Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте!

Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте! Hello!

My name is Kristina and I am a 26-year-old Austrian with a slight obsession with Central Asia and travelling to the more remote parts of the world. Learning a lot (of and about) languages, foreign cultures and trying to gain a better understanding of traditions while teaching German has been my mission in the past years.
Initially, this blog started out as a mere means to inform my friends and family about my life and adventures when I first moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It became a lot more than that to me after realizing that writing helped me to make sense of the strange world surrounding me, to deal with culture shock as well as to help me organize the chaos in my head. My Central Asian adventures haven't ended yet and I am looking forward to entertaining you with some more (crazy) stories from Kyrgyzstan in the very soon future!

I am also a couchsurf host - if you're planning a trip to Naryn, let me know on here and we can take it from there :)

I am always happy to hear from my readers, so please don't hesitate to contact me if you have comments or questions, about travel tips in Central Asia or about life in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan :)

Much love,

Mittwoch, 15. Oktober 2014

Wednesday Fun Facts I

My dear friend Thomas "complained" to me once that I should write shorter blog posts, so that he can fit reading my blog and knowing that I am okay into his (way too) busy work schedule. I will accomodate with his wish and introduce a new category to my blog, which I am cheekily going to steal from my friend Helen's blog.. )

Here you go:

* Powercuts and water outages are fairly common around here, although they rarely last longer than 12 hours (so far). There was a power cut on Friday from 9am - 5pm, and no water yesterday all day (although it temporarily came back this morning, yay, for my shower!) and today. It's okay, as long as you are prepared with a little bit of water that you can use to brush your teeth, wash your face and flush the toilet. Speaking of toilets, the odd thing is that as soon as there is no water, all public toilets get closed. i.e. all toilets at universities, at the bazar, in restaurants. While the toilet infrastructure in Central Asia is generally quite bad, I am not sure if locking all public toilets is the best solution. My friend Liz and I were hanging out and working in the international office, until she said she'd be back in 5 minutes to go to the bathroom. She came back 45 minutes later.. she realised my strange look (and, possibly, worried - 45 minutes is a very long sitting!) and said, "The water's out!! I couldn't find an open toilet." Well, that explains everything!

* As I have mentioned in my previous blog, Naryn is located in a valley surrounded by mountains. While it is on the route to China, people start to transport less and less fresh produce such as vegetables and fruits to Naryn when it gets colder. For example, while you can still buy tomatoes in winter, prices are extortionate.. a kilo of tomatoes costs 17som at the moment. In winter, one tomato (!) costs 150som (which is more than 2 Euro).. ouch. That means that what you can buy in winter, is basically potatoes, cabbage and beet roots. At least I am not in danger of contracting scurvy. So, on Sunday my friend David and I started preserving and canning food, cooked up tons and tons of stews, tomato sauces and other variations of available vegetables to fill them into sterilized glasses. Currently, I think we have about 20 glasses... gladly, his Kyrgyz hostsisters helped us cook and sterilize. My lesson of the day, however, was not how to can food, but that I would be a bad Kyrgyz housewife. One of David's sisters had cleaned 3.5 carrots when I just finished my first one.... whoops. 

* Eine kleine Deutsch Stilblüte: Meine Studis mussten eine kleine Wiederholung zum Thema Familie schreiben, damit ich sehen konnte, ob sie das neue Vokabular auch lernen bzw können. Die Gruppe ist relativ schwach, vielleicht A1+, und wir sprachen über verschiedene Formen der Familie. Also sollten sie, unter anderem, die folgende Lückenübung ausfüllen: Wenn die Frau arbeitet, muss der ___________________ die Kinder _________________________. (dazu gab es auch ein kleines Bild, das sie schon kannten)

Richtig wäre: Wenn die Frau arbeitet, muss der (Haus)Mann die Kinder erziehen
Meine Studentin schrieb: Wenn die Frau arbeitet, muss der Kuchen die Kinder lieben.

Irgendwas mach ich falsch? :)
Aber, dafür sind sie wenigstens sonst sehr süß: :)

* Kyrgyz people love do to things very last minute. Yesterday morning my students asked me, "Can you teach us a German dance? There is a performance show tomorrow." I immediately thought of Quadrille, a dance often danced at traditional Viennese balls. They suggested we would practice on the same day, so they would be ready to shine on stage the next day. I cancelled my Russian lesson and a private lesson, and spent the next two and a half hours downloading music and analysing dance videos in order to memorize the steps - it's been at least 4 years since I last danced quadrille. About 20 minutes before our rehearsal, one of my students called me: "I am sorry Kristina, but we decided to do a different dance". Cheers. In the end, they ended up not dancing at all. Here's a picture of the performance show:

* I went for a walk on a cemetery the other day.. look for yourself how stunningly beautiful it (and the weather!) was :)

Mountains with snow tops in the very back :)

Hm, what I've just written would suggest that I haven't understood the idea of short fun facts.. consequently, my blog post didn't end up that much shorter than my usual ones. I am obviously not so good at keeping myself short.. sorry, Thomas!.. but hey - people love bullet points, right? :)

