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Elections in Dushanbe

In late October, election posters started popping up all over Dushanbe. “Everyone to the election!” one read. “Transparent elections are evidence of a democratic country,” another proclaimed. Tajikistan’s presidential election on November 6th was to be the country’s fifth since independence. I decided to take this opportunity to explore Dushanbe and see what a Tajik election was really like. 

As election day approached, posters supporting the incumbent president, Emomali Rahmon, were placed all over the city. Rahmon, having been in power since 1992 and having prevented all independent candidates from participating in the election, was the clear frontrunner. In some places, enormous portraits of the president were placed mere feet from polling stations.

In the city center, posters of the president were placed on every third of fourth storefront. Posters of candidates other than the president were almost nonexistent.

On election day, I headed to Dushanbe’s central park to take in some of the festivities. November 6th is also Constitution Day in Tajikistan, and hundreds of students gathered to celebrate the holiday with live music and performances by traditional Tajik dancers.As the concert continued, many of the Tajik students started dancing themselves!

After the concert, I decided to check out a few polling stations to see how the voting process was going. At polling station #12, large crowds stood in line to vote. Some polling stations even had live music!

As I walked around Dushanbe, I thought about all the people I had spoken to about the election. While a handful of Tajiks I knew with more international ties expressed disaffection with politics, my host family was effusive in their support for Rahmon.

I recalled interviews that I had read held by journalists prior to the election, in which Tajiks expressed near unanimous support for the incumbent. Most had almost no awareness of candidates other than Rahmon. As one Tajik woman said, “I was born and grew up with Rahmon in power. It’s hard for me to imagine things any other way. How can you dream of something you don’t know?”

The day after the election, preliminary results indicated that Rahmon won with 86.9% of the vote. International election observers noted “significant shortcomings” in the election, including a “lack of pluralism and genuine choice.”

I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to be in Tajikistan to witness Tajiks celebrate their country and exercise their right to vote. In the end, though, November 6th was a bittersweet day.

- Aaron is studying Persian in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Fall 2013).

Kuhistoni Badakhshon

At 6 am on September 21st, seven students and I crammed into two jeeps and headed east. Although it was still hot in Dushanbe, we carried backpacks filled with sweaters and jackets; we were told that it would be cold up on the “Roof of the World.” Our excursion to Badakhshan would take us across T
ajikistan and back, a seven-day journey through the Pamir Mountains, some of the highest in the world.

The first day took us east from Dushanbe past the Nurek Dam, the tallest dam in the world and a pillar of Tajikistan’s economy, and then south to the city of Kulob, the birthplace of President Rahmon and now one of the most important centers of political influence in Tajikistan. After Kulob, we joined the Panj River along the border with Afghanistan and made our way into the mountains. Nine hours after leaving Dushanbe, we stopped for the night in the town of Qal’ai Khumb, a common stopping point for travelers heading to Badakhshan, and whose alternate name, Darvaz, means “gateway.” Before bed, as we sat together on a hill above our guesthouse, we watched as the moon rose over Afghanistan.

The next morning, we set off along the Pamir Highway toward Khorugh, the capital of the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province. The highway, hardly more than a single-lane dirt road, wound us along precarious cliffs that only grew steeper and steeper. As we ascended through the mountains, each valley that we came to seemed even more dramatic and beautiful than the last. After seven hours on the road, we arrived in Khorugh, a charming town of 28,000 set between the mountains and covered in poplar trees. We ate dinner next to the river and spent the evening learning to play Durak, a Russian card game popular in Tajikistan.

The next morning we set out to explore Khorugh. We had heard that Pamiri socks were famous, so we headed to the bazaar to put our haggling skills to work. On the way, we noticed that there seemed to be even more government propaganda on billboards and posters in Khorugh than there was in Dushanbe. Badakhshan, isolated from the rest of Tajikistan by the Pamir Mountains, has had an interesting history, including an occasionally fraught relationship with the central authorities since Tajikistan’s independence. During the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, the local government in Badakhshan declared independence, and just last year fighting broke out in Khorugh between government forces and local powerbrokers. After exploring the city’s central park and a local museum, and with an excessive number of brightly colored Pamiri socks in tow, we headed back to the jeeps to continue our journey.

