it's been a little over a week since i got back from my trip and i'm already forgetting the words i picked up. i learned a bit of russian before i went over through some tapes that i bought. they taught simple phrases that might come in handy for tourists, stuff like "i don't understand russian", and "excuse me, where is red square". in practice, you can get pretty far in any country starting from a base of just 4 words - please, thanks, beer, bathroom - and pick it up as you go along.
russian is a tough language though. i can kind of find my way in french or german because the roots of the words are common to english. russian is just weird, with a different alphabet and entirely different sounds that we don't have in english, and vice versa. some of the newer words are taken directly from english though, which made for a little bit of familiarity once i started being able to read a little. it didn't take long to figure out what an internet cafe looks like, since the internet and cafe are both spelled phonetically in russian. they do have some problems with purely english sounds though, like trying to find a russian spelling for subway (saabvey). the subway shops in russia still have the same heinous yellow store front, btw, even with a different sign on it.
thankfully russian people were very good about the language thing. i didn't run into anyone that seemed offended at my butchering their language, and my russian grammar skills are well below tonto's english. the one person that couldn't get the hang of talking to me in a way i could understand was ksenia's grandfather. he would use a russian word i've never heard of to explain something, and if ksenia wasn't around to translate we were stuck. it didn't seem to bother us when we were watching hockey or playing cards though. he's not a dim bulb either, he kicked my ass 17 of the 18 games of chess we played, which was a thoroughly humbling experience.
the whole trip was humbling in some ways. no matter how nice people are to you, not being able to say anything but the most basic phrases or understand anything spoken to you made me feel very frustrated and stupid. i constantly had that perplexed smile of someone who has no idea what you're talking about. i hate that smile. that smile was one of the reasons i was eventually happy to get back home.