Sunday, May 29, 2011

Psalm 23

Ace of Base, that bastion of high culture, should be resting on their laurels, since they've finally made it in Kyrgyzstan. At least, my neighbour seems to find them extremely edifying, and in turn edifies the rest of the building with the help of a subwoofer, thus discharging his comradely duty. It makes a change from doleful dirges, but somehow I'm not as grateful as you'd think.

Anyway, while I was grumping, this song came onto shuffle: it reminds me strongly of walking the streets of Bishkek, so I thought I'd share it. It's a good antidote to Ace of Base, anyway. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Apologies (and Strawberries!)

My internet connection has been down for nearly two weeks, which is why I haven't been posting here. Why it was down, I don't know, but as the local expats say, TIB (This is Bishkek): basically, when uttered with a wry smile, it means that trying to find an explanation for daily weirdness and inconveniences is a fruitless exercise which will certainly lead to heightened blood pressure. Like the fact that the hot water gets turned off for the whole month of May across the city, or that you never quite know where your marshrutka is headed.

I must say, though, that all these puzzlements dwindle into insignificance in the face of the glorious springtime. In the last couple of weeks, numberless babushkas have set up shop on crates in the streets, selling strawberries and cherries and apricots that are impossibly delicious. Every couple of days, I stop and buy a jarful. (That's how they're sold: a kilo of gorgeous strawberries in a jar for about 80 cents). Given that I've subsisted on apples and potatoes for the last five months - yes, it's been that long! - I have no compunction about gorging myself.

Well, I did a very brave thing recently, followed by a very exciting thing. The brave thing was that I enrolled in a language course for the whole of July. This means four hours of classes a day, and it could well be the hardest thing that I ever do. The classes are one-to-one, which is splendid, but the textbooks are solidly Soviet in origin, including references to comrades and suchlike. I think it's an old-school learning style - lots of rote and repetition - but compared to Australia, where the cost of an hour's language lesson, in any language, is astronomical, this works out at less than 4 dollars per hour. I'm a little apprehensive at the rigour it will doubtless involve, but I'm also relishing the challenge. For now, anyway! Regardless, I'm getting my money's worth, and daresay I shall be reading Pushkin and Solzhenitsyn in no time. (Failing that, I imagine that I shall be more realistically content if I can grapple with Russian books for small children).

The very exciting thing is that I finally booked my flights to Russia, for the first two weeks of August! Moscow and St Pete's for the win. I know friends and friends-of-friends in both cities, which makes all the difference. Also, it's an extra incentive to learn as much language as I can, since I'll be travelling around on my own.

Apart from anything else, the summer's going to be very lonely. Lots of expats head off on home assignment, and lots of locals leave the city and live in their dachas, which are huts in the mountains where it's cooler. I'll be very busy, with a conference, horseback trek, and the aforementioned language study and travel to occupy me, but I'll also be growing heartily sick of my own company. Which is why you should keep writing, emailing and skyping me.

Speaking of, I had a skype conversation with my whole family on Friday, in which I learned how my sister, who my parents thought was in Thailand, jumped out of a box on my mother's birthday, and is now contemplating a return to civilian life; how both my brothers are beginning new and exciting courses, and how my sister-in-law makes incredible lemon meringue cakes whilst also working a demanding job, studying for her Master's degree, and fostering children with my brother on weekends. I have a pretty spectacular family. I can't wait to see my parents in September when they visit!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Graduation & Some Hot Water

Bishkek weather is like Melbourne weather: changeable, frustrating, four-seasons-in-a-day type weather. You never know if you’ll be needing an umbrella, sandals, thermal underwear, or all three in a single day. I don’t know if that’s why I’ve been getting so sick lately, but it’s as good a reason as any. I’ve been feeling exceptionally sorry for myself, and for my lungs which threaten to cough themselves up any day now. And, to exacerbate this self-pity, the hot water got turned off yesterday. Apparently this happens in Bishkek every year on the tenth of May and lasts the whole month, while the pipes get 'refitted'. My apartment has a little hot water heater above the bathtub - my landlady's dour husband, who speaks some English but is profoundly uninterested in matters relating to his tenant, had to come around tonight and show me how to make it work. So it was a thankfully brief stint without hot water, and a good reminder to be grateful for small mercies.

The term is winding up - already! A third of my teaching time here is nearly over, with only four weeks until the summer break. My Grade Tens are sitting their IGCSE English exams, starting tomorrow. My Grade Sevens and Eights are busy rehearsing and performing Romeo & Juliet with gusto. My Ethics class are working industriously on projects. I'm up to my elbows in grading, and strangely not minding it too much.

