Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tea, teach, teacher

You know what I love about this part of the world? I love the fact that you can throw your old tea leaves down the toilet with no problems. Everyone does it. Somehow I’d never do this in the US for fear that all those tea leaves would block up my pipes, but not here with these mega strong Soviet pipes. I’ve become quite the tea-aholic here drinking copious amounts all day. I’m the same at home but here it’s so much a apart of the culture it’s what one can do all day long. Someone comes over, you drink tea, you go somewhere, you’re offered tea. I always offer my private students tea during our lessons. Only Esenzhol ever takes some, the others say no. I chide them, "Oh you Kazakhs! You can’t drink tea and study English at the same time!" It’s true. One of my students told me that drinking tea was a social thing and when studying English they need to be concentrating 100%. Tea I guess is a distraction for them. Well, I like my students to feel comfortable, relaxed so they can speak freely and not obsess over pronunciation and grammar.
Tuesday has become my busy day here in Astana. I spend the morning doing teacher training at the Eurasian University and in the afternoon I hold conversational classes at school #5. What a day yesterday was. Nazgul, the teacher who is after me to be her husband got into it with me during my workshop. We were talking about reading strategies and genres of literature and she just goes off on a tangent about Americans not liking to read novels. "You only like to read short stories and watch TV. Americans don’t read novels, they can’t read that much at one time." Excuse me bitch, thems fightin’words! I was not in the mood to have my compatriots belittled by some plump lady who has never been to the US and doesn’t know many Americans, so I snapped back at her. I rattled off books, facts about book clubs, Oprah Winfrey’s Book of the Month which gets everyone reading. This went back and forth a few times before it dawned on me that no matter what I said, she was right in her mind, so I just dropped it and moved on. At the end of the class, she asked me if I could bring her some books from Almaty that she wanted to order. I flat out said NO, replying "Why should I do you a favor if you want to argue with me during my workshop and disrupt it." Go to GD Almaty and get them yourself! That may not have been the most diplomatic thing to do, but I wasn’t in the mood for her BS so I was honest (as people are used to here, so why not).
School #5 was a different story. Fabulous debating went on during my 11th grade session. We were having such an interesting debate about friends and lovers that we went on two full hours, instead of the planned one hour. I have this book called "Impact Issues" which has various hot topics for conversations: issues about relationships, family, lifestyles, society and life and death. I let one student pick a title (without knowing what it is about) we listen to the talk and then go at it, speaking wise. Yesterday, Damira picked "Friends and Lovers" about boys and girls being friends. Can they only be friends without it turning into love? Well were they a lively bunch and so many opinions, such deep thinkers for their age. They were on fire. I don’t think get much practice in school talking about such things so for them it was great stimulation. I can’t wait until someone picks "Why Don’t You Accept Us?" the one about the gay couple. That’ll be an interesting conversation indeed!
Zhanna, one of the teachers at school #5, invited me over last Sunday for Beshparmak. A lovely afternoon in a Kazakh home. Drinking cognac with her doctor husband, eating horsemeat with noodles, speaking English with her and her three daughters and two nephews. Her husband, my age it turns out, was quite the talker and yakked my ear off. He doesn’t speak much English and went they found out my Russian speaking skills (she didn’t know I spoke fluent Russian before), we yakked away in Russian. So much for the English practice. Seems every time I eat Beshparmak I got so hot, literally sweating. Maybe it’s the combination horsemeat, cognac and the fact that the apartment was 100 degrees that caused me to turn red and have sweat dripping off my forehead. I asked if we could open a window and they did reluctantly fearing we’d all catch colds or worse. Please I beg, I need fresh air, I’m dying!! They did so for a few minutes then their inherent paranoia for drafts was too much and Zhanna shut the window again. Of course she then offered me copious amounts of tea which got me sweating more. Finally I just had to leave it was too much heat, I needed a nice walk in the fresh air. Still, heat issues aside, it was very nice to be invited into a colleagues home and meet her family and be able to enjoy a meal together. In my toast I said that the one word in Russian I don’t like is innostranets (foreigner) because for me it separates me from locals. No matter how well I know the language and culture I’m always reminded that I’m different because of this word. I continued to say that here at their house, around their table I don’t feel like an innostranets but like a regular person, a friend who has been invited over for a meal. And with that I raised my glass of Armenian cognac to their hospitality and warm house (no pun intended).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Irina blog