Mittwoch, 8. Oktober 2014

Village life in Naryn

I wrote this a little while ago, just never finished it..
My 10th day in Naryn is coming to end and the sun is slowly setting while its last soft sunrays are gently touching the mountain tops. Mountains are what I mostly see, wherever I go in town, even right now, as I am sitting on my sofa looking out of the windows from my apartment on the fourth floor of a stereotypically soviet apartment block.
This is my third weekend in Naryn – a small mountain town in Kyrgyzstan, where I now live. As for the basics: Naryn is a town with about 40.000 people, located at an elevation of 2.044m and on both banks of the Naryn river which cuts through the breathtaking Tian Shan mountain range. A 5-hour drive away from Bishkek – the Kyrgz capital - it is also on the main road over the Torugart Pass to China.
I decided to come here when I got an offer to be a German lecturer as part of a program by a German foundation. Overall, we are a group of 45 lecturers who are sent to mostly remote places in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasuses and China to teach at German departments at local universities and to realise projects related to German-speaking culture and to foster international understanding. The deal is a mixture of teaching German and receiving training in project management so that we are well equipped to carry out large- and small-scale projects.
Central Asia is not particularly new territory for me, as I have already lived a year in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. However, the more I travel here, the more I realize and get to know the differences between the different ‘stans. Obviously, there are similarities, such as the music, the crazy taxi drive(r)s over a mosaic of potholes in the roads, haggling at the basar, the problems related to electricity and water, corruption, similar cultural misunderstandings, the food, clothes, and so on. At the same time, Tashkent is a capital and fairly westernised in comparison to a small town like Naryn. I am extremely curious to learn more about Kyrgyzstan and its people, and I believe that Naryn is a pretty good place for that.
Naryn really isn’t a town – it’s a village, just a big one. When I wake up, I hear a rooster. When I leave my apartment block, I sometimes see cows. From one end of town to the other, it takes about 7min by taxi, and even then you are already surrounded by chicken and sheep. It’s mainly one big road called Lenin Street (uliza Lenina), and there is a little theatre, art gallery, museum. And that’s it. I never expected there to be more, but as much as I researched, talked to my counterpart and my predesseor before I got here, I simply could not image what life would be like.
And now I am here, trying to find my role, tasks, routine and daily life in a town in which there is only one Russian, maybe a few Turks and Japanese guys, and four Americans. Well, I stick out – a lot. As I walk down the street, people stare at me, sometimes say “Hello” (in English), “where are you from” (in Russian), “Hi Baby” or “sexy bitch” (in English, which – in these moments – I wish I wouldn’t understand) and “Beautiful girl” (in Russian). The first week, I was extremely uncomfortable, but as time passes, people are starting to recognise me. There is one lady at the basar who already knows me and my shopping habits, so she does not only say hello with a big smile, but also starts pointing at the tomatoes or cucumbers, which I usually buy.
Speaking of the basar – there are no proper supermarkets here, just tiny little stores in which you have to tell the sales person what you want – for me, that’s always a bit of a challenge, although my Russian is getting better, and in particular my knowledge of how to say stuff that I regularly need in Russian is steadily growing. However, shopping here can also be a challenge when it comes to buying things that you haven’t bought before – even though there is a little bit of order in the basars, it is generally quite a chaotic place. It took me about 5 rounds in the vegetable and fruit section to find bananas, 10 rounds to find basil, 10 rounds to find a guitar, and I never found zucchini (but I know they have it!).
I am teaching at Naryn State University at the German department. We have about 30 students and I have 3 colleagues, although one of them is pregnant and about to have her baby soon, so there will only be two left. Aruuke, Nazgul and I get along really well – both of them are really nice and warm people – slightly distanced sometimes – but I guess it just takes a little time for the ice to break. My students: well, it’s hard to say. Some of them are really motivated, some hardly speak a word of German after three years of studying it. Don’t ask me how that is possible, I don’t know (I have some ideas, but I will write a longer blog post on that another time), but it is giving me a hard time sometimes, knowing, that some of my students don’t understand a word of what I am saying. It’s a bit of a stretch, and I am still in the process of deciding of how to deal with it. Obviously, having fairly weak students limits my possibilities of organising projects immensely. However, I have a few ideas.. also, more on that another time :)
Overall, I feel quite comfortable - I am surrounded by nice people, I really like my apartment and I have a phenomenal view out of my window :)

Some impressions of Naryn...

On the main square

Uliza Lenina right outside of my door. Moo.

The street down my house (just off the main road)

What would a post soviet small town be without a statue of Lenin?

Home sweet home! I live on the 4th floor.

At the basar (it was already past 6pm, thus a little empty.. you can see the stalls on the right hand side though)

Walking through Naryn
My first little project at our institute (Ich bin mir dessen bewusst, dass ich hiermit mein armes österreichisches Herz selbst diskriminiere.. aber das Wortspiel mit "Schwarzes Brett" hat sich einfach angeboten...und: es gibt eine österreichische Flagge! :)

There are lot of things I still need to process and put into relation as well into context for myself. In the next weeks, I will try to put it into words to post on here. Generally, I would also like this blog to be a collection of articles, pictures and videos with curiosities from Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan in particular.
In this spirit: More soon! :) 

Montag, 16. September 2013

The UZ files: episode 2

(in German: Aktenzeichen UZ ungeloest, Folge  2) 

Intercultural communication gone wrong, or: The missing shoes

Those of us who have lived abroad or have been in touch with people from foreign cultures extensively, we all know how we praise our "intercultural communication skills" in our cover letters or CVs when applying for a job. Surely, after living abroad in different countries for about two and a half years now, I think I have put my foot in it often enough to prove that I now know how to behave in a culturally sensitive manner. Also during my German as a Foreign Language programme, I heard about culture shock and intercultural communication in theory, which should have left me well prepared and equipped with an attentive mindset to avoid  so-called "critical incidents". These are defined as followed:

"Critical incidents in intercultural communication training are brief descriptions of situations in which a misunderstanding, problem, or conflict arises as a result of the cultural differences of the interacting parties, or a problem of cross-cultural adaptation and communication."

While these are only part of intercultural communication training, they are a real thing - critical moments where you simply don't know how to behave without offending the other person. During my time in Tashkent, I had one particularly fine moment of which I am not too proud, but which makes up another one of those mysteries which will remain unsolved.

