Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Seasoned Greeting

To start, I just want to say, I don’t think this entry is my finest work. I was distracted, it’s been written over many installments, and frankly, it could be better. That being said, enjoy.
Let’s begin with the unhappy, angriness. Walking through the city with some friends, we decided (I decided and dragged them along) to play soccer with some local kids. We walked over and I asked, in Russian, if we could play with them. The ringleader, an obvious punk, turned to me and gave me a firm “no.” No explanation, no nothing, just a no. I tried to reason with me but he didn’t say another word, so I stormed off in a huff, my friends tailing behind and listening to my angry muttering.
To counter that encounter, today I was carrying all my things from one friend’s apartment to another, and had just walked out the door, when I started getting honked at by a car. I thought it was just some jerk, but it turned out to be Nikolai Mickaelovich. I didn’t know him, but he drove a truck for the Red Cross and offered me a ride. After forcing open the canopy on his truck with a wrench, we threw my things in and I climbed in the cab. We shook and introduced ourselves and he proceeded to tell me that Americans are good and everybody in Kazakhstan drives like there are no laws. The few minutes we rode together to my destination were pretty enjoyable. He asked for me to give him a few tenge, for his grandchildren, which I was happy to do and we parted. It’s the kindness of strangers and not the bratty insolence of stupid kids that makes this job really fun and worthwhile.
Other brief thoughts and anecdotes: I saw a half eaten cow leg along my path to school the past two days. The bottom half of the leg, with half the bone exposed and the hoof still attached. I’ve had very strange dreams, one of which involved me having to do calculus and left me terrified (a sure sign I’m in the right place, far from math). I’ve taken up the guitar finally, and progress is slow but steady. There isn’t a lot of snow but there’s a lot of cold. This year I like it a bit more and am enjoying the beauty of the frost on everything.
Other news is that I spent the last week down in Almaty for a gathering of all the 18’s and 19’s left in the country. Those are all the volunteers that have been around for at least a year. We got together to gossip about the new volunteers at our sites, drink some beers, make plans for summer and listen to a few seminars. Besides the chance to reconnect with some old friends, I believe the biggest benefit of these biannual events is they reenergize and motivate me to get more work done and be a better volunteer. If that feeling can last the 30 hour train ride back to my site, then I’m in good shape.
Nothing overtly amazing happened this week. I spent some time with my original host family and they once again gave me the huge self-esteem boost of telling me how thin I’ve gotten and how great my Russian has become. I am able to hold real conversations with them and discuss a variety of topics. Sharing jokes and relating various stories about the past half a year in Russian without having to fake a laughter or get something explained to you makes the experience that much more enjoyable.
On the topic of my Russian, I took the language test that the Peace Corps gives out. They have among the staff accredited testers, so it’s an official thing. During the test I was explaining things like the difference between American and Kazakhstani schools, what a White Elephant Christmas Party is and other things that I couldn’t even imagine having spoken about a year ago. When I finished my training I had a score of Intermediate Low. It ranges from Novice Low to Advanced High and finally Superior. This time around I got a score of Intermediate High but the tester, Lena, told me that I had come as close to Advanced Low as I could without actually reaching it. Grammar. Go figure. Who needs it? Anyway, she told me that I have a real gift for the language and talking to me had been a real pleasure.
When I told her what my plans might be for after Peace Corps, being a school teacher, she was appalled and worked hard at convincing me to continue my studies in Russian. She didn’t want me to waste my talent, she told me. So she has me looking at programs to study in Russia or elsewhere in Central Asia, and also proposed that I would be an ideal candidate for Kazakhstan’s flagship program where they hire native speakers to teach English. It would be the same I’m doing now, only paid and working for Kazakhstan and not Peace Corps. It’s just some things to consider, I don’t have anything in concrete now.
On the way back to site Mary, a fellow Pavlodar volunteer, and I were riding on “the peoples train” which is the official name for the open wagons where you intermingle with all the folks around you, when the two older women across the table from us stroke up a conversation. We did the general talking but then feeling bolstered by my new language confidence, I tried to make some point about discrimination in Kazakhstan in the north, where many ethnicities and cultures mix, versus the south with is more or less homogenously Kazakh. I’m pretty sure I lost them at some point, but I managed to pull it back together with some references to America’s south and all that. It was an awkward bit, but in the end I think we really entertained each other and understood most of what each of us was saying.
Having a decent ability in the language makes the Peace Corps experience so much more enjoyable. Talking with people, finding out their stories and all that, is incredibly interesting to me. I see these new volunteers and how incredibly awful their Russian is (sorry Jane, Emily, Sean, Ryan) and think how that used to be me. As your language gets better and you gain in confidence, the experience becomes much richer.
Kazakhstan Independence Day has come and gone. I hung out in the city with the other volunteers, and we celebrated Jane’s birthday, who is the awesomest awesome volunteer in the awesomest awesomey oblast (did I get that right Jane?). That was a lot of fun, and then it was back to Zhelezinka, where I’ve been for the past week.
Two days after I was back we had our KBH comedy competition final. We had won the first round earlier, now we were up against two other teams from our county, I suppose you’d call it. Long story short, we won it again. If you want the full story, find me in a year when I get back, because you probably had to be there for it to be funny. The point is though, that after we won, we took our prize, a glass vase, around to various shops in the village trying to sell it so we’d have more money to celebrate with. The night ended at the café with lots of food and lots of vodka. Let the pictures speak for themselves.
Tomorrow is Christmas, and though I’m not as down and filled with feelings of loneliness like I was last year, I still miss my family. When I look at the pile of presents they sent me, sitting on my vanity, I get a bit homesick. I enjoy presents. Who doesn’t? But I enjoy them so much more when they are surrounded by other peoples presents under a festively lit Christmas tree that can barely be seen beneath the hundreds of ornaments that have been collected over the years.
This is a tough time for many people, wherever you are. I can get through this Christmas without a problem because I know that my family is thinking of me as much as I am thinking of them, and I keep the thought that next year I will be back with them, telling jokes and laughing at all the dorky comments getting tossed around.
This year I’m hoping I will have a chance to get into the city on the weekend to celebrate with all the rest of the volunteers. I have another obligation that I’m regretting agreeing to at this point, though. My school needed somebody to play the Kazakhstani version of Santa Claus, called Grandfather Frost, for their New Years celebration. This apparently happens multiple times, and of the times they want me is Saturday evening, when I expected to be celebrating Christmas. If I can, I’m going to get somebody to cover for me that one day, but as all things go in Kazakhstan, getting definite information and a solid schedule is impossible until the day of. I think I can make it work, I’ve learned a thing or two in this country, and they love me here so they’re often willing to work around my needs.
I’ve had lots of great comments from people about how much they enjoy me and what a good person I am, which is part of the reason I love doing things like this for them. But I also need to think of myself and my own personal needs. This is a hard time, and being able to be around close friends relieves a lot of the depression. A little alcohol doesn’t hurt either.
So with that thought, I’ll leave you all. I miss you guys, I love and I’ll be there next year.

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