Friday, April 13, 2012

Update... of sorts

Thanks to Giorgio, one of my former students, you are about to get more updates to this blog (I hope). I stopped posting to it because I couldn’t access it and I assumed that it had been shut down. It turns out that I can’t seem to access any blogger blogs but other people can access mine, leading me to speculate that there might be some type of barrier that shuts out all blogger sites. Internet provider barrier? Government barrier? Blogger (itself) barrier? Who knows. I’m glad that folks can still get to it and I wish I were able to check it and make sure that the formatting (and other stuff) is okay.

Of course, there’s not much going on right now. My stomach has been doing the Kyrgyz Rumba (not as severe as the Kyrgyz cleanse, but apparently longer-lasting). I, of course, am completely refusing to give in to its demands. I’ve continued drinking tea (I’ve moved on to Ceylon from Assam simply because one of the other teachers left behind a full stock of the stuff. She also left behind a ton of Earl Grey, but even I have my limits). I’ve also continued eating vegetables. Now, one might think that that is a good thing. Veggies, right? Good for you and all that stuff. But the only veggies available here are those members of the cabbage family: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage… And, of course, onions and beets and turnips. These are probably not the wisest choices of foods to put into your body when it is considering staging a revolution. But April is the revolution season in Kyrgyzstan and my stomach is apparently honoring that tradition. If it does reach its limit, though, this will certainly be no Tulip Revolution.

But enough about my stomach. I’m beginning to sound like my grandmother. Every phone conversation with her always followed the same pattern (which, coincidently, followed the very same path that food took through the body—with a brief digression into the weather at some point).

So, naturally, speaking of the weather… absolutely perfect. Spring is as wonderful as winter was miserable. The Kyrgyz are very proud of their spring—and rightly so. For the past two or three weeks now the days have been exactly the same: overnight lows of about 7 degrees, highs of about 24 degrees, birds singing, trees budding, green and healthy grass springing up in the cracks of the pavement, feral dogs snarling and barking when you attempt to walk past them, homeless men emerging from their winter hiding places to collect the plastic bottles that have accumulated in the streets over the past several months, the snow in the mountains receding just a little bit each day, outdoor cafes and restaurants sweeping away the dust and setting up for business, pregnant women walking the streets without worrying about slipping on ice and miscarrying, the smell of shashlik in the air… well, you get the picture.

Last Tuesday evening I was able to attend the Russian Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake. It was a one-night-only deal—and boy was it a big deal in town. I think the main dancers were flown in from Russia (Russia! Our glorious foster mother!) while the bit parts appeared to have been danced by local dancers. The orchestra was also local… eh, yeah. Once they got warmed up a bit, they weren’t too bad. The strings were a bit off key (but then, that may have just been me. Violins always sound out of tune to me.) and the low brass was a bit “blaaahhhhhty” (I think that really is a technical musical term). The oboist was a bit shaky when he came in after not playing for a while and he didn’t seem to have complete control of his dynamic range, dropping off on sustained pianissimo notes—but all in all, a pretty amazing experience. (And shit—Russian ballet. I mean, this is a big deal for me. Not that I even like ballet, but I love Stravinsky and—without even having seen any of his choreography—Diaghilev—in a whole “lets-have-a-ballet-and-start-a-riot” kind of way, so… yeah, big deal. Add to all that the fact that my sister and I wore out a VHS cartoon version of Swan Lake when we were kids—and the fact that she named her daughter after the white swan—and the fact that the kid was a swan for her first Halloween… well, there it is.

Anyway, in order to attend the ballet, the school had to shift Tuesday’s classes. To Saturday night. Yeah. I figured that wouldn’t fly with my students, so I arranged a picnic for Saturday afternoon instead. Bread, cheese, kelbasa, coffee cake (made by the English teacher)… and half-hearted attempts to speak in English. Should be fun.

Speaking of students… well, I’ll have to do so later. I’ve just spoken to the gents and we’ve arranged to go to Orto-Sai Market (Bazaar / Souk) in about ten minutes. Time to go get more veggies and apples. (Yes, stomach, you have to go too. Trust me, it will be good for you.)

