Sunday, September 30, 2007

Adventures in the City--exploring, bookstores, and hot water

I have been meaning to sit down and write every evening this past week, but by the time dinner is done and there is time to write, I’ve been too exhausted to gather enough energy to do so. Instead, it’s been early to bed in a mostly-unsuccessful attempt to shake off a sinus infection. Hopefully it’s a little better today—or maybe it’s just the effects of the glass of Old Tblisi I had with dinner.

The Critical Language Program is helping in ways that I could not have imagined—particularly with contacts at one of the local universities. I teach at two different campuses (which actually means two separate buildings in different parts of the city) and have come to realize that it will be difficult to transition to teaching in the states when I return home. As an American—and particularly as Fulbright student/PhD candidate/American—you become something of a local celebrity. I have about 200 students total in all of my classes, and many of them come rushing over to say hello when I pass by on the street or on the way to lecture (sometimes I think I should just wave regally while walking through the building). Each class ends at least 10 minutes late, as students want to share stories, offer assistance showing me around town, or ask questions. Talk about an ego-boost (not that one is necessary)! My American Studies class, in particular, is one of the high points of my week. I’m only committed to teaching for the fall semester, but will probably work something out with the university to teach occasionally during the spring semester.

The American Studies course is taught through the Romance and Germanic Language Faculty at the university, and the faculty members have taken it upon themselves to show me around the city. Last Sunday, six faculty/grad students took me on a walking tour of Almaty—lasting eight hours in total. It was absolutely fascinating! We started with a tour of Zhenkov Cathedral, which I’ve mentioned earlier. During the Soviet era, it was the Museum of History, but has since been restored as a Russian Orthodox Church. Just behind the church is an eternal flame, dedicated to soldiers from the region that died during WWII. There is also a massive sculpture depicting soldiers from the 15 Soviet republics, bursting out of a map of the USSR. At the very end of the prospect, there are marble boxes containing soil from the “hero cities” of the USSR—Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow, Sevastopol, and other cities where large numbers of citizens and soldiers died during WWII. One of the faculty members lost her grandfather at Stalingrad, and it was very poignant as she explained how she and her mother visit the monument each May 9th (a day of remembrance) to leave flowers.

After viewing the monument, we then walked through other regions of the city and eventually ended up at the cable car to Kok Tobe—a slope uphill of the city, where the television tower is located. It was a rather harrowing ride in the cable car—particularly if you are absolutely terrified of heights! Everyone wanted to take a picture with me on the ride, so—for those of you acquainted with my acute phobia, particularly—imagine if you will what was necessary to keep smiling and not let on how scared I was. Once we arrived at the top, we had a wonderful picnic lunch overlooking the city—tea, cakes, chocolates, sandwiches, and more. There is quite an array of things to do/see at the observatory—including a zoo, gluhwein stand (without gluhwein, of course!), photo of Steven Seagal visiting the area, and a pre-teen belly-dancing competition. And all that is before you reach the bench with the statues of the Beatles. It was absolutely fascinating, and wonderful to experience. Of course, my new friends had a wonderful time pointing to different areas of the city below us and asking what was there, or asking if I could identify where I lived. They were amazed that someone—let alone a foreigner—could do so. Their excitement was incredibly infectious, as well as endearing.

We ended the day by visiting the new location of the Museum of History. I can see that I will be spending a great deal of time there in the future—the displays were fascinating, particularly those relating to diasporas in Kazakhstan. Pictures are not allowed, so it will be me and a notebook—there is easily a chapter of my dissertation just within the walls of the yurt-shaped building! The senior faculty member is Kazakh, and she was able to explain so many of the displays, and to give a unique perspective. It was also amazing to see the Atlas of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic on display—particularly since it is the same atlas that I had in my office back in Kansas.

