Thursday, March 30, 2006

Putin Will Try The, How You Say, Fried Chicken

Which is an old headline from The Onion and it always makes me laugh. You see Russian speakers often leave out the ‘do’ from questions: how you say in English? What means this? Why you like football? etc, as they don’t really have it in their mother tongue. They just say a normal sentence and change intonation to make it a question.

Now, the purpose of this post is not really to reflect on the difficulties Russian speakers have with English, rather to beat up on myself for my failure to learn Russian. I’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan for two and a half years, and the number of things I can comfortably do in the language could be counted on two hands (probably with enough fingers left over for a very rude and very typical British gesture). In Russian I can:

- Order beer and food in a restaurant

- Ask and answer some basic personal information (how are you, name, age, job etc)

- Ask and answer questions about what I like and dislike

- Buy basic items in a shop (milk, food, cigarettes, beer)

- Tell a taxi driver where I want to go and negotiate a price

- Name quite a few wild and domestic animals (this comes from listening to my relatives playing with my son and his toys)

- Explain to locals that I’m foreign, can’t speak Russian very well, ask them to repeat, say I don’t understand etc.

And that’s about it. Written down it looks fairly impressive (and I was actually quite surprised when I went back over it), but sadly this is not something to be that proud of. You see, given the opportunities I actually have to speak Russian, I should be able to do a lot more in the language AND do the things on that list a whole lot better. I hear Russian all the time in the street, in shops, in my home and I read it constantly on signs, posters and newspapers. My mother-in-law virtually lives in my house and she constantly chatters away to me in Russian and I reply with my usual strings of ‘da, da, da’ (yes, yes, yes for those non-Russian speakers out there) until she asks me something specific or requires a ‘no’ answer and then I just get a puzzled look and a shake of the head.

Now, I’ve rationalized this in many different ways. In fact, if I spent a bit more time learning Russian rather than finding reasons to justify to myself why I haven’t learnt it, I might be a better at it. Oh, it’s a difficult language, will I need the language if I leave the country, my wife never speaks to me in Russian because she speaks English fluently. It’s amazing how many pat explanations you can give yourself when you should be finding ways to practice it.

And of course the worst of it is that I’m a language teacher (and trainer) myself, and my job is to help students develop more effective strategies for learning a foreign language. And you know, I’m pretty damn good at it – I just can’t seem to do it myself. You see, I know the theory – I know I should be willing to take risks, find opportunities to practice the language – but my laziness and fragile adult ego always seem to stand in the way. And I really have tried. I’ve bought books, dictionaries, read newspapers, computer magazines, asked my wife to help me. But deep down I know this is all avoidance of doing the one thing that would really help me learn – actually speaking the bloody language with people!!! This is a technique I’ve studiously avoided in my two years here and boy does it show: the paralysis when a shop assistant asks me something beyond my narrow range of fixed questions and answers, the pregnant pause on the phone when someone rings up and babbles something quickly.

But things will change (I can feel it). I finally have a real motivation to buckle down and learn it: my son is getting to the age where he’s beginning to form words, and some of them are going to be in Russian and some in English. If I don’t get to grips with half of what is going on in his brain, I’m going to be denied access to many aspects of my son’s life. And that’s not going to happen. So, I’m off now to the kitchen to have a little (and I mean little) chat with my mother-in-law. I Will Try, How You Say, The Tea With Milk.

wireless comes to Kyrgyzstan (well, mainly my apartment)

I'm sat here writing this post on the sofa enjoying the full benefits of wireless broadband technology. Actually, not really the full benefits – it’s probably slower than dial-up connections in most countries and the signal does seem to drop on a fairly regular basis. Impressed? What do you mean no? Oh well yes, I know you’ve had wireless and broadband in your house for years and you can probably download the whole Lord of the Rings Trilogy in ten minutes, but please remember that this is Kyrgyzstan and the fact that I’m sitting here now doing this just doesn’t tell the full story about the joys of trying to get it installed.

