I wasn’t sure if it would be okay to this message to the Tennis Players in Los Angeles group on Facebook:
хто збирається грати в теніс до дощу
Who’s up to play tennis before it rains?
Which I don’t speak, but I do have a 56-day streak going for studying Ukrainian on Duolingo. After doing these five-minute language lessons on my phone for almost two months, I can recognize that in the sentence above, which I copied and pasted from Google Translate, теніс means tennis.
Being able to see the similarities in very different languages makes me feel like I have increased my capacity as a human being. However, I worry that if the only way I ever experience Ukrainian is on Duolingo, then that’s just another way of retreating from the world into my phone.
To get humans involved, I tried reaching out to the Ukrainian Cultural Center of Los Angeles. I got a recording with several options including the number to press for information about how to fight in the war by joining the Foreign Legion.
I do not want to join the Foreign Legion but I do want to do something besides read about the horrors of war and hope Ukraine prevails. I recently read in The Atlantic about how it’s not just a territorial dispute: “A Ukrainian victory would immediately inspire people fighting for human rights and the rule of law, wherever they are.” I want to be on the right side of that fight. And that’s how the idea popped into my mind of, why not see if you can find a Ukrainian to play tennis with.
Which seemed like a good idea until my next thought, “Wow, you sure know how to trivialize a global catastrophe.”
So there I was, feeling like I didn’t take things seriously enough until I saw Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina playing in the quarter-finals of the French Open. There was controversy about her not shaking hands after being defeated by her Russian opponent, but that did not really register with me. What registered was simply, Look — there’s a Ukrainian playing tennis. I guess it must be okay.
So I did post my “tennis anyone?” note in Ukrainian. Moments later, I heard from my soon-to-be new friend Steve, who wrote
Привіт, в якому районі ви граєте теніс?
Hello, where do you play tennis?
I wrote back a whole long thing explaining about solidarity and Duolingo, the upshot being we played at the beautiful-as-ever, oak tree-lined Vermont Canyon courts in Griffith Park yesterday and had a great time.
Steve surged out to a 3-0 lead; I stormed back to 5-3 but couldn’t close and he won the tiebreaker. We frolicked, me hustling back-back-back to chase down lobs; him returning everything until I lost points by swatting the ball in strange, un-tennis-like directions.
I practiced saying “Hello, how are you?” and “I’m good” in Ukrainian while waiting for the bus; however, I completely panicked and forgot everything when he showed up. We did not talk much about the horrors of war and I didn’t try to make him give me a free language lesson because people don’t like being used. I mean yeah, I met him because I wanted to interact with a Ukrainian person but what really made it a good time was our just playing together as people.