By the time I returned home, I was completely exhausted. Eight hours of walking—and of conversing in as much Russian as possible—was incredibly tiring. Especially since I had walked about 12 miles the day before! Next weekend, we are scheduled to go out to Charyn Canyon. It’s about 3 hours from here, and is supposed to be the Kazakh “Grand Canyon”. I’m looking forward to the trip, particularly since one of the faculty members going is around my age and seems determined to become a good friend. I enjoy the people I work with, and also the other Fulbrighters here, but it would be nice to develop a social network outside of these confines. Although, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my landlords as well—they have welcomed me into their family and have shown me around some of the parks and the local bazaar.

After a month here, life is beginning to settle into a routine. Teaching and Russian lessons take up much of the day, and the walk home usually entails a stop at the market to see what is for dinner that night. On my days off, I take my city map and go exploring. The only rule is that I spend at least 2 or 3 hours actively walking. Since I live in the old downtown area, nearly everyplace is uphill from here—definitely good exercise! There’s a bookstore about ½ mile away from my apartment, with a large selection of Agatha Christie mysteries. It is always a temptation—particularly since a book costs about $2. And, yes, they do have a selection of Victoria Holt novels as well. Apparently, her books are considered modern literary masterpieces. Of course, there are only three plots to choose from, even though there are 30-40 books in total (having read all of her books in 7th and 8th grades, I can attest to that fact personally). I have to admit, I have read 2 or 3 since arriving here—and they are as bad as I remember them being. Of course, there is tremendous entertainment value from the camp factor in the books (which, I’m sure, was never intended by the author). Right now, though, I’m working on my Russian language and reading a translation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

Although life is settling into a routine, there is always one factor that has to be accounted for—the unexpected. You just never know what will happen—and when something will happen. Right now, the city is preparing to turn on the heat for the winter. This event occurs on the 15th of October, and before then the pipes must all be tested. What does this mean? Well, for my friends living on the fringes of the city—they had no gas for nearly a week. That meant that they could not do any cooking until the gas came back on. In my apartment—at least I can cook. But I have no hot water. There is plenty of cold water, though—emphasis on the “cold”. Or maybe it should be icy. I have to boil water for dishes or to wash. We don’t know when there will be hot water again—according to my landlady, her friend had no hot water for 10 days. It’s day 3 now, and I’m praying for hot water by tomorrow. But…at least it is better than it was during Hurricane Bob in 1991, when the only water for over a week was what could be brought in buckets from one of the local ponds. What amazes me more than anything else over here is that no one is upset. It is just the way things are, and these things are to be expected. It really is the best attitude to have, though. There is nothing that can be done about the situation, and it is more endurable if you just have patience.

Well, that’s it for now. It’s nearly 9pm and I’m going to indulge in a second glass of Old Tblisi and watch a movie. Too bad that I can’t play Russian DVDs on my computer, though—“Garry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was just released over here (and that’s not a typo—it is Garry Potter over here).

Monday, September 24, 2007


My Internet connection here in Almaty is fairly slow--my apartment only had dial-up access, so it's difficult to post pictures because of the file size. I'm going to try to get a few posted a little later on today, but in the interim wanted to find out how long it will take to upload each picture. So, for your viewing pleasure, here's my favorite movie sign here in Almaty--Bourne's Ultimatum. The poster has since been replaced by those for the epic movie "Mongol" that opened here on Friday--hopefully I'll have some pictures of this one a little later on.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Almaty--some history and geography

The weather has finally begun to change here in Almaty. Nights are noticeably cooler, and there is an undercurrent of fall in the air during the day. Today was another sunny, clear day—and with the cooler temperatures, a beautiful day for walking around the city. By late afternoon, though, a cold front began to move through the area and now it is cloudy and raining. After so many days of sunny skies, it is something of a relief to see the rain.

