13:23 PM

'Drewzba' means friendship in Russian

Three smiling people pose for a photo together in Houston.
Patrick Chimes, right, and his Russian pen pal Lena Asadulina, center, have been corresponding since 2006. Lena and her family have visited Houston twice; Chimes and his wife Mary, left, have also visited Russia twice.

You're never too old to learn something new — not even something a bit complicated, like learning a new language with a completely different alphabet.

The Foreign Language and English Enhancement Program at University of Houston-Clear Lake has been opening new worlds to Patrick Chimes, a retired NASA television engineering and operations manager who worked extensively with Russians on projects related to the International Space Station.

"We used to have Russian language classes at NASA because we worked together, although we used interpreters," Chimes said. "But I found it was very useful for work not to need an interpreter. I've been to Russia many times for work. After work, I used to like going somewhere to buy food from a Russian shop, or maybe a train ticket. You can't just point at things all the time."

After NASA stopped giving free Russian classes, Chimes said he came to UH-Clear Lake and, about six years ago, began taking classes in the Foreign Language and English Enhancement Program.

"The classes were very helpful," he said. "That's where I met Tatiana Mechtchanskaia, who's a gem of a teacher. We learn some grammar, new vocabulary, and we read aloud."

He said he thought it would be fun to get a Russian pen pal, so he sent some letters to people he'd found on the internet who said they would be interested in having an American pen pal.

"I got a response from a lady named Lena Asadulina from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia," he said.

"After so many classes, my Russian is now better than her English," he said. "We started writing to each other about 15 years ago. I wrote in English and she wrote in Russian but now, we mainly write in Russian. We started with letters and postcards, but now we are using a Russian chat platform called Vcontact."

He said during one of their chats about two months ago, Lena had told him that she'd become ill and was in the hospital. "There's a 12-hour time difference," he said. "I called her on video chat to see how she was. I'm not fluent, but I began reading a book we have in our Russian class to her. It's a collection of amusing Russian stories. I thought it would be nice if I could do that for her."

She spent five days in the hospital, and each day, Chimes said he read her a story or two from the book. "It took about 10 minutes to read one, and she enjoyed it," he said. "No one could visit her in the hospital, so it wasn't very pleasant for her there. She's now out of the hospital and she said she thought it was helpful to her recovery to have me reading those stories to her."

Over the years, Chimes and his wife have been twice to visit Lena and her family in Siberia, and they've been to Houston twice to visit the Chimes.

"It's two families coming together now," he said. "My journey with Russian has opened up so many opportunities for friends and travel. I took these classes after I was 40 years old, so you can learn even if you think you can't anymore. And I'm still taking classes. There's a wealth of things for me to learn."

The Foreign Language and English Enhancement Program at University of Houston-Clear Lake offers a variety of foreign languages and English enhancement for foreign professionals, or for anyone who would like to learn more about a foreign language. For more information or to register, visit the Foreign Language and English Enhancement Program online.