As I have mentioned previously in my blogs, I live in a lovely house with a garden and a pool together with two Germans. My housemates' contracts, however, ended in June, so that I was left alone for the summer. Our landlord and lady, an old couple, were always extremely kind and helped us take care of the garden, clean the pool and even prepared plov for Saskia and Matthias when they left the country.  As kind as they were, they were also a bit too much - sometimes showing up at the house unannounced and talking A LOT when they were only supposed to collect the rent, so that whenever we met, I was left very tired and utterly exhausted. Knowing that I was a poor intern who wouldn't be able to afford the entire house, they offered me to stay in the house over the summer with the condition that instead of Saskia and Matthias, their daughter (about 35 years of age) and granddaughter (1 year) would move in with me. Since the house consists of two separate parts, I thought to myself, why not - it would not only be a shame to give up the house, but also a hassle to find a new apartment and a landlord/lady who would register me.
You should know, however, that Uzbek family life is very different and that people here have a different understanding of privacy. I have heard numerous stories about expats getting hassled by their landlords and that they would enter the apartment when the tenant wasn't there or just show up on the weekend to install something new or to randomly clean the windows. Whenever my neighbour Ernest went on holidays, I saw that the light in his bedroom was turned on everytime I passed by the house, and at one point they even left a pot of rotten food in his fridge (probably because they lived in the house while he was gone and simply forgot about it). A violation of my own sense of privacy also occured with the landlord of my old apartment, namely when he came to collect the rent, he would sometimes start cleaning our dirty dishes, which always left me thinking: Well, nice of you, but it's none of your business? My favourite story, however, is that of one expat girl who left an unfinished puzzle in her living room when she went on holidays. When she came back, the puzzle was finished.

Before I moved into the house, Saskia told me how the landlady's daughter (Emira) would often come to the house when nobody was there and that, afterwards, things, such as cosmetics or good clothes, had gone missing. Therefore, without even knowing her, my opinion of Emira wasn't too positive before she even moved in. She finally did, and things were awkward. She didn't really speak English, I didn't really speak Russian, so that conversations were hardly possible. She would often invite friends or the entire family into the garden, which left me feeling like an intruder in my own home. She wasn't unfriendly, but it was clear that I wasn't wanted there. Due to Saskia's stories of items disappearing in the past, I was particularly careful and made sure to always lock my part of the house. Until one day...

Eric came over to the house one sunny afternoon in early July after having played footie and left two pairs of shoes, namely an expensive pair of Nike runners and an old pair of flip flops, in the hall. He had other plans for the evening, so that I said he could leave the shoes at the house and just pick them up another time. A new week started and we all got very busy, so that he didn't have a chance to pop over and grab his shoes. When he did, however, I went straight to the hall to get them... but they weren't there anymore. We looked and looked, in my part of the house, in Emira's part of the house, in all sorts of storage rooms, presses and drawers, in the garden and bathroom, but both pairs had simply disappeared. Emira saw that we were looking for something, so I explained to her that we couldn't find the shoes, but she said she didn't see them. Eric and I were left completely clueless and slightly flustered, knowing that we couldn't just accuse her of having taken them. I told Eric to check once again that they weren't at his own apartment or at the school, just to make absolutely sure that we looked everywhere with no exceptions. So he did, but they were still gone.

Eric and I deliberated upon how to proceed. Should I simply confront Emira in my semi-existant Russian? Should I contact her parents? How should I address the problem without actively accusing and pointing at them, knowing that I would have to live with her the next two months? I understood that Eric was pissed off and that it was my responsibility to get the shoes back, but how should I do it without offending them but getting my point across at the same time? Would they kick me out of the house?

I decided to speak to a local to be on the safe side, so I told Bekzod from my office. Bekzod was absolutely shocked and initially thought I was kidding. He kept on asking me, "do you seriously just want to sit there, say nothing and let them steal your belongings? If the shoes aren't in the house, she must have taken them." We had a great time bitching about her and imagined a scenario where he would call her and tell her what a low-life she was (those were his words). In any case, he said I should definitely address the issue. Thinking that it was probably a good idea to get someone who wouldn't usually hang out at my house and who had nothing to do with the family privately, I asked Bekzod if he would come to the house the next time the parents were there and to translate for me. And so he did. When the landlord asked his usual question if everything was okay, I explained the situation of the shoes having disappeared. I also said: I genuinely don't want to accuse anyone, but I don't know what to do because they aren't even my shoes and if they were, it would be my issue to deal with. However, my friend Eric is really disappointed now, and it is a fact that the shoes are gone. I am not sure what to do about it but maybe Emira cleaned the house and moved them or something like that.

Uzbeks have a very flowery way of dealing with things and there is a saying for every possible situation, so that the landlord told us in a 15 minutes speech how the family has rented the house to foreigners for over 15 years and that not even a needle had gone missing in all these years. By means of three different sayings (e.g. "Sweep before your own house"), he told me how I should take care of my own stuff and not leave anything lying around, but he also apologized sincerely and paid 60$ for compensation. Considering his heartfelt apology and his shocked reaction that I would ever think that they had stolen something, I felt slightly bad. However, like Bekzod had said, I couldn't just let it happen.

