Blowing Smoke: Memories of 8 a.m. Russian Class

Since I couldn’t find a suitable photo of a cigarette-smoke ring on Google, here are some shots of a volcano puffing one out. Wow!

Last November, in writing about the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, I recalled the birth of my interest in Russia and the Soviet Union. I wrote that when I began my college career, I intended to major in one of the hard sciences or engineering. Being a science or engineering major at Yale in those days meant that to fulfill the foreign language requirement, I would have to study French, German or Russian. No other language.

I’d had two years of Latin and three of Spanish in high school. I’m delighted to have studied Spanish since it greatly facilitated my study of Portuguese years later, when I was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Brazil, and the fragments that still rattle around my cranium certainly come in handy here in 21st-century California. But my parents had wanted me to take French, as they had. However, the word was out about our high school’s French teacher. She was said to be ill-qualified to teach it and held her post thanks mainly to her husband’s being director of our school band, which gave her an unassailable hold on it.

Upon arriving in New Haven, I therefore signed up for introductory French and attended the first class. However, after an hour of drills with Bon jour, madame and similar phrases, I decided, in all my youthful hubris, that French would be way too easy; I could learn it some other time. (A time that has yet to arrive!) My roommate had enrolled in Russian, so I decided to give it a shot. As it turned out, the best marks I earned that year were in Russian. (I came within a hair’s breadth of flunking chemistry and calculus.)

Russian proved distinctly more challenging than that first French class. Instead of a simple bon jour, Russians greet each other with zdravstvuyte. Homework was endlessly muttered efforts to get my tongue around those unfamiliar consonant clusters.* After I felt I’d finally committed the word to memory, I moved on to the next phrase (out of perhaps 20 or so) in Lesson One: “How are you?” – Kak Vy pozhivayete? After deciding I’d mastered that one too, I tested myself by going back and trying to say “Hello.” I couldn’t. The new sounds sent the previous ones into exile – Siberia, no doubt.

But I soldiered on and eventually got a grip, albeit a fairly tenuous one at that point, on the beast. Our class met with one of several native Russian speakers every morning at eight o’clock. Only six or eight students sat around three sides of a large square table; the instructor sat alone across from us. My favorite was an attractive early-40-something who would often wear an only partially buttoned silk blouse – a lovely distraction from all those consonants.

In those days, a lot of people smoked, and I recall another distraction in the form of a classmate with a remarkable talent for blowing smoke rings. He’d draw on his cigarette, then emit a thick ring not much smaller than a donut, which would quickly drop down to tabletop level and skitter across to the far edge before falling off and plunging to the floor.

As the song goes, “Those were the days, my friends!”**


* After living in Hawaii for 27 years, when I think about Russian and other consonant-rich Slavic languages, I’m reminded of what humorist Dave Barry, in The Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, wrote about the “hardy Polynesian mariners, who traveled thousands of miles in open canoes, braving fierce storms that washed all of their consonants overboard, so they arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with a language consisting almost entirely of vowels….”

** The original words were in Russian.

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