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A Week is Gone

September 23, 2010

I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for a week now, and it’s been thrilling and bizarre, yet at times strangely mundane and familiar. I guess when you’ve spent a lot of time in this neck of the woods, weird things stop weirding you out. Too much has happened to give a play-by-play like I did in my first post, so I’ll offer you a variety of vignettes that come to mind. In no particular order:

I’m sitting in our kitchen plastered with plastic wallpaper, watching my host brother Danil tear the head off a fish. He’s been keeping it in the fridge wrapped in newsprint. “I think it’s been in there a long time,” he says, and gives it a sniff. He rips off a few pieces and chomps them with glee. I grimace. He insists I try some. Normally I don’t eat fish, and especially fridge fish, and especially old fridge fish, but I have a rule about eating things that are offered to me in foreign places – just eat it, and consider it cultural exchange. The fish is dry and salty. I chase it with beer from a plastic bottle. It didn’t really help.


That was not the end of the 2010 fish-booze cultural understanding tour. Another time, we met my fellow Fulbright fellow Kurt at a going-away shindig for one of his friends. It was a Monday. I hadn’t had Kyrgyz vodka yet, so Danil ordered us a half a liter and a chaser. I soon learned that Russians don’t chase their vodka with juice or soda – that’s pansy American shit. They chase it with pickles and fish. I hate pickles and fish. In the name of Kyrgyz-American friendship, though, I went along with it, until the last slices of fish and pickles were gone and the vodka had disappeared – possibly evaporated, probably not.


I was walking past the giant statue of Lenin when some Kyrgyz girls told me I was beautiful. I stopped in my tracks and treated them to my best Russian. They weren’t impressed. They gave me cotton candy and walked away.


I’ve gone out a couple evenings with my host sister Dasha and her friend Balina, and we just walk along the tree-lined boulevards and talk about Kyrgyzstan, no destination needed. We share tongue twisters in English and Russian. Dasha tells me that they changed all the street names in town but most people still call them Sovietskaya and Pravda. Balina asks me for my favorite constellation. I explain that the sky where I’m from is grey at night, but go with the Big Dipper. Then I have to explain what a dipper is (but I’m still not really sure). Later, I learn that locals like to joke that all the potholes in Bishkek are for burying cows.


It’s late, and I’m on an old computer in our living room, reveling in the fact that I can get facebook in Kyrgyzstan. My host mother Marina invites me into the kitchen for some tea. We watch the new Karate Kid movie and talk about our mutual friend, Jackie Chan. She tells me that she was a cook for a rich Kyrgyz family, but that they left the country during the revolution in April and now she just stays home and cooks instead. She says all the Russians have left and that all the Kyrgyz speak a language now that she doesn’t understand. She says her husband died two years ago. Later, she shows me pictures of their family. “Mama and Papa,” she says, pointing to the faded photos. She’s a sweet woman. She came in the room right now as I was writing and brought me a plate piled with plums and strawberries. “Eat, Dennis, eat.” Whenever I see her cook now, I feel sad.


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