Thursday, October 10, 2013


Trying to carry out the basics of modern life in a city where you don't speak the language is always a good time. Wednesday is adventure day for Bet and I. Neither of us have night classes on this day, just a class in the afternoon (she at the language center, me at Daryn), so we galavant without the couple on this day. Here are a few anecdotes from one such Wednesday.

Rainy autumn Kazakh adventure time!
One of the electrical sockets in our flat has not been kind to Bet's power adapter. After a day of wire melting it had a kind of questionable functionality and we determined it needed to be replaced. Bet asked our administrator at the language center what she should say upon entering the computer store, and our administrator did a double take. Surely we were not thinking of venturing on such an errand without a translator! The best thing to do, she advised Bet, was to take the charger (visibly frayed), point, and say, "эта проблема." I met Bet at City Mall and we entered together. Safety in numbers.

It wasn't busy inside, so we were immediately approached by a парень in an argyle sweater. Bet did as our administrator had instructed and handed him a piece of paper on which our administrator had written a question about the wire. I pointed to the right adapter in the display case, and realizing we spoke not a word of Russian, the associate whipped out a calculator and showed us the price both in tenge and USD. "I need more cash," Bet told me, and the guy looked at me expectantly. "Um . . ." I tried to remember the word for ATM. "One minute, банкомат!" We did a lap around the first floor of the mall, but couldn't spot one. I asked the lady at Ramstor's bag check, "извините, где банкомат?" And then she started giving me directions, not just a simple "there" or "to the left" or "on the second floor", but instead lots of words came out of her mouth, lots and lots of words. After we thanked her and walked away in the general direction she had pointed, Bet asked, "What did she say?" but I hadn't a clue. 

After some aimless wandering around all three floors of City Mall we located an ATM. And it was just our luck, the ATM had a big sign over it. "Do you think that applies to us?" There was only one way to find out. I guess it didn't because we withdrew cash without a problem, and were back in iPoint a few seconds later. As we waited to be rung out, the associate made small talk. "American or Canadian? Or Australian? Or German?" I don't know how he knew we weren't from the UK. "Students?" When we told him we were teachers he wanted to know where. I gestured vaguely, "Yermekov 49." There was another patron standing at the counter who clarified for me, "сорок девять." When she spoke, the associate started smirking. "She my wife!" he told us, and looped the display cabinet's key ring around his finger. "See?!" She rolled her eyes and said something to hurry the cashier (who was shaking his head) along. The cashier handed Bet a piece of paper and hesitated. He said something to the woman who turned to Bet and translated, "Signature." After Bet signed he handed the receipt to the associate who slipped it into the bag carrying the power adapter. "Good-bye!" he smiled teasingly and hid the power adapter behind his back. When the joking finally ceased, we left and Bet turned to me, "What just happened?"

I resolved in that moment to be goofy with foreigners; the best way to spare others of embarrassment is to embarrass yourself.

Picture frames for sale in ЦУМ. Someone tell Hilary Duff how beloved she still is in KZ!
We walked down the street to ЦУМ just to take a look around. I'm in need of a winter coat, so we stopped in a shop to take a look, and an ambitiously helpful clerk questioned Bet, who immediately broke the bad news of our Russian ignorance. Still, the clerk pointed at me and rattled something else off in Russian. All I heard was "понимать" and "тоже." I shook my head while affirming her statement, "да, I don't understand Russian either." This struck me as ironic, considering that for all intensive purposes I had indeed just understood what she had said. At that very moment, however, another patron of the store who appeared out of nowhere began translating. Through her were had a brief conversation about the coat I'd been looking at, she confirmed the coats were for winter, not fall. (Parenthetically, this has been super confusing for us. The coats meant for fall look like regular winter coats to me, but when I asked one of my students if the coat he was wearing was meant for winter, he laughed like I had cracked some outrageous joke. "Of course not, it is not [and he gestured to indicate a lot of missing padding, as though a winter coat ought to make him resemble the Michelin Man.]" Apparently there are coats meant specifically for winter, and you don't want to be stuck with the less warm autumn coat.)

I was astonished, as was the clerk, while this random coat store shopper made us intelligible to each other. One of Bet's students had aided her in the purchase of her coat, asking the right questions and translating when necessary, and we would have had zero shopping success without her. And here kismet provided another unrequested aid: a right place, right time, right skill set doer of good deeds. "Hey," I told her, still a little pleasantly surprised, "Thanks for translating." She nodded and walked away. I gave the shop clerk a little wave, "спасибо." She also looked a little intrigued by the convenience of what had just unfolded. I wished I could tell her, these nifty little "coincidences" happen to me every day.

Where we purchased our pumpkin.
We started heading home just as the light was beginning to fade, and when we stepped off the bus we were met with just one more adventure. The бабушек who sold produce and pickles by the bus stop had pumpkins! We spotted one that seemed right and asked, "сколько это?" Lucky for us it looked like it was etched into the pumpkin rind, 500T per 2kg. The бабушка took it away to weigh it and when she came back told us a number. All I caught was 2. "It couldn't be two thousand, that's too expensive." I passed Bet a wad of bills, neither of us had any idea how much it cost. I pulled a notebook and a pen out of my backpack, "Would you write for us?" She pointed to a bag of carrots near the pumpkin. "No, just the pumpkin." She wrote 460 on my paper and handed us our change, smiling at the relief and sense of accomplishment that spread over our faces. "пожалуйста," she nodded at us and we walked away triumphantly.

If I could issue a thank you note to each kind citizen who graciously endured our comprehension-less state, I would need to buy out a Hallmark store. 

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