Friday, 30 May 2014

Undergraduate memories, part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The old Soviet Union was a country where everything was prohibited and anything was possible. There was always a way to circumvent the rules. In my case, I had a fake employment as a private secretary. Certain categories of Soviet citizens who were more equal than other citizens, for instance, members of the Writers' Union, were allowed to employ secretaries, and this is how I could switch over to evening classes, produce an employment certificate every term and do as I pleased. Actually, I wouldn't have minded at all to work as a secretary and earn some money, but it wasn't part of the deal.

My remaining four undergraduate years were dire. Looking back, I cannot remember one single inspiring instructor or a subject I was interested in. Pedagogy, Psychology, Theoretical Phonetics came and went. Honestly, I have no idea what they were about. The only valuable knowledge I ever got from my formal education was General Linguistics, and my professor remains the only bright spot in my memory. (Many years later I met her in Washington D.C. at a get-together of Fulbright scholars. She remembered me and my phonemic distinctions).

So what did I do with my time? I didn't sleep until noon, and I wasn't a partying type. I got up in the morning and studied until it was time to go to bed. I studied Swedish, and later also Norwegian, Danish and Dutch. I read everything I could get hold of: novels, magazines, cookbooks. I went to the Foreign Literature Library and read books on history, geography, culture and art. I had a huge box of index cards on which I wrote down authors' names and book titles, historical events with dates, facts and fictions. I had notebooks in which I wrote lists with English, Swedish and German names of animals, birds, insects, plants, body parts, metals, gases, tools, utensils, textiles – my homemade encyclopedias. It was in the Stone Age, before the internet. But it was also behind the Iron curtain, with no access to dictionaries, encyclopedias or any other sources of information. I had to do with what was available. There was enough for a lifetime.

I must have been lonely, but I have no memories of being lonely or unhappy. My former fellow students had classes in daytime, and my new fellow students worked. I didn't have many people to talk to. When I reflect on it now, it must have been weird. I was like a solitary mediaeval scholar, surrounded by books, scribbling down notes.

There was a brief and intensive period of flanerie when I, together with two bohemian friends, spent days upon days walking around in the city, going to museums and amusement parks, taking a river boat or a night-time bus, talking, smoking, playing cards, reciting poetry. There were very few coffee shops in Moscow, but these few we frequented. It was a happy time.

Sometimes I made plans to go to Leningrad where the University had a strong Scandinavian department. I even thought about going to Tartu in Estonia and study semiotics with Yuri Lotman. But these were sandcastles, for I felt comfortable with my life and didn't think beyond graduation.

Very soon I started writing book reviews and small articles for money, and eventually I started translating. Nobody ever asked me for any certificate or diploma, and nobody questioned my knowledge and skills.

At the time, I did not reflect on whether I regretted my wrong choices. Today, forty years later, I do. I should have chosen an education with challenges, inspiring teachers, enthusiastic fellow students, intellectual climate. On the other hand, I turned out quite well after all; there is nothing wrong with my erudition, and although my professional career has been bumpy and thorny, I cannot complain about the outcome.

2 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

Nothing is ever wasted unless you waste it. Learning self-reliance and resourcefulness must have been valuable outcomes from your convoulted path which a course better suited to you would not have yielded. You're inspiration, Maria!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Not sure how come I missed those posts, but they are great. Thank you for sharing these memories!