Friday, February 25, 2005

Brighter Later

As I should have expected, nothing is as simple as all that. Unable to entirely believe what I'd heard, I passed it by another ex-patriate who has lived here long enough to know something about it. "I heard that they still hang the sheets," I ventured. "Ah, yeah," she said, "they hang the sheets. But these girls have ways around it." "They do?" I asked, thinking, isn't there some Shakespeare play where the little vixen uses chicken's blood or something? "Oh sure. And you know, they're all forced to marry young and then they just all have affairs. Men and women."

Something of a relief in these small rebellions.

Or maybe it's just that the weather turned brilliantly lovely and for the first time I can see out my window the most stunning mountains.

(Now if I could just figure out how to breathe through this Himalaya of mucus that has settled in my upper chest, everything would be great.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Plov Aplenty

Intestinally, so far, everything's been great for me. But by the fourth time one of your ex-patriate colleagues who's been in-country for a long time sidles up alongside you at dinner and whispers conspiratorially in your ear (sly as any Southside pusher) that they've got a stash of Pepto in tow, well... You start to get nervous.

Little Smiling Hooks

I didn’t know, when I first heard her valley girl giggle, that L’s face was rashed by acne from the stress of an impending arranged marriage. Or that sweet F, who hugged me fiercely the moment I met her and held my hand the way women do here, had stitches holding together the gash above her eye, earned three months ago when her husband introduced her face to the doorframe. These women, these laughing lovely girls who surround me; they’re all lying to me with their pretty smiles. There’s a tragedy dogging each.

Although many of them work at the office until quite late, and come in on weekends, S is always sent home promptly at 5:30 pm, lest she return yet another time with burns crawling up the fleshy soft her forearms. She is six months with a child, fathered by a man she hadn’t known. “I need Thursday off,” she sobbed one morning to her boss, last year. “Why is that?” “I have to get married.” He was a waiter in a local restaurant. She’d seen him once, dropping his parents off somewhere. At the wedding, the bride and groom stood in separate rooms and the mullah blessed them individually. Brought together after exchanging solo vows to an absent spouse, she was not to lift her head to look him in the eyes. Then the young girl and her groom are brought to a bedroom canopied by a sheet. The aunts and mother in law dance around the bed clapping and singing until the deed is done, this public rape consummated, and then, if she’s been quite a good girl, the blood-red banner of her bridal sheet will hang high with pride. Heaven help her if it glares white. She must be with child within a year.

One morning, N’s boss happened into the office Saturday morning to find her screaming wild with mad clumps of hair in her pulsing fists. Her husband, she hadn’t known him well, but he’d no sooner impregnated her than he ran off, like so many others, to find work in Moscow. For the last year and a half, she’d heard nothing. She’d grown large, delivered, mothered, while he found his new family in a new city. Finally he’d called, this Saturday, to let her know that he was done with her and the child he assumed she must have. They would divorce. She has not told her mother. The mothers beat worse than the husbands when a disgrace truly calls for it.

And the others, often the sole providers for an extended family, the only ones with the brains to land a western salary, they’re yanked from the job because these long hours are turning them into public unmarried disgraces.

It is worse for the women, but the men are not unscarred in this arrangement. S is gay, forced to take a bride and growling fiercely of how he will beat her, for the crime, one imagines, of his whole lot in life. Young, bright-eyed K thinks he will be allowed to choose his wife, but his brows crinkle with doubt.

Today is “Man’s Day,” as they call it, formerly Soviet Army Day. And so the girls all prepared a spread and stood back against the wall and smiled wide and thanked the men for protecting them. And even though I saw before me many good men, and young men too youthful to be the monsters haunting the private nightmares of these women, and men who are no happier for being on the top of this ugly totem, I found myself hating them all anyway. My heart’s tired of breaking today and it’s starting to spit an ugly snow.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Spring Break 2005!!!!

Hey ya'all!
It's totally time for Spring Break and I'm soooooo super excited! I'm leaving today and I have the cuuutest new bikinis and my tanning sessions have totally paid off. I'll be gone for maybe two weeks but I'll totally try to write, okay? If you need me, I'll be at the wet t-shirt contest here:

Stay Sweet!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Hunka Hunka Burnin Love

You can take your Veuve Cliquot and your petit fours and shove 'em. Around my house, if there's no heart-shaped deep dish Giordano's pizza, there's no fuckin' Valentines. Alright? Alright. So happy belated love day, everybody. Eat up.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

So This is What an Aneuryms Feels Like

You know those days? One of those days? That you have some times? I'm having one. Of those very days.