Over the next two days, we continued along the Panj River and the Afghanistan border, climbing higher and higher through the Pamirs. On the way, we stopped to look at ancient petroglyphs and explored shrines used for fire rituals so old that they pre-date the introduction of Islam in Central Asia. We bathed at a local hot springs, and we climbed up to a crumbling fort with a vast view of the valley, said to have been one of the greatest defense fortifications in the ancient Wakhan. We drove through dozens of tiny villages, catching glimpses of daily life along the way: a boy choosing a sheep from the flock that would be the night’s dinner, a woman tending to the crops in the small plot of land that she owned. One night, at dinner, our host and his son treated us to a traditional Pamiri song played with local instruments, and our driver took this opportunity to teach us how to dance like a Tajik. After dinner, when we walked outside, the night sky was so clear it felt as if you could see the entire galaxy.

Our final day exploring new territory took us along the Wakhan Corridor and up to the Pamir Plateau. Here, at around 14,000 feet, vegetation largely disappeared, and the landscape became a wasteland of rocks and dust. At that altitude, the air was so thin that we had to catch our breath after walking just a few feet. In the middle of the Plateau, we stopped for a break next to a small, murky pond surrounded by hills. Standing in that dusty, desolate valley, miles and miles from civilization, I had the eerie feeling that even the stones here were lonely. I realized then that this was the most isolated place on Earth I had ever been. I was truly on the Roof of the World.

After crossing the Pamir Plateau, we descended back to Khorugh and spent the next two days on our journey back to Dushanbe. None of us were ready to go home. We had spent a week traveling across Tajikistan, a country no larger than the state of Iowa, but there was still so much left to explore. “Oh my god,” said one of the other students, as we made our way back to Dushanbe. “We missed Murghab. Okay, now I have no choice. I’ve got to come back…”

- Aaron is studying Persian in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

(Fall 2013).

Tajikistan? Where's that?

Tajikistan? Where’s that? What are you doing there? Why do you want to go there? Is it dangerous? Be careful!

Varzob Excursion by Derek Peterson

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP), I was frequently asked these questions by just about anyone I mentioned it to. Admittedly, even though I had traveled to the former Soviet Union before, I was unsure of what to expect upon reaching Dushanbe. After a long series of flights from Washington D.C. to Tajikistan, and a few days of jetlag, I began to take in my surroundings more coherently. Immediately, the incredible friendliness of the Tajik people made a resounding impression on me. My host family was, and still is, amazing to live and spend time with, but I expected something of that nature. I did not necessarily expect to be treated as warmly as I was by shopkeepers or even passerbies. I often felt like I was conversing with an old friend, be it in Uzbek, Russian or a mixture of both, even if I had only interacted with them two or three times. On a number of occasions, I lost track of time because I was enjoying speaking with someone I just met about anything from the weather to what life is like in the United States or Tajikistan. My advice to anyone who is apprehensive about coming to a place that’s far away and concerned about homesickness or culture-shock is absolutely: do not worry about it. The Tajik people are so warm and welcoming that you’ll most likely wonder what took you so long to decide to come.


Another pleasant surprise for me came on the second Saturday of the trip. Everything in the city was still new, and at times overwhelming, so it was refreshing to hear that we would be heading to a resort-like area north of the city called Varzob. I figured we would probably relax, swim a little bit and then have some lunch. The drive up quickly erased those thoughts from my mind. We were driving through some stunning mountains, and they continued to get better and better. Once we arrived, a group of us decided that before anything else, we wanted to go hiking up one of the mountains. We picked out a lone tree at the top of a fairly high hill, but nothing that seemed too difficult. While we didn’t pick the most ideal route to get to our destination (there was quite a bit of heavy breathing upon reaching the top), the view that was awaiting us was well worth the effort. After a few minutes rest and picture taking, we decided that the higher we went, the better the scenery would become. We weren’t wrong. Stopping just below the top of the mountain due to steep rocks and a lack of proper equipment, we had a great view of all kinds of mountains, from snow-capped to forest-topped. The views were breathtaking, just like the climb to the top. On the car ride back into Dushanbe, I thought to myself that between the sights of Varzob and the open embrace I received from the Tajik people I met, these two months are going to be with me forever.
- Derek Peterson is studying Uzbek in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Summer 2013)

