My full name is Nichelle but I go by Nikki. If you were to translate that to Russian, you’d probably reach for Nikita, but actually, Nikita is a man’s name. (See: Nikita Khrushchev!) In Россия, it’s one of the rare names that doesn’t really have a diminutive version, although sometimes you will hear Nik or Nika. Then the French came along with La Femme Nikita and “Westerners” began thinking of it as a woman’s name.

Since I was very young, I have been fascinated with Russia and “Eastern Europe.”  You could ask me why but I couldn’t explain it. I have always loved Cold War and World War spy movies and I was glued to the television during the Fall of the Berlin wall. (Yes. I am old enough to have watched it unfold live on television.) I read every novel that I could find about spies and romances and secrets across “enemy lines” in that region of the world. These days, I am still mourning the end of the tv show, The Americans (Russian spies in America during the Cold War), but I am soothed by the return of Deutschland 83/86 (about one particular spy/young German man in Berlin before and after the fall of the wall). Then, of course, there is Killing Eve, my favorite tv show about the cat and mouse game between an American woman in England and a female, Russian assassin.

Sidenote: Czechs tend to get upset if you say that they’re in Eastern Europe. My Czech ex-boyfriend, who was also military (which may or may not influence his opinion) would practically spit at whomever he was talking to as he banged his fist on the table declaring, “We are not eastern Europe. We aren’t Russians!” It’s a big debate that’s not just about geography but politics and emotions. Geographically, CZ, along with Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, and a couple of others are in Central Europe. Politically and emotionally they see themselves as Central Europe because “Eastern” Europe is linked to Russia and the wars. When people from Western Europe and the Americas refer to them as “Eastern Europe”, it’s still based on that old Cold War ideology. So. And if you don’t know why the Czechs might take issue with being linked to Russia, still, perhaps a small history lesson is in order? Regardless, my interest in Russia is completely separate, so onwards!

So, at the end of my teen years I had casually begun teaching myself Cyrillic and some Russian words. When I was around 21, a young Russian man came to work in the IT department where I was also working. I was ready to fling myself at him and learn Russian by the pillow but fortunately, he wound up asking me to go to lunch with him before I could embarrass myself too badly! We dated for many months, and I didn’t learn nearly as much Russian with him as I’d hoped because we just didn’t talk that much, if you catch my drift. But I did have a great time hanging out at his house where his parents were happy to ply me with Russian vodka, Russian chocolate and cookies, and to show me pictures from “back home.”

When I lived in Prague, I loved to talk to my students and friends about their memories of the wars, of communism, and to trade stories of all the ridiculous myths we’d heard of our respective homelands. Depending on the age of the person you were talking to, either the Germans were the worst or the Russians were the worst. Last year, I spent a month in Berlin and it was an incredible experience to visit bunkers and the memorials that were left of the Berlin Wall. As part of my study abroad program, we visited the Tränenpalast /The Palace of Tears, about life in divided Berlin, and I wondered which side of the wall my family came from. I recently began digging more into my family tree –  I have always known that family on my Mom’s side arrived here from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, and my Dad’s side is pretty much all German; I discovered that many members of my family boarded ships in Hamburg and made their way to Philadelphia, where my parents grew up. I also discovered that I have a great, great, great grandmother who is French (which must explain my passion for le fromage). Then there are mysterious distant relatives with names like Nikodemus and Lena – I know that my ancestry includes “eastern Europe and Russia”, but I haven’t been able to pin it down more than that. During my time in Prague, several friends said that my grandmother’s maiden name is most likely Slovakian, though I am very much hoping (and thinking) that I have some Russian blood in me, too.

This may or may not explain why I’ve been coming back around to Russian and German lately. Russian is on the brain because of all the spy shows that I watch, and my son’s best friend is Russian. It’s also got a lot to do with my having thrown myself back into learning languages while at UW, which have been the one true, enduring passion of my life. In February, I will begin a Master’s of Translation program for French to English because at the moment, French is my strongest language. I have spoken Spanish longer than any other language and I do love it, but I fell into French in a way I never have with any other language and I feel a personal connection to German and Russian. My hope is that by the time I complete my Master’s, I will be able to use and market my skills in German and Russian, as well. (I keep telling myself that I’m going to return to Arabic but I’ll be honest, I find Cyrillic so much easier to manage than Arabic script, and Russian is easier to pick up, overall. I considered brushing up on Czech, which I already know a bit of, but Russian is more widely spoken. Having lived in the Czech Republic and knowing Czech helps me immensely with Russian.)

True story that very few people know: I am prone to big ideas and spontaneous decisions, but nothing was as big and ridiculous as the one I had around the age of 19, give or take. I got it into my head that I should join the Air Force. This is just not something that anyone who knows me would expect me to have done. I’m not a military type of person, I’m not a big fan of the military, and… well, let’s just leave it at that. But there was that one time when I was in a full-blown panic about about my life and the Air Force seemed like an interesting idea. I went so far as to see a recruiter and take a few of the “entrance exams.” Obviously, I came to my senses in time and did not enlist. However, the recruiter told me that I would most definitely be assigned as a cryptologist/cryptologic language specialist and that my language skills were through the roof. The experience was worth it just to hear that. I often say that while I may be humble and not believe that I’m *that good* at most things, learning languages is the only exception. Picking up languages is a skill that I am thrilled to have, so why waste it on focusing on one at a time?


Leave a Comment