Friday, February 22, 2013

The Rhythm of Life

Ahh, the rhythm of life.  Every morning, rain or shine, I know it's time to rise and face the day, for the simple reason that no one, even the soundest sleeper among us, could possibly maintain a placid slumber when the city starts growing again.  Like the proverbial rose, Astana by any other name would still resemble a playground for giant toddlers playing with human-sized erector sets.  Toddlers with a twelve-hour attention span who start their work when this city is still under cover of dark, and end long after the nine-to-five crowd has made its way homeward.

Like the worn-out refrigerator in my rented apartment kitchen, years older than the building itself, there is a rhythm, a predictability to the sounds here.  I can always count on my refrigerator motor coming on, like clockwork, at about the time I'm drifting off to sleep, in the middle of the night when I'm in the middle of a particularly pleasant dream, about twenty minutes before my alarm goes off in the morning, and pretty much any time I'm sitting in the kitchen trying to Skype with someone back home over a particularly choppy internet connection.

Just so, the city wakes and slumbers to the time-keeping of the industrial-sized triphammer, more regular than any pendulum, that somehow still manages to pound holes in the ground even in the dead of winter.  So regular is the construction here, the rampant growth of everything, that they measure time, not in hours, days, weeks, months, years, but in height—at this rate, I estimate, we'll see spring again when one more story has been added to the building sprouting above the roof of the apartment complex immediately out my bedroom window.  Just so, I imagine venerable old grandmothers telling tales of the city in their girlhood, when all the buildings stood less than three stories in height, and no one ever had to buy an elevator card.  And do you see that plump-cheeked boy toddling about the snow-covered playground?  He only learned to walk when the ice layer was just beginning to grow on the sidewalks and every other paved surface, and now look: it's a mere four inches thick and he's running like he was born to it!

In December, when the snow and ice just began to take hold, I caught a glimpse of these ant-like workers adding another story to that far-off building.

And now they are preparing to begin another story.  I wonder, do they even know when they'll stop?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Responsibilities of Celebrity

I went to the bank a week or so ago—I go now and again just to make sure it's still in business—and while there I was reminded of something which, to my mortification, I often forget.  I'd gone this time to look into what I'll call a glitch in my account, and found myself being helped by the same woman who had helped me the time before that, and now that I think of it, the time before that as well.

This happens at other businesses too.  The grocery store, the other grocery store, the bazaar, the convenience shop downstairs.  I always interact with the same person or small group of people.  They are memorable to me because I always see them in the same context.  I always run my errands on Friday, my day off, and as I have a repeating schedule I expect that others do as well.  The same was so in the U.S., after all.  Even on bus routes I've come to know the fare-takers who work during the times I regularly use certain routes.

Now, I have never considered myself to be an overly memorable person.  I have never gone out of my way to attract attention: in fact quite the opposite.  However, before now I was an American among Americans.  Now I'm a American in a place where Americans are rather few and far between.  Instead I'm a foreigner among locals, and so memorable.  When I go to the bazaar, if I have bought a thing once I am remembered and expected always to buy it.  The women who work the Korean salad stal see me coming and immediately ask, "Tofu?"  Indeed, I have a suspicion that they think tofu is all I ever eat, and I find myself buying other things just to prove that it isn't.  At the bank, where my story begins, when I walk in I see the woman at the desk noticeably sigh and seem to prepare herself for another encounter with that inscrutable American girl who knows just enough Russian to be a pain in the ass.

My progress with Russian also suffers as a result of this unexpected celebrity.  When once a person finds out I am American and speaks English to me, I feel obligated always to speak English.  At work they placed the communal microwave and refrigerator in an office where some of the occupants are learning English, and, knowing that many of the foreigners bring their meals to work, use our desire for refrigerated, bacteria-free food to force us into English-language interactions for their own benefit.  At unexpected times i my work day I am lured into impromptu interviews about curiosities and commonplaces of my life in the U.S.  They seem to want to know everything and anything, from how symmetrical heart-shaped valentines are achieved in the U.S. (they're not, unless one purchases them [anyone who's tried to cut out a heart using the fold-in-half method knows this]), to in which direction books are read (left to right [unless one is reading Manga {in translation, of course}]).