But I will comment on my students, including these factors/characteristics: general level of education, passivity versus initiative, creativity, and ambiguity tolerance.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Trip to Karakol
Unqualified success. Well, mostly.

Aipery, Phil’s child bride, had her 19th birthday yesterday. Andrea and I arrived back at the house to find that it had been taken over by Phil’s in-laws—which is not such a bad situation when there’s a table full of food and three cakes and a group of women beckoning you to join them. We were both tired and dusty from a day of travel, but we gratefully joined them. A mix of Kyrgyz, Russian, and English ensued. Aipery is about four months pregnant now. A couple of months ago, a doctor told her she was definitely having a boy. Phil, of course, was over the moon. Last week, a different doctor told her that she was having a girl—absolutely, no question about it, a girl.
AIpery is herself little more than a child. She has moved into our house of teachers and it must be a strange experience for her. She has left her home and her family for the first time in her life and she has found herself, all of a sudden, in the west. Last night I told her that, in the west, the women are in charge. “Teach me how to be a western woman” she said earnestly.
“Ah! None of that!” Phil cried “Notice that I didn’t marry a western woman. There’s a reason for that.”
All in good fun, of course, but with that element of truth that such levity often contains.
But Aipery woke this morning with a sore throat. She wandered out into the kitchen while I was cooking. She asked with I was making. “Well,” I said, “that’s quiche over there. It’s milk, eggs, cheese, and vegetables.” I’m roasting some cabbage and later I’ll roast some carrots. I’m also boiling garbanzo beans for a salad.” And I pulled out the salad to show her. She hung around, so I offered her a piece of quiche. “Just a small piece,” she said, “I can’t eat a lot.” So I gave her a piece. She ate it and stuck around. I asked if she’d like some mint tea. “Yes,” she said gratefully. So I put some water on to boil. While we were waiting, I showed her pictures of my nieces, asked about baby names—the usual things one might do while waiting with a pregnant woman for water to boil.
She wanted to know what I was going to do today. I told her I’d probably wind up reading some. She asked me if I had any books. I explained that all my books were on my kindle, but that if she wanted something to read I could probably find something. “No,” she said, “it’s just… I’m here… being sick, it’s boring in the house.”
I wish I were more matronly. Here I am, an unmarried, childless woman in my 30s. I wish I could take her under my wing, teach her how to make British food for her husband, how to be pregnant, how to be a mom. She needs that type of support now, I can see it so plainly. But all I can do is tell ribald jokes, teach her how to swear like a sailor, talk about my sister’s kids. I’m like the well-meaning but useless uncle. I could take her under my wing if she wanted to be like me, but her path in life is very different. But at least her family is in Bishkek. Her cousin just had a baby—and her cousin is married to a foreigner as well, a Korean, so she’ll be able to help her a lot. I suppose that all I can really do is kick Phil’s ass occasionally if I see that he needs it.

Yesterday, when Andrea and I got out of our taxi back from Karakol, I’d hardly gone half a block when I saw the green. It hadn’t been green when we left, but now I can see the buds on the trees, the green patches of grass showing up in the cracks in the road, the shoots appearing in gardens. Today was overcast, but still reasonably warm. While Andrea and I were gone, the heat was shut off. As a result, we no longer have hot water in the house. Showers have become a 15-second ordeal of squealing and cursing—washing the essential bits and no more. Phil has spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to get us hot water. But he has a pregnant bride to take care of. He had a hard enough time trying to convince her to move in with us, so he has incentive to keep her here. She might well decide that hot water at her mom’s house is preferable to cold water in a house full of English teachers.

But this is about my trip to Karakol…
Schedules are rather uncertain at The School, so we never really know when we will have time off. We were able to determine, about mid-March, that we’d have a couple of days off at the end of the month. And the scramble to find a way to spend the time began. The first iteration of this process involved four teacher, two males and two females, hiring a taxi and going down to Osh. Unfortunately, we were never able to determine if the road to Osh was open or not. There was also a rumor going around that there was going to be a demonstration in Osh the last weekend of March. Given the nature of demonstrations in the south of Kyrgyzstan, we revised our plans slightly.

