Saturday, January 29, 2005

Steppe Three

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.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single steppe

I have received criticism from certain quarters over my poor steppe-related pun from that last post here, so in response I have elected to make all of my posts from here include ever more cringeworthy puns. Sorry everyone - blame “nojer”.

Today, I went to a supermarket for the first time. It was an interesting experience. Wagner (my co-trainer and house mate) and I ventured in to stock up on basic essentials (coffee, beer, bog roll, etc) to survive on for the next few days. It was a fascinating experience. Firstly, very few people here speak English. Secondly, everything is written in Cyrillic. Some things are fairly straightforward – toilet paper for example, is recognizably toilet paper, whatever the script on the packaging. Likewise with beer. Other things are a tad more difficult. We spent ages acting out the difference between instant and regular coffee before we finally settled on what we thought was real coffee.

One peculiarity was with the whole supermarket concept. It looked like a supermarket, and had all the aspects that you might expect in such a place – trolleys, baskets, various aisles and sections for different kinds of goods. But taking a closer look revealed an interesting omission – no checkouts. In fact it seemed that each little section of the shop had its own woman armed with a calculator and a pocket full of Som (Kyrgyz currency), who charged you as you moved about the place and bagged your different prizes. It was a little bit like it was a series of market stalls inside what would normally be one supermarket. When we reached the last girl-with-calculator near the exit it became clear that we had erred and in fact had managed to walk out of some undefined area of the shop without paying the section controller. Our girl was shocked at our mistake and attempted to explain, but it was clear that we had no idea how to rectify our error, so she called the woman over from the relevant section, added everything up in one go and charged us accordingly. As we left, the two of them were exchanging money between them to make up for our foreign stupidity.

Still we managed, and ended up with everything we intended to get, and came home to crack open our beers and celebrate. We are drinking СИБИРСКАЯ КОРОНА ПИВО, which I’m sure you’re aware translates as Siberian Crown beer (My limited knowledge of Cyrillic tells me it actually sounds more like Sibirska Corona Pivo, but it means Siberian Crown). I have no idea whether my carefully constructed Cyrillic will come across on your screen, but if it doesn’t, believe me - it looked good when I typed it. Not only did they stock Siberia’s finest, but also a fair smattering of international non-cyrillic beers, including Budweiser (the real Czech one, not the bland tasteless American pisswater), and other appealing brews. It could be a good month.

In addition to some good beers, I also managed to buy a can of Heinz baked beans. Outside of the UK and Australia I have never encountered such things. (Well, they are available in those little “British goods” shops scattered around the US in which you can buy McVitie’s biscuits and pickled onions and things, but normally baked beans in the US are a disgusting sweet affair*). This was very exciting to me and I had for my dinner the great meal of beans on toast and a bottle (or two) of beer.

* I should perhaps clarify here having slagged off two American things in the last two paragraphs that I am not against all things American. To sum up: Budweiser – shit. Baked beans – shit. George Bush, his government, and everyone who voted for him – extremely shit. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – non-shit. The Simpsons - non-shit. Noam Chomsky - non-shit. Pacifica Radio - non-shit. Smoky Robinson and The Miracles - non-shit. I mean, I could go on.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

One Steppe Beyond

So, I find myself in Bishkek. Bishkek, for those of you unfamiliar with obscure central Asian capitals, is in Kyrgyzstan. (Or Kyrgyzstn as it would be written in txt speak). Bishkek used to be called Frunze after some important Bolshevik who was born here, but at some point in the not too distant past, was renamed Bishkek. A Bishkek is some kind of churn used to make fermented mare’s milk. It says here. The Lonely Planet even goes so far as to claim that it’s the only town in the world named after a wooden plunger. Though I think that’s unfair to Plunger, Illinois. Not to mention Pine Syringe, Madagascar; and of course Oak Pestle, Venezuela.

It’s a fairly new city, having been mostly built during Soviet times. This means, as you might possibly imagine, that the architecture is, how can I put this, less than beautiful. It’s not a spectacularly ugly city, since (a) there are lots of trees, (b) there are some beautiful snow capped mountains that overlook the town, and (c) the buildings, while bland or just plain ugly, are not very high so they don’t completely overwhelm you with their in your face repulsiveness.

I came here last year for a conference, but was only here a few days in an “international” hotel, and so didn’t really get the full on Bishkek experience. This year, I’m here for a whole month doing a course and already I have been getting more of a feeling for the place. I’m in an apartment, which is very comfortable if a tad over-furnished. The effect of 70 odd years of Communism seems to have been a post-command-economy desperation to own as many things as possible, and more importantly, to be seen to own them. The room in which I am currently sitting, for example, has red and green polka dot net curtains, a massive black wood thing along all of one wall, covered in weird kitschy knick-knacks and random ornaments and soft toys. The furniture (aside from the ‘thing’ just described) is sort of patterned brown armchairs and a sofa. The two visible walls have this kind of speckly patterned mint green wallpaper, highlighted in the centre of each by this kind of embossed flock shimmery pre-French revolution pattern. In front of the window there is a large TV and associated electronic gadgetry, and next to me (on part of the black thing) is a TV set up as a karaoke machine. To top it all off there is currently (and I am just hoping that this is a temporary feature) a fibre optic Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and random baubles. The ceiling is one of those molded ones with repeating patterns in little squares, and on the floor (actually a very nice wooden floor) there is a large brown patterned rug. The effect of all this is somewhat overwhelming.