Disorienting as this constant interrogation is, the more so is my odd response to it.  I now understand what celebrities in the U.S. experience.  I now find myself answering questions and beginning statements with, "As a foreigner...," or "As an American..."  For instance, the other day a colleague made a comment about the weather.  I'm not sure now exactly what the gist was, but I replied, "Well, as a foreigner I find that snow falls heaviest when it's just cold enough to snow but not so cold that the moisture falls out of the air before it even makes it up to the cloud layer."  Fascinating and inspirational as I'm sure those words were, I'm beginning to feel the strain of being a foreigner and constant curiosity.  It's just so oppressive to always be aware of one's celebrity, and to always have to live up to it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bring in the Faith-healer!

It's now time, I fear, that we must address an issue of some import to those hapless travelers to this faraway land.  I've alluded to this in previous posts—Planes, Trains, and... pt 2Inevitability; A Room of One's Own, part 3—yet decided against discussing it outright before I had a complete representation of the prevailing situation.  Creeping into my ninth month of residence here in this fairy tale city, though, I feel I've gathered sufficient data.

One sees it everywhere.  In point of fact it can't be avoided, and it spreads from person to person—a red tide, if you will, far away as we are from the sea.  You can track the infection as it multiplies.  No I, of all people, realize the delicacy which a discussion such as this requires and indeed I would not even feel I should bring it up but for one consideration which elicits some urgency and for which I cannot remain silent and it is this: that foreigners are not inoculated against this epidemic.

I was dismayed, when I first arrived, to see this condition taking hold of those around me, but comforted myself that such could never happen to me.  For months I even deluded myself that I suffered no ill effects from repeated and prolonged exposure.  But I can't pretend any longer.  A recent trip to the United Kingdom has confirmed my worst fears, and it's time to speak up.  If we continue to ignore this problem, it will always lurk there, just beneath the surface, just waiting for a chance to come back.

In the fair land of my birth we have never a lack of faith in anything.  In fact we have so much of it—faith—that we must needs address it in our constitution and in our schools, and everywhere in our daily lives.  We are a nation guided, nay ruled, by faith, and so I thought that even when I went abroad I should always carry enough of it with me.

I didn't have enough to save me from the epidemic lack of it here though.  Perhaps it is because it reveals itself so gradually, so innocuously, that by the time it becomes all-too-apparent, it is too late to do anything about it.  You find yourself standing at the bus stop perhaps, with three or four others.  A bus appears, lo-and-behold, on the horizon, destined for your stop.  At this point neither you nor anyone else is even sure it is that bus for which you are waiting.  One or two begin to creep forward, towards the front of the platform.  You wait, thinking to yourself, there are only three of them, there'll be plenty of opportunity to get on the bus.

The bus approaches, you see it is yours, you step to the curb, patiently waiting.  The bus is slowing, but not yet stopped, and you remain on the curb, confident that when it stops an orderly flow of people off will be followed by an orderly flow on.  Everywhere in life you've been conditioned to a certain faith in that great tool of orderly society: the line.  Roped off queueing areas are a commonplace, and respect for personal space before and behind an innate awareness.  But back to that bus stop.  Even before the bus comes to a complete stop an old grandma comes out of nowhere and not only gets in front of you, but practically pushes her way up the steps, through those trying to exit, and onto the bus. And all of this before your shocked, albeit patient, American foot has left the curb.

In shops and other places of business it can be even worse.  Lines, instead of being straight and true with an apparent beginning, middle, and end become amorphous masses when once they consist of above four members.  The ebb and flow with the whims and caprices of those standing in them, often growing at inexplicable places when a new queuer joins somewhere in the middle, the reasoning, I suppose, being that if you know someone in line you can simply join them, no matter the number of people already waiting, and the closer to the front the better.