The Grade Eight class, all five of them, had a graduation dinner last Friday. We gathered at a Chinese restaurant with their parents and teachers. After a curious feast of pseudo-Chinese food, each student gave a speech which acknowledged their teachers; they shed tears of gratitude as they tried to express their love for us. I'm not kidding. Each of these kids has already had a profound impact on my life, with their soft hearts, their desire to learn and grow and love, their compassion and humour and maturity. I'm beginning to realise how hard it will be to leave this place and these students - I've never met their equals.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sampling of Statuary

Bishkek is full of interesting, historic, and occasionally perplexing monuments, most of them dating from or commemorating the Soviet era. These are a couple of photos I've taken recently, and I hope you'll note the blue skies in them!

The impressively impassive guards of the national flag.

The statue to Erkindik (Freedom) overlooking Ala-Too Square.

A Personage in National Dress.

World War II Explosives Bearers.

 The Eternal Flame (eternally peppered with bottle-toting youths)

Welcoming Home the Heroes of the Front.

Another Personage. (Possibly Frunze, though I can't be sure.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mutton, Mutton Everywhere

Before coming to Kyrgyzstan, I thought of mutton as a sort of post-war British fare, to be accompanied by boiled cabbage and carrots. I'm quite sure my grandparents ate it. (I know for a fact that my grandmother happily consumed delicacies like brains and tongue, too; I can forgive the latter because The Famous Five were forever eating tinned tongue on their sandwiches - the brains not so much.) However, up until the last few months I hadn't given proper consideration to the reality of mutton. The very name is unappetising - sort of reminiscent of nineteenth century sideburns - and so is the fact that you distinguish it from lamb by saying it's the meat of an old sheep.

Anyway, mutton is the meat of choice round these parts. The shashliks on street corners are made of it; the samsi are filled with the fatty remnants of it; and every local restaurant will have a chicken option and a meat option, which will be a sort of indistinguishable beef or mutton, but generally the latter. That's it as far as meat goes. Hence, as a dyed-in-the-wool omnivore, I find myself thinking longingly about lamb chops and pork roasts and kangaroo steaks and barbequed swordfish and prosciutto, and also about the idea of not eating rice and potatoes and doughs with every meal. It's heavy stuff. Salt and pepper and chilli and dill are the flavours of choice - how I'd love some fresh coriander, some basil, some continental parsley! (Such is the privilege of having lived an inner-city Melbourne life - the food is impossibly good, varied, fresh. And don't even get me started on the coffee - that's a whole other blog post.)

Interestingly, I find that my attitude to food hygiene is also changing; in Australia, we can be certain (or close to it) that our food has been prepared to rigid cleanliness standards. We expect, and even assume as our right, that the meal we order has been carefully prepared by clean hands and its components have been appropriately refrigerated. Well, the Kyrgyz think differently about all this. The chicken you buy - it might have been frozen and refrozen a couple of times. That's perfectly acceptable. The beef could have been sitting at room temperature all day - and so what? I find I'm becoming increasingly inured to the hygiene standards, or lack of them. The alternative is becoming extremely fussy and perhaps even cutting out meat altogether, which would make you a sort of social pariah in this country.

Having said that, I would not willingly eat horse again, no matter how painstakingly it had been prepared. The first time was a mistake, and I ate it so as not to offend, and also so that I could say that I had eaten horse (perhaps thereby demonstrating an unfortunate tendency to pride). But everybody has their level, as Mr Elton said to Emma, and I am tolerably sure that I have found mine; it resides somewhere between mutton and horsemeat.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Anyone for a Summer Adventure?

Here I am, a mere train trip away from Russia, summer holidays approaching - and no one to go exploring with. Woe is me. So what follows is an advertisement for the post of travel companion to Russia. (Pictures from this excellent website.)

Item #1: Mother Motherland. Built at the end of the 1950s, she's twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. Tell me you wouldn't give your back teeth to see her! (And I'm not ashamed to use hyperbole in this instance.)

Item #2: St Petersburg: specifically, St Basil's Cathedral. I've wanted to see these magic domes for longer than I can remember.

Item #3: The Poles of the Komi Republic.

Item #4: G.K. Chesterton's wise words. "The object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country."

Item #5: The Silk Road Train.

Item #6: the land of the Bolshoi ballet, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Chekhov, and Pushkin's Onegin. (Okay, Ralph Fiennes isn't Russian, but wouldn't it be nice to meet a Russian who looked like him?)

Applications for this post can be made through the usual channels. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Gypsy Girl & William Brown

So I think I've mentioned the gypsies before. They're quite common. Gypsy women have knocked on my door a couple of times, glaring and spitting when refused money. Gypsy children will often tug at your clothing, whining and begging in a well-trained routine, until you have to shout at them (and mean it!) and swat their hands away. The men - goodness knows what they're doing. Picking pockets probably.