Got a text message the other day from my friend Irina. She said “Why haven’t you updated your blog? I need something new to read during lunch.” Alright Irina, alright–this one’s for you. I did two entries but haven’t posted them, so after reading this, scroll down to read more. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been a bit lazy as of late. Maybe it’s the dead of winter got me in its spell, wanting to sleep longer than usual, dragging my ass to the pool, but still I get up at 6 and go down to the pool, not wanting to break the routine. Actually I’ve been doing a lot of reading as of late, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (masterpiece darlings) reminded me of my trip through Kansas last year at this time with my friend Matthew. We did have an option of seeing the Clutter farmstead and visiting Holcombe but I think it was rather off the main road and we opted for the Barbed Wire Museum instead. Had I known what I knew now, we would have been all over Holcombe. Now I’m reading “Answered Prayers” Capote’s last and what a difference. So jaded, trashy and vapid but still his writing style is enjoyable. Last night I was reading some Roald Dahl short stories and thought how nice it was to just lay about and read. I haven’t done that in so long–no need to rush out, no ESL work to do (well this was sort of ESL work–selecting some short stories for reading), just relax and enjoy the book. Guess that’s one of the pluses of freezing cold winters–keeps you inside more.
Here we are at the end of January already and my February calendar is already booked solid with students, workshops and travels. Going to Almaty, the big apple next week and then down to Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan for you geographically illiterates) for 4-5 days at the end of February. Already there’s behind-the-scene planning by schools, city Dept. of Ed people and who knows else to get me to stay forever. Find the right salary and maybe you got a deal. But really I must get home. The cats, the house, the garden, the business–it all needs me. So hard to put your life and soul into everything, everywhere. It can be such a burden. One must make choices I suppose. Maybe I can come back in September or October to do some staff development for the city, that could be fun. Three months at a time, OK. We’ll see.
My life has always been guided by serendipity so I don’t worry a lot about what will happen next. The road unfurls before and I go with it. Enough of that. Did you chime in to hear the ramblings of a would be philosopher?
The other day I was in the bank and ran into this guy who was at the night club the night of my debut as an exotic dancer. We looked at each other as if there was some recognition, well there was I remember him, but I didn’t stop to say Hi how are you. Wonder if he recognized me with my coat and big fur hat on. Who knows. Speaking of guys, I put my profile on a local gay Internet site to see about meeting some local guys to hang out with. Hold your horses! Don’t freak out!! In modern times, this is how people meet and I’ve been chatting with some nice guys here in Astana (online). I’m not looking for a boyfriend, but just some sane local gays to talk with. Please, all day with women who are more interested in making you their husband than the methodology you are teaching them. A gay man needs a release ya know. I’ve been chatting with this guy Hermann and he gave me his number so we talked a few times and decided to meet up for dinner. He has a boyfriend in another city but just wants to hang out and practice his English, which is fine by me. He’s a nice guy, intelligent, financially stable, good English, my age–someone to pal around with and talk about other things other than ESL and why I’m not married. He used to be an air traffic controller in Almaty, now he works for a Japanese firm here. Planning to move to Kaliningrad where his family and boyfriend are. We had a lovely dinner at Neapoli, the Italian restaurant by my office. We’ll probably hangout again next week some time.
The site we met on, Gay.Kz has been down the last week so to date that is the extent of my exposure to the gay life of Astana. I’m sure they’ll figure out their site soon and I’ll meet some more locals. Don’t worry though, I’ll be careful. I’m sure many of the local guys will be terrified of my stairwell so they’ll never want to come over. Many of my snootier students comment on my stairwell and that I could find something nicer if I tried. Hey, it’s your reality darlings plus why blow all my salary on rent (my company pays only $500 toward housing). If I got more, hell I’d be living in the “Titanic” apartment building on the river embankment (they call it the Titanic because it looks like a big boat to many I guess).
Thursday was “Tatyanin Den” another goddamned celebration here–how many can you have really!?!?!? It is a Russian Orthodox name day for all the Tatyanas of the world. You’re supposed to congratulate each Tatyana you know, give a little gift, have a little tea party, etc. It’s also Moscow State University (MGU) Day when all the students and alumni of MGU get together and party. Now I must check my calendar for “Maslennitsa” the Mardi Gras of the Orthodox calendar when we need to party, eat as many blini as we can before the beginning of Lent. Sometime in February, as is Chinese New Year. Jesus Lord would these holidays stop already!! I can’t eat or drink that much!!!
Yesterday, Friday, I was invited to School 22 to speak to the English language students there. Of course I forgot my camera so didn’t photograph the event unfortunately. Like a town hall style meeting I was seated in the middle of the room surrounded by about 50 students. I’m used to this set up and what to do so had no problems blabbing away about myself for a while until I took questions from the audience. The kids were great, not shy about asking lots of questions. The girls found it interesting that I wasn’t married and didn’t want to get married. They said it was unusual to meet someone like that, they never have. Asked my opinion about Bush and Iraq “Bush is an idiot!” I replied and expressed my embarrassment to have him as our leader and also my dismay with the quagmire he’s gotten us into in Iraq. Some of the kids were taken aback by my sentiments toward the idiot in the White House, one girl saying “But we love our president”. “That’s great,” I said “If he’s doing a good job for the country, love him, respect him.” “In the US we don’t have to love or respect our president, especially when he’s doing a bad job.” They even asked what I thought of Hillary as president. For the record, I don’t think she’ll win and maybe not be the right person for the White House right now, but hey if she can makes us all feel good as a nation, deal with Iraq and raise our prestige again in the world, why not. Maybe it’s time for a woman to run the country. I know many people hate her but after Bozo, she can’t be that bad.
Our hour long Q & A period was interrupted by a dance performance by the award winning, fabulous Kazkah traditional dancer (and student of School 22) Asel Alibekova. She was great, so lithe and tempting as all Kazakh female dancers should be. As I found out after the performance, men, traditionally don’t dance, only the women. The women dance and swirl about as the men drink tea and watch. It’s sort of part of the traditional mating ritual, they dance and then the men ride horses and fight to win the heart of their beloved dancer. That’s not done much anymore since the guys drive cars and not horses but at festivals like Navruz in March, you can see these ancient traditions revived.
I love working with kids and could have stayed all day but I had a student waiting so had to go home. School 22 is a wonderful place and the teachers are great. I’m sure I’ll be back again. They want me to come work for them, run conversation classes, etc. but really I don’t have much time for that. I’m sure I can do some conversation groups for free during school time once a week. Oy vey, at this rate I’ll be sick of teaching English and desperate teachers by the end of February. Til then I’ll carry on courageously.