Perhaps most perplexing for the classically-trained queuer is the personal space conundrum.  Whereas your average American has been raised knowing innately that a certain amount of space is afforded to the person in front of you, and also the proper measure of distance for indicating that newcomers may step in front of you—the 'please, I am only waiting for my sister, who you see ahead there, step in front of me' distance—may find standing in line here quite perplexing.  If one leaves even the slightest gap, it will soon be filled by someone too impatient to wait, and with no faith that the line will soon move forward, as all lines do, to its destined completion.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dill, That Under-used Herb

Once of the peculiarities a traveller faces, no matter where where ends up is that of the food in any particular foreign culture.  Kazakhstan is no different.  There's one ingredient that achieves degrees of ubiquity previously unknown to me in any cuisine.  And I come fro the land where a cheeseburger and fries make a healthy meal as long as one eats the pickle.

I speak, as I'm sure you're guessing, of meat.  Meat is everywhere.  It crops up in the most innocuous-seeming of dishes, and the idea of purposely making a main dish of only vegetables that tastes good is quite a foreign concept.  As I mention in my previous posts The Trip of a Lifetime; Planes, Trains, and... pt.1; A First Impression Once Made; To My Anglo-Saxon Hips; and Cavemen, I am a vegan.  I don't eat meat, not even milk or eggs.

When I first arrived in Astana I was put up in a dorm room (also discussed at length in Luxury and Necessity), which did not have its own kitchen.  There was one shared kitchen for each floor, and of course I had only one set of borrowed cutlery and place setting, and no kitchen utensils with which to make anything.  Also, due to the, well I'll call it thorough nature of labor law, human resources and accounting procedure, and banking—let's call them rules—that stipulate that before a foreign worker can get paid she must wade through a sea of paperwork (at least a third of which is duplicates, or just pieces of pater with official stamps and raised seals on them), and further undergo a waiting period determined, I believe, by a complicated calculation involving the length of one's stay in this country multiplied by the degree to which one is in danger of starving if some sort of salary is not soon paid to the now all-but-helpless employee...

What I'm saying is I had nothing to cook with and no money to buy anything with which to cook.  It's common practice, I gather, for foreign employees to work pro bono, as they say, for the first month, while sufficient personal data, DNA, and guarantees of transfer of one's first-born child are gathered to open a bank account here.  I survived with a small amount of money borrowed from a colleague.  Most of my meals were eaten in the university cafeteria.

Which brings me back to the original conundrum.  Meat.

And when it wasn't meat: milk.  Either or both appeared in nearly everything served in the cafeteria.  Rice, dressed salads, and fruit became the staples of my once diverse and protein-rich diet.  And what should appear in nearly every salad and side dish in the kitchen (and for that matter restaurant in the city)?  Ah yes, now we come to the crux of the matter.  Dill.  That (as I used to think) under-used herb. So green.  So innocent.  So pervasive.  I tried a Korean-style salad with rice noodles.  Dill.  I tried a salad with cucumber and tomato.  Dill.  I tried a salad with carrots and cabbage.  Dill.  I tried a salad that had what appeared to be seaweed.  Dill.  In Italian restaurants the pasta dishes (generally the only things I ordered since they were most likely to be, or be adaptable to be, vegan) were topped with dill.  I could even swear—though at this point I may have just been paranoid—that the french fries at the burger places and the vegetable stir-fry at the Chinese restaurants had dill in or on them.

At first I was fascinated.  Perhaps they know something here from which I could learn.  Variety is the spice of life, I told myself.  I decided to embrace the ubiquity of this aromatic little weed.  It's so cheap and so very available, that I looked through my cookbooks and found every recipe I'd ever tried and liked, every recipe I'd passed up because dill was so hard to find back home, and began to cook with dill.  (This is, of course, after I moved from the dorm room into an apartment.)

A few months went by.  I brought lunch to work most days, but still occasionally bought a salad to round it out.  The dill was still everywhere, in everything.

It's been a while since I've cooked with dill.  Or consciously chosen a dish anywhere that I thought might have dill on it.  This little-used, little-known spice, once so spell-binding, had begun to haunt me. Dill pickles, once my favorite part of a sandwich or burger (vegan, of course), no longer had such warm memories.  Worry not, dill, for while I may pass over you at the supermarket or bazaar, you'll live always in my memories.  And in my teeth.  And, of course, in my nightmares.