Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Necessity and Luxury

This is, as you might have guessed, a continuation of my previous post, Luxury and Necessity.  

So I decided to take a shower (after a thorough cleaning, of course).  It’s been stated by a very reliable source that when traveling through Europe it’s best to bring your own soap.  Whether or not it simply wasn’t used in these countries, or they just didn’t give it away to tourists, no matter how much they paid for their hotel rooms, it was best to carry some on your person lest you find yourself having to send out for it in the middle of a bath.  Unfortunately hot water is not an easily transportable commodity, well, anywhere.  Especially not enough for a shower.  Also unfortunately in this country, they are not overly concerned to inform you when you might otherwise inexplicably run out of, or not have any, hot water.  Or even any water. 

On this day, not many days after I’d arrived, I decided to take a shower before work.  Regardless of my insecurity issues with the toilet, I was generally feeling pretty confident about the shower.  I’d worked out my earlier confidence problems involving the lack of a shower curtain or wall to keep the water in, and the lack of any shelf to hold the soap which you so painstakingly carried throughout your travels.  I was ok with the fact that no matter how much I cleaned there was always dirt on the floor that would stick to my wet, freshly-showered feet (Does this cleaning product clean floors or windows?).  By ok I meant that it happened and I accepted the fact that I could do nothing about it.  By this time I’d also accepted, though with much less aplomb, the fact that if I didn’t buy an elevator card I have to walk up 6 flight of stairs every time I came back to my room. 

Taking a shower though—I may have to pay for my drinking water, but not being able to wash my hair on a daily basis, now that is an injustice I truly cannot abide.  What’s more, it’s the cavalier attitude that everyone takes towards it.  All water in your building turned off indefinitely and without notice—fine; not knowing what kind of meat is in the meat pie in the cafeteria—fine; open manhole cover in the middle of a sidewalk—fine.  Try to cross the street when the sign says don’t walk though—there’s a fine for that too.  In the U.S. if someone had even considered the possibility that they might fall down that open manhole, there'd have been a lawsuit.  It must be some kind of lack of a sense of personal responsibility here.  They just accept it, and don't bother to do anything about it.  Any self-respecting American would've taken some damn initiative by now and found a way to cash in on that example of gross neglect on the part of someone else who doesn't care and is probably much more likely to fall down that hole and need some settlement money.  Well, not everyone can be as free as us.

I arrived in Astana in June.  It was still spring, or late winter, then, but summer also arrived soon after that.  Looking back, I’m not sure why I worried so much about whether or not I got to shower, since any time my Anglo-Saxon blood encounters temperatures above 80 degrees my body to proceeds every last drop of moisture it contains in what I can only interpret as an effort—well-played, I might add—to make me look as much as possible like a stinky, slimy foreigner.

Astana summers and the lack of running water also made me glad I only had 100 pounds of luggage to bring with me when I moved here.  I tried that one out on a dear friend back home, and her first thought was, poor dear, carrying all that luggage around in that heat!  But no, actually it was practically freezing when I got here—it was only just the end of winter then—so that wasn’t such an issue.  Actually, I was glad of the luggage limit because I ended up leaving most of my clothes in the U.S., so at the very least I only seat all over half my worldly possessions.

In the end, though, I can be glad that my unease with the toilet in my dorm room was never combined with any significant water outage.  I could tell another story, of a day when the water at work was shut off for 7 hours with no prior warning.  Our drinking water was bottled, , of course,because you don’t want to drink the tap water; but it wasn’t exactly getting enough to drink that we were worried about that day.

Ahh… luxury, and necessity.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Luxury and Necessity

Not long after I arrived in Astana—who are we kidding, even six months in I can talk about the present as “not long after I arrived”—I decided to take a shower.  I shower every day, of course, but this day is mentioned as, well, noteworthy.  (On a side note noteworthy as a descriptor for events has also undergone quite a change in the past six months).

This shower happened in the dormitory in which I was living for my first month in Astana.  I had basically the room in which you would expect to spend the next nine months with a complete stranger if you were a freshman at a mid-size state university in the United States.  Plus a private bathroom.  I’m led to believe that in some university dorm rooms private bathrooms are standard.  In my state university, alas, this was not so.  But anyway, it was a dorm room—large, angular (read: lots of corners, ouch!),modular furniture, littler leftover floor space, and a window that didn’t always open and close the way it should have.  Oh, and no curtain.  Not even a curtain rod to hang a sheet over.  I saw many windows in that building with newspapers taped to them to block out the daily frown of the sun. 