A banquet, birthday and marriage proposal

Yesterday I trekked out in the wind and snow to the university to help my 60+ friend/colleague Kulyash celebrate her birthday with her “kolektiv”. I opened the door to her office, only to be met by two long tables pushed together, groaning with all sorts of food and drink (a little celebration she called it on the phone). Seated around the table were her colleagues, all female of various ages. Men rarely go into teaching English in this part of the world so my presence was an added surprise to the party. We spent a pleasant few hours making toasts to Kulyash, the ladies had red Martini, I drinking vodka. When the Martini and vodka finished, the cognac bottle magically appeared from a desk drawer and the party continued. Usually there’d be dancing and more toasts until all hours but a) we were in a small office and b) that wouldn’t be right here at the prestigious branch of the Moscow State University, on the 7th floor of the Eurasian University. Instead we talked of all sorts of subjects, in English and Russian to the soft strains of Strauss waltzes coming from a computer. As the Martini and vodka started its effects, the conversation got less formal and became a natural blab fest of things like prices of food, the bazaars of the city, Astana compared to Alamaty, remembrances of Americans past who came and worked here, and so on. I like these times, when I’m no longer the innostranets, the foreigner with whom we must speak politely. When you start talking about the price of potatoes and compare prices between supermarkets, you know you’re one of them, so to speak.
The day prior, I gave a workshop on integrated language skills at the Eurasian University’s Pedagogical Institute. I’ve done workshops here before and am always warmly greeted by the female dominated inhabitants of this harem like institute. It dawned on me yesterday that they probably aren’t so interested in what knowledge I have to impart but rather how to get into the inner chamber of this single American man’s heart. They could probably give a rat’s ass about how to stimulate student’s interest toward a text and increase their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills all together. Two women in particular are in the lead for my heart. One of them, Nazgul, a plump, short professor of English literature is the more aggressive one. When we first met she rather attacked me with questions of my marital status. Yesterday during our workshop, she slipped me her card and softly said, eyeing me lusciously, “If you have any thought of changing your marital status, give me a call.” Oh Nazgul my dear, if she only knew Oleg, the only man on staff there had better luck than she (too bad he ain’t my type).

