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The Village Idiot

Russian Flour

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(3/2013) "Whatís this say?" I kneel and lift a kilo of what I think is flour from a bottom shelf in the Russian deli in Pikesville so the Mad One can see it. (Prior to getting serious about bread building, I only knew of kilos in terms of marijuana and cocaine. Itís odd how one learns about the metric system, Japanese motorcycles and local drug dealers.)

"Flour." Sheís impatient to move deeper into the store where she can get her 15 or 20 pounds of Bulgarian white cheese in brine, not the Greek feta I mistakenly called it once.

"Wheat." She anticipates my next question.

"You need to learn Russian." She snaps and leaves me puzzling over the various bags of supposed flour.

I decide I like the pictures on two of the bags. Iím able to determine, without the Bulgarianís help, that one bag held a kilo of flour and the other 2 kilos. After placing the flour, and several cans of sardines and sprats in the communal cart, I announce Iím going to the Russian music/book store a couple doors farther along the shopping strip. Cousin Luke decides to tag along, possibly to keep me out of trouble, but just as likely to laugh at me; which he does about one minute after I start looking at music CDs. They are mostly covered with Cyrillic script.

A young woman approaches me and begins speaking in what I assume is Russian. A dozen responses pop into my head, but what comes out is babble.

"UhhÖ Iím uhhhÖ UrrrrÖ Ummm, IÖ only speak EnglishÖ and I donít do that very wellÖ urrrÖ in spite of having lived here all my life."

She laughs. "Okay. If you need help with anything, just ask." Her heavily accented English is flawless.

I hear several women laughing behind me. Lukeís deeper chuckle among them. With a smile and a shrug, I move along to the books.

Luke tells me he thinks the women were laughing at my beard, something about the czarís scribes being peasants with long beards. Evidently, the peasants couldnít read Russian either, but could copy the written word. I chuckle at the comparison. Having been compared to Charlie Manson, Fidel Castro and Osama, I donít mind being compared to a scribe.

We study the books arrayed before us, fascinated by the bold colors of their covers, or I am. There is something about the cover designs that, even without the Cyrillic titles, Iíd know the designers were not Americans. I open a few books and smile at the pictures hidden within. I like books with pictures, lots of pictures. Pictures ease the struggle of reading.

Luke points to a red book depicting a casually dressed man holding a skun goat by its hind leg. "Is that the cookbook Simona said you were interested in?"

I smile. It is. "The clerk said Simona could translate it for me, but Simona said she didnít like me that much." We laugh. I donít touch the book. I want it and touching it will lead me to buying it.

"You need to learn to read Russian Jack."

That is exactly why I wonít handle that book again. I recall vividly an afternoon on an Air Force base near Pensacola FL when I was exploring the house we lived in and chanced upon a paperback book Dad had been reading the day before. "Skeleton Men of Jupiter" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was 4 years old and found books, at least those with pictures, fascinating. Skeleton Men had no pictures though, just the weird symbols that seemed to hold my parents spellbound, but did nothing for me no matter how long I sat and studied them. (Two years later, in a public library on the edge of Columbus OH, I would have some grasp of what those symbols meant, but would stand puzzled before the libraryís collection of Greek tomes with their odd symbols, and the understanding that once more my ignorance was keeping knowledge from me.) Cyrillic, no matter what language it represents, brings back that intense feeling of puzzlement and more than a little frustration.

My high school French teacher (just before he told me to get out of his class) said he couldnít teach me (or the rest of the class) French if we didnít understand English. Not being particularly bright, Iím guessing that learning Russian would also require my learning English?

I shudder at the thought of learning English and Russian. The Mad One would insist I learn Bulgarian, and as I have in-laws who are more comfortable with Spanish, Iíd be expected to learn that too.

Worse than learning several other languages would be having to write grammatically correct sentences. Iím always puzzled when my computerís grammar program informs me I canít end a sentence with a preposition? The hell I canít. Iím an idiot. I can babble any way I please! Besides, I donít know what a preposition is. Nor do I care.

We move around the store to a section of childrenís books. The covers suggest I might recognize the stories within, but Luke merely smiles when I open a book and ask him if my guesses are correct. We recite together, "You need to learn to read Russian Jack."

I learned to growl from listening to my dad (retired after 20 years in the USAF) and a male Rottweiler I met in Homestead FL. I growl as I move along the aisle and consider whether I need to know what is in these books badly enough to learn Russian. We find some more cookbooks. One has a picture of bread on the cover. Bingo! I know darn well I can use Google "translate" to work out a bread recipe!

Flipping through the book I begin to lose heart. I recognize the pictures as cakes, pies and other baked goods Iíve no interest in. The few actual bread recipes donít look particularly promising and Luke, after a quick read over my shoulder announces the recipes far beneath those I use now. With a sigh I shelve the book.

Evening finds us gathered at Luke and the Mad Oneís house. Their Lithuanian friend is visiting and various distilled liquids are being raised and downed. The Lithuanian comments that a few more thimbles of the exalted liquid and sheíll be speaking many languages.

Luke grins at me. "Maybe you should try some slivovitz. It might help you speak Russian."

I pass. I canít even say slivovitz.

Later yet, I sit at the computer with a kilo bag of flour trying to find the Cyrillic letters on the monitorís virtual keyboard. МУКА is FLOUR, белок is protein. And I quit. My head hurts.

To sooth my culture shock, I made a couple loaves of bread using the kilo bag of Russian flour. Normally, when I stumble upon something as delightful as what I lifted from the oven I call the Mad One and hurry to share with her. Not this time. DW and I have been swooning over this bread for two days. Iím tempted to tell the Mad One, "You need to learn to make bread."

Her response would be a smile. "So Jack, you know how to make the cucumber soup? You can ferment whole heads of cabbage so you have plenty of leaves for stuffing? Of course you know how to make my momís potato soup? And Iím sure youíve mastered the lamb recipes Iíve used when you bring us leg of lamb?"

Now, where did I leave that Russian alphabet chart?

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.