Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Horse Meat and Coelocanth

OK, that last entry was the vodka tinged version of a really good time with a bunch of old folks who know how to party. Would you like the 9am tea induced version?

My friend/colleague Kulyash, a 60 yr old English teacher, calls me up on Sunday afternoon and spontaneously invites me to the 70th birthday party of her friend Menger. Theparty is just getting underway at the Safi restaurant, I’m at Adella’s (one of my students) having a lesson and dressed like a Russian muzhik (hey it’s Sunday, my day off I can look like a slob if I want). So I hop in a cab, go home and change into something more presentable and off I go to the party. My cab driver is one of those classic old men who you can have a great conversation with while slowly driving to your destination on the icy streets of Astana. He’s surprised I’m not married (as they all are) and says "Pora" (It’s about time). But then he contradicts himself by saying ah you’re an Americanets, they’re probably banging your door down. You’re probably shagging a new girl every night, da?", he says with a hearty laugh. If he only knew, ah I won’t go there.

The party was in full swing as I got there. Changed out of my UG boots into my black dress shoes and immediately nearly broke my neck on the slick tiled floor. It’s worse than the icy steps outside. They love their granite, marble and ceramic tile here but poor planning was done about what happens to it in winter. Icy, slick and dangerous as all hell. Jacoby and Myers where are you when I need a lawyer?

I hobbled gently upstairs to a huge hall full of family and friends celebrating Menger’s 70th bash. They came from all over; Almaty, Karagandy, Pavlodar, Russia and now me from NYC. Stares and hushed whispers escorted me across the room as Kulyash waved me over. Soon found myself making up for lost time in the vodka and food department. Our table, like everyone else’s was full of delicious salads, platters of fish, cut meats, bread, vegetables. In the middle was a huge round platter of Beshparmak, the Kazakh traditional dish of horse meat, potatoes and boiled ribbons of dough. I have yet to try this delicacy that everyone keeps telling me about and yet again missed my chance to sample the fare. The platter was pretty much empty but Kulyash found me a piece of horse meat to chew on after my first shot of vodka.

The party was like a show really. Highly organized with an emcee who kept things moving. A little too regimented for me but she did produce a great evening. There were speeches, table by table, dance contests, prizes, cute little girls with giant bows in their hair singing, dancing girls, musical performances. Hell I want my 70th to be like this! As the token foreigner in the room, I was forced up by Menger’s sister to give a speech. Of course I rose to the occasion and gave a rousing speech in Russian which got a round of applause. I’m used to these impromptu speeches, piece of cake. We danced the night away from waltzes to Boney M on that slick dance floor. Amazingly, none of the ladies in 4+" heels or the men in various stages of drunkeness fell or seriously hurt themselves. Actually it was a great floor to waltz on. We swirled and glided, Kulyash and I, across that floor like nobody’s business. When it came to the dance contests, I was up dancing away. I won a Kazakh hat in the gypsy contest. After that I was like "svoi" not just a foreigner but one of the crowd. Kazakhs treat foreigners in a very formal and sometimes condescending way. They seem to have this weird stereotype of us and don’t know how to treat us like regular human beings but rather like things from another planet. When you show them you’re just a regular person like them and embrace their ways, they become more real and seem to be able to talk with you like another person.

The tables were always filled with food. All the salads were devoured but I blink and suddenly there was something else to take the place of the empty bowl. In short it was an orgy of food. As we danced, the wait staff took everything off the table and gave us our hot entree; fish with mashed potatoes. Pretty decent fish for an almost landlocked country. The toasts went on and on and on and on. In Kazakh and in Russian, effusive 15 minute outpourings of emotions and respect. Times that by 200 people and Oy Vey will they ever shut up!!!! I jest a little. Hell, if/when I get to that age, may I have that many people be giving me such lavish toasts.

The piece de resistance, after gorging ourselves on appetizers, a hot entree, cakes and sweets was a giant baked fish presented on a platter surrounded by lettuce leaves and lemon slices. They told me what it was in Russian but let me tell you what it was: Ceolocanth! Yes this prehistoric fish reported in the rivers of Africa has made it to Central Asia somehow and there were about 20 of them being passed out at the tables around the hall. The ladies at my table grabbed the serving utensils and started passing out baked Ceolocanth to everyone. I was really full but still I got a huge piece as guest of honor from NYC. I took a few bites to be polite, a little too fishy for me and imagined how much Murka would love this. The waitress gave me a doggy bag and I quietly slid the prehistoric slab into it. Hey, a least it wasn’t the feared goat head with the eyeball!

So after hours of food, drink and dance, it was time to go home. Kulyash piled our winter clothes back on and headed out into the -30 degree Celcius night to flag down a cab. Poor Kulyash got robbed last week and all they took were her winter coats, so she was running around in her sister’s thick wool coat that night. No glamorous fur coat for her–some men broke into her apartment and stole the stoles so to speak. I’m sure my PETA friendly readers are clapping right now but let me tell you, when it gets this cold, you’ll be wanting a fur coat too! It keeps all the cold out. With that said, let me pile on my clothes and attend to my morning student waiting for me at the office.

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