A few weeks later, the landlady called and asked me to stay home in the evening because they wanted to add some new furniture to my bedroom. Knowing that they would bring a few strong men carrying around presses and wardrobes, I tidied up my part of the house a little bit and made sure I had nothing in the room which they could possibly break. One of the items I removed was my scale, which was made of glass. I decided to put it into a press beside the bed. The press contained a few blankets and mattresses, therefore being a press I had only opened once when I moved in because I didn't use any blankets. I opened it, moved a few things around to make space, and as I pulled out one of the blankets, what did I find? Eric's Nike runners. I stopped breathing at that moment. How was this possible? My discovery left me absolutely petrified and questions if I had rudely accused Emira even though she was innocent started racing through my head. I started to question my own memory because I genuinely couldn't remember that I ever opened that press, let alone put Eric's shoes there. Had I gone senile or contracted alzheimer's at an incredibly young age, or had my memory disintegrated at such a worrying rate? How did she get into my part of the house, did they have an extra set of keys? Doid that mean they could enter my part of the house whenever they wanted anyway? And, if the Nike runners were there, where were the flipflops? After catching my breath, I checked the rest of the press, but the flip flops weren't there.

In shock, I wrote Eric an email explaining what had just happened and his response was the following:

What Emira has done is obviously plant the runners because we definitely didn't put them there and I reckon she put them back panicking that we noticed they were gone.

Most of my friends thought the same and their piece of advice was mostly that considering how many other things had disappeared (e.g. my beloved coffeemaker) I should keep the money and the shoes and never address the issue again. I was really uncomfortable, but for me, that was the only possible solution.  I am aware that I can be somewhat chaotic and there are a lot of things I forget, but putting only one pair of the shoes into the press and then completely forgetting about it was even too much for me.

Weeks passed, and Emira finally moved out because my new and very lovely German housemate Margarethe moved in. One day I discovered that one of my shower gels - a nice and expensive one which I had received as a present from a friend of mine - had disappeared. I was furious, asking myself if it would ever end. Margarethe - fluent in Russian - suggested that the next time she would see landlord & lady, she would innocently and naively ask them if anybody else had keys to the house because some of my stuff had gone missing again. So she did, and their response was: Oh, Kristina has a tendency to lose things.
The same night when she said that, the landlord called us at 9pm and wanted to talk to both of us urgently. The old couple came over, and things started to become dramatic. He held another 30min speech about how hurt they were, that they were rich people and didn't need to steal a shower gel, and that they are well-respected people in the mahalla and don't want any word to spread about them stealing things when they clearly didn't. They also made it very clear that I was an unthankful brat who - after their generosity, loving and treating me like their own daughter, I would dare - once again - to accuse them. They were clearly hurt and even offered us to change all the locks and keys in order to restore trust. Margarethe and I were apologetic and kindly refused.

It will remain a mystery what happened to the shoes and why - even after getting caught - Emira still kept on stealing, obviously putting a strain on the landlord-tenant relationship, as well as damaging her parents' reputation.

The mistakes I have made or issues I should consider for the next time are:
- Uzbeks love their gossip, and people constantly talk within the mahalla. There is genuinely nothing worse for an Uzbek family to have a ruined reputation. I shouldn't have spoken to an Uzbek to address the issue of stealing, knowing that there might be a chance that he knew them and other people in the mahalla. There is a good chance that our mahalla now thinks that our landlord and lady are thieves, which is something I genuinely didn't want.
- I should have talked to Emira directly instead of her parents. Clearly, her parents wouldn't admit that their daugther is a filthy thief, and there is no possibility I could address that.

So many things to learn...

Mittwoch, 31. Juli 2013

"Stop looking at me!" - Going to the hamom in Bukhara

Dear all,

for those of you who have been reading my blog (more or less) regularly, you may have realised that you could roughly put the posts into three categories:

1) Observations of Uzbek culture, descriptions of my attempts to fit into Uzbek and expat life, and how I deal and dealt with culture shock embedded in descriptions of my daily life as well as of pecularities when living in Uzbekistan
2) Travel accounts and descriptions of the things I saw and did when travelling through Central Asia
3) Attempting to give you a glimpse into my daily life by telling a story

This post belongs to the third category. I tried writing this post in English, but my story-telling skills in English aren't sufficient, so I apologize to my friends who won't understand it.