The next iteration involved the same four teachers going east, to Karakol. A shorter distance, a more secure location, and a road that we were reasonably sure was open. Then one of the teachers decided he wanted to stay in Bishkek and drink with the alcoholic. The other male teacher decided that he wanted to go west, to Talas. That left two females. This being my first trip out of Bishkek, I wasn’t sure what it would be like for females to travel unaccompanied. I had no reason to anticipate any particular difficulties—but there was the fact that one of the males was reasonably fluent in Russian. But I had my ten or so words (more than the other female) so away we went.

Well, not so fast. First, we had to get to the bus station in Bishkek. Taxi for that. We were hardly out of the taxi when a swarm of long-distance taxi drivers descended upon us. I pushed my way through them, negotiated what seemed like a reasonable price for the both of us, and Andrea and I settled in to our chosen taxi.


When I asked the driver, he said that we were waiting for two other people who wanted to go to Karakol.


I didn’t know how long this was going to take but I did know that I didn’t want to get to a new place after dark. So I hopped out of the taxi and started to walk around to scope things out. While I was away, Andrea called in a panic. Some men—the taxi driver included—had grabbed our stuff from the trunk and were walking away with it. Down an alley.

I rushed back and found them. They had loaded our bangs into a new taxi—one that had two other men waiting in it. The new taxi driver quoted a new price. Absolutely not was my response. He went down 50 som—but still above what I’d negotiated earlier. Nope. He opened up the trunk and we pulled out our bags and walked away.

After we’d entered the main part of the bus station, a man—a different one—came running up to us. 400 som he offered us—100 som below what I’d negotiated earlier. Done. We followed him to a minibus, hopped into the last two seats, and took off.

Six hours later we were in Karakol.

I know I ought to describe the scenery, but all I can really say is that everyone reading this ought to do the trip. You go about an hour and a half east. Kazakhstan and mountains to the north—you can see it from the road—mountains to the south. Then you go through a gorge. Once you’re through that, you see lake Issy-Kol in all its improbable colors. There’s the red and brown of the earth, then the blue and turquoise and purple of the lake, then the green and brown and white of the mountains beyond.

We rounded the north side of the lake, dipped down, and entered Karakol. We hadn’t made any reservations but figured that since we were at the end of the ski season and not yet into the hiking season we’d have no problems finding a place to stay. Such was the case. We walked to the first place on our list and were the only two people there.

That evening we walked into town and had some chicken and manti. The walk back was… well, I’d had the foresight to bring a flashlight. Otherwise we’d probably both have wound up with twisted ankles or broken legs.

The next day we walked around Karakol. It’s a major administrative center, but it had the feel of a frontier outpost: dirt roads, chickens and dogs, bustling markets. For lunch we went to the main bazaar to try ashlanfu, a dungan speciality. There were several booths in a row and we walked past them. Once we reached the end, a woman came running after us.

“You are American, I can tell, where are you from, I’m Kyrgyz but I’m living in the United States, I’m living in LA, I work there as an RN, I’m here visiting my sister, this is my first time in Karakol, you want to try ashlanfun, I know the best place for that, you should come with me, I will show you, it is the best place here, come with me” and so on. Andrea and I, both naturally reserved and quiet people, widened our eyes a bit at this onslaught, set our teeth, and allowed ourselves to be shepherded by our new Kyrgyz-American friend.

It’s an unfortunate reality that one must be wary of over-friendly strangers when traveling in a foreign country, but that’s the way of things. This woman, however, didn’t do any of the things that function as red flags, so we were able to relax and enjoy the experience. In the end she bought our lunches for us and took off with her sister, wishing us luck and telling us to e-mail her when we were next in LA.

I should pause a bit and describe ashlanfu. I do like the try new foods when I travel--and I’m especially partial to street food. This stuff, though, was particularly nasty. It was a type of cold soup with wheat noodles and then some unidentifiable white slime on top of it all. Like I said, glad I tried it—but never, ever again.

The afternoon was spent walking along a river. The evening—a different restaurant in town. I made the mistake of ordering a salad. It sounded so promising on the menu: chicken, cheese, oranges... What emerged from the kitchen was a slimy mass of mayonnaise. I couldn’t even take a single bite. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen to me. I usually am able to choke down a bite or two. Not this time. This country and mayonnaise… ehhh. Thankfully the salad wasn’t too expensive, so I was able to order a borsht to keep myself going a bit longer.

