American satirist Dave Barry once complained about getting directions from Brits.
“Often,” he writes, “when they get to the crucial part of a sentence, they’ll realise that they don’t know the correct words, so they’ll just make some silly ones up. I had a lot of conversations that sounded like this:
ME: Excuse me. Could you tell us how to get to Buckingham Palace?’
BRITISH PERSON: Right. You go down this street here, then you nip up the weckershams.”
Thankfully, Russian words for directions make more sense, provided that you manage to find someone in Moscow who is actually from here and doesn’t reply to your questions with: Не знаю, Без понятия, Я сам/сама не местный/не местная, or Сам/Сама уже полчаса ищу. (I don’t know; I’ve no idea; I’m not from around here, myself; I’ve been trying to find it for half an hour myself.)
If you have to ask for directions, your best bet is an old and not-too-angry-looking lady because chances are she’s lived in this district for more than three months. From her, you might get directions like: Сейчас по улице направо, пройдёте магазин «Пятёрочка», свернёте направо во двор, первый дом налево, четвёртый подъезд. (You turn right and go down this street, pass by a Pyatyorochka store, turn right off the street, and you need the first house on the left, entrance four.)
This dvor business is pretty tricky. Your dictionary tells you that it’s a court or a yard – or both these things as one word. However, none of these actually works in the city setting. When a Russian urban dweller uses this word, he means a residential neighbourhood area located off the main street. It may refer to something more or less spatially defined such as the (recreational) area between several houses, or a neighbourhood park, or a big playground, or just the general area containing access roads for residential buildings as opposed to an actual street that goes somewhere.
Your knowledgeable direction person may also say that something will come up “через два квартала” (two blocks down). Now, it’s easy to see what “two blocks” mean in, say, Manhattan or St. Petersburg, but in Moscow, whose street map resembles a cobweb made by a deranged spider, “квартал” is more of a philosophical notion. My best guess is that you’re expected to pass two more or less prominent street crossings.
As you know, the great thing about this city (and many other places in Russia) is that, if you want to get somewhere in a rickety smelly car, you just stick your hand out on any street and a swarm of battered Ladas will appear out of nowhere to cater to your travelling needs.
The guys driving these gypsy cabs are officially known as частные таксисты/извозчики, but, of course, no one calls them that. The name that they usually go by is бомбилы while their business is denoted by the verb бомбить, which in this case has nothing to do with razing cities but just means making (extra) money driving a gypsy cab while listening to the obnoxious «Радио Шансон», the official radio of almost all Russians who drive for a living.
The gypsy cab driver might say that he can take you where you want to go only “если дорогу покажете” (if you show the way). Which means you’ll have to assume the role of a knowledgeable old lady and remember those useful direction phrases. They include: На светофоре/После светофора налево (Turn left at the traffic lights/after the traffic lights); (Поезжайте) Вон за той машиной (Just follow that car there); Здесь лучше взять правее: скоро поворот (You want to keep right now, our exit is coming up); Сразу за этим домом (Right after/behind this building); (Остановите) Вот здесь, пожалуйста (Could you please stop here).
While negotiating the fare or asking you for directions, the cab driver may call you шеф or even командир, as in: Это, что ли, за автосервисом, командир? (Is that right behind the auto repair shop, guv’nor?) I’m joking about “guv’nor,” of course, but it’s close. This nice old-fashioned taxi-driver mode of address does not, however, lessen the anguish inflicted by «Радио Шансон». So, here’s one last phrase you might find helpful: Можно (радио) сделать потише/выключить? (Could you turn the volume down/turn the radio off?)
Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of www.themoscownews.com, where they appear every two weeks.
Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.