Thursday, March 24, 2011

An evening with Yan

My in-laws are smart.  Not just smart.  They're intelligent.  See, Americans do not really differentiate between the two.  If you know how they get the pirate ships inside those bottles and onto the fireplace mantles, you are then both smart and intelligent.  They are synonyms.

But my in-laws are intelligent.  To them, intelligence is a function of the amount of culture you've exposed yourself to.  No, not "exposed yourself", but "been to see, or experience".  Sounds like you might need a copy of Pat the Bunny. My father-in-law has read every book published before 1900, save the bible.  He is an adept chess player, can compute multi-variable calculus integrals in his head, and enjoys going to ballet, theater, and opera.  And, he started his own business in Belarus as a contractor.  We Americans don't consider contractors to be all that "intelligent", but it's different in the former CCCR.

His best friend in the States (they met in the requisite "welcome to America" class every foreigner apparently has to take) is a world champion chess grand master from way back in the day who has about 7 pHDs in mathematics and worked in some secret building in Moscow doing secretive spy (supposedly) stuff for the Communists.

His name is Yan.  He is about 70 years old, and has a well-tended-to, full head of silver hair, and my wife seems to constantly tell me that she could totally see how he was super-attractive back in the time when no one had indoor plumbing.  We meet up with him about every other weekend or so, mostly because he and his wife Gala have taken such a genuine interest in my wife and I, they could truly be "Uncle Yan" and "Aunt Gala".

Every single time we hang out with him, however, he brings something with him.  Last time it was a poem that he had written (in Russian, of course).  Other times it's a mind-bending mathematical problem.  And still others it's a simple English grammar question that he somehow corrupts to make it a mind-bending mathematical problem.

I don't think he understands fully that I speak only enough Russian to impress Russians.  I know the basic phrases, I understand the majority of low-level blabber, and, admittedly, almost everything about food.  When you are part of a Belorussian Jewish family, there's a lot of discussion about food, which is a topic for another time.  But the second anything above small-talk comes into the conversation, I'm immediately lost.  His English skills are as good as one could expect from someone who came here in their 60s.  That is to say, basically non-existent.

Being the first Saturday night that was above freezing, I was excited to grill - and Yan, being the naturally curious man he is, was hovering around my wife as she was feeding Samuel. Gala promptly threw him outside with me.

And this is where it gets weird.  Normally, when we spend time together, we barely talk.  The language barrier is paralyzing.  But for some reason, this time, he gets in his blabber mood.  The below is in Russian, translated for your convenience into English with the majority of Yan's side of the conversation contextually extrapolated.

Yan - So, Bill, you must certainly describe to me just how wonderful it must feel for you to finally be a father!

Me - yes - i think it is nice.

Yan - Of course!  I remember back when i was a young adult the same age as you, when Gala and I welcomed our first and only child just how excited and awe-stricken we were to finally hold her in our arms!

Me - it is interesting!

Yan - I know, isn't it?  so, now that Samuel is almost two months, can you feel those same emotions?

Me - Yes, he is very important.  So very important.  He is like Sun, and this (I point to the grass).

Yan - Like the grass!

Me - yes (though thinking he could have said anything in the general direction I was pointing, and I wouldn't have know the difference).

He then rambled on for a few more minutes about children, and love, and his wife, and family, and all the things you would expect someone to ramble on about when having a discussion about a newborn.  I understood less than 10% of it, but made some very convincing "I understand" faces.

Finally, Gala came downstairs and called him back inside signaling that Samuel was done eating.  Yan then went upstairs to prepare the three page poem he had memorized for the evening.


  1. Doing calculus in your head is not "intelligent". The word you're looking for is "terrifying".

  2. Only enough Russian to impress Russians is my favorite line.


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