Monday, August 26, 2013

Riddles and Enigmas

I once read that Winston Churchill said Russia was a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma.  Or something to that effect.  Unfortunately, as I sit here writing that, the wifi in this cafĂ© isn’t working so I can’t fact check it at the moment.  But, I would have to agree with the esteemed statesman.  Things are not always straight forward over here.  I say that having finished working with Dennis, a Russian guy from Ust-Kamenogorsk who studies medicine in Saint Petersburg (Or Petrograd if you want to avoid those damnable Germans—that other name is dead to me).

Dennis came to me earlier this month because he was looking for an English conversation partner, but the teacher he had felt he couldn’t really learn from her so she sent him to me.  He was a very thin guy, who never seemed to shave, but was one of those guys who have not been blessed with as much natural manliness that requires them to shave twice a day to keep a smooth face.  He probably hadn’t shaved since he left Saint Petersburg.

But I digress.  Working with Dennis was a lot of fun because I didn’t really have to prepare quite so much for his classes since they were essentially discussion and conversation.  That also meant we could talk about more interesting topics than just plain, boring English grammar.  I found Dennis a lot of fun because I discovered we shared many interests—science fiction in particular stood out.  Both of us had a healthy interest in Sci-fi and more interestingly, he also really liked the book Starship Troopers.
So it is pretty easy to see that we were able to get along.  But we also dealt with some heavier matters—ethical concerns related to technological developments, current events, biases in the news, more classical literature, and sundry other topics.

But what does this all have to do with Mr. Churchill’s famous quote?  Not particularly much, but in just a general sense, I have learned a lot more about modern Russia.  I learned a new word: Xeno-nationalists, who are people who think Russia stinks and should attempt to be more like other countries (or possibly people who are not loyal to Russia at all  and want to be citizens of other countries).  I also have learned that Russia, like any country has people with extremely divergent opinions—while that in and of itself is not new, what I have learned is to the extent they can vary.

If you look at this Dennis guy and my old boss Victor, you have two guys who have very similar backgrounds—ethnic Russians who are Kazakhstani citizens.  Victor wants to study outside of Kazakhstan to finish his education and Dennis is doing his education in another country.  But these details are pretty superficial and common among many people over here.  It is their view of history and interpretations that mark such a great difference between them.

I may or may not have talked about some of my debates with Victor regarding Stalin and the Soviet Union.  I’ll summarize—Victor doesn't think Stalin was a good man by any stretch of the imagination, but that he was “great” in the sense of his purpose and force of will and his contributions to the Soviet Union were necessary for its development and survival.  I completely disagree and to put out my own bias, I consider the Bolshevik putsch in 1917 one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, not just for the Russian people but the world.

On the other hand, Dennis appears to agree with me that Stalin was a devil who set up some of the worst atrocities in history as well as setting up the seeds for the near defeat of the Soviet Union in the dark days of 1941 and 1942 (to clarify, Dennis is not an Americaphile, he doesn't really buy the evidence of chemical attacks in Syria for example).  What is more interesting is that Victor completely views the White movement as a reactionary force that wanted to put people in chains, justifying the purges and repression, while Dennis told me that the term “White Guard” is used to remember heroes who were fighting a lost cause to preserve stability and order against a coming chaos and terror.  Dennis even said that some people used the term “Saints” to describe them.

Both views are present in modern CIS countries, both are polar opposites, and when I talked to both of these guys, they seemed to feel that most Russians agreed with their point of view.  So to me, this is one of those peculiarities that makes Russia such an enigma..

Monday, July 29, 2013

Slow am I...

I'm beginning to think there is some sort of natural law that whenever I'm sick or feel bad and I need to take a shower, there won't be any hot water.

Today was a rough, rough day.  I'm not quite sure why, but ever since I came back from the summer camp at Ridder, I've been sick off and on.  So today I woke up and was absolutely miserable.  Could barely even get out of bed, so most of today I didn't do much besides crawl to the about blargh.