It occurs to me that I haven’t described the city adequately in earlier postings. Almaty itself is not an old city—it was established as a Russian fort in 1854 (Fort Vernoe) during the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires (everything relates to geopolitics, it seems!). The most famous—and important—architect of the city was AP Zhenkov. He oversaw the construction of what is now called Zhenkov Cathedral in the center of the city, as well as the building that used to house the US Embassy (before the embassy moved to Astana and a new consular office opened across town). During Soviet times, the city was known as Alma-Ata, which means the Father of Apples. Yes, there are apple trees in and around the city. After the country became independent in 1991, the city was once again renamed and became Almaty. It is the largest city in Central Asia, with about 1.2 million people living within the city boundaries. If you consider the number of people who live just beyond the border (in Almaty Oblast—which would be considered to be like one of our 50 states in the US), the number would be still higher.

When the city was constructed, it was built according to a grid. Streets run either north/south or east/west. In theory, it should be rather easy to navigate around the city. The reality—well, it’s a little different. Street signs are few and far between—and are usually only posted on the sides of buildings rather than near intersections. There is the added problem of what the streets are now called versus the names that people actually use. Many of the Soviet names were changed after independence, but remain in effect today. The general rule of thumb is that if the new name is more difficult or longer to pronounce/remember, then the old name remains in effect. Thus, Dostyk is still called Lenina and Bogenbay Batyr is still Kirova, but Kommunistichesky is now Ablai Khan.

After nearly a month here, I am able to navigate around the city fairly well. There is always the option of taking a bus to wherever you want to go, but since I’m rarely in a hurry these days (quite a nice change for once!), I usually walk to wherever I want to go. Most days that means a round-trip of between 5 and 10 miles, depending on my plans. It’s also my justification for stopping by the bakery ½ mile from home to see if they have any cream puffs (most days they don’t-but you never know!). If they DO have cream puffs, I feel no guilt whatsoever in buying 1 (or 2—to have one the next day) to take home and enjoy with a cup of tea.

While I’m walking around the city, I’m approached on average 4-6 times by people asking for directions. Yes, people who live here can’t find their way around the city. It’s something that I find puzzling, since there are some pretty obvious landmarks. Mountains are always to the south, and you can tell east/west by looking at the direction of the shadows. Downtown is the northeastern area of the city, and all of the new construction is in the southeast. Even with my notoriously bad sense of direction (don’t ask me which way is south or east in Lawrence—I’ll get lost even after 4 years!), it’s pretty easy. But…I also get to practice my Russian and speak with people in the street (I’ve progressed past the “I’m sorry, but I don’t know” stage and can actually give fairly adequate directions).

Speaking of the streets—they are mostly tree-lined, with parks that appear almost out of nowhere. Yes, it is green here in the city! Small canals run between the roads and the sidewalks, to drain away the water that runs down from the mountains. In some areas—particularly on streets that run east/west, these are dry and seem to collect more trash than anything. On streets that run north/south, these canals are usually full of quickly-moving water.

Water seems to be everywhere in the city—fountains abound in just about all of the parks that I’ve seen, and there are large reflecting pools/fountains in front of many official buildings and theaters. It is really very beautiful to see. Another sign often seen around the city are the camels. No, not REAL camels. They are small statues in front of buildings, in parks, and other public areas. Each is painted in a manner reflecting some aspect of Kazakhstan—art, culture, religion, history.

Right now, there’s another sight that you can see just about everywhere in the city. It’s that new blockbuster movie, Mongol, and is about the defeat of Chengis Khan by nomadic Kazakhs in this area. It is fascinating to see all of the signs (the movie opened today) for the movie. If I remember correctly, I mentioned the filming of the movie in my thesis, too! So, if I can find a Russian language version playing, I will probably go see it (the movie appears to be in Kazakh in most cinemas). Hmmm…I can already see a potential section in the dissertation (actually, every day I come home with notes and ideas for the dissertation—at this rate, the research will be done before the language training ends and the Fulbright grant begins).