[continued several days later]

25 degrees, according to one website (though it is acknowledged amongst folks here that temperature reports are suspect. As one student explained to me, there is a law that, if it’s over 40 degrees, offices and schools have to close. A good idea, but the practical result of this is that official temperature reports never seem to top 38…)

Day two of Karakol began much the same way that day one began: a breakfast of simple carbohydrates (including a candy and cookie dish!) and a giant pot of weak tea (while about ten cups of weak tea might equal two cups of normal tea, they do tend to lead to greater usage of Russian as part of a frantic bathroom search).

First stop: Ak-Tilak Bazar to try and find a Marshurka to Jeti-Oguz and then a taxi to the Jeti-Oguz sanatorium about 11 km up the road. The destination is not the sanatorium but the mountains behind it (though we did pack our swimsuits for a quick dip after our intended hike). No Marshurka, but a taxi driver willing to take us all the way to the sanatorium.

In Bishkek, almost everyone speaks Russian. Outside of Bishkek, however, Kyrgyz is widely spoken—with Russian becoming more of a lingua franca at best (or, at worst, completely useless). Thus, my conversation with the taxi driver involved me scrambling for my lonely planet guidebook to look up some Kyrgyz. When I finally established that he was trying to tell me that the field of flowers was, at this moment, a field of snow, I thanked him for his information (the snow on the ground as we drove to the sanatorium already indicative of this little nugget of wisdom), assured him that we did not need him to wait for us, and set out.

But first stop: a store for some food. All the shops in Karakol had been closed, so Andrea and I were unable to buy anything for our lunch. I had asked the taxi driver to stop in the village of Jeti-Oguz so that we could buy something, but he assured us that there was a shop at the sanatorium. And there was. One that had chocolate and vodka.

So, then. No lunch. But, me being me, I had brought and apple and some nuts. And there was enough snow that we wouldn’t be able to go too far into the mountains anyway. And there were three cafes at the sanatorium where we could have lunch after our brief hike. Then, a quick dip and back to Karakol. That was the plan at least.

Fast forward about five hours and you find two weary travelers without water or food, stumbling along a dirt road to the village of Jeti-Oguz. The hike in the mountains was great—went off without a hitch. The cafes were closed, the store had closed while we were walking in the mountains (so even chocolate for lunch wasn’t an option), the hot springs in the sanatorium were broken, and there was nary a car in sight to flag down. Once in Jeti-Oguz, we hopped into a shared taxi to Karakol. Once in Karakol, we popped into the nearest café and promptly began stuffing ourselves with that oh-so-fatty Kyrgyz meat (promptly being somewhat relative, given the wait time at most restaurants here.

Another quiet evening in the B&B.

Day three: same breakfast, different bazaar for a marshurka, different mountain gorge. We had to enter a national park that, like most parks and museums in developing countries, charges different rates depending on your ability to convince the park guards that you are a local. I had practiced my most convincing “ski base” in Russian (if you are going to the ski base, you automatically pay less. A lot less). The guards weren’t exactly buying it. “Tourista?” “Nyet. Lykshe baza” (or some such. I’ve already forgotten.) The guard behind the window finally gave up and waved us through without charging us anything. The other guard had found a way to turn a personal profit and was standing behind us, mobile phone at the ready. “Taxi” he said, pointing to an exorbanant 500 som that he’d typed on his phone. “Nyet, speciba. Ya ahchoo [pantomime of walking because I’d forgotten the Russian for walk].” He tried to give me the mobile so that I could type in my counter offer. I refused to take it, thanked him again, and walked past him into the park.

This gorge was not as pretty as the previous one had been, Andrea’s legs were hurting her, and after she stepped into a river and got her feet wet I turned us around and started marching us back to the park gate (wondering how I was going to explain a one-hour ski trip to the park guards—but figuring I’d come up with something.) As we were walking, though, a very nice SUV pulled up next to us. The window lowered, and a man in a very official-looking uniform peered out at us.