On the plus side, one of the ladies who sits at the front desk apparently noticed I didn't leave my room today and came by a little while ago to check on me.  Not much she could do, but a very nice gesture.  I think if I'm feeling better tomorrow, I'll go out and get some flowers or something.  It's nice to know that if I disappear or turn into a zombie (that's kind of how i feel right now), someone'll at least come looking--though that is kind of a danger, if I do transform into a zombie and they come looking, that's an easy way to spread the infection.  Better lock my door so they can't get in.

Anyway, my two weeks in Ridder were a lot of fun.  The first week I spent it with the students from the Pushkin Library's "Access" group (Access is this US embassy program for disadvantageous kids to study English).  I was there with the other American who lived here in Ust-Kamenogorsk (He just left this weekend to go back home--after he hits Bangladesh first).

By the way--it was absolutely gorgeous and the cabins were far nicer than I expected!

After the "Access" group left, I stuck around another week to work with the students who were the children of the KazZinc workers.  KazZinc is the local mining/metal producing company here in Eastern Kazakhstan, and I learned that their union built this camp in Ridder, called "Sinegoria."  It is extremely beautiful--one of Dad's co-workers says it is like Montana.  But I wouldn't know.

I want to write more, but I'm still not feeling too well.  To cut things short--the camp was great, even though the students didn't speak english and I had to rely on teachers translating for me, it was a lot of fun and I felt like a minor celebrity.
That's a old fashioned "Young Pioneer" style hat by the way.  Not a garden gnome thing.    The camp gave it to me.  I won't forget that camp for a long time..

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thoughts, post test

I finished up the FSOT this morning.  As of writing time (June 15th, 2013) I should have about three weeks to wait until I get the results this time.  I'd like to say I feel good about this time, because I kind of do--the questions seemed simple enough and I thought I answered most of them well...but I felt the same way last time and I ended up four points short of going to the next exam we'll just have to see I guess.  Even then, the exam process is still a pretty tough one with a huge rate of attrition.

I'm writing this in Murat's flat, which is actually really nice compared to the one he used to have with Victor.  It's a little bit larger and they have their own shower; though there is no kitchen so they don't cook.  Dad, you'll be excited to hear that Murat's roommate is one of the guys you went to Oskamen with two years ago--Yerlan I think--the younger (but still older than me or Murat) history guy.  I gave him your regards and he did the same to you.  

The bus ride here kind of sucked--the bus was better than I expected; one of those greyhound type buses, but they still didn't bother to turn the AC on and my seat was directly above the driver at the front of the driving westward meant I was getting the full force of the sun the whole journey.  So it was quite hot.

I'm sitting here snacking on some peanuts and I'm not sure if this makes the Kazakh/Russians crazy or brilliant--but they are bacon flavored peanuts.  I would say the flavor is mild, mostly coming from the seasoning, but more like that Italian slice ham thing that I can't remember how to spell it and I have no google so I'm out of luck.  They are OK.  I'm sure they'd be much better if I was drinking beer instead of coke.

One thing I should mention before I stop writing this for now, is that the guy who was proctoring the exam was an ex-army guy.  We got to chatting because I had gotten there first and we still had to wait for the other examinees (two guys who worked at the embassy--'in house' but if they worked at the embassy...why were they taking the exam?  Were they interns?  I never found out).  Anyway, I found out that while you and he probably never served together, he had served with H.R. McMaster and I think is mentioned on the acknowledgements of McMaster's book because he helped McMaster get a computer to write it.  Talk about degrees of separation...he'll be coming to Oskamen for that summer camp that I'll be helping out at in July.  I'm not sure if I'll have my results by then, but that's still pretty neat coincidence.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Still alive...

