Friday, January 21, 2011

In Memory of my Russian Grandfather

January 2011
I actually started a blog post about my Russian Grandfather last spring, but didn’t finish it. Yesterday I found out that he died on Wednesday of a heart problem. For someone I didn’t really know very well or for very long, it’s really made me sad. Grandfather was one of the group of people I claim as the best neighbors in Dushanbe. As a relative works outside, spray painting a metal Orthodox cross in preparation for memorial gathering tomorrow, I’ll post this tribute to Grandfather Colya, one of the many people who consistently brighten my day. One of the noor (bright, shiny) people, as they say in Tajik.

Photo: Umeda, me, Grandfather Colya, and Amina (the girls are in the Tajik family)

April 2010
My biological Grandfathers were both 100% Swedish by ethnicity, but I have a Russian grandfather here in Dushanbe. One of my neighbors is an elderly Russian man who I see outside at least once a day, smoking and walking around the yard and down the sidewalk with his cane. (The smoking and exercise is an ironic combination, I realize, but at least he’s exercising and not just smoking). One of my first interactions with Grandfather happened a few days after I first arrived in the fall of 2009. I didn’t know where to throw the garbage, and after a couple days, I decided it was time to find out. I looked up the word for garbage in my Russian dictionary, (it’s musor) and took my garbage bucket, prepared to knock on one of the neighbor’s doors and ask where I could dispose of the stuff. I took a deep breath—this trying to communicate without language is never easy. “Please God, help them understand me.” Paper with the word musor in hand and the bucket in the other, I opened my door. Just at that moment, Grandfather was coming out of his apartment across the hall with his musor bucket. I asked “gdye musor?” and Grandfather smiled and said something to the effect of “I’m going there now, come on.” He led me slowly to the dumpsters in the alley behind the building and we emptied our buckets. And that was the start of my friendship with Grandfather.

Since I decided to work on learning Tajik, my knowledge of Russian is about the same as when I arrived, which isn’t saying much, literally. I’ve added a few random Russian words to my vocabulary, because Tajiks use a lot of Russian borrowings. My collection of recently acquired Russian words includes nouns that describe modern objects, like “electric heater,” “microwave,” “stove,” etc. Nevertheless, Grandfather and I continue to communicate with our few common words. Here is a typical exchange between me and the Russian grandfather.
Me: “Zdrastrooytsay!” (hello in Russian)
Grandfather: “Zdrastrooytsay!”
[Big smiles on both sides. Grandfather doesn’t speak much Tajik, but he has adopted the Tajik custom of placing a hand over the heart and nodding slightly to show respect and greeting. I’ve adopted the custom as well, so we both do this. Sometimes, Grandfather reaches out and gives me a firm handshake. Occasionally he salutes me.]
Me: Kak vi? (How are you?--Russian)
Grandfather: “Normal,” or “hanging in there.” “And how are you?” he asks.
Me: “Harasho,” (Russian: good). “Sport?” I ask.
Grandfather: “Da, da, sport.”
Next Grandfather usually makes a circular motion with his cane to indicate that he is going to walk around the yard for exercise “sport”.
Me: “Harasho!” I give him the thumbs up sign.
Grandfather: “Kujo meraved?” (Tajik “where are you going?”)
Me: point to the university, store, or say “doma pradrooshka” if I’m going to a friend’s house.
Grandfather: “Harasho!” Another big smile.
Me: “Ladna,” (Russian, well, OK). “Dasvidanya,” (goodbye).
Grandfather: “Dasvidanya.”
[We both place our hands on our hearts Tajik style, more big smiles].

Well, Grandfather Colya, since our conversations were always bilingual, I’ll close with the Tajik to didan (til the next time we see each other). I don’t think you’ll be needing that cane anymore.