Saturday, September 17, 2005

Goliath's name lives forever

Long ago, according to the popular story, a small boy who smelled of sheep stood against a giant whose name struck fear and wonderment into the hearts of his enemies as he bellowed obscenities across the field. Goliath: ancient Philistinic tongues so named this monster. Names, of course, hold meaning, which is sometimes impenetrably opaque and obscure. In English we have the obvious names denoting occupations: Knight, Taylor, Miller, Tanner, Chandler, Franklin, Butler, Smith, Butler, and perhaps the less common Pimp; and also names denoting a place of residence: Greenhill, River, Hill, Newton, Oldham, Wood, etc. But English names are bland compared to the wonderful variety of Russian names, which could create a sense of wonder just by their sound (not only their reputation, as was Goliath's case). Collectively, Russian names could set a dinner table, fill a large menagerie of strange creatures, or even populate a two-bit sideshow. Have you ever come across an Englishman or American with the name of Andrew Bloody-tail, Xena City-of-Black-Darkness, or Sveta of-the-Cabbages, or Tanya Little-Crust-of-Bread? Have you ever, while walking through the woods, come across a dark house straight from Poe's imagination, inhabited by Granny Three-Eyes? These names are commonplace, perhaps not so much as the Wolves, Foxes, Forests, Hills, etc., but they are not the exception to the rule. Peoples' family names in many cases come from nicknames given to them by the other people in their village; almost every person in the village has a "clitchka." Eventually, maybe even people's nicknames will become their family names, and many names have a story behind them. My favorite that I've come across so far is John Jumping-Over-the-Fence. I wonder where such a name came from. Was his great grandfather the town filanderer? Was he caught stealing someone's cabbages? That story perhaps is lost, but his name will live forever in this rich and imaginative tradition.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


I was in a really bad mood a couple of days ago. I don't know if it was adjusting back to site, or what, but I just couldn't stand talking to anyone for a long time. I tried to avoid many encounters with people I knew would piss me off, because I knew I had very little patience for them at the time. I accomplished this at the sake of possibly offending the parties involved, although I don't think I did offend them; they probably just thought I was a jerk. I worried about this for a little while, but after contemplating it, I realized that I don't have to be friends with everyone in my village, and, while I don't have anything against them personally, I usually don't tend to be on friendly terms with chronic drunks and perverts, either, so that made me feel better. When I went to the village concert in honor of Kazakhstan's Constitution Day, I was expecting just another dancing, karaoke sideshow. I sat down, and some guy that I was acquainted with turned around and invited me to sit with him and his girlfriend "to talk." So I went and sat next to him. Apparently by "talking" he meant "drinking," because he procured a bottle of beer from beside his chair and offered it to me, "in honor of Constitution Day." After several declinations on my part, and reciprocal insistence on his, I finally just replanted myself in my previous chair. This concert did prove to be different because the audience was considerably worse behaved than usual, heckling the performers, laughing, jockeying, whistling, and conversing throughout the entire concert. I felt embarrassed to be a part of the audience. However, I couldn't go outside because as soon as I would, I would be accosted by other guys wanting to "talk" as well. I felt trapped - hence the bad mood. This was a concentrated instance of what it seems to be like in general on an everyday basis. Hopefully, things will change when school starts, and the young people aren't in the village.

I want to qualify the apparent infortitude to alcohol - what we might call, being American with a certain prudish heritage, alcoholism; it is simply not culturally taboo, like it is for us. So my comments are obviously biased perspectives, and should be read not as invective, but a report. Vodka is an inescapable reality throughout much of Russian culture. It's as culturally acceptable to them as, say, having eggs for breakfast is for us. They even drink vodka for breakfast sometimes. I know some men who drink vodka throughout the day. They would be considered lushes in America, but here they are just normal men. They drink vodka to be healthy, much like the concept of a glass of red-wine a day. The word "vodka" itself, probably evolved from the word for water ("vada"), and I have heard it used several times interchangeably. With these cultural differences in mind, I will tell you what it's commonly like for me, the proverbial fish-out-of-water.

