Category Archives: good things

Thanksgiving is dissent

Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1863 in an attempt to point out the cultural unity of the nation. It’s date was fixed as the third Thursday in November in 1941 by FDR. The holiday fit neatly into the idea of the Four Freedoms campaign against the forces of fascism. The horrific news coming from Standing Rock sobers us on the national day of unity, but remember the spirit of the holiday was officially memorialized in the wake of the Gettysburg address, which promised that government of, by, and for the people “shall not perish from the Earth,” and in the wake of FDR’s promise that the spirit of American freedom, no matter how un-inclusive it was in 1941, eternally meant an oasis from fear and want and freedom of speech and religion. The origins of the holiday are relevant because irony is strong and our country is in the hands of the enemies of the likes of Lincoln and FDR, but let us try to remember who we can be this Thanksgiving.

In 2016, Thanksgiving is a holiday of dissent from fascism, slavery, and the police state. Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address that all American freedoms were one, and the 14th Amendment attempted to bring that into being. FDR waved it in the faces of the Nazis. Try to remember that Thanksgiving message. 

Native Americans saved the lives of the first European settlers in New England. Euro-Americans should return the favor this holiday. Donate: http://standingrock.org/news/standing-rock-sioux-tribe–dakota-access-pipeline-donation-fund/

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Filed under American history, good things, poster art

Women’s Work

We are moving all our belongings to the States next week. After a continuous ten years abroad, we have accumulated a rather large amount of art and other stuff. I went thorough and discarded much in the way of knick knacks and teaching materials, but ars longa, vita brevis. Some things are more important than others. I took the job at the United Arab Emirates University in 2004, long before iPhones, ebooks, and Kindle; if I was going to teach and research American history, I had to carry some core essential texts. Also, I mailed 4 large boxes to myself in Al Ain, UAE. When I took the job in Qatar, I had even more books shipped. We took extended vacations in amazing places like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Turkey, France, and Germany and picked up beautiful artwork, ceramics, and lots of old metal. Starting with 2 suitcases apiece and four boxes of books, we last moved 1200 kg. of possessions, from Turkey to Bishkek in 2011. The art collecting continued. Nonetheless, it is time to downsize. When we move abroad again, I will not to need so many books, and most of our art has not seen a wall since Qatar, so it will be happy in storage. Like a fellow bibliophile once said, moving books is like moving wet sand. We have also been moving dry sand.

Carpets, kilims, and shyrdaks make up a substantial amount of our shipping weight. Neither the Kyrgyz felted shyrdaks nor the kilims are heavy in themselves (even considering volume), but the wool carpets are difficult to lift, especially after lying on a floor for any length of time. The air in all of the places we’ve lived in the last decade has carried particulate matter: desert sand in the UAE and Qatar, pollen in Germany and France, Anatolian topsoil, and greasy miasmic coal effluvium in Kyrgyzstan. Our lungs and our floor coverings have absorbed much of this matter. The gunk that settled into our rugs just about doubled their weight. Since we are paying by the kilo for shipping to Seattle, I wanted to shed some of that international dirt. First-worlders would go out and rent a steam cleaner; I headed into the courtyard to find some place to beat my carpets.

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Beating carpets is women’s work in non-industrial societies. It makes sense. Women generally have care of the children. Carpet beating means staying in one place for an extended period of time. Since the task is communal, someone can always have her eyes on the kids. It also makes sense because the task requires physical strength and stamina and patience rather than only water buffalo killing strength. For example, the Lewis Hine photograph below shows the communal nature of doing the washing in a pre-industrial society, Tennessee in 1933 [Hine worked a month for the TVA. See Lewis Hine As Social Critic, chapter 6 for a complete analysis of the photograph]. Note the child next to the house. I say non-industrial rather than pre-industrial because Kyrgyzstan, as a former Soviet republic, is not industrialized, although it once had been. In this sense, I think of it as a Roman province, sometime around 600 CE. More on that later.

 

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I did not have a proper mattenklopper, a carpet beater, so my task was made more difficult. “Right tool for the right job,” Dad always said. I tried an aluminum cane, but parts kept falling off and it wasn’t flat (see the picture at the bottom). I had better luck with my next implement of beating, but I had to be careful using it because it also was not flat, it didn’t bend, and it was much too short. I used the billy club my grandmother stole from a policeman. He stepped into a speakeasy in the 1920s to use the loo. With my mother in tow, granny secreted the club under her dress and headed out into the street. I loved that woman. I wielded the cane like a baseball bat, which was awkward, but at least I now know how to lay down a bunt with my left hand. It was necessary to switch sides every few strokes. Otherwise my right arm might have fallen off completely. The club was easier, but it had its own drawbacks; it was too short, and I was in danger of leaving marks on some very expensive floor coverings.

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The correct implements for rug savagery.

I had absolutely no idea of the laboriousness of the task. I had difficulty lifting the sand sodden carpets over the only bars available, so Doug, my husband, came out to help me. Wow. When I started with the small carpets which I could woman-handle over my head, I actually disappeared from view. Even after living in this Soviet flat block for 3 years, people still stop and gawk when I walk through. I’m taller than most Kyrgyz men and chose to dye my very short hair fire engine red. Remarkably, the minute I started swinging at the rugs, I was no longer an object of any interest at all. I was just another woman doing the spring cleaning; the most ordinary thing in the world. However, when Doug came out to help me, you could’ve heard a chin drop (phrase stolen from Phil Vassar). Men.Do.Not.Beat.Carpets. I’m sure the men questioned my husband’s masculinity and the women thought I was completely unfeminine (by needing a man’s help lifting a 50 kilo carpet—culture, it’s a funny thing).

