Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Son is Born

My friend Bei-En posted this powerful piece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I just had to steal it for my Christmas Eve blog.

Look up, you whose eyes are fixed on this earth, you who are captivated by the events and changes on the surface of this earth. Look up, you who turned away from heaven to this ground because you had become disillusioned. Look up, you whose eyes are laden with tears, you who mourn the loss all that the earth has snatched away. Look up, you who cannot lift your eyes because you are so laden with guilt.

“Look up, your redemption is drawing near.”

Something different than you see daily, something more important, something infinitely greater and more powerful is taking place. Become aware of it, be on your guard, wait a short while longer, wait and something new will overtake you! God will come, Jesus will take possession of you and you will be a redeemed people!

Lift up your heads, you army of the afflicted, the humbled, the discouraged, you defeated army with bowed heads. The battle is not lost, the victory is yours—take courage, be strong! There is no room here for shaking your heads and doubting, because Christ is coming.

Today's sentence from the Australian Prayer Book fits in rather beautifully, too:

This is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.

This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:9

My return to western civilisation has been marked by the general sensation of being unfashionable, unconnected,uninteresting, and unintelligible. I'm finding it difficult to have conversations - to connect. I'm acutely aware of my Bishkek style. But you know what? Tonight, I don't care. These things will pass, for Jesus is come, the light of the world and the king of Heaven!

Friday, December 23, 2011


I have a proclivity for worship.

If I were married, my husband would be my god.

If I lived a middle-class life, a perfect lifestyle would be my crowning glory.

If I had money, a bank account would be my king.

If I had children, they would be little gods to me.

By some kind of grace - though it doesn't always feel like grace - I am not at a point in my life where I am worshipping a regular person, or an ideology, or a lifestyle, though God knows how close I've come to each.

(I hoard my little idols. In fact, without much effort, I could easily end up like those junk-pile ladies in Labyrinth):

So, this Christmas, I look to Jesus, the author of my life, who knows so perfectly what I need. What else have I to bring him, and what more does He ask for, than my worship?

What is there here for me? Are these like Him?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Haiku: The Glorious Revolution of Today

From here:

A Bright Winter's Day

Today is Emily's due date, but someone forgot to tell the baby, so we went for a walk along the canals near Leighton Buzzard instead. It was very beautiful. Tonight, we're going to make gingerbread and plan out a Christmas menu.

This time last year, I was also in England, but it was frosty and I was in a fog of anticipation about Bishkek. Now, Bishkek is my home, and England is sunny and a strange place to me. I still don't quite know how to act and what to say - but it's coming back, slowly.

Anyway, here is Emily with me and with Roy, healthy and well and nowhere near about to give birth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

10 Astonishing Things

1. Cars that pay attention to road signs and lane markings.

2. Being able to flush toilet paper (instead of binning it).

3. Instant hot water.

4. Shop assistants who thank you.

5. Great coffee available on every corner.

6. Perfect strangers on the street who say make eye contact and say Merry Christmas!

7. Internet as fast as lightning.

8. 78 types of muesli.

9. The absence of stray animals.

10. Speaking English!

More to come, once I recover my senses...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bonhoeffer Prays in Prison:

God, I call to you early in the morning,
help me pray and collect my thoughts,
I cannot do so alone.
In me it is dark, but with you there is light.
I am lonely, but do not abandon me.
I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help.
I am restless, but with you is peace.
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience.
I do not understand your ways, but you know the right way for me.
Father in heaven,
Praise and thanks be to you for the quiet of the night.
Praise and thanks be to you for the new day.
Praise and thanks be to you for all your goodness and faithfulness in my life thus far.
You have granted me much good,
now let me also accept hardship from your hand.
You will not lay on me more than I can
You make all things serve your children for the best.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.
You know all human need,
you remain with me when no human being stands by me,
you do not forget me and you seek me,
you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Help me!
Holy Spirit,
Grant me the faith
that saves me from despair and vice.
Grant me the love for God and others
that purges all hate and bitterness,
grant me the hope
that frees me from fear and despondency.
Teach me to discern Jesus Christ and to do his will.
Triune God,
my Creator and my Savior,
this day belongs to you. My time is in your hands.
Holy, merciful God,
my Creator and my Savior
my Judge and my Redeemer,
you know me and all my ways and actions.
You hate and punish evil in this and every world
without regard for person,
you forgive sins
for anyone who asks you sincerely,
and you love the good and reward it
on this earth with a clear conscience
and in the world to come with the crown of righteousness.
Before you I remember all those I love,
my fellow prisoners, and all
who in this house perform their difficult duty.
Lord, have mercy.
Grant me freedom again
and in the meantime let me live in such a way
that I can give account before [you] and others.
Lord, whatever this day may bring – your name be praised.

– Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Overview

In the last 48 hours, I've had a staff Christmas party; a student Christmas party; a Christmas concert; an all-night lock in with the middle schoolers (which included, but was not limited to, three hours of theatre sports between 2 and 5 am); dinner with a school family; afternoon tea with a school family; and lunch with a school family.

In the next 24 hours, I have to: pack up my apartment; pack bags for London; confirm new apartment; attend a rendition of Handel's Messiah in Russian; and catch a plane at 5 am.

And strangely, I'm not fussed. Not even breaking a sweat. Everything I've done, I love, and I even got some sleep in there somewhere. What's to come is about to be tremendously exciting. I'm so thankful to God who provides all my needs and more besides.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I thought I was handling the busyness and the stress brilliantly, I really did. The mountainous workload, the constant building of relationships, the thousands of extracurricular activities, the pressures of living cross-culturally, the below-zero weather, the lingering sickness - I was getting rather proud of myself for managing everything, by the grace of God. Until today.

Today was the day that I had to mourn my precious cat back in Australia. I loved her - I raised her from a kitten - spent countless hours with her curled up in my lap like a soft, purring donut - I'll never see her again. It hurts like the dickens.

Today was the day that I found out I would also have to take on the sixth grade English class, beginning in January. No new teachers means extra classes. I've been holding back a mild panic attack ever since. I can do it - of course I can - but it will require the use of untapped reserves of energy. This kind of workload is new territory, and therefore frightening.