Taxi drama and Gena's story PT 1

Pitch black outside at 6:52 a.m., snow, wind , freezing cold outside. Another deep winter January day beginning. I’m feeling sluggish the last few days, would rather sleep all day like a bear in hibernation than get up and go swimming and teach English. But still I drag my ass out of bed, throw my swim stuff together and jump into my waiting Mercedes and head to the pool. Gena Goose, my driver and I have been having some great conversations lately. He was telling me some story the other day and drove right past Kaspii (my sports complex where I swim). Yesterday he told me in vivid, dramatic detail his wife’s stay in the hospital for a blockage in her intestine. How he yelled like a crazy man at the surgeons, threatening to shoot them if his wife died (now that’s love and motivation for the lazy surgeons). 3 months she was in there, a big hole in her side while the stitches healed, food and other stuff coming out the gaping hole in her side. Seems that they haven’t discovered colostomy bags here so Gena rigged one up to his wife’s side to the amazement of the doctors in the hospital. That’s medicine in Kazakhstan for you.
Gena’s been having a problem with Kairat, another driver out at the cab stand by my house. Kairat is jealous because Gena drives the American everywhere and I don’t give him any business. Kairat is a nice guy but the one time I used him, he charged me an arm and a leg. Gena is reasonable, charges me a fair price and he’s a great conversationalist. I like people here who treat me as just a person and not a “foreigner” who must be gouge for more money. Gena and I laugh, crack jokes, have become friends in a way. He’s very much the simple Russkiy muzhik with a heart of gold and would give you the shirt off his back. Not many of these guys left over here.
Gena Goose lives in Chubary, a neighborhood of private homes in Astana. As monolithic, ugly apartment complexes take over, Chubary is threatened. The president wants to get rid of it but the homeowners fight it in court. Rightfully so, they built those houses and most of them are really nice. Gena lives there with his wife. He has two daughters, both married (I think) one lives here, one in Almaty and an 8 month old granddaughter who he loves to pieces. You can see it in his eyes and smile when he talks about her. He has a picture of her on his cellphone, framed in a floral heart wreath. His granddaughter recently had some mishap, bumping her head on a heating pipe by her bed. There was blood, a hospital visit and her head has been wrapped up in bandages since, but I think they’re coming off soon. I’ll check with Gena this morning.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Incredible Adventures of a Polar Bear

