My first ”Russian” word– fax

My husband points to a blue symbol, a circle with a line through it, on a sturdy white plastic bag. He’s decided to use the shopping bag, a souvenir saved from his 2002 Central Asia visit, to help me learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
“You’ve seen that symbol on fraternity sweatshirts, ” he asks me, making this a game, to pass time during a Christmas Day layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. ”What sound does that make?”

“Phi, phi,” I say. “Ffff.”
An A and a K follow the phi sign. These are the same in the Russian alphabet as in the letters used in English. Next and last comes a C. Many Americans could guess how to pronounce that letter. We grew up knowing that one of the C’s in the CCCP logos seen on Russia’s Olympic team jackets stood for Soviet.

“Fax, that’s fax,” I say.

We move on to other words printed on the bag, which I’m using to carry my two straw sun hats onto planes. We will start a round-the-world trip after our holiday visits with my husband’s family in Nebraska and mine in New York. Three of our destinations are former Soviet republics, where Russian is spoken. The bag also has an abbreviation for telephone and the word, center, as in shopping center, written in Cyrillic letters as they are pronounced in English. E-mail appears e-mail, without Cyrillic letters.

It hadn’t occurred to me that shopping centers in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, have e-mail and faxes. My husband’s stories of Central Asia tell of a place so different from the U.S. He’s told me of how people welcomed him in Kyrgyzstan, of how they took such time to make him dinners and show him the sights. It sounded like a place where people enjoyed talking with a visitor over hot tea and naan bread with sweet jam.

There’s no reason that people can’t do that and use e-mail too. People adopt new things and keep the familiar ones that work for them. Last year, a teenage waiter in a Myanmar restaurant served us our breakfast plates of noodles wearing a traditional ankle-length sarong and a T-shirt featuring Linkin Park, which Wikipedia describes as a U.S. “nu metal” group. I had to look Linkin Park up since it was a little too hip for me. The T-shirt was crisp, although not brand new. It looked like the kid valued it for being different.

Like most of the men we saw in Myanmar, our waiter seemed less impressed with the jeans and trousers visitors wear. Men in that hot-weather country, once called Burma, have been seen Europeans in pants for centuries. The local men stick with light cool wraparound skirts, which also may be easier to launder and replace.

(East Coast pizza from Google Images.)

I’ve thought of these chances to see what cultures adopt as ”focaccia-mit-tomate” moments since seeing that dish on a menu at Frankfurt airport in 2005. That was Germans borrowing from Italians, who got the tomato courtesy of Spain’s conquest of the New World and then improved it.

Pastas with a red sauce and focaccia with tomato seem so traditionally Italian. A few centuries ago, they were creative, even bold, new recipes like today’s mixing of Asian flavors with fish from Chile in many restaurants. I’m sure I’ll be spotting one of my favorite examples of fusion cuisine pizza, on this round-the-world trip. There also will be Starbucks stands, baseball caps with New York Yankees logos and ads for Hollywood movies.
What will be fun is seeing what remains truly Brazilian, Chilean, Australian, Moroccan, Armenian or Turkish. We’ll wander to find it at neighborhood joints filled with local people for lunch and dinner, checking out what’s playing on the television as well as what’s offered on the menu.
We’ll see whether people on local buses and subways crowd the doors or form neat lines. Do they smile at strangers in packed train cars or ignore them? What’s on sale at the grocery store? Do people heading to offices on weekdays sit with the paper in cafes and use a proper cup and saucer for their coffee? Or, do they race through the streets carrying paper cups?
Please send any suggestions for what’s helped you learn something surprising about a country in your travels. I’ll be talking with local people as much as I can, given my limited or currently nonexistent knowledge of languages spoken in some countries we will visit.
I’m sure to run into many people who want to practice their English. This is one of the pieces of blind luck you get by being born in the U.S. We’re all a bit like that cliche of the person born on third base who thinks he hit a triple.
We’re raised speaking the bossiest language of our time. The French have adopted the weekend and Brazilians refer to their malls as shopping. A Vietnamese cab driver played the Eagles’ “Hotel California” after picking me up from the airport in 2oo2.
It was a disconcerting first selection–what with the song’s references to the guest who can never leave and stabbing with steely knives–for an otherwise bland stream of American pop music played on the drive to Saigon. Later on that trip, a hotel clerk advised me that the Vietnamese words for thank you, cam on, sounds like the expression, “Come on.” He nailed perfectly the tone Americans use when saying,” Oh, come on.”

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