Today was the day when the devil found a chink in my armour; the chink is my lack of self-confidence. He prised it wide open and the full force of doubt came flooding through. A couple of imagined slights - an ill-conceived lesson - and suddenly I'm laid flat with the paralysing fear of Not Good Enough. It doesn't just paralyse - it eats away.

Today, the world caved in a little: just a little.

As I lay in bed, desperately tired and unable to sleep for the racing of my heart, a truth was slowly borne in upon me, and I reached for my journal so as not to forget it. The truth is this: Jesus can do immeasurably more than I am able to ask or imagine. There's nothing lying ahead that he doesn't know about and hasn't equipped me for. He is who he says he is. These are fragmented, childlike thoughts, and yet I cling to them like a drowning man, glad and grateful. I've been drowned by Not Good Enough more than once; but not this time.

I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep what I've committed to him until that day.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Christmas Poem" by G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost — how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wife’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Shamelessly lifted from Along Addison's Walk.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's the Little Things

I am somewhat giddy with excitement this morning. A small stall, selling fruit and vegetables from Tashkent, has sprung up at our local bazaar, and you'll never guess what I bought: eggplant! And field mushrooms! And what's more, I heard tell of a place that's selling leeks right now. I'm going on an expedition to find it shortly. Leek and potato soup coming up.

I hope I still get excited about vegetables when I'm back in Australia. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Views from the Seventh Floor

Taken with my trusty iPhone on Saturday morning: it is very pleasant to wake up to a white city, so long as one knows that one isn't required to walk around in it, and that the rusty old heating system is actually working!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Wilde Day

We have an official cast for The Importance of Being Earnest! First meeting at lunch today, when most of them got to see the script for the first time. We read a couple of key scenes and there was much laughter, which is heart-warming indication that they understand the comic genius of the play. Hurrah! Life gets that little bit more hectic from this point onwards, but it gets correspondingly more interesting too. I've never directed, much less acted in a production, but I'm learning increasingly that it doesn't matter a whit. We have an excited, motivated cast, and an excited, creative group of potential crew, and one of the greatest plays ever written. What could be better?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

'Tis Winter

It's unofficially Winter, which means I can wear my splendid big coat with a hood like the Cave of Adullam every day. I shopped at a bazaar recently for some woolly imitation Uggs and a beanie with a bobble on it, so I'm all set. 

I  enjoy my early morning walk to work, which generally has a Narnian quality about it:

But unfortunately, no fawns.

The really hard part about this seasonal change is leaving for work in the dark and then catching a marshrutka home in the dark; it's resulted in a tiredness that settled in my bones and hasn't lifted. In fact, between classes yesterday I laid out a tushuk and had a nap: and I never sleep during the day. Thankfully, today's Saturday, and it's been a blessed time of recuperation in which I have slowly graded papers - interspersed with watching episodes of The Office (US version) with my flatmate - gone bazaar shopping, and consequently made a good soup out of beans and lentils and the last of the tomatoes. Another day like this one and I'll be back to good. (Although it would be nice if the power would stay on for a couple of hours in a row, since cooking by candlelight is a little dicey, if pleasantly quaint).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Three Life Lessons from Stanley Fish

...what have I learned along the way? Three things, closely related. The first is that people are often in pain; their lives are shadowed by memories and anticipations of inadequacy, and they are always afraid that the next moment will bring disaster or exposure. You can see it in their faces, and that is especially true of children who have not yet learned how to pretend that everything is all right and who are acutely aware of the precariousness of their situations.
The second thing I have learned is that the people who are most in pain are the people who act most badly; the worse people behave, the more they are in pain. They’re asking for help, although the form of the request is such that they are likely never to get it.
The third thing I have learned follows from the other two. It is the necessity of generosity. I suppose it is a form of the golden rule: if you want them to be generous to you, be generous to them. The rule acknowledges the fellowship of fragility we all share. In your worst moments — which may appear superficially to be your best moments — what you need most of all is the sympathetic recognition of someone who says, if only in a small smile or half-nod, yes, I have been there too, and I too have tried to shore up my insecurity with exhibitions of pettiness, bluster, overconfidence, petulance and impatience. It’s not, “But for the grace of God that could be me”; it’s, “Even with the grace of God, that will be, and has been, me.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Here I Am

You might have noticed - I don't know, maybe you didn't - that I haven't written for some time. I'll try to do better. Promise.

Julia Gillard is spouting some guff on CNN about the values that Australians hold dear, which appear to include, without being limited to, turning asylum seekers away from our shores. She's got the same hair, the same clothes, the same voice, as when I last saw her. I even called in my Texan flatmate to listen to the improbable accent, and then sent her out again because I was embarrassed by the emptiness of Julia's words.

Anyway. It's 'Fall Break' right now. I've read about Fall Breaks in books for years, but this is the first time I've experienced one. My original plan for the week was to fly down to Osh to visit friends; however, with the recent election things are a bit dicey down there, and my team leader decided that I shouldn't go. So, I'm in Bishkek for the week, sleeping in and eating peanut butter on lapyoshka and watching terrible television and going to the gym.

...yes, going to the gym! I joined up a month ago, and so now I go to aerobics two or three times every week with some friends. The instructor is a bouncy Russian, and it takes me a while to understand her instructions, which means I'm often a couple of steps behind everyone else. I'm enjoying it though, and it's great to hang out with these friends.

There's so much to write about that I don't know where to begin, so I'm not going to write any more at all: the purpose of this post is to reassure my small but devoted readership that I'm still here - and happy.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A little bit of Marilynne Robinson

Two rather wonderful gems from Home. First:

"...he was the sort of man who noticed the absence of encouragement and drew conclusions from it." 


"For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlight pouring in through the windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church." 

To read Marilynne Robinson is to read a prayer that throws all human emotion into relief.

There's the joy of the father at the return of a prodigal son; the perseverance of the saints; the profound sorrow of ruined relationships; the beauty of worship and sacrifice, the tragedy of sin, and wonder at a beautiful, sad world.