My favorite part of these days is when you pass into the absurd-o-sphere. When yet another person steps into your office [after patiently waiting in the line outside your door that stretches to the horizon behind a sign that says "Major Crises MUST SOLVE NOW ask SueAndNotU (wait time 45 minutes)"] and announces the catastrophe that you must wave your magic wand out, and you just start laughing. Not yelling, not fuming, now whining, just crazy Willy Wonka laughing. Like, oh ho ho! Who's next! Who's got world hunger? Because, why not?

But the true, orchestrated, balletic majesty of these days only comes after the catastrophe line has run its course, and the final visitor stops by and you're balancing the solar system on your shoulders and this person comes by and you look at him witheringly, expecting a crisis, and he says, "Could you fax this to my wife? I just don't know how to use the damn thing."

Oh and to truly have one of the days like my day, you simply must sprinkle in a healthy dash of Napoleon-complex afflicted consular bureaucrats from post-Soviet nations. "It is not possible. " Ah. Like music to my ears.

Man, if tonight weren't half-price Belgian beer night, I might be grouchy!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Adventuers in Bleu

During the milquetoast era that passed for my teenage rebellion, I imagined that I would never become one of those nine-to-five yuppies. I don't recall being particulary certain what I was going to be, but based on my value system of the time, it probably involved hanging out at coffee shops smoking cloves with one chunk of hair dyed slightly more reddish than the rest of my auburn locks. (For her part, my partner-in-rebellion Clarissa decided to become a vegetarian for breakfast and lunch. Of course, she later upped the ante with piercings and tattoos, leaving me and my red chunk of hair woefully square.)

Flash forward some years ahead to tonight when I find myself blissfully strolling the aisles of Whole Foods with a baguette under one arm, a tub of fresh olives bobbing in their oil, some fresh olive oil for my vinaigrette, and a bottle of my favorite Syrah rounding out the night's dinner. Granted, this is hard to square with some of my other culinary pleasures, but nevertheless, I concede that this, along with my taste in Belgian beers, marks me with the Scarlet Y. Still! I am not the worst. Not by a long shot. Why, just when I was scanning the wine aisles tonight, I nearly bumped into an attractively attired young blonde yuppy woman and her well-mannered, multi-lingual offspring. Now, everbody always says that when they have kids, those damn kids are going to be taught multiple languages from birth, and then nobody does it or gives a damn between the diapers and the dinners and the screaming and the vomiting and the nosebleeds and the bruises, and oh, is that my birth control pill? May I have another?

Right. So, this little blonde darling of about 7 or 8 starting holding court in the wine aisle in French. The word bouche was in there which I think means mouth. His accent, to my yank ears, was impeccable. My God. What a child. I can just see the elite blue-state liberal paradise in which he is raised: he speaks languages, he plays multiple instruments, he sings like an angel, he is admirably athletic, no doubt. I'm sure he takes his extra allowance money and sends it to the IRS so they can put it to good use. Confirming my suspicions, he sings out to his mother, "Mom! I can speak four languages."

Oh, that little overprivileged little prince. Four, is it? Four? Well I heard some impressive French, and now it's clear that English is under your belt. What else you got, young master?

"You speak four languages?" asked Mom distractedly in that indulgent tone parents use when they're not paying attention.

"YES!" he confirmed. "I speak FRENCH and ENGLISH and MEXICAN and AFRICAN AMERICAN."

"Honey," she cooed. "You can't say you speak four languages and then say you speak English and African American. You can say you speak three languages and a dialect."

I wonder when she's going to break it to him about Mexican?

My Shame is Deep and Crippling

There are a few things I need to get off my chest before I go off to die in Tajikistan. The following items are sources of deep shame that bring into question serious questions of character and upbringing, but I must come clean.

On my flight back from Ukraine a few months ago, I was on one of those great planes that have the TV screens in the back of each seat so you can choose from a selection of movies to watch whenever you feel like it. After Superman 2, I saw The Notebook, that utterly saccharine flick about true love and soul mates set in the 40s or so (but narrated in the present time by aged protagonists a la Fried Green Tomatos and a billion other tired films). So overwrought, so cheesy, so predictable, so gimmicky. Emotionally manipulative, completely unbelievable characters who only exist to make us feel less charming and lovable. I told Kriston that how I hated it. I convinced myself that because of the aforementioned examples of despicable filmmaking, I did indeed hate it. I even sneered at the man in the seat next to me—a beefy hip-hop star in dark shades and distracting bling who I'd never heard of ("I'm big in Amsterdam. I usually fly first class." and later... "I actually hate hip hop.")—because he said "Man, did you see that Notebook? Aw man that was some sad shit. Man, that was good." "Did you cryyyyyyy?" I teased. Fuck. He was more honest than me. I watched that damn movie twice that flight. Twice in a row. Then I watched the trailers. I just saw a trailer on TV and felt a heart string get plucked. It's horribly embarassing. I am a Kieslowsky aficionado!!!!!

