Feb 262011

Tomb near Chong-Alai, Kyrgyzstan

Here’s a delightful essay, a character study, a study in cross-cultural (mis)communication, and a travel story by Renee Giovarelli. Some of you may have read her “What it’s like living here” piece published earlier on NC, also set in Kyrgyzstan, where Renee often travels for her work. 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. 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.


The Real McCoy

By Renee Giovarelli

When I arrived in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan at that time, and three hours by car from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, my final destination, Sergei Sergeivich Kuzmin stood pressed against the glass window watching me come into customs.   Hundreds of people, also searching the deplaning passengers for the first signs that their loved ones had arrived safely, stood behind him.  He was a master at pushing himself and me to the front of any crowd.  Seeing him, I relaxed.


Sergei had been flying into Central Asia from Moscow to interpret for me for five years, ever since I first started working in Kyrgyzstan, which he called Kyrgyzia, the name of the territory when it was part of the Soviet Union and not an independent country.  Broad and short with a large belly and a Charlie Brown head, he brushed his thinning white hair straight back so that his forehead and bushy eyebrows were prominently featured, as was his sizable nose and enormous smile.  Over the past five years, Sergei and I had established a routine, which seldom varied.  Actually, Sergei established the routine and I complied.  I let Sergei guide me around and take charge of everything on my first trip to Kyrgyzstan, the first country stamped in my passport, and it had been impossible to wrestle any control back since.

But this was going to be our last trip–I had to fire him.

It used to be that every country in the former Soviet Union smelled the same when you stepped off the plane—a faint odor of sewage mixed with cooked cabbage and chilled sweat, and clothes that had been worn for several days but don’t exactly smell yet of body odor, burning leaves and dried cow dung.  For me, the differentiation of the Soviet republics was first signaled by the change in smells in the air at night.

On this, my fifteenth trip, it was cool at three in the morning but would soon be hot enough for a sleeveless silk blouse.  I filed out of the plane behind the oil men and World Bank consultants, in front of the missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers–not fitting in with either crowd. I wasn’t a middle-aged male in a white shirt and not an eager, young zealot with a backpack either, but somewhere between the two and slightly disdainful of both.

Market Day in the Jailoo (Kyrgyz word for pastures)

We marched down the steps of the plane, into an old, too-small shuttle bus, were driven around the airplane to the end of what looked like a giant empty parking lot, back past the plane, and were deposited at the terminal, fifty meters from the plane we had just left.  Stepping off the bus, we faced eight doors, all but one locked, the whole busload of us pushing to get through to stand in a lump at passport control.  Even though I had done this many times before, I felt a little anxious and bereft as I watched the crew walk crisply past all of us and out of passport control, signaling the beginning of my time as a foreigner.

Once through customs, I walked directly into a mob of men grabbing at my bag and quietly saying, “taxi?”  Surrounded by unfamiliar faces for only a second, Sergei quickly took my arm, kissed me on the cheek, and led me out of the airport, back into the cool night.  It smelled of wood smoke from a samovar and burning dried manure.

“Hello my dear,” Sergei said in his Russian-British accent, “How was your flight?  Micha the Turk is over here.”

He led me across the dark parking lot, holding my arm with one hand to steer me away from the enormous pot holes and pulling my suitcase with the other, to the Soviet Lada, a small square white car where Micha was sleeping.  He tapped on the driver’s window. Micha jumped out of the car and opened the trunk, nodding at me.

I settled into the back seat of the car and Sergei took the passenger seat in front.  It was about 3:00 a.m. by then, and after flying for more than 24 hours, I could barely sit still.

Sergei turned around in his seat and said, “Do you mind, my dear, if we do a few cards?  I don’t have many this trip, we’re almost done.”

The “cards” were strips of paper with a Russian idiom at the top and a blank space at the bottom for the English translation.  Sergei was writing a dictionary of Russian and English idioms, his life’s work, and he badgered me and my other colleagues into helping him.  He carried his cards with him in his fishing vest, which he wore everywhere. It was perfect for organizing–one pocket for Russian idioms not yet discussed with a native English speaker, one pocket for Russian idioms that had been translated by an English speaker, but not satisfactorily, one pocket for Russian idioms without an English equivalent, and one pocket for cards that were finished—a perfect English match for the Russian idiom.