Things I have been learning/getting used to include an electric samovar which is my way of heating water for tea and what have you. The landlady came in and demonstrated to me how this would work, but it seemed to involve some weird plug wiggling activity which I couldn’t follow, so I just unplug and re-plug it in to make it work. It’s a bit fancier and more ethnic than a Russell Hobbs electric kettle though, so I’m happy.

Yesterday I popped into Tsum the large department store in the middle of town (I think – the town doesn’t really have a clear middle, it’s more like a very large suburb than a city in some senses). Tsum is a four story tribute to untrammeled capitalism. The kind of capitalism that the libertarian arm of the far right can only dream of. Capitalism unfettered by considerations of intellectual property or such like issues. The kind of stuff you might buy down a dodgy pub or off some guy with a suitcase outside a metro station. Here it’s mainstream and available down the equivalent of Debenhams or Sears. On Sunday for example I bought (for an extremely reasonable price) a DVD of “The Incredibles”. The Incredibles is not yet available on DVD, so what this actually is is a video shot of the film playing in a cinema somewhere. If you ever saw the relevant episode of Seinfeld you’ll know what I mean. Some bloke (I assume it was a bloke) goes into a cinema somewhere in the States with a video camera tucked up his jumper and proceeds to video the entire film. Somehow they manage to do this with incredible steadiness and without a single extraneous noise or movement coming across on the video tape. Maybe they do a deal with the projectionist to show it at 4am privately so no-one is there to interrupt. Then they turn it into a DVD, knock out a ton of copies, and stick it in Zum (or any other department store in the former Soviet Union) as well probably as on the black market everywhere else. There were loads of films there that were so new (ie only released in the US) that I’d never heard of them. I have to read some movie reviews to see whether I’d be interested in buying one or two to watch on my weekends.

That's it from Bishkek for today. I bet you can't wait to hear more can you?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Permission to sit

I forgot to mention, I have finally been granted Permission To Sit in Romania. In fact I am now the owner of a very fancy looking dark green booklet entitled "Legitimaţie de Şedere Temporară Pentru Cetăţeni Străini" Which means (roughly) Temporary permission to sit for strange citizens. I am very glad about this, as having to constantly stand or lie down was beginning to wear on me.

The booklet is actually deceptive, as from the outside it looks quite offical and impressive - like a small passport, actually - but when you open it up it looks dead rubbish. Cheap paper with lots of information about me in very bad handwriting (not mine, better than that, but still crappy looking). Some bloke at the police station just filled it in when he felt like it (we handed all the paperwork in at the beginning of December and he said it would be ready between Christmas and New Year. We popped in on the 30th to see if it was done, and he said "Oh, it's you. Hmmm. Yes it'll be ready tomorrow morning". He then obviously went off and filled it in and stuck my picture in the correct place).


No, not Michael Jackson's pet rat from that crappy song, but my new nephew. He was born in November and I met him on Boxing Day. He's dead cool. Even though he is not even two months old yet, he has already been selected for England at football, unified quantum and newtonian physics, and written a book of poetry which the Times Literary Supplement described as "Breathtaking". He's currently appearing as Prospero in the RSC's production of The Tempest.

Monday, January 03, 2005


As well as being a hapless cartoon cat, and a Hi-NRG disco star, Sylvester is also the Hungarian festival of New Year. I think, though am not entirely certain, that it is because December 31st is also St Sylvester's day. This was a stroke of luck for Sylvester as it means that he is remembered - at least in the Hungarian speaking world - unlike, say, St Phoebe or St Colin. I don't know what Sylvester did that was especially St-worthy, but it was probably something mystical and unlikely. Or he could be one of those boring saints that get canonised for tending to his flock for a very long time.

Anyway, we had intended to get out of town and spend Szilveszter with some friends at their mountain cabin a while north of here, sipping mulled wine among the snowy peaks and ushering in 2005 before getting up the next day and skiing and sledding to our hearts' content. However, a postponement of winter this year (there's no snow, much to the consternation of the masses), meant that we decided against it, and ended up making plans to do the business in their apartment in downtown Csikszereda instead.

I asked my students (I am teaching one class here in some kind of back-to-my-roots old-school festival of fun) what they were doing for the evening and they all sneered in that high school way and said they were all going away somewhere because there really isn't anything worse than celebrating in the Csikszereda Piata Libertatii. That's for hicks and children they seemed to say. So I wasn't really expecting much of the town's celebration.