If I could write a page of prose half as lovely as her pages, I would be well content.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Prayer: a little anthology

You should probably read this rather wonderful post from Faith & Theology.

Prayer: a little anthology


I'm sitting in a high room with a misty mountain view, drinking homegrown herbal tea from a clay teapot and listening to the crackle of a wood fire and the sound of conversation in German. There are a group of formidably Teutonic women at the next table, clad in hardy hiking gear and sensible haircuts. They are the only kind of tourists that make it this far; they, and the rowdy Peace Corps folk. I might try and talk to them later. But whether it's out of pride or otherwise, I don't think of myself as a tourist. I'm a resident, a worker: I belong here, even if it's for a finite time.

I've brought M and D here as a treat. I even took a couple of days off work, which is troubling me - I'm trying to reconcile myself to being here and not there, even though here is so extremely beautiful and peaceful - a simple, good life - and there is a place where tasks are piled on tasks and there's always another thing that needs doing. Anyway, it was an interesting marshrutka ride out here. Marshrutkas bound for this village leave every hour, on the hour, from the eastern bus station. We were aiming for the 10 o'clock, but I was so tired that we caught the 11 o'clock instead. And that was a providential business: a couple of blocks from the station, we passed a road accident where a marshrutka had rolled over. It turned out to be the 10 o'clock one, which we'd so nearly caught. We rode in thoughtful silence for a time. And then, at Tokmok, the marshrutka was crammed jowl to jowl with people who coughed in a suspiciously tubercular fashion. Still, the trees around here are succumbing to autumn, all piecemeal, with yellow and red foliage breaking through the greenery, and it was a rather lovely journey in all.

This is a guesthouse in the village of Kalmak-Ashu, which is located in a spectacular valley about two hours out of Bishkek. My parents have been walking around in wonder and taking pictures of the village children, donkeys and mountainous landscapes. As I said, I've been trying my best to relax by reading and ingesting the aforementioned tea, with only moderate success thus far. I have high hopes for tomorrow, however. I've arranged for a local guide to take us all horseriding through the mountains, and the kind Kyrgyz woman in the kitchen will pack us lunch. The weather promises to be fine.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

In 150 Words or Less...

In brief, because I'm so very, very tired:

The high school retreat in mountains was magnificent. I can feel an avalanche of superlatives coming on, so I'll simply say that God was very good to us and that my colleagues - and our students - are spectacular human beings. I love them dearly.

(The parentals enjoyed it too, despite being a bit sick and shell-shocked. D spoke, M cooked, so they were on familiar territory).

School is very busy indeed, and the marking load is almost intolerably immense. But I shall overcome.

I'm letting M and D loose on the city by themselves, tomorrow. They have a list of words, an old phone, and a map in Russian. The day after that, I'm sending them off for a trek in the mountains while I keep teaching. Then, I'm taking a couple of days off so that we can go stay at a guesthouse in a village, which should be perfectly lovely.

I've been looking at my calendar today; it appears that I have no free time for the next seven months, apart from the occasional national holiday. I'm hugely excited at the prospect of everything that lies ahead.

Life in brief.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What, if Anything, Can I Change About My Life... that people don't have to live like this?

This afternoon, within fifty metres of my apartment, I saw:

A badly crippled man - his knees almost at ninety degree angles - trying to cross a busy street, and no one stopping for him.

An impossibly ancient babushka wrapped in ancient rags, weighed down with two ancient shopping bags, and no one to help her.

A couple of homeless people sitting in a skip - in a skip - eating the rind of a watermelon.

A black dog on the sidewalk, quivering with starvation, dodging the foot that wanted to kick it.

Lord, have mercy.

What can I change about my life, so that people (and dogs) don't have to live like this?

 If you are to feed and welcome and clothe the least of these - and you must, it is an imperative, for in so doing you feed and welcome and clothe the King himself - what needs to change about your life?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Poem by Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and green fields; on - on - and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away...O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
    never be done.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Funeral

I haven't been writing these last three weeks. I haven't been reading, either, apart from the texts that I'm teaching. The region of my brain that deals in words has been co-opted into preparing lessons and planning for the year ahead. However, a very interesting scenario is playing out in the courtyard seven stories below, and I thought I'd better tell you about it while the will is with me.

A small, plain yurt has been erected; dozens of men are squatting around it, alternately smoking and making thoughtful contributions to the pools of spit between their feet. Elderly women with covered heads sit in purposeful silence with hands clasped, and children dressed in their best find ways to play quietly without ruining the white of their shirts.

(This is a yurt on the jailoo: now you need to imagine it in the valley that is our potholed courtyard, with the mountains that are these broken-down apartment blocks on all sides.)

When night falls, the women begin to wail; orchestrated, echoing wails that bounce between our apartment building and the one parallel to it. It's an eerie soundtrack to my dinner-making; the scrambled eggs lose their prosaicness amidst the ululating sounds of sorrow, and eventually I abandon my dinner to the spectacle. From the seventh floor, I can see the lights flickering through the tunduk at the top of the yurt, and the dark shapes passing under it. After a time, a man's voice starts up among the women's. He is singing a dirge, and soon he is singing alone, an haunting elegy for an audience of apartment-dwellers and cold night sky.

Now it's morning; as I was stirring my porridge in that half-asleep Saturday morning sort of way, the wailing was renewed with so much vigour that I had to look out the window again. Right now, the corpse is being carried down the street by a throng of men, while the women remain seated around the yurt and bellow grief.

There is a Kyrgyz saying that goes, "only when a Kyrgyz dies and is laid to rest does he cease to be a nomad." Deaths and marriages are the most important parts of Kyrgyz society, and the rites surrounding death are full of pomp and generally costly; since family honour is involved, the service must be splendidly lavish. A yurt will be set up near the home of the deceased, and the best, most expensive food must be served - traditionally horsemeat. Specially assigned mourners share the wailing and the praying, and as in all Islamic societies, after several days of ritual, an imam will preside over the burial. Memorial services will take place periodically over the next year until the final one, twelve months after burial.