Georgian on my Mind

They’re not kidding about this program being intensive. Somehow 15 hours of intensive lessons seemed so much less intense when I was sitting in America. Now that I’m in Georgia, I find that my brain is thinking about Georgian most of the time. When I’m lying in bed at night, I’m thinking about whether the word for woman starts with “k” or “k’” and other such issues that are suddenly important to my grasping this language.

I lived in a Georgian village for the 2011-2012 school year and picked up some Georgian by virtue of living there. I tried self-study, but between the emotional toll of living in a village where no one speaks your native language and the ease with which I could communicate my needs and wants in Russian, I did not put much effort into my self-imposed Georgian lessons. It did not help that anytime I started a conversation with a taxi driver, salesperson, or practically anyone in Georgian, it would take less than a minute for the conversation to switch to Russian, usually initiated by the other person. Plus, the Georgian verb system looked terrifying and incomprehensible. After going home to America and feeling Georgia’s magnetic pull for a year, I decided I needed to get serious about learning Georgian. My career goals involve Georgian down the road, but some days, I just want to know enough Georgian to understand my Facebook news feed. Thus, I thought a summer of intensive lessons on top of whatever I had gathered via immersion would give me a solid foundation in Georgian. I knew that was a good decision when just hearing Georgian at the Munich airport made me grin.

As I could only really use the verb “to be” and the commands necessary to keep a classroom of Georgian children relatively under control, I knew that this summer what I really needed to learn was verbs. I was actually looking forward to it, to be able to say complete sentences instead of using nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and pantomime. Two weeks into my program, I’m swimming in verbs. (As of yesterday, I can even say “I’m swimming”.) The linguist inside of me is thrilled. As an agglutinative language, there’s a compact brilliance to Georgian verbs. As someone who just wants to be able to explain where she went last weekend, the verbs are maddening, as there are prefixes and suffixes aplenty to remember. Some days I think Georgian is simple and logical. Other days I think no one in their right mind would put such consonant clusters together. I’m confident I’m using jaw muscles I never knew I had, trying desperately to get through words that seem unpronounceable at first glance. I’m also reminded of a linguistics group project I did as a freshman where we created a language and the rules we developed created words I was convinced were impossible in reality. Some Georgian words sound a lot like my made-up language, except they were not created by freshmen in a mental exercise but a real group of living, breathing people who actually communicate this way.

Learning Georgian is definitely a challenge, but one I’m really enjoying. When my teacher explains to me the roots involved in a word that seems both far too big and entirely impossible to say, it’s like she’s giving me a password to get into a club where people get this language. Those moments feel good. Even though some days I fear I might drown in Georgian verbs, I love spending hours getting to learn more of the language. Almost every day I learn something and think “So that’s what they were always saying!” or “Why could I not have learned this when I lived in the village. This is so useful!” Having lived surrounded by the language for a year, it’s a wonderful feeling to be given keys to communicate with the people around me in their native tongue. While it would have been nice to have all this knowledge while living in Georgia before, I’m also fully aware that I’m learning so much because I have great teachers who are teaching me how I learn best. While I’m still learning beginner phrases, my teachers are also explaining the linguistics behind certain suffixes, which both help me feel more like an adult and aid my understanding, since knowing the rules helps me understand the language better. My teachers, with my blessing, have me running through the lessons in my book, so that I’m being constantly challenged and also seeing a real expansion of my knowledge and ability despite only having eight weeks of lessons. I’ll finish the first level book at the end of my third week and feel like I finally have skills to have real conversations instead of simply being able to explain who I am and what I am doing in a Georgian village.

