On a snowy night near Tolstoy's house, a tongue-tied American tries to summon the courage to converse.
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A noncostumed van driver walked in, and many turned toward him and seemed pleased by the snowfall on his cap and the shoulders of his heavy coat. They breathed him in in the way I take in the aroma of someone coming in from the barbecue grill.Skip to next paragraph
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A good traveler, a traveler who travels to lose some of his self-consciousness, would have approached the actors. Why not? Everybody was biding his or her time, quietly conversing or contentedly silent; no one had cellphones to pore over. Would any of those actors have turned away if I had gone up and asked: "What kind of movie are you making?" I could say that in Russian. I could easily say (because I'd been practicing): "By the way, I'm an American who loves Tolstoy. Five years ago, on my first trip to Russia, I accompanied my actor-friend Daniel, who was making a commercial in St. Petersburg. By the way, I teach English in Brooklyn." I had many "by the ways" in store.
Instead, crushed by an excruciating fear of incompetence, I sank into my boots and tramped away to the hotel's poky restaurant. The woman who had served me bread and jam that morning was leaning on the counter watching TV.
"All day!" I managed in Russian.
"Yes, and back tomorrow morning!" she said.
I asked for a bag of chips and something to drink, sat down with my book, and pulled out my journal from my pocket. I didn't talk to the three young, attractive people – the stars of the movie, I figured – who now came in, but when the van driver came in and nodded, I nodded back. He came over and, shaking his head with disgust at the trio near the counter, started complaining. The weary language of complaint needs little translation.
"The actors ... the director ... the lights ... the snow ... the van ... its tires! Its tires!"
Dina, my tutor back home, had taught me how to hang in there during such "conversations" and catch the important words. The complaining tone said the rest. I did OK for a while until, after I had muttered agreement at the wrong moment, it dawned on him that I, as a sounding board, was about as perceptive as his family dog. "You understand nothing!" he said. He turned away in disgust and strode out.
The next morning, feeling for some reason now that I had nothing to lose (I did understand something!), I started talking again. I babbled away at Yuliya, at an impatient cafe waitress down the road, and to the museum guides at the Tolstoy estate. They listened, responded, and corrected me.
When I returned that afternoon through the snow to the hotel, the actors were on the front steps, packed up and in civilian dress and waiting to get into three vans.
My last chance!
I strode right up and – he who hesitates is lost! – sidled past them, still not quite over my stage fright.