Now I've had the inestimable privilege of observing Kyrgyz funeral rites from my window; I should like to see a wedding one day - if I can possibly do so without having to partake of horse.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Bishkek is my home. I really felt that as I was going through customs at Manas airport. I couldn't wait to get to my comfortable apartment and have a long sleep in my own bed. I was pleasantly surprised at how glad I was to be back.

But that lasted all of thirty minutes, thanks to an unscrupulous taxi driver, who began renegotiating the price of the ride as soon as he'd started driving. First he wanted more som, and then he started asking for rubles. By the time we got to my apartment (at 4:30 in the morning) he was really quite angry, and called his friend, presumably to intimidate me. However, I was angrier than he; so angry that I threw the money on the ground, grabbed my bags and marched away, twisting his hand off my arm when he tried to grab it. Honestly, I could have punched him for ruining my pleasure at being home again.

I'm dangerous when crossed. Taxi drivers of Bishkek, beware. 

(Still, I should probably invest in some capsicum spray).

Anyway, it is good to be home. Classes start again on Monday, which well and truly signals the end of the summer break. Somehow, we've ended up with lots more students this semester, and as the sole English teacher I find the idea of being responsible for the entire Year 7-12 curriculum both exciting and a little daunting. This time, however, I have my own classroom, which is a colourful and jolly place, decorated in posters from the British Museum and pretty postcards. Soon enough the walls will be covered in student work.

I promised photos, didn't I? Some selected highlights from Moscow, St Petersburg, and the train in between, then, provided particularly for the edification of those without Facebook:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Soul Food and Other Foods

Today, in a cafe, a very handsome Russian man in an expensive suit tried to flirt with me. It was going swimmingly for about ten seconds, until he realised that I didn't actually speak Russian, even though I'd ordered in it. We were both a bit embarrassed, after that; I stuck my head in my Lonely Planet and he bolted his coffee and left.

However, I wasn't sitting around in cafes all day, hoping that gentlemen would make abortive attempts to speak to me; the day was devoted entirely to The Hermitage. (Well, not entirely. There was also pirogi, which I will explain shortly.)

It's been said that if you stood in front of every piece in The Hermitage for one minute, you'd be in the museum for thirty years. That's to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's certainly a vast collection. The sensible way to approach it is to read up beforehand and be certain what you want to see. There's a very impressive antiquities section - lots of Roman emperors and Greek amphoras and Egyptian mummies - but what I enjoyed the most on the ground floor were the rooms themselves: palatial and colourfully grand with vast bay windows. I went on to pay my dues to the French, the Italians, the English, the Dutch - very worthy collections - but in my heart of hearts I was impatient to see the Impressionists. As it was, I stumbled on them unexpectedly. Room upon room of Monet and Cezanne, Pissarro and Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gaugin: enough gorgeousness to make the hardest heart leap. Oh, it made me very, very happy. I sighed with delight in each room, and tried not to judge the silly people with cameras. (I am working hard on my judgmental nature, and am pleased to say that I think progress is being made: but I will not stand idly by - because judging people isn't being idle, is it? - while they snap pictures of themselves next to a Monet and then complain that the lilies don't look like real lilies.)  Then, I tried very hard to like Matisse, and failed (if someone would explain his genius to me, I'd be very grateful); discovered Picasso's absinthe drinker and peculiar pottery; and wandered the halls of Henry Moore's wartime sketches.

The Hermitage itself is endlessly stunning, a palace decked out in French style. Outside, it's all white columns, gold leaf, pale mint-green walls, statuary. Inside, there's even more gold leaf and the grandest red velvet and chandeliers you'll ever see. Also, a royal stairway filled with gold and light and ceiling frescoes. It holds its own with comparable museums in France, England and America. If you can get over the perpetual crowds (and if art is your thing) St Petersburg is worth the trip for this alone.

The art of The Hermitage was food for the soul; unfortunately, I'm not composed entirely of soul, and was ravenously hungry after four hours of art-gazing. So, I went in search of a restaurant called Stolle, which is known for its pirogi (Russian pies). I found it easily and had a really excellent meal of sweet cabbage pirogi with fried potatoes (peasant food! but I never claimed to be anything else) followed by apricot pirogi and black tea. After waiting some time to see if I'd suffer a coronary, it seemed safe to leave, so I walked heartily and hastily for miles around the canals, trying to exorcise some gastronomic guilt.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Russia. I intend to climb the belfry of St Isaac's, visit the Russian Museum, and maybe one of the islands. I will also pay my last respects to Zoom cafe, where the good coffee is to be had.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In Which Moscow Compares (Vastly Unfavourably) to St Petersburg

The centre of St Petersburg is very beautiful, very European, very bright. They call it the Venice of the North for good reason. Magnificent eighteenth century palaces, exquisite Orthodox churches, wide streets, stately parks, lots of wrought-iron and eggshell-blue and wooden bridges. However, it has also been raining in a soggy four-seasons-in-one-day kind of way which reminds me of nothing so much as Melbourne weather, so I'm waiting for blue skies before I start photographing things.

Today my friend Georgia and I walked almost the entire length of the city: she wanted to orientate me before I set out on my own tomorrow. One of the best things she showed me was a very lovely, very French, (and therefore completely un-Russian), bohemian cafe, where we ordered the best coffee I've had since leaving Melbourne. It was a rapturous experience. I intend to go there every day until I leave, so I have the memory to hold on to when downing yet another instant coffee in Bishkek. I may be missing friends and family a great deal, but good food and coffee come a close second. I dream about Yarraville cafes and Thai restaurants and mum's cooking.

I've been enjoying the hospitality of Georgia's family. They live in the suburbs, which, unlike the city center, have a crumbling, rusty Soviet ambience. Lots of abandoned factories, identical Stalin-esque flats, Lenin's face everywhere. Still, in comparison with Moscow, it's a hugely attractive city.

More as it comes to hand!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some Art, a Cathedral, a Cemetary, and Lenin Himself

This morning, I resigned myself to the probability that I would get lost, stand in pointless queues, pay too much for extremely ordinary food, and generally wander around like a lost sheep with sore feet. All of these things happened, and yet as I reflect on the day I don't feel particularly peeved. Mostly, I just feel poor.

