Alexandra Nicolaeva: Difficulties Of A Translation – December 15, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

To find myself in another country is almost like to come to another planet. Everything that you were used to, and was familiar to you does not exist here. It seems that even the laws of physics are different here, without speaking about such things as culture and customs. In this sea of uncommonness and odds you have only one lifebuoy and this is the phrase: “I’m sorry; I speak in English not so well. Can you say it one more time?”

I think I knew rather enough about American culture before I had come here. Maybe I have watched too many movies… But what can happen if the movies are becoming reality (without subtitles, by the way)? You cannot be a viewer anymore; you may not be surprised by all those strange things that Americans do and you have to learn the laws and rules that make this country what it is.

So what have I learned during these two weeks of the longest American movie in my Russian life?

1. Water. Here you can drink it right from the tap. In Russia first you have to filter it, and boil it before you can use it. My first week here I repeated this procedure exactly as I did at home. However, eventually I was convinced by the experience of my friends, that I shouldn’t waste my time on it, and I may be sure about safety of this water for my life.

2. Food. I was coming to the homeland of MacDonald’s with confidence that I would not be able to find normal food. I was calling USA “the country of almost ready food”. We also have frozen food, but we use it mostly in an emergency rather than as a necessity. Russians generally like to cook. My most surprising and alarming discovery was canned bread that you need to put in the oven for 20 minutes. Honestly, I doubted whether or not this was real food. But then I came from Florida to California and its fresh milk with good vegetables has proved to me, that I can find something very tasty here. People just work too much and they haven’t time to cook.

3. Transport. I live in big Saint-Petersburg where buses come every five minutes. Here in Arcata it is faster to walk downtown, than to wait for a bus for about an hour. But it is much easier here to buy a car because it is cheaper and you may get a driver’s license at 16. In Russia you have to wait two more years.

4. Roads. One very famous Russian writer said Russia has two main problems. One of them is roads. You have to make sure that your car is ready for pits, ruts and sometimes for completely absent asphalt when you are going to drive outside of the city. Here, in America, all roads and paths, even if small and remote, have good lines, and good asphalt. In addition, people here follow the rules on the road and it works! in Russia you are regulated, not by traffic laws, but by common sense if you don’t want to have an accident.

5. Police. Russian police can stop anyone without reason and check your documents just to make sure are not there illegally. But if you haven’t your passport they can take you to jail until they verify your identity. In the USA I have learned such behavior is generally not allowed…

6. Medicine. It is free in Russia. I mean if you are resident you can make an appointment to the doctor any time, after getting state insurance, or employer sponsored insurance. Of course, you have to wait for a while but anyway you can get it. Here it’s hard to get medical care if you haven’t a job. My father’s wife lost her job and she met this problem face to face, because now she must pay a lot of money to go to the clinic.

7. Environment. I understood that here almost everybody understands the concept of zero waste. moreover this concept is working! As I know, San Francisco is one of cleanest places in the USA where all the cities’ garbage is recycled. But in Russia only nonprofit organizations are trying to explain to our government why separating waste benefits citizens as well as the economy. Meanwhile, dumps around the city are growing.

Most surprising for me are the people. I can’t get used to see smiling people on the streets and in the stores who are saying to me “Hi! How are you?!” I can’t get used to people who are always ready to help me with heavy bags, that I carry from the store while pushing my daughter in a stroller.

Drivers stop for me on the road; everybody wanted to look after my daughter Nellie for a minute on the plane during my long flight from Florida to California. I have learned here that people’s attitude to each other is different. In a plane nobody will tell me something bad, if my child is crying. In Russia I can be asked to calm her or even change my seat.

But anyway, I’m sure it doesn’t make sense to compare two countries the culture of which was shaped by different histories. You will always be looking for pluses and minuses of both society, but it is better to learn how it works, to talk with people and gain new experience and knowledge while being yourself.

Alexandra Niklolaeva is a journalist with Isvestia visiting Arcata.