08 June 2007

Wrong Address - Return to Sender

I've been a little irritated lately by the fact that there is a shortage of proper forms of address in Russia (or rather, there is a shortage of such things in Russian, regardless of where you're speaking it. I had the same problem when speaking Russian in California, for example).

Russian simply doesn't have very good or commonly used equivalents for Mr., Mrs., sir, ma'am, etc, and that makes life in Russia difficult for a polite person like me.

My current state of irritability was brought about by an episode last weekend at the megamart Auchan, Russia's version of Wal Mart. Actually, it's France's version of Wal Mart, as the Frenchies managed to beat the Emperor Walton's Evil Empire to Moscow. Napoleon would be so proud! Had it turned out otherwise, I can picture the following scene:

President Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wal (Mart)"

But that's beside the point. I had secured an invitation and a ride to this suburban mega consumer wonderland, as I thought it would be a good cultural experience - a chance to see the world of suburban middle class Moscow. In fact, it felt as if I had stepped right into middle America, except they don't sell live sturgeon in Arkansas. Nor have I ever seen foie gras for sale at Wal Mart, but I guess certain excentricities are to be expected when it comes to a French retailer.

Having wandered the aisles for an hour dragging my jaw on the floor the whole time and having nearly died laughing as I watched the Russians in the TV section enthralled by 50-cent's music video of "P.I.M.P" playing on every T.V., my good friend Nature called and I was compelled to answer the call.

Not finding a statue of Dostoevsky, I set off in search of the bathroom. I spotted it on the other side of the cash registers and did what one always does back home: I made a b-line for the bathroom, found the checkout aisle with the skinniest people, and proceded to squeeze through.

"Man (мужчина/muzhchina)....Man!" the cashier barked at me. Actually, it was more of a bored, whiney growl, as it's a three-syllable word in Russian and she took much delight in stretching out each syllable with more than a touch of condescention.

"You can't go through here."

Even the skinny people I was trying to pass had a look of shock and horror on their faces, which seemed to say, "how dare someone go through the checkout line without buying something! Our checkout line!"

"But I have to use the bathroom," I pleaded as I pointed to the door which was only a few steps away.

"You have to go down past the first cash register and through security first." [yes, there's security at Russo-Franco Wal Mart]

Now, when I said that this was Russia's version of Wal Mart, what I meant was this is three times the size of even the superest of Super Walmarts, as everything in Russia is, well, bigger. There are literally about 100 checkout stations at Auchan, and I was somewhere around 75. I set out on my epic journey to cashier number 1, briefly contemplating buying some snacks for the long trip to the bathroom that lay ahead of me. But then I would just be able to go through the checkout line and straight to the bathroom, rendering the snacks unnecessary. No, I would have to endure the trek without provisions or equipment.

A couple of weeks later I rounded cashier 1, passed through security, and hiked back up to the bathroom where I finally found peace. But I was still irritated at having been addressed so brusquely as "Man." I realized, of course, that it wasn't the woman's fault (though she could have just let me go through to the bathroom), but rather Russian language's fault. As I mentioned in the opening, there's just no good way to address someone politely in Russian.

Along with "man," you often hear people use "young man" (молодой человек/molodoi chelovek), which I suppose is better. But what do you do if the person isn't so young? After all, would I really address someone as "young man" who is a good 10-15 years older than me?

There's a similar problem when addressing women. The quite common address, "girl" (young woman, девушка/devushka) is really the only way to get the attention of the bored waitress who is half-heartedly flirting with the bartender and who couldn't care less about the fact that you have your soup but no spoon. It's taken me a long time to shout out "devushka" at a waitress, as it's always felt quite impolite. [Come to think of it, this is about the hundredth time I've talked about me being too polite on this blog. I'm beginning to realize that maybe I'm not too polite in general, just too polite for Russia]. In any case, I've finally gotten used to it, sort of, and will wield it when absolutely necessary.