Notable Event #1 was Lenin's Mausoleum. This involved standing in the longest line I've ever stood in, apart from the time when I queued for Mumford & Sons. It was hot, but it was free, so I bore it well. You get about two minutes in the tomb, and Lenin might as well be a wax figure for all we know, but it was one of those few times I've had in my life as a tourist where I tick a box in my head. Not thrilling, precisely, but obligatory. Lots of military standing about to ensure that you don't speak, take photos, or smile. (I might have made the last one up, but only just).

Incidentally, if you try to jump a queue in Australia, a guard might escort you back with a stern word, but probably a grin as well. He's certainly not armed. If you try to jump a queue in Moscow, a guard mght reach menacingly for his gun, or at the very least freeze you in a stare as steely as his grasp.

Following the requisite visit to Lenin, I hopped on the metro to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, which had an astonishingly good collection of antiquities, some very fine Rembrandts, and a whole building full of Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Kandinsky, Rodin, etc. Honestly, it rivals many more famous collections. The Egyptian Room alone took my breath away. I'm learning, however, to avoid Orthodox iconography and Russian religious art in general, because while there are some beautiful examples of the genre, the overwhelming effect is a bit ghastly.

Over the road is the relatively modern Cathedral, Christ the Saviour: if you're a woman, you can't enter with bare arms or head or legs, so quite a few are turned away since it's very much summer here. Fortunately, I had a scarf with me (which I wore to match my new bohemian haircut) so I got in, though something in me baulked at having to cover my head, low-churchwoman that I undoubtedly am. Though new, it's a very traditional stately cathedral; no boundary-breaking art or particularly creative architecture. But there are lots of very formal and rather beautiful icons, with many people praying all around. The overall effect is majestic - lovely colours, not too much gold, lots of marble and candles and frescoes. It reminded me of a Rubens painting. I'm not sure I liked it - for the same reason that I'm not always sure I like Rubens - but it's very striking.

Finally, after a hideously overpriced and horrible lunch at the Soviet-style canteen in the basement of the gallery, I hopped a train to Novodevichy Cemetary, where such notables as Krushchev,Gogol (all I could think was, poor dead soul!), Rachmaninov and Chekhov are buried. The place was swarming with Asian tourists in large packs and matching shirts, conscientiously aiming cameras at everything and nothing. I found the tombs I wanted to find, however, except for Rubinstein's, which has evaporated in the most peculiar way. The overall effect of the cemetary - which houses all the political and cultural figures who the authorities judged unsuitable to be buried in the walls of the Kremlin - was one of Soviet heroes striding out of granite blocks, chests imperious, faces impassive, gazing at a glorious future whilst clad in immaculate suits. (Soviet heroines are generally pigeon-breasted and middle-aged, occasionally in pearls but more often in sensible brogue). A lot of older folk still pay homage and leave flowers at the graves of notable Communist figures. I rested my feet a good deal and gazed on stony visages; all those Soviet figures became a little more real as I did so.

As you see, the day has been full and I feel quite justified in heading home for a bit, before I amble around in search of dinner. Tomorrow is my last full day in Moscow. I catch a train to St Petersburg at 11:45 PM. In the morning, I'm going to visit an Anglican church that is reputed to exist somewhere near me; I love expatriate congregations! They're full of interesting people doing wonderful things.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Regarding Moscow and All Things Muscovite

The secret to enjoying a new city is a comfortable pair of shoes. A decent guidebook, good health, pleasant company and adequate funds will naturally contribute to the overall experience, but ultimately your happiness depends on the state of your feet. This is particularly true in cities with cobblestones, of which most of The Continent is comprised, and at which Antipodeans are in awe.

Moscow does not exert itself to win over visitors. It does not ask for your admiration or praise, it sits haughty and high and expecting your homage. You are privileged to bask in my grandeur, it says to foreigners; and so, it does not provide signage or directions or readable maps or convenient eating places. The Muscovites within it will not slow down to listen to your broken attempts at questions in Russian, or even acknowledge that you asked them. It seems to me that the most effective method of extracting information from a local is to wrestle them to the ground and tickle-torture it out of them.

It is a hard city; hard and glitzy like a diamond, except you have to imagine a very imperfect diamond with veins of concrete running through it. There is beauty here, but the city doesn't ask you to partake in it; in fact, it demands that you keep your distance and forebear to love it. In most European cities, the architecture invites you to enter into a relationship with it; to be warmly enriched by it. Moscow's buildings, for the most part, are like a patient with dementia. They are sunk in Soviet memory and don't recognise the present. Difficult to love, unless you knew them beforehand.

The Kremlin is the ultimate expression of Moscow's stony indifference to foreigners. In order to experience the Kremlin, the visitor must exert her problem-solving powers, since the ticket sellers will only sell certain tickets at designated hours, and you must use your intuition to identify entrances and exits. For instance, if you want to visit the Armoury, which you certainly will since that's where the Faberge eggs and ancient carriages and jewels are kept, you must line up at 11:15 precisely to gain entry at noon. There is a perpetual huddle of confused tourists around the office, and information is garnered by word of mouth rather than signage. Then, once in possession of the required tickets - which cost enough to feed an average sort of individual in Bishkek for a week - the visitor must pass through many security checks and undergo the scrutiny of bored police before entering the inner sanctum.

When I manage to upload my photos, I'll talk about The Kremlin and Red Square and surrounds in detail. There are lots of things to like about Moscow - but it's ever so much more fun to talk about the difficult things!

I bought a Stephen Fry novel in English yesterday, since it turns out that I'm not feeling as intellectually keen as I anticipated when I packed some rather more demanding books. I'm going to take it to the park and read for a bit, and rest my weary feet. It occurred to me today, as I was grumbling (in my head) about Russian things, and also when I spent more time on an exhibit of English art than on anything besides Faberge, that I'm a bit of an Anglophile, and Stephen Fry's writing feeds this inclination since he is himself the perfect arbiter of Britishness. If my next post reeks of aphorisms and tweedy adverbs (frightfully boring and all that!) you'll know the reason why.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Which I Tell (Briefly) of How the Tsar Kissed my Hand.

