Haaaleb. You can’t just ask for hleb, they won’t know what you’re talking about. You have to ask for haaaleb. A loaf of chorney (black) haaaleb please. I asked for chorney hleb at the store the other day, and they gave me black shoe polish. So I laughed and said no no no, chorney haaaleb, and then we all laughed. But seriously, bread’s no joke. I heard some people during preservice training talk about how bread was holy in Kazakhstan, but I didn’t really get the drift. I’m starting to understand better. My aunt asked me before I left what is the staple carbohydrate in the Kazakhstani diet. I did not really know. I thought maybe potatoes. Which may be a correct answer, because people eat kartoshkas like it was their job, but I’d say bread is more essential. (A side not about kartoshkas. The word kartoshka, potatoes, is very similar for the word for card, kartochka. We have these PC I.D. cards, and I’m always mixing up the words. Here’s my Peace Corps potato. I know I’m going to get stopped by an immigration officer and he’s going to ask me for my kartochka and I’m going to be super confused. Maybe I should carry around a potato explicitly for this situation. I would just hand over the potato and we would laugh and laugh. Or I might just go to jail. Either way, it would be a funny story.) What was I saying again? Oh, yes, haaaleb. I’ve always regarded feeding myself as some sort of mathematical equation that I’ve never been able to figure out. I always end up with some unsatisfying remainder. I’ve found that bread is really helpful in rounding out a meal, or balancing a very rich dish with something basic. Pilmeni (basically meat filled ravioli) with bread, porridge with bread, Plof (an Uzbek dish of rice, carrots, raisins, and chicken or red meat) with bread: bread always fits. Being an American (which I’ve only recently come to realize that I am really, really American) I didn’t know the difference between bread and a sandwich. I thought of bread as something that holds things, like some sort of briefcase for bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and mustard. But it’s more than that. It’s a complement, a stomach expander, a stomach filler, a very cheap carbohydrate (35 Tenge a loaf, 150 Tenge to the dollar), a tradition, a ration, a universal symbol of basic nutrition. Ah haaaleb! You are getting me through the winter, and I love you for it.
What are both invigorating and terribly unsettling are the waves of philosophies that I’ve been going through lately. Waves of philosophies which are followed in to shore by waves of feelings. Or it could be that they follow in the waves of feelings, but it doesn’t really matter because they come so frequently. The most recent one has to do with reading American magazines. In the past, I’ve totally ignored the advertisements, or if not totally ignored, I’ve only let them into my brain through peripheral vision and unconscious glances. In Kazakhstan, however, I react to the advertisements in a different way. Maybe it’s that the products offered are not available to me as they were back home. I no longer feel a repugnance to what they are advertising, but instead see them as sources of information. And also I see them as interacting dialectically with the articles. A short example: A Vanguard add in The Week. “It’s tagline: An ETF is an ETF, is an ETF, right? Not exactly.” The advertisement never says what an ETF is, and I have no idea what it is. It is obviously not directed at me. There are giant delicious red apples in the background, one with a large stem pointed at the reader. I don’t want to go into the symbolism. But just that information is coded in advertisements is interesting. That’s not really what I’m talking about, though. It’s more the value system that is communicated through advertisements. The assumption is that familiarity with the product being offered will persuade the reader to increase the value of the product in his assessment when in a marketplace. This goes for Vanguards, credit cards, or detergents. I feel sad that back in the U.S. I lived mostly outside of consumerist culture. Well, I didn’t live outside it, but I lived in it recklessly. Advertisements did not speak to me, so I was unable to correctly value the goods that I bought. I lived an ignorant life, one where I put my value judgements up against the popular majority. This made me unhappy. I could not make a simple decision as to what beer to buy to bring to a party or what type of shoes to wear. There are advantages to living like that. I found a few beers that I loved to drink (I miss you Dogfish Head IPA) and I had a couple of pairs of shoes that I loved until they where holey (why can’t Adidas revive the pastel striped Allstars). But self valuing is very stressful for everyday choices. I wish I had paid more attention to advertisements, allowed myself to relax a little bit, and renewed my material possessions with a little less reserve. This would have made me happier. I read the magazines cover to cover. There are articles which could easily be advertisements. One in The Atlantic that talks about the GM recovery. It’s basically pub for new GM’s. A couple of pages down the road is an innocent page dedicated to Shell Brazil. It looks lovely. I think I’ll take a vacation there. My current wave of philosophy in one sentence: self esteem comes from feeling I’ve made smart purchases and am advancing myself, and the knowledge required to do this can be found in advertisements. Right now, I seriously don’t know if I am being serious, ironic, or if this is just a wave of philosophy that I’ll ride for a day or two more, only to go on to the next wave. It helps me, though, to think about buying things. Odd.