"Geht doch ins Hamom - wir waren den ganzen Tag lang total entspannt, und die Intimität zwischen den Frauen dort ist total faszinierend", sagten Susi und Tine, als wir über unsere geplante Reise nach Bukhara sprachen und versuchten herauszufinden, was denn sehenswert und nicht so sehenswert ist. Sich nackt ausziehen, angestarrt werden von anderen nackten Frauen und Babuschkas, von einer weiteren nackten Frau gewaschen werden, deren entbloesste Brüste im Rhythmus des regelmaessigen Abschrubbens gegen deinen Ruecken klatschen? Ich war überzeugt! Wir entschlossen, dem Ratschlag zu folgen und an diesem orientalischen Brauch teilzunehmen. 
Die winterliche Sonne kitzelte sanft unsere Nasen, als Ulli und ich das Hotel verliessen - unwissend, dass uns ein unvergesslichen Erlebnis erwartete. Nodira -  entzückende Studentin und freiwillige Begleiterin auf unserem Spaziergang durch die Altstadt - hatte uns am Vortag geholfen einen Termin auszumachen, und so machten wir uns auf in Richtung Hamom. Dort angekommen führte uns die Waschfrau Richtung Baderaum und erklärte uns kurz, dass wir zuerst gewaschen würden und uns später eine Massage, sowie eine Kräutermaske am Rücken erwartete. Das Bukharer Hamom war ein uraltes Gewölbe unter der Erde, in dem sich schon seit Jahrzehnten der Dampf sammelte und wo tausende von Frauen die - ja, man möge sagen - Zeremonie des Waschens vollzogen. In ehrfürchtiger Stimmung vor der Schönheit und stimmungsvollen Atmosphäre der alten Gewölbe betrachteten wir diesen spirituellen Ort, aus der wir mit einem schroffen "Take off your clothes" gerissen wurden. Mit gesenkten Koepfen entblößten wir uns schnell. Ein beschämtes Grinsen wurde zwischen Ulli und mir ausgetauscht, sowie der Gedanke, dass wir einander wahrscheinlich nie wieder so intim sein würden. So betraten wir endlich den Waschraum, wo sich ein paar neugierige Blicke seitens der sich bereits waschenden Frauen auf uns richteten. Splitternackt standen wir inmitten des Raumes ohne annähernd zu wissen, wohin wir schauen sollten, da aus jeder Ecke ein oder zwei starrende Augenpaare auf uns fixiert waren. Wir erhielten zunächst die Anweisung, uns auf den nasswarmen Boden zu legen, um uns zu entspannen. Mit einer Tasse wohlduftenden Pfefferminztees in der Hand lagen wir auf dem feuchten Steinboden und starrten benommen an die Decke und durch den Raum. Die nackte Waschfrau begann mit ihrem von der Zeit und der Schwerkraft gezehrten und gezeichneten Körper Vorbereitungen für unsere Waschungen zu treffen, und bat mich zuerst aufzustehen. Ein Spektakel von grenzenloser Intimität und Schamlosigkeit bot sich nun der noch immer am Boden liegenden Ulli, die mich grinsend und doch irgendwie unglaeubig dabei beobachtete, wie ausnahmslos alle Stellen meines Körpers mit einem rauhen Handschuh geschrubbt, geseift, gereinigt, gewaschen wurden - von einer nackten Frau, deren ebenfalls von Schwerkraft gezeichneten Brüste in jeder Möglichkeit die Nähe zu meinem Körper suchten und ihm stets mit einem geräuschvollen Klatschen begegneten. Die auf mich gerichteten Augenpaare aus allen Ecken wurden zahlreicher, doch sobald ich einen von voyeuristischen Intentionen befreiten Blick zurückwarf, bedeckte man sich in großer Scham und mit entsetzem Blick, wie ich mir denn nur erlauben könnte, sie anzusehen (aber es ist ja okay die Ausländer anzustarren!). Wie Susi und Tine vorausgesagt hatten, bot sich uns trotz grosser Scham seitens unserer Mitwaschenden einer Art von Intimitaet, die ich zwischen Frauen vorher noch nicht erlebt hatte. Wie die erwachsene Tochter ihre Mutter schrubbte und wusch und man sich waehrenddessen unbefangen unterhielt ist ein Bild, das ich wohl nie vergessen werde. Nie wuerd es mir in den Sinn kommen, meine eigene Mutter, meine Verwandten und wahrscheinlich auch Freunde so zu waschen.
Mein nun von jeglichen Dreck und geloesten Hautschuppen befreiter Körper begab sich nach einigem neugierigen Beobachten zurück in die Horizontale - für die wahrscheinlich unangenehmste Massage meines Lebens, wo an diversen Speckstellen einfach nur mit feuchten Haenden gezerrt und gezogen wurde. Gefolgt von der Kräutermaske, die nun wie Salz in meine wundgeschrubbte Rückenhaut eindrang, fühlte ich mich eher er- und geschlagen und irgendwie so, als haette man mich gerade ausgepeitscht, als ich nach gut einer halben Stunde die erloesende Anweisung erhielt, mich wieder anzuziehen. 
Von diversen Ausschlägen und blauen Flecken geziert und am Ende unserer (emotionalen) Kräfte verließen wir schließlich das Hamom und wussten nicht so wirklich, was wir denken sollten. Faszinierend - ja, entspannend - naja...! Zurückkehren ins Hotel und duschen war jedoch ein Gedanke, den wir beide teilten. 
Die warme Sonne hatte in den zwei Stunden unserer Waschung den Schnee geschmolzen und diesen in Kombination mit nicht-asphaltierten Boden zu einem braunen, erdigen Matsch und großen braunen Lacken verwandelt. Schweren Schritts traten wir mit großer Vorsicht von einer Schlamminsel zur nächsten in Richtung Hotel - mit Betonung auf 'Richtung', da ich dachte zu wissen, wohin wir gehen müssten, mich aber getaeuscht hatte. Schließlich befanden wie uns in einer Aneinanderreihung von schmalen Straßen und Lehmhäusern in der Altstadt, die von Matsch- und Gatschlaken nur so geziert war. Ulli war mir aufgrund meiner Versicherung, dass ich zumindest eine Idee hatte wo wir denn waeren, einfach nachgegangen, bis auch sie merkte, dass weder sie noch ich noch wussten, wo denn eigentlich hinten und vorne war. Ullis Laune naeherte sich dem Tiefpunkt, und mit einem Blick der toeten koennte aeusserte sie ein "Ich dachte du wuesstest, wo wir hingehen muessen!" in meine Richtung. Zerknirscht stapfte ich weiter und versicherte ihr, dass wir schon zum Hotel finden wuerden. In ihrer schlechten Laune wurde Ulli langsamer und wir gingen hintereinander, bis uns auch die Strassen keine andere Wahl liessen, da die Lacken mittlerweile die gesamte Breite der Gassen einnahmen. Ich drehte mich kurzzeitig um, um nach Ulli zu sehen, bis ich einen markerschuetternenden Schrei hoerte und im Augenwinkel beobachtete, wie sie mit einem beinahe eleganten Rutsch der Laenge nach mitten in die grosse, braune Lacke fiel. Obwohl ich mir der Dramatik der Situation bewusst war, ueberkam mich die Schadenfreude und ein Bewusstsein fuer die Komik der Situation und ich musste innerlich loslachen - ein Bild fuer die Goetter, wie Ulli auf der einen Haelfte schwarz (Mantel) und auf der anderen Haelfte braun (Dreck) dastand und lautstark fluchte. Und doch.. damit hatte Ullis Stimmung endgueltig ihren Tiefpunkt erreicht, zudem sie sich auch noch die Hand verletzt hatte. Wir fanden den Weg zum Hotel und tauschten kein einziges Wort mehr aus.
Im Hotel angekommen gingen wir zur Rezeption und baten den freundlichen und jugendlichen Rezeptionisten um die Schluessel zu unserem Zimmer. Besorgt sah er unsere erschoepften und schlechtgelaunten Gesichter an, und doch fiel sein Blick automatisch auf Ulli. Sein Kommentar: Du bist da dreckig. Oh, wenn Blicke toeten koennten...
Er teilte uns mit, dass wir nicht in unser Zimmer koennten, weil es renoviert wurde. Aeh, wie? Waehrend wir darin wohnen? Ja, ihr koennt erst in ungefaehr einer Stunde wieder aufs Zimmer. Waehrend ich aufgebracht versuchte herauszufinden, wie man auf die schwachsinnige Idee kommt ein Zimmer zu renovieren waehrend es von Gaesten bewohnt wird, zog sich Ulli bereits resignierend in den sonnigen Hof zurueck und liess sich mit ihren letzten Kraeften auf einen Sessel plumpsen. Ich schloss mich ihr an und in unserer "Was kann denn jetzt noch schiefgehen"-Laune beschlossen wir, das Beste aus der Situation zu machen und erstmal ein Kaeffchen zu bestellen. Ich ging zurueck zur Rezeption, bestellte beim gleichen unerfahrenen Rezeptionisten ein chainik Kaffee und ein Kaennchen Milch und freute mich ueber die Wintersonne und ueber den nahenden Kaffee. Das Heissgetraenk wurde kurz spaeter serviert. In unbeschreiblich grosser Vorfreude darauf nahm ich das Milchkaennchen in die Hand, hob es an und...beobachtete, wie grosse weisse schleimige Klumpen in meinen nun nicht mehr so schoenen Kaffee fielen. Ullis Blick war mit Entsetzen und Enttaeuschung gezeichnet, und der Gedanke, was denn jetzt noch alles schiefgehen wuerde, durchkreuzte unsere Gedanken. Ich erhob mich erneut mit einem grossen Seufzen und innerlichen Fluchen, um den Rezeptionisten sein Missgeschick mitzuteilen. 
"Sorry, but I think this milk is off. Could you get us a new one, please?" - er schaute mich mit riesigen Hundeaugen an - so, als wuerde er gleich loswinseln,  und sagte, "You two looked SO SAD and UNHAPPY when you came to the hotel. All I wanted was put a smile on your face, so I gave you some special milk! It's not off! It's special!"

