6 Cases, 3 Genders, Mushrooms A Letter From Above the Copy King

June 23, 1991|By KATHY LALLY C thB

We begin the adventure of a lifetime perched, prosaically enough, atop the Copy King in downtown Monterey. While the Copy King takes in blank pages and turns them out crammed with words, upstairs our Russian instructors take in minds innocent of their tentacled language and churn them out, nicely stamped for Soviet life: we learn the word for mushrooms, the way to take our place properly at the end of a line (stand first and find out later what's sold), how to calculate our salary in terms of the price of a pair of shoes.

Every work day we are confined for six hours within four beige walls, a cell where all they feed us is grammar, idiom and coffee. Our room is the size of a Moscow apartment -- bathroom down the hall. We sit at a bland brown wood-grained table while our interrogators -- three of them spelling each other every two hours -- compress a year or two of college Russian into us in three short months.

They are attempting to beat six cases, three genders and a whole new way of thinking into us -- all in 12 weeks here atop the Copy King. When they are finished with us, my husband, Will Englund, and I set off for Moscow to share a job as The Sun's correspondents there. For now, though, we are students again -- a tiresome state, we discover.

We are captives of the Training for Service Abroad program of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a graduate school that trains interpreters and other internationally-minded students. The main campus is a couple of blocks away in a cluster of pleasant buildings aflutter with notices of dances, lectures and rides home. We sit in extra space above the Copy King.

We arrive somewhat prepared for our new assignment, having spent more than a few years covering the Baltimore City public school system. One of our early stories described how Alice G. Pinderhughes, the former superintendent, recalled Boyse Mosley from exile in Siberia and rehabilitated him as a high school principal.

We remember those first school board meetings as akin to trying to figure out what was going on behind the Kremlin walls -- lots of speeches proclaiming the glories of the system, even more parades of school children and medal winners -- as the system collapsed around them.

Mrs. Pinderhughes ushered in the years of glasnost, followed by rebuilding -- perestroika, you might call it. So, familiar with the landscape, we take up the language, one rated just below Chinese in difficulty. Our friends assume the alphabet is the hard part. What? A language that spells David as Dabug difficult?

No, the hard part is keeping your tongue down -- what you must do to make the right sounds. (Some Russians wonder at how tired we Americans must be, our tongues always flying up to the roofs of our mouths.)

And thinking far enough ahead in every sentence so we know if we have a direct object or indirect object or preposition so we can put it all in the right case. And calling Will Willa or Willu, depending on the case.

Or remembering that 12:15 is really quarter to 1, or so they say.

We've learned more. One of our instructors assures us that Russian is such an intense, beautiful, evocative, expressive, glorious language that Shakespeare, in fact, turns out to be better in Russian than in English.

This same instructor inculcates us with mushrooms, too. Mushrooms, he says, lovingly and nostalgically, mushrooms. He teaches us to savor our approaching acquaintance with Russian mushrooms. He tells us how families gaily gather them on weekend outings, how they flavor the finest Russian dishes. Eat mushrooms, he instructs us.

Just two days later another of our instructors looks at us urgently. "No matter what you do," she says, "do not eat a mushroom in the Soviet Union. People keel over dead all the time from eating poisonous mushrooms. Don't eat them in a restaurant. Don't buy them in a market. If you don't want to kill your children, don't give them mushrooms."

A few days later, the first instructor informs us of the heavenly qualities of fresh sausage. And after that? "If you care about your children and yourselves," the second instructor says, "never eat fresh sausage. Always smoked. Never fresh, under any circumstances."

We go on to learn more and more: P is really N and there aren't any Q's. Memorize 15 to 20 words a day. (Lenin, after all, learned 60 words of English a day as a small project while he was in prison.)

Day after day, we become more adroit with the accusative and deft with the dative, girding up for the participles that dangle ahead.

We keep climbing the steps above the Copy King, full of dread, trilling our R's, stomachs churning with caffeine, knowing deep down that we can make it through this jungle of a language.

We climb, urged on by the shop adjoining the Copy King. Metamorphosis, it's called, a beauty shop, perhaps, and more. Ah, metamorphosis . . . though some days a brain transplant seems simpler.

Kathy Lally, a reporter for The Sun, is about to begin an assignment in the Moscow bureau.

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