I have 25 minutes left at a frightfully expensive Moscow internet cafe, so I thought I'd just check in to say - here I am! I tracked down my visa on Tuesday, boarded a plane yesterday, arrived at a perfectly lovely and relatively inexpensive B&B in the middle of town, and spent most of today wandering through the Red Square, etc. The highlight was indubitably, exquisitely, St Basil's, the one with the gorgeous multicoloured domes. Unfortunately, I left my camera cord in Bishkek, so I can't upload them, but I look forward to writing about it at length and sharing some photos of beautiful architecture!

You know how the ultimate cheesy tourist experience is getting your photo taken with someone dressed as an historical figure? Well, I gave in today! There was a wonderful duo, the Tsar and Lenin, and I just had to get my picture taken with them. They were charming. The Tsar kissed my hand in a most courteous way, and Lenin said gentlemanly things in Russian.

Incidentally, I also got an excellent haircut at an expensively warm and friendly salon, on the recommendation of the people I had dinner with last night. It's very short with a pretty fringe. I've been missing good hair -I feel a little more like myself again.

On Sunday, I take an old-school overnight train to St Petersburg (how very Agatha Christie!) where I hope to report all manner of adventures. But my time's up - till soon!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Moscow Bound

'Moscow Looking South' photo (c) 1915, Oregon State University Archives - license:

Yesterday was nearly 40 degrees, not the most conducive temperature to running around Bishkek like a headless chook trying to locate a mysteriously elusive visa! But three offices and some heatstroke later, and there's a holographic Russian visa in my rapidly expanding passport, which means that I can board my flight this afternoon...

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Question of Orphans (cf. James 1:27)

Here's a question that I've been swatting away like a fly ever since I arrived in Bishkek.

Why aren't I visiting orphanages more? Why, though they are always in my heart, am I so reluctant to spend time with these indescribably precious, abandoned, unloved children?

After months of skirting around the question, I think I know: once I go, I'll never leave. The next time I visit an orphanage, it can't be in a casual drop-by-here's-some-presents-let's play-peekaboo-aren't-you-cute kind of way. It's got to be for keeps. (This article describes life in the Bishkek baby house, the only government-run one in the city. It's probably the nicest orphanage in the country). I can't stand the idea of befriending children - bonding with them - for half a day and then leaving their lives for good. It's altogether too painful and I won't do it any more.

I must learn to be content with the work that I do. Teaching TCKs is challenging, rewarding and exciting. But it's also all-consuming. I haven't got the time to invest in weekly visits and what's more, I don't have enough leftovers to make the emotional investment. For now, I accept the fact that I'm an enabler: by teaching these dear delightful teenagers, I'm enabling their parents to do things like caring for orphans. One day, though, I want to be on the frontline. My heart is becoming like that of a young boy yearning to fight in the trenches for his country, only with (I hope) a more realistic grasp of the glamourless sacrifice it involves, because I've seen it firsthand in the lives of others.

Perhaps there'll be a day when I'm no longer a full-time teacher. Until then, I pray desperately for the orphans of Bishkek, that God might send people with big hearts and lots of time; people who love to hug and play and give presents and brush hair and kick footballs. People who are willing and able to consider adoption. I thank him for the people who are already doing these things, the families who have committed to care for orphans. God willing, one day I'll join them.

The First World Problems Rap

Ah, I love this for so many reasons, not least because it reminds me of those days (those Canaan days - where have they gone?) when I could do things like buy clothes, flush toilet paper, eat cereal, and watch movies in English.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

World Cup Qualifier: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

Even in this far-flung corner of the globe - where there'd be dragons, if there were dragons - there's a FIFA outpost. I went to a World Cup qualifying match this afternoon between Kyrgyzstan and its relatively giant neighbour, Uzbekistan, a little wary of what was to be. You might know that in June 2010, there was a terrible spree of ethnic violence in Osh, where many people died and over 100,000 Uzbeks fled Kyrgyzstan. These circumstances have become very politicised, with many Kyrgyz people rejecting the independent and UN findings that labelled the events as "ethnic cleansing". I don't propose to write about the situation here, since many people have done so and this is not the forum for it: but, as you can imagine, one of the symptoms is ongoing tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek people. Thus, it was something of a relief to turn up at the 'stadion' and find hundreds of police lining the stands, plus a platoon of soldiers who marched periodically around the circumference of the field. There was also a posse of horses and German shepherd dogs on standby.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to worry about. Most of the players for Uzbekistan were ethnic Russians rather than Uzbeks, and the Kyrgyz crowd, for the most part, wasn't really sure how to act. They certainly didn't resemble your typical European spectators, although some enterprising people had brought drums, and a couple of people even went to the trouble of bringing flags. There was some booing and bottle throwing at the foreign national anthem, but the scowling police did much to dampen spirits.

The game wasn't much to speak of - 3-0 to Uzbekistan, who are something of a powerhouse in the Asian football region - but I found it very illuminating for other reasons. First off, when entering the arena, we were searched for bottles, which was perfectly acceptable since the same thing happens at AFL matches and at sports events all over the world, presumably. However, this was notable because they didn't want us to discard our water or our bottles - they wanted us to throw out our bottle caps. Incomprehensible, not to mention inconvenient, but we did so. (Sometimes I think that people here have seen a Western idea or practice from a distance and decided to implement it without fully understanding the theory behind the idea or practice). Anyway, with a bemused shrug, we nursed our bottletop-less bottles up to the top of a stand, and settled in with a program. As people began filling up the seats, however, it became clear that we'd misunderstood the point of the printed program; no one could have cared less about its contents. They were too busy covering their chairs in programs so that no part of their bodies would touch any part of the seats. I saw one fellow with about fifteen programs spend all of five minutes carefully arranging them all over his chair. Whether this was a cleanliness issue, I don't know, since they weren't particularly dirty chairs, but I accepted this confusing practice with equanimity and even put my program to similar use.

