Friday, December 13, 2013

Tonight, I

Tonight I...

Wore two pairs of tights to walk two blocks,
Drank half a liter of beer in about two minutes,
Lost a beer drinking contest, but
Gained a very eager (prospective) (dermatologist) Turkish bridegroom,
Learned the saying "When Turkish people were born, Chechens cried,"
Toasted that saying, despite (still) not knowing what it meant,
Learned the saying "When Tatars were born, Jews cried,"
Didn't quite learn what that meant, either,
Didn't finish a plate of chechil, for the first time,
Drank to the death of Paul Walker with a bunch of Kazakhstani Fast and Furious fans, and still
Got home by midnight. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A trip to the post office

Yesterday's big outing was a trip to the post office. Now, I've been to the post office before, but that was to pick up a package, which is done in a different part of the building. As with most administrative buildings in Kazakhstan, walking in the front door deposits you into another room with many doors, mostly shut, perhaps a stairway, and several people sitting around. In the case of picking up my package, I walked in at the speed of someone expecting to enter a grand hall, pulled myself up before I hit the back wall, took out the little piece of paper that had been left in my door, and said to one waiting woman, "Excuse me, I don't understand Russian, is this OK?" She said I was in the right place, so I waited. Eventually, one of the small, wooden doors opened, someone walked out, and one of us went in. There's no line, no number, just an honor system among waiters to enter the small room in the order you arrived. After a few people didn't come out for some time, I got worried. But no--when my turn came, I found, in the little room, two middle aged women behind a tall counter and yet another doorway, open this time, leading to a cavernous room of packages, where, after some searching, they found mine.
But yesterday's trip was to the sending away part of the post office, and that was different. It did have a large hall, where people took numbers and waited for their window, like at the DMV--but I didn't spend much time there. I first had to go to the packing and customs area.
I had been told that I should not package my things up before going to the post office--that they would do it there. So I arrived with two bags full of books and clothes that I couldn't pack but can't bear to part with yet. When I got to the counter--just another doorway into a small room with a table pulled in front of it to serve as a counter--they asked what was in the bags. "Books and clothes," I said. "Newspapers." They puttered, they gave me some envelopes for the other letters I'd brought, but they didn't make a move to weigh my bags. They gave me a form--in Russian and French---to fill out. Where I gathered I was to write down the contents of the packages, I wrote "books and clothes" in Russian.

No, no, no. Pointing and explicating, with a great deal of patience, they explained that I had to list each item. I was aghast. Thinking I didn't understand, one lady pushed the table aside, scuttled out the door, and came back with another customer from the big hall who spoke English.
"You have to list all this stuff, you know."
"I get it--but why?"
He shrugged.
"If I come back tomorrow with the bags sealed and just say it's documents do we have to do this?"
He spoke to the ladies and shook his head. "No, you have to."
So the ladies and I emptied my bags and weighed each item, creating a long list that ran down the side of the customs form. Skirts-2-0.438kg. Dresses-3-.332kg. Shoes-1 pair-.129kg. Etc. I couldn't bear the idea of weighing a bunch of my socks in a crowded little closet with people reaching over me for envelopes and things, so I'll be making a larger donation to the Sisters of Mercy than I thought before I go. I also had to list my books, by author and weight. This took some explaining, too, as I simply couldn't believe they were asking me to identify each book by its author and write it down separately, but they did, so I did. Then the lady handed me two more forms to copy my addresses and long list on, as they needed the information in triplicate, of course.
The nice ladies took great care to show me where to go--where to deposit my envelopes and what number to take when I went to a different room to weigh my complete parcel and pay for it. That was more what I expected. When I got to the counter, I was very glad my Russian teacher had declined to teach me useful things like the names of food and how to give detailed directions, but did teach me lots of lovely words like moon and garden and ocean, so when the lady asked me if I wanted my package to go by air I could forcefully say no and say, "by sea."
We then went through my address together, while she jokingly groaned about having to write in English and asked me to check things. "Almost. No, not Russian N. English N." That got a chuckle. The package wasn't that expensive, compared to shipping from Laos, say, or using private shipping companies, but it was still more than I had in cash, but it was no problem for me to run to the ATM in the next room. Again, a great deal of patience. Processes that seem...ridiculous... but yes, kindness and patience. And isn't it nice to find heterogenity, with KFC opening up around the corner and Coca-Cola the world's drink?
It snowed again last night, so the ugly brown slush from yesterday's mini thaw has been all covered up again. It's awfully pretty.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


So I finally took part on one of the major social/public health activities in this part of the world: I want to the banya.