You see, you just can’t phone up some company here and say ‘hey, I want broadband and I’m willing to pay’ and they’ll come round and set it all up for you. Goodness no. Firstly, you have to live in the right place. Now, I don’t fully understand the reasons why, but some apartments can have broadband and some can’t. So, you have to put yourself on a waiting list – not for the connection mind you, but just for them to check whether you can have the connection. That took about two months and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. My how we partied that night. Then, you have to set a date for them to come and install it. That can take a few weeks as well because the company who do all this have to get some kind of permission/authentication from the state-run telephone company to ‘borrow’ their lines. Finally they send someone round to hook you up, explain how to use it and get you to decide on a tariff.

Ah yes, the tariffs. I gather that in other countries you pay some kind of flat fee a month and you get unlimited downloads and traffic. Not so here: there are graded tariffs which limit how much you can download and upload per month. I’m paying $40 a month for 500MB of downloads. Now, I don’t really know that much about this stuff, but five hundred sounded quite a lot. I’m not going to download loads of porn films (clips maybe, but not whole films), so I didn’t think that would get used up. However, I’ve been using it pretty lightly for the last 2-3 weeks and when I checked, I discovered that I’d already used over 700MBs. How the fuck did that happen? Then someone kindly explained to me that just surfing the internet for a few hours a day can eat up 30-40MBs. Hmm, wish someone had told me that earlier…

And then I wanted to have not only broadband, but also wireless. This did seem a little bit like gilding the lily, especially as my flat is the size of a shoebox and I’d probably have to balance the wireless router on my head anyway. But I was insistent. I wanted to be able to lie on the couch or in bed and check my email and dammit, price or logic was not going to be an obstacle. So, I asked the guy who came to install the broadband if he could install wireless as well. I saw a slight flicker behind his eyes (could it be panic?), but ever the professional, he said sure. He came back a few hours later with a wireless router and tinkered away for a few hours and suddenly…nothing. He finally had to admit that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him to install wireless, so he was kind of winging it. But, good guy that he was, he said he would find out and come back next week. Which he did, and he got it all installed and now I’m sat on my sofa writing this post. And I probably won’t be leaving this sofa for a while, as I don’t really have any money left after paying for the internet to be able to, say, go out, buy food, pay the rent or bills. But man, this wireless thing is cool…

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Most Religious Chicken in Kyrgyzstan

Is here apparently.I particularly like the mix of old world superstition and modern technology, the chicken’s squawking being recorded on a mobile phone.

But it got me thinking about the nature of religion in Kyrgyzstan, and specifically in Bishkek. People naturally assume that it’s a Muslim country (probably because it sounds a bit like Afghanistan and Pakistan) and they would be right. You see, nominally Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country. It’s written in their passports in case anyone was in any doubt. Yet, if you came here you wouldn’t have the faintest idea that was the case. You can walk around Bishkek for hours and not see a mosque. In fact, you’re more likely to see a Russian Orthodox Church despite Russians making up only a small percentage of the population. No one seems the slightest bit interested in talking about religion – in fact the only Kyrgyz who ever wanted to convert me was a born-again Christian taxi driver. This was a far cry from when I was living in Morocco – within minutes of talking to someone, the subject of religion would come up.

It’s odd really, because since the fall of Communism, the former Soviet states have gotten religion in a big, big way. I lived in Poland, Lithuania, Croatia and Serbia and the churches were always packed on Sunday and there were plenty of people trying to stop you in the street in the name of Jehovah, God or the Reverend Moon. Now, this resurgence was due to the years of repression where they couldn’t worship (and perfectly understandable), so it’s odd that the same fervor didn’t seem to take hold in Kyrgyzstan.

I think the reason is that in essence Kyrgyz people are not defined by their religion or social system but by their nomadic history. For hundreds and hundreds of years they moved around, living in Yurts and living off the land. Things that I think of as typically Kyrgyz date back to that time: the national dishes (mutton and more mutton!), a deep love of nature, sports based on horse riding, a stoic acceptance of what life throws at them, a raft of superstitions to keep out evil spirits, even the way that the crouch instead of sitting by the side of the road have less to do with Islam or Communism and more to do with a time when survival depended on hunting skills and an understanding of nature.