“Ok, but just a few. I’m tired Sergei,” I said.

He started the cards with, “In Russian we have a saying, zahvahreet’ kahshoo, it means to make trouble.  What do you say in English?”

“Same thing.”

“Really? Ok.”  He paused.  “Nothing else? Think.”

Sergei hated exact translations and did not easily accept them.

I thought. “Nope, that’s all I’ve got.”

He wrote it down.

“Let me know if you think of something else,” he said. “ I’ll ask you again when you’re not so tired.”

He put the card behind the others and started again.

“In Russian we have a saying, Vasika slooshayaet, da, yest.  It means to listen but not heed advice.  It should be a rhyme.  Can I say The cat listened to advice but didn’t think twice?”

“No.  We don’t say that.”

“No?”  He was disappointed.  “Ok, what is your rhyme?”

“We don’t have a rhyme like that, I don’t think.  I can’t think of one.”

“Of course you have a rhyme,” he said with great impatience.  “Ok, let’s try another one, and we’ll come back to this one.”  He placed that card into a separate pocket.  “Leonard is very good at these,” he said.

Leonard was a colleague of mine who also worked with Sergei.  I rolled my eyes in the back seat.  I knew both of those cards would reappear throughout the trip.  He would ask me to write to my friends in Seattle to see if they could do better.

He started again.  “In Russian we have a saying, kak bez ruk, and it means, like without hands.  Helpless, yeah?”

“Something that means helpless. …We would say Like a fish  out of water!” I leaned forward a bit, wanting approval.

“Ok.” He wrote it down but I knew it wasn’t what he wanted.  “You keep thinking.  It’s not quite right.”

He tried one last time, “Like you don’t have hands.”

“I don’t know Sergei,” I said. “ I’m tired.”

He shuffled his strips of paper, wet his finger, and picked out the next card.

“Ok, one more.  In Russian we have a saying, razgovor po doosham, and it means talk like souls.”

“Heart to heart talk?”

“Yes, yes, that’s it.”

I had pleased him, so he put his cards away.

Woman village leader

Our ritual was to do a few of these before every meal, while waiting to be served, and after every meal while waiting for the check.  We would do them while driving to and from appointments.  If we hadn’t done enough one day, Sergei would formally invite me to his room for a drink after dinner, and then, he would pull out his cards.

One of Sergei’s many annoying habits was that he labored to use his idioms in translation, often muddling any sense of what was said.

In the middle of our meeting with the Minister of Agriculture,  he said “They want to get this law to Parliament soon.  I think you would say, ‘to strike while the metal is warm.’ Yes?”

He winked at me.

“Strike while the iron is hot.”  I said smiling, but irritated.

“Strike while the iron is hot, yes, oh yes, that’s good,” he said, pausing to pat his fishing vest for a small notebook he kept for just such occasions.

Sergei taught me that we carry our world around with us, not just our family history and our language, but the food we grew up eating, the things we’ve seen and have not seen, the people we know and their beliefs.  We cannot see the world, feel the world, taste the world except as this person who previously saw, felt, or tasted other worlds.  Sergei brought Moscow to Bishkek—Moscow sat in the car with us, walked down the street with us, and went to the market. Moscow talked to the babushkas cleaning the streets, to the Turkish driver, to the Kyrgyz farmers, to the “high-level” officials.  The floor ladies knew they were talking to Moscow when they talked to Sergei, but they did not know who they were talking to when they spoke to me, and that made them shy or accusatory, depending on the floor lady.  I thought for too long that the only thing that mattered was whether my interpreter had good language skills.  But, this trip to Kyrgyzstan was to be my last with Sergei the Muscovite, because Moscow wasn’t as welcome in Kyrgyzstan as it had been in the past, and I didn’t know how to tell him.

Typical Kyrgyz meal for guests

“You know Sergei’s former KGB, don’t you?” my ex-pat friend, Howard, asked me soon after I met him at a meeting of lawyers in Kyrgyzstan.  Howard’s mother called him “Harvard” as a boy, and he had, in fact, through the magic of a mother’s pressure, graduated from Harvard.

