In Honor of My Favorite Russian

For some ridiculous reason, my parents trusted that I was wise enough to start college early. There were of course some conditions, which included having to live with my older sister and have some “house rules” that most college freshmen don’t have, but all the same, I was a sixteen year-old freshman.

One of the first weekends post-matriculation, an outdoor dance was held on the tennis courts next to one of the dormitories. I knew a couple of girls who were siblings of my sister’s friends, and we were all standing around awkwardly when a confident and gorgeous girl strutted by. While we shuffled our feet around, this girl was full of life, laughing and talking away as if she had known everyone there for years and was their most cherished friend. As it turns out, she was also a freshman, and herself only seventeen. As she started to speak, I noticed her foreign accent – it turns out that in addition to being gorgeous, she had mysterious going for as well.

I don’t remember what it was that everyone discussed, but at this extremely conservative Catholic university, and myself still being fairly conservative, I remember we disagreed vehemently. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh well, she’ll never talk to me again,” as I went on my merry way, awkwardly bopping along to some R.E.M. I was pretending to know.

Except the strangest thing occurred – I ran into her the next day in the halls of the dorm, and she did talk to me. Which makes her a better person than I, because undoubtedly I had been a jerk. As one does when one is sixteen.

Inexplicably, we became fast friends. We came from very different beginnings – two different continents, in fact – and had nearly opposite world views. She is an only child, I have five siblings. She was a heavy metal-loving skater girl, I spent my evenings sewing dorky jumper dresses in my room.

But no matter who we met or made out with or fought with, she was my person.

Happy birthday to you, Lena-bunny. I wish Moscow were closer.

Yes, we still look exactly like this. I promise.
Yes, we still look exactly like this. I promise.

я не говорю по-английски (ya ne govoryu po-angliyski)

That would be Russian for, “I don’t speak English.”

Which, I do, of course. And aside from a few phrases I’ve been taught by my sweet Lena, I do not speak Russian. But when you are sixteen years old, and attempting to sneak onto a riverboat cruise, (read: floating bar) you get creative.

I was about six weeks into my first semester at college and happily agreed to go along on a trip to Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes from our school on the edge of Ohio. Our motives were innocent enough, having absolutely nothing to do that night and having no clue that there was an age restriction, we all piled into one of the university’s vans, dressed in our finest 90s garb.

we look like Bon Jovi. yikes.
We look like extras in a Bon Jovi video. Yikes.

When we arrived at our destination, it became quickly apparent that we’d be required to show our IDs and prove we were of drinking age. I’d never had a drink in my life, being the sheltered homeschool nerd that I was, but no matter. To board the boat, you needed to be twenty-one. And half of us were not. And we were forty minutes away from campus.

We needed a plan. A quick one.

My Lena is a smart girl who is extremely quick on her feet. Knowing my baby-faced self wasn’t getting by the ID checker, she turned to me and said, “Pretend you don’t speak English!” Which is a great idea, but how exactly? She was straight from Moscow, so that was a perfect cover, but for me? I didn’t know any Russian!

“Repeat after me. Ya. Ne. Govoryu.” She sounded out each syllable as we got closer and closer to the boat. I practiced enough to convince anyone who had never heard the language that it was legit. Not sure what we would have done if by some strange twist of fate, the security guard spoke Russian, but thankfully he didn’t.

When we got up front, the rest of our party boarded effortlessly, while Lena and I were stopped. She launched into a lengthy Russian tirade while I just nodded and threw out the odd “Da” or two for continuity’s sake. As Americans tend to do, the security guard got louder and elongated each syllable: “EYE-DEEEE. DO YOU HAVE EYE-DEEE?”

After we clogged the line for another minute or so, he gave up and waved us through. I was never much for rebellion, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t a thrill.