Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fact: music motivates learning

It sounds silly to write it here in black and white, but one of the wins I have most appreciated about the laborious task of learning Russian is being able to understand the bit from that Regina Spektor song "Apres Moi." Shockingly, I didn't discover the text for this reprise until just now. It's the first stanza from a poem by Boris Pasternak. I'm not saying I can sing along perfectly just yet, but I will hopefully have something to show for these hours of Russian practice. I'm so delighted to have something small and relevant to my home culture to contextualize what I'm learning.

Words are below in Russian Cyrillic script, Russian Latin script, and English.

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!
Писать о феврале навзрыд,
Пока грохочащая слякоть
Весною черною горит.

Fevral'. Dostat' chernil i plakat'!
Pisat' o fevrale navzryd,
Poka grokhochashchaya slyakot'
Vesnoyu chernoyu gorit.

February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.

(Poem and translation accessed from Discovered thanks to Hope Johnson.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Food withdrawals

We went to the grocery store this week and what I saw had me geeking out. 

Lettuce, they had lettuce. And not just the wilted and yellowed cellophane-wrapped heads of romaine that they usually had, but also those plastic sealed boxed of baby spinach, radiccio, and arugula. What?!

We've become to accustomed to not eating lettuce that one glance at the high price was enough motivation to pass it up, but I felt a little thrill in my gut at this sign that spring was coming, and that after spring comes summer, and during summer I'd be able to eat all the lettuce I wanted.

I foresee this being a big problem. Starting to think about the summer and being home, making plans, the big thing that's in my mind is what I'm going to eat. Like honestly, I see myself stepping off the plane in Logan and walking straight to Jamba Juice. 

For example . . . garbanzo beans, sweet potatoes, Ritz crackers, Italian sausage, ravioli, tortellini, kale, brown sugar, panko, shellfish, jam (I mean, they have jam here, but, it's so, how do I explain, it's like a syrupy fruit puree), PEANUT BUTTER, peanut butter M&Ms, pita bread, bagels, fresh fish, deboned chicken thighs, cheese (they have cheese here, but it's expensive, and there's no cheddar), quinoa, squash, couscous, Trader Joe's, canned crushed tomatoes (not positive, but I think they're a thing here), canned pumpkin, blueberries, asparagus, cream cheese . . . usual food items that I have missed so much and can't wait to consume again. 

I can't wait for iced coffee and Del's lemonade and Iggy's clamcakes and chicken on the grill and s'mores and not paying $4 for a cafe americano and Pinkberry and American-Chinese takeout and being able to drink the tap water. The chain restaurants I previously disdained, like Applebee's or Olive Garden, I'm looking forward to those, too. Cooking in generally is going to be so much easier once I'm able to read the labels again. Succumbing to gluttony is one of my biggest fears about coming back to the States because I'm such a sucker for making up for lost time.

This is a double edged sword, though. Whenever I slip into a day dream about all the recipes I'm planning on trying once I'm back stateside, I also remember all the food I won't be able to eat once I'm home.

Khachapuri, manti, beshbarmak, pelmeni, Soviet cookies, meat-stuffed blini (I mean, I guess I could make my own, but, I will miss buying the premade ones in the freezer section), horse sausage, plov, baursaki, samsa, laghman, shashlik (I could also probably make this myself, but I'll miss the smoky smell of it cooking in the bazaar), lipioshka, katleti, all the pirozhki, and the extensive tea selection. Oh man, I only just realized now, sitting and reflecting on it, how much good food we've consumed. Before coming I didn't think Russian food (with all its dill, mayonnaise, and pickles) would agree with my palate, but what did I know? 

I will not miss instant coffee, Russian salads, meat jello, or okroshka.

The bread here is amazing. I feel as though each culture has excellent bread (I don't think I've ever had bread I didn't like any place I've ever gone), but it will be really depressing to grab a processed, presliced loaf of Arnold's when I've been eating fresh baked brown bread for like 20 cents. And the candy, I don't understand why a nation as industrialized and sugar-obsessed as the USA hasn't diversified their candy aisle, because the ones in Kazakhstan really put us to shame. I'm going to miss the candy. And I'm bringing a few kilos home, so start putting in your requests.

There is so much good food to be had in this world. Enjoy your meals.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Every morning when I wake up and every night when I climb into bed, I feel this strange division bubbling up in my chest. I think of driving down route 116 and eating seafood and watching movies with my sisters, and I can't wait for June to be here. And I think of walking through Central Park and eating pelmeni and walking with our friends, and I dread the coming of June and leaving this place. Living in a foreign country is such an enormous privilege and one I am determined not to squander during my remaining time here. 