If I'm brutally honest, and sometimes I am, I'll have to admit that I am an extremely lazy person.  I'm not sure if I'm actually any lazier than other people, but I think I am.  I enjoy doing nothing productive.  I should be studying Russian, I should be preparing more lessons in advance;I should be reviewing English concepts so I can remember specifically the proper names for things, instead of just going "Dammit, it's the conditional where it's not realistically going to happen, or impossible, i.e. hypothetical" (2nd Conditional for all you wondering).  I should be keeping this blog updated, I should be preparing for FSOT...blah, blah blah.

Probably most damningly, I should be exercising...but dammit I hate running.  If I'm lucky, I force myself to do something or at least a good number of pushups/sit ups, but it's nothing like I used to do.  I can't really even complain about being too busy right now...I also hate waking up and cooking and etc.  It's not really a good sign for me that my last two blog posts are basically on the them of laziness, and I'm sure anyone reading this is probably bored to death by my self loathing ("Get up and do something about it, you whiner!"--I hear you...but...Meh?)

So, how about something actually Kazakhstan related? Let's talk about how I stay functioning on those days where (for some reason that I don't really understand) I can't sleep the night before and I have several classes or I need to stay awake until the next sleep period so I don't screw myself up even more?

Easy right?  Coffee?  Except I have yet to find any decent, non-freeze dried coffee here that isn't prepackaged from Nescafe with tons of sugar and creamer or doesn't cost me an arm and a leg.  Tea isn't strong enough--or is it?

Allow me to introduce the marvelous(...) Russian invention: Chifir.  A popular drink among convicts and gulag inmates--all you need is a crap ton of black tea and time.  As far as Victor and I can figure out, since there's many different recipes online--you want about eight teaspoons of loose-leaf tea per serving.  Boil that sucker for about 15 minutes, till the leaves (or in my case because you don't got actual leaves, just these little pellet deals) drop to the bottom.

Then you drink it.

Chifir is bitter and hard to drink, but if you do it right (or at least somewhat right) you'll get some serious caffeine.
 You'll also get a stomach ache and the need to use the toilet in ASAP.  But the caffeine rush you get lasts a lot longer then what you get with coffee and I sometimes need it...

And of course I'm going to put this video here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A lazy poster, I...

I haven't posted in a while...I am an extremely lazy poster...

But I have been a little bit busier...I went on a trip to Astana, which was a very neat experience.  I went with a group of students of Zarina's from the Pushkin Library American Corner.  I think there was about twenty of them.   They were nice kids, but they could drive Zarina  a little wild at times.

Our trip was a nice one overall...I got to see some stuff I probably wouldn't have been able to see otherwise as this trip had excursions planned.  I was able to see the national symphony hall, the palace of independence, some interesting malls, and of course, the Bayterek.

It was very cool to see the places, but the problem is that despite their desire to make the place more of a spot for tourists to come to, they are not quite there...I've heard that everything in Astana is supposed to be tri-lingual (Kazakh, Russian, and English) they have not really developed it besides sometimes having an English menu at a restaurant.  I have yet to see a museum exhibit in English or anything to that effect.  Likewise, even in Astana the streets are mostly dirty and I can't really say there is much to really draw tourists there.  The national symphony hall is smaller than the one they've got in Kansas City where I saw the Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble and the Palace of Independence really only had a model of Astana as it plans to be in twenty years or so.  Personally, I liked Almaty better--though again, not many places are really developed for tourists. 

But the trip was good, the students were an interesting bunch and I was able to learn about life for Kazakh teenagers, as well as teach a couple of students some poker hands (though only bastardized Texas Hold'em...) and train rides are always an (awful) adventure.

So, I didn't really have much to say here, but what drove  me to post was that I received a package from my family--and I felt I owed them a little something since they sent me spam, hot sauce, Jack Stack BBQ Sauce, and some other stuff!  I should mention that one of the packages looked like it had been opened and Victor suggests next time you guys should make a list and tell us the order things were packed in.

