September 17, 2014 17:31

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The perils of horseradish vodka, or talking English in public

4.04.12 17:56    By Aaron Hale-Dorrell

Horseradish vodka is fine on a cold day, but you need to manage it carefully

Horseradish vodka is fine on a cold day, but you need to manage it carefully   Photo: kstatida.ru


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As foreign students living in Russia, my friends and I often experience side effects of speaking English in public. People approach us and begin conversations apparently for this reason alone. Over the years I have lived in Russia, these meetings have ended sometimes disastrously, sometimes interestingly.

Take for example two recent events that happened in the same Moscow restaurant-bar. After long days of work in the archive, my friends and I occasionally gather for food and drinks. Although each of us speaks Russian well, we often speak English because we want to relax. This past Monday, a waitress brought our table a round of drinks after we had been seated for a few minutes. We were puzzled when she told us another table had sent them, but thanked them and began to drink. Then, an older man from the table approached us. Some of us immediately became nervous.

I should pause here and explain why. Several weeks ago, a group of us had been to the same bar. As we prepared to pay our bill and leave, we suddenly found that the waitress had brought each of us a shot of horseradish vodka, a gift from a man sitting alone at a nearby table. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, we drank them. Then, our new acquaintance moved to join our conversation, which was in English, and—because the bar was crowded—loud. Over the next few minutes, more vodka appeared. Our new friend refused to understand that we did not want more. With hindsight, it is clear that he simply wanted someone with whom to talk. In a different situation, his stories of living and working abroad would have held our attention, but not when accompanied by a second and third round. Now, horseradish vodka is not an unpleasant drink, but multiple glasses cannot be the end of a Monday night when Tuesday morning's work looms. In any case, it is, like all drinks, something best enjoyed on one's own terms. In the end, we had to stop the conversation and walk out in order to avoid that third round.

With that memory fresh in mind, let us return to the more recent evening. As a result of experience, we nervously responded to this new acquaintance. However, we quickly realized that our fears were baseless. In a brief conversation, he explained that he had spent part of his childhood in New York because the Soviet government had posted his father there. He only wanted a chance to his English. In fact, it was quite good, and after a brief conversation, he thanked us and returned to his table.

In all, an interesting interaction, and one that made me think about these chance meetings. Although I have had them places other that Russia, they seem to occur more frequently here. Telling stories to strangers over vodka seems to be something of a Russian tradition, although perhaps not as traditional as the vodka itself.

Aaron Hale-Dorrell is a PhD candidate in Soviet history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spends this academic year and the coming summer in Moscow in order to conduct research in several of the city's archives.

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