Occasionally, when attempting to fathom what possible reason I could have for studying Russian, somebody will ask me whether my parents or other relatives are from Russia.
This, as you will understand if you know what I look like, is a question which always amuses and puzzles me; it seems obvious enough to me that any Russian ancestry I may have is buried several generations back (although I did have a grandmother named Olga).
In spite of my lack of Russian forbears, I ventured to a small basement bookshop on (under?) Goodge Street yesterday evening in search of a Russian dictionary for my translation exam, which takes place next Tuesday.
A monolingual Russian dictionary was more difficult to track down than I had expected, with neither Foyles nor Waterstones showing any in stock. An Amazon search didn’t produce any results that were likely to be delivered any time this month, but I eventually came across a single-volume, illustrated version of Vladimir Dal”s Tolkoviy Slovar’ Russkogo Yazyka. The website allows you to order online, but I couldn’t rely on receiving it in time. I rang to check whether it was in stock.
“We have two in stock,” the woman told me.
I thought it unlikely that both copies would be gone by Monday, but decided not to leave it to chance. I worked out that I could get to Goodge Street with around 15 minutes to spare before the shop shut at 7. I hoped they didn’t close early.
When I arrived and pushed open the door, I realised this fear was unfounded. A number of people turned to look at me as I stood at the top of the staircase, having just interrupted a talk by a visiting speaker. A couple of people beckoned me to come down, and pointed towards a woman who was part of the audience. It wasn’t clear whether they knew that I hadn’t come to hear the talk but was gatecrashing in a last-minute attempt to buy a dictionary.
I proceeded, and some people moved to let me past as I squeezed towards the back and approached the woman behind the counter to enquire about the dictionary. She didn’t understand.
“Slovar’,” I said.
“Russian and English?”
“No, just Russian.”
“Ah, illustrated!” She remembered me from the phone.
I waited while she went to get it. She had some difficulty, since the shop was so full, and had to point to the shelf to get somebody to pass it across to her. The talk continued in Russian, with an audience who could plausibly pass for Russians themselves, even if they were not. I forgot to pay attention to the words, but I’m fairly certain it was a cultural lecture about a writer or film maker. The illustrated Dal’ was brought, and the cashier winced at the loud noise made by the till as she rang it up.
I wondered later if that was what people mean when they ask if my family is Russian. If I, visibly non-Russian as I am, feel out of place in that kind of situation, and if not, why.
I have no idea whether the event in the bookshop was free or paid, whether or not attendees had to register in advance or could simply show up. I’m sure my presence was unexpected, but I didn’t feel unwelcome.
Back on the street after a couple of minutes, I decided it had been worth coming across London at the risk of being locked out; I was glad I had found what I was looking for.