October 27, 2008
Bonding Day 7
As I mentioned yesterday, Aliya and her boyfriend, Jozhelen, invited me to a barbecue in the outskirts of Uralsk (the “country”). After picking up Asel at her home, the four of us went to Jozhelen’s friend’s summer home, a small bungalow with a nice garden patch. Apparently, many people in Uralsk have these summer places, where they tend vegetable gardens and enjoy the outdoors.
The home was small and consisted of a tiny outer room to put your shoes, a central room with a fireplace and table, and a corner bedroom. The house did not have electricity or a bathroom. The outhouse was down the garden path.
When we arrived at around 3 p.m., we were greeted by Jozhelen’s friends: Pasha, whose family owned the house, Anjan, Vica, Bakir, and Sergei. There would be nine of us for this afternoon repast.
A few of the guys were tending the barbecue, so the rest of us went indoors to prepare lunch. Since I was a guest, I was told to just sit and relax, even though I really wanted to help prepare the meal. Apparently, guests are not supposed to do any of the preparations.
So, I sat on the bench and watched as everyone busily chopped vegetables, placed food in dishes and cut the loaves of bread. I was handed a glass of Coke and a shot of cognac, locally made, for our future toasts. There was much banter as everyone pitched in to get everything ready. Aliya, as always, interpreted much of the conversation, and Asel helped, too. Anjan, who studied English in school, also tested his language skills. He kept apologizing for making errors, but I have to say that I was impressed. He speaks English far better than I speak Kazakh or Russian (almost zero).
Before we started our meal, Pasha made the first toast. He welcomed everyone into his family home and stressed how wonderful it was for all of these friends to be gathered together, a task that is never easy when everyone has such busy schedules. He also stressed that it was great that I could join in the festivities and welcomed me on behalf of his country and his people. Pasha made me feel right at home.
The meal was delicious and consisted of many foods: grilled pork with onions, a crepe-like roll filled with meat, pickles, tomatoes, incredible mushrooms prepared by Pasha’s Mom, fresh bread, a layered potato-fish-cucumber combination, potato salad with peas and ham, a cake/bread with a bright yellow, creamy filling, biscuits and chocolate. We also had Cola and apple juice, a very common drink here, and for our toasts we had vodka and the aforementioned cognac.
It is customary for everyone to make toasts, and every now and then one of the members of the party would stand to say a few words. Each person who spoke repeated how happy they were to meet me, how welcome I am in their homeland and that I was adding to their lives by being with them; they rejoiced in calling me friend. They also wished all my family and me good health, long life and prosperity. When Aliya spoke I had tears in my eyes. She mentioned that she is very happy to know me and that it will be a terribly sad time when I return to the States. She also emphasized that we have become friends for life, which is indeed true. When everyone stood and made a toast wishing Emilia Jeanne a long, happy and healthy life, the tears came again. My new friends were standing, drinks raised, in honor of my new little girl. My eyes are tearing up just remembering their good wishes. I couldn’t have been more moved or honored. What a blessing.
I myself made a toast to Aliya, thanking her for welcoming me so warmly to her homeland and making me feel special. I told the group that they have shown me through their kind words and actions the true beauty of the Kazakh people, and I will always remember the day. I will always have a piece of Kazakhstan in my heart, and I will teach my daughter that she comes from a country where even a stranger is a welcomed guest. Everyone cheered and clapped.
Since it was a beautiful day, we walked to the Urals River, which was a ten minute walk from the house. We strolled down muddy pathways, looking at the cabbages and other vegetation in the fields. I wanted to touch the river, so I went down to the bank and put my hand in the water. It was very cold, indeed!
Day turned into dusk. Since the house had no electricity, we lit candles. We sat at our table together as the candles and firelight cast a romantic glow, and we continued to make jokes and laugh. Everyone decided that Sergei bears a resemblance to Nicholas Cage, so everyone called him that for the day. It was silly, yet amusing.
We also shared stories about our countries. Since we were far from town, there was no noise, only the sounds of the fireplace crackling and our happy voices. We sipped tea from cups without handles, which is traditional in Kaz, and celebrated good friends and good times. When my tea got cold, Vica replaced my cup without asking. It’s important for guests to have hot tea.
This was truly an incredible experience for me. The entire time I felt so at ease with my new friends. Language was not a barrier. Delicious food, laughter, generosity of spirit, hospitality, friendship, genuine words of kindness and love – these are the memories I will always have of this day. And I will share this wonderful story with Emilia when she is old enough to understand. She should take pride in the country where she was born.
Although I was indeed tired after yesterday’s big adventure, I was right on time to meet Vladimir at 9 a.m. When I got to the baby house, I learned that Emilia had a temperature yesterday afternoon, but she did not have a temperature today. I wonder if it was the result of her teething.
Today Emilia ate all her food, but she added something new to our routine. She now likes to blow air through her lips and make funny sounds (like a Zurburt). However, unlike me, she does this with a mouth full of porridge. I couldn’t stop laughing as she blew porridge all over the place, including my hair and on my clothes. Of course, my laughter made her smile, too, so she did it again. All I can say is thank goodness for laundry.
Emilia wasn’t much in the mood to play on the floor today. She preferred being held and kissed (who wouldn’t?). According to the nurses, this morning before I arrived, Emilia didn’t want to have anything to do with her stroller. She wanted to be picked up. She’s become a cuddle bug in one week!
Tomorrow Aliya returns as my translator, and I will go back to my two-visits-per-day schedule. I am hoping that we will have nice weather again, and we can go outside for a walk. Otherwise, Emilia really doesn’t get outside for fresh air. We will have to see how cold it is and if she is feeling OK. I don’t want my little girl to get sick.
After our visit, I was so tired that I took a nap. I called home to wish my Mom a very happy birthday and had a chance to speak with my Dad, too. I usually speak to my parents every few days in NY (if not every day), and it was so good to share our news. Although I am indeed having a good trip thus far, it is no surprise that I miss my family. They – and now Emilia – are my world no matter where I am.
Tonight I had dinner with Henry, Cecile and Jasmine. I am so lucky to have these friends at the hotel with me. It always brightens my day when I walk into Atilla’s, the hotel restaurant, and they are there. I will have to get a picture of them tomorrow, so you can meet them, too.