T.V. in Kazakhstan is interesting, to say the least. Actually, I think I’m receiving a feed from Russia, so it’s more like T.V. in Russia is interesting. I’ll get it out of the way. There’s a show called Naked and Funny. I didn’t believe it was real when I happened upon it. Basically, and it’s very basic in many ways, it is a candid camera show which surprises men, mostly, in everyday situations, with naked women. This could be, for example, a man going to a coffee machine, and the coffee machine opens up and there is a naked woman in there. Or, a little less everyday, there was one episode in a courtroom. I don’t know how what they did was legal–maybe the defendants were plants–but midway through the debriefing…debriefing…the judge casually took off her robe. I have to say it’s pretty hilarious seeing the men’s reaction. A child’s shame and a man’s sense of entitlement all mixed up. What I don’t understand is the reaction after the camera is revealed. The men almost always give a look of “Aw, shucks, you got me.” Maybe it’s just cultural, but I think if that happened to me I’d give a look of, “Um, what the F just happened.” Cultural differences are a riot. The other thing I don’t understand is how people don’t know instantly, when a naked woman comes out of from the sewer, that they are being filmed. It’s like in America if something bad or weird happens, you instantly look around for Aston Kuecher, In Russia, if a the attractive window washer randomly takes off her clothes, I’d instantly be on the look-out for the guys in the Naked and Funny shirts. But maybe every man knows what’s up, and there is a secret pact to keep acting surprised. Cultural crossover is not so interesting.
So no, I don’t sit around and watch Naked and Funny all day. I watch other stuff, too. For example, there is a Russian version of Married With Children, which makes me homesick for Chicago. The guy who plays Al Bundy has the part down, at least the voice. I can’t understand enough to catch whether he really has the chauvinism down cold. If I remember correctly, it’s not subtle. Then there’s Dom Deva. This is basically Real World, except the point is to find a lover over the course of an episode, or at least that’s what another volunteer explained to me. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It’s on THT (TNT). Yep, the same good old TNT we’ve got in the states, so don’t worry, I’m getting a regular dose of age-appropriate action comedy. I was worried I’d go through Jackie Chan with-drawl. Seriously, though, I love Jackie Chan movies.
The other T.V. that I can get some enjoyment out of is sport, the universal language. My favorite is watching the Russian women’s volleyball team. They’re awesome. There’s this woman named Gamova, appropriately nick-named, “Gameover.” The video editing during the broadcasts are impressive, too. Some of the video montages use elegant Japanese paint brushstrokes and high-tone string instrument accompaniement that make the women seem like Zena the Warrior Princess (no, that’s not a random reference. I was watching a Kevin Sorbo movie on THT a few weeks ago, so Lucy Lawless was obviously on my mind). I caught a match between the U.S. and Russia, and the U.S. got trounced. There’s also a lot of shooting and hunting on the sports channel, which I find pretty boring. And, lastly, there’s Judo, which is super awesome. So much better than MMA (I can’t say better than WWF, Hulk Hogan has a special place in my heart (it is the yellow and red part)), just grappling and then an instantaneous flip or hold, no blood, unless something unexpected happens.
The last show I’ve come across that’s worth mentioning is the American program, World’s Deadliest/World’s Most Outrageous/World’s Worst Blah Blah Blah, where people are shown getting shot or falling off ladders. I’ll admit, I used to love America’s Funniest Home Videos, and I’m sure there’s something critically wrong with the compassionate side of myself, at least the side that exists the half second after something bad happens (I’ll start laughing out-loud if I start writing about the time in a New York comedy club that my friend’s chair started broking during the cricket-silence after the comic bombed his joke). But watching this show, which, let me make clear, is an American show dubbed over in Russian, makes me feel physically sick. There are moments of complete, utter terror on this show. People witness what they think is the end of their lives, or maybe what they imagine hell to be. One of the clips from the “Practical Jokes” episode showed a nephew sneaking up on his aunt with a knife and a Jason mask. The woman flipped out, ran out of the house, and got stuck trying to jump over the porch fence into the yard. She thought it was the end of her life. Or just seeing a woman who probably has arachnophobia react to a tarantula being dangled in front of her face. That was pure terror. How can pure terror be on television?
This entry may make it seem like I’m watching a lot of T.V., but I’m really not. T.V. just leaves a larger imprint on my mind since everything’s so new. And I’m sick right now, and can’t do much other stuff. You will be glad to know I just finished up The Depford Trilogy by Robertson Davies, which was described to me as the 1970’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I agree with that, although Depford has a lot more depth, and a little less pace. I’ve started on Underworld. The beginning scene at the 1951 Giants/Dodgers game to go to the World Series makes me miss going to baseball games so much.