Anyway, last classes of the week are tomorrow and saturday, and it is very late here...but I watched the Hobbit...and it was pretty good.  I was a little concerned about them stretching it out for three movies, but it didn't feel like they were padding it too badly...though some of the "humor" stuff was a little far for me...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Comrade Stalin Wants learn to cook

Argh...been working a bit harder than I would like.  But I suppose I can't complain as I needed the money and haven't been working all that hard before this month and all I really had to do was teach my basic three classes, tutor two people, create a test, administer and grade it.  Which sounds like a lot, but to be honest, isn't really all that much.  And I got paid some extra for the tutoring gigs, which is nice since my first IELTS class has finished up and I won't be getting as much since the Intermediate class I do is to cover the room I've been given.

At any rate, I have been busier than I was before...

So first things first:
Way back around Real New Year (since right now is Nauryz--or as I so politically correctly refer to it as "Fake New Year" or "New Year for People Who Don't Like the Sun") I was hanging out with Murat, Marat, and Mum (Since Kazakh people tend to use British English, I'll use Mum for her and Mom for my real mom--love you Mom!).  After Murat had come back to the house and we were having a late dinner one night...somehow (and I'm seriously not sure how it happened) our talk turned towards a more historical and political nature and eventually that history spread to include our good friend Uncle Joe!  And boy, did Marat (the dad) have some strong opinions.

For one: Did you know that without Stalin the Soviet Union would have lost WWII?

 And that the purges were necessary?

And Finland and the Baltics were totally asking for it.

So were the Ukrainians.

The Kazakhs were an unfortunate piece of collateral damage that was necessary to prepare the Soviet Union for WWII.

Trotsky was the devil.

If Stalin hadn't ordered Trotsky's assassination, Trostky would have (somehow) prevented the US from giving lend lease to the Soviet Union and also prevented the US from allying with the Soviet Union, thus allowing the Nazis to win WWII.

I should note that my roommate and colleague, Victor agrees with most of the stuff above, except for the Trotsky being able to affect US policy.  On the other hand, he has absolutely zero sympathy for the Eastern Europeans since in his view they were Nazis.  Why the Finns, Ukranians and other Baltics might have supported the Germans after Stalin's treatment of them is not a question he seems to consider worthy of response.  They were Nazis.  That's why Stalin went after them. They're still Nazis.  That's why they deserved what happened to them.  But Napoleon was an evil, perverted, midget.

No comical exaggeration here.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Winter comes down

It has been far too long since I've update this.  But I plead the reader's indulgence.  I've been working more than before and I've gotten an extra group to work with, but the trade off is that now I'm working even more on Saturdays...meaning I spend at least three hours at the Pushkin Library and then go back and teach for another hour and a half at EKSU.  That doesn't count the truly awful bus ride getting their and back...but hopefully that'll improve as someone has told me about another way to get there and back.  I hope it'll work...

I'm getting quite exhausted, but I suppose it is  kind of my fault.  I spend a bit of my time wasted since I usually have a long lunch with Victor since he doesn't like the canteen here.  But then I also have a tea in the afternoon with the canteen since i work in the evenings I don't show up to work later.  So it is my fault...

Anyway, I'm feeling a little crummy--the weather here is warming up, which might initially be thought to be a good thing...but that means the snow is melting and now the ground is muddy, dirty, and gray.  It is a thoroughly depressing sight, which is not aided by how terrible riding a bus was's all just kind of meh.  When I'm done with class tonight, I think I'll try to let you all know what has been going on here.

By the way, Victor has been making fun of my cooking concoctions:   He seems to think they are weird and can't be delicious.  I think he is crazy.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

If you want to find the Colonel...

