There was a man in the Kharkiv of my childhood. He lived very centrally, somewhere in the numerous green courtyards right off the city’s main square (if I remember correctly). His name sounded like sand on a windy beach: Efim Isaakovich. I was only a few years old when Efim Isaakovich was teaching me English.
He taught a whole bunch of us, actually. We walked to his big old apartment with our mothers through various back streets, arriving separately (which meant: lots of playtime while waiting), and I think we left separately as well (which meant: even more playtime). Only years later, as an adult, I registered that those separate, drawn-out arrivals were possibly meant to protect Efim Isaakovich. After all, he offered private language classes in the Soviet Union of the early/mid-1980s. But maybe the working young mothers simply couldn’t expect to arrive all at the same time.
When all the children had gathered, we sat around a heavy wooden table in his living room, and Efim Isaakovich pulled out a truly miraculous thing: a tape recorder with a big black microphone. Into this microphone, eager to hear back our own voices with the coolest accent possible, we ecstatically yelped English words. We particularly loved singing the entire length of “There are ten green bottles hanging on the wall” — a treat reserved for the end of class. Then we listened to the recording and laughed our heads off. I don’t know what our mothers did elsewhere in the apartment meanwhile, but I swear it was the best song ever.
The word “accidentally” (as in “accidentally fall”) didn’t begin to make sense to me until much later. So I sang of Eksi Dentli, who was, in all likelihood, a little boy. Life in those early years was filled with pages and pages of Mumintroll (Муми-тролли), Pippi Longstocking (Пеппи Длинныйчулок) and Emil of Lönneberga (Эмиль из Лённеберги). Emil was my favorite little boy in the world. Eksi was probably just like Emil, except he spoke English and had something to do with green bottles falling.
I don’t remember when or why our evenings with Efim Isaakovich ended. I don’t even know if he’s still with us (those lessons took place thirty years ago). I’m just thinking about him now, in this holiday season, somehow. If anyone knows anything about him, please tell him that singing about Eksi was so much fun.