Wenn auch nicht auf die Art und Weise wie erhofft, zeichnete er damit trotz weisser Klumpen in meinem Kaffee, meiner schmerzenden und von Ausschlaegen gezehrten Haut, sowie Ullis (Halbs-)Drecksfinkendasein, in der Tat ein Laecheln auf mein Gesicht. 

Mittwoch, 10. Juli 2013

The UZ files: episode I

(or in German: Aktenzeichen UZ ungelöst, Folge 1)

Strange and eerie things have been happening to me in Tashkent, and it's about time to share them with you...

Let us go back to a time long long ago, to a wintery and snowy pre-Christmas Tashkent. One freezing Monday night in December, I left my cosy apartment to embark upon a cold journey to the Irish pub to meet for a pint or two with an Irishman called Eric who I had just met a week before. We chatted away for hours until we reached the - for me very sensitive - topic of Christmas and how he would go home and enjoy lovely Irish breakfast with Irish tea and spend Christmas day with his family and friends while I had to stay in Tashkent - my first Christmas spent away from my family. I also told him how my flatmate had a boyfriend who spent 24/7 in my apartment and how I found it somewhat annoying that night by night, I had to watch those two lovebirds while I was silently thinking to myself, GET A ROOM (which you don't share with your flatmate!). A good soul as Eric is, he said he would like to do a good deed for Christmas and offered me to give me his keys for his apartment over the holidays, so that I could escape the lovebirdy-ness of my own. Very generous indeed, I thought, and decided to take him up on his offer when I met him at his apartment a day or two later so he could show me around and hand over the keys. The apartment was lush - sparkly walls,WiFi, decorated with ming vases and other (slightly weird but expensive) stuff, with its own study room and a massive and very comfy bed (in all fairness though, in comparison to my bed at the time which did not have a mattress but only consisted of a slatted frame with a few blankets on it, everything is comfy). The day after, he left for good oul' Ireland and I went to his apartment every now and then to enjoy fast internet and some time to myself. I thorougly enjoyed it, except for one thing - everytime I entered the kitchen, there was a strange smell lingering and no matter how much and how often I aired the room, it did not go away. I emptied the fridge and the cupboards and threw out absolutely everything that could possibly cause it, but nothing helped. I even messaged him about it but only received the equally unknowing answer of: "Glad the apartment is serving you well although sorry to hear about the smell! Maybe it is the lingering odour of Aziz's feet! Feel free to throw out whatever you want and air the place out if you can stand the cold"

One day, I decided to organise an evening of singing German Christmas songs with my students at University and wanted to provide them with homemade Austrian Christmas biscuits. The oven in my own apartment, however, didn't work. Despite the weird smell in Eric's kitchen, my flatmate Ulli, who had agreed to join in the joys of baking, and I went to the apartment and started baking. Ulli also realised the smell and after a few hours of baking and spending our time in this weird odour, we could no longer take it and thought to ourselves, we need to get to the bottom of the matter. To my horror, she confirmed my idea of what the smell was like. And you, my dear readers, will be even more disgusted if you find out what the kitchen (where we were baking our lovely biscuits for a good three hours!) smelled of - it smelled of urine. Very, very distinctively. We smelled and sniffled our ways through the kitchen to find its source, until...