“What’s this?” I thought, my guard automatically up. The man offered us a ride (in Russian). I told him we wanted to walk. He, however, was quite insistent—to the point where he mentioned several times that he was police. I turned to Andrea and, in English, explained the situation to her, ending with “he’s police.” She got a look in her eyes and said, “We’ll walk.” I tried to politely decline, but the man was having none of it. Not wanted to create problems, I told Andrea that he was insisting. So we got into the car.

Again, it’s a shame that one’s guard automatically goes up when traveling, but that’s the way that it is—the way that it has to be sometimes. As it turned out, the man was tourist police and very friendly and trustworthy. I learned about his job, his family—including his daughter, who he was very proud of—and the best places in Karakol to get Camca and Shashlik. He gave me his phone number and told me that if I ever had any problems, I was to call him. He dropped us off at Ak-Tilak bazaar, and Andrea and I had our lunch (camca and shashlik, of course). We then went back to the B&B, grabbed our bags, humped out to the bus station, negotiated our shared taxi price, and began the 5-hour drive back to Bishkek.

The driver was only pulled over by the police once (I’ve been on one-hour car rides where the driver gets pulled over two or three times). He also dropped us off at our street (rather than taking us to the bus station). We walked down our street, noted the green, and entered a house full of of Phil’s in-laws…

Saturday, March 03, 2012



Thursday, January 19, 2012

The cast of characters

January 18, 2012

The cast.

You don’t move to Bishkek in where-the-fuck-ever-stan to be an English teacher and not encounter in your co-workers the usual host of oddities and societal rejects. One has to wonder sometimes what impression our students form of the world outside their borders if this is their only sustained contact with foreigners.

I went out with the Brits last night to have a beer, and it didn’t take long for the creation of nicknames to begin. It began as a way to differentiate two teachers of the same name.

“harry scary”

“Yeah, he’s…”

“Let’s all go eat dog just to fuck with him.”

“And the other one?”

“Oh yeah, the Mormon.”

“Is he really? He’s from Wisconsin. Are there Mormons there?”

“No—well, I don’t know. But he looks like he’s wearing special underwear—and it’s a size too small.”

“bearded g----“

“No, but the other one has a beard too.”

“Well, the greater and the lesser.”

“G---- the greater and G--- the lesser. Sure, that works.”

“And the girl? What’s her name again?”

“Which one?”

“The one I’d like to roofie.”

“Yeah, and then not do anything with.”

“Well, what’s her last name?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been here two years, and I don’t know.”

“How about Ritalin?”

“Too obvious. How about poodle?”


“Her hair.”

“How about calm-the-fuck-down-and-breathe?”

“Hm, yeah, but then everyone would know who we’re referring to.”

“We’ll get back to her.”

“And the gay one?”



“Oh, he’s not gay. He has a girlfriend.”

“He’s gay. He just isn’t out of the closet yet. Trust me. Gaydar clanging on this one.”

“I thought he was the Mormon.”

“No, he’s Canadian.”

“And the other girl?”

“The one who never talks? How about deer-in-the-headlights?”



“Who killed Kenny.”

“Right. Never speaks.”

“Kenny Kenny”

“Or sometimes Kenny Kenny Kenny?”

(Silence from the boys. That one fell flat, obviously.)

“And the Scot?”

“Oh, brown rice, yoga…”

“It’s all to get laid. Really. He got his first date on the flight here.”

“Led Zeppelin, Beatles…”

“How about downward facing dog?”


“Yoga move. Ass in the air.”


“Have you seen that scarf he wears?”

“Uh, no.”

“Dreadful, really.”

“And what about us. You and me. I mean, Phil’s already got one.”

“No. I don’t like the one I’ve got. “



“And you’re really going to marry her? And do what?”

“Take her to England. DO you know how much a visa costs? 800 pounds.”

“And there’s the interview. That should be fun. Does she ever not hate you?”

“Oh, about five minutes out of every day.”


“Have you Dutch ovened her yet?”

“Dutch oven? What’s that?”

“Where you fart and pull the covers over her head.”

“Yeah. Now she knows when I’m going to do it. Says I get a look in my eyes.”

