Saturday, April 30, 2011

Matthew's Кылбык

In American culture, we have certain cultural milestones along life's path that we see as highly significant. Birth, graduation from high school, first job, marriage, etc. - there are certain events or dates that we view as transitions from one phase of life to the next, and we celebrate them accordingly.

T people have these dates as well, of course, though they don't always correspond with the Western milestones due to differences in worldview and lifestyle. For example, one of the T milestones is a man's return from his mandatory service in the army, which we don't share as we don't have mandatory military service.
One of the most important life transitions is when a child turns 3 years old, at which point he/she celebrates a "кылбык," pronounced "kylbyk."

It's particularly important for a male child, as T people don't cut a boy's hair until he turns 3, because he's vulnerable to spirits and they don't want them to know that he's a boy before that. As a result, a boy's third birthday is a big occasion, and there is a hair cutting ceremony where all the male guests help to cut his hair and wish him a long and happy life.
Well, I give you that brief T culture lesson because it explains much of today's post - Matthew turned 3 on Thursday, so we had a кылбык for him. But more on that in a bit.

The Saturday before the festivities, we went for a walk down at the park, and thought we'd share some of the pictures from that trip first. The weather has turned really nice here, and we've been enjoying the time outside.

The park is a bit grim still, as the green really hasn't started to shoot up, but the boys had a great time playing on the monkey bars and spitting into the water from the bridge.

It was a day for treats, so we took the boys to the stolovaya for supper and ice cream afterwards. Don't worry, we didn't let Steven eat all this by himself!

So, the party! We had quite a few of our T friends come over for the celebration - even S came in from the village to celebrate the important occasion with us.

Normally, T people would rent out a restaurant or dance hall and have the celebration there, complete with MC, dancing, and lots of alcohol, but we didn't want to go that direction. We sort of made it a combination Western/T birthday party, although the ladies seemed to spend most of the time looking at our photo albums.

The kids, of course, had a fantastic time. There were new toys, balloons, and it took them about 5 minutes to turn the perfectly clean and organized kids' room into a disaster:

Of course, we did still have the Western-style cake with Happy Birthday song.

Matthew was very proud of his new T vest. What a self-satisfied grin!

Then we all paused for Matthew to receive his well-wishes and have his hair cut by the men.

You can see this much better illustrated in the video below, in which my friend A gives Matthew a blessing (I can't really give you a translation beyond the fact that he wishes him wisdom and wealth at some point) and then cuts a small snippet of hair. The hair is supposed to be saved; it is a symbol of the "wealth" of the child - the guarantee, as it were, of the blessings that were pronounced upon him on this day.


Bobbie thought up a genius family tradition way back on Steven's first or second birthday - to blow up enough balloons to cover the floor and hide the presents among them. That way the birthday boy gets to play in the balloons while he looks for his presents underneath them. We didn't have enough balloons to really do it well, but we did our best.

Of course, after that the party was mostly about playing with the new toys (and the calzones and taco salad!).

It was a really good time. Matthew was even given a goat (a traditional gift at the кылбык is lifestock - it's when the child starts his herd, which he will increase over his lifetime)! So, by T standards, Matthew is now the richest member of the family, being the only one with his own herd of animals. We'll have to go visit it sometime and take pictures for you (it stays out in the village with the person who gave it to us).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Just an Ordinary Day ...

When we were last in the States, I gave a series of talks on "A Day in the Life of Jesse and Bobbie." The idea was to allow people who had a general idea of what we do here to have a more specific understanding of what we do on a typical day.

The problem with this is, of course, that there aren't that many typical days. A day can be as simple as getting up and going to the office to study and coming home, or it can be as tedious as all day spent waiting in line at the bank to pay the water bill (only to find out that the lady who collects that particular bill isn't working today, so you need to go somewhere else, and then that lady only takes exact change, which you don't have, so ... and it goes on forever).

So, in that spirit, I thought I'd tell you about my interesting day yesterday.

First, it's important to the story that you know about Beast. That's the ironic nickname I gave to our coworkers' new car, seen above, largely due to its distinctively non-manly appearance. David was in a nearby (well, nearby by Siberian standards. It is a 13-hour drive, so it's not really "nearby," I suppose) city last week and bought it.

Having bought the car, he wanted to take it down to visit their mini-herd of sheep that they keep with some friends of ours out in a village. It's time for the sheep to be sheared, and David wanted to learn how T people do that. The friends who take care of the sheep said to come by some morning and we'd do it, so we jumped into Beast yesterday morning for the ride down.

Typical of T events or invitations, this one turned out to be misleading. The sheep were already out on the pasture when we arrived in mid-morning, so no shearing could occur. Since that was the whole reason we'd come, we decided to sit back and let the day take us where it would and just learn as much culture as we could while going along for the ride (this is actually an important part of culture study and a really valuable skill for those in our line of work).

We started off watching our friend S saddle his horses. Not having enough language to work out what was being said, David and I managed to understand something about a saddle that was left somewhere (we weren't at all sure why) and another brief statement about two lost cows. Saddling the horses requires catching them, so we watched S maneuver his lasso until he eventually roped the two he wanted and got them saddled up.

At this point we thought maybe we were going to ride somewhere, but no, instead two other guys left on the horses and we watched another cowboy scrape the winter coat from another horse with a stick:

Then S said that we needed to get into the Beast and go looking across the plain (possibly for the missing saddle? Or the cows? We didn't really know.).

We couldn't find whatever it was we were looking for, though, and ended up at an old Soviet "brigada," where a bunch of people used to live and farm wheat. Of course, as soon as they stopped forcing people to live there and work, everyone left, so what remains are the skeletons of a bunch of combines. Goes to show what happens when you try to effect long-term change without understