Lab Rats

Ukrainian plastic surgery

Or, how a PhD can get more exotic

Calum MacKichan 26 October 2010

Foreign improv: communication on the fly

You tend to cling to any form of understanding whatsoever

On an evening off from the lab I’m in a language café in Paris, hoping to learn a bit of French from the locals and return the favour, helping with English where I can. There’s a great atmosphere – there are people from all over the world and at any given moment you’re standing next to a group speaking Chinese on one side and Arabic on the other. This is a conversation I had towards the end of the evening, which I reckon is based on the two main rules of language learning:

1. You tend to cling to any form of understanding whatsoever. Like when someone says “Yeah, I can read French” when really they just know the words that are spelled the same in English.

2. Life is a lot easier when you’re asking the questions and you control the conversation, otherwise you get lost.

This girl is an expert!

“Hello, what’s your name?”

“Hi, I’m Calum.”


“No, Cal-um.” (making each syllable as clear as possible)

“Ah, a bit like Gollum?”

“Well, yeah, if it helps you remember.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Scotland.”

“Sorry, I don’t know that place, where is it?”

“You know Great Britain? It’s the northern part.”


“The UK?”

Ah! Yes! The Ukraine!”

“Well, no. (I could draw a map, but think better of it.) OK, yeah, I’m from the Ukraine.” (praying she doesn’t speak Russian)

“That’s great, so what are you doing in Paris?”

“I’m doing a PhD.”

“A what?”

“I’m doing experiments on bacteria, so I can write a thesis.”


“It’s so I can become a doctor of…”

“Ah, you’re a doctor!”

“Well, erm…”

“That’s great!” (cutting in excitedly; people love doctors – it’s like an instant social promotion)

“Yeah, it’s good, I imagine.”

“So you know how to give me plastic surgery?”

“Haha, I’m just in training.”

“Oh well, that’s a shame. You know my friend is from Kiev.” (Is everyone she knows by default Ukrainian? Maybe this girl just agreed to be Ukrainian and is actually Japanese? Or maybe once you have one Ukrainian friend you need to find another one immediately?)

“Great! But I should go, it’s getting late.” (quickly finishing my beer)

“My friend is always wanting to meet other Ukrainians.”

“Yeah, me too, but…I start early at the hospital tomorrow.”

Other articles by Calum MacKichan