Call me crazy, call me a glutton for punishment but yes I did it. I took the plunge yesterday on Kresheniye. I was "rebaptized" so to speak and on this day if you dunk yourself in a body of water, you will not get sick or have pain all year. Really? Then why am I all achy today??
Anyhow, after my morning swim and a lengthy stay in the sauna to warm up, having a lively conversation with the cultured and overly plump Slovakian ambassador as we sweat it out, I walked along the riverbank, looking for the meeting place that Irina and I had agreed on. In this town if you ask different people where the hole in the ice is (proroob) you get a different answer. And rightly so, because there’s more than one it seems. I was just coming along to the Orthodox church’s proroob when Irina called me from the other side of the river. The church guys were busy forming a hole in the shape of a cross out of the thick layer of ice on the Ishim. The procession from the church was to begin in about a half an hour and they were chopping away furiously at the ice, hoping to finish before the throngs of believers came down to the river for their blessing. Apparently, the priest dips his big silver cross into the river and blesses the crowd, flinging cold Ishim water on everybody. Then they all go back to the church with their empty bottles and fill them up with holy water. More about that later.
By the time Irina called me, I was at the river bank watching the guys shovel furiously. A babushka was there too wondering where to get fill up her jar. I said on the other side and off we took, us two, across the frozen river diagonally to where Irina was waiting for me. Halfway across the river, my poor babushka friend, hobbling on her can and wheezing, looked like she wasn’t going to make it. It dawned on me that in my haste to go swimming before the cold windy air changed my mind, I tired out the poor old girl. Taking her big jar, I ran over to the other side to fetch her a pail of water. The poor thing all along; wheezing, holding herself up on her cane, I felt like an idiot. In between swimmers, I filled her jar up and ran back across the ice to deliver the goods. She thanked me and wished me a good swim and good health. I replied the same I vas takzhe. As I ran back to the hole in the ice, Irina already dressing from her quick dip, it dawned on me that this old lady is going to drink water from the Ishim–YICK! Should I go back and pour it out and tell her to go to the church. She was far gone by now hobbling back with her holy water to the side where we first met. They say on Kresheniye that all water is holy so I’m sure any nasty microbes that are in the water the other 364 days, took a day off and own’t harm my 70+ yr old friend.
The sun was shining, hazily and low in the sky. An orange glow behind the haze, it failed to provide any warmth against the wind and the sudden snow shower that came down as I was undressing. A couple came by, he in his winter sports outfit walking the family poodle, she like a female flasher, wrapped up in a big fur lined overcoat. She opened up her coat revealing her portly one piece and demurely yet quickly descended down the ladder into the chilly Ishim. She dipped herself under three times as per tradition Bog lyubit troitsu God loves a Trinity. In moments she was out and drying off, enjoying the post-dip warmth as the blood rushes to the surface to keep the body warm. The family poodle was scurrying about, probably trying to find comfort for his frozen paws. Irina recounted the story of the Mafia boss who arrived before us in his big Land Cruiser, surrounded by his flunkies with towels and a robe. He popped out of his car, in a bathing suit, dipped himself a few times, flunkies surrounding the hole to keep the wind away (and probably any potential assassins), wrapped him in towels as he got out, put him in a robe, back in the car and off they went. She said it took all of 5 mins if that but the whole show was very amusing.
OK, my turn. Here I go. Flip flops out so my feet don’t freeze, off go the pants, long underwear, layers of shirts and sweaters. Clad only in my new Nike swim trunks, I braved the wind and snow as Irina clicked away on my camera (Hell come all this way and not photograph the event??). Dunking yourself in ice cold water has to be done fast and without thought. Once you start thinking about it, you chicken out. Down I went, rung by rung, the bracing water numbing my legs. As well all know getting a man’s family jewels into the water is the hardest part. Instead of hesitating, I just dunked myself right in–One, Two, Three. Oh my God my body was freezing and before I knew it, I was shivering and jumping around, drying myself off with a towel. Before I knew it, my body was breaking out in a sensation of warmth. It felt so wonderful as I hopped back into my clothes, flicking off the snow that gathered into my long underwear and sweater.

We laughed and prided ourselves on our courageous achievement as we crossed the icy river, heading toward a warm up at our favorite haunt Sladkaya Skazka. We fel warm and cozy all bundled up again. The numbness was leaving my feet, the heavy; hand knitted woolen socks nestled in UG boots working fast to circulate the blood. My hands were frozen stiff and tooka bit longer. It was rather painful too. The nerves seemed to sting really hard as they came out of their temporary frozen state, as if to punish me for doing that to them. Irina commented on how great she felt, all her aches and pains were gone. You know my back was feeling pretty good too. So maybe there is something to all this religious lore after all. As we enter the warm cafĂ© for a cup of tea, we watched the religious procession; banners, singing and hundreds of devout believers making their way down to the river for the blessing. "Shall we join them Irina, go swimming again?" I asked. "What are you crazy?" she looked at me astonished. "Of course not, I was just kidding! Let’s go have a cup of tea."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Witch's tit in a brass bra entry

Kreschenskiy Moroz. That’s what it’s called in Russian. Kreschenskiy Moroz. A literal translation would be "Baptismal Frost", but I like the sound of it better in Russian. Plus it has more meaning in the original. So what does nose tingling, feet freezing cold have to do with a baptism? Well, let me tell you. 19 January, this Friday, on the Russian Orthodox calendar is Krescheniye–baptism, which refers to when apparently when Jesus was baptized (although was he baptized??). Anyway, nowadays devout believers reaffirm their faith by being rebaptized on that day. So the local Russian Orthodox church goes down to the frozen river, cuts a big cross-shaped hole in the ice and starting Thursday at midnight, the truly faithful (and crazy) go down and dunk themselves in the icy cold waters of the Ishim. My colleague Irina is planning on doing this and I decided to join her. Hell if I can start the New Year off by swimming in the Atlantic on Coney Island, I can give the Ishim a try. Mind you this just doesn’t happen in Astana but all over Russia as well. Back in the old days, the Tsar used to drink a glass of icy cold water from the Neva to symbolize his rebaptizing. So look for pics on me swimming about on Friday dear readers.
Now why did I bring all that up? Oh yeah, because it’s been really cold here. Luckily the wind hasn’t been blowing otherwise the -18/20 degrees Celsius would be a nut numbing -40 or so. The sky has been clear, the sun shining bright and the little snowflakes fly around like silver glitter in the air. At night they rest in piles on the sidewalks all glittery and sparkling in different colours. I love this time of year, the deep of winter in this part of the world. So magical and beautiful. Some people complain and groan but I love it. The lighting is spectacular and I’ve been snapping away on my digital camera.

