I felt utterly confused and disoriented when I arrived in Russia. I knew absolutely no Russian. Cyrillic appeared like hieroglyphics to me. I had no idea what I was seeing. It didn’t help that Cyrillic had letters I’d never seen before and familiar letters, such as p, behave like other letters (in this case r). When traveling and looking at signs, I laboriously studied each letter on my map to match it to the sign. I mumbled to myself things like, “H, small e, B, C, K, backwards N, backward N with a hat.”
The director at my work in St. Petersburg offered to give free informal Russian lessons, which many of us eagerly took up. After a couple lessons I can comfortably say, “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” “My name is. . .,” “What is this?” “I like my mom,” “one,” “coffee,” “milk,” and “How do you say in Russian . . .?” In my spare time I mulled over the newly-learned phrases.
Something must have happened in my brain overnight. The synapses among neurons were formed or strengthened. As I waited for a bus to appear to go to work, I glanced at a sign over a store. Whereas before it spoke gibberish to me, suddenly the mysterious wavy lines sharpened into view and leaped out in front me into an actual word — молоко (transliterated into moloko).
“Milk!” I cried aloud. “The sign says milk! The store sells milk inside!”
I was amazed. I can read! I looked around and suddenly I see words all over me. ресторан was restaurant! I could read the names of the metro stations. The world around me opened up and it no longer seems so confusing and daunting.
I remember as a kid, before I knew how to read, but knew my letters, wondering how it was that adults knew what all the words were. The letters, to me, seemed to a jumble of scrambled letters without any rhyme or reason. I stared in frustration at the signs because I wanted to know how to read. Things were written in code, unknown to me. Then one day as my parents were driving me somewhere, I realized that I could read, “Exit” on the freeway signs. I was so excited because it was the first time I could read something spontaneously. I eagerly looked for more exit signs so I could read.
The wonder and pure joy of being able to read a little bit of Cyrillic awakened the dormant feelings of excitement and discovery. I found a sliver of a crack into what was previously perceived as an impenetrable wall of cryptograph. I’m going to spend the next two weeks making that sliver just a tad wider.