These are the things I want to take advantage of before concluding this stint:
  • Hit the major cities: Astana, Almaty, Shymkent
  • Go to the banya
  • Sing karaoke
  • Make a real American cheesecake for the office
  • Give purpose to the staff at the Karaganda Region Museum
  • Go to a football game
  • See the view from Bayterek Tower
  • Eat beshbarmak
  • See the museum dedicated to the Karaganda branch of Stalin's gulag, the Karlag
  • Go to a hockey game
  • See a dombra concert
  • Drink kumis
  • Have an entire conversation exclusively in Russian
  • Attend mass at the Catholic church
  • Spot a wild gerbil
  • Ice skating /  Paintball / Rock climbing (not necessarily unique to KZ, but generally new here)
  • Visit Timertau and the Nazerbayev Museum there
  • Get my picture taken with every monument (there are at least 10)
  • See the inside of the Orthodox church
  • Hear stories from someone who lived under the former Soviet Union
  • Ride a camel
  • Catalogue Kazakhstan's vast variety of candy
  • Learn how to make borsch
Lest you think my aspirations are too small, here are some honorable mentions of things I accidentally did without intending to make a goal of it.
  1. Visit the Kyrgyz Republic.
  2. Watch the Hobbit 2 in Russian, and in 3D.
  3. Spill hot oil all over our kitchen.
  4. Drink unfiltered water from the tap. (Our friend remarked, "You shouldn't do that.")
  5. Buy train tickets all by myself. (Myself plus Google Translate.)
  6. Lose my phone. And my wallet.
  7. Overstay my visa by two months and get stopped trying to leave the country.
  8. Watch a Russian serial. (With English subtitles, of course.)
  9. Try vodka.
  10. Make my student cry. 
  11. Eat dog. 
  12. Go to the hospital. (For chest x-rays to prove I didn't have TB.)
  13. Ride a bus to an unknown location. (This has happened more times than I can count.)
  14. Learn how to make crumpets.
  15. Ride a Soviet-era ferris wheel.
  16. Go to a wedding. (Don't worry, we were invited.)
If you ever find yourself in Karaganda (hey, you never know!) and want to soak up every little thing this area offers, these things might be a good starting point. Not that I necessarily recommend getting lost on public transportation or overstaying your visa, but these (mis)adventures are fun in their own way because they let you see the place in a new way. And nothing makes you feel like a local like falling down on the icy sidewalks does. So embrace the humiliation. It's amusing for everyone else.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's Who You Know a.k.a. how I started watching hockey

I think before coming to Kazakhstan I'd been to three hockey games. 

One was a Providence Bruins game when we were younger, and we left in the middle.

The other two were during Word of Life's Super Bowl event, a youth rally that involves staying up all night and . . . learning more about J3sus? Not totally sure, but during the hockey portion of the night I was absorbed with watching my fellow students and pretty much didn't even realize there was anything happening on the ice. 

So when we decided to go to a hockey game here in Karaganda I was kind of unenthused. But we were going with students, and it was a cultural experience, and it was something to do on a Saturday night, so, that happened. We learned the team name (Saryarka!) and how to say goal (шайбу!) and we were good to go. And the game was fun and everything, but I didn't feel the need to ever go again. I checked that off the list. I was ready to move on to football.

Polina (second from left) translates for the team
We've now seen four games, three of which have been playoff games, and two of which have been in the best seats, right behind the players' box. We chant the players names and we say dumb things like, "Я люблю тебя, Bова!"* I'm still waking up from confetti in my bed from when they showered the crowd with it after their quarterfinals victory. 

And how did all of this come about? You Rhode Islanders will understand me: connections. It's not what you know (in this case, the hockey schedule, which we didn't know anyway) but who you know (in this case, the team's translator.) Polina has season tickets to the games and all-access pass because she translates for her aunt, who is the team's doctor. The majority of the players are from Russia or Kazakhstan, but for the English speakers on the team, Polina helps them out. Thanks to her, we got to meet Kip Brennan** and Sabahudin Kovačevič.***

Bet, Teka, and I with Kovačevič

The Karaganda team (Сарыарка, which we're told is the name of the oblast where Karaganda is located) is currently in the semifinals and is the only Kazakhstani team. One of my administrators at Daryn tells me that when the hockey stadium first opened no one attended the games and the doctors and teachers in the city were required to go with their families, I suppose to act as trendsetters. (She confided in me that she much preferred American football to hockey, particularly the Oklahoma Sooners, which I chose to ignore because, roll tide!) Last year this team was in the finals, so it makes it that much more fun to root for a team that actually has a shot at winning. 

These hockey games are a language lesson unto themselves: being sandwiched between native fans shouting at the players in their native tongue we're able to spend a few hours in language immersion, which had paid off with a handful of new words and improved listening skills. (For the Canadian players some fans occasionally shout, "Ca-NAH-da, goal!") I like to think my ability to dance in my seat has also improved from the music they play while the clock is stopped.

Second semi-final game, final score 6-3 Saryarka!

I wouldn't say I've become a hockey enthusiast in general, but having Bet explaining the ref calls to me and offering insight into the game's rules has definitely grown my appreciation for the sport. I tend to have low interest in what I don't understand, but as my understanding of hockey grows so does my attention span for it. I actually just googled what was happening currently in the NHL. Look at me caring! As an expat/foreigner/inherent outsider, what I appreciate best about becoming a Сарыарка fan is being part of something. When I ask my students whether they watched the away games on TV, it's nice to see the look of pleasant surprise at my interest. It's a small gesture, but sporting team pride is just another way to show how much I've come to care about this place. 

*Can I tell you how adorable one of the goalkeepers is? After victories he dances to Gangam Style on center ice and brings the stuffed animals people throw on the ice to the orphanage.
**Formerly an NFL player. Click the link and see an example of his hockey skill set. Polina says he seems scary on the ice (he's an enforcer) but when the team visits the orphanage he tells the kids stories about putting out cookies for Santa Claus; an interesting juxtaposition.
***Competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a member of the Slovenia team. 
****Kazakhstan only has two teams in this otherwise Russian league, and Polina explained that when KZ wins they kind of get treated like we treat Canada when they win the Stanley Cup. In many ways Kazakhstan is to Russia as Canada is to the USA. Perspective.