When I got back from a short Christmas visit to England on December 28th, I did notice that there was a certain amount of firework action that previously didn't exist. On a fairly regular basis bangers were thrown in the street and there was a constant feeling of living in some slightly dodgy neighbourhood where guns were let off every half hour or so. As the big day approached though, these became more and more frequent, and at times louder and louder until, by the 31st itself, the noise level had risen to almost comically violent levels. At around 6pm that day, after we had cooked all the food for the party, we tried to grab a short sleep in order to be refreshed for the evening ahead. We might as well have been trying to have a nap in Fallujah, such was the ongoing rumble of explosions and gunshots. I nipped out to the shops to get a few last minute items and discovered that many of these explosions were caused by lone teenage boys, wandering around, wrapped up against the cold, and just randomly chucking fireworks as they roamed. It seemed a curiously unsociable thing to do (as well as being fairly anti-social) - I had assumed that they were being let off as a kind of fun thing to do with your mates, rather than a solitary rebel-without-a-cause type thing.

So, we got to our friends' place at around 8pm and proceeded to stuff ourselves with food. Their place overlooks the Piata (the vast windswept one mentioned in an earlier post), so whatever was to come there we would have a good view of. They told us how when Ceausescu had paid his last visit to Csikszereda the Securitate had come round and told them to sign some piece of paper assuring that they wouldn't let any strange snipers pop by for a couple of days. The story then continued that when Ceausescu had continued on to the nearby village of Csikszentmartin, a sudden storm had blown up, sending all of the happy crowds home. Since these people were not exactly out on the streets cheering on old Nic out of choice, it proved very difficult to coax them back out to do their patriotic duty and get pissed on for their beloved leader. By the time he arrived then, his advisers were desperate not to make it look like the entire town were snubbing him, but luckily they found the one place in town where there was a crowd gathered. 40 people in a bread line who weren't about to lose their place in the line to just a violent squall. So the Securitate equipped them with flags and ordered them to wave and cheer as the motorcade drove past. I have a feeling that this story is just a little to perfect to be true and in fact it may be the kind of Romanian urban myth told about many towns lucky enough to be visited by the great man. But it is still a good story.

Anyway, the evening progressed and occasionally I would glance out of the window at the square below to see it empty and silent. Every now and again a group of stragglers would wander across it, or one of the solitary firework tossers would zig zag across from bin to bin his face briefly lighting up as he lit the fuse of yet another banger and chucked it into the receptacle, moving on without even bothering to survey the results of his handiwork. I asked Erika if there was going to be some kind of firework display there and she laughed and said, well, not an organised one, if that's what you mean. If pretty much was what I meant, so I was intrigued as to what was going to happen.

At about 11.30, the previously civil war levels of noise began to rise noticeably and we headed to the balcony to see what was going on. It seemed at first as if the banger boys were beginning to converge. From all corners of the city they came - drawn by the promise of competing in noisiness or something. But then cars started to show up too, filled with families and groups of friends. As the square began to fill with groups of people ready for the new year, the amount and quality of the fireworks being discharged increased rapidly. The noise now was constant, explosions reverberating around the concrete sides of the plaza, and the rockets and colourful fireworks began to show up. The whistling, screaming, wheedling ones meshed with the booming, banging, rumbling ones.

By 11.45 the once quiet square was beginning to fill up with the residents of the town and the fireworks were everywhere. Every single rule of the firework code or whatever it is that we English are asked to follow on November 5th was being broken. Indeed, rules that the writers of the firework code had not even thought of were being broken. I saw one dad walking down the street holding his three year old daughter's hand and shooting off a rocket from his other hand. Bangers and fireworks were being thrown around with no apparent regard for anyone's safety. Or even that anyone in this crowd was actually familiar with the concept of safety.

But in its own way it was spectacular. No coordinated choreographed show to dazzle the crowd here. Here the crowd themselves were the show. They were the ones providing the action, they were the ones making the performance what it was. A very democratic and interactive event in all senses of the (buzz)words. It lasted (at least the principle action) for an hour. A whole hour of manic and crazy anarchy. I loved it. It was like the difference between watching the world Cup Final on TV and playing a match with your mates. The two experiences are based on the same activity (be it football or fireworks), but the actual experience is completely and totally different.

I didn’t see a single ambulance turn up either, though this may have been as a result of the ambulance drivers all being out chucking roman candles at each other, rather than because there was no actual need for medical services. Apparently in the years of communist deprivation, when fireworks, like bread and stuff, were unavailable, everybody used to go out with sparklers and using makeshift catapults launch them (lit) into the night sky. Even that sounds kind of cool and culturally intriguing to me.

When we left the party at about 2am, the whole square was like a war zone. Like the scenes of Hebron after a murderous Israeli incursion, with spent bullets and shells lying all over the place. The smoke still hung in the cool night air and the plaza was carpeted with burned out bits of cardboard.

On a completely unrelated note, has anyone seen that militaristic Pepsi Father Christmas commercials. This invading army of blue clad tooled-up santas come down to the festive town and blow away the traditional red ones. It’s (frankly) fucking disgusting. Whichever shitbag came up with this obnoxious ad should be forced to drown in a vat of sickly sweet soft drink. What next oh Pepsi fascists? The tooth fairy torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Mickey Mouse bulldozing houses and killing their occupants in Rafah? Wankers.

And so, on that note, I would like to wish all my readers boldog új évet and la mulţi ani. Have a good one. I’m off to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the next month, so may not be blogging much for a while, but when I can check in I will.