Last Sunday, I made my first trip in to the capital, Astana. I went with my counterpart, and she showed me around. We started in the bazaar, which is huge and awesome but I have no pictures because I did not feel comfortable advertising I had a digital camera to everyone in a ten foot radius. I had no plans to buy anything, but after taking a stroll down hat lane, I decided to buy, you guessed it, a hat (no, it was not really called hat lane. I made that up because I am “very clever.” If you’re reading, Eternal Funny Collin, a question for you: do you have any black stripes yet? (for the reader not named Collin: are inside jokes acceptable on blogs?)) My hat is minorly awesome in terms of Kazakhstan standards, majorly awesome in terms of American standards. I decided against the fox fur hat which felt like heaven on my head because I would have had to think of that fox in heaven every time I put it on my head. Or maybe that’s giving myself too much credit. I couldn’t afford it. I opted for a lesser variety made of sheep hair, I think. Logic betrays me as they surely slaughtered the sheep and it’s floating up on a cloud somewhere commiserating with the fox. The fur is grey and shiny almost to the point of looking white. The best part about it is the ear flaps. I can wear them down over my ears–oh so warm, looks goofy–or I can tie them up in the back–ears warm, looks cool–or I can tie them up on the top–ears cold, looks badass. Or I should say, looks badass to myself in the mirror. The real badass look is reserved for the dudes that rock the hats that cost ten times more than my hat. They’re huge, shiny, and beautiful. They sit on top of the head like a hen on her nest. They have what look like earflaps, but I’m not sure whether they can be detached from the top of the hat to actually cover the ears. Right now, it’s not cold enough for earflaps (my babushka said it’s too warm for gloves, actually, but I disagree). At least it’s not cold enough to sacrifice how badass one looks with that hat on top of one’s head with the earflaps up. Even if I could afford one of those hats, I wouldn’t be able to wear it without feeling silly. I don’t feel close to integrated enough to pull it off. It would be kind of like a person from Reykjavik going to Hawaii for the first time, and the minute he gets there he buys capri shorts and a surf board and goes and stands by the water. Maybe he looks like he fits in, except for the tan, but the minute he speaks to someone, that someone would be like, Um, excuse me, are you trying to be funny? My hat is just the right mixture of attempt integration and confessed humility. Or at least that’s what I think. Most importantly, it’s warm. When I was walking around Astana, going to Baiturek and the world’s largest tent, I commented to my counterpart, “It’s such a warm day today.” I realized, then, that it probably wasn’t that warm of a day, but that my hat was a smart purchase. I loved my hat and continued to wear it even while I was making a wish with my hand in the mold of the President’s (Refer to picture. I can’t fix that sentence right now to make it comprehensible. Too tired.). And that’s where I’ll conclude. Goodnight from the other side of the world.
One of the coolest experiences I’ve had so far has been in the public bathhouse called the banya. During my time in Issyk, I never ventured into one. Some of the other volunteers’ families had private banyas, but I was never invited over. The public banyas are awesome. They’re split male-female, for obvious reasons. About twenty people are let in at a time. There’s an anteroom to put jackets, clothes and shoes, and whatever else was brought with. People also hang out in this room to cool off a bit. Two kids were in there drinking a huge soda and eating a healthy-sized smoked fish. Then there’s a second room with a row of hot and cold faucets used to fill up large pink buckets. People sit on a ledge along the edge of the room and wash themselves. Then there is a third room, which is basically a sauna. There’s a bucket of water and a ladle, so if the room’s not hot enough, someone can throw a spoonful into a hole in which there are, I would guess, hot coals, although I’ve never looked inside. The best part about this room is that one is supposed to take these bunches of dried out aromatic plants in with them. I have no idea what they’re called. They’re meant for flailing one’s skin in the third room. I don’t know what the real benefit of this is yet, but it feels pretty good. I’m not sure if I’m doing it right, and I try to not so awkwardly adapt the style of the other men in the room, and no one has laughed at me yet.
I am starting to speak a little bit better, in Russian that is. Today, as I was walking to the train, I realized how important the infinitives of verbs are. I had been going on conjugated forms. That is really confusing. Without the root, it is very difficult to find meaning. I think it’s the same with nouns. In Russian, there are six different cases, which means that every noun has six different possible endings, not including plurals. I suspect that not knowing the root could be calamitous. But I haven’t come to appreciate that to the full extent yet.
As far as real objects, I recently received from Ludmila, my host babushka, a new article of clothing. I don’t think it would help me to know what the Russian noun for this piece of clothing would be. It looks like bear fur on one side and a burlap bag, minus the scratchiness, on the other. Ludmila showed me that I should wear it bear-side in. It looks pretty funny. Looking in the mirror, I see myself as somewhere between a medieval warrior and a sack of potatoes. Luckily, this garment is not meant for use outside of the apartment.
I have recently added another giant cushion to my bed. I now do not have to decide whether to sleep on top of or underneath these warmest of warm objects. I can now sleep like a piece of salami between two enormous loaves of toasted bread. It’s pretty awesome, although it takes about twenty minutes to make my bed.