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Foreign Language

by Kirsten Giebutowski

Life in Russian

I have lost the reason to say Zdrastvuytye when I see someone I know. I have lost the reason to ask, Kak dela?, to nod my head sympathetically and say, Ya tozhe. I have lost the reason to say anything at all in Russian because no one in this small New England town speaks it. I do not even need to use it to communicate with dogs, because the ones here understand English, unlike Ukrainian dogs, who may know either Russian or Ukrainian or perhaps a bit of both but who just stared at me and didn't budge when I said come here or give me your paw, which I did for an entire year, just to be sure, before speaking to them in Russian. Now when I ask a dog to come here he does, but it has lost some of its charm. The words I use here are not magic keys that produce miraculous effects. The dog comes, the dog gives me his paw — so what? Buying a stamp at the post office is similarly uneventful and asking to try on a pair of shoes, size 8 ½, does not feel like cause for celebration, even after the clerk disappears for a while and comes back with a pair of size 8 ½ shoes for me to try. I do not call a friend to tell her the story because there is no story, nothing has been accomplished, there is no reason to feel proud. I am back in a place where I can assume, rightly or wrongly, that I understand everyone and they understand me. The mystery of everyday interactions has been lost. Not quite understanding, not quite being understood for a year gave me the freedom to float through situations and use my imagination to decide what was going on. Conversations are out of focus when you can only understand two words in ten. Instead of hearing what people said, I watched the words coming out of their mouths. I noticed their mouths, registered the shape of their lips and the various choreographies enacted in service of speech. I heard the voice, because I could not hear the words, and it sounded like an instrument trying to express something. When I was at a faculty meeting entirely in Ukrainian, of which I knew even less than Russian, I found myself at an orchestra that went in and out of tune, that picked up a rhythm for a while before losing it and finding a new one. Here, now that I am home, I cannot separate the voice so easily from the words. I listen with my head more than my ears and my head doesn't hear as much music. I miss the mysterious, untranslatable music, beautiful as a dog's bark, and I miss barking back.

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Articles in this Issue

Escape from America, by Bruce Falconer
Scarecar, by John Cotter
Gravestones, by Christina Holzhauser
Clotheslines, by Beth Powning
Foreign Language, by Kirsten Giebutowski
History, by Ann Marie Byrd
Obituaries, by Captain Elias
February 2009


Kirsten Giebutowski lives and writes and aches for the things she's lost from a small town in New Hampshire. She is a recent graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and her last published essay appeared in Etude. These days she's writing about borsch, a statue of Pushkin in a Ukrainian park, and a departed root cellar.

Where loss is found.

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