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Breaking the ice: laughter and awareness of others beyond linguistic borders

The world watches anxiously as Putin re-evokes the spirit of Dictatorship, leaving Russian and Ukrainian citizens alike to bear the costly brunt of a worldview that gives scant regard to the needs of others. Our cultural and linguistic differences can pose a challenge to harmony and communication, yet at times when a common language is not shared we can find other ways to 'break the ice'. This calls to mind the capacity for humour to (sometimes) transcend boundaries, as well as being more sensitive to the needs of others as we strive to unite and form strong bonds against the tide of tyranny. All this plus a bear, a sauna and a potato on my travels in the Motherland.

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“there is a lot to be said about thinking beyond your own preconceived notions to embrace the perspectives of others. The narrative we create in our heads exploits patterns of thinking that can reduce and confine the world in which we live to a narrow (and often erroneous) perception of what is really going on. Add COVID related isolation into the mix and you have the recipe for getting caught up in a worldview that fails to update or be sensitive to the needs of others"

Russian roulette: the potato, the bear and the banya

Passing a bus stop this one time in Chamonix with my good pal Daz, a lady hailed us over. In heavily accented broken English she enquired which bus would take her along to the cable car station a couple of miles away.

I pondered for a moment, looking at my compatriot - “It’s no. 14 isn’t it?” He agreed. Turning to the lady I attempted to translate this, feeling it is only polite to attempt the lingo of the native country one is visiting. “C’est quarante...mmm, non...mmm...dix-quatre...errr...” Turning back to Daz, we agreed that’s not quite right. The lady joined in “quatorze...I think that’s right for 14”. “Ah oui...yes it is!”

The lady wasn’t French. “I am from Ukraine!!” she announced.

We had a laugh about the ineffectual attempts at speaking in the wrong language. I saw an opportunity to now demonstrate my linguistic prowess further. Assuming she spoke Russian.

“TICKLISH POTATO!!” (in Russian) I cried out, expecting her to be most amused by my command of her own ‘native’ language.

She was bewildered, alarmed possibly, not amused. We parted company.

Sometimes humour isn’t so cross-cultural after all.

I can’t imagine there’s a great deal to laugh about in Ukraine right now, even though the President ELECT is a former comic actor.

In dark times, with language barriers and cultural divide, we are stripped back to basics. Communication requires an approach based on sensitivity and awareness. We can’t assume consensus in what our words mean, or an effortless expression of the inner voice that accompanies our constant stream of thoughts.

A few years prior to the ‘Ukrainian potato incident’ I had some other linguistic challenges on a foray into remote Russian territory.

I decided to up my game and travel to the arctic (White Sea south of Murmansk) to undertake training in ice-diving.

I made my way to northern Finland on increasingly smaller modes of transport and into sparser country. After a fitful night of sleep in a Finnish Travelodge a chap turned up in a battered white van and approached me at breakfast (I was the only one there). He waved a piece of paper on which my name was scrawled. I gathered he was my transport into Russia.

He didn’t speak a word of English, only Russian. For the next several hours we hurtled along on snow –covered forest roads with scant regard for any hazards that might suddenly interrupt progress. After a while I tried to strike up conversation. It was tricky. Over time, we seemed to establish a rapport with lots of pointing and gesticulating as we taught each other a few words. I learnt the standard such as hello, goodbye, please and thank you. My repertoire during the coming week would expand considerably to include “wolf-fish” (sadly most of my repertoire has since diminished), which can come in handy in special circumstances (such as in a prefabricated hut miles out on sea-ice, or in certain sea-food restaurants perhaps).

Travel broadens the mind, along with the vocabulary, and it is experiences such as this that transcend cultural differences and make us strive to connect in meaningful ways with people wherever we encounter them.

Without going on too much of a side rant about certain Czarist figureheads currently rattling their sabres and acting like profoundly self-centred @ssholes, there is a lot to be said about thinking beyond your own preconceived notions to embrace the perspectives of others. The narrative we create in our heads exploits patterns of thinking that can reduce and confine the world in which we live to a narrow (and often erroneous) perception of what is really going on. Add COVID related isolation into the mix and you have the recipe for getting caught up in a worldview that fails to update or be sensitive to the needs of others. From what we are informed journalistically, assuming this speaks the pravda, Putin became increasingly paranoid about Covid and isolated himself, surrounding himself only with close advisors who likely told him what he wanted to hear. His rhetoric furthers the concept of isolation, claiming a world where Russia shrinks its boundaries to nothing is not a world worth preserving. So what the hell press the button.

This paranoid self-only awareness in classic dictatorial fashion lends itself to blatant disregard for others. Whilst the Ukrainian people are centre stage in the spotlight and in receipt of our heartfelt concerns, let’s not forget Putin’s ‘own’ people who are now suffering crippling economic sanctions. The elite pull the strings and the common people are trampled underfoot in the age old absurdity of power-politics. Not again! we might hear them cry. How many times must we be subjugated to the same old Czarist screwing-over in the shadow of a glorious imperial vision?