I went back to my old village this weekend. I felt so proud to be able to explain why I was there in Georgian instead of Russian. My former host family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues were all so delighted that I was learning Georgian, and it was also great to be back and realize that I already understood more of what was going on than I ever had before. When I lived in Georgia before, it was not hard to fall in love with the country, but the language always seemed like a thorn in my side. Now, as I start to understand it, I’m starting to fall in love with the language too

 - Hannah Kay is studying Georgian in Tbilisi, Georgia (Summer 2013).

The Frustrations and Motivations of Language Learning

I did not come to Georgia solely to learn Georgian. I came to intensively study Chechen and, as someone who enjoys learning languages and wants to work in the Caucasus, thought that being able to also learn Georgian was a great bonus opportunity. Between Russian and English, I can get by in taxis and shops and basic conversations with almost everyone, but it seems like disrespectful not to even try to learn the language of the country I live in. And without the local language you can only ever really experience the surface of a place and its culture. I knew very little about Georgian as a language before my arrival. Turns out it’s hard. Very, very hard. Almost as hard as Chechen. But my reasons for learning Chechen, my long term goals for the language, are solid and help motivate me to stay up at night memorizing verb forms that are governed by no rules, no rules at all. My motivations for learning Georgian are newer, not quite as solid yet. There are days when I just want to throw up my hands and give up on the language. These are the days where living in Tbilisi, being immersed in the language and culture, is vital. When I lose sight of the big picture, it gives me small reasons, daily motivations not to give up.

There is a small café/restaurant that I go to every Thursday night with a group of foreign girls. We go to banya, the baths, around the corner beforehand and then have dinner at Alani. I have gone every week but two since I arrived in September and the woman who runs the place knows us, knows me. Somehow I’ve become the designated “orderer” for the table, and from listening to me doubtlessly mispronouncing words and butchering grammar in an attempt to get two bowls of the red sauce rather than just one, it must be painfully obvious to everyone working there that I have a very tenuous hold on the language. Despite this, for the last several months, the manager has started to sit down with us when things are slow and chat. She speaks no English, no Russian. I can understand the gist of what she says usually (she’s talking about her sons, my loud laugh), but never the details. I can respond with smiles, simple questions and exclamations, but then my language skills run out. She doesn’t seem bothered by it, and it certainly doesn’t stop her from continuing to talk to me, but I hate the feeling of not being able to fully engage. When she asks me what’s new, if I’ve found a husband yet, how school is going, I want to answer the way she answers me: fully and expressively, rather than monosyllabically. When my Georgian homework makes me want to throw my book at the wall, the moment when future career plans or linguistic interest seem much less important than ending my frustration, I think about how much I want to be able to talk to this woman whose name I don’t even know, and that motivates me to open the book back up and try again.

Every language learner has long-term goals and objectives that motivate the learning process and they run the gamut from wanting to speak the same language as your boyfriend to wanting to read your favorite book in the original language to wanting to work as an interpreter at the UN. Learning a language is rarely a simple undertaking, and no one gets very far if they don’t know why they’re doing it. But even if you have a strong motivation and important language goals, it is impossible not to feel discouraged and frustrated. There are periods where you feel as if you’re learning nothing, making no progress, not understanding anything. Everyone has days when they lose sight of why they started learning, days when they feel like it’s just not worth it. While having big, long term goals and important reasons for learning a new language are vital, there are times when having smaller, more personal and immediately rewarding goals are also necessary. Both the levels of frustration and motivation are much higher when you are living immersed in the language. Everyday activities become at once a both a struggle and also an impetus to learn.

Ruth Grossman is learning Georgian and Chechen in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Tying the Knot…Armenian Style

This past weekend I was lucky enough to go to an engagement party for my host-sister’s best friend. A few months ago, her and her boyfriend decided that they wanted to get married, so they set a date to get engaged. I was confused. In the States, we don’t typically “set a date” to get engaged. You either become engaged to be married when someone asks you, or you don’t. There’s not often an in-between state of engage-ness. At first, I thought that I had just misunderstood. That they had maybe talked about getting married at some distant point in the future, or that my host-sister’s friend was expecting to be asked by her boyfriend any day now. But, no. A few months ago they decided to formally get engaged on March 10th. So, to celebrate this engagement and the many cultural differences that make studying another’s way of life so appealing and rewarding, I decided to focus this article on all things wedding. Well, all things traditional Armenian wedding, to be precise.