That’s all for now—this has been a rather lengthy post, and I’m running out of steam. Time for a cream puff and a mug of hibiscus tea. After all, I walked about 12 miles today and definitely earned the treat!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Volunteering, and other musings

I’m finding plenty of volunteer opportunities here (something that Fulbright likes us to do and something that I would do regardless). Oddly enough (?) these opportunities all involve teaching. Lyudmila—my landlady—teaches English at the Kazakh-British University right around the corner, and I’m going to be doing some sessions on teaching methodologies this winter. I’ve also met the director of the school of English philology at Ablai Khan University, and will be working with her on some similar training sessions. Then, when I do my fieldwork in other parts of Kazakhstan, I will likely be working with area universities in what are called the “American Corners” (locations where we have Peace Corps volunteers, and small American centers run by the Embassy), I will once again present some seminars and/or lectures on teaching methods. Schools are clamoring for ideas on how to improve how courses are taught, and, even with my limited background on teaching methodologies, I am considered something of an expert (scary thought!).

In addition to teaching and other volunteer work, I have also had the chance to work with our consular office here in Almaty to screen applicants for the Humphrey fellowship. It was very interesting—I gave the Test of English Language Proficiency to the 13 applicants—it was definitely possible to gauge how they would do on the test based upon their behavior during the exam. The test was at a local university, and a consular representative was there to assist me. Afterwards, we were picked up in an official diplomatic vehicle and driven back to the consulate to grade the exams and determine who would proceed to the next stage of the process. I was able to have lunch at the embassy—which sounds much cooler than the actuality. They had plov (essentially the national food of Kazakhstan—rice with carrots, sometimes dried apricots, and roasted lamb or mutton), which is now my new favorite food. I just need to find someone to show me how to make it!!! Afterwards, I walked to the nearby Ramstor (a mall with very chichi stores, a small ice rink where several students were practicing their figure skating—a la Tanya Harding, but without the metal baton for rivals). There’s a huge Turkish grocery store at Ramstor, where I was able to find the glasses I mentioned in an earlier post. The meat counter there was quite an experience—they have many foreigners shopping in the store, so to prevent any confusion they put a picture of the appropriate animal in front of each display case. It’s very helpful—especially if you don’t know the word for horse (which, I’m finding, is very easy to avoid eating—thankfully!).

After leaving Ramstor, I headed over to the bus stop. However, the bus I needed doesn’t run stop there, so I walked to the next stop—or to where I was told the stop was. But there wasn’t a stop there. So…I kept heading north toward the city center, thinking that I could catch a bus at the next stop. Unfortunately, none of the buses that passed by stop in the vicinity of my house. By the time I saw a bus that would take me home, I was nearly on my doorstep. Four miles on uneven sidewalks—avoiding the maniacal Kazakh drivers—in 3-inch heels is not something I would recommend. My calves are still sore.

As to the drivers…well, there are LOTS of cars here in Almaty. But there seem to be no traffic rules. Walking anywhere near the vicinity of a crosswalk will lead to drivers beeping their horn at you, warning you not to even think of crossing in front of them. Of course, the drivers can beep but pedestrians are expected to ignore them and not respond. My inner New Englander is hopelessly offended by this practice, but I try to overcome it by thinking of Kevin Kline’s favorite line in that all-time classic film Fish Called Wanda. And it’s not “don’t call me stupid!!”. After about the 25th time in a 2 mile walk, it gets rather difficult, though.

Well, that’s about it for now. There are many, many more stories to tell, and I will write more when I have the opportunity. Right now, though, I’m going to curl up with a good book and perhaps a second glass of Old Tblisi!


Many of my days are spent at the Ablai Khan University of World Languages and International Relations (quite a mouthful!!). Three days a week, I have individual Russian language classes with an instructor whose English is severely limited. It’s great—since it eliminates the ability to ask a question in English and forces me to communicate almost exclusively in Russian. She’s determined to get rid of my accent—but I fear she’s fighting a losing cause. But since I’m usually one language behind with my accents (my Russian has a German accent), when I learn Kazakh I will probably speak with a Russian accent. I’m so thankful that I am able to participate in the critical language training program, though—I couldn’t imagine not having the additional language training before attempting to conduct interviews. The research would be impossible.