I actually think their nomadic background has had a positive effect on their character: it makes them more tolerant, unhurried, not so quick to judge. Many some other Muslim countries around them could learn something from that.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

One year on from the Kyrgyz revolution

Strangely, there seems to be almost no coverage on TV or in the press about it. OK, maybe it wasn’t as well publicized or dramatic as the ones in Georgia or the Ukraine, but you would have thought it would have crossed someone’s mind to just check in and see how this tiny state was coping one year after such a dramatic upheaval.

Well, I suppose the media can only take their cues from the country itself, and the response from the Kyrgyz people has been fairly muted. Oh, the government organized a big military parade, but that was less to celebrate the revolution and more to ensure no daring souls decided to go for a repeat performance. Because, well, things haven’t really changed much here. It’s difficult as a foreigner to really get a sense of how things have improved or declined over the last 12 months – I don’t earn a local salary, so I’m largely buffered from the daily ups and downs of price changes or job opportunities. However, the few Kyrgyz people I’ve spoken to (ok, this normally means taxi drivers, who are hardly representative of the population at large) seem to think that it’s either exactly the same or has got considerably worse. One I spoke to said that at least Akaev (ousted former president) was only corrupt in giving his family jobs, whereas the new guy has a much broader, less nepotistic attitude towards corruption. Which is nice.

Still, the signs aren’t good for the country. Only last week, a story came out that the government are applying for the same kind of debt relief status that would put them on an economic par with countries like Somalia and Uganda. In the south of the country, some people are earning money by scavenging uranium from a slag heap to sell to China. And Transparency International’s latest league table for non-corruption puts Kyrgyzstan in 130th place, with only countries like Somalia, Uzbekistan, Burma and Ivory Coast below it (and countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe above it!!). By any standards of social progress, these are not good signs.

But I’m not sure that the Kyrgyz people have the heart to do anything about it. Last year’s revolution was very atypical behaviour for a country that prides itself on its stoicism and general ‘life sucks, but what can you do?’ attitude. And you can’t really blame them for not wanting to do it again. So, you replace one set of dodgy chancers with another and the cycle continues. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’s gonna be for quite some time…

Monday, March 27, 2006

Something to write about...

Glancing at my previous post, it seems that it’s been eight months since I last sat down and wrote something for this blog. Remarkable really, given that I’ve been technically unemployed all that time. Or, as my colleague insists on calling it, ‘retired’. I mean, really, if anything is likely to inspire you to sit down and gush forth all your thoughts and (largely received) opinions on the world it’s a big wedge of doing-nothing time. But no.

Actually, it’s a bit of a lie to say I’ve done nothing for the last eight months. I’m unemployed in the sense that I don’t do a nine-to-five job for a company, but I am working sporadically as a teacher trainer in various parts of the world. I went to Costa Rica for a month to do a course. And South Korea. Now, you would think such exotic locations would inspire all kinds of musings and reflections on the nature of the world, but again, no.

See, there is a bit of a problem with me having a blog. As far as I can see there are two kinds of blogs: the kind which you write to keep your friends and family up to date with your life and are full of utterly impenetrable comments that can only be understood if you know the person (‘hey, Judy love the mouse trousers and keep sending the cookies…LOL’). Really no point in me writing that kind as my family were officially voted ‘The Family Least Likely to Read a Blog If Written By One of Their Relatives’ and my best friend only lives a kilometer away and we see each other every couple of days. The other kind is where you assume you have something interesting to say and people might want to take a peek at whatever’s leaking out of your brain that day. The problem with this kind is that – and this is quite tricky to actually admit – I’m not sure I really have that many thoughts. No, I take that back, I have lots of thoughts during the day, but that are staggeringly mundane. I mean, yesterday, the biggest decision I had to make was whether to watch Spielberg’s Munich on DVD or not. That process took about an hour (in case you’re wondering, the decision was no, but I’ll keep you updated). This is not something the world wants to hear. Oh, and I also had a thought about Shakira’s breasts after seeing one of her videos on TV, but again, I’m not really feeling the words ‘bated breath’ if I wrote that one down either.

No, I’ve decided to keep writing this damn blog as a way of stopping myself from spending one hour thinking about whether to watch a DVD or not or wondering about the exact nipple dimensions of Columbia’s favourite songstress (though I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing to think about every now or then).

I just need to find something to damn well write about….