For most Armenians weddings are oftentimes very formal, joyous occasions chock-full of long-standing traditions staunchly, or in some cases grudgingly, upheld. One such tradition is the “Khosk-kap.” This slightly formal event officially kicks off the engagement and is similar to what we in the States would call an engagement reception or party. Traditionally, this is when the groom’s parents would officially meet the bride’s parents and ask them for their daughter’s hand in marriage. If all goes according to plan, which it should considering that this is essentially a pre-arranged engagement, the groom-to-be will then present the engagement ring to his new fiancé and the eating, drinking, and typical Armenian revelry will commence. A priest is also usually present to bless the ring and the couple’s future plans to marry. This is the engagement that my host-sister was referring to.

Some other interesting customs present during many Armenian weddings revolve around the “azapbashi,” close to what we might refer to as the best man, and the “kavor,” or godfather. In Armenian culture the “kavor” is arguably the most important figure in the wedding, except for maybe the bride and groom of course. He is typically a close friend of the family chosen to be the couple’s sponsor and responsible for much of the wedding details and for guiding the couple in their new life as man and wife. He is also one of the first, if not the first, to be toasted at the reception following the church ceremony. 

Armenian weddings are also known for their festive, exuberant quality. Before the wedding, the groom’s party, headed by the “kavor” and his accompanying musicians, sing and dance their way to the bride’s house with “sinis,” traditional gift-wrapped baskets full of various goodies for the bride. Traditionally, the “sini” would carry everything that the bride would need for her big day: shoes, veil, perfume, make-up, brandy, chocolate, and even flowers. After the gift baskets are handed over, the men proceed to drink and make merry while the women help the bride get ready for her big day. Sometime around this time candy is thrown at the women helping the bride and one of the bride’s shoes is stolen and must be paid for by someone from the groom’s party, usually the “kavor.” When the bride is ready, she meets her future husband and they all eat, drink, and toast to the happy couple. Before leaving the bride’s house for the ceremony, one of her younger male relatives blocks the door with a sword until he is given a coin by the groom’s side. Then everyone lines up into a large, rather raucous caravan led by a limousine decked out in flowers and banners, or maybe even a dead animal if in the village.

After the church ceremony, if there is one, the wedding party heads over to the groom’s house where, traditionally, his mother is there to greet the newly wed couple. Interestingly enough, the mothers of both the bride and groom are not supposed to participate in the wedding ceremony itself. Customarily, the mother of the bride is to stay home mourning the loss of her daughter, while the groom’s mother is to stay home preparing to welcome her new daughter. Of course, this old practice is not strictly adhered to nowadays. However, the groom’s mother does normally greet the newly married couple by draping lavash on the shoulder of both the bride and groom. This probably comes from an ancient story about Astghik, the Armenian goddess of love, when she was to marry Vahagn, the Armenian god of warriors. Aramazd, the god of all gods, placed a piece of lavash on her shoulder. But when she dropped it in her excitement to get to her groom’s home, the wedding was cancelled; for according to Aramazd, whoever drops bread on the floor cannot be a wife and mother. Hmmm…

Anyways, as the new couple enters the house of the groom’s parents, they each break a plate that had been placed in the threshold by the groom’s mother. Once the plates are broken, they are permitted to enter the house and the feasting may begin. Typically, these affairs last all night. In the villages it is very common for neighbors to greet the new couple by setting up small tables filled with food, drinks, and gifts in front of the groom’s house. However, this is typically not done in Yerevan. By the way, the traditional wedding gift is jewelry, preferably gold, for the bride. This differs from the customary crystal and silverware given in the States, although Armenians are beginning to do this more recently.