I lived on the sixth floor.  Though there was an elevator, a passcard was required to operate it, which you were required to purchase, and which “ran out” after a certain number of rides, and you had to pay more money to use again.  My American sensibilities—what, you have to pay for an elevator, a basic service to which I’ve grown accustomed?  What about the disabled?—of course, precluded my from purchasing said elevator card.  (I’ve since revised my opinion of elevators and cards, but I’ll get to that another time).

At any rate, on the day in question, which was likely about three days after I arrived, I decided to take a shower, which is generally accepted as a good thing to do before heading off to work.  So out of my clothes I went and into the shower I stepped.  Before getting into the specifics of that adventure, though, I feel it’s worth mentioning the rest of the bathroom.  It was a small space, as seems logical in a dorm room, but not really as small as you might expect.  Now, I’ve watched enough home remodeling shows on basic cable DIY channels to know that a room with such Spartan accoutrements could be laid out in a much more space-saving way, thus freeing up more space in the actual dorm “room.”  There was, simply, a sink, a three-foot-square shower—I’ll call it a stall, for lack of a better descriptor at this point—and a toilet.

A word about toilets:  One’s feelings about toilets can really set the tone for a lot of one’s subsequent life.  There are some people who seem absolutely fastidious in their outward appearance, general cleanliness, and the way in which they organize their lives.  You work with these people, maybe even share an office or cubicle.  You regularly have lunch, even drinks after work, together, and in every aspect they seem to exhibit the proper amount of regard for sanitation and cleanliness.

Then something happens.  They’re fumigating your apartment building, or a water main breaks, or something else that otherwise forces you to decamp from home for a few days.  And this co-worker offers you a place to stay.  And of course  you accept, because this person is someone you’ve come to rely upon for cleanliness, punctuality, and overall lack of being an ax-murderer.

Everything is great.  Clean place, nice guest-room, or at the very least a well-made-up sofa bed, reasonable expectations for cooking or cleaning or whatever it is you need to agree upon for whatever period of time your stay will last.  Everything is great, until you get to the bathroom.

What do you do?  What do you say?  Should you say anything?  How do you deal with someone else’s toilet?  I suppose you could raise the point that any time you are a guest at someone else’s home this is an issue, though plenty of people have been know to get through a three-hour dinner party without using a strange toilet.  When you are a house guest, you are at the mercy of your host.  People who are generally lax about cleanliness in their own homes can freeze up completely when asked to use someone else’s toilet.

I’ve also found that this houseguest-toilet-syndrome is specific to personal toilets.  People who have issues at someone’s house or apartment seem to have no problem using a public toilet (I suppose I should qualify this.  No one likes using a truly public toilet.  Even those few who have no compunctions with squatting over a hole in the ground can’t use a truly public toilet without a little shiver of distaste, if not disgust.  In this case, by public I mean the kind of toilet you use at a workplace or other familiar yet not-home environment.  Even the toilet in a department store holds less fear than the toilet of a dear friend in whose home you are not a frequent guest).  Why?  Perhaps it’s a transferal of responsibility:  This company has 150 employees and manages to turn a profit every year.  Obviously they‘ve got the simple process of cleaning a toilet figured out.

Me, I’m typically pretty phlegmatic when it comes to the rigors of cleaning.  It needs doing, I get it done, end of story.  But this toilet, my toilet, I should say, had me completely at a loss.  It turns out that familiarity is just as important with toilets as it is with say, street signs.  No clear directions and I’m completely at sea.  When one of the first things you have to do on your first day in a place worlds away from the one with which you are familiar is clean the toilet (a toilet that looks and works quite different than the one in your own previous bathroom), well, it can be a little daunting.  Do these cleaning products clean the same way as the ones I’m used to?  What are these words I don’t recognize?  Do any of them say antibacterial?  And let’s not even get started on the actual physics of toilets from one country to another.

Is this symptomatic of how I will spend the rest of my time in Astana?  I suppose we'll find out.  Does how I felt about my toilet necessarily effect how I felt about my shower?  More on that later.

Wondering when I'm going to get to that shower?  Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to In No Sense Abroad: Luxury and Necessity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

To My Anglo-Saxon Hips

Oh, hello there.  Listen, I know we haven’t always gotten along.   You’ve seen me through some pretty tough times though and, well, I just want you to know:  I’ve always appreciated it.  I haven’t always treated you right, and you’ve let me know.  Loudly.  Clearly.  We’ve had our differences, but we always make it up in the end. 

But can we talk about something serious for a minute?    I feel like there’s so much between us, sometimes; so much we just don’t talk about.  And it hurts me.  And it hurts you.  We’re less productive when we don’t communicate.  We don’t get out and go places.  Things don’t progress as naturally as they should.  So, let’s talk.