Back in northern Russia my linguistically-challenged adventures continued. I was deposited by a small collection of wooden buildings on the sea-shore. Which was buried under several feet of snow. En route with my new friend I visited an austere compound deep in the forest where several stern militaristic types in furry hats glowered at me and asked how much money I had on me. I realised I had 10 Euros, and zero rubles. It didn’t seem a problem. Interestingly a week or so later on returning via this Customs outpost the same staff greeted me with a much warmer regard, cracking jokes (probably at my expense). I was now ‘familiar’ to them and also on my way out of their country so perhaps more worthy of a warm farewell. We also got pulled over by a lone police car which was the only vehicle we encountered in hundreds of miles. I was led to believe they were checking I wasn't being kidnapped. Sometimes you just have to hope for the best. Another tick on the bucket list.

On finding myself ejected at the ‘dive centre’ I had a moment of thrilled panic as I thought “what the hell am I doing here?”. This echoed sentiments felt as a child when I would find myself in various scrapes, head bleeding and clothes in tatters. (On account of always being at the vanguard in altercations with the tribe of hooligan drug addicts that occupied a derelict house behind my primary school - “how do I always find myself in these situations?” the 10-year-old boy enquired – and vowed to not do so in future.)

Nevertheless, over the days to come I settled in and formed new friendships, including with ‘Boris’ (I don’t remember his real name) who was the Chief of Customs for this quadrant of Russia. He was my room-mate and loved to show me endless videos of his white-water rafting exploits accompanied by a soundtrack of his favourite band, The Traveling Wilburys (Dangleberries in my opinion as am not a fan). He introduced me to the age-old tradition of the Banya in which unexpectedly one removes all clothes, is boiled alive in the sauna and is whipped with birch leaves by one’s newfound friend. Before rollicking about in the snow afterwards (on the frozen sea I hasten to add).

Apart from a day or so with an instructor lady who did command decent English (thankfully given the hazards of learning to dive under sea-ice), the bulk of my time in this Arctic settlement was spent trying to keep up with the gabble of Russian discourse. It’s one thing to do this down the supermarket, but another entirely when it comes to intense safety briefings concerned with the risks (and features of interest) associated with being submerged for up to an hour in minus 2 degrees sea-water accessed through a very small triangular hole we have just sawed through several inches of ice.

Nevertheless, a fundamental principle of diving, involves buddy pairing. Beginners will get caught up in the experience of being immersed in the water, with a restricted field of view through dive goggles, and managing their breathing and buoyancy. In conditions where visibility is limited (very dark under ice), temperatures are below freezing, and the only means of egress is a small hole rendered smaller still with depth and distance, awareness beyond the self is paramount. One’s duty is to one’s buddy – keeping an eye on him in case problems arise: tell-tale signs of bubbles emanating from tank stage pre-empting a full on freeflow as all the air dumps out rapidly; getting snagged in the safety line that is the tether back to the surface.

My buddy on one particular dive was highly experienced, but not impervious to error or hazards. I kept close eye on him – being unfamiliar with him and his methods, and conscious of the language barrier (though underwater thankfully we use universally understood hand signals). At one point he did become unwittingly ensnared in the line and I patiently drew his attention to this and worked to untangle him. A dive is much more satisfying when one knows one has contributed to the joint enjoyment and safety of the dive, rather than purely revelled in one’s own self-indulgence. Back on the surface he commended me in as many words as he could muster: “you good diver”. I had proved my worth! Actions speak louder than words, and consideration for others is valuable currency indeed.

At the end of the dive, having been submerged for around 40 minutes and feeling the effects of the extreme cold I languished in the ice hole (maina) attempting to find the energy to exit. A man of huge stature approached me. Let’s call him ‘Ivan’. He thrust a bottle of whisky into my hands, impelling me to drink. It warmed my cockles it has to be said! He took the opportunity to tell me a joke he was practicing in English. Seeing as Ivan, a veteran of the Chechen war, was looming above me I indulged his desire. I forget the details but it involved a lewd situation involving a bear and a missile (I think). I laughed (might have been the whisky).

On a final note, a few months later I was on another dive trip with my friend Ben. This time it was an American vessel off the coast of Hawaii. Aside from its complement of Americans our own cabin included us two Brits and a couple of Russians – Val and Yorgi. Val was a man of legendary stature (in his own mind but also in his commendable contributions to Russian underwater exploration and marine biology). We got on well as the minority group amongst the American majority.

On the last day at sea sitting at dinner with our Russian bunk mates, Val looked sternly across and in his booming voice said that they had not expected to be sharing a cabin with other people, but that we were “alright”. To this I responded: “that’s funny, because we specifically requested a cabin with two Russians!”

Ben piped up: “yes but we had hoped for two attractive ones...”

Humour doesn’t always translate.

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