There are more traditions dealing with stolen chickens, doves, bulls, and even apples—some more pleasant than others. But all in all, Armenians like to have fun, eat, drink, dance, and celebrate life to its fullest. What better venue for that than an Armenian wedding where families and friends gather to celebrate the exciting new life of one of their loved ones by honoring the traditions of the past?

Amy Nicole Stidger is studying Armenian in Yerevan, Armenia.

The Democratic Process in Action

When I first started thinking about writing this blog entry, I figured I would write about the deliciousness of Georgian food, the perils of Georgian driving, or the fact that every person I meet seems to have a very strong opinion on why I’m not married and on the best way to solve that problem.  But then they started burning brooms in the streets. Mere hours after the videos of horrible prisoner abuse were released, the streets filled with protesters and the protests never stopped.  It was exciting to see such a public outcry, the refusal to be silenced by empty rhetoric or to be appeased by meaningless gestures by the government. Georgians were surprised by my interest; surely in America people would be just as unwilling to swallow the government’s excuses? They were even more shocked when I answered that truthfully, I didn’t know if we would react with such persistent outrage. But eventually the protests became background noise, a continuous cycle of honking and chanting I could hear from my roof as I did my homework.  It became a comforting din as every few hours I was reassured that apathy had not yet set in.

Despite all this, no one I met had much hope for the elections. There was no way the ruling party, The United National Movement (UNM), would allow the opposition coalition, Georgian Dream (GD or Otsnebe, which means “dream” in Georgian), to take the majority in parliament.  Everyone expected violations of electoral law, corruption, and general fraud – the opposition had little to no chance of officially winning. Theories about what would happen afterwards were all over the map: some worried there would be violence, repression, revolution; others were sure that silence and order would be ensured through bribery and back-room dealing, and that the population would resign themselves to business as usual. Then the unthinkable happened. Otsnebe won. Tbilisi erupted. Power had been transferred through democratic process, no revolution necessary. For Georgia, this was a historic moment regardless of one’s political affiliation and the exhilaration was contagious. By 4a.m. the city-wide party was finally breaking up and the streets were strewn with bottles, cigarette butts, posters, and general merrymaking debris.

A visitor arriving in Tbilisi the next morning would never be able to guess what had happened mere hours before. The streets were clean, people were going about their business, the only reminder of the jubilation from the night before was the odd car driving past, honking and waving a blue flag out the window. For the last three weeks all anyone could talk about was the protests, the elections, the possible outcomes; and now, two days after one of the most important political events in modern Georgian history, politics has all but disappeared from conversations. Perhaps people are worried they will jinx it if they talk about change and progress too much, perhaps they don’t want to get their hopes up only to be disappointed again, or perhaps they just want to be able to take free and fair elections for granted.

Sitting on my roof now as I write this, I hear nothing but normal city sounds: cars driving past, a dog barking, children playing, construction several blocks away. It’s almost disconcerting; I keep straining to hear the honking and yelling of the protest march on Rustavelli that several days ago I found so encouraging.  But there isn’t one, it’s no longer needed, and that is more encouraging still.

Ruth Grossman is studying Georgian in Tbilisi.

Surprising, Vexing, and Attracting

I've had a lot of time this summer to think about the little things that surprise, vex, and attract me to life in the former Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan in particular. While far from comprehensive, I feel like this list helps capture some of what it feels like to be here.

1) When women order beer, it comes with a straw. If it's a particularly classy place, you can bet that the straw will, at a minimum, be fun, twisty, and brightly colored. I really love drinking through straws, so I find this peculiarity simultaneously bemusing and fun. I can blow bubbles in my beer if the mood strikes. However, it also, in my opinion, highlights gender differences apparent here: it would undermine one's femininity to slurp directly from a big mug of beer.

2) Don't EVER put your purse directly on the ground. You will lose all your money... or so the superstition goes. I once, in the course of conversation, mentioned placing my purse on the ground to my yoga instructor; this statement was met with a horrified expression and an aghast, but WHY would you ever do that?? Since I am a grad student and have little enough money to spare anyway, I have surreptitiously carried over this practice of purse-off-the-ground into my daily life even in the U.S. Just in case.