We feel, well, downright out of place here sometimes, don’t we?  Can’t compete with the local selection.  When we walk around town, do you feel like people stare?  Is it something we did, or is it just who we are?  We have blond hair—that stands out, for sure—but is it something more?  We walk differently, move differently; it’s as if we displace matter in a way wholly foreign and not understood round here. 

I mean honestly, I feel like the titanic over here.  They float up, and don’t have to worry about the lurking icebergs.  Something’s got to let all those women wear their ridiculous heels through construction sites and on ice without ending up with broken bones.  Are they made of balsa?  Bamboo?  (Does bamboo float?)  What’s that?  Ahh, yes you’re right.  Sailing metaphors probably aren’t much good round here.  Can we talk about trees?  The mighty oak and its deep roots and all that?  I suppose you’re right.  No, no, no, they have trees, just not the big ones. 

I’ve noticed, though, you have gotten thinner since we arrived.  Trying to blend in, eh?  No, sorry, it was just a joke.   A bad joke.  No, I don’t think you need to lose weight; I think you’re perfect just the way you are.  Steady on.  We’ll see this one through too.  You know, when I look at those shoes in store windows, I don’t mean it.  I would never do that to you.  Women here might be able to traipse around in four-inch heels all day, but I just couldn’t put you through that.  We weren’t made for it.  Yes, I miss the hills too.  Can’t run up and down hills in heels, that’s for sure.  Ok, maybe in San Francisco they do.  But we’re not from San Francisco, and we don’t wear heels anyway. 

By the way, are you feeling better now that winter’s here?  The heat does take its toll.  I don’t know about theirs, but this mortal coil is not cut out for arid climes.  I mean, I love sun as much as the next person, but I want sun that smiles at me.  Their summer sun, it frowns, as if it were trying to bore straight through us.  Perhaps if we stay long enough this flesh really will melt.  Yes, yes, I know we only decided to stay here a year.  And yes, I know winter’s supposed to be bad here too, but we’ll get through.  It’s what we were made for, after all.  Yes, all right, next time we’ll pick a temperate climate. 

I know, I know.  We need to look out for the food too.  Yes it is hard to be a vegan here.  Now don’t look at me like that.  We all hurt, when we don’t eat right.  It’s not just you.  Oh, please, don’t bring back the guilt again.  Look, it was a long time ago, and we were young, and, and idealistic maybe… What, are you saying you’d trade it in?  Give up everything we’ve done since, and because of then?  What happened in Newport was, well, unfortunate.  I hurt just as much as you do.  Born to be sailors, we were, but maybe it’s something you have to work up to.  Maybe when we’re rich and famous, then we can buy our own boat and sail round the world.  Yes, yes, far away from landlocked countries. 

Well, I’m glad we had this talk.  Yes, we’ll do yoga more often.  And lay off the sugar.  I’m sure the teeth would appreciate that too.  Yes, they know we’re just overcompensating for other things we can’t have when we do that.  I suppose it doesn’t make them feel any better, though.  Yes, ok, we'll floss more too.  Good night then.  Good talk.

Monday, November 12, 2012


 I went out the other day, thinking to undertake what I did not realize would be a perilous journey of, while not quite epic proportions, at least of semi-epic proportions.  It involved a long walk down treacherous avenues and byways, navigating my way by the celestial bodies where human-crafted directional objects failed, and swimming through a sea of chaotic, motorized turmoil where necessary.  I was going grocery shopping.

Astana, as you know, is a growing city.  Proclaimed the capital (literally) of a new nation only 20 years ago, its people have been busy turning it from a modest little city into a world-renowned center of business, architecture, and culture.  Upon my first view of the city proper, my first response looking up was, “for this, only for this, it was worth coming half-way round the world.”  Everything glitters and sparkles and shines.  Beds bloom with bright blossoms amid stone-paved walks and fountains and monuments.  Astana is a celebration in itself. 

And truly, I mean that, even many months into my stay.  Astana is really a remarkable city.  Perhaps most remarkable for that fact that it was decided that it should be.  It glitters with and optimism and a naiveté that no self-respecting American city could ever muster.  It’s clean and bright and shining new.  So new, in fact, that in some places (like the dormitory in which I lived my first month in Astana) there wasn’t even a sidewalk to get you there.  Or a paved road, for that matter.  This situation wouldn’t be quite so bad but for the fact that the dirt road that does run that way is obviously what those in the business would call a quick fix.  There are ways (they tell me) to make dirt roads quite stable and usable for long periods of time, even under heavy use by large construction-oriented vehicles.

