I still remember discovering a French translation of “The Ugly American” on my mother’s bedside table in my early mid-teen in Switzerland. I read some pages feeling slightly puzzled. Yet it confirmed my vague impressions of the Americans as a rather uncouth people, monolingual of course, and permanently foreign to the countries they visited. As a multilingual Swiss-born American, there is nothing worse for me than the prospect of becoming the “ugly American”. And yet am I not one in Russia? For the first two weeks in Saint Petersburg I cannot even be minimally polite in the stores: for simplicity’s sake I adopt rather familiar Russian terms for hullo and good bye. I quickly realize that this is not the way people address me. I finally graduate to slightly more complicated and usual forms of address. Sometime it takes courage just to get out of the door, as I know that I am going, once more, to feel foolish butchering the little Russian I am acquiring. And yet I must.
It is not that Russians are not very forgiving. New acquaintances apologize for young Russians not speaking English in the middle of town. No, I respond, it is up to me to adjust, not up to them to adjust to me. Of course, this is more complex. If I do not like American monolingualism, why should I be more accepting of Russian monolingualism, regardless of my situation?
I almost refused the Fulbright fellowship because of my ignorance of things Russian. But then I was facing a paradox: I do not want to represent the US in a country I know so little about fearing I shall do a poor job of it. On the other hand this is a unique opportunity to get to know Russia. Of course, I accept. This is as much a question of pride as of knowledge: I am partly reduced to the level of a still illiterate child. Yes, I can now read the Cyrillic characters, but this is just the beginning. More often than not, words are not pronounced the way I expect, and so it is one thing to whisper in my head some unknown street name, another to say it correctly. Fortunately in the middle of town names of major streets are indicated clearly in Cyrillic and Latin characters, a helpful pedagogical tool as well as a practical help.
Meanwhile I do tandem lessons, one hour in French and one hour in Russian, with a new friend. She is an excellent teacher of Russian, but initially I can hardly get one word of French out of her mouth although this is a very intelligent woman who studied French 7 years in school and knows a lot. Perhaps, like me, she cannot bear to do things less than well. How I sympathize. Pride precedes the fall, but it shall not stop us.