypes.  And they may represent how non-Italians view Italian men.  I also came across some sites that said Italian women don’t agree with all they hype about Italian men.  They find them immature and childish because they live with their mothers, their mother does everything for them, and they don’t know how to take care of themselves or others.

Although I found some interesting information, I can’t say that I’m any closer to an answer.  Perhaps one possible clue is #4 on the list, that men like the chase.  Perhaps he thinks he’s chasing me, all the way in Russia.  Maybe the distance makes it more of a challenge, I don’t know.  But doesn’t he know he’ll probably never see me again?  So what’s the point?  Again, the communication hasn’t been the greatest so who knows what he thinks.  Then again, it’s entirely possible that I’ve unknowingly sent some signals that mean I’m interested and I want to see him again.  It’s entirely possible.

Or maybe it’s just a bit of fun for him and will stop when he gets bored.  It started out as just a bit of fun for me as well, just to see what would happen.  But after numerous phone calls and pointless conversations, I’m already bored of it.

An interesting thing to note is that, upon hearing this story, my Russian girlfriends say how romantic he is and that I should learn Italian for him.  It shows the attitude toward finding a good man: once you find him, you should do everything you can to hold onto him.

Birthday Party Rules

Monday, 2 February 2009

After work today we had a small party for one of the teachers who had a birthday over the weekend.  It often happens to me that when I hear someone has a birthday, I immediately freeze and think that I should have brought something or I should go out and get something to bring to the party.  Then I remember that here it is usually the person having the birthday who usually brings something or has a party for others.  This was the case today.  The teacher brought food, cake and drinks for everyone and organized the party.  I continue to be caught off guard by this even though this isn’t the first time it has happened.  But today was the first time I realized that maybe this isn’t actually a Russian tradition, as I had thought at first.

          I shared my thoughts with the teacher having the birthday and she said that it’s not necessarily a typical Russian tradition.  Maybe it’s a tradition for some people, but it’s not considered normal across the board.  I was surprised to hear that and it’s interesting how things can vary within a culture.

          During our get together I was the only non-native Russian there.  Everyone was speaking in Russian and I was actively listening but found it difficult to keep up.  They spoke so fast that by the time I had processed what they were saying and formulated a possible response, it was too late to contribute anything to the conversation because they’d already moved on to another topic.  However I couldn’t help but wonder what their thoughts were as they sat with me.  How was it decided that they would speak Russian?  Did they think I understood them?  Of course I didn’t expect them to speak English even though they know English perfectly well.  I’m in Russia, among Russians, it’s only natural to speak Russian.  And they know I have studied Russian and can speak it to an extent.  At one point they did stop and ask me if I understood and I said that I did.  But it was just an interesting dynamic to be a part of, to say the least.

          I also found myself wondering about social rules that I might not be aware of.  For example, we poured wine and everyone stood up to make a toast and clink their glasses together.  Then I wondered what order we should eat the food in.  There were cake and sweets and I didn’t know if I should wait for the person having the birthday to take the first piece or if it didn’t matter.  So I just waited, watched and followed suit.  There are so many small things that you take for granted that you know about your own culture but are suddenly magnified when you find yourself in new situations.