But again, what do I say if the woman is clearly not a devushka anymore? After all, would you really call a 40-year old Russian a "young woman" anymore?

There are, of course a few other options. There is the somewhat archaic and underused господин/госпожа (gospodin/gospozha), which translate to Mr. and Mrs. But I haven't heard anyone use them except the 95-year old babushka next door who refers to me as "Gospodin R."

Then there is the even more archaic сударь/сударыня (sudar/sudarynia, sir/madam), which is utterly obsolete.

On top of these you have a bunch of bastardized cognates that get thrown around (especially in the presence of westerners), suich as сэр (sir) and мистер (mister). These I just find irritating, as I get easily annoyed by souvenir vendors on the Arbat shouting at me, "meester, meester, you buy, good price!"

And so, the problem remains: there is no standard polite way to address people in Russian.

I suppose a return to the Soviet-era practice of referring to people as "citizen" and "citizeness" might work, although since citizenship, immigration, and nationality are a touchy subject these days, maybe it's best to leave these ones in the closet.

No, it seems perfectly clear to me that there is only one viable way around this conundrum:

Bring back the comrade.

I say this in all seriousness. Sure, the word товарищ (tovarishch) carried some ideological and historical baggage at one time, but seriously, does anyone really believe that communism is going to return? And besides, if they brought back the red flag for the army and the old hymn for the state, why not the old "comrade" for the people? It's not like the Russian government is all that keen on de-Sovietization and grappling with its past, after all. So what harm would it do?

In fact, I think it would do a lot of good. First, you have a form of address that can be used directly: "Comrade, could you please bring the bill?" And yet the same word can also be used to refer to someone indirectly: "Allow me to introduce you to Comrade Ivanov."

Additionally, in the spirit of political correctness and gener equality, it breaks down gender barriers by being a gender-neutral form of address, appropriate for men and women. Thus, in one fell swoop we've got a word to cover Mr., Mrs., Ms., Sir, and Madam. And it also comes in handy during those embarassing moments when the gender of one's interlocutor is ambiguous. I have in mind the androgynous teenager with the long hair and delicate fingers on the metro as well as the he-she bear whose gender is unclear but whose appetite is not.

Let's also not forget that tovarishch is a real Russian word that real Russians already know. None of this silly importning of english cognates, which I find to be especially irritating. Russian is a rich language, why do you insist on cheap western imports (of words) for which Russian already has an alternative?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, maybe if everybody thought of everybody else as their "comrade," this would be a more pleasant and polite place. In short, it would be a more comradely place.

And so, I hereby propose that those of us who are in Russia or are using Russian on a regular basis begin the movement to return "comrade" to the daily lexicon for it can only bring joy, peace, love, and equality.

Who's with me, Comrades?


Mait said...

Just be careful, the new elite easily takes offense when addressed as 'comrade', with it's implied equality.

Jay Sunshine said...

My Belarusian gal will henceforth be addressed as "tovarisch."

Owen said...

People over at my site don't seem to agree with your call to bring back Tovarisch . . .

Rubashov said...

Re: Owen:
Yes, which is what I figured would happen (not that it was a very serious proposal in the first place!). All of which means that we poor expats will just have to muddle through without confident forms of address.

But let me know if you ever do come across a suitable way to address the 45-year old store clerk who's ignoring you!

Huy said...

I'm not quite sure I fully understand the situation. Though through first glance it seems to me as though your qualm is mainly addressing people politely.

Well when in Rome, do as the Romans do (eh, Russia in this case). I'm sure for someone who grew up in Russia, natively speaking Russian, it would not be considered impolite if thats the standard norm for addressing someone. You're simply adding your own connotations gained from learning english first to where they don't apply. Personally I find having the Ms. / Mrs. distinction annoying. Also Sir / Madam have other connotations of authority attached to them. Personally I'd be happyier if there is only Mr. / Mrs. (used jointly to describe Ms. simply because because the sound seems to pair of better with Mr.)