The REALLY Downside of Learning a Foreign Language, Part II

When we last left the inimitable guest writer Gry Tina Tinde in Part I:

A couple of hours before our rendezvous Mikhail called and said unfortunately something had come up. He would get back in touch. All I could do was wait, as I did not have his number. Months passed, but there was no word from Mikhail. When the police called and asked to speak to me I did not connect the dots…

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by Gry Tina Tinde

‘This is she,’ I replied, a bit spooked as law enforcement had never been on my tail before. Had they discovered that my new au-pair was practically running a call-girl operation from her bedroom while I was at work? My neighbors had hinted as much.

‘We have found a letter from you inside a Russian-Norwegian dictionary that was left in a studio apartment in town,’ the man said. ‘It seems you are keen to learn Russian.’

I confirmed my language interest, but how did my letter end up with the police, I asked?

‘The owner of the dictionary was deported, actually for the second time,’ the police officer explained. What did he do? I asked, wondering. ‘I am not at liberty to tell.’

I asked the officer which unit he worked in. ‘Drugs and contraband,’ he replied. ‘If you’d like to have the dictionary you can come and pick it up.’ Seizing the opportunity to get my hands on an expensive ($100) dictionary that I had long lusted for but could not afford, I sped over to police HQ and got the book, my letter inside.

According to the kindly police officer, the deported man’s studio was filled to the brim with novels and poetry collections. He chuckled and added that the guy sure was an intellectual crook. All the books had been trucked to the city’s main library, but somehow the dictionary had been left behind. I froze as it struck me that my personal ad reply, with full contact information, nearly found its way onto public library shelves. Any bookish felon could have found it.

Armed with the state-of-the-art dictionary, I continued attending evening courses in Russian. My fervor for anything Russian had not paled, neither my wish to have someone to speak the language with. Expecting both romance and fluency to come out of a single endeavor was perhaps too optimistic, I realized, as I reminisced about the deported Mikhail.

Opportunities to hobnob with Slavic speakers materialized eventually. On duty for the Norwegian Ministry during a Russian-Nordic Defense Minister’s Meeting in Stavanger, Norway, I was given the job of a lookout. Strategically placed in front of the hotel that hosted this extraordinary political event, I was to alert about the appearance of the Russian cortege to the Norwegian Defense Minister via my cell phone. She was, incidentally, the first woman to hold this prominent role in Norway, having risen from the ranks of pottery maker.

The Russian Minister Igor Sergeyev was running late. While his Nordic counterparts waited inside, media representatives and I hovered in the courtyard. I spotted one of my biggest Russian-speaking heroes, whom I will call Stein Willy Hansfeld. An accomplished TV and radio correspondent in Russia for Norway’s main broadcasting corporation, Stein Willy personified the pinnacle of expertise in anything Russian. His boisterous personality matched the stereotypical belief that people from his hometown, Bergen, were self-confident, pushy and talkative. Now was my chance to meet him.

As he organized his technical equipment, tugging at microphone wires, uttering “test, test” and looking a bit hectic, I managed to introduce myself. His attention increased only when I said that I had tried to learn Russian for many years, but lacked opportunities to speak. I mentioned that my last effort nearly had thrown me into the claws of a twice-deported bandit.

‘I know the perfect conversation partner for you,’ he exclaimed joyfully. ‘Elizaveta Sytnik is a good friend, totally reliable, and I’m sure she would be happy to meet with you.’

Relief and gratitude filled me as Stein Willy scribbled down her cell phone number on a piece of paper. Back in the office in Oslo, I called Elizaveta. She was indeed as friendly as could be. At a downtown coffee shop we joked about life as single women and really hit it off. Each time I made a grammatical blunder, she graciously corrected me, as I had requested.

She had been married to a Norwegian man, she said, and had a grown son from a former marriage back home in Murmansk. With sparkly, blue eyes and a cloud of blond hair around her pretty face she looked like one of my aunts. She had worked as a cleaner in Northern Norway, and was now trying to use her formal Russian training as a massage therapist in the Oslo labor market.

Elizaveta came for dinner at our house, and the kids loved her. My daughter was six and my son just a baby. We were lucky to have someone bring the exciting world out there into our home. Extremely helpful, Elizaveta insisted on joining the meal preparation. She had an approach to salad cutting that I had not seen before. With lettuce, carrots, tomatoes etc. lined up on the kitchen counter, she held the salad bowl and cutting board on an angle below the counter and chopped away with the speed of light, while simultaneously shoving the cut pieces into the bowl.

In her nifty hands the large knife seemed like a toy. Suddenly a mixed salad was ready. International experiences were so educational, including in the culinary field, I mused.

Before an outing with Elizaveta the kids and I stopped by her place in Oslo. She lived near the Ministry of Defense, in Skippergata, a street best known as the base of the city’s red light district. Elizaveta said she had been unable to find anywhere else to live, and that the weekly rent was killing her. I understood her well, as I knew the Oslo real estate market was notoriously tight. She had merely a small space with a bed and a sink, much like a dorm room. My son who had just learned to walk had trouble maneuvering without bumping into things in her abode.

During a visit to my son’s 80-year-old grandfather’s farm an hour’s drive from Oslo, Elizaveta conversed in Norwegian with the old, appreciative man. Some relatives and neighbors showed up and were happy to meet a Russian woman, maybe for the first time. Again Elizaveta produced her flash salad with those deft knife moves.

To me this was what the end of the Cold War was all about: people who had been separated by politics coming together, talking and laughing. Everybody admired Elizaveta. My Russian conversation skills were improving.

After a year or so of get-togethers I could not reach Elizaveta on her cell phone any more. Finally I got automated messages saying the subscription did not exist. Elizaveta had left Skippergata, I was told by a woman who exited the gate as I went to look for my friend.

Another year went by. Then a name in a newspaper headline caught my eye: ‘Elizaveta Sytnik convicted of axe murder’. In the photo was indeed Elizaveta. She had been found guilty of giving her Norwegian ex-husband 40 axe blows to the head and back at his house in Alta in Northern Norway. Forensic evidence revealed that she had wrapped the man’s bludgeoned cadaver in a garbage bag, shoved it under a bed and taken off alone in his car on some kind of joy ride to Oslo, 1500 miles away.

Journalists had a field day with the story. I was shocked and saddened, to say the least. In court Elizaveta maintained her innocence, but her fingerprints were on the garbage bag, an axe was found in her Oslo apartment, and the victim’s blood was on her shoes. She got 12 years. If you doubt my story, check the photo in a newspaper article from December 2003 where she poses with her soon-dead ex-husband.

She could be free already, I expect, as prisoners in Norway seldom serve more than nine years for sentences up to 21 years. I wouldn’t mind linking up with Elizaveta again for some Russian chatting and salad chopping.

It’s really hard to find that perfect, lasting conversation partner.




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