“Well, that’s all right then.”

“And Stephen. Functioning alcoholic is too obvious.”

“Last name…”

“No, nothing with cereal.”

“We’ll get back to you. And Justine?”

“Remember that joke I told about ginger babies?”

“What, the abortion joke?”

“Justine ‘pro-choice’ Derrick.”

“Fine, but it’s not my real color.”

“It’s not? What is?”

“Changes. Depends on the season.”

“Mine’s the same.”

“Hm. Justine ‘stiletto’ Derrick.”

“Justine ‘fishnet’ Derrick.”

“Justine ‘bondage’ Derrick.”

“Hey, wait! How did I end up with dominatrix nicknames?”

And so it went, with everyone continuing to riff on various nicknames. I’d gone out to lunch with the Brits, and that conversation covered farting (again), gay sex (with a story about someone admitting to sticking a toothbrush up his ass), a former girlfriend who was a Japanese jockey (who brought her saddle with her sometimes—burning a mental image that I will never, ever be able to erase)…

But also teaching. The Brits are both experienced teachers, so we discussed problems Russian speakers have with English and how to target these problems. We discussed the upcoming curriculum redesign that we’re going to be doing. We discussed the plan to give the students kindles. We discussed ways we can help the newbies be better teachers—without their knowing that we’ve intervened.

So yes, while these two guys have some obvious issues (both the products of a British public education, by the way: incredibly smart, but also incredibly fucked-up), they are both competent professionals who care about the job they do and their students (sometimes a little too much; see reference to pregnancy in conversation above).

After the beer at the bar, the two gentlemen escorted me home. They did stop on the way, however, to buy seven and a half liters of beer and five packs of cigarettes.

Monday, January 16, 2012

January 16, 2012

Staying alive

Recipe for one-skillet: Soak and boil beans. Flavor as desired. Keep in fridge, ready to go. When hungry, take out one serving of beans and place in skillet. Add just a little bit of water. When water starts to bubble and the beans start to stick a bit, slide beans to one side of skillet and crack egg in the free space. Cover. Wait a couple of minutes, lift lid, and place slice of somewhat stale bread in the space between the egg and the beans. Cover again. Wait until egg white is set but yolk is still runny. Place beans on plate, add two slices of overly salty cheese, scrape egg from pan and place over cheese. Place bread on side. Enjoy.

Recipe for one pan: heat oil. Add ½ of Maggi chicken cube. Add sliced onion. After a while, add some spices—whatever happens to be around. Add sliced turnips and carrots. Continue to stir-fry. Add sliced cabbage. Continue to stir-fry. Add water. Bring water to boil. Add more spices. Boil the shit out of it. Serve with chunks of overly salty cheese and slightly stale bread.

Recipe for one bowl: mix plain yogurt and overly-sweetened liquid yogurt. Add one cube of chopped chocolate. Add slight stale muesli. Add some raisins.

Breakfast: wash and cut one apple, removing spots where bugs have entered (and left). Cut a couple of wedges of cheese. Take two slices of slightly stale bread, butter one side, grill in skillet. Add weird green jam. Enjoy with Assam brewed in hard, tap water.

Weekend: try food in local markets and restaurants. Only do this Friday evening, after teaching, or Saturday. Give yourself Sunday to recover.

Where to find things:

Mustard: in the Turkish or Russian supermarkets

Muesli: in the supermarket just south of me.

Tuna: I saw some once in the Russian supermarket in the center (right next to the Turkish supermarket)

Pork products: from the English butcher in the center of town

Apples and produce: from any of the markets. Do not buy from the supermarkets.

Eggs: from the closest supermarket. Otherwise, they’ll all break before you get them home

1.5 % milk: sometimes at the supermarket south of me. Sometimes from the supermarket north of me. It depends.

Sliced German cheese: I saw it once at the supermarket south of me.

Plain yogurt: can occasionally be found at the Turkish supermarket in the center of town.

Loose-leaf tea: everywhere

Mayo: everywhere

Bread: White is everywhere. Wheat more difficult to find.

Unidentifiable sausages: everywhere

Chocolate: everywhere

Curry: still haven’t found it

As you can see, part of moving to a new place is figuring out where to find things…

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

January - Morning Walk

Sheep grazing in a Bishkek park.

