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!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hymn for the Mercy Seat: Ann Griffiths

It's probably obvious by now that I've been working my way through Rowan Williams' book of poetry. He has translated, rather magnificently, a set of Welsh poems into English; I find them so compelling that I must share them - so, here is another, and by no means the last, of his translations. I recommend reading further about Ann Griffiths, by the way. She was an eighteenth century housewife who lived in a Welsh village and wrote unbelievably vivid poems.

Hymn for the Mercy Seat

By Ann Griffiths (as translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams)

Wonder is what the angels' eyes hold, wonder:
The eyes of faith, too, unbelieving in the strangeness.
Looking on him who makes all being gift,
Whose overflowing holds, sustains,
Who sets what is in shape,
Here in the cradle, swaddled, homeless,
And here adored by the bright eyes of angels,
The great Lord recognised.

Sinai ablaze, the black pall rising,
Through it the horn's pitch, high, intolerable,
And I, I step across the mortal frontier
Into the feast safe in my Christ from slaughter.
Beyond that boundary, all loss is mended,
The wilderness is filled, for he,
Broker between the litigants, stands in the breach,
Offers himself for peace.

Between the butchered thieves, the mercy seat, the healing,
The place for him to test death's costs,
Who powers his very killers' arms,
Drives in the nails that hold him, while he pays
The debt of brands torn from the bonfire,
Due to his Father's law, the flames of justice
Bright for forgiveness now, administering
Liberty's contract.

Soul, look. This is the place where all kings' monarch
rested a corpse, the maker of our rest, and in
His stillness all things that always move,
Within his buried silence.
Song for the lost, and life; wonder
For angels's straining eyes, God's flesh.
They praise together, they adore,
'To him', they shout, 'only to him'.

And I, while there is breath left to me,
Say, Thanksgiving, with a hundred thousand words,
Thanksgiving: that there is a God to worship,
There is an everlasting matter for my singing;
Who with the worst of us, in what
he shares with me, cried under tempting,
A child and powerless, the boundless
Living true God.

Flesh rots: instead, aflame, along with heaven's singers,
I shall pierce through the veil, into the land
Of infinite astonishment, the land
Of what was done at Calvary;
I shall look on what never can be seen, and still
Shall live, look on the one who died and who still lives
And shall; look in eternal jointure and communion,
Not to be parted.

I shall lift up the name that God
Sets out to be a mercy seat, a healing, and the veils,
And the imaginings and shrouds have gone, because
My soul stands now, his finished likeness,
Admitted now to share his secret, that his blood and hurt
Showed once, now I shall kiss the Son
And never turn away again. And never
Turn away.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Team Cadel, Girls' Night and a Haiku

My ex-boyfriend was a mad keen lycra-wearing, carbon fibre-loving cyclist, and he would follow every stage of Le Tour. So, for a couple of years, there was a ritual where I'd fall asleep in a beanbag and he'd wake me up whenever something exciting happened, which usually involved Cadel Evans or Contador. Anyway, I was well and truly indoctrinated into the cult that is the Tour. Team Cadel all the way! And it's nice to be in a country where I can watch the stages without incurring much of a sleep debt. I love the frenchiness of it all, the gorgeous panoramas, the charming commentators, the grit, the guile, the lean faces and splendid calves of the competitors. Plus, it's so soothing to have European accents as a backdrop to my Russian homework. (A nice young Norwegian has just won a stage, and he can't stop grinning. He hasn't endangered Cadel's chances, so I'm happy for him).

In addition to the cycling and the language study, today's notable event was the discovery of a friendly bazaar only a couple of minutes away. It's a patchwork of little tables in a shed, and I used full sentences to purchase a kilo of delicious strawberries for the guests I'm having over for dinner tomorrow: I also bought nectarines, plums, and a melon of mysterious but fragrant antecedents. The aforementioned guests are some students who are still in Bishkek for the summer. I've invited them over for a girls' night, which will consist of dinner and a movie. I'm thinking Shepherd's Pie and Jane Campion's Bright Star; while it's nearly a perfect film from my perspective - stunningly shot, great script, Keats - I'm not convinced of its universal appeal, so am still hunting around for a fallback.

I also discovered this whimsical website today, where new haikus are posted frequently. I recognise the feeling of this one, particularly as my head is swimming with new vocabulary.

Die Bibelforscher: Waldo Williams

I read this poem before bed, and by the last stanza I'd stopped breathing. It seemed urgent that I share it immediately, so I share it here. Is it not astonishing? I think particularly of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: arriving with his fist clenched on what the king had written.

Die Bibelforscher

For the Protestant martyrs of the Third Reich

By Waldo Williams (as translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams)

Earth is a hard text to read; but the king
has put his message in our hands, for us to carry
sweating, whether the trumpets of his court
sound near or far. So for these men:
they were the bearers of the royal writ,
clinging to it through spite and hurts and wounding.

The earth's round fullness is not like a parable, where meaning
breaks through, a flash of lightning, in the humid, heavy dusk;
imagination will not conjure into flesh the depths
of fire and crystal sealed under castle walls of wax, but still
they keep their witness pure in Buchenwald,
pure in the crucible of hate penning them in.

