I'm crappy -- CRAPPY -- with foreign languages. There's nothing left of my childhood German or college French. Repeated attempts to learn Czech have gone nowhere. As you can imagine, this is harmful on trips. I go in PROMISING myself I'll attempt to converse in the local language, but it rapidly degenerates into pidgin Czenglish, before the eye-rolling local says "look, buddy, I speak English -- save yourself the pain."
Nonetheless, I can at least recognize certain patterns and words, and end up communicating just fine despite the language barrier, particularly in the Slavic world. Even in Albania, the Berlitz pocket phrasebook, pointing, hand signals and the occasional memorized phrase got me through just fine.
Then I went to Russia.
Dunno what it says, but it looks serious
I've never felt as disoriented and lost as I did when trying to read Russian signs. Even when I know better, I see "P" and I think "P." I see "B" and I think "B." Cyrillic and I were just not friends. I tried to think of it as a code, but that only brought me limited success. With unfamiliar letters and familiar letters used for unfamiliar purposes, I couldn't recognize patterns. You know those illiteracy commercials with a bunch of gibberish that say something to the effect of, "imagine if the world looked like this to you"? I seriously understood that feeling.
Context, obviously, helped with some things:
"Make a run for the border"
and eventually, by the end of the trip, I was doing better -- I was very proud when I figured out that "PECTOPAH" (roughly) was "restaurant," and "bAP" was "bar." When I saw a sign that looked roughly like "CYBERMAPKT" and immediately thought "supermarket," I was so impressed by myself that I bragged about it to MD. She wasn't quite as impressed.