The biscuits were finished and put in boxes as I started to clean the kitchen. I gave the tins and work surface a good scrub and then saw that on the top of the oven - on the stove, so to say - we had spilt some flour. Now, for those of you who know gas stoves, you know how there is like a metal grid on which you put the pans or sauce pans, and underneath is the gas source. The stove looked somewhat dirty without the flour on it already, so I figured I may aswell clean the whole thing and lifted the metal grid. And shouted out in disgust. Yellow liquid with the strongest smell of old urine you can imagine came from under the metal grid. Ulli was in disgust, I was in disgust, and neither of us knew what to do or what to think. Our disgust somewhat vanished when both of us just burst out laughing so hard until we cried, cause we could not stop asking ourselves - W T F ? And WHOSE apartment is this for god's sake? After a good 10 minutes of laughing, we finally realised how we shouldn't automatically assume that it was actually piss. Or that we should try to find out what it was and, if it was piss, how it got onto the frickin stove. We were discussing back and forth until we came up with the following six theories:

1) It's not piss, it's just old beer which Eric spilt and because it's cheap Uzbek beer which got old, it just started to develop this weird smell.
2) It's cat's piss. The landlord has a cat and let it in when he was checking the apartment.
3) It's piss. Eric was sleep walking and mistook the oven for the toilet.
4) It's piss. Eric is just a feckin weirdo und fucking disgusting.
5) It's piss. Eric had a party and everyone got so drunk that they thought it would be funny to extinguish the fire with piss. Or they simply didn't realise what they were doing.
6) It's piss. Aziz, the school's security guard who has a tendency to be drunk 24/7, spent the night on Eric's couch before he left. He was so drunk or simply in a weird mood that he decided to piss on the oven.

Now, as much as we discussed and thought about the likelihood of any of these theories, there was no way to find the solution: unless I would ask Eric. Even though I didn't know him that well at the time, I thought that if I just messaged him and told him how bloody disgusting his apartment was, he'd be too embarassed to ever talk to me again. So I had to wait almost three weeks in suspense until I could receive an answer.

He came back after his holiday, we met up in the apartment, chatted a bit about Dublin, New Years Eve and reverse culture shocks until I could no longer sit there and chit chat because I SIMPLY WANTED TO KNOW. I said to him, Eric, I have three questions for you and I know this is going to sound weird but please hear me out. He looked at me suspiciously and said, go on.

Question 1: Does your landlord have a cat?
Question 2: Has anyone ever told you that you sleepwalk?
Question 3: Did you have a big party shortly before you left?

As I asked these questions I could see that he was absolutely petrified and working his brain trying to figure out what the hell I was talking about. No, his landlord did not have a cat. As far as he knows he doesn't sleepwalk. He had a few people over but nothing major. I finally told him, giggling all the way, and he wasn't as amused as I was. He was worried that I genuinely thought that it was him, which I didn't! He calmed down after a while and started to see the funny element in it, but he didn't have a clue either how it could have happened and why anybody would do such a thing. We talked about it repeatedly over the following weeks and couldn't find a solution. And we didn't tell ANYBODY until a few weeks ago.

However, the mystery is still unsolved, and I don't think we will ever find out who the secret oven pisser was...

Donnerstag, 27. Juni 2013

Men, women and mahallas

or: Traumata, gossip and multiple wives

"I think Western men are selfish because they let the women pay when going to a restaurant." (Female student, 20)

"You're saying that women didn't win as many nobel prices in the past because they didn't have the option to get an education. Why didn't they claim it? I will tell you why: because they are weak!" (Male student, 21)

"I understand why you're saying that you want to be equal to men and I would want that too in my marriage. But I still think that men should have the last word." (Male student, 23)

"Why do Western women always look so masculine? Short hair, trousers? At least Uzbeks still know how important it is for a woman to be pretty" (Female student, 20)

Notions about the role of the sexes, upbringing of children, marriage and sex are deeply entrenched in a person's way of thinking, their surrounding culture and their socialisation. Related questions in a completely different context: Why is it that English people are so scared of nudity, while Germans embrace the idea of going into the sauna naked? Why do we find that so difficult to explain? Or why do I find the quotations above so repellent? And why is it so damn difficult to get people to think about their own ideas a little bit more critically?

Welcome to another blogpost on a complex topic that you encounter and/or discuss on an almost weekly basis when living in Uzbekistan - a topic that many of us (Western women) would take for granted, at least most of the time. All assumptions made in this post are based on conversations with my students, colleagues and other expats, as well as on observations I have made here in general.. a lot of them may be generalising in one way or the other, but I believe that they do describe general trends.

I get into a cab. 
Otkuda?, asks the taxi driver. (where are you from?)
Ja iz avstrii. (I am from Austria)
Ah. Rabota? (Work?)
Da da, rabota. (Yes, yes, work.)
Mush jest? (Do you have a husband?)
Da, kanjeschna, mush jest. (Yes, of course, I have a husband)

Boom. Third question is whether I am married, and the conversation goes on along the lines what my husband works and if I have any children. Course I do, cause that's all I think about at my age. Really?

