Adventure in Transnistria - Muraling with Peter the Great

Usually, I find some exotic little place to escape to while I travel.  Okay, Transnistria is certainly an exotic little place off the beaten path.  But, my entire experience there was at the school for the deaf on the outskirts of town.  Every day.  All day long.  Fortunately, it was a wonderful experience.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.  Traveling to a place where almost everyone only speaks Russian is a unique experience.  I don’t remember when I last felt so illiterate.  Probably travels in Greece or the Arab World?  Thanks to a Greek monk named Cyril, and his brother Methodius, the Cyrillic alphabet was created around 860 A.D.  It was based on the Greek alphabet, which is also next to impossible for me to decipher, but there are a dozen or so extra letters for some Slavic sounds not found in Greek.  And, 99.99% of everything written in Tiraspol was written in undecipherable Cyrillic.

I remember prior to painting at a school in Estonia that the administration asked if I were bringing an interpreter.  It made me laugh because every student of all ages spoke excellent English.  That was not the case in Tiraspol.  Fortunately, an English teacher at the local university, Olga, was worth her weight in gold as my interpreter.  She was a life saver.

It was very fortunate for us that the population of 200 students at the school was a mix of deaf students, orphaned children, and local students from Tiraspol.  Some of the students could hear and speak – almost exclusively in Russian – but without their help, communication would have been impossible.  The hearing children all knew how to sign with their deaf friends. So communication with me required my speaking to Olga in English, Olga speaking in Russian to one of the hearing students, and then the hearing students signing with their friends.  It might have been a little complicated, but we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  Without Olga, I would have had a positive experience, with positively no communication with most of my young painters.

On day one, right from the start, one student felt brave enough to approach me speaking English.  I’m going to refer to him as “Peter the Great”.  He took it upon himself to really help with communication between me and his peers. His English was far from complete, but he was the only student that I came across who could speak beyond, “Thank you very much” and “Good morning”.  Several students understood some of what I said.  Pete shined above the rest of the crowd.

When I first met the students, and before they knew me enough to warm up a little, Olga told me that they must have thought meeting an American was like meeting someone from another planet.   I was also most likely the first non-Russian speaker that they had ever heard.  So, communication with me was a mystery to observe and listen to.  I heard one child talk to Olga and understood enough that she thought everything I said was gibberish.  Well, I have news for that kid.  Russian sounded like gibberish too.

Over the course of a few days, most of the kids learned to use a couple words in English.  I learned a few words in Russian and a few signs.  It’s always good to know how to say or sign "hello", "welcome", and "thank you".  I try to learn those words wherever I go.  All the kids giggled about signing "thank you" because if you sign it backwards, it's a very interesting insult.  Yes, they giggled about it.  No, they didn't tell me what it meant.  But, after a couple of days, Peter the Great let me in on their great little secret.  It made me like him even more.