Park in the south of Bishkek.

Park in the south of Bishkek.

Admit it, you're jealous. You know you wish you lived in Bishkek...

January 9, 2012

January 9, 2012

First day of classes. I teach from 2:30 to 8:30, but I’m observing two classes this morning, one at 8:30 and the other at 10. It will be a long-ish day, I’m thinking. Right now, I’m going back and forth between feeling nervous and feeling excited. I both hate and love teaching. It’s not really a job; it’s more an emotional rollercoaster. I wonder if one day it will become a job. I wonder if that’s really a desirable thing. If I’m alert and awake in the classroom, the experience can be so dynamic. If not, well, I feel sorry for my students.

Every teaching job that I have, I want to be a better teacher than I was before. I want to try new ways to get my students to learn. What can I do to help them learn better? To learn more? To learn more deeply? I find myself experimenting more with behaviorism, with activities that are disguised drill-n-kill exercises. Turn it into a game somehow. Ultimately learning a language is about communicating, but if the pieces aren’t there, ready to go, ready to be pulled up automatically, then fluency is lacking—and accuracy is compromised. Having seen now the results of fossilization at the higher levels, I want to start fighting it as much as I can at the lower levels.

The problem is that we never have enough time in the classroom. There’s always too much to cover. Two pages in 90 minutes. New information in every class. Time required to check homework. If you make the most of your time, you can perhaps do 15 – 20 minutes of review. Cut out some of the material in the book. But what? Say you have a listening text. You absolutely need to do some pre-reading, activate schema. Then, the listening. 2 times, right? Then responding to the pre-listening activity in some way. Then checking for deeper comprehension of the text. Dealing with questions about content, vocabulary, structures. Some expansion activity, something that has the students respond to the text in some way. Set up the homework. You’re already over time, so you can forget about the other review activity you were hoping to get to, something to close the class. A couple of minutes to review what you did

January 8, 2012

January 8, 2012

It’s all about managing expectation, about releasing the old routine and the old patterns and developing new ones. So I can’t wake up and exercise. Fine. I’ll wake up, enjoy my tea, and work. Later in the day I’ll go for a long walk. When it warms up and all the ice melts, I’ll embrace the challenge of building up my endurance again. Until then, I find other ways. Once I start teaching, I’ll be so worn out, this excess energy I have won’t be so much an issue.

There’s a point of release—several points, actually—when adapting to a new culture. You fight and fight (at least, I do), trying to hold on to your old life, your old patterns, your old lifestyle. Bit by bit, you release these old things and find new ones to take their place. New routines. Each experience like this—moving to a foreign country—is new, but the emotional pattern is roughly the same.

And I feel like I’m reaching a point where what I’m going through is less culture shock and more homesickness. That’s not to say that there is no culture shock—that there haven’t been bits of it and that there won’t be more. But I’ve always had problems with missing my family and friends. When I’ve spoken to other teachers over the years, the one thing I’ve noticed about the ones that have spent several years traveling and teaching is that they don’t really have close ties to their families. I could never live the way they live. I don’t envy them or feel sorry for them; I just accept that my emotional situation is quite different.

But enough of that whole deep, introspection thing. You’re here to read about Bishkek in January.

Took a walk to Osh Bazaar today. The first couple of days I was here, it was sunny and almost warm-ish (well, warm enough to melt some of the snow during the warmest part of the day). But the last few days? Cold and grey and overcast and… you get the picture. So, in preparation for my walk to the bazaar: long johns, jeans, wool socks, yak-trax on my hiking boots, a long-sleeved tee-shirt, a down coat, a wool coat (yes, two coats), gloves, mittens over the gloves, a scarf, a hat. Oh, and a map of Bishkek (not really necessary as the city is on a grid. On the other hand, all these communist-era concrete structures all look the same, so…) Oh, and side note: streets have two names.

