Friday, December 24, 2004

A holiday gathering with friends

I’ve just arrived at the Istanbul airport and I’m blown away by the cleanness, brightness, warmth and modernity. I’m seated next to a pair of escalators, ascending and descending, lined with smooth, white, fluorescent beams along their contours, reflections repeated endlessly in the glass barriers. The grey steps are empty and move with an eery slowness, that makes me wonder what the purpose of their movement is. But when a stray passenger steps on at this early hour, the steps suddenly speed up, propelling her to her destination.

I’m also amazed by the shops. Everything is vibrantly open at 6:30 in the morning and the products are so beautiful – the packages of expensive chocolate or Turkish delight, the gleaming bottles of liquor, the shiny leather coats and purses, the seductively advertised perfumes and banking services, the frothed milk on the coffee people sip in the bustling café. I’m seduced by the consumerism, wanting to buy things just for the sake of buying them, just because they are beautiful. But since I don’t actually need anything I’ve seen, so far I’ve resisted.

I spent yesterday in Bishkek, at the apartment I lived in when I first came to Kyrgyzstan. When I arrived on Wednesday evening, my former landlady and current friend Zhenya organized a welcoming party, inviting Svetlana and Elena to join us.

We sat around the kitchen table, joined by Elena’s new Spanish boyfriend, a middle-aged military doctor named Juan, eating chicken, mashed potatoes, salads covered in mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, sausage slices and olives, bread, and slices of cake.

All three women are in their 30s, all are pure or mostly Russian, all are smart and attractive, and none of them have been able to find a local man for a long-term relationship. Zhenya is still technically married, but has been separated from her husband for years due to his gambling addiction. Her eight-year-old son Algubek watched TV in the other room.

Svetlana has been dating an overweight, retired American for several months. She told me at this dinner that she was engaged. I asked her to see her ring and she hid her hands under the table, saying that he would bring it when he returns from the Mexican retirement community where he is relaxing. I asked how it happened, expecting to hear about a formal proposal.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and kept telling him that I didn’t know – maybe yes and maybe no. But I finally decided that it’s something I want to do.”

Robert has been depressed lately in Kyrgyzstan, not speaking Russian and not having an occupation to busy himself with. He dreams of retiring in Mexico and has found the particular place he wants to live, speaking of it often. My guess is that he finally said that he would leave, with or without her. For her, it was a choice between an aging man who cares about her, but is addicted to junk food, and is far less active, both physically and intellectually than she is, or to hope she could find someone else who could fund her hobbies, give her a comfortable standard of living, and an opportunity to travel. He’s looking for company, she’s looking for escape.

Svetlana seemed subdued. She usually chatters non-stop in English, but that evening she was quiet, asking me to translate what Juan said from Spanish into Russian, her blond hair often sinking into her wool, round-necked beige sweater.

Elena also has a middle-aged boyfriend, but I think their relationship is more promising. Elena has three university diplomas, works in a bank, and has never had a serious relationship. She’s a mild-mannered but bright and very kind person. At her age, she’s already considered pretty much past hope for marriage. Her mother lives in Kazakhstan and she tries to stay away from home, making her home in Kyrgyzstan, because her mother bothers her incessantly about why she isn’t married.

Some time ago she registered with a local marriage agency and never received any responses. Within the past few months, she suddenly got a call from the agency, saying that there was a Spanish doctor who was in Bishkek and was interested in meeting her. She was very surprised that he hadn’t written or anything beforehand. They arranged a meeting and things have gone well from that point.

According to Zhenya, “He didn’t have stereotypes that Russian women were easy, but was very gentlemanly and took things very slowly. He considers her very young and says that in Spain a woman her age would consider him an old man.”

He is 14 years older than her and that made her uncomfortable at first. But on the positive side, she feels that he considers her young and beautiful, while most local men already consider her old and past her prime.

“The people at the agency told Juan that Elena was old and asked why he didn’t want to meet some women in their early 20s. He said that he didn’t want a child.” I found that a promising sign.

He’s leaving soon for Spain, but seems committed to Elena. “I can chose which country I want to go to and I’ll be coming back here for one simple reason,” he told me in Spanish, pointing to Elena. He has just hired a teacher for her to learn Spanish.

It’s great to think that if things go well, Elena’s life will change from fearing to lose her $50/month job to vacationing in Majorca.

Zhenya is the only one not dating a foreigner, but her mother lives in America. They are all searching for and reaching out for lifelines to the West, means of escape, ways to realize their potential.

Yesterday I took a risk and decided to get my first haircut in Kyrgyzstan. I was hoping to hold out until I returned home, but it was really looking bad. So I called the Hyatt Hotel and asked who they recommended. They send me to a man named Shamil, a thickset man in his late 30s with curly black hair that reached his shoulders. He was quiet and very calm.

“Are you alive?” one of his colleagues asked him, as he prepared to wash my hair.

“I just want to sleep,” he answered. I hoped he didn’t fall asleep while chopping.

He took over an hour to cut and style my hair. During the last 20 minutes or so he woke up and began talking. He told me how he recently spent three months as a barber on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. He was paid $200 a month, but said that including tips, he made $1,000 a month. That’s amazing money in Kyrgyzstan and I asked why he returned.

“The desert light was too bright and it hurt my eyes. I couldn’t see properly. Also, it seems Americans like main dishes, and lots of them, while I’m more used to first courses, soups and salads. It didn’t do good things for my stomach.”

“They didn’t have any soup?” I asked.

“No. Only a Mexican soup that was really thick. But I like thin soups.”

He told me about all the wonderful facilities there – the 24 hour cafeteria, the free internet and phone calls, all of the amenities, the kind soldiers who left generous tips. “It is really clear that the President loves his soldiers,” he said. “They had everything – everything except alcohol. They only had non-alcoholic beer.” I found that hard to believe and he said that alcohol did get in through people who traveled to the capital. “There is also lots of marijuana, it’s really cheap and easily available,” he said.

“On the base?” I asked.

“Yes. Almost everyone smokes. They can’t do without it. People don’t smile there. They walk around like this,” he imitated a stunned, zombie-like person. “During the three months I was there, five soldiers were killed.”

“Out of how many?”


Last night, Zhenya and her son came and spent the night at the apartment. I was leaving in the middle of the night and needed to pass off the key. Shortly after she arrived, she received a phone call.

“I already paid her $50!” I heard her say. When she hung up the phone she looked upset. “Oh, this is bad news,” she said. “I feel sick.”

She is in her last year of studying at the economics faculty. In order to graduate, each student has to write a dissertation. “You turn in the dissertation and they say no, they won’t accept it, there is this and this problem. So you do it again, and they no, there is this and this problem. Then they say if you pay them they will accept it.”

“So last year,” she continued, “my friend paid $100 to have her dissertation accepted. Since I’m finishing one year later, we decided to share the dissertation. I paid her $50 and she gave me the dissertation, which I submitted this year. There are lots of teachers and we figured that since we are in different years, no one would notice that we submitted the same paper. But by chance,” she frowned, “my dissertation ended up being read by the same woman who read my friend’s and she remembered that they were the same. So now I have to pay again!”

“How much?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She paced around the room.

“I know this must seem strange to you. At Harvard I’m sure it’s much different. But here students usually just pay for our degrees. Half the students in my class never even show up – I don’t even know who studies with me. They just pay enough and eventually get their diplomas – they are like ghosts.”

She wasn’t worried about being disciplined or about being prevented from graduated for cheating. She was just upset that she’d probably have to do a bit more work and to spend more money.

Time to board my flight to London, where I’ll spend Christmas with my boyfriend. Happy holidays to all!

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