Sunday, June 24, 2007


Although two-thirds of my household speaks Russian, I haven't picked up much. What I do know tends to be things you say to young children ("Careful!", "That's garbage, come over here!"). And then there are the odds and ends that are usually not very useful in adult conversation.

One such word is tarakan, meaning "cockroach". I learned this from a cartoon version of one of Chukovsky's tales. The gist of the story is that all the animals in the forest -- lions, bears, elephants, etc., are running away from the all-feared Tarakan. At some point a kangaroo comes into the picture and asks what the big deal is, and is told "Shhh! He'll EAT you!" It eventually comes to an end when a sparrow flys down and makes about three chews and a gulp out of the cockroach.

I'm told it's an allegory of Stalin. While I'm not so sure (he really did "eat" people, and I can't think of who could've been the sparrow), it does seem to be a good moral tale for more ordinary politicians, or just plain bullies. Ellie knows this story well, which I find all well and good.

On our recent trip to Ukraine, we visted Crimea. One of the side trips was to the cave city of Chufut Kale. Various peoples (early Christians, Goths, Monglos, Karaite Jews) have lived there over the last 1,500-plus years. Today it's at the end of a short hike and you can wander around looking at ruins and admiring the view.

When we approach the gates are closed. A bit of dispair sets in, and then we hear the chains and padlock rattle. Some guy is standing there with a money belt, and otherwise nothing official-looking. He asks us for 12 Hryvnia (about $2.40) each for admission. While this is not much, the guidebook warned us of imposters, and we decided to stick to our principles.

Sofia, being the only one speaking any Useful Russian between us, quizzes him a bit, pointing out there are no signs, and no ticket office. I tell her to ask for an ID. He has none. They spar a bit more, all the while my patience are thinning. Finally I roll my eyes saying, "This is bulls**t" and walk in. (It feels good to be the grunting, inarticulate Bad Cop.) Sofia follows and we're yelled at some more, with threats of being locked in for the night. As we go around the bend, he loudly makes some cell phone call and Sofia hears a "[Blah Blah] -- Go after them."

OK, so the hearts were pounding a bit (I really didn't want to visit a Ukrainian police station), but we eventually saw other people walking around. We stopped one (a foreigner like us) -- he had paid the guy. We were both proud and nervous. Eventually we settled down and took in the late afternoon cliff-views, sounds of the swallows, some tomb of some Khan's descendant, and peered into the Karaite synagogue. It is well worth it if you find yourself in Crimea.

And so it was time to go back. We get back to the gate, and of course He Is Still There, letting in a large group this time. They say "Of course we bought tickets!" and shoot us dirty looks. (We then realized they were on a guided trip, which doesn't prove anything.) So with the chance of making a scene off the menu of tactics, we walk up to the gate, which he is busily locking. There are teenagers outside, and it turns out that they want in, and weren't expecting to pay either. Sofia tells him that if he's going to lie for money, he at least shouldn't be so lazy and make a sign. It escalates a bit, and certainly the group outside hears it. Eventually, as we expected, he decided to cut his losses and opened the gate. The teenage girls are crying. We tell them that he's got no radio or ID, and should pay him no attention and walk in. When we left them it was a standoff -- don't know what they ended up doing. We walked back down to the car (which we had unnecessarily paid somebody for a parking spot -- hence our determination not to be fooled twice), telling everyone going the other way to give the guy a hard time. Much too late, I remembered the story of the Tarakan. Would've been nice to use it as an epithet.

When we get back to Yalta to Sofia's mom and Ellie, we recount the tale. I try to boil it down for Ellie. Showing her the picture of the gate I say "We saw a tarakan behind this gate." Big Eyes. "He tried to take our money." Bigger Eyes. "We said No!" (Not mentioning the parking guys.) While walking to dinner Ellie is repeating "No, No, Tarakan You Can't Take My Money! No, no!"

When we sit down to order, thinking the day of cockroaches is over, Ellie turns to the waitress, narrows her eyes and says slowly "Do not bring us any tarakans." The waitress didn't flinch and said "No, no, don't worry. We don't serve any cockroaches."

Well, maybe the moral of the tale needs some focusing -- but lessons and laughs all the way 'round.