You know, women’s work is HARD. I pride myself on being strong and physically resilient. I spent hours with my purloined night stick pounding the sand and dirt and coal smoke out of my rugs. The Subaru parked next to my carpet beating bar ended up covered in dust, as was I. The weather here is very dry and in late May very warm. After a few hours of the most boring and difficult labor one can imagine, everything hurt and I looked like I ran a marathon. My hands were bleeding from blisters and rug burns. Still, when Doug came out to help me pound, I shooed him right back in. While I was working, several women came by to inspect my work and examine my Turkish carpets. I’ve seen these women around for three years, but none—until that day—ever acknowledged my existence. One actually spoke English to me. She assessed the (very nice) carpet and asked “How much?” Assuming she meant “How much did you pay for it?” I tried to answer in a combination of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Turkish. Glorious clucking ensued. I am not very feminine by many standards, but standing there in my shorts and Tevas, sweating and bleeding, wielding my grandmother’s stolen billy club, I was the girliest I’ve ever been.

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Everything is reused here. My beater-cane is propped against the tree, eclipsed by my wonderful neighbors.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Expat life, Feminism, good things, Kygyzstan, Lewis Hine, Women, Work

Kyrgyzstan’s Cornucopia

 

Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Yesterday, Doug and I went for a walk in the Issyk Ata gorge, about one hour’s drive from Bishkek. I had forgotten that we had just spent 16 days at sea level and that my body greatly prefers generous amounts of oxygen, so we did not get far into our hike. As always, the scenery was magnificent, the sun warm, the breeze cooling, and the company fine. Add to that cold beer at the end, and it was a near perfect day.

Giving the option of a do-over in life decisions, I would have liked to pick up a degree in botany along the way. If I hadn’t been convinced that girls cannot do math, I would have probably become a doctor rather than a lawyer. But, as I constantly remind my students, the physical sciences are indeed part of the liberal arts. I’m a sucker for plants.

One of my great loves whilst living in the US was wildflower and edible plant identification. Travelling through Nova Scotia one visit, I met a Parks Canada ranger who was from the M’icmaq people. He and I gabbed for hours over edibles and medicinals on that amazing island. We each parted with a book neither had, an exchange of like minds.

A colleague of mine, Valeri Hardin, is an encyclopedia of the natural world. If I could go hiking with him, I’m sure my brain would be overwhelmed with raw data on what one can eat and what one can cure from the natural bounty of this place. I cannot hike with Valeri, however, because he is just so damned fit. My seal level-bred oxygen needs just will not allow me to follow his mountain goat speed. Luckily, Doug will let me set the wheezing pace, so I can spend a lot of time looking at plants.

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel

So far as I can determine, there is no book published in English, French, or German to assist one in identifying wildflowers in this country of such rich flora. There is one book on medicinal plants of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (and it’s available in a Kindle version!), but even the e-book is $150. Luckily, many of the plants in the Tien Shan and Altai regions are similar to other alpine regions around the world, and I have been able to pick up some tips from Valeri and from what I see in markets.

Yesterday’s walk turned into a foraging expedition for our tea. I have a deal with Doug: when we go camping, he’s responsible for catching and cleaning the fish; I’ll do the cooking and gather the rest. If yesterday’s uniformed forage (I only eat what I’m sure I can identify) is any inclination, we’ll eat quite well.

The path lines with mint and wild sage

The path lines with mint and wild sage

On my first gasping stop, I sat down in a grove of wild sage. It has a much more delicate flavor than the European sage that Americans use for their poultry, Turks for their çay, and Brits for their pork. The first thought that leapt to mind: “pork chops wrapped in wild sage and baked in wine with a savory strawberry glaze.” Yum. As I looked around, I realized that I had stumbled (literally) into a wild herborium. I found three distinct varieties of mint and thought “mojitos!”

At this point, I was crawling through the low growth wrinkling leaves and sniffing my fingers. I can only imagine how I would have appeared to any passers-by on the trail, much like truffle-hunting boar, I suspect. Doug has the patience of a saint.

Wild oregano grew in vast patches, as did wild rosemary with its lovely lavender flowers; wild thyme grew nearby. In addition to various potherb vegetables, I stumbled upon clumps of wild garlic (no ramps alas). I managed to dig two clumps while Doug liberated ten. At that elevation, we were just on the cusp of collecting bulbs over the strongly flavored and woody stalks (great for cutting into sections and storing in olive oil). Since the tomatoes are coming in from the Fergana Valley, I decided on a foraged spaghetti fresca (molta fresca!) for our evening meal.

Doug convinced me that perhaps we had rushed into the land-without-air and should turn back before I developed cerebral edema or something. My hiking boots were getting tight from my swollen feet. I’m much happier at depth than at altitude, but I love the mountains. Slow acclimation is the key.

On the way back down, I continued to rub leaves, sniffing for essential oils, when Doug stopped and looked at a plant. He doesn’t usually do that. He usually has hunting on his mind in the outdoors. Next thing I know, he’s pulling this waist-high plant out root and stem. Only then did I see the delightful purple on the stalk. He found our dessert. Although I had seen strawberry plants, we were too high for ripe berries. But, the lowland collection had begun, and our local souk had freshly picked mountain berries by the kilo.

Our evening meal was quite delicious, finished off with a strawberry rhubarb crumble served right out of the oven. Given more time, say on a camping trip, I could have made everything from what we were able to scavenge, including flour made from dried angelica and cattail roots (very labor intensive). Olive oils and wine would be a problem, but if we camped up there, we’d have horses, so I could travel with those and other bare necessities.

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

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Filed under Expat life, good things, Gustatory Delights, Kyrgyzstan, Travel