Anyway, I saw a rather beautiful thing today. Quite often, a gypsy woman will be begging cross-legged on the pavement, cradling a bundle that the passerby assumes is a child, looking accusingly as you pass. The girl I saw this afternoon looked particularly young to be a mother, and she had forgotten to do her job for a moment: she was playing with the grubby hands of the little baby in her lap, gazing delightedly into its face with open adoration. I have never seen such a look on a gypsy. As I drew near, I smiled at the sight; she looked up, still with the delight in her eyes. She saw me, and it took a few seconds for the light to fade from her face and the hardness to descend. She aged about ten years in that moment. It was too late for her to ask for money, and I could tell she was angry - either at me or at herself. Oh, I wanted to kneel down and put my arm around her and tell her that it is good to be delighted in your baby, and it's okay for strangers to share in that pleasure too. But I walked on, because I'm pretty sure she hated me for being one of 'them', as gypsies do.

It reminded me of something else. On Friday, I caught an overcrowded marshrutka. A boy of about eight or nine got up and gave me his seat. He was dressed in the black suit and cap of local schoolboys and carrying a satchel. (Such boys always remind me of William Brown, except they are much less jolly and they do things like giving up their seats for adults. And they have certainly never played cowboys and Indians, although lifelike plastic guns are their commonest plaything.) Anyway, I don't think this little boy had smiled in his life. He had the grim look of all men here; thin, serious, intense. Kyrgyz children aren't encouraged or praised at home. It just isn't done. And as for his schooling - well, Kyrgyzstan recently ranked 65th out of 65 countries tested for education standards, so I imagine his little soul is not being terribly nurtured and stimulated.

There was something in the gypsy's face that was like the schoolboy's face. Dull eyes looking anxiously at a hopeless prospect. And I am helpless. I speak no Russian or Kyrgyz; I have nothing to give them. I can't even smile at them - that isn't done, either. I can give a few som to a beggar, but that helps no one and only perpetuates the begging. The most I can do is buy them bread, but that's not what they need. How I long to show them love, and point them to the source of all hope and assurance and peace and joy! In this I am frustrated, being limited by my culture and my language. Frustration rises up like bile at my uselessness.

But then I remember - my presence here is a building block. I may not be on the front-line, but by teaching as I do I am facilitating the ability of families to start businesses, build lasting relationships, train local people in real skills. These are the things that bring lasting change. Perhaps one day I'll be doing a different kind of work, but for now I'm thankful to be involved in this way; it's how I can show love to the grim-faced children and the grubby gypsies and the homeless and the disabled and the babushkas selling their last possessions on the street. For now, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Half-Blind Longing for the Light of the World

I got a touch of the old Sehnsucht today. (Like sunstroke, only metaphysical.) First, there was the message this morning about the ineffable beauty of Grace and the Phoenician woman in Mark. Then, there was a lunch in the park which was all laughter and dappled greenery and gypsy children. Finally, I had occasion to reflect on the mingled sorrow and joy of changing friendships: joy, because I love my friends, and sorrow, because tyrannous distance is intervening.

The cumulative effect was a profound wistfulness for I know not what: for an imperfect heart, perhaps, that clutches at grace and then falls away; for the endless summer of childhood past; for the foreshadowing of the time when we will be in relationship forever. 

C.S. Lewis took Sehnsucht from the Germans and made it his own. The word denotes a longing - a craving - intense yearning. In The Weight of Glory, he wrote: 

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country...I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter...the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Sometimes I think I live my life in a haze of longing for the scent, the echo, the news that Lewis here describes. Perhaps we all do. King David certainly did: he was forever crying out - How long O Lord? which is frequently a cry on my lips also, even (and perhaps especially) while I am living a full life. This is a weighty paradox - that even when life is rich and good, there is an inexorable yearning on the edges of it. The thing to do, then, is to acknowledge that it's there - to look at it square-on and strike a detente with it. George Herbert did - in his poem Bitter-sweet, he described the terms of his truce: 

And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

That's the thing to do - lament and love in equal measure, and acknowledge that "blue unclouded weather" experiences have a flip side, which is the taste for heaven and the longing they instil in us. Sehnsucht is a foreshadowing - or, according to Lewis, a remembering - of beauty and glory and eternity. It is the experience of looking through a glass darkly. It causes us to long for the One who we catch peripheral sight of; He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Platonic form, the truth in the darkened glass; and we wait for the day when we will see him face to face. The apostle Paul frequently tells us to rejoice in this hope - to wait with hope - to embrace it - to hold it fast. 

In the meantime, one can't walk around in this sort of heightened Germanic spiritual state for ever: a return to the mundane reality of boiled eggs on toast for dinner is desirable, and so I draw to a close with this thought, which isn't mine at all, but Paul's: Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. And if that isn't cause for joy, I don't know what is.