When I’m not studying or in Russian class, I’m also teaching two separate courses for the university. Originally, I was to teach Geopolitics three times a week (the same lecture each time). It was pretty straightforward, and something that I can easily do. However, another department was upset because the “Fulbright PhD Candidate” was being monopolized by the department of international relations (listening to some of these conversations, you sometimes feel like a bit of a commodity—and a rare one, at that!). So…the end result was that I had less than 24 hours to prepare my new course on American Studies that I teach to 2 sections of students. Am I ever glad that I taught the Geography of the US and Canada last summer! I have all of my course notes with me, and I’m just teaching the exact same class again. As much as I would love to revise the course, I simply don’t have time to do so and to simultaneously focus on my Russian—which is my priority, and what I’m being paid to do at the moment. I don’t mind helping out at all, and I enjoy the teaching—but it’s important to remember what my priorities are.

Housecleaning-don't laugh, Dad!!

House cleaning is quite an experience, I’ve found. There is an inordinate amount of dust around here (although not as bad as just outside of town), yet there are few vacuum cleaners. Instead, there is the birch-twig broom that is used to sweep carpets and floors. I made the mistake of picking up my hall carpet (a rather long carpet runner) to take it to the balcony to shake out. Imagine my surprise when immediately fine dust particles began to rain down all over the hallway—filling the air with a dark cloud and seeping into the smallest crevices imaginable. The aforementioned birch broom does little to sweep up this type of dust. Instead, it was me, a rag, and a bucket of water that I used to swab down the floors and walls. Every 2 minutes, the water would be black and have to be emptied—and then the floor had to be washed two or three times before it was truly clean.

Fortunately, housecleaning usually doesn’t take too long. The same can’t be said for laundry, though. I am lucky to have a washing machine here in the apartment, since there are no Laundromats to be found anywhere. Without a washing machine, laundry would need to be done in the bathtub. Of course, that’s not far from my reality even with the washing machine—which more accurately should be called an agitator. To do laundry, I first place a wooden shelf across the bathtub, and then sit the machine (which looks like a large box) on the shelf. After checking to ensure that the hose is attached underneath the machine, I put a few clothes into the agitator and add some laundry soap. Next, I turn on the faucet and fill the machine with as much water as necessary. Finally, I turn it on and wait about 10 minutes for it to finish. The second stage requires draining the water out of the agitator into buckets, and pouring the water into the toilet to flush away (so the lint doesn’t block the tub drain). Then, I add more water and continue the process until the water is relatively clean (about 4-5 cycles). The clothes then come out of the agitator and are rinsed in the bathtub before being hung to dry on the clotheslines on the balcony (there are no dryers in Almaty). It’s quite a process—but if the clothes are hung out before 11am, they will be dry by mid-afternoon. The sun is pretty strong around here, so it doesn’t take too long—you just need to take the clothes in quickly, before they are faded by the sun or get full of dust.

Settling In

After taking the last ten days to settle into my new apartment and something approximating a routine, I now have an opportunity to sit down and write about some of my latest adventures in Almaty. It’s nice to have a free evening—one in which I’m not too exhausted from teaching, walking around the city, and hours spent trying to improve my Russian. So now it’s time to listen to some music (The Beatles—a nice break from all of the techno-pop you hear on the radio over here), enjoy a glass of “Old Tblisi” red (for those of you unfamiliar with the post-Soviet states, Tblisi is the capital of Georgia—a country known for its good wines), and catch up on writing.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my apartment here in Almaty. Housing prices are incredibly expensive—it’s not unheard of for an apartment to rent for $2000-$3000 per month, which the Fulbright stipend simply wouldn’t cover. However, our embassy contact arranged for an apartment near the old city center that has a very modest rent. Her friend owns the apartment, and lives next door with her family. Surprisingly for the city, my apartment is very private—it overlooks a tree-filled courtyard away from the street. Even better, the building has a southern exposure. Around here, that means only one thing—it faces the Tien Shan mountains that rise up just south of the city. My apartment is on the 4th (and top) floor, and each morning I wake up to a beautiful view of the mountains. From a certain angle, one peak in particular looks just like the Alpspitze in Garmisch—it’s strangely comforting.