I’m a very bad blogger…I know I promised an update about Stalinism…but I’ve been really lazy lately.  I can kind of blame it on my new schedule—I’m teaching classes every night (except Sundays) from about 6:30 to 8:00, or 7:00 to 8:30…so when I get home all I want to do is make dinner and relax.  Victor lets me come in a little bit later—maybe 10 or 11 instead of 9…so I should really be getting up earlier in the day and accomplishing more, but honestly, I really dislike getting up in the morning…so I don’t.  This means, besides hanging out at work (and hopefully making lesson plans or preparing for class…you know, something constructive) and cooking meals, I’m not doing too much. 
The reason I’m having to teach evening classes is because some of my students in my old 4:00-5:30 slot can’t make it anymore because of scheduling conflict…and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:00-8:30 in the evening is the only time that all of us can make it.  This is especially irritating since, I’m kind of behind in the intermediate class—I should be in chapter 5, according to Victor, but instead I’m just in the middle of chapter 2…so I had better cram it on through, but still make sure they understand the material—and of course, as it is becoming more complex, it is getting a little bit more difficult to explain the reasoning behind English and grammatical rules…this is what I get for majoring in History…ask me about the causes of the French Revolution or the dynastic claims of the Stuarts to the throne of the United Kingdom…just don’t ask me why we use present perfect continuous or say “he said that” not “he talk that” or “She said me”; it just sounds wrong!  So as you can guess, I do spend a bit of my working day relearning basic tenets of the English language.  Stupid languages.  Also, I should be studying Russian, but I’ve been a bit lazy with that-however, I’ve come to an agreement with the cafeteria ladies (to whom, I am now “Iskander” and I get free tea and sometimes even a bit of candy when I come by!) that I will teach them a sentence in English and they’ll teach me something in Kazakh (or Russian).  Baby steps, man, baby steps.
I finally got to visit the Pushkin Library where there is an American Corner. Zarina from our office now works there, so she’s the one who helped me find my way there. The American Corner is some sort of program through the State Department where they give a library a bunch of English language books (and I mean books in English as well as books on English—They’ve got Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders—but not Hunt for Red October for some reason…), some American DVDs (good ones like the Indiana Jones trilogy, Lord of the Rings, Patton, and Casablanca; as well as bad ones like Dances with Wolves, Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, and Gone with the Wind), and even some board games (but no Risk or Zombies!!!, oh well, I’ve got time to rectify the situation I guess).  I’ve had a chance to meet James, the American who is running the program here.  He’s a Fulbright Scholar and he’s been here since August I think.  He also teaches at School #16 (Kazakhstani School systems are really original with their names), the lad keeps busy.  However, he hangs out mainly with the Russians here, so he’s never tried Kumys.  The lucky boy.
He’s got quite a group of friends now—the Pushkin Library gets lots of people involved in their English program—they have boardgame clubs, film clubs, discussion clubs, a Model UN club, and soon they’ll have a history club (very likely anyway).   When I first went to the Pushkin Library two weeks ago, they invited me to dinner and I got a chance to meet a couple of them and exchange phone numbers.   Last Friday I received a text messages from one of them, asking me if I was interested in coming out to a club with them on Saturday.  With nothing but a class that evening planned, I agreed; only hoping that whatever cover charge their club asked for wasn’t too dear—I don’t really have experience with club type places, but I understand it is a common practice.