And I set out. Forgot to mention: I brought a copy of my passport with me. You know, just in case I get stopped by the police. Which, in my estimation, was very likely to happen given that I wasn’t wearing the local costume: fur-trimmed black puffy coat with a belt, stylish black hat, knee-high high-heeled black boots, black leggings, shorts or skirt over said leggings. No, I am the stereotypical frumpy American. No make-up, no concern about fashion or how I look. My blue-tinged lips may have led some to believe that I was wearing some shade of counter-culture lipstick—but I sincerely doubt it.

But back to the bazaar. There are several things I both love and dread experiencing when I’m in a foreign country. One is transportation (ALERT: Mom, skip the rest of this paragraph, please). Talk about a thrill. You never really know what you’re going to get and, in some cases, if you’re going to get anywhere alive. I’ve experience some harrowing rides in my time. I wonder what K’Stan will bring.

The other is bazaars. Overwhelming, stressful, and likely to catapult someone into the depths of culture shock. But I was prepared. Well, not really. But I at least knew that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and how I was going to react. And I had an escape plan.

Bazaars are all remarkably similar while being quite different (yes, I know, as far as descriptions go, that one is useless. By the way, what’s the genre or style of writing where the narrator comments on his or her narrative style as the story progresses? ‘Cause I do that a lot. And if there’s no name for it, I’ll have to invent one.)

But, Bazaars.

No, more set-up. When I was in Jersey, I went to Columbus a couple of times. It’s a bit flea market and Amish market south of Princeton. Picture, if you will, the epitome of North American chaos: cars parked in neat rows, fences around the flea market enclosure, tables set up in orderly rows with clear demarcations between them, wide, easily navigable aisles where visitors stroll leisurely, stopping to examine something that catches their eye then moving on. And the produce? In a separate section, across the parking lot, with prices clearly marked.

Now picture a tornado going straight through this scene. What you have left might begin to resemble your typical non-Western bazaar. No straight lines or rows, tarps overhanging booths wedged in to winding, tight alleyways, nothing marked with prices, no sense of where anything is. I have no sense of how large the bazaar was because it was impossible to follow a line from any one end to the other. You simply cross a street, take a deep breath, and plunge in. People hustling and rushing and bumping into one another. Everyone is on a mission; no leisurely browsing. If you stop to look at something it’s because you’re interested in it and the negotiations begin.

Now, picture all of this on top of an ice-skating rink. Because this is, after all, Bishkek in winter—and there’s no salting, no sanding, no shoveling. Children are sliding down inclines (because yes, this is on uneven ground) into the people below, women and holding onto one another for balance, teenage boys are trying to not slip and look like fools. And I’m in the middle of all this, in my frumpy North American wool coat, brown hiking boots and Yak-trax (great on icy, packed snow but pretty useless on solid ice, I must admit), my Pacific Northwest-looking blue striped hat, my wide eyes and vacant expression, trying to pick my way gingerly across the ice, slipping occasionally, arms flailing…

And now I’m in my room, on my second pot of tea. Boiling a chicken thigh to make some soup. Mentally steeling myself for the challenges to come. Because tomorrow, I meet my students.

To be continued…

(And yes, I know it’s hackneyed. But there you have it.)


Just spent ten minutes on the Russian Rosetta Stone. My brain is SO FRIED right now. Wow.


In trying to figure out how to address the now boiled chicken leg in a pot of water (a pot which I will need to make soup in), I wandered into the bathroom, sat on the toilet (with pants still up, mind you), and set the pot of chicken + water on my lap in order to pick the meat off the bones. Let’s just say that Pavlov was on to something with this whole stimulus + conditioned response thing. Now I have a pot of chicken in my bathtub, and empty bladder, and no idea how to proceed from here. (For those of you who are still confused, I had to set the pot in the bathtub so that I could use the toilet).

Yeah. I’m definitely tired.


Things that make America great (and no, NASCAR is not on this list):

Water fountains, frozen vegetables, the to-go container for hot beverages (wasteful but brilliant), peanut butter, fast food restaurants and gas stations that don’t charge you to use the toilet…

See, if we could just export some of the stuff on this list, fewer people would hate us.


Why has my music program classified Thus Spake Zarathustra as romantic music?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

First images of Bishkek

Ride at your own risk, I think.

No one has the Soviets beat for creating beautiful, durable structures...

Yup. It's Lenin.