Friday, 15 October 2010
A Letter from Kazakhstan.
I need not have concerned myself too much with Olga and Vladimir, although it is useful to have a few, a very few, phrases and polite greetings.
Valentina the Cleaner came yesterday, and we needed no formal phrases. She had picked me some apples from her garden, demonstrating ably how she had reached up and picked them....'This one? Niet! This one? Ah yes, this one is good for the Mama. Tak, tak, tak.'
In return I presented her with a pot of Gentleman's Relish.......'Put it on bread, small, small, little thin.......' . My son has no toaster. I mime putting bread under the grill.
'Ah ha!' says Valentina. 'X Factor!'
Valentina irons my son's shirts most beautifully. She mops and polishes the tiled floors. She talks to me, and I tell her I can't understand a thing she says, but indicate that I am full of admiration for the quality of her work.
She admires the quality of my son.
She says he is very, very bolshoi (big), which is true. Valentina indicates that big mothers make big sons. She looks me up and down and we agree that I am bolshoi, too. (But not as bolshoi in some dimensions as Valentina.)
Valentina polishes the furniture, the ceramic hob, the worktops. She arranges coasters in a star pattern on the table. She stands back to admire the results. She checks the chandeliers. There is no dust.
I sense disappointment. I think she would like more sparkle, more glitz, more of the razzmattazz that rich folk can buy downtown. Stuff like gilded indoor fountains, bear-skin rugs, fancy whips with a deer's leg as the handle.
Nice stuff. The top floor of TsUM (the Harrods of Almaty) is full of temptation.
Before she left Valentina came and sat with me for a while. We chatted in Russian and English with an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides.
Then she began to sing. The volume increased until the chandeliers rattled. She threw back her head and let rip.
'X Factor!' she said again, and I realised that she may be over-estimating my power and influence back in the UK.
But when Simon Cowell comes to Kazakhstan Valentina should be right at the front of the queue.
Today I sit here, in my son's spotless apartment, overlooking snow-capped mountains.
I can hear children playing in the school playground next door. The shouts and squeals and laughter of children at play creates an atmosphere that is universal. I think I can understand what they are shouting and squealing about, whether it is in Russian or Kazakh or English (but it certainly won't be in English).
These children look cleaner and more formal than many I see in England. They are smartly dressed. Their school shirts are blindingly white and their blazers well-brushed.
When the whistle blows and the children are summoned back inside I can hear the band practice from the military academy just up the road.
I can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
Multi faith, multi ethnic. Full of trees and fountains and sparkling mountain air.
This is a beautiful place.