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November 30, 2008

Very, very lost in translation

For Thanksgiving Sara, Kat, Michelle, and I decided to travel to Stockholm. Tempted by Swedes and the thought of sun, we would have done anything to get out of Petersburg for the weekend. (As students, this means we took the discount route à la planes, trains, and automobiles. Add a boat in there, too.) We journeyed out into the Finnish wilderness around 10 pm Wednesday night, via bus and arrived in Helsinki around 5 am. But don’t you go assuming that the fun started in Helsinki. Oh, no! I, being the only one of the group with a good grasp of the Russian language, was left in charge of our fates. This was voted on by the group, so I hold no personal responsibility for the story that follows.

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Sara holding her case of L&M “smooth taste” cigarettes

As these things always do, it begins with a man named Vladimir. This particular Vladimir was a man vaguely responsible for “assisting” the driver with financial transactions and by periodically making announcements about yet another passport check. Just before the first stop, Vladimir asks me whether we (the four American girls) had any cigarettes. Off the bat I was going to be like, “Hey man! This is Russia, cigarettes are like 75 cents a pack. Get your own!” Besides, I didn’t even have any. Instead, being raised a polite Southern girl, I simply answered him in pretty decent Russian, “No, we do not have cigarettes. I am sorry.” Okay, so far, so good. Take that, language barrier. Then Vladimir asks if we’re planning on buying any cigarettes at the duty-free shop. “Nyet.” No. Alright, we have an understanding. Then he uses some verb (?) I have never heard, I say I don’t understand, he says it slower, louder. Nope, I still have no idea what just came out of his mouth. He says it again. I smile and say yes. “Da.”

We get back on the bus after trudging through several feet of snow in the hopes of finding a bathroom. We give up, hop back on, and get settled. Vladimir, bearing a rather large shopping bag (this sort of thing isn’t out of the ordinary in Russia—for some reason men seem to carry around shopping bags like purses), comes to where we’re sitting and gives us each a carton of cigarettes. “Oh. Why thank you?” Giggling ensues and continues until the passport/customs control point. After we get back on after doing this same drill twice, three times, I don’t even remember!–Vladimir comes back around with his bag, ceremoniously picking up bottles of alcohol from people on the bus. By the time he gets to us, I finally realize what’s going on. I hadn’t known the word for “customs.” After crossing the border, he took the cigarettes back. Sadly, we lost our 20 packs each of triple filter, “smooth taste” cancer sticks. And we thought he was just being warmly hospitable to the American girls. That’s burgeoning capitalism for you.

No longer crest-fallen and now passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, we half-watch an Italian film (far from Fellini) dubbed over in Russian. It was something along the lines of a reverse Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the woman throws herself at a forty-something grumpy man with a live-in maid. And he “Saturday Night Fever” dances in a grape crushing festival. And chops wood a lot because it’s a “thing.” It was both excruciatingly misogynistic and incredible at the same time.

Seven hours later we bid adieu to the crazy night bus and end up earlier than planned in Helsinki and without our gloriously cheap cartons of cigarettes. At 5 am all we could do was plant ourselves in the nearest McDonald’s to reflect on the events of the night and what lay ahead.