“Why do you think he’s KGB?”

“Because he’s an old Russian man who spent his life traveling around the world to English speaking countries with Soviet scientists.  Do you think they let just anyone do that?”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said without conviction.  “Of course he would have been a party member, but he couldn’t have been KGB.”

“Reneeishka, you are so naïve!  Of course, he’s a spy.  Otherwise, there’s no way he would have been allowed to travel.  All English interpreters were spies.”

I believed Howard purely on the grounds that he knew more than I did about every topic we ever discussed, but I hated thinking of Sergei as KGB.  The uneasy feeling about continuing to use Sergei, which had grown over the past two years, suddenly became clear.  Using a Russian KGB as an interpreter in a country occupied by Russia for most of the past century but now an independent country with a completely separate language, could not continue.  My work in Kyrgyzstan had been requiring more research in distant villages, and Sergei’s lack of knowledge of the Kyrgyz language was a problem outside of the capital.  In Bishkek, the language of choice was still Russian, but in the rural areas, only Kyrgyz was spoken now.  Also, his hearing was failing. When he couldn’t hear, he blamed the speaker. When he couldn’t understand a Kyrgyz person, it was their accent and lack of formal education.  But Sergei depended on these trips to supplement his meager pension, and knowing it would hurt him emotionally and financially, I tried to ignore his failings.

“When you work for me, you can’t use him,” Howard had said the last time I was in Kyrgyzstan.

My grant to work in Kyrgyzstan was ending, and Howard agreed to continue to fund my work with the Kyrgyz Government under his project.

“I know it’s hard, Reneeishka, but you have to let him go.  There are other good interpreters here now.  Use me as an excuse.”

Howard looked at me and added, “I should talk. I have a cook who comes three times a week, and she’s so awful I throw her food away without even tasting it.  But, I can’t fire her.  Still, you can’t bring him here when you work for me.”

After that conversation,  I had only this trip before the grant ended. I had to talk to him.  On the plane over I negotiated with myself.  I considered just not calling him again, justifying this by telling myself that he was only a contractor, that I didn’t have any work for him, and it was not my obligation to have work for him.  I reluctantly dismissed that as cowardly.  I considered asking my organization to pay for him and his travel to Bishkek, an acknowledgement for all of his work for us over the years.  But I knew I couldn’t use him anymore,  no matter who would pay for his services.  I comforted myself with the knowledge that his dictionary was almost finished, that he would publish it and earn money that way.  But he had been counting on it being published solely on the basis of a letter he had received more than eight years before from someone at Random House.  “I’m going to enclose the letter with the manuscript and my photo,” he told me on our last trip together.

Young shepherd moving his sheep to a new pasture

“What if they don’t buy it?” I asked.

“The letter says they’re interested, and this is the best English—Russian dictionary of idioms in the world.  Of course, they’ll publish it.”

“But what if they don’t?  The person who wrote to you may not be there or maybe the best books don’t always get published.”

“Then I’ll publish with a Russian press.  I have friends there.  But they don’t pay anything.”

I knew I had worried him.

“We’ll see,” he said with little enthusiasm.

My final plan as I stepped off the plane was to drop hints about coming back to Kyrgyzstan without him during the two weeks we spent together, and then, after sewing the seeds, on the last night I would tell him that I could no longer use him.  I promised myself to be honest at all costs and to tell him sooner if he asked me directly about plans for our next trip.

The first morning at breakfast, , Sergei asked, “When will we be coming next time?  I have to plan.”

“Do you have other work?”  Dear God, please, I thought.

“No, no.  I only work for you now, my dear.  I may need to go to New York to talk to the editors.  I want to send them my book in about a month.”

“You have other work,” I said rather desperately.  I had been counting on my colleagues using him for their work in other former Soviet countries.  “Roy still comes to Moscow, doesn’t he?  And Robert is working in the Ukraine?”

“It’s much less than it used to be, much less.  Robert uses his own interpreter in the Ukraine now.  He disappoints me.  And Roy and Leonard rarely come anymore.  The Russian government is too slow with their reforms.”

