Sunday, February 18, 2007

Valentine's Day and Goodbye

Unlike in the U.S., here there were no large reminders or ads hung conspicuously, reminding people to buy Valentine’s gifts for their loved ones. But despite this, everyone seemed to remember it and celebrate it with more vigor and enthusiasm that even in the States.

On the day before Valentine’s day, the receptionist at my health club was handing out red glitter Styrofoam hearts on plastic sticks. She seemed disappointed when I thanked her but didn’t take one, reluctant to add any more objects to the piles of stuff I have to prepare to move.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, a coworker left a miniature card on my desk. The woman who cleans my apartment brought me a card and a red carnation. Once I realized that people took this holiday seriously, I decided to join in and buy a heart-shaped cake and some chocolates for the office. The cake store was packed, as were the flower shops and the cafes in the evenings.

“It started to get popular three or four years ago,” Olga, my housecleaner told me. People told me that young people saw it in movies and on TV, and started to adopt it themselves.

My feeling here is that the holiday is a little less couple oriented. Those who are single didn’t seem to feel depressed about lacking a lover on this holiday. Instead, people shared their signs of love and affection to a larger group – to friends, coworkers and family, as well as lovers. Even my eastern dance teacher, who does have a boyfriend, didn’t go out to dinner with him alone. They were joined by her boyfriend’s brother and his wife.

Zhenya and Svetlana had asked me to go to the disco with them that evening. They were going to take advantage of the holiday to look for love. “We want to find husbands,” Zhenya told me.

Even though it was a Wednesday night, I was prepared to go. In all my time in Bishkek, I have never gone to a disco. I’m not too motivated to stay out late dancing with foreigners, nor with co-workers. But I thought it could be fun to join my local friends in a husband search. I even offered to help.

But at the last minute, Svetlana’s son got sick and they decided not to go. They didn’t even call to tell me they’d changed their plans. So, I ended up sitting home on Valentine’s Day evening after all.

Last night I had my going away party with my friends. We gathered at what is now my favorite café, U Bolshovo Mazaya. It’s located at the edge of town, where the city meets the view of the mountains.

On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from 6 to 8, they offer half price cocktails. And with over 200 cocktails, they have one of the most extensive selections in town. They are especially proud of their layered cocktails – drinks in which the different layers of juice or alcohol don’t mind with each other, looking like a glass full of colorful striped sand.

As well, they have a very talented bartender, who told me he was trained in Moscow. He performed an entire show, during which the patrons stood up, watched, rapt, and clapped. He juggled, threw the bottle of open alcohol behind his back, threw the ice and caught it, and played up to the audience attention. At the end, they auctioned off the drink he made – a blue drink served in a martini glass and garnished with a banana.

Of course, they timed it well, after people had already drunk many half-priced cocktails. One man bid over $30 to give it to his date.

What I especially liked was the atmosphere. It was a wooden building, like a little cottage, with animal furs on the walls. It seemed warm and homey, like a cabin in the woods.

“This is done in the Russian style,” Gulnara’s husband Shakir said. “But the workers are Kyrgyz.”

The workers are very attentive, offering unusually good service for Bishkek. And the clientele was refreshingly varied – Kyrgyz and Russian, young and old, families and couples – they filled every table in the place and all seemed to be having fun.

I also had a very nice time. And seated with my friends, I felt grateful to be surrounded by such unique, smart, and good people. Each of them shaped my experience in Kyrgyzstan and I was very glad for that.

My local friends especially seem to be very sad that I’m leaving. I tell them I hope I’ll be back as a tourist at some point. And I really hope I will. But I know the chance of my spending an extended time here in the future is not very high.

It’s always hard to leave a place that has become like home. Especially knowing how hard it will be to maintain the ties formed here. But what makes leaving here quite a bit easier than leaving other places is knowing that there are exciting changes ahead. By focusing on the upcoming wedding and the job change, I can think a little less about what I’m leaving behind.

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