3) To the uninitiated, anything that would normally feature an orderly queue in the West resembles a small mob scene in the FSU. This is actually not the case. Lines exist, they just aren't... linear. Upon arriving somewhere that people are waiting for service, you must yell out, "кто последный?!" in order to determine the person ahead of you. Remember this person, because they will usually kindly save your place in line if you need to run to the bathroom.

4) Direct speech gets you a lot further than timidity. The first time I lived in this region, I found this directness unspeakably rude. If I were working as a waitress in the U.S. and someone caught my attention by yelling "girl!" I'd probably refuse to wait on them. Now, with a few years in Russia and Kazakhstan under my belt, I find that I sometimes enjoy doing away with niceties. I've become a lot more assertive. In a way, it's refreshing to be able to say to a taxi driver who clearly has no idea where they're going -- "where exactly are you going?!" -- with no "excuse me" or worries about injured feelings. Everyone has a bit thicker skin here, and maybe that's not a bad thing.

5) Older women in this part of the world tend, in my experience, to be a wonderful mix of incredibly tough, self-sufficient, direct, practical, warm, compassionate, accepting, and mothering. They will, simultaneously, sympathetically listen to your problems, feed you an insane amount of food, comfort you, and tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life (in so many words). There really is nothing else in the world quite like a бабушка. I look forward to dying my hair a crazy color and following in their footsteps in my old age.

6) Coffee usually means instant coffee... no, I will never be able to see the sunny side on this one. Luckily (for my classmates, especially) real coffee is increasingly easy to find.

Margaret Hanson is studying Kazakh in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The Value of Georgian

It gets on my nerves when people ask me why I want to study Georgian, a language only spoken by about 5 million people. They usually follow up by asking me why I don’t just learn Russian because it is more useful and widely spoken. I have a hard time disagreeing completely with this argument, but I have never really cared much for practicality or “usefulness”. I was having a conversation along these lines on the plane ride to Svaneti last weekend. A German backpacker was telling me in no uncertain terms that studying Georgian was a waste of my time and effort. Rather than argue with someone who is more or less correct I just agreed noncommittally and smiled.

Svaneti is a wild isolated region of Georgia where people still live in stone towers. The Svan people have a reputation among Georgians for being insular, belligerently traditional as well as bit dangerous. Historically several empires have controlled Georgia at one time or another and throughout all of this the Svan people have pretty much done their own thing. Even the Soviets had only a nominal amount of control over what went on in this high mountain region.  Svaneti has only just recently become a practical and safe destination for casual tourists and the tourism infrastructure up there is still somewhat rudimentary. This combined with the fact that the Svan holiday of Kvirikobas was being celebrated made last weekend the perfect time to visit.

It was really a perfect weekend. I stayed in a family run guesthouse recommended to me by an old guy I chatted with on the Marshrutka ride into town. The guesthouse fed me just about as much home cooked Georgian food and fresh bread as I could eat. The beds and showers were immaculate and there was hot water, all for 35 lari a night. After chatting with the owners of the guesthouse they introduced me to their neighbor’s daughter’s husband who offered to drive me to Ushguli and take me to the Svan festival of Kvirikobas if I could just chip in for gas. That evening he took his friends and I out to a café for kubdari and beer. At the end of the weekend, I was remarking to myself that the Svan people didn’t really deserve their reputation for being closed off to strangers or even dangerous. Furthermore, I was thrilled that the foreigner as a cash cow sentiment so prevalent in many tourist destinations hadn’t yet infected Svaneti. Things got confusing occasionally when the conversation drifted from Georgian into the Svan language but everyone was really good-natured about speaking to me in Georgian and treating me like a guest not a customer.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and by coincidence the same German was on the flight back to Tbilisi with me. We began talking casually about our respective trips. He was really incensed about the cost of everything, complaining that things in Svaneti were actually more expensive than Tbilisi. He complained that his room had cost him 50 lari a night without food; I agreed with him that that was a bit steep. He was further surprised that a driver to Ushguli cost him 150 lari. He had heard that there was a festival being celebrated in the mountains but wasn’t sure where it was or how to get there so he had missed out. Finally, he began to complain about how Svaneti was quickly becoming over touristed and how the locals didn’t speak English and their Russian was barely intelligible.  I tried very very hard to keep a sanctimonious look off my face by reminding myself that I probably wouldn’t have a very good time in Moscow. I am not sure that I succeeded all together in not appearing smug.