Corrollary to ITEM 1: Far and Away remains, by far and away, the most influential movie on my life to date and I shall defend it to my grave.

With America's Next Top Model on hiatus, What not to Wear is one of the top shows on television and nearly makes me cry most times. God, after Nick Arrojo does his magic with their hair and they look into the mirror and their faces slowly crumble and all the years of toil and underappreciation and quiet resignation come to the fore and they whisper with gravelly desperation, "I forgot what it was feel...pretty." Then they vow to get their GEDs or stop shaking their babies or whatever. Gah! God help me, I start to believe that life's problems can all be solved with a smart wardrobe and classically understated make-up application! What is wrong with me, really? Deep down, what is wrong?

My favorite snack foods of all time: not hummous and carrots. Not fresh fruit. Not even chips. My favorite snack foods of all time are Pemmican brand beef jerky (teriyaki flavor) and David's Sunflower Seeds, in shells, large resealable bag, salted. Clearly, I am a fat truck driver reincarnated in young urbanite girl's body. I have had CVS employees mock my snack purchases.

I think that more or less exhausts the list for now. And I understand if you need to, you know, take some time before we talk again. I'll be right here.

Friday, February 11, 2005

After the Fall

I wish I had more time to dwell on the sad news of Arthur Miller's passing. His was a rare and brilliant mind, and his plays had such depth and surprise that I read them over and over and over again, each time with renewed awe. His body of work reads like a torrid love affair with mankind; his cast characters may be pathetic and vulnerable dreamers or cruel and damaged or wise and helplessly weak, and every one of them fully and tragically and triumphantly human.

There was a passage in Reading Lolita in Tehran when an Iranian student muses that nobody who read literature could ever become a totalitarian or support a totalitarian regime, because literature teaches us about shades and gradations and all the complexities of humanity that a totalitarian ideology must ignore.

I like to think of Arthur Miller in that sense: on the front lines in the battle against simplistic thinking, dehumanizing judgments, against the temptation to turn man into a walking embodiment of some ideology rather than the jumble of nerves and contradictions and mixed motivations and irrationality that makes him a wonder.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Look Kids! There's Big Ben!

The travel guide, she waxes unethusiastic on Tajikistan:
With a cool backdrop of mountains, lazy tree-lined avenues and pale, oriental-fringed buildings, Dushanbe [the capital] may be a good-looking city but personality-wise it's a dead loss, an historically isolated backwater that's boring by day and dangerous at night. The large, covered Barakat market is what passes for the centre of activity in Dushanbe, though it's not particularly interesting; the city has many other makeshift bazars, but they're harrowing affairs composed of lines of people trying to sell whatever they can find at home - a pair of old shoes, coverless books, a dismantled washing machine motor, anything that somebody might conceivably trade a little cash for.

Oh, ha ha. Those jokesters. Now seriously. Where's the chapter on Day Spas?

Still, I hope I get a chance to see the Pamirs; the "roof of the world." It's the fantastic range of mountains from which the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush radiate out. Although, again The Lonely Planet with the harshing of my buzz:
Much of what would be prime hiking territory is prowled by men with weapons - get local advice on where to steer clear in the Pamir.

Okay fine. I'll find something else to do.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Food Porn

Here's a photo-voyeur series for hungry eyes:


Parts II, III, and IV: I am a culinary GODDESS. Pecan pie? Si! Cinnamon Egg Bread from scratch? Oh yeah. Bread machine? I scoff at your bread machine! This baby came from yeast and flour and eggs and the proletarian sweat of my super matriarch-power hands!!!!

And, unrelated to food, I hope—what happens if you cruelly turn on the tap water on the bath and start calling for the dog:

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


I know it's kind of sucked around here lately, and for that I humbly apologize. And the suckage will probably get worse before it gets better. HOWEVER. I should have some amusing stories to share before too long, as I've just learned that I'll be going to Tajikistan in 12 days, which is known as the "Ibiza of Central Asia"*, so you know, party time!! My ability to blog from the wilds of Tajikistan will likely hover around nil most of the time, so don't send in the rescue teams when you don't hear from me right away. And remember. If you run into my mother, I'm going to Ireland, okay people? Ireland. Nice, jolly, nowhere-near-Afghanistan, Ireland.

Just kidding. Bless her soul, she's getting used to the horror of her daughter.

