A few Russian phrases can help you navigate everyday situations when traveling in a country where the language is spoken. Start by learning the basics, and carry a notebook so that others can assist you by writing down and mapping the names of streets and other places. You'll notice that many sounds of the Cyrillic Russian alphabet don't translate directly to sounds in English, so your accent may be strong. This is fine as long as you're understood.
While you may not know enough Russian to have a conversation, you'll need to be able to get the attention of people whose help you'll require. The formal way to say hello in Russian is pronounced “ZDRAVST-vuy-tye.” This word is understandably difficult for many English speakers; practice it, but know how to say the informal Russian “hi” as well: “Pree-VYET.” Saying “excuse me” to get a person's attention is “EEZ-vee-NEE-tye.” You can find out whether someone speaks English by asking, “Vuy GAH-va-REE-tye pan-GLEE-sky?”
“Where” (“Ga-DYEH”) is an important question word to know when you're traveling, even if the most useful answers in the beginning may involve pointing and hand-drawn maps or sketches. To ask where restrooms are, say “Ga-DYEH TOO-al-YET?” Public restrooms in Russia, just as elsewhere, are often labeled with recognizable pictures, along with the words for “men” (“moo-SHEE-nuy”) and “women” (“ZHEN-shee-nuy”).
One of the most awkward feelings when traveling in another country comes from struggling for the right words during even the simplest interactions. Not knowing how to apologize for accidentally bumping into someone is one example. This is why “Pra-STEET-ye” is such an important word to know. “Pra-STEET-ye” also works as a way of saying, “Excuse me” when you need to get past someone in a crowd. A few other polite phrases to know are “Spa-SEE-ba” (“Thank you”) and “pa-ZHAL-is-ta” (“please”).
Ordering food is easier once you've learned enough of the alphabet to look words up as needed. Here are a few words for common items you might order: “VO-da,” “KO-fye,” “chai,” and “PEE-va” are water, coffee, tea, and beer. To say “with sugar,” “with milk,” and “with lemon,” learn the phrases “SAKH-har-um,” “SMOL-a-kum,” and “SLEE-mon-um.” To see a copy of the check and settle the bill, you may find the questions “SKOL-ka ETa STO-it? ” (“How much does it cost?”) and “Ga-DYEH pla-TEET?” (“Where do I pay?”) useful.
Elizabeth Ewe Weaver earned her MFA in writing from Columbia and has studied composition-rhetoric at the graduate level. She has presented at the NCTE's annual Conference on College Composition and Communication convention and served as full-time writing faculty at several universities. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere.