“Are you calling my dictionary a liar?” I roughly say, non-guttural accent in mind, somewhat guttural accent in speech, but not enough guttural accent to convey my point. And all the same, I don’t know how to correctly say liar in Russian. I would ask my eight-inch thick dictionary, which I’m holding in one hand, but it is wet from the rain and the pages are sticking. I need to choose my words judiciously because soon it will tear.
So instead, I call the practice of selling foreigners broken teapots “nonsense.” I’m not sure if I can use that word as a verb but that’s what I’m doing. The “grandmother” (BAH-boosh-ka) who owns the shop gets upset when you call her a “scarf” (bah-BOOSH-ka). And while I think she is completely without humor, she suddenly snickers. She calls my teapot a “kettle” in broken British and pretends there is a difference.
I counter that it is a “nightmare.” But I can’t clarify what kind of nightmare, as I vaguely recall there are different levels, but maybe I am making that up. I might be thinking of Dante’s Inferno, which is also not in English. However, I am certain it has subtitles.
So she plugs in the teapot and it sputters lukewarm water and then she implies (or possibly states) that Americans are too soft for hot tea. And alone in post-Communist Ufa in 1995, I debate whether to slink away in dampness or to raise up an imaginary can of diet soda in anthem to all outsiders who flee from melancholic chai and instant coffee Eastern European style, that is served multi-brewed and cremated with the delicateness of a nuclear blast.
But while I’m not ready to assimilate – today – I won’t be an American. And even though the perfect cuppa keeps evading me, I will be infused with Russia, to enjoy herbed tea with unfurling blossoms and strawberry jam.
But while I can taste it, I can’t translate it. But I certainly will say it.
I square my shoulders in the doorjamb, blocking all customers, and stare at the storekeeper with a silent command: Give me a new teapot.
And she does.
Sarah Dubinsky’s stories, songs, and poems glitter like pyrite and have the depth of a puddle. She likes it this way and hopes you do too.