*Total complete lie

UPDATE: And yes. Of course. I'm totally buying a mouth organ when I swing through Kazakhstan.

Friday, February 04, 2005


It's a fine time for dissident junkies. Normally my attention doesn't go too far beyond the borders of merrye olde Former Soviet Union, but this article via Yglesias caught my eye. It discusses Egypt's burgeoning unrest and the increased volume of grumblings among coalescing and, dare I say, emboldened dissident groups.

Now, when this kind of thing happens in the aforementioned merrye olde FSU, we trace it on the trajectory of Serbia-Georgia-Ukraine, that series of revolutions we've seen in the past few years. Georgians wanted a Serbia, Ukrainians wanted a Georgia, and now the Kyrgyz and the Belarussians, among others, are calling for a Georgia/Ukraine, while autocrats throughout the region are rightly concluding that the mild liberalization of Shevardnadze and Kuchma created the conditions for their downfall, and are adjusting policies accordingly.

While I'm sure the opposition groups in Egypt are, naturally, well aware of Georgia and Ukraine and perhaps even emboldened, I doubt they take their cues and motivation from these events the way others in the FSU can. Belarus and the Kyrgyz Republic can point to their common past, their shared communist experience, and conclude that there's no reason that Georgia can pull this off and not them. The lesson wouldn't necessarily hold for Cairo.

Nevertheless, I still think it's totally cool that the symbol of Egypt's resistance movement fits right into the iconic scheme of the Slavs and Caucasians.

This is the flag for the Egyptian resistance movement Kifaya, or "Enough!"

Which sounds quite similar to Georgia's youth opposition movement, Kmara, or "Enough!"

...whose design was lifted wholesale from Serbia's opposition Milosevic-booting group, Otpor, or "Resistance."

Our outlier is Ukraine's Pora ("It is time"), but they get an inclusion anyway:

Thursday, February 03, 2005

In passing

I'm sorry to interrupt the fun with a serious note, but I was terribly saddened this morning when I woke up to the news that Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was found dead from a gas leak in a friend's MoscowTbilisi apartment. Or, that's an "apparent gas leak" according to the New York Times, God love their skeptical souls. I don't know. Fatal gas leaks do happen all the time. It very well could be an unfortunate coincidence that the Prime Minister of this country that's been a bit of a thorn in Russia's heel died so unexpectedly. I'm inclined to believe that we need a little more motivational evidence before indicting the FSB yet again. I don't really see what Russia gains by axing Zhvania as far as really improving their situation with Georgia, so until I see more, I'm not pointing at foul play here, however much it might fit the m.o. of the overreacting security organ. (Although I seem to recall Zhvania having a close call with fighting factions in South Ossetia last year... Is someone gunning for this guy and his role in the peace process? Not that narrowly escaping gunfire is an unusual afternoon pasttime for your average Georgian man...)

When I was in Tbilisi last spring, after the initial euphoria of the revolution had faded a little bit, I encountered a number of people who were skeptical of their fiery new President Saakashvili. They distrusted his Western-style populism, his slick veneer, his too-perfect words. But to a man, even those closely associated with opposition parties, they would raise their fingers and say, "Now Zhvania. There's a man you can trust."

Zhvania was the accomplished technocrat of the operation. He could never be a president - not bursting with charisma and rallying rhetoric, this one, but he was seen as an enormously successful and competent government player, free from the taint of corruption, and most importantly, vital to balancing the radical and moderate influences in the government. I saw him speak when he came to Washington, and he was hugely impressive. When panelists and audience members asked him questions, he answered them. Concisely, directly, and fully. He said more in 30 minutes than most politicians express in hours of vague generalizations and exalted rhetoric. It wasn't fancy, but it was impressive. He was a committed and excellent public servant who earned the trust and respect of his people across the political spectrum, and Georgia is wounded by this loss.

UPDATE: I was writing this off of memory of an NPR report coming from my radio alarm. In my half-awake state I thought they said he was in Moscow. He was not, after all, which makes much more sense.

UPDATE II: Irina chalks my mistake up to my debilitating anti-Russian bias and that of all my countrymen and the Washington Post, and secondary school chemistry teachers, documentary filmmakers, and the International Olympic Committee. In that order, roughly.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

State of the Blessed Holy Union

I understand that President Bush is saying something or other right about now, so those of you watching him must not have been watching the Ashlee Simpson show, and you wouldn't know that the episode covering her SNL snafu is coming on at 10:30 EST. If you get bored in the meantime, Jessica and Nick are having an anniversary in which they desperately hope that massive outpourings of cash on diamonds and champagne will compensate for their utter boredom with one another. Consider yourself briefed.

