A phrase said it all: 'Absolutely nyet'

Years ago, two names appeared on my slip of paper, not one. Around the table, each new literacy volunteer had just received the name of his or her tutee. Strange, melodious names - coming from Bangladesh to Botswana - rang out across the tired library room, along with a flurry of last-minute instructions. But when, at last, my turn arrived, the assignment turned out to be different from the rest.

"I've given you two people: Igor and Tatiana. They're an older Russian couple who want to be together," the instructor explained. "She's a pediatrician and he's a naval engineer who traveled the world with the Soviet fleet. I thought that as a nurse you would be a good match for them."

I was, and am, a good match for them, although probably not for the reasons she imagined on that blustery night so long ago.

Deferring to winter's call, I arranged to meet my new friends at their high-rise, populated by elderly Russians, rather than in a more neutral setting. That's how I found myself riding an elevator one evening, enticed, at every stop, by aromas from the far-off Russian steppes.

Tatiana spoke barely a word of English, yet she managed to convey her message loud and clear: "Gi-ven, she said, unable to say my name in less than two syllables. "You must eat!" Argument was useless.

In fact, I've been eating ever since. One night a week, winter, spring, summer and fall, "I must eat." Still, as I look back on the long parade of meals, it's clear that we have shared much more than some delicious, albeit curious, cuisine.

On his travels, Igor picked up a sailor's smattering of language, put to good use during our first awkward weeks together. Between my high school Spanish, Igor's broken Italian, and Tatiana's German, we struggled for a common ground. I dutifully showed them photos of my family. I followed the prescribed lesson plans. I even tried to translate the instructions on how to program their VCR (a task that Igor, ever the engineer, succeeded in despite my help).

But in the end, Tatiana had other plans for me. It soon became apparent that she was a devoted student of her new homeland, taking no less than three English classes a week. She didn't want more lessons in clauses or conjunctions. She wanted to practice speaking with a genuine American person.

And that person, it seems, was me.

As an average genuine American person, I took the sounds of my mother tongue for granted, until I began to hear them through Tatiana's ears. Consider our vocabulary, a veritable maelstrom of confusing homonyms: flower/flour, nose/knows, meat/meet, piece/peace. Poor Tatiana; how she suffered during those early years.

Undeterred, however, we pressed on to trickier terrain. Ever notice the likeness between "pass up," as in a bargain; "pass out," as in distribute papers; and "pass away," as in, well, you know. Despite countless such run-ins, Tatiana never gave up, never failed to pick up her pen and fight - I mean, write.

These days, our efficacious chatter would be a success story by literacy volunteer standards. But sitting around the kitchen table, meal after meal, we've also become the best of friends. Part of that joy comes from the never-ending surprises.

Last week, for instance, Tatiana was telling me about her last-minute trip to the mall. "I had to buyPenthouse for Tanya," she explained.

"Penthouse? Are you sure," I asked, puzzled by the image of Tanya, her 300-pound neighbor, going for that kind of gentlemanly reading.

"Yes, Penthouse," Tatiana insisted. She was looking at me oddly.

I turned to Igor for help. "Igor, what exactly is this Penthouse? Is it a magazine?"

"Absolutely nyet," Tatiana explained, clearly exasperated by my lack of understanding. "You put them on your legs," she said, demonstrating her own sizable pair.

"Oh, you mean pantyhose," I gasped. Doubled over with laughter, I tried to explain what Penthouse meant to a genuine American person. Igor's eyes lit up with merriment as Tatiana, her dignity ruffled, smoothed the wrinkles of her apron.

Luckily, it was time for me to eat. But while consuming what must have been my billionth bowl of borscht, I discovered something new and improbable in my mouth. It was large and slimy, a rather bulbous affair. Not wanting to be impolite, but petrified of what biting might reveal, I modestly coughed it up and set it down at the corner of my plate.

"Um, Tatiana, what's this?" I asked.

"Oh, that is a heart. I buy it especially for you," she beamed down at me proudly.

Words could not articulate why this genuine American person refused to eat the Russian delicacy. A half-hearted "absolutely nyet" was about all I could muster by way of explanation.

Perhaps Tatiana understood. More likely, she just shook her head, chalking it up to yet another strange American behavior, the root of which lies, no doubt, in the nonsensical language we genuine American persons call home.

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