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).