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October 19, 2010

Living with a host family has its benefits and annoyances. I was always taken care of – fed kasha in the mornings and soup for supper, given my own room and even provided with laundry service. But it was strange always knowing that it was a temporary arrangement. Whenever you are living out of your suitcase, you never really feel at home.  Plus, being a person who loves quiet and solitude, it was difficult living in a such close quarters with other people who don’t share the same priorities. I often struggled to do my Kyrgyz homework while tuning out the Russian pop blaring from the stereo next door, or had to fend off Danil when he wanted to hang out in my room while I was trying to write my blog. I never felt like I was entirely in control of my life, and my month-long arrangement had expired, so I found a new place to live.

For the first time in my life, I have my very own apartment. It is miraculously suited to my needs. It is in a safe, clean neighborhood that is near the center of Bishkek and the assorted institutions with whom I am working. It is across the tracks from Margot’s place and a couple blocks away from Kurt’s. In fact, it is just across the street from Marina, Danil, and Dasha – I may not be a part of their family any more, but at least I am a neighbor. Most of all, it is simply a pleasant space. The apartment building is easily the most attractive Soviet creation I have seen in the whole city – covered in vines and surrounded by trees, it is hardly the concrete eyesore that I have come to expect. My apartment is on the sixth floor, with a view to sunsets and mountains. Right outside my bedroom window are the yellow leaves of a poplar, and birds have gentle conversations  within earshot. It’s just lovely. Have a listen:

Sounds of Usenbaeva Street

It’s a one bedroom apartment, which in Bishkek means that the living quarters consist of one room – a living room/bedroom combo. It’s a nice sized room though, and there’s a kitchen as well. I have everything I could need: a desk to work at (my landlady claims it’s a hundred years old), a big bed to sleep in, a washing machine and iron to take care of my clothes, and a fridge to store my beer…I mean, food. Probably the nicest thing is having a big closet where I could store all the extra crap I have and shove away my suitcases. Everything is in it’s right place and I feel at ease.

While I was finishing putting everything away yesterday, I heard the sound of a piano playing somewhere in the building. I was intrigued so I shuffled up and down the stairs trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. On the very top floor I found it. I thought, heck, I should meet some of my new neighbors, so when there was a lull in the song I gave the doorbell a ring and stood up straight. A woman opened the door and I told her in my best Russian that I had just moved in downstairs, had heard the music, and was wondering if I could listen in. She smiled and nodded without hesitation. That’s just how things are done here. I took off my shoes at the door and was plopped down on the couch.

Across me was her ten year-old daughter, playing an ancient Soviet piano that read “Red October.” Her name was Sofia. She was in sixth grade and attending music school, and was practicing for her exams. With a little apprehension at playing for a stranger who spoke funny, she gave me a little recital.

Sofia’s Song

At the beginning of the track, you can hear me saying I’d like some tea (when asked, of course). Her mother and I sat on the couch sipping our cups and sharing our stories. Her name was Rosa, and the first thing she told me was that she and her daughter were not Kyrgyz. They are Dungans, Chinese Muslims who fled to Central Asia in the early 20th century. Rosa works in a local bazaar, Dordoi, but I couldn’t quite figure out what she said when I asked her what she sold. Maybe Soviet pianos?

Her daughter ran off to school and we sat watching MTV. She told me that even though she’s lived in Kyrgyzstan for forty years, she’s never learned Kyrgyz. It’s a hard language, she protested, and I commiserated. I told her about my research, and like most people, she was a little confused about why I would be interested in such a thing. I played her a song of my own on the piano, and then I had to get going because I still had some unpacking to do. She warmly invited me to come by whenever I like. Next time, I’ll bring them some chocolates, and maybe some Americana that I brought for gift-giving.

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around town, buying groceries and glasses and such. At Tsum, the local department store, I spent half an hour browsing the tourist section, filled to the brim with idyllic visions of yurts and eagles. I bought a couple eagle-hunter refrigerator magnets, because nothing says “unhomely” like an empty-faced fridge. In the market for some slippers (the landlady was very insistent about not wearing shoes indoors), I spent an uncomfortably long time playing the bargain game with a pair of saleswomen. They insisted I pay eight dollars and I suggested six. They said, no, we will only sell it for eight, but then brought it down to seven-fifty. I gave them my best puppy-dog face and pretty-pleased them in Russian, and they “called their boss” to make sure it was okay to sell it for fifty cents cheaper. The whole charade was so transparent that we were laughing the whole time at the silliness of it all, the saleswomen nearly winking at me as she asked a dial tone whether she could proceed with the deal.  In the end, I came away with a mean pair of kicks, and I shaved off a dollar fifty! What a score.

When I got back to my apartment building, there were a bunch of kids congregated around the concrete ping-pong table, looking devilish. They were playing with matches and fireworks. I felt better now that the gunshots I had heard earlier had an innocent explanation. They stared at the goofy American and asked me questions, and gladly lined up for a group photo. Then it was back to pyromania as the ringleader, dressed neatly in his school suit, arranged a ring of black fireworks and lit them on fire. We all ran and laughed maniacally, ran back and did it again. I looked around and hoped nobody saw the grown-up encouraging these kids’ destructive tendencies. I couldn’t help myself. We were having fun. It felt great knowing these were my new neighbors, and this was my new home.

Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: Rather dark and grainy, but watch the kids set off their ordinances.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Katy permalink
    October 19, 2010 2:25 pm

    You sound so much happier! I wanna come visit 🙂

  2. October 21, 2010 4:35 pm

    I want a refrigerator magnet!

    The Central Asian lack of regard for privacy can be wearying to a westerner. I was always glad we had our own apartment in Almaty. It sounds like a weight is off your shoulders!

  3. Palmer permalink
    October 28, 2010 8:05 pm

    Sounds files don’t work, brah! I wanna hear ’em!

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  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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