Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Observations on Almaty

Almaty is a great city, and a fascinating place to live. But I could not imagine living here without the years of preparation. Things happen that you cannot imagine, but are just part of everyday life. The only way to deal with them is to laugh and to shrug things off as much as possible. I thought I’d share some of my favorites.

Bookstores where not all of the books are for sale—only the books on certain shelves. If you pick up a book on one of the other shelves, the woman who works there (and whose hair is a strange shade of burgundy not found in nature) will take it out of your hand and scold you.

15-page menus, but you need to ask the (surly) waitress what is actually available

Water that is turned on and off at random. No one knows why, or when it will be turned back on. It can take weeks sometimes (we lost hot water for a week, and my landlady’s friend had no hot water for 3 weeks). Ditto for gas. And electricity.

Controlling the temperature by opening/closing the window.

The complete absence of clothes dryers.

Lint. On everything. Because the agitator (not washing machine, as I noted in an earlier posting) doesn’t have a lint filter.

Dust. Also on everything. And everywhere.

Probki, probki, probki. There are traffic jams everywhere. It can take 2 ½ hours for a trip that should take 35 minutes. (probki= traffic jam)

Crowded buses. 125 people crammed into a space meant for no more than 50, with no one getting upset. Then there are the people who take advantage of the crowding to get closer than they probably should, and just smile at you when you remove their hand from some portion of your anatomy.

All of these are just part of life here, and aren’t going to change. It’s a great way to learn patience—I’ve found that the most invaluable thing to have brought from home is a sense of humor. Some days, it’s like living in a painting by Salvador Dali since everything is so surreal. As my friend Sarah from KU recently commented, fieldwork is like living someone else’s life. I couldn’t agree more!!


It seems that there are quite a few celebrations this time of year. As I mentioned before, there was just the city’s birthday. It was soon followed by the end of Ramasan/Ramadan (it’s called both over here). I didn’t see much evidence of Ramadan being observed—although it may well have been. However, the celebrations marking the ending of the fasting were quite notable. Friday night, people were out all over the city. Bakeries were emptied of their cakes and pastries, and there seemed to be quite a bit of alcohol being sold in the stores. Several of my friends gathered to have an American-style dinner, and to decompress after what had been a rather long and difficult week. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to sample Sovyetskaya Champagne (Soviet Champagne). Hmmm…probably the last time, too. It’s rather strong, and not particularly good. Think Boone Farm and you won’t be far off.

Last night, I had the opportunity to experience a different type of celebration. Olya, the daughter of my landlords, turned 15 and there was a large family dinner in her honor. She invited me to the party, and I had the chance to see how a Russian family holds a birthday party. It was a multi-course meal, beginning with many types of salads, breads, pelmini (think Russian tortellini, served with smetana—a rich and delicious sour cream)and cold cuts. The second course was roasted chicken, potatoes, and was followed by a strawberry torte, profiteroles, and tea. There was also lots of vodka and wine. I hadn’t realized that you cannot take a sip without someone offering a toast to the guest of honor (Olga—Olya is a diminutive form). It’s a good thing that I didn’t have far to go after dinner—just next door. My landlords have really ensured that I feel at home, and it was a special treat to be included in the birthday celebrations. I will return the favor, and have invited them to my apartment for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

The Day of Independence is coming up soon—October 25th. I’m looking forward to seeing what types of celebrations can be seen throughout the city. I plan on leaving my apartment early—with my camera—and exploring the different areas of the city for the day. It’s fascinating to see what you can stumble across just by walking around different neighborhoods.

Rock and Roll, Almaty style

Last Tuesday, I turned off my lights at about ten to go to sleep—I teach early on Wednesday mornings, so usually don’t stay up too late the night before. I had just started to drift off to sleep, when I suddenly began dreaming that my bed was vibrating. But it wasn’t a dream. It was one of Almaty’s many earthquakes. The walls of the building were all shaking, and I began having flashbacks to the earthquake drills we had in second grade in Monterey, CA. The quake went on for several minutes, but it was about two hours before I could fall back asleep. My friends on the other side of the city had no idea that there was an earthquake—it mainly seemed to affect the city center. Definitely not an experience I’d want to repeat anytime soon, though!

As a result of conversations about the quake, though, I learned that my apartment building is one “Stalin-style”. I’m not quite sure about how I feel about that, but I’m told that these buildings are MUCH more desirable than the Khrushchev-era buildings. It’s easy to see why—the Stalin-era buildings are smaller, only 4-5 floors, as opposed to 15-20 floors. The construction is also supposed to be somewhat better, and they are definitely much more attractive.

Other than the earthquake, life has been fairly calm here in Almaty. As I noted before, the university faculty took me to see a ballet about a week and a half ago. It was “Legends of Lovers”, and was a Turkish ballet. Very different than what I’m accustomed to seeing—although beautiful. The symbolism was difficult to interpret without a program (which I only had after the ballet ended, but at least I could read what the different scenes were supposed to represent). The day we went to the ballet was also the day that the city’s birthday is celebrated. There were gatherings at many different sites throughout the city, but the largest was at the Old Square. It is located in the shadow of what had been the government center of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Normally, the major celebrations would have been at New Square, but there is quite a bit of construction. New Square is on the other side of the city, and the location of the 1986 Alma-Ala riots that occurred at the beginning of the protests that helped to end the Soviet Union—more on these at a later time, though. They deserve their own description.

Arriving at Old Square, one of the faculty members was able to convince the police to allow me and another visiting American to take pictures from the official stands. It was quite a show! The band was “Dveri”, or “Doors”. But they didn’t resemble “The Doors” in any way other than the name. Cheesy pop music, complete with lip synching and choreographed dance moves. Not a single brooding, disgruntled teenager in sight. Instead, it was a sea of people dancing, singing, and celebrating. It was a fantastic experience to be able to take part in the event.

Music over here is very much in the Euro-pop vein, but raised to the nth degree. Even with my love of 80s music (how many people do you know who can sing along to almost anything by the Pet Shop Boys, Falco, and Erasure?), the music here is quite cheesy. It’s not unusual to hear that great mid-80s anthem by the well-known (??) band Opus—“Live is Life" (If you want to know the words, they are something along the lines of “We all need the music, we all need the power, every minute, every hour. Live! Live is Life! Na na na na na”. Repeat as needed.) The song was drilled into my head in 1985-86, in Germany. Imagine being at a beerfest and hearing everyone in the beer tent sing along. Every half-hour. Over and over again.

Most days here, I leave the radio off as much as possible and instead listen to music on my computer. On the days that I do listen to the radio for any length of time, I find that I need to play Guns-n-Roses as loudly as possible (which is actually not loud at all). There’s just something about hearing the guitar at the beginning of “Welcome to the Jungle”. Or any guitar, for that matter. Strange the things you miss--I never would have thought that I'd wish my collection of guitar music was larger.