The Kyrgyz team had a scruffy, brave, but scoreless first half, and grew progressively demoralised as the Uzbeks began scoring in the second. It was sad to note that many people started to leave as soon as two goals had been scored against their team; again, it seemed to show a misunderstanding of the game. Indeed, as the game drew to a close, people began throwing things on to the pitch, either out of boredom or disgust, it was difficult to tell. However, on the whole, when compared to British hooliganism or Brazilian exuberance, the Kyrgyz crowd was very sedate. Later, we speculated as to the apparent lack of passion or emotional involvement of the spectators - many seemed disengaged - and thought that perhaps in Soviet times, obvious expressions of emotion or passion were discouraged and perhaps even dangerous. It might take another generation or two before people can truly let themselves engage in events such as this; engagement such as Europeans might recognise, anyway.

So it is with pride that I can say I've been to a World Cup qualifying match, and if Uzbekistan should happen to do well in 2014, you can say that you knew they would, since you heard it first here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Introducing Garry Potter

There are a couple of cinemas in Bishkek. They get their films directly from Russia, which means that there are generally some blockbusters showing at any given time. In the last month we've had both Transformers and most recently, Harry Potter. A friend asked me along yesterday; normally, I would say no, because I don't quite see the point of sitting through two hours of a film in a language I don't understand. But this time, because I'm familiar with the story and because I wanted to test out my newly acquired vocabulary, I agreed. Also, movie tickets are about the equivalent of four dollars here, so it wasn't exactly going to break the bank.

As it turned out, I understood about one word in twenty; in combination with my fairly thorough grounding in the Potteresque, it meant that I gathered the gist of things. For some reason, even though they have a perfectly respectable 'H' (masquerading as 'X') in their alphabet, the Russians have turned Harry into Garry. It could be because the Russian 'H' sounds like one is clearing one's throat. Anyway, it was quite amusing to hear Voldemort growling on about 'Garry'. Also, 'Snape' is turned into 'Snak'. Altogether, it was an enjoyable experience: I might even go to see Transformers, because I don't anticipate reams of dialogue or weighty language-dependent plot development. It's good practice.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Fourfold Franciscan Blessing

I found this here: this is what I pray for myself and for my friends.

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

In Which I Become an Honorary Citizen of the Lone Star State

On my iGoogle homepage, there's a column with the weather forecast of ten cities, mostly places I've been to in the last six months. The weather of Bishkek and Athens is not dissimilar - mid to high thirties - but you have to laugh incredulously at London's feeble attempts to be summery. However, even the pale British sun looks inviting when juxtaposed with the solid block of grey rainclouds in Melbourne's forecast! I must confess, I'm glad to be skipping the seasonal gloom there, especially when Bishkek is so green and bright. I like winter clothes - heavy velvet coats, long boots, pretty hats - I like sitting in warm cafes with good coffee while it rains outside - I like fireplaces and roast dinners and all those good things. Lest I forget, however: cold feet, iced-up car windows, dark mornings, early evenings, puddles on roads and pavements, and the general disinclination to get out of bed. If I time it right - calloo callay! - I may miss two whole Melbourne winters in a row.

Of course, I get Bishkek winters in their stead: but six inches of snow and icy pavements are still sufficiently novel to be exciting.

Anyway, there I go, talking about the weather, which isn't at all what I meant to talk about. I fully intended, and still intend, to explain how it is that I've come to appreciate Texas and all things Texan.

There are a disproportionate number of Texans here in Kyrgyzstan. I'm looking after the apartment of a Texan family, my housemate-to-be is Texan, and I've just come home after a dinner with another family from, you guessed it, Texas. When I arrived, Mr T was putting the finishing touches on the flag display over the door: an American flag on the left, a Texan flag on the right, and a set of wind chimes in the middle which was in the shape of Texas and adorned with little cowboy boots. Mr T, an ex-Army officer, explained that he was measuring the flagpoles because legislation states that the American flag, when flying on a house, must always be hung on the left and slightly higher than any other flags in the vicinity. Legislation also decrees that said flag must either be taken down at night, or have a spotlight set upon it; further, if the flag gets tattered in the wind, then it must be burned, not thrown away. But, to the T family, it's the Lone Star flag that really matters. Texas was its own country for a number of years before joining the Union, and this has profoundly affected the way its inhabitants think about their state: there's a song and everything.

Mr and Mrs T have planted a little cornfield in their backyard, and we ate some of it at dinner: I can confidently say it was the best corn of my life. Juicy, sweet, perfectly cooked. I would like to visit Texas just so I could eat my fill of that corn. We also ate a spicy cajun stew and ginger pudding, and it was so good that I grinned like a loony. It occurred to me that I've barely cooked for myself this last month, having been so preoccupied with my study.  Then, we played some Texan card games (the cards had pictures of the Alamo on the back). Most notably of all, I experienced a warmth and hospitality that I've rarely felt since being away from Australia. I felt loved and cared for, and they shared their lives with me in an open and inviting way. These Texans are exceptionally gifted at making friends.

My future housemate has many of the same qualities as my hosts tonight. So does the family whose apartment I'm looking after. What are these qualities exactly? Like many aspects of human nature, they're ineffable, indefinable - the closest I can get to explaining it is that they value hospitality; good food; creaturely comforts; games; stories; they speak a certain lingo, feel a certain patriotism. They make their guests feel very comfortable. Family is important; conservatism is important, but not so important that you can't be friends with people who aren't conservative; God is important, so important that you'd leave your beloved home state to do his work in the world. The T family love the Kyrgyz people very much, and speak about them with such tenderness that I got a lump in my throat.

Texans are in my life for good, it seems. So - when I'm back in Australia, you'll forgive me if I say "ya'll" occasionally, or shout "Remember the Alamo!" or look fondly on a lone star flag, or put a little hot sauce on my steak. For, in the words of an immortal fridge magnet: 'Whoever said life was good must have been in Texas.'

