My dad gave me a sun-cycle complex. Every day I wake up and think about it being the darkest (inset number) months of the year. We’re now in the darkest two months of the year, which is evidenced by the 9 am sunrise and the sun’s slouching path across the sky. The last few days have been mostly around and below zero fareinheit, a blunt reminder of the power of nature, and what is yet to come. Running has been great, and given me an excuse to break out all of the spandex I brought. The spandex which I’ll start to fill out at different angles if I continue to accept invitations to dinners and feasts.
As a guest and foreigner, I’ve been going along with almost everything that comes my way, which includes accepting a number of invitations to be a guest at Eid (Muslim holiday) feasts. I mistakenly arrived on-time to one of my first feasts, and looked at family photos with the host before the guests arrived. As I yawned my way through the five-hundredth picture of what seemed to be the same family gathering, we came across a series of pictures of an extremely attractive Russian woman. I wasn’t sure what the connection was to the host, or to the rest of the pictures, but I only struggled minimally to avoid this diversion . So the host and I continued perusing the pictures for hidden insights on life, until the pictures became so suggestive that I decided that this type of study was probably not appropriate during a religious holiday and quickly excused myself.
The guests arrived in one’s and two’s, the women going into the dining area and the men filtering into the TV room. I was by far the youngest person in the room, and the only one who spoke no Kazakh, so I just made small conversation while watching the interactions that were taking place around me. There were intense conversations going on around me that I could vaguely understand. They seemed to be about who was the most Kazakh in spirit, and who spoke the most Kazakh at home. While this area of Kazakhstan used to be a mostly Russian region, many of the Russians have left, and like the rest of the country, Kazakh is being spoken more and more. I however, teach at a Russian-speaking school where many students only speak Russian, and that was my response to one older gentleman who was harassing me all night, demanding that I completely stop speaking Russian and begin taking Kazakh lessons from him.
When dinner was ready, we all moved into the living room and sat cross-legged around three, low, circular tables. I have no flexibility in my hips, which made the ordeal excruciatingly painful until I began to get creative with my positioning. The first course was a giant plate of Bishbarmark (the Kazakh national dish), boiled noodles and onions topped with heaping amounts of meat and a sheep’s head. After the meat was cut by two men at the table, we all began eating the meal with our fingers. I was offered a fork and plate which I declined, not wanting to be the only one not using my hands. I went to town on the meal, forgetting that there were more courses to come, and my hand may have been on the plate as it was pulled away from me.
As I sat back to let the first course digest, I noticed a man two places to my left, digging and prying at the sheep’s head with a knife. I looked on disinterestedly at first, but became more interested and horrified as I realized that the intention behind this violent action was to get at the brain itself. I turned inward, silently praying for my presence to be overlooked, but was forced back to reality when a spoonful of sheep’s brain was thrust at me. I politely declined, knowing with resignation that my disinclination to aquiese was going to be ignored. I was right, and with all twenty or so people in the room staring at me, there seemed to be only one acceptable option, so I forced a half a spoonful into my mouth. It wasn’t so much the taste that made me want to throw up (it tasted like bland cottage cheese), but the idea of it was so nauseating that even after watching everyone else eat it with relish, I still wanted to vomit. It wasn’t until my fifth cup of tea that my disposition improvedr.
I assumed our next course was tea as I brought the cup to my mouth, but when I tasted it I realized that it was the bullion from the first course mixed with a sour cheese. Not exactly what I needed to wash down sheep brain, but not too bad. Then there was a prayer, which was followed by hand washing and which I assumed marked the end of the meal. Then I was led back into the dining room to find the little tables stacked with more sweets than I could dream of. There were cakes, chocolates, dried fruits, cheese-stuffed crepes, nuts, fresh fruits, fried bread, jams, and cookies. I thought it was my duty as an guest to try everything in front of me, so I began with the cakes… Twenty minutes later I was sweating like I was in a sauna and my taut stomach ached painfully. I needed to wash all the food down with something, but tea just made me sweat more. I thought I hit pay dirt when I rolled myself to a place by the wall, but when I eased my back up against it, I realized that I was leaning over the heating pipes. I was a mess.
I finally made it out of the dining room and was cooling off with the rest of the overindulgers in the t.v. room when the hostess came in to make an announcement. I’m not sure what was said, but most of the men left and I was motioned to come back in the dining room. I walked back in with a sad step, hoping to have the willpower to resist more food. This turned out to be a non-issue because I was too full to even be tempted. Everything was going smoothly as the guests dwindled, until a younger woman sat down at the table. She immediately began questioning me in Russian, and found my answers satisfactory enough to say that she wanted private lessons with me, at night. As her policeman husband was sitting in the next room, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, and tried to turn it towards my inability to speak Russian. This worked okay, but the her attention continued all the way to her somehow getting in the car that was driving me home. It ended without incident as I continued to smile broadly and play dumb, which comes so naturally to me. However, when I finally got home, for the first time in Sergeyevka I relished being isolated and alone.