Here’s a lovely, exotic What it’s like living here essay from Renee Giovarelli who graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. For an earlier essay on Kyrgyzstan see “Fermented Milk” in New Letters. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize. Renee is one of those students I’ll always regret not having had the privilege of working with.
What it’s like living here
from Renee Giovarelli in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
I don’t notice what it’s like living here when I’m here. I sit down to write about place, and I only recall conversations.
I’m at a small wooden blue built-in table in someone else’s apartment kitchen. The kitchen is small but bright, full of the high-desert sun. Sitting here, writing, with no kids, no husband, no groceries to buy, bills to pay, dogs to feed and walk, bird cages to clean, I am a different person. I will only live in this apartment for three weeks. But while I’m here, I will work, I will write, and I will spend time with friends. I will not juggle anything else—only those three things.
When I come to Bishkek to work, I live in someone else’s apartment—never the same apartment, it depends on who, in the network of friends and relatives of my co-workers, needs the money. This time I’m on the fifth floor of a Soviet-style building, which could be any building in the city—no elevators, uneven stairs, the smell of cooking mutton in the stairwell.
For these three weeks, the owner and her family have moved in with a relative in the same complex–one building over. There are three buildings, all five stories high, all facing a common yard. The yard is dirt with a swing-set and a few benches.
“It’s not going to be that clean,” Zina says. “They’re Kyrgyz.”
Zina’s Kyrgyz but she calls herself a marginal. She blames the uncleanliness on the Kyrgyz’ nomadic ways. Zina is my interpreter and friend. She found this apartment for me. The apartment belongs to someone she knows, but the connection is never made clear. I will pay forty dollars a night to stay here, and after three weeks, the owner will have enough money to take care of her large extended family for months. The owner will owe Zina a favor—the Kyrgyz accounting system Zina calls it.
Sameness is the hallmark of Soviet housing. Like in this apartment, all apartment doors open into a narrow hall, never a room. The hall has hooks for coats, a bench for sitting on to take shoes off—no shoes inside—and an old-fashioned black dial-up phone on a small built-in shelf. In this apartment, the kitchen is to the right, the living room further down the hall.
There’s a knock at the door, which does not surprise me because a steady stream of visitors comes to the thick wood and metal door of the apartment. Every day the babushka who cleans the stairwell comes with her filthy, black rag to ask for payment for her work. She’s thin; her hair is dyed orange and is wild, desperate to get off her head. Her face is tired. Someone from the electric company will come by later, when I’m not home, to collect money for the electric bill. The guy from the electric company posted the bill on the door yesterday. The Kyrgyz, like the Soviets, are not efficient. Efficiency eliminates jobs. People must work to live. It’s a philosophy I respect although it’s maddening too.
I peer out of the peep hole. It’s an older Kyrgyz woman, definitely not the cleaning lady. I open the door. She starts speaking in Russian trying to push her way into the apartment.
“Ya ni ponimayu.” I say. I don’t understand.
“Gavarite, par Ruski?”
A little. That’s enough. She starts speaking again, but slower.
I think she says she’s come for the couch, but that can’t be right.
“Chas.” I say. Wait one minute.
I call Zina. “Can you talk to her?” I hand the phone to the woman.
They speak rapidly in Kyrgyz. She’s wearing a long colorful housedress typical of rural women. Her hair, covered by a colorful scarf, signals she is married. She must have moved to the city only a short time ago.
She hands me the phone so I can hear the translation. She looks at me intently. Waiting.
Zina laughs. “She wants the couch. She says there’s no couch in the apartment where she’s staying, so she wants her couch. Her son will come later today to get it. I told her people won’t stay at her apartment if she doesn’t have a couch, but she insists there’s only one of you, and there are 10 of them.”
“Hard to argue,” I say.
I nod at the woman, and satisfied, she leaves. When her son comes to take the couch, he takes the lamp as well. The living room now has a single chair and an old television. I will watch the Americans begin bombing Iraq on that television. It’s March, 2003.
The Kyrgyz are Muslim, although they have established their own rules—like vodka drinking is ok as are multiple wives. The best of both worlds. They are sorry about our 9/11 but unmoved by it. The number of dead does not impress them. They have lived through their own Afghan war; they have lived through Stalin. The invasion of Iraq seems forced to them—an excuse to kill Muslims. It would not surprise my Kyrgyz friends if Bush made up the whole Osama Bin Laden story. Such a lie is within their experience of government.
The morning after the bombing started, I am awakened by the sun. Alone in my double bed, I think of Isabella, my daughter, going to bed on the other side of the world. She seems so far away, the daughter of the other Renee.
I look forward to the day in spite of the war and the homesickness. I never wake up in Bishkek dreading the day, and I feel guilty about this—guilty that my life is laced with dread in Seattle, guilty that I have two lives, guilty that I am not a person who can’t bear to leave her 6-year old daughter at home. I tell myself that it’s good for her to have time with just her father—that this strengthens their relationship. I tell myself that children all over the world live in large extended families and don’t necessarily spend all their time with their mothers. I tell myself that it’s good for Isabella to have a strong mother who likes her work. I am afraid I’m wrong.
Should I call David? I don’t want to call him. Our phone conversations are tense. His tone, tired and overwhelmed, annoys me. It’s dark where he is and light here. Even though I know it’s hard to be a single parent, I am angry with him for his feelings, and I hate myself for my anger. It’s better not to call.
Zina phones from downstairs. She’s picking me up to go to the market. I dress quickly, brush my teeth, lock the three locks on the door and run down five flights of stairs. When I run out of the door at the bottom into the common yard of the apartment complex, I am face to face with a sheep, hung from the clothes line, his throat slit, bleeding out. I let out a short scream. Zina laughs. She tells me one of my neighbors died. His body lies in the yurt in the yard, and his relatives will come and see him for the next three days. The yurt abuts the swing set. The sheep is bleeding onto the dirt. There’s an open fire, heating a large pot where the sheep will be boiled whole. People are criss-crossing the yard—some are heading to the yurt; others are on their way to work. Life and death mix well here. The dividing line is faint.
I’m suddenly homesick for my other life. I want to buy my meat in cellophane packages, cut into family size pieces. I want funerals to occur in funeral homes; I want cooking to happen in kitchens and not in public yards.
I tell Zina I forgot something and run back upstairs to my apartment. I shut and lock the door. I sit at the little blue table and call David.
“I just wanted to say good-night. How was your day?”
“Long,” he says. “But Bella is asleep finally.” His voice is tired. He has nothing left to give me, but I’m not annoyed this time.
“Zina is waiting for me. I have to go. I love you.”
“Just come home baby, I miss you.” he says gently.