Still, I couldn’t tell him.

“I don’t know when the next time will be.  I’ll tell you when I know.”  The first lie was out.

“Ok, let’s eat,” he said.

For two weeks, Sergei blamed me for mistakes he made in translation because he couldn’t hear,  shouted What? This is impossible! whenever the spell-check found a misspelled word in a written translation he had done, and complained about the Kyrgyz officials’ accent and the very poor Russian language skills of these Orientals.

Still I couldn’t tell him.

Finally, near the end of the trip, during one of our final dinners I couldn’t take the stress of not telling  him.

I said simply, “Sergei, I’m going to work for Howard now and USAID won’t pay to fly you here from Moscow, so I have to use a local interpreter.”

He cocked his head.

“You too,” he said with resignation.  “I didn’t expect this from you.”

“Sergei, I’m sorry,” I said, but nothing could make it better.

The next few days we did not do anymore cards, and we did not talk at meals.  I tried several times to start a conversation, but Sergei responded with short, sullen answers.  I told Sergei I would see him in Russia, and I was sorry not to be able to use him, and that he was the best interpreter in the world, to which he responded, “I know.”

On my last night he said, “I’m going to have you go with the driver—I won’t come to the airport this time.  I told the Turk what to do, and he’ll stay until you get through customs.”

About a year later, I brought a Kyrgyz official to Washington D.C. to speak at a World Bank conference, and because of a delayed flight out of Kyrgyzstan, he missed his connecting plane in Moscow.  When I arrived at the airport in D.C. to pick him up, he wasn’t there.  I called Aeroflot and learned that my official was still in Moscow, but they could not tell me where.  They told me he would be on the next plane to D.C., which would be in two days, missing the conference altogether.  Not knowing what to do and having no money to purchase another ticket, the Kyrgyz official dutifully went to an assigned hotel to wait for those two days.

For reasons I do not understand, Aeroflot assigns their waiting passengers a number and a name of a hotel, which might be anywhere in the city.  The passenger registers under the number not his name, and Aeroflot insists they do not keep track of which passengers have which numbers.  Thus, my Kyrgyz official was at an unknown hotel registered under an unknown number, and I had no way to reach him to tell him I purchased another ticket for him.

So, in the middle of the night Moscow time, I called Sergei Sergeivitch.

I apologized profusely for waking him up, and I told him I was only calling him because I didn’t know what else to do.  I was so nervous I spoke too fast and had to repeat my story over and over until he finally understood.  “Ok,” he said.  “Call me back in fifteen minutes.”

“Wait, Sergei, are there certain hotels Aeroflot uses?  Do you even know where to start?”

“No, he could be anywhere.”

“How are you going to find him?” I nearly yelled in exasperation.

“Call me in fifteen  minutes,” he said.

I called Sergei fifteen minutes later and he announced that he had found the official, talked to him, and arranged for him to get back to the airport to pick up his new ticket and fly out of Moscow.

“How did you find him?” I asked incredulously.

“Just anything for my dear–even the ear-ring from my ear,” Sergei repeated his favorite fake idiom.

“Really, Sergei, tell me, how did you find him?”

“I am, how do you say in English?  The Real McCoy,” he said, and hung up.

—Renee Giovarelli

(Post design by Mahtem Shiferraw)

  7 Responses to “The Real McCoy: Essay — Renee Giovarelli”

  1. Renee, you do the best work in the world, on the ground, and on the page (or screen).

  2. Loved this Renee. Thank you for taking me along on your amazing travels.

  3. This essay is fabulous, nuanced, and hilarious. I’m so attached to Sergei; fantastic development of him as a character along with the environs and in brief time! Such a tight and entertaining piece of writing! Thanks for posting!

  4. Hello Renee,

    Not many essays pull me in to finish it to the end, as this one had. What a writing style.

    I feel as if I had known Sergei Sergeyevich and you for a while.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Wonderful pictures, wonderful read, Renee.

    Vasika slooshayaet, da, yest.

    I have a new motto.

  6. Wonderful read! Thank you Renee.

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