Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Monday, December 19, 2005

Found in Translation

Last night Emma didn't sleep in our bed the way she usually does, and so after ruminating about it for half an hour after lights-out, I got up and went into the living room to make sure she was still breathing.

Two hours later, both the Comrade and I were awakened by throaty, all-points-bulletin meows so loud he could hear them through his foam earplugs (which he always, Papaw-like, wears at night, sometimes with an American Airlines courtesy sleeping mask). We bolted in like the house was on fire to find her just sitting next to her food, and after we blearily petted her for a couple of minutes and she began to purr, we thought maybe she'd just been disoriented and went back to bed. Shortly thereafter I heard her placidly pushing her water bowl across the room.

Then the Comrade began snoring, not robust snores but broken, phlegmmy ones, the kind I imagine he'd make if a housecat were trying to suck out his breath. I prodded him and hissed that he should wake up and stop snoring like that, because he was scaring me -- Stop dying! Stop it right this instant!

After that I never did get back to sleep, because it seemed incumbent upon me to lie there in the dark and make sure none of us perished in the night. I used to refuse to sleep on airplanes because I thought that as long as I maintained consciousness, we couldn't crash, and in all honesty I'm still not totally convinced this isn't the case.

The Comrade: "Can't you feel my love evaporating?"

Your Humble Narrator: "Evaporating means it's disappearing."

TC: "What does the sun do?"

YHN: "It emanates."

TC: "Can't you feel my love emanating?"

When one person is not operating in his native language, the stage is set for all kinds of wacky misunderstandings and opportunities for poking gentle fun. Isn't it?

Also, there are the times when I realize I have not been heard at all. For instance, on Saturday I told the Comrade that we still had Red from Netflix, and also Closely Watched Trains (which I got because I think we have worked our way through every Russian film worth seeing, and this one won an Oscar though the jacket copy makes it sound like a Czech version of Rochelle, Rochelle). And yet we seemed to be watching Scary Movie 2.

I thought your people were supposed to be SOULFUL, I thought as I stalked off to the bathtub with the latest issue of Budget Living and a biography of Mao Tse-Tung. It would later be revealed that the Comrade had never heard me say anything whatsoever.

This happens, sometimes with repercussions swift and terrible, about every week or so, and then I find myself casting back to the moment I originally said the words and trying to remember whether it should have been obvious that we were trapped in radio silence. Had the Comrade responded with some non sequitur that should have indicated to me he'd misunderstood? Had he murmured something noncommittal? Or, worse and, it must be said, most likely, had he met me with the same glaze-eyed goodwill you extend to well-meaning yet unintelligible foreigners (to wit: the sweet Peruvian lady who works in my office building or, God help me, my Chinese psychiatrist)?

Then again, it could be a simple case of blah-blah-Ginger. The Comrade, incidentally, loves The Far Side. I fear that here he is coming off a little Balkie from Perfect Strangers, which is certainly not my intent; in fact, his English is usually good and often lyrical: He will stick his head out the window and proclaim that the air smells like "wet grass and dying leaves."

In the spirit of cross-cultural exchange, a Russian lesson:

The phrase for "Molotov cocktail" is butilka s goryuchey smes'yu, which literally means "bottle with flammable mixture."

But while you're reeling from how pedestrian that is, consider the words for ladybug: bozhe karovka, which means "God cow."


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