When Saturday night rolled around, I was actually in a bit of luck—we went with a group of people, including one young German, who happened to be underage, so we got turned away from the perspective clubs (Kazakhstan has recently bumped up the drinking age to 21).  Instead, we decided to go to a restaurant called “Registan,” which is an Eastern style restaurant—meaning they serve Central Asian cuisine as well as food from the Muslim minorities in the nearby Chinese regions.  The food was good—I had some Lagman and a samsa; and best of all, the food was comparatively cheap—I had a good size plate of lagman, a samsa, and some tea for about 700 Tenge; all of good quality.  I’ve found lagman tends to be a fairly cheap meal choice and I enjoy it, so I recommend it to anyone a little bit apprehensive about what to try at Kazakh restaurants.  In general, if you are a tourist here, prices will actually be fairly cheap to you, but I’m living on local wages (or will be if my bank account ever gets completely set up!) and so that’s fairly pricy I guess.  To be honest, I have no idea, since I haven’t been paid by the University yet; all I know is I’m hemorrhaging money and all I’m spending it on are food, warm clothes, a heater, pots and pans…and I might be exaggerating, but I have had to spend over a hundred dollars on local documentation required by the bureaucrats…
                Argh, enough ranting, time to get to the point of tonight’s update—while we were hanging out at Registan, there was a group of military guys at a table in the room adjacent to us.  We weren’t really paying any attention to them, those I guess they noticed us, because as they got up to leave, one of them—a large man with a large face and a very cool hat—the kind you see Wrengal wearing in the winter photos from the Civil War…(I think it may be known as the Astrakhan hat, Kubanka, or Papakhi—according to Wiki, the Papakhi was reserved for Colonel and above so that might fit, as he claimed the hat was for Colonels only).  He introduced himself as a Colonel (what a surprise with the last note I gave you…) and spoke a little bit of English.  His presence seemed to make James uncomfortable, but the other students with us seemed to find it more amusing than threatening.  However, it was quite obvious that he was already fairly drunk and he wasn’t leaving.
                I told him that my dad had also been in the army and he seemed to like that and he kept talking—switching between broken English and Russian so that I couldn’t keep up with the conversation at all.  Eventually they translated for my benefit that since we were guests in Kazakhstan, he wanted to buy us something and we should just let him so he would leave.  I didn’t really know what was acceptable to ask for, so I just said that if he wanted, I’d be willing to share a drink with him—thinking that we’d have our shot and he’d leave.  James agreed and we waited for the waitress to bring us back our shots.  Instead, a bottle came to the table and when the waitress actually brought the shot glasses, he sent them back for regular glasses.
                Turns out, Americans have a bad reputation here for being unable to drink at all…so it was up to us to prove him wrong.  He filled our glass cubs about half full, gave us a toast, and waited for us to drink.  Realizing that it was up to James and I to defend out national honor, I exhaled and drank down the vodka as quickly as possible, so I didn’t have to taste it.  The exhale worked and with a quick chaser or bread dipped in lagman sauce, I was good to go.  James gave a little sputter, but downed it manfully and we were golden.  The colonel laughed and finally departed, leaving the bottle behind.  He had said that the vodka was a good quality brand, so we were slightly apprehensive when the bill came that he had forgotten to cover it and left us with the check for a drink we wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Luckily he didn’t and we were lucky enough to meet a bonafide colonel who treated us to a bottle of vodka.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