They closed their eyes to doors that might have opened
if they had put their names to words of cowardice;
they took their stand, backs to the wall, face to face with savagery,
and died there, with their filth and piss flowing together,
arriving at the gates of heaven,
their fists still clenched on what the king had written.

Earth is a hard text to read. But what we can be certain of
is that screaming mob is insubstantial mist;
in the clear sky, the thundering assertions fade to nothing.
There the Lamb's song is sung, and what it celebrates
is the apocalypse of a glory
pain lays bare.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


For the last week I've been casting around, unsuccessfully, for something to write about that isn't purely extraneous. The days are very full of the Russian language, seasonal fruit (plums and nectarines and raspberries this week), walks in parks, plans for future letter-writing, along with the usual soup├žon of tiredness and procrastination. I owe about four letters, and there's a trip to Russia that needs planning. But I'm finding it difficult to write. I don't know why.

Perhaps if I begin to describe my day, I'll find my groove. So here it goes.

Classes start at ten in the morning, which suits me well. I can sleep in till eight and have a leisurely breakfast. Usually, it's toast and plunger coffee (specially couriered from Melbourne, thanks to a generous mutti); lately, with the prevalence and goodness of fruit everywhere, it's berries and stone fruit too. The school I attend is a 15 minute marshrutka ride away. However, I try to walk most days, since the mornings aren't too hot and the exercise is necessary, so it becomes a 50 minute commute. This morning, I listened to Glenn Richards and Josh Garrels on the way, and the music made me glad; the former, because it was so thoroughly and poignantly Australian, and the latter because it helped me to pray as I walked.

There are three classes in a day, all one-on-one tutorials - Grammar, Reading, Conversation. I like Grammar the best, because my dodgy pronunciation doesn't matter so much, and because the teacher is patient and maintains at a pace I can match. The other two teachers don't speak much English, and they plough full steam ahead regardless of whether I understand or not. My speaking is getting better, though I still struggle with some of the heavy sounds and where to put the accents in words. The classes are eighty minutes in length, with ten minute breaks in between, hence the feeling of having been run over by a freight train at the end of the day. Also, they are fond of giving me enough homework every night to fit into a wheelbarrow. Still, it leaves me a couple of hours of leisure in the afternoon, which I like to spend in the park, or reading, or both.

I went to a pot-luck dinner this evening, hosted by a Swiss family in my organisation. It was very pleasant to eat salad under a shady apricot tree and find out how other people are spending their summers and to be encouraged by good fellowship. The other pleasant thing that happened today was that my hot water was restored - after several weeks of cold showers, I very nearly kicked my heels for joy.

Well, perhaps tomorrow I'll find a groove to write in!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Encounters of the Neighbourly Kind

I fully intended to be industrious this afternoon. However, it appears that I'm inadvertently responsible for cutting off the hot water supply for the entire apartment block, all nine floors of it, and a constant stream of neighbours have been thumping on my door to alert me to the fact. You see, the hot water in my shower hasn't been working, and I decided to use the water heater that is installed above the shower for just such occasions. Unbenownest to me, in my quest for a hot shower, I somehow overrode the system for the whole apartment block. So it is that I've had neighbours and maintenance men in my flat all day, all of them gesticulating wildly and speaking in accusatory tones; plus, in an unrelated incident, a woman who lives on the fifth floor chose today to ask me if I could teach her English, in exchange for Russian practice, and we just arranged to have a language lesson every Tuesday for the foreseeable future. Add to this two Skype conversations, a perfunctory visit from my team leader, and a leaking bathroom pipe, and my undone homework might be forgiven.

A pleasing antithesis to today's neighbourly encounters: someone above me is playing a piano rather beautifully. Also, there's a thunderstorm approaching the city which is about to crack open. The evening promises to ensue in a pleasant fashion.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Tragic Revelation about the Russians

I know, finally, why all the Russian novels are so miserable: they were written in the Russian language. 

You thought Raskolnikov was tragically tormented over that durned theft-turned-double-murder, right? Well, I'm here to tell you that his crimes were but a minor contributing factor. It was only when he realised that he'd never be able to pronounce the ninth Russian vowel that his descent into madness began. And Anna Karenina - someone told her that her stress changes after verb conjugations had been wrong for years, and that's when she realised that life was unbearable. Ivan Denisovich was only sentenced to Siberia when he failed to identify whether the farmer threw the sickle at the wife, or the wife threw the farmer at the sickle. Had Pasternak written in French, Dr Zhivago and Lara might have gotten married and had eight children. Eugene Onegin - the Brothers Karamazov - need I go on? The tragic trajectory of all Russian protagonists has been profoundly influenced by the language which imbued them with life. 

My Russian classes are administered by old-school teachers and supplemented by Soviet-era textbooks; after four hours a day, I feel like I've been run over by a freight train. Brute memorisation is the only way to survive, and even then it still feels like my teachers would like nothing more than to rap my knuckles and make me stand with my face to the wall. One week down, three to go. I'm already looking forward to life without language class.

On the other hand, I can already have fairly coherent conversations about vegetables and buses, so I guess it's not all bad.