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!'
Universal understanding.

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.
I applauded.
'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.

16 comments:

marigold jam said...

How wonderful! Love that photo and your description of the cleaning lady is so well crafted I can almost see her! I have often found that between women there is not a need for language at least for the day to day stuff it is only when one wants to discuss mor abstract things that the lack of language becomes a problem. Blogging is great for introducing us all to the different cultures and religions etc and maybe if we could all be more tolerant there would be less misunderstanding in the world? Enjoy the rest of your stay and let us have more news of your travels.

Jane

Relatively Retiring said...

Thank you, Marigold Jam. Yes, the context is a great support in understanding, but I would love to have basic language skills in this situation. At the same time it's a great exercise in drawing and ingenuity.

Zhoen said...

That kind of attention to detail, simple cleanliness and care in living, is comforting, reassuring.

The effort to share languages is worth so much, a few words, politenesses. Can you say "I don't speak Russian" in Russian? It's a great joke if you can get the pronunciation really good. (I can do that in Japanese, and got a Japanese anesthesiologist laughing really hard.)

Jane said...

Do you think you could smuggle her back in your luggage, I could do with her here! Glad to hear you arrived safely and are enjoying it - doesn't sound as if you need Olga at all.

Jane

Molly said...

Your description of Valentina reminds me of my mother in law who was from Ukraine. She was a teacher in her own country and spoke many languages. They fled from Stalin to Germany, where she learnrd German, and from there to Argentina where she learned Spanish. By the time they arrived in theStates she was tired of new languages so never became good at English. She made up for it by doing the things she could do with gusto. Even when she died, at 89, her house always sparkled with cleanliness! It sounds like you are having a wonderful visit with your son! That picture is beautiful! Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures.....

Molly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Relatively Retiring said...

Zhoen: nice one! I can proclaim my inability to speak Polish in Polish as well, but the trouble is that people just accept it. Could it be the accent?

Jane: I'd love to bring her home, but I don't think the Victorian ceilings could withstand the singing! The hills would certainly be alive with the sound of music.

Molly: there are so many strong matriarchs with gleaming houses across Europe and central Asia.
Despite many deprivations they go on working hard - and singing. Your mother in law sounds like of one this splendid company.

herhimnbryn said...

What a sparkling post. Thankyou 'The Mama'.

herhimnbryn said...

What a sparkling post. Thankyou 'The Mama'.

Relatively Retiring said...

HHnB: The Mama is Mama-ing away here, sewing on a few buttons, mending the odd pair of trousers and stocking the freezer with a few home comforts.
And having a wonderful time up mountains!

pohanginapete said...

I agree with the others — a wonderful depiction.

Zhoen's right about the effect of being able to say "I don't speak [whatever language you can't speak]". In the Swiss mountains in 2002, a climber abseiled down next to us after we'd also retreated; he turned to me, grinned and said something in French. I plucked up my courage and the remnants of my schoolboy French and told him sorry, I didn't speak French and asked whether he spoke English.
"Yes," he said, "actually, I do." — in perfect, almost accent-less English.
We both started laughing.

den said...

wonderfully drawn wonderful blog.
enjoy enjoy and pass on more warp and weft.

Beth said...

Wonderful - what a beautiful place. Where did you take the picture from? So glad you are having a lovely time, looking forward to you writing more about it.

Relatively Retiring said...

P.Pete: I can say that I don't speak the language in several languages and people absolutely agree with me. I can also say, 'I don't understand' and, 'Help, please!' multilingually. Very useful!

Den: thank you. Almaty is the most beautiful city I've seen, mostly because of the trees and water, and the wonderful presence of those mountains, just twenty minutes or so from the city centre.
If it was nearer to Europe it would be swarming with tourists.

Beth: that is the Central Mosque, in the city centre, so you can see how close the mountains are. There are equally beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, as well as some remarkable glass skyscrapers in the financial quarter.

leslee said...

Oh, how wonderful. Just catching up here. Sounds like a beautiful place. Thanks for taking us along on your journey. So exotic for some of us.

Isabelle said...

What an amazing place to be. I wonder if Valentina would like to come and make my house sparkle...