Besides pursuing artistic interests, I’ve put together a busy schedule of teacher trainings and classes to fill up my time until the end of February. Already I started work with some students in a local high school–my every Tuesday gig. I’m being bombarded by private students as well and soon I may be giving lessons round the clock. Seems everyone is free in the evenings when I don’t have any more room left. Mornings are free but there are just no morning people here in Astana!

Started "In Cold Blood" the other day and am loving it. Why is it that it has taken me years to get around to reading this great novel? Everything in its own time. Hey I still haven’t plowed through "Anna Karenina" or "War and Peace" ( can’t believe I let that secret out!). Anyway, with my jet-lagged, erratic sleep patterns, I’m up at all hours of the early morning reading away about the murder of the Clutters and the ensuing man hunt to find the killers. I’ve become as of recently a big Capote fan and am trying to get some of these stodgy English teachers to use some of his short stories in class. We’ll see how that goes.
One of my students, Erik, invited me over for a lunch of Beshparmak on Sunday. Beshparmak is a traditional Kazakh dish of potatoes, wide noodles and horse meat. People say it varies depending on the cook but to me it seems all the same and tastes all the same. This was the first time I’ve actually been invited to someone’s house for the dish. When I divulged that, Erik piled more horsemeat on my plate. I tried to stop him but that’s next to impossible when you are the main guest. I don’t mind the horse meat but the horse sausage is a little too much for me. It tastes fine but just the look and texture of it puts me off a bit. I found it manageable when I took the rubber ring of intestine off. Seemed it needed a sauce or something but I was a bit hesitant to ask, not wanting to step on cultural or hostesses’ feet. Erik’s cousin dutifully made the dish and served us, she was ever so gracious and in full on hostess mode. I wonder if they were trying to indirectly set me up with her. Who knows. We watched "Madagascar" and downed more and more Beshparmak until it was pretty much gone. A very pleasant time had by all and I was thankful to be invited into a Kazakh’s home. Not many people have invited me to their homes so it was nice to finally be invited.

OK, I have to go and get new toner for our copy machine and get some work done before the parade of students begins this afternoon. Keep warm wherever you are darlings!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Happy New Year Everybody!