The apartment is typical of Soviet-era apartments (although much nicer than the huge Soviet style apartment buildings on the edges of the city). It’s only about 450 square feet, with a small bathroom (complete with toilet tucked away in a room smaller than a broom closet), kitchen, and bedroom/living room combination. My landlords ensured that I had the most essential item before I moved in—they bought me a new tea kettle, so that I can sit in the kitchen and drink tea all evening long. The kitchen is rather standard—if a little on the larger size. It had most of the necessary equipment—pots, pans, plates, etc. I have had to go out and buy a few things, though. A few good knives, cutting boards, and mixing spoons make all the difference in the world. Monday, I was able to add the one essential that, as an American, I found incredibly difficult to live without. Yes, I was able to find a set of actual drinking glasses that weren’t smaller than juice tumblers. Before that, I only had a set of tea mugs. I was so thrilled that I didn’t mind having to walk 4 miles back to my house—in 3-inch heels. But more on that in another post.

Back to my apartment…the bedroom/living room is very Russian in character—rich carpets hanging on the walls, a large schrank occupying one entire wall and filled with items of importance. And books. Wonderful, wonderful books. Agatha Christie, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Victoria Holt (yes, that author of the Victorian-era tripe, that I loved so much in 7th grade before developing at least some critical faculties). There are shelves and shelves of books, both in Russian and English. Lyudmila (my landlady) has shown me the bookshelves in her apartment and invited me to go over to get books any time I want. My first night here, I sat listening to the rain (the only rain we’ve had since I’ve been here), and reading an Agatha Christie. Absolute bliss. So if you think of me over here in Almaty, picture me enjoying a cup of tea in the evening, a wonderful pastry from one of the many bakeries, and reading a good book on my balcony—occasionally looking up at the mountains and thinking of how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy these simple things.

Calling Almaty

Several people have asked about calling Kazakhstan. It is possible, and fairly inexpensive (about 4-5 cents a minute). If you’d like more information, just let me know! Calls (and emails) are always welcome!


A few weeks ago I set up an option that allows people to be automatically notified when there’s an update to the blog—you were supposed to have been sent an invitation so that you can choose whether you want this option. Instead, I (thanks to the inability to think with the worst jet lag I’ve experienced) selected the button that automatically signs people up. Many, many apologies for this error! If you don’t want to get automatic updates, just let me know. The last thing I want to do is to clog people’s inboxes with more superfluous email!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wine Tasting in Almaty

Kazakh wine tasting is unlike any wine tasting that you might see in the States. It started promptly at noon, with great groups of people waiting anxiously at the gate. Families with small children, grandmothers, people of all ages. Once the event was opened to the public, people immediately ran to tables to get their free samples of wine. They were a young, fresh Kazakh red and white (circa 6 September). Sarah and I thought that the event included the stomping of the grapes. Instead, it was the snatching of the grapes. A wooden cart full of green grapes was brought out and was instantly surrounded by hordes of people grabbing all that they could. It was rather like a Great White feeding frenzy. Amazing. From start to finish, the entire event lasted less than one hour. The goal seemed to be to drink as much (free) alcohol as possible—it reminded me of grad school, in a way. However, in school people would not be giving wine to small children.

