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The Daily Grind

October 1, 2010

Most days here are not worth writing home about. I’ve settled into a routine that yields few exciting stories, but what’s mundane for me might be exotic for you. So I thought I’d write about a typical day, from sunup to sundown, and let you be the judge.

Everyday I wake up. You would think that part should be easy enough, but it hasn’t been. For one thing, I’ve been having the most vivid dreams. Whenever I’m in a new place, my nights rarely pass quietly – I meet presidents and warp time, walk around in bodies that aren’t mine, and when I open my eyes there’s a repeat button that says “snooze.” So it’s been hard lately to get out of bed. But many mornings, I can’t even get untie my eyelashes. I’ve had sleep paralysis before, but it’s been happening noticeably more often in my Kyrgyz bed. Basically, I wake up but my eyes don’t: if I can move my hands at all, I try to lift them up to my face to peel my lids open, manual override.  Most times, I just try and try to shake my head until my eyes flip open, and I’m left with a weird numbness that lasts through breakfast. Some people have tried to explain alien abductions on sleep paralysis – I wish it were that fun.

My morning meal is almost always the same, chai and kasha. Kasha is a genre of Russian pouridges, which may or may not include what we call kasha in America, buckwheat. Sometimes it’s a lot like the Quaker Oats stuff I ate when I was a kid, and sometimes it’s pretty much just rice in milk. In any case, it’s usually tasty. The tea is good too, but I wish it was more of a pick-me-up. My mornings are dreadfully yawny.

Around eight I gather my things and head out the door to school. When I get out of my building and turn the corner, I’m greeted by the snowy peaks of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too. It’s a refreshing sight for recovering eyes.  After that there’s a lot of trash and stray dogs, weedy train tracks and tunnels scribbled with tags. That part might make some Westerners uncomfortable, but I’m trying to remember that we have a slightly unhealthy obsession with aesthetics, and that sometimes as long as the forms are functional then we shouldn’t complain. The trains still run and the tunnels hold up, so get over it, I say. Until I get halfway to school and slip on a banana peel. That’s not funny.

I step into classroom 11 at the London School of Bishkek and say good morning to my Russian instructor Raykhan. She is a very kind, patient teacher with a very frustrated and lazy student. She speaks to me only in Russian, and I can understand about 90 percent of it, but when it comes time for me to speak I clam up. It’s been two years since I formally studied Russian and my knowledge of grammatical endings has long since evaporated. I do a lot of meekly answering ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘or ‘I understand.’ The biggest problem from the start is that I enrolled myself in an intermediate class when I am definitely elementary.  I know that my basic Russian will come back to me once I study it again, but we’ve been reading biographies of Bulgakov and learning words like ‘erudition’ when I can hardly say ‘That is not a purple cat.’ I zone out a lot and try to remember that this is all voluntary.

I had thought that it would be a good idea to study Russian and Kyrgyz for a little bit to help get me settled in amongst  Russophones and Kyrgyphones. So I signed up for these classes at a well-respected language school, and they also arranged my homestay for me. The classes are certainly useful – if I wasn’t taking them, I’d still be back around square one, and now I’m at least a few squares ahead. But it’s slowgoing and I daydream about the mountains and the eagles.  I tell myself that it’s only for a month and then I have another nine to do my thing. Patience may be a virtue but I’m not much of a virtuoso.

I don’t know what to tell people about the Kyrgyz classes except that they melt my brain. After a morning of Russian I’m already a little fried, but then I have two and a half hours of Kyrgyz, in which there are twelve different ways just to make a word plural. Plus, some of the sounds are just bizarre for me. Lots of weird vowels my tongue feels weird making. Try saying ‘süylöbögülö’, and mind the umlauts. It sounds kind of like a four year old saying ‘Sue your burglar.’  As difficult as it may be, though, it’s fun to hear yourself sound like a Kyrgyz, and you get to learn things like ‘Ak chooch’, which means ‘Bless you’ and sounds amusingly like a sneeze.

I get done with class a little after two in the afternoon and then fart around on Facebook for a while on the school computers. I have a serious internet addiction at home and its hard to get rid of, but I actually do have some legit e-mails to take care of so I don’t feel too bad. I look up prayer times so I can know when to go to the mosque and hear them sing from the minaret (Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, if the stan didn’t tip you off), or try to see if the Russian dish I had for dinner the night before is on Wikipedia. It usually is. I’ll get to that in a bit. But jeez, the miracle of instant information. Gotta love it.

When I get home I usually have some tea with my host mother Marina and then try to get some homework done. Usually I’ll get frustrated with how lousy my Russian is and go for a walk nowhere in particular. One time I ended up in this dusty sort of shantytown and couldn’t find an alley out for about a mile. Another time I found myself in a shady little park where some kids were playing the Kyrgyz variant of Duck Duck Goose. I pretended it was called Eagle Eagle Marmot and stood watching for a while, trying not to feel like a creep. Soon it gets dark and I know Marina is growing anxious about her foreign son’s wanderlust, so I head back home.

Dinner is always awesome. Marina was a cook for a rich Kyrgyz family before the revolution went down and they left the country, so now all she has to cook for is me. And I can’t complain – I get Russian cuisine, done right, every night. Here’s a sampling for you to investiage: schi, varreniki, salad olivier, chebureki, and poor man’s caviar, which is made of eggplant but they call it ikra. We also drink kompot at nearly every meal – Danil and I joke around and call it fruktovy soop – Fruit Soup. It’s great. Some of the weirder things I’ve eaten have been salo, which is straight-up pig fat (‘What real Russians eat at the North Pole’ explains Danil) and a dish called sel’d’ pod shuboy, which translates loosely as ‘Herring wearing a fur coat.’ It’s chopped up fish and mayonnaise covered in that shredded beet outerware. I don’t like fish, and good lord what an odd combination, but somehow it was really good. Really.

After supper there isn’t much to do. Sometimes I watch gymkhana with Danil or an Indian movie on the Indian movie channel. Sometimes I go on their computer and get some more internet injections. Sometimes I just go in my room and try to read, but Marina will poke her head in to offer me some apples or Danil will come in to show off his designer jeans. I’m always comfortable and feel well taken care of. I’m glad I am where I am.

The day is over and this post is long so I’ll wrap it up – I go to bed and close my eyes, grateful for muscle control, a day in Kyrgyzstan, and the chance to hang out with Obama again. My dreams are nice, but life right now can be just as entertaining.

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