The main reason we went to Semey at all was for New Year and so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about that.  Most of New Year’s Eve was spent at home.  Murat’s mother spent part of the day at work and then came home and began to prepare for dinner that night.   The night before, she and her husband spent a good portion of it making manti or preparing bauersaki.  I suppose she started cooking at about 7:00 PM, so it was pretty evident that we were not going to be eating until much later in the evening.
Around 9:00 we cleared the table in the living room and turned the TV on and thus began our New Year’s celebration.  Murat and I added a leaf to the table and put the table cloth out and waited for the salads and main course to be ready while we flipped around the Television.  The Russian movie “Irony of Fate” was on about 6 different channels at varying points…and when the movie finished…it began again.
Personally, it didn’t matter to me—I didn’t really care for the movie, but since I didn’t understand I wasn’t going to complain.  However, Murat soon got tired of the film so we ended up switching around the channels—checking out concerts and some Kazakh comedy program that had a bunch of celebrities getting involved in New Year’s Eve related hijinks.  I didn't understand much of what was going on and tried not to pester Murat to explain everything to me—he already had enough work to do translating all the important parts of his parent’s conversations with me.
As the New Year drew closer, we finally began to fill the table with food---Murat’s mother had made three salads: a vinegar based cabbage and radish salad which was red in color; another cabbage vinegar salad that was white, like sauerkraut, but I did not enjoy it; and an odd sort of amalgamation of eggs, mayonnaise, ham, potatoes, and peas, which was very good.  Along with the salad, we had other side dishes such as sausage and cheese, along with bread, crackers, and bauersaki.  Our main course was manti—which is either a steamed wonton-like food or more similar to ravioli, whichever is easier for you to understand.  It is essentially noodle wrapped around meat and can be eaten with mayonnaise, ketchup, or a light red sauce with onions.
Around 11:00 the four of us, Murat, his parents, and I began eating. Initially I had expected some guests to arrive, however as none had yet arrived and the family appeared not to expect  anymore, I decided to eat like it was a meal (for clarification, often in Kazakhstan you will be offered food with tea or at what would seem like a usual time to eat—and you may be hungry…but be warned: if some members of the house are missing or you are expecting someone to arrive, this is not a meal.  It is merely a way of them being hospitable.  You should eat—but eat very little, as the REAL meal will come later.  I have accidentally eaten too much sausage and cheese with bread, thinking that was lunch, only to have the host bring out a huge plate of beshbarmak and expect me to eat that an hour later.  If you aren't sure—ask your host!).
Marat gave a toast around 11:15 and we drank a shot of vodka.  After this, Murat and his mother decided they didn’t want to drink the vodka, so they switched to Cognac; I, however, decided to accompany Marat because I didn’t want him to think I was some sort of sissy cognac drinker—though, I will admit I did take a dram of cognac every now and then.  Each of us gave a toast—mine was to making new friends, Murat’s hard work, and my new Kazakh family (Sorry Aina!  You’re title has been usurped!  Murat’s mom makes me beshbarmak and kurdak every time I go there!)
                Midnight came and we switched the channel to Nazarbayev’s New Year’s address…but Marat and Murat quickly switched the channel back off.  Instead, we made a skype call to some of their family in Almaty and gave each other New Year’s wishes.  Obviously, this meant that I was introduced to everyone and the parents in Almaty tried to get their young children to say “hello” to me in English.
                Parents—I understand it may be cute and you want to show your children off…but as a child, I have to say that putting us on the spot like that is a nightmare.  So is telling everyone about something “hilarious” that we did that was due to our misunderstanding of a simple adult concept.  Please stop that…or at least do it when we aren’t around.  At any rate, the kids were pretty shy and none of them worked up the courage to try and say hello.  I was able to impress people with my “hello” in Russian and the few words I knew in Kazakh.
                After we talked for a little bit, midnight came so we put our jackets and hats on and went outside to watch the fireworks.  Many people launched their own fireworks, so we were out there for quite some time.  While we were out there we met many of the neighbors and Murat introduced me to them—this included meeting people outside or just having them shout down at us from their windows and balconies.
                One of the neighbors that we met was literally their next door neighbor and so after we spent a bit of the time outside, we went to her apartment and had a bit of tea and some kazyi (Horse sausage—though only had a few bites because I was already full up on manti).  She lived there with her mother, who at first was reluctant to join us because she was tired, however she quickly changed her mind and brought her dombra out and began to play and sing for us.  The other adults in the room joined her for the chorus and it was a very interesting sight to see, the older generations of Kazakhstan singing their traditional songs. 
                After about three songs, the grandmother (Appa or Aje…depending on whether it is the mother’s mother or father’s mother) became tired so we moved back into our apartment and had some more tea and alcohol for toasting.  We stayed up talking (or in my case just listening and picking at the manti or salads whenever I got hungry…until about 5:00 in the morning.  Then the neighbor left and I helped Murat’s mother clean up while Murat and his father argued whether or not the meerschaum of my pipe was a mineral (Murat and I said it was—his father claimed it was too soft to be a mineral; minerals are hard.)
                Eventually the table was cleared, Marat eventually acquiesced that Meerschaum was indeed a mineral, and I was able to go to bed.  My first New Year’s in Kazakhstan was a very interesting time, yet not too dissimilar to how I would have spent it in the US.  I missed my family, but it was wonderful to experience Kazakhstan with Kazakhs!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Year with Murat and Marat

