Monday, December 12, 2005

The flu is making its way through Bishkek with great power. So many people at work are sick that my boss is bringing in a nurse to offer flu shots tomorrow.

The weather is cold and dreary, though the lack of new snow means there are some clear places on the sidewalk where the ice has melted. Nevertheless, after seeing how difficult it is to walk on a nonstop ice sheet, when a friend from Alaska offered to pick me up some attachable soles with metal spikes on her next trip home, I accepted with gratitude.

Yesterday evening, Zhenya invited me over to meet her mother. She had left Kyrgyzstan seven years ago for America and hadn’t been back since. Other than seeing great changes in her only daughter and nine-year-old grandson, I figured her city must have changed greatly since she left. I asked her what surprised her most.

“When I left, the area was in the middle of a great depression,” she said. “It was so grey and sad. People didn’t know how to live or what to do. People have gotten through it and found things to do. And what really surprises me is all the little businesses. It used to just be huge enterprises, and of course, they had mostly died by the time I left. But now so many small businesses have popped up and they really seem to have changed the atmosphere.”

Zhenya filled me in on our friends Marina and Elena. Marina’s fiancĂ©, the retired American, whose baby she gave birth to four months ago, seems not to be coming back. Marina would never admit that outright. But she asked Zhenya for recommendations of dating services that would introduce her to foreign men.

And Elena, an intelligent and kind 34-year-old, who is virtually engaged to a Spainard, is starting to see his troubling side. He has already taken her to Spain once and has now filed the paperwork for a fiancĂ©e visa, so that she can go to live there for a while. She has quit her job and is focused on studying Spanish. It’s an amazing opportunity for her to get out of a place where her opportunities are limited, to build a life for herself, and to have the family she craves. However, Jose has begun showing a jealous and controlling temperament, not believing her when she says where she has been, calling frequently, and expressing fears that she’ll get to Spain and then leave him.

“Elena thinks it’s because of the communication problem,” Zhenya said. She’d scrunched her naturally curly hair with mousse, defining her dark curls in a voluminous mass. “She thinks that maybe he just doesn’t understand her when she explains where she’s been and if only she spoke Spanish well, they wouldn’t have this problem.”

I told her that I doubted it was a cultural communication problem, it was probably a personality issue. I had already told her that men who sought foreign wives on the internet often had a reason why they couldn’t find a wife in their own country. And for a 48-year-old Spainard to never have been married, there was probably a reason why he hadn’t been able to find a woman willing to commit to him.

“I am listed on that same internet site,” Zhenya said, “and the owner of the agency knows my mother. She called yesterday, saying there was an American in town who wanted to be introduced to me. I wasn’t home so she told my mother. When I came back, my mother threw a scandal. She told me that such men weren’t normal, that so many girls who used that agency were now missing – they’d been sold, disappeared, or who knows what else. And she forbid me from going to meet him. I told her I just thought it would be interesting, but I can’t go while she’s here.”

I urged her to be safe, to not give him her address or phone number, to meet him in a public place, to not get in a car alone with him.

It makes me really sad to see hard-working, well-meaning, good people struggling so hard to find the most basic things, love, opportunity, respect and security.

The biggest holiday of the year, New Year’s, is coming up in a few weeks and the stores are already starting to stock up with extra alcohol, fancy candy, pre-made salads, gifts wrapped in cellophane, and cakes. And the weeks of gathering and parties are already slowly starting, bringing people out to the shops and markets in greater numbers than usual. I love watching the bustling shopkeepers bringing in the best income of the year, which will make their holiday all the much more enjoyable for them.

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