I grew up in Warsaw at a time when its government looked to the Soviet Union as its Big Brother. We all had to study Russian starting in 5th grade. Learning Russian was about the most uncool thing one could do in Warsaw at that time.
At the end of 7th grade, right before high school, my father tried to speak to me in Russian (he was fluent, having spent the war in the Soviet Union). He was furious to discover that I had learned nothing. I couldn’t even put together a simple sentence.
Four years later, as I finished high school, I thought of myself as too grown up to be subject to parental exams of language proficiency. This didn’t affect the fact that I still knew no Russian, or so I thought.
Many years later I was doing financial negotiations in Francophone Africa (Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mauritania) and my French got to be good enough for me to enjoy reading novels in French. I looked for long novels that would get me through sleepless jet lagged nights. One time I picked up War and Peace. (Reading the book in French makes a lot of sense, since big chunks of it actually were written in French). I loved the book; I realized how much I missed when I read it as a pre-teen (if omitting everything that wasn’t strictly about fighting could actually be called reading).
Tolstoy is a great artist and reading him, regardless of the language, you feel like you are right there, joining the lives of his protagonists. And I was reading him without skipping a single paragraph and somehow I felt that I was hearing and understanding the original Russian. It was an absurd feeling, but it led me to start studying Russian again—seriously this time. As I did, I realized that I hadn’t wasted all that time in high school. Memories came back of my high school Russian teacher, words she said, and texts which she worked hard to get us to read. The Estate of Wormwood and Honey is dedicated to her.