Sunday, November 19, 2017


People who haven’t seen me in a year or two tell me my Russian’s getting better. I’m not really aware of the change, and don’t remember my Russian being all that bad a couple of years ago. Then again, there are still some things I just don’t get right. Honey, for example.

Honey. It’s even simpler in Russian: мёд. Three letters. One syllable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can buy it just about anywhere. But I can’t buy it anywhere, because nobody knows what I’m talking about when I ask where it is in the store.

Today I went to a big supermarket called Green City. The sign is even in English. The store is huge and I had no idea where to look for the honey, so I asked a clerk stocking one of the shelves. She looked across the aisle at the health foods and asked me what kind. There were bottles of colorful fruity-looking stuff on the shelf she was looking at, but I couldn’t see any honey at all. I said, “Regular. I prefer it runny.”

“Maybe we don’t have it,” she replied.

Certain that they sold honey, I asked, “Do you understand me?”

She clearly wanted to answer yes, but she looked at me long and hard, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe not,” she admitted.

I repeated, “Honey. From bees.” Her face didn’t change.

“Bees,” I said. “Do you know what they are?”

“No,” she admitted. She didn’t.

Finally, I got out my phone and wrote on the screen: мёд.

“Oh!” she said, clearly embarrassed. She took me directly to the honey, two aisles away. As we walked, I asked her what she heard me say, how I might improve my pronunciation.

She was too embarrassed to answer, so I pressed her. “Please,” I asked, “say ‘honey’ for me.”

She wouldn’t do it. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t understand.”

“But if you say ‘honey’ for me,” I said, “I’ll learn how to say it right. Please, say ‘honey.’”

She said it. I could tell that the vowel sounded a little different, and she said the letter “d” without resonance. It just stops. My English-teacher friend Natasha tried to school me on this earlier, and I thought I’d gotten the point, but clearly I still need practice.

I’ve told stories like this before to friends who have gotten used to my American accent. They usually tell me that I say мёд just fine, that the problem is with the other guy. One of them repeated it to me today, as I relived my grocery-store trauma. It’s very nice, but I don’t believe it.

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