This road is not one of those.  Riding in a vehicle of any nature down this road one feels rather like the great Vikings of yore, crashing through the waves on their fearsome long ships, swinging side-to-side with the rolling of the waves, and always knowing there was the possibility that the ship would complete its swing and come out (or not) on the other side, most likely with all hands lost.  The Vikings at least had the prospect of plunder and copious amounts of alcohol at the end of their journey.  Generally, we who lived in that dormitory had the prospect of work at the end of ours.

It was some weeks before I found my way to the old city.  As I said, Astana used to be a modest city in the middle of the steppe, frozen half the year.  It likely wouldn’t even be a city without the dubious help of the Russians, who once upon a time had grand notions of “civilizing” the people of the steppe, and it certainly reflects that in the industrial feel that radiates from old run-down apartment buildings, from the balconies that seem to hover on the sides of buildings held up through no fault of their own and no known laws of physics, and through the wrought-iron fences that surround every building. 

Over the years people have burrowed ways under, or widened gaps between bars, or found ways to climb over a weakened bit.  My first thought, upon seeing these disused relics of a past age was “why not tear them down?”  An American sentiment, I suppose, since we are of a mindset that any obstacle can, in fact should, be overcome, especially if it means tearing it down.  Many a forest has been cleared, or obstinate hill obliterated, in the name of progress and civilization.  Astana, meanwhile, expands gloriously outwards, while from the center the old city seems to rot away.  I wonder, sometimes, where it will end?  Is there a plan for this new emerald city?  I find myself looking up at the shiny toy-like buildings around me with bated breath, wondering always what will happen next.

It was with great trepidation and also with a giddy feeling of rebellion, that I climbed my first fence, crossed my first open lot, even walked boldly through a construction zone without consideration as to whether I’d better have a hardhat.  Writing home once to a dear friend of mine, I happened to mention this little triviality (or so it now seems to me), and this friend was quite astonished at my boldness.  “My dear friend, I exclaimed, “why, where was I to walk?  I needed to get to the store, and the sidewalk on that side of the road wasn’t to be built till tomorrow!” 

Looking back, it seems odd to me that this friend remarked so upon it; I suspect I am beginning to succumb to what’s known as “going native.”  Indeed I often find myself crowding forward with the press of people at bus stops and cashier lines, as if I had not been brought up in the stoic Northeast with a proper respect for the line and all the safety from chaos it represents.  Ah yes, now we are brought to the line again.  I know I have mentioned it previously, in relation to a somewhat more perilous situation, but you’ll forgive me if I once again make a promise to revisit it in another post, when space and time permit.

Going native, though—that is a topic worth discussing.  It is quite inevitable, to be truthful.  Survival (in the metaphysical sense) depends upon it.  The custom, for example, of servers in restaurants asking for your order almost immediately upon seating you, is quite unheard of here.  As also is the practice of encouraging diners to leave as soon as physically possible by bringing the check very nearly before the meal is served.  When one goes to a restaurant here, it’s almost best to pack a snack, because you are guaranteed not to be served until you’ve had at least your second drink, and for that you often have to shout just to get the server’s attention.  Meals can take hours, here, which can be quite excruciating for stout-hearted Americans used to eating on the go, as it were.  Visitors, take note: it is advisable to go to restaurants in the company of locals, lest you find yourself still sitting there when the next meal time comes round.
Which would be a shame, because then you would miss out on the feelings of wonder which Astana elicits every day.  It’s very much a different feeling than I’ve ever run across before leaving home.  New York, for example, has many remarkable buildings which were certainly so-designed to be remarkable, but there is such a feeling of inevitability that accompanies any sight-seeing trip to New York, as if the city couldn’t help but have become as it was.  Everyone wanted, and still wants, to go to New York.  For 200 years it has been a destination for all types of people, and though many have passed on and left little trace, the ones who stayed, or who made their mark before leaving, did so in grand style.  They remade the landscape, leaving no trace of what once had been.  Manhattan changed rapidly from one kind of wilderness to one of a completely different quality.  Astana is growing rapidly, but instead of an old canvas painted white and remade into a vastly different image, it is as if the painter has begun to fill in some of the blank spots, and changed focus from the center to what surrounds it, painting over with brighter, but no more verdant, colors.

Astana, though a new city by most standards, ever feels older than the old cities of America.  It is in the dust one walks upon every day, the air one breathes.  To the American eye, and spirit, change and newness are not native to this city.  Give us bold, give us new; we’ll even go so far as to remake an old building to exactly its specifications 200 years ago, just to have something new that looks old.  It is inevitable, it is planned, it is America.