Afterwards, we walked back along Gogol Street towards the Zelony Market. Along the way, we passed the Coca Cola Almaty bottling plant, complete with its fleet of Lada’s out in front. Globalization in action! The Cold War ends with the logo of a huge American corporation on the side of the ultimate Soviet era automobile.

Tomorrow will be a quieter day—I’ve been asked to review applications for the Junior Faculty Development Program for the US Embassy in Tashkent, and will be reading these applications tomorrow. They don’t have any Fulbright students/scholars in that country this year due to the political situation, so the applications were passed along to the Consulate in Almaty. It’s a rather daunting task for me, as I am charged with deciding which applications should be considered for the next stage of selection. Only ½ of the applicants will make it to the next round, and the decisions that I make can have substantial influence on the lives of other individuals. As I’ve seen first-hand here in Almaty, having been selected for one of these US-sponsored programs opens many doors that would otherwise remain closed. So, these are not decisions that can be made lightly. So, after breakfast tomorrow I will make a pot of tea and sit at my table looking out over the mountains and begin reading and evaluating the applications. According to the program directives, the focus of the exchange is to send scholars from this region to the US to learn about teaching methods and, upon their return to their native country, apply what they have learned in their own courses and at their university. So, many many thanks to Shannon O’Lear’s teaching seminar. It is helping in ways I never imagined!!

(I'll upload pictures as soon as possible--the connections are rather slow, so some formats need to be changed first)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

in Almaty

After a rather long flight (about 30 hours of travel time), I finally made it to Almaty in the very early hours of Thursday morning. The airport was a fascinating experience--fortunately, I was met by someone from the embassy who was able to cut through all of the bureaucratic red tape very quickly (it involved going to the head of a long line, as diplomatic credentials--his, not mine--have priority). Others were not so fortunate, and I hear the wait was about 3 hours for some. By the time luggage was coming off of the plane, there were not enough people to collect theirs and so it was just falling off of the conveyor belt and causing the belt to stop moving. Then there was the traffic...but that is another story entirely!!! Let's just say that in comparison, Massachusetts drivers drive like grandmothers and grandfathers.

On the way into the city, I saw my first melon stand (for those of you unfamiliar with Central Asia, the region is famous for its melons. There's even an atlas of melons, I hear--right, Shannon??). Fruit stands are everywhere, and the produce is abundant and extremely inexpensive. Tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries, apricots, eggplant, and many that I can't even name. Thus far, I've spent about $5 on food--with the exception of going out to eat one night. That was a comparatively expensive $12 for a wonderful invention called the lula kabob (ground, spiced chicken grilled over an open flame and then served wrapped in a flatbread--just add tomatoes, dill, and a spicy tomato sauce and it's heavenly).

I've figured out the buses, with the help of a fellow Fulbrighter--Sarah. She's been incredibly helpful--letting me stay at her house until I get an apartment, showing me around, and translating quite a bit. My Russian is okay, but I'm still not quite confident in my skills. But..I did get to use some French when speaking with a prospective landlord. She doesn't speak English and my Russian is not good enough yet, but we found a common language.

As to the city--well, it's beautiful in a way that I can't quite describe. It's clearly an oil city, and there is a great deal of money within the city. There are more Audis, BMWs, and Lexus's than I can count. Small loans have resulted in everyone having a (very nice) car. The gas stations are all named after oil companies (small surprise), and there are signs for Kuwait Corporation and others all over the place. Government buildings are tall, elaborate, and quite beautiful.

I've done some exploring thus far, and will post pictures when possible. I slept through Constitution Day (the day I arrived), but have some pictures from later events. And, of course, one of a poster of a favorite movie--Bourne's Ultimatum. No, that' s not a typo. It's how it translates into Russian.

Now it's time to head off to the city center to look at another apartment. And then, it's off to the Turkish baths, and a visit to one of the huge and famous department stores in town (hmm...maybe there will be some Georgian wine there). Tonight, Sarah and I might head up to the television tower (always an attraction in a former Soviet city).