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Dialling 000 Doesn't Work

What would you do if you could hear your neighbour abusing his wife? If you could hear things crashing violently, a man's voice screaming, a woman pleading, a child crying? I guess you'd call the police. I'd probably call my parents too, or my friends who work in social services.

What would you do if you came across a litter of mewling kittens in a gutter, or a shivering puppy under a dumpster? I guess you'd call the council, or the lost animal home. I did that once, when I found a family of cats in an abandoned block in Werribee. A two minute phone call, and they were out of my hands.

What would you do if there was a little boy, all skin and bones, who looks six but might be twelve, wandering the street and asking for money with bony outstretched arms? I guess you'd call the police, social services, anyone you could think of, although such a thing is horrific and rarely seen in Australia.

What would you do if you visited an orphanage, and learned that a baby with a terrible deformity, born after a botched abortion, wasn't getting fed? And that the children were locked up and left alone in the building for the night? Well, I guess you might call the media. They can change things. Public outrage is a powerful medium for change.

In Australia, we can take action by lifting the telephone. If we see an injustice, we can fight it. There's always an organisation that will help, a council department, a community service - and if all else fails, you probably have enough money yourself to buy food for the stray animal or the malnourished baby. And you could always start a Facebook page to raise awareness. Particularly if you're part of a church community that cares enough to get involved, like mine back home. There's always something you can do.

You live in an unthinkably rich country. Rich in compassion and in resources. Be thankful.

If you want to survive in Kyrgyzstan, you have to develop one of two things: an impenetrable heart that refuses to get emotionally entangled in daily injustices, or a soft heart that continually yearns and prays to the maker of the universe to come quickly and make all things new. Sometimes I wish for the former: but then I think about the heart of the one who died so I could live. The softest human heart that ever was. It's ok to cry. He did. But he also brought his pain to his father in faith.

I can't call 000. But what's infinitely better - I can call on the sorrowing creator of all things, who sees all and grieves with more passion than me. I'm thankful that he's given me this chance to draw closer to him, by participating in his suffering world.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Little Vicarious Culture, Please!

I want to know what you're reading. And listening to. And baking. And thinking about. Poetry? Novels? Songs? Good food? I want to hear all about it. Help a culturally deprived sister out!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Language. Also, Food.

I had a great lesson in conversation class today. My teacher is a young aspiring actress with lots of energy (and not so much teaching experience, but we get along). Today, she decided that we were going to practice shopping for clothes in a real department store, one of the few posh places in Bishkek. I had a to-do list: ask for directions, ask which floor women's clothing was on, ask for a green shirt, a red dress and blue jeans, get a bigger size, a smaller size, ask to try them on, ask for a discount, and finally to reject them as too expensive, sticking to Russian all the while. It was so encouraging to be able to sustain these exchanges, and even extemporise a little! I finished the exercise so excited about everything I've learned to do. If you are ever in a Russian-speaking country and you need to purchase some clothes, order food, or comment on the weather, using past and present tenses and a variety of adjectives, just call me! (Ok, it may not sound that impressive yet, but have you heard this language?)

The second harvest of strawberries has hit the streets; these ones are smaller and darker than the last. There are furtive trades happening on every corner. This is good news, as is the juicy white corn that has become available. I also, finally, found some bread (besides the flat lapyoshka) that I like! It's a real, dark, Russian rye. A touch expensive, perhaps, but delicious. Good things are a-happening, foodwise.

A fellow flat-dweller from the fifth floor is coming over tonight: she's going to practice English, I'm going to practice Russian. Last time, we talked about family and kitchen items - this time, I'm hoping she can help me with talking to bus drivers. So, I'd better clean this place up a little and find some teabags.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Saw Him Standing: Ann Griffiths

I've shared this poem elsewhere - some of you may know it. It is perhaps my favourite poem. 

I Saw him Standing

Under the dark trees, there he stands,
there he stands; shall he not draw my eyes?
I thought I knew a little
how he compels, beyond all things, but now
he stands there in the shadows. It will be
Oh, such a daybreak, such bright morning,
when I shall wake to see him
as he is.
He is called Rose of Sharon, for his skin
is clear, his skin is flushed with blood,
his body lovely and exact; how he compels
beyond ten thousand rivals. There he stands,
my friend, the friend of guilt and helplessness,
to steer my hollow body
over the sea.
The earth is full of masks and fetishes,
what is there here for me? are these like him?
Keep company with him and you will know:
no kin, no likeness to those empty eyes.
He is a stranger to them all, great Jesus.
What is there here for me? I know
what I have longed for. Him to hold
me always.

From the Welsh of Ann Griffiths (translated by Rowan Williams)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kak Dela? (And Other Pressing Questions)

Every morning, I'm subjected to a gruelling interrogation about my health and happiness: how is your mood? Are you well? How was your evening? What did you have for breakfast? My grammar teacher fires these questions into the room like a machine gun, and I must ball together the cheese-parings that constitute my Russian vocabulary and answer her creatively. And after two weeks of lessons, instead of falling back on 'good' or 'bad' or 'normal' I'm now required to communicate finer shades of meaning: 'not bad' and 'terrible' and 'fantastic' and 'currant jam', for instance.

It's nice to be asked, even if only for academic purposes. There's an exodus of expats from Bishkek in the summer so apart from lessons no one's really enquiring after my wellbeing. Many of my colleagues and friends are back in their home countries, raising awareness and support and avoiding the baking temperatures here in Kyrgyzstan. I haven't had many real conversations in the last couple of weeks. The exception was last night, when I had dinner with a lovely family. He's English, she's Malay, and they have a very cute little son. It was splendid to be hosted and to play card games and chat; but the cumulative effect was one of acute homesickness, a malady which I've staved off so far. I shall continue to stave it off, I believe, but the idea of home - and the questions that are asked of me there - is increasingly being set on a pedestal.

Postscript: in the very minute that I hit 'publish post', an email arrived in my inbox with the title 'How are you?' (Which is kind of what 'Kak Dela?' means). It was from a friend in Osh who knows me well and asked all the right questions - so, I raised my hands to the heavens and thanked a providential father who knows what I need!