A banya is a Russian-style sauna. Sometimes they're just standard boxes with coals; often they're big complexes with different rooms at different temperatures, cold pools, cool pools (I have yet to find a hot pool), massage options, gyms, cafes, what have you. Jeremy and I went to the big public banya here, which has all that good stuff.
I had a bathing suit, just in case, but Jeremy hadn't brought one. We had a debate as we walked to the banya as to what would be the best way to communicate "do we need bathing suits" when we got to the ticket counter. We decided against just pointing at his crotch and waggling our eyebrows, and instead when we got there, I managed to ask the keeper of the little closet shop near the front door in terrible Russian "Do you have in-the-banya clothes?" She then told me many, many things in Russian that I didn't understand a single bit, but I gathered that she didn't sell them and they weren't necessary. The shop sold bunches of birch twigs and leaves, goggles, and lots of wool hats, which I thought at the time was quite strange.
I was pretty sure, as men and women have separate sections in the complex, that this was a bathing suit free affair, but I checked it out again at the ticket lady by holding up my ratty suit and saying "I have. He doesn't have." Again, a torrent of Russian in a reassuring tone. I felt confident. I think Jeremy, not having the suit, felt a bit less confident at this point, but we shuttled him off anyway and agreed to meet back in an hour.
In the banya, you're issued slippers and an orange sheet, which none of the old ladies walking around could be bothered to wear, and a key for a locker to put your stuff in. In case the walk from the ticket counter has made you thirsty, there's a cafe with beer on tap inside the locker room. I changed and tied my sheet under my armpits like a towel, but I felt like a weirdo all covered up while most of the other ladies sauntered around naked except for their wooly hats. To fit in, I gradually lowered the sheet to hang around my waist and held it not-at-all-casually there for a while.
You could exit the locker room through one of two wooden doors that gave no indication what lay beyond them. Opening a door to the unknown while mostly naked is a kind of stress I have not experienced before. I sort of hovered by one door in my sheet, until a woman and her daughter, who had been changing next to me, noticed my distress and herded me through. The next room was like a big, tiled, open locker room, with half walls with spigots arranged through it in arcs. Next to most of them were plastic baskets with brushes and soaps and bunches of leaves. It's like a giant, public grooming facility. There were women scrubbing each other's backs and others consulting on, I don't know, ingrown toenails, or drying each other's hair. It was nice. It was like stepping back into some communal, social bathing scene that I imagine must have been the way things were done before there was indoor plumbing and all this silly privacy. Ha.

Past the public grooming area were the sauna rooms. They were lovely--the wood smelled great, the leaves the ladies were beating themselves with smelled great. I guess you have to buy them at the front entrance, so alas, I went unwhipped. But I got to watch fleshy old ladies, red-faced under their pointy hats, rhythmically slap themselves on the back with branches while they gabbed with other sweaty ladies reclining on the highest steps of the sauna, up in the heat that I don't think I could take. Lots of mothers had brought their daughters, and they'd take turns with the old ladies swatting the little girls and then swatting themselves. Droplets of sweat flew through the air with each application of the branches, settling on everyone nearby and joining our own trickles of sweat on their way to the wood floor. 

The large grooming room also had a number of wooden doors to pick from, these ones labeled in Russian, so I could tell what I might find behind most of them. One led to the Turkish hamam, which I thought might have a hot tub, so I went through it, found myself in a long hallway with lots of other doors and a fully clothed female vendor selling fruit juice. I found the hammam eventually, but there was no water to be had, just a large, domed, tiled room with soft light and ladies in sheets lying on marble slabs. Some small rooms off to the side seemed to have...private marble slabs? I guess a lot of time in the banya is spent resting in between sauna sessions and cool baths. Not being in the mood for a nap, I went back to find some water to immerse myself in.

Eventually, I came upon a big, cool pool at the other end of the complex. That was it for water, at least as far as I could find. I swam around naked in the cool pool a bit, which was nice, then went back to the sauna, took a shower, went to the pool, took a shower again, and it was time to go. I envied the ladies sitting around, exfoliating their heels together. Next time, I'll bring a basket of my own goodies and linger for a while.
Winter's gates are closed.
I breath snow into salt slush.
Nothing is transformed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


bright rain on the tile.
the heavy glass in my hand,
already broken.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Swirling words in my
coffee cup, but they won't mate
in captivity.


In captivity--
Even with coffee, milk and
sugar--words won't mate.


Magpie hops on dirt,
White tail bright against dead leaves.
Traffic does not stop.


Running out of ink
I am relieved. Autumn snow
becomes rain again.

A haiku a day: Oct. 26

I awake in a
fog bank: life is all dream on
the 24th floor.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Impressions from a walk this morning

A child in a fur-trimmed hood drinks a cold lime soda.
An old truck revs its engine at an ending light.
Fence tips shaped like spear heads.
Cracked ice melting in puddles.
Fat ladies in white gogo boots at bus stops. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

October 6

This morning the whole sky was a thick, low layer of cloud unrolled over the city and the steppe beyond, but there was one small circle in the skies off to my left where the cloud thinned and the sun above it could stream through. It was like a distant rain shower in reverse--instead of a dark vertical smear, there was a column of pale light falling through the lit up, ragged edges of cloud.

The hole shrank as I watched until there was just one fine, straight thread of light between the roofs and the gray cloud--and then it closed. This sky, this sky.

And now the clouds have evaporated completely and the day is beautiful. Kazakhs are canoodling on park benches; I get the impression that this may be the last warm day of the year. Big magpies are hopping madly in the newly-turned ground. I never noticed that magpies are black and white and navy, but today in the sun I saw the blue strips across their backs.

Below me I can see that the water is moving, but out to the west, past the edge of the city, the river looks like breaks in a painting, places where someone has rubbed pigment away to let something bright underneath shine through.