Patrick Thoendel is studying Georgian in Tbilisi (summer 2012)

Almaty: Globalization with Style

Along with delight at returning to a country familiar to me from childhood, the overwhelming impression I have had of Almaty, Kazakhstan, since arriving here for the Kazakh language program, is one of vivacious cosmopolitanism and creativity. Perhaps this is in part because of my host family, who kindly welcomed me into a home full of evidence of travels beyond borders, with links to and experience from places as diverse as Italy, Dubai, the US, and China. My host mother spent time getting her master’s degree only an hour away from where I live in the US! The whole family is well-travelled, connected to international events and people, and their interest in adopting a stray American for the summer clearly springs from a sense of the value of cross-cultural interaction (as well as from the Kazakh tradition of genuine hospitality).

Even if such explicitly international lifestyles are not common to everyone, many of the people I have talked to have travelled outside of Kazakhstan for one reason or another, if only to shop in China for goods to sell in Almaty! Others have relative s to visit in their countries of national origin, people who remained in or later immigrated to Germany, Russia, Israel, or elsewhere. Then, of course, there is the world as it comes to Kazakhstan – from the oil companies in the West that provide and color many people’s experience of work in an international setting, to the plethora of new international franchises setting up shop in Almaty. International visitors, like the (most impressive!) German couple I met who were cycling from Berlin to China, also contribute to this overall impression of vitality and connectivity.

AlmatyOn my very first day here, my host sister took me under her wing for a trip to the mall and some outdoor events, all of which highlighted how connected the city is to the global marketplace. The mall was full of shops and restaurants that I recognized from both the US and the UK (even a Lush store, always fun from the UK!), with others from Australia and elsewhere. We went by a concert, sponsored by Fanta, where a popular singer from Italy and his group performed in English, Kazakh and Russian (often all in one song). We attended a motorcycle-horse show, sponsored by Red Bull, featuring impressive airborne acrobatics by the cyclists and impressive horse-riding skills by a group in traditional (well, traditional-inspired) Kazakh outfits. They even combined the two, as one of the horsemen rode straddling two horses as a motorcyclist drove between them.

As the creative approach of these performances suggests, my impression, at least, is that globalization is less a matter of imitation than of incorporation – a chance to try different things and experiment with new ideas. Perhaps this experimentation springs from necessity rather than leisure. A lovely lady who started her own curtain-making business in western Kazakhstan (in a setting where demand is high as oil workers cycle through) perceptively traced her entrepreneurial skills to earlier experience helping with her mother’s improvised businesses in the years just after everything collapsed. Still, it is striking that such challenges are met with entrepreneurship, rather than with inertia. From the small tramcar café that rides through Almaty twice every evening, providing a quirky and classy (if occasionally lurching) dining experience, to the lady who runs a sort of bespoke fairy-tale book business (personalized to star the child or friend of your choice, in English, Russian and Kazakh), the sense of inventiveness and possibility is palpable.

This dynamic creativity is reflected in the linguistic context as well. In our Kazakh class itself, we speak mainly Kazakh, of course, but explanations are conducted in an improvised mix of Russian, German, and English that always keeps things lively. Conversations on the street and discussions at home similarly involve a whirlpool of languages, which often adds a dimension of camaraderie to even the most mundane conversations.  Even at the karaoke bar with my host mother (where my attempt to contribute an Abba song left much to be desired), the group moved between beautiful Kazakh songs and soulful Russian ballads, pop music in English and whatever language is used in Shakira’s “Waka Waka”, with wholehearted enjoyment.

It is an exciting and colorful environment in which to learn.

Rebekah Ramsay is studying Kazakh in Almaty, Kazakhstan (summer 2012).