I love Cyrillic. Walking around Bishkek is like being a kid living in one of those code books. If P=R then what does this say? That type of thing. And as I’ve been here longer, I’m familiar with more and more letters. While I knew that PECTOPAH meant Restaurant before I arrived, and I vividly remember the day in a post office in Lviv, Ukraine when I translated a sign reading “ФАКС” (I slowly sounded it out to myself like a 5 year old reading “duh – o – guh…urrrm dog!”. In this case “fuh..a..kuh..suh…urrrrm fax! I got it! It’s fax!” I wanted to hug the babushka next to me in the line with joy at my cleverness. But I restrained myself.). Anyway, I have since that time moved way beyond fax and restaurant. Obviously, not speaking Russian, most of the words I sound out to myself make no sense to me, but some of them do, once you work them out. Earlier I saw a film poster for ТРОЯ starring someone called БРЕД ПИТ. So comfortable have I become with this script that I was quickly able to translate the film as Troya and the star as Brad Pitt. Actually to me it reads more like Bread Pit, which is somehow nicer, I feel. Next to it in this current period of hollywood obsession with ancient Greece was a poster for АЛЕKСАНДР with АНДЖЕЛИНА ДЖОЛИ. Just so you can all the fun that I have with this here are the sounds you need to know to work these out:
A,E,K,O – as in the latin alphabet.
Л – L
C – S
H – N
P – R
Д - D
Ж – J
И – I
Cyrillic was, I learned recently, invented by someone called Cyril. No, really. Just think – different parents and one of the world’s major alphabets may have been called Colinic or Waynic. Having told you all this I have just looked this up to make sure my facts are straight and learned that actually the guy who first thought up this alphabet was called Constantine, and he created something called Glagotlitic which had 38 characters. Constantine was a religious bloke who went round attempting to convert people (this was the 9th century), like some kind of Balkan pre-cursor to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On his death bed he took Monastic vows (like that’s a big sacrifice. “From this point onwards I will be celibate and silent…euuurgh”) and – possibly to make up for this rather pathetic gesture of monasticism – changed his name to Cyril. “Hmmm, I’m about to die, people will see through this monastic vow thing. Perhaps I can convince them that I want to really want to give something up, by dumping my perfectly acceptable name and taking on a stupid one”. One of his followers then later simplified his alphabet and in honour of his guru named it Cyrillic. So the name thing really backfired. Now only was he made a Saint, and had his new ridiculous name immortalized that way, but a version of his alphabet got named after him. I bet he feels a right charlie. Or at least he would do if he wasn’t dead.
Before I go, I want to mention cake. There is a patch of pavement down Sovietskaya (which is the street I live on. Curiously the Kyrgyz don’t seem to have done much to erase the Soviet past) on which there is a regular and seemingly impromptu market. It is basically a bunch of people stamping their feet and clapping their hands against the cold, selling things from boxes. As you approach these characters standing around shiftily with their mysterious wares you can only assume they are selling something extremely dodgy. The cardboard boxes are stacked high and there are plenty of them. As you come close you realize that what is for sale here is cake. Large elaborately iced cakes. Loads and loads of them. There are people coming up and haggling over these things, just like they fell off the back of a lorry. It’s frankly bizarre in the extreme. Not for the locals no doubt, for whom it’s probably well known that the best value in a victoria sponge or a battenburg is to be found down on Sovietskaya. Maybe for them the idea of buying cakes in shops is baffling, and they would approach a seller of car stereos in London, for example, assuming that they could pick up a bunch of éclairs.
That’s probably it from me from Bishkek. Time is pressing and work here sucks most of my time, so I’ll probably send my next dispatch from back home in a snow-clad (finally) Transylvania. Of course you might strike it unlucky and get one more set of steppe-stuff. But you can probably relax. Also, as may be obvious I've already run out of crap ideas on the oh-so-hilarious steppe puns thing, so it may be time to steppe down anyway.
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