Saturday, May 29, 2010

International Incident

I nearly precipitated an international incident yesterday. We were looking for an apartment to buy, and our agent brought us to a beautifully-finished place on the top floor of a new building near the river. The landlady arrived in a rush and blathered about nothing and everything. She reminded me of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

I asked her about a sliding door that closed either a closet or a pantry. Since she was in such a rush to hide her laundry and whatever it was that she’d left in the bathroom, I didn’t want to open anything without her permission. She replied using a word I’d never heard and which didn’t sound Russian. I figured she’d used some sort of a cute family word and I teased her a little, asking if that were a real Russian word.

Apparently I touched a sensitive spot with that question, and she railed on about the importance of the Belarusian language and what was I doing here anyway? I told her that I was learning Russian, but not Belarusian. That really sent her flying, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t gone to Moscow to learn Russian. She supported this suggestion with a little more information and I decided I was better off not trying to defend myself. I just went to put on my shoes so we could leave.

Once my shoes were tied, I told her that she may find me a bit strange but I love Belarus and I’m learning Russian here because it’s pleasant for me. Alla added that we were standing there speaking Russian together and that Belarus is a perfectly good place to learn the language.

Only after we got outside did I figure out that her private word for “storage area” was probably a common Belarusian word and that I had offended her by what she may have considered a taunt. Is this how wars get started?

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