This is a conversation of an encounter with some guys in my village, and is what happened last Saturday in my village when I went with my host brother to the only bar in the village. I’m calmly chatting with my host-brother as we enter through the door. Immediately I hear shouts across the room. “Daniel! Come sit down! Come talk with us!” Sensing my hesitation, one of them stumbled to his feet unsteadily and rushed to me, throwing his arm around my shoulders. “Sit down! Sit down! Come drink with us!”
“I don’t want to drink.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want to drink? Come sit down.”
“Okay. But I don’t want to drink.”
When I sit down at the table I am immediately met with a small shot glass full of vodka. “Here’s your shot, Daniel.”
“No, no, that’s not necessary.”
“Here’s your shot. Let’s drink.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
“Daniel. Let’s drink.”
“No, I said, I don’t want to drink.”
“Just have 100 grams*.” (*100 grams means two shots. Since it’s Russian tradition to never stop at two shots, 100 grams means at least three shots.)
“No. I don’t want vodka.”
“Just have 50 grams.”
“20 grams. 20 grams.”
“No, I don’t want it.”
“What do you mean, no? Just a little.”
“No, no.”
“A little.”
“I don’t like vodka.”
“Just have a little.”
He is just beginning to get the idea that I actually don’t want to drink, which is impossibly odd for him, and equally impossible for him to accept, when another guy sitting next to him chimes in with a scheming look in his eye. “Daniel, let’s meet. My name’s Andrei.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Come on. Let’s drink to our meeting.”
“I don’t want to drink.”
“What do you mean, no? It’s to meeting.”
“I already said that I don’t want to drink.”
Andrei throws up his shoulders and pouts his lips, as if to say that he would be offended if I didn’t drink. A face appears over my shoulder, and with a voice steaming and with the smell of alcohol, it says, “It’s a Russian tradition.”
“I know, I know. But I don’t want to drink.”
“Daniel, It’s tradition!”
“Tell you what, let’s meet some other time,” I say. And so they drink the shot and all is well until about ten seconds later, when the same person pours another shot and sets it in front of me.
“Daniel, here’s your shot…”

through the looking glass

Have you ever looked into the mirror one morning and wondered, much like Alice daydreamed on a hot summer day – if a world exists beyond the fringes of the reflection, or if it is truly a reflection at all, or if – like us – the reflection that we see is not a reflection at all, but we are a reflection of it and it will walk away and live it’s life beyond the horizons of the mirror that we imagine may exist? If we could only peer around corners, or set up enough mirrors angled to refract any sign that there is life existing apart from our own engine, that the person that we see won’t cease to exist when we leave the path of the mirror. Wouldn’t it be strange if one day, as you washed your face or put in your contacts, you began to turn away and sensed distinctly that, for a mere fraction of a second, the hand in the mirror lagged behind your own. You would perhaps take the contact lens out, wash it again, and put it back in your eye, hoping that it was a mistake, that the anomaly you just thought you witnessed was a trick of light or a wrinkle in your lens. And you would try, with all scientific reasoning, to duplicate the event. Have you ever found yourself in one of those elevators rimmed with reflective glass, peering uncannily at yourself copied dozens of times over, and thought if you could just see far enough down the line, you might notice a you with some imperfection. Imagining again the doppelganger that exists when you walk away from the mirror – suppose every imperfection of reflective action is merely imperceptible, and that for every mirror in every reflection these imperfections accumulate, until finally in some variable world, you exist as an antithesis of yourself as you know it.

Sometimes I feel that everything seems so sufficiently skewed to conclude that somehow, ostensibly, I have stepped into the skin of another me, and that I am now perceiving the world of my reflection.

15 minutes in Kaz

I knew that I wore my nice blue striped shirt to the Swearing-in for a good reason. During the ceremony, I was asked to give an interview for a news channel. For every swearing in, news crews are invited by the U.S. embassy to film the ceremony and take interviews. Well, since I was there and my Russian was pretty good, they asked me. I gave an interview completely in Russian, and I must say was really nervous, because I don't like interviews. I guess I always think I might not handle the pressure of tough questions. That's my personality - to express complete thoughts. I do it in writing, speaking, whatever. But I did alright. The Peace Corps staff I worked with at training said she saw me and it was really good. It wasn't until I got back to site, that I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the news channel was national and I was being watched in Tarkhanka, too. Nina and my director, Nina Vasiliyevna, saw me on television. I don't know what questions that they asked me made it into the cut, but there were some that I didn't know how to answer. Did I mention that I don't like interviews? I don't like interviews, and that's one reason why. They asked me if I had a girlfriend(?!) and asked what I thought about Americans coming and finding wives here and such. I answered that that's good for them, I guess, but I haven't found anyone, for such is love. Another question, after he rephrased it because he was using big words I didn't understand, was basically, "What about Kazakhstan was disappointing to you?" Now, seriously, you can't answer that except with, "Nothing disappointed me." And really, as I explained, I had no expectations, so I wasn't disappointed, since most Americans - I was included with them before I came - know little to nothing about Central Asian countries. But still, I had a better time with the interview, than another volunteer, who gave an interview in Kazakh. They asked him all sorts of strange questions, and because he went right before me, as I sat listening to the questions, I got nervous about what questions they qould ask me. I hate interviews.