People here get married comparatively young, usually between the age of 18 and 25. If, as a woman, you're older than 25, you're often considered too old, or that there must be something wrong with you. Marriages are somewhat arranged, but at least women can state their opinion if they like their future husbands or not, and if they don't, then usually the family gives in and keeps on looking. As you grow up, there are many tasks to learn for a future bride - pretty much every single girl I have met here knows how to cook plov, make somsa, how to organise a household. Surely, in one way or the other, these are useful things to know, but it also means that these are believed to be essential for a woman when getting married. 

It's possible to get a divorce, but only when you are from Tashkent, which isn't AS traditional as the rest of the country. If you're from one of the regions and your marriage isn't working out, most men just get a second wife..these mostly don't live together but have their separate homes so that the two wives don't cross each others' ways. I have met a woman who was madly in love with an already married man in the regions but who didn't want to be the second wife... she shared her entire story and dilemma with me, how she tried to accept that being the second wife is the only possibility to be with him, how her family doesn't want her to be the second wife, and how she finally had to accept that she couldn't be with the man she loves. Absolutely heartbreaking story, believe you me.

The problem, really, is this: Men and women do not share a common space. There are men, and there are women. At weddings - there are tables for men, and tables for women. There are traditions for men - and traditions for women. While they may share their university, classroom, talk in their lunchbreaks, it is often shameful for female students to spend too much time with male students, for example. What if they also meet after university? And what if she invites him into her home? And the gossip starts. And goes on until all families know: That girl - she spends more time with a guy than she should (even though they are only friends). Which future husband would still want her? As an (traditional) Uzbek woman you can't invite a male friend to your home. One of my students told me this - I naively asked, and what if you just want to watch a movie? Or do homework together? It's not possible, because the mahalla (i.e. the neighbours) would know. And the gossip would go on, until it reaches the family and, in the worst case scenario, the father. 
So in order to remain respectful, women cannot really communicate with men. Get to know them, realise what men in general are like, what it means to be sexy. How often have I witnessed how Uzbek women sometimes dance, wiggling their bums and trying to be as sexy as possible, with or without realising that surrounding men were staring at them. And all I could think to myself was, do you even know what it means to be sexy? 
And then they have to choose someone (or someone is chosen for them) who they will spend, most likely, the rest of their lives with, they marry. They look forward to it, thinking, now I can do what I want without being watched by the mahalla and without being controlled by my family, because I am married. Now I am free! Hm, I am not so sure?

And then comes the wedding night. I attended an initiative called Join-in's basically an initiative in schools where school classes attend a few stations which inform them about contraception, family planning, HIV (ways of transmission, ART therapy) and other issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. I was a bit taken aback by it and asked myself, shouldn't the students (who were about 16) know about these things already? Sex education for example? I corrected myself slightly and thought, well, I suppose if you can only have sex within marriage, you don't really have to learn about it earlier. Still, I asked my colleague about it and what they would learn in sex education at school. We don't have it. Do you talk to your family about it? No. So how do people know anything about it? From their friends. Half-truths, I suppose? Such as, that HIV is transmitted by sharing the same bathroom facilities. Obviously there is still the internet, but even access to that is limited for many families, particularly in rural areas. What a tabooed topic sex really is can also be inferred from the following situation: My former housemate was teaching a lesson on a topic completely unrelated to sex, but for some reason, the text that they were reading (aloud) contained the word "sexual". As the student reading the text got to that passage, she refused to say the word.

So, the wedding night. To get intimate for the first time with a man you hardly know, not really knowing what you're doing because nobody talked to you about it. And there is so much pressure because outside of the bedroom, the families are waiting for the newly wed husband to come out and present to them the bedsheets with a stain of blood on it. Sounds like the middle ages, eh? One of my student's mother is a doctor, so I asked her if she was aware that losing your virginity does not necessarily mean to bleed. She said she knew, and that that really scared her cause if she didn't bleed, her family would think she was a shameful woman. I responded, but your mother is a doctor? She knows about that, surely? She does, but it doesn't matter. Tradition matters, so that everyone's waiting for the blood stain no matter what. I find that genuinely shocking..isn't that highly traumatic for the girl?

Women then often get pregnant shortly after their wedding, which - most of the time - is while they are still in University. If they time their wedding perfectly, then they get married in their last year, so that by the end of the college year they give birth. So they've just finished Uni and have to be mothers straightaway. What happens next depends on if you've married the only or the youngest son of your family-in-law, cause if you did, you have to move in to the husband's family home to take care of them. Then, you're not only under the whip of your husband, but also constantly controlled by your mother-in-law. "Now I am free!"

I find a lot of these things that I've just described genuinely difficult to accept and I have found myself numerous times discussing these issues with my students without getting anywhere. One of my students and I, with whom I still meet up every now and then, discussed this repeatedly, until she eventually said, "Kristina, I don't want to talk about this anymore. I don't want to talk about it too much until we actually start fighting about it. Please just accept that I am from a different culture." I genuinely don't think that I tried to impose my opinion on her, but I did feel somewhat bad, thinking, maybe I did? Where do you draw the line between imposing your culture-tainted idea of the role of the sexes and simply trying to explain to them that women have rights, too? I was very careful, and I think all I did was ask her questions to help her question her own traditions. Why do you think you have to get married so early? Why are you so scared of not bleeding in your wedding night although you KNOW that you know better? What does marriage change for you?

What have I learnt? It makes a massive difference if you read about these things in books, articles or maybe even guidebooks or if you actually talk to the people, get a chance to discuss, get their opinions and how they feel about their own traditions. A lot of the time, these ideas aren't as static as they seem to be and they are defined through the people who live them and not the other way round. Also, sometimes you just have to stop yourself from thinking, "they" are doing it the "wrong" way and I am doing it the "right" way.