Sunday, September 30, 2012

It doesn't get real until a little old lady yells at you

Editor's Note: The annoyance of not being able to edit my posts--or see them--after I post them on WordPress finally wore me down.  You can still find my first posts on the WordPress blog by clicking on the link "WordPress Version" on the side navigation bar.  Eventually, I'll move the first couple of posts to Blogger and they will be archived on this version as well.

I caught my first Kazakhstani virus.

I’m not sure what it is–cold or flu–but it’s given me a scratchy throat, a low-grade fever and that general feeling of “ick.”  In an attempt to get better by Monday, I am dosing myself with tea, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and copious amounts of sleep.  I can’t tell, yet, if this particular cocktail of remedies is working, but I am definitely feeling better than I did yesterday morning.  (I just got to the part of Bleak House where Esther contracts smallpox, so, if nothing else, I have gained some perspective on my pseudo-illness from Uncle Charles). 

A number of the professors have fallen ill, so I’m not surprised that I caught whatever is causing the illness, especially since the last week was filled with long working days interspersed with too little sleep and more than a few rushed lunches.  However, now that I’ve moved into my permanent office space—and learned the virtues of saying “no” to students showing up last-minute for help on assignments—I think I will be in a far better position in the weeks to come.  I put together my first workshop this week—on plagiarism—but a few unforeseen incidents, including a last-minute room change, led to, how shall I put this without sounding lame,a less-than-stellar turnout.  No one showed up to the first one; only three to the second – but, hey, that’s a 300 percent improvement, right?  Nothing is quite as pathetic as waiting in an empty room with a Prezi cued up on the projector and hundreds of handouts… and no people.  Just ever so slightly a blow to my poor ego.  On the other hand, I met with about 50 students over the course of the week for one-on-one consultations—more than I ever planned on. (They love me! They really really love me! Or, at least, need me!)

Since I was feeling better today, Omar and I decided to go on a bazaar expedition in search of cheap produce.  We ended up at an open-air market near one of the larger indoor shopping areas on the Right Bank called “Eurasia,” which is a popular destination on the weekends.  It was a smallish farmers market, primarily selling produce (sadly, no shopping carts filled with meat, though I saw some fresh fish still flopping), but I think I might make this my weekly destination because I managed to get exactly what I was looking for in a matter of minutes.  I took a cue from my fellow shoppers, and demanded to know where the produce was coming from and whether it was fresh, though I’m not sure how much I believe the answers.  Everyone swore that the fruit had come straight to Astana from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, if only because Tashkent is famed for its fruit, but given that Tashkent is at least 1,000 miles away, I’m not sure it counts as being “fresh.”  However, I have realized I find it easier to speak in Russian when I am either demanding something or sounding annoyed.  No idea why, but I suspect it will serve me well.  (Update: Just tried some of those “Tashkent” grapes I bought, and they are quite amazing). 

Some veggies from the bazaar.
What the veggies turned into -- pasta with peppers, mushrooms and spinach!
We took the wrong bus on our way back and ended up in a different part of town.
I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about where I am living, trying in earnest to find a way to describe it without sounding either like a privileged outsider or one of those optimistic people who could never find fault with anything.  On a whole, it’s not awful.  I have my own room, my own bathroom (key) and access to a decent-sized communal kitchen, though arguably the kitchen would be vastly improved if both stoves worked.  It’s also free.  While this was billed as the off-campus dorm—and, for the most part, it is—the hundreds of rooms in the three blocks of the dormitory are occupied by a motley mix of students, families, local workers, and the occasional pensioners.  On my hallway, for example, I’ve met a couple of second-year engineering students across from me, as well as a man who is living in a one-room apartment with his wife and two small daughters.  So, it’s not quite apartment-style living, but nor is it a Soviet-style “worker dormitory,”* though there are moments when I can't help but wonder if much has changed since the latter.  

For example, earlier this week a dezhurnaya** flagged us down as we entered the building to demand whether we had a “propusk,” that ubiquitous generic document that ostensibly gives someone permission to be someplace.  Of course, when we had moved in and been given keys to our respective rooms, this need for a propusk had been conveniently overlooked.  Luckily, the fact that Omar and I still have our American “listen to authority” attitude eased the potential tension, and she immediately offered to procure us these documents if we brought her passport photos.  (Another girl, who walked by the dezhurnaya and ignored her demand, was not so lucky.  The dezhurnaya chased her down the hallway and berated her until she produced said propusk). In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and surely in other parts of the former Soviet Union, things happen in a certain way, and some little old lady will yell at you about something at some point, so it does little to get wound up about it.  In some perverted way, I get amusement out of the fact that things are never quite as easy as they should be—even as I question the point of it all—and try to tell myself it adds to the “flavor” of living here. 

Here's what the dorm buildings look like from my ninth floor room.
I mentioned earlier that I’m reading Bleak House, which aside from being an engrossing read has spurred my decision to read a classic novel a month.  I realized that despite being well-read, I am surprisingly deficient on the number of classic novels, including, gasp, many of the Russian classics (I tried to avoid literature courses in my study of Russian… sad, I know).  While I don’t believe I plan to put War and Peace on the list, here’s the short list that I’ve compiled so far with the help of the BBC Book List challenge. I am trying to mix up genres and eras, if I can, because I’m not sure reading 10 Victorian-era books will get me that motivated. 

Opinions and suggestions are greatly welcome!

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (I read this once, but I can barely remember it)
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Day Lasts More Than 100 Years by Chingiz Aitmatov (I have to get a Central Asian-novel in there, right?)
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Demons/The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges
Middlemarch by George Eliot

*For those of you not up on your Soviet history—shame on you—dormitories sprung up in major cities across the Soviet Union in the post-war period as the government tried to cope with a mass exodus of workers to the major urban centers.  Even in the 70s and 80s, because of a housing shortage, people continued to live in these dorms. 

**The manager/receptionist of the apartment blocks – generally women who are on watch 24-hours-a-day to ensure that strangers aren’t wandering in at odd hours.