Sunday, February 8, 2015

Learning to be less Metro-Bound

Ploshchad Yakuba Kolasa
One of my new pals here in Minsk made an interesting reference to folks who are "Metro-bound" - that is, people who rely on the limited options provided by underground metro stops when learning to navigate the city. On the one hand, the metro is clean, safe, and relatively fast, and learning to master the buses and trams can be a real hassle.

Yet reading Minsk through its metro stops produces an omnitopian dislocation of distinct portals ("my office is here... I live here...") that are surrounded by yawning chasms of nothingness. The city seems to shrink, to fit itself into a continuum of passages that lead to the same constellation. The only way to grasp the city's complex but logical relationship of people and places is to walk the streets, to see how landmarks knit together into a coherent whole. Learning to communicate here requires a similar perspective.

Until now, I've concentrated on discrete words like "spasibo," and even a few phrases, without trying to understand the connective tissues of the Cyrillic alphabet (which spells the word "спасибо") - which has been fine. There's a pleasant rhythm when one learns to respond with "pozhaluysta" when someone says, "thank you." But having no understanding of the alphabet - treating each word like a discrete metro stop - is no longer tenable.

I learned this when I tried to take a train this morning. So far I've felt pretty good about my ability to navigate Minsk. The metro is easy enough, and I finally took a tram last night. Why not buy a train ticket to some nearby city to expand my horizons a bit? At the train station, I managed to sputter out a Latinized version of the town I hoped to see, but I was utterly adrift thereafter. And, as is common around here, the ticket-person spoke absolutely no English (though she found a way to sell me a ticket).

At first I figured I'd spot the number that most likely correlated with a track or car and hope for the best. Yet nothing about my ticket made sense. So I sat down and studied my little scrap of confusion more closely. I've taken trains in Western Europe and Asia, but could not make sense of this thing. Is that a ticket number? A track number? A car number? Is this one way or a round-trip? Hell, what city was I visiting anyway?

I put the ticket in my wallet and walked back to my apartment. I played around with some websites promising to explain the rules and rituals of Belarusian rail-travel. Then I decided that my afternoon would be better spent starting to work my way through Cyrillic. So far I've learned to be grateful for letters like "K" and "M" and "T" that sound the same in both languages. And I'm learning to tell the difference between "б" and "в." And tomorrow I hope to get my head around "э," "ю," and "я."

No, I won't "learn" Russian (at least not anytime soon). But I want to develop a more coherent understanding of how things work - and that includes paying closer attention to the language. Not just a few phrases but a more general grasp of how characters and words fit together. Afterward I will return to the train station and figure out where I want to go - and how I'm going to get there. With some time and patience, I plan to be less Metro-bound.

2 comments:

Andrea said...

Forgive me my naivety...do your explorations around Minsk make you redefine or change your idea of a city ubiquitous at al? This may be a very pedestrian question.

Andrew Wood said...

If anything, my experiences here are affirming my critique of omnitopia. I should add that being more pedestrian is the point. :-)