Several years ago I went to Russia—to give you an idea of how many years exactly it was a school trip and when I signed up for it we were going to the U.S.S.R., and the day I boarded the plane there was a newspaper headline that the Soviet Union had officially dissolved. I sat next to a friend on the plane and we started speculating that Lenin’s tomb could be turned into a nightclub, and then we started inventing cocktails like The Opium Of The People, The Stalin Stormtrooper, and The Soviet Union–a layered drink of fifteen different liqueurs that don’t mix.
One of my favorite parts of that trip—really my favorite part of a trip to any other country—was learning to talk to the locals, and I was reminded almost immediately after I got off the plane that Russians don’t just have a different language; they have a whole ‘nother alphabet. I didn’t bother to study up on Cyrillic before I left, figuring I could pick it up as I went along, and for the most part I was right. There’s enough overlap between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets to give me a leg up so it wasn’t all Greek to me, and there are quite a few words that are the same in both Russian and English. There were still phone booths in those days and the word телефон was a big help, as was having read A Clockwork Orange. While I was there I also went to МакДональдз and was kind of disappointed that the Биг Мак wasn’t called a большой Мак. And a few years later when Pizza Hut opened in Russia it made me laugh that they spelled it пицца хат, which tranlisterates back to the Roman alphabet as “pitstsa khat”, but that’s another story.
One letter I couldn’t figure out on my own was Ж, but it intrigued me–it was such a cool looking little letter that I had to know what it sounded like, so I broke down and got a guidebook. When translated to English it sounds like “zh” and you hear it in words like “vision”. Joseph Brodsky mused on the letter in his poem The Fly:
What is it that you muse of there?
Of your worn-out though uncomputed derring-
do orbits? Of six-legged letters,
your printed betters,
your splayed Cyrillic echoes…
Anyway I thought it was strange to see some Cyrillic graffiti next to a sidewalk in a Nashville neighborhood. Who put it there, and why? It looks like a name–someone just leaving their mark, I guess, with no political overtones. Maybe it was their way of calling back to where they came from, in the same way it took me back to a place I’d once been.