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–11– The Husband Method ] When I left that marriage, various tactless people asked if our marriage had run aground on the shoals of cultural difference— had my American habits and culture and his Soviet ones clashed, ultimately proving incompatible? How I wanted to believe that the answer to this was no. After all, we were just two individuals, weren’t we? Just as I was reluctant to admit the role of cultural difference in our marriage and its demise, I was loath to recognize that marriage to Aleksandr (not his real name) might have helped me speak Russian better. That would diminish my credentials as a translator and simultaneous interpreter, reducing them to an offshoot of wifehood. But of course Aleksandr was central to my grasp of Russian. There are certain foreign words you are just not likely to learn except as part of a domestic arrangement: pilot light, pantry, cilantro , duvet cover, curtain rod. Building on my college major in Russian language and literature, with its emphasis on War and Peace, and, in preparation for that, the instrumental case and verbs of motion (don’t ask; I’ve got them memorized, but I can’t explain), I learned from him entire terminologies related to electronics , car parts, and fly-­ fishing. When we met in the USSR in 1987, I assumed, based on the occasional English word slipped jauntily into his speech, that he knew my language well and was just holding back to let me –12– practice speaking Russian. And then one evening in his hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia, with separation looming as I prepared to return to my job on a cultural exchange project in Siberia, I spoke to him in English for the first time. As we started down the five flights of urine-­ scented stairs that led from his family’s apartment to the street, I poured out my anguish. “What happens now?” I asked. “Tomorrow I’ll be thousands of miles away. When will we see each other again?” I paused, certain that he had grasped every word. He shot me a blank but feeling look that said, I can tell you’re very upset, and I can certainly guess what it’s about, but I’m terribly sorry, I cannot respond to the particulars. As we continued down the next four flights, I haltingly reiterated in Russian what had taken me just one flight to say in English. Now I knew that this business of expressing myself in another tongue was for real. Aleksandr became my teacher, his Russian my model for how to speak the language. He was a skilled storyteller with wonderfully clear diction. I understood him easily when I still had difficulty with other Russian speakers. He spoke a vivid Russian, rich in comic images, retro Soviet hipster slang, and borrowings from Georgian, his second language. Chalichnoy was a Georgian-­ Russian hybrid word frequently on his lips that described the local knack for wheeling and dealing, acquiring the unobtainable , knowing which palms to grease, and doing so with grace and wit. Another word of choice, more a sound, really, than a word, was eef, eef, an interjection employed mainly by men from the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan to express pleasure—or anticipation—at the sight of a well-­ endowed woman or the aroma of a good meal. He didn’t go out of his way to correct me when I made a mistake , but simply incorporated the correct form into his response so that I absorbed it without effort. If I thought I might have coined a word without meaning to and then asked if it actually existed, he would grin and say, “Now it does!” –13– ————— When we moved to the United States, he often stuck with my little niece and nephew at family gatherings, especially early on, when his English was still shaky. They furrowed their brows and struggled to make sense of his unusual syntax. When he read to them, they corrected his pronunciation with excruciating politeness. Once, we faced off for a playful skirmish, my nephew on Aleksandr ’s back and my niece on mine. “Charge!” bellowed the boy, aged four, bouncing up and down on Aleksandr’s back. “Charge!” he cried again, seizing Aleksandr’s shoulders and shaking vigorously. “Charge!” Aleksandr looked puzzled. “What is ‘charge’?” he asked mildly, adjusting the little boy’s weight. ————— In the US, we discovered that marriage conducted in a foreign language afforded certain advantages: we could stand at a shop...


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