Greetings all and a happy New Year to you!  I hope that this update finds you all well.  I had quite an interesting week back in Semey and I'm rather sorry to see it over.  First things first--Stalinism is NOT dead.  But I'll get to that in a little bit!

      I arrived in Semey, again staying with Murat's family.  This time I was fortunate because the whole family was there--Murat's father (Marat--after the Revolutionary) who works as a turner (I think) for the nearby coal mines.  He also produces the cutlery that the family uses, when not using his machine for work.

      Murat's dad is a very cool guy--he's the short, skinny man in the pictures with the mustache.  He also has a large number of gold teeth, but since he's usually got a big grin on his face it's endearing instead of intimidating.  Gold fillings are a heck of a lot more common here and so don't really have that "Gangsta" or "ghetto" feel I normally associate with them.

      I had a chance to really get to know the old man the first day I was there, because even though I had left later than Murat, Murat had taken a train while Victor and I took the bus and trains are slower than dirt and like to bypass Semey and go to through Russia, instead of a straight shot.  At any rate, I was just hanging out alone at Murat's home with his Dad, since he was also on holiday, but the mother of the house wasn't. 

      To start with, we kind of kept to our separate areas--I settled into the living room while Mr. "Zharmukhametov" (that's Murat's last name, so from now on, his dad'll just be Marat and his Mother is Mrs. Murat) stayed in the bedroom (where they all sleep) which has the TV (the living room has a couch, a cabinet with dishes, and the computer).  After a little while, Marat decided to come out and invited me to share a drink of vodka with him.
      I accepted his offer, despite the fact that neither of us could understand each other.  However, we did our best to hobble a conversation together while we shared a small bottle of Vodka.  I learned that Marat had served in the Soviet Army in the 70s.  We tried to talk about some other things, but I wasn’t really sure what he was meaning—for about twenty minutes we were talking about Cossacks and I thought he was telling me they weren’t Nazis (Ne-Nazi), but when Murat came back it turned out he was saying “Ne-Natsi” as in not a nationality.  So, despite living here for almost a month (I think it may be exactly a month by the time this post goes up!) I am not yet fluent in Kazakh or Russian.  However, Murat was usually around and so he could help us clear up most of the confusion.
      This time the weather was not so harsh in Semey and so I didn’t spend my whole vacation huddling in the living room, trying to avoid freezing to death.  Instead, a good portion was me sitting comfortably in the living room messing around online, being frustrated with the Wifi at Murat’s house that was rather inconsistent—but reminding myself I had no right to complain about wifi in Kazakhstan, since it is a wonderful luxury I have not been able to enjoy before!
      At any rate, my stay was exceedingly pleasant at Murat’s home, with the family going out of their way to ensure that I was comfortable.  Murat’s mother again too fantastic care of our nutritional needs, despite the fact that she was working and also taking care of three men now, instead of just two bums.  She always made sure that we had a wonderful meal every night, even if that meant we were eating dinner at about 11 PM…which meant that our bed times were usually quite early in the morning.

      After Murat arrived, we were able to communicate more with each other.  You’ll probably be glad to hear that I’ve been adopted by another family abroad.  I seem to be good at getting myself adopted by families abroad—-I was taken in by Elly’s family in Korea, I’ve got Haixiao’s family in China, the Maliks have given me an open invitation to Pakistan, and now I’ve got one in Kazakhstan.  So, Mom, you can sleep soundly, I’ve got support and help here—including their cat Maquis.
      Throughout the week that I was there, I spent much of it hanging out at home, but I also was able to meet with some of my old friends in Semey.  Sometimes I was able to plan ahead and meet with people during the day, but at least two times, it was completely by accident, when Murat, Victor, and I were out picking up tickets or were checking for tech devices they needed.  I was very fortunate in this, because despite our efforts, sometimes I wasn’t able to make appointments with people or the plans unfortunately fell through.

I'll try to get a post about actual New Year's up and also talk about something very important--STALINISM LIVES!