NICK: You know somebody told me that they only make champagne in Champagne, France? But that's not right, right?
JESSICA: (confused) ....noooo...
NICK: Yeah, but the thing is I fell for it
JESSICA: You don't think they make champagne in Italy? Gah.

The Music of the Night

You know, World Music is an underappreciated genre that is unfairly chucked into the discount music bins of our consciousness. Because we refuse to believe that anyone could actually like alien pot-clanging orchestras, we chalk affection for world beats up to pretentious affectation and an aesthetic that centers on not-shaving-armpits or the desperate clinging to cultural artifacts of greying former peace corps volunteers. (Big sorry to, like, all my colleagues.)

But, after my cultural experience last night, I'm here to tell you. This is absolutely correct.

They lulled us into complacency early. The Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center was fairly full; congresspersons, ambassadors, and Mayor Williams were in attendance. The Kazakh orchestra onstage clutched violins and were clad in black. They played Mozart and Grieg and even got down and dirty with some Gershwin and Bernstein. It all seemed so very safe and bourgeois.

Then after intermission, out came the Folk Orchestra. First of all, they had on awesome costumes.

And they all had variations on awesome guitars, and they rocked out a few ditties, and we were pleased with ourselves, so well behaved and culturally tolerant.

And then.

The goat man, as I came to think of him, took to the stage. The dude was wearing a pelt. And a fur hat so huge it must have traumatized multiple goats. He was introduced as a premiere collector and performer of traditional instruments. He looked intense. "Alright," I thought. "Now we've got the purist. He probably thinks that orchestra behind him is a bunch of sell-outs that only exist for tourists." Let us have it, goat man.

Then. He sat down in front of the orchestra, this man in animal pelts descended from the nomadic horsemen of the Kazakh steppe, he sat down in front of God and the Kennedy Center and a room full of dignitaries, and he took out a mouth organ. You know. The doingy doingy doingy thing. Don't get me wrong, I dig the mouth organ, but I'm not done.

He was going off on this mouth organ. His fingers were flying on the metal doingers and it was like, I don't know, wild flourishy flamenco mouth organ. But I'm still not done. While he was mouth organing, he started making a noise that can not be described in the English tongue. It was so deep and guttural it sounded like the noise that comes when you turn on a stereo only to find out that a speaker has blown out and it blares a harsh painful foghorn-like bleat. This man started making that noise. Loudly, and sustained, and all the while modulating it with the doingy doingy doingy. I've never heard anything like it.

Then, I notice Kriston's shoulders are starting to shudder with abandon. He's got his face buried in his hands and he is convulsing. And suddenly, I'm eleven years old and I'm back in church and my sister has done something stupid but it's enough to make me giggle. And because I'm fully aware of the utter inappropriateness of laughing in church, I become a slave to the urge to destroy myself laughing. Kriston got me going and together we're shaking the whole row with our barely contained seizures. I try to rein in my mind. Breathe in and out through nose slowly. Think of anything else. Then Kriston lets loose a nose snort and I'm off again. Crying. Lacerating myself all the while for my intolerant cultural insensitivity. Doingy doingy GRRRRRRRRR doingy doingy. It was then I noticed that shoulders throughout the entire hall were joining our restrained jitterbug. It was collective agony. The goat man had barely reached his last note when someone started the clapping prematurely and we all let loose with relief. Kriston turned to me and said, "We have to leave now. Because I don't ever want to hear any other music."

As a result, Kriston and I have perfected a routine in which we perform traditional Kazakh mouth organ music for your entertainment. Do request it next time you see us. We are awesome. Plus, I apparently have to watch 10 bazillion zombie movies to make up for this evening.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Republic of Rockistan

So let's have a contest.

It's called: Who is Going to Have the Rockin-est Evening?

And it's already over because I win. You may think that my week reached it's rockin'est peak on Sunday with the Arcade Fire show. But you are w-r-o-n-g with a curlicue at the end.

Because my people, I scored tickets to tonight's gala ONE NIGHT ONLY performance at the Kennedy Center of "Melodies and Songs of the Kazakh Steppes."

Do not ask me how I got seats. And how, amazingly, I got really good seats, like close enough to probably get sweat on me when the conductor of the State Orchestra of Folk swings his arm wide for a crescendo of Siberian folk MAGIC. Let's just say I have diplomatic connections and leave it at that. Oh my god, if they play Sarzhailau, I will DIE.

And who's my lucky date? Who else. Eat your hearts out, gents!!!

I'm Just a Girl, Part II

So I tried to think about Iraq, and instead I just started thinking, "Uh, I've really got to do something about my hair already." And that's when I knew my life was too easy.