Suly rubs on my laptop, the screen gently wiggles. People walk past my window on their way to work. The tea kettle begins to boil. Another familiar Brooklyn morning, yet it seems a little strange, knowing that in a few days I will be on a plane starting my long 17+ hr journey back to another reality. One deep in snow, freezing temperatures and bitter wind. No worries, after all these years of traveling and living in other places, I adapt.
So New Year’s Eve has come and gone and here we are already five days into 2007. For me it doesn’t feel like we made a transition into another year but we did. I have a slight feeling of starting anew but not the usual full gusto. What will this new year bring? Who knows, I have no resolutions to speak of. I’ll just let things unfold as the year progresses.
New Year’s Eve was spent at my traditional spot–Pete and Jackie’s (next door). Very convenient, I do all my drinking and passing out on my block.. Well, I don’t drink enough to pass out these days but if I did, all they need to do is roll me next door on the down slope. There was enough people there drinking, throwing up and passing out–ah youth, they’ll never learn will they ;). As usual, it was a fantastic party that went til all hours. P&J are the ultimate hosts and always throw a great party. They bring together a great group of people, make super dance mixes and create a fabulous party atmosphere. Never can you say they throw a dull party. Pete’s brother Dave was there all the way from China (yes we had Asia in the house–he and I), Jackie’s sibling who I haven’t seen in a long time: Jamie-the hot and sexy model (now a shirtless model at Abercrombie and Fitch on 5th Ave), Jeff-the chef at Bouchon and Julie-the student in Florida. My Brooklyn family. The piece de resistance of the party was the ball dropping at midnight. Pete wrapped a basketball in foil, then paper towels put it in a metal plant hanger, doused it with lighter fluid and slowly lowered it from his deck to the backyard into a waiting trash can full of water. This annual ball drop is always a little different each year and always rivals the big one in Times Square. We, all 100+ of us, stood in the backyard with our champagne counting down the seconds as Pete lowered the giant ball of fire. The was a brief gasp as the ball hit the side of the house but thank God the deck is all steel and the place didn’t go up in flames. As we yelled out "Happy New Year", there was a loud HISSSSSS of relief as the ball was diminished in the dark, cold waters of the trash can.
So there it was, another year over, a new year begun. But it didn’t feel like a new year for some reason. I sipped champagne with Bryn and Bill in the yard as the rain softly came down on this unusually warm December/January night. We discussed plans for the upcoming 9th annual Russian Old New Year’s party at the Natsional restaurant on Brighton Beach. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like the new year happened, because there’s still another new year to come. For you rubes, Russian Orthodox has a different calendar and Christmas is January 7th and Old New Year’s is the 13th. We’re celebrating this year on Christmas Eve since I got to go back to Astana on the 11th. I’m sure I’ll be celebrating Old New Year’s there too. Oy! Will this year ever begin?? You know, there are so many new year’s celebrations that if you observe them all, the year never really ends. In the school I worked at here in NYC, we celebrated three: Yom Kippur, January 1st and Chinese New Year. There’s also Navruz (Muslim New Year in spring) and I’m sure there’s a few more in there somewhere.
As per tradition, New Year’s Day found me and many of the people from the party the night before heading to Coney Island for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. In various states of wooziness and bathing attire, we made our way down in the drizzling rain for this fun filled and eye opening event. With thermoses of coffee, flasks of whiskey and bourbon, doughnuts, we had a pre-swim warm up in front of Rubie’s on the Boardwalk. Rubie’s, now defunct, always opens for this event and gouges the public with $9 Bloody Mary’s. At least they make them strong in those small plastic cups. At 1pm when the big horn blew, we, and about two hundred others ran like lunatics into the bracing Atlantic screaming and yelling. There were waves that day so before a giant icy cold wave hit me in my most delicate parts, I dove under it, invigorated and numb all at the same time. Swam around for a minute or two then popped out. There was the obligatory round two, the one for taking pictures and posing in the ocean. It’s amazing what a little dip in freezing cold water will do for your hangover, sort of whisks it away really, zaps it out of your body. When I get back to Kazakhstan, Irina plans to take me to a Polar Bear Plunge. January 19th, "Kresheniye" (means baptism and is symbolizes the baptism of Christ). All those serious Russian Orthodox show their faith by dipping into the chilly waters of a river or pond, a large hole cut out from the ice. Maybe this will catapult me into 2007–wait and see.
Time in New York whizzes by and I’m taking advantage of it. Visiting friends, rebonding with the cats, home projects (a leak in the wall on the first floor, probably from the roof), gathering teaching materials for my workshops, some shopping and of course catching up on movies. The first film on the MUST SEE list was, you guessed it–"Borat". I must say to the Kazakhs, get over it! It’s funny yes but not really offensive to the Kazakhs. Any intelligent, global thinking person can see that a) he’s not at all Kazakh looking, b) speaks Polish and Czech(the fat guy sounds Turkish) c) filmed the beginning in Romania. Kazakhstan should be happy that finally someone has put them on the map and sparked interest in the country. Don’t be so morally outraged–it makes you look like bigger boobs (no pun intended). There are moments when yes, Americans are shown to be gullible geographically illiterate idiots that they are but overall, I thought the film was a wonderful piece of theatre of the absurd. Take an unreal person and put him into different realities and see what happens. It really doesn’t have anything to do with Kazakhstan or America for that matter. Can I just say, the NY subway and the naked wrestling scenes were the highlights for me. I was howling at those sequences. Bravo to Sasha to have the balls to do that kind of stuff. Nice to see a comeback of absurdism.
There’s more films to see as the week rolls by and I’ll give you a full report at the end of my stay. I would like to see "The Departed"again since I was distracted by annoying cell phone calls by audience members when I saw it in Astana. Anyways, there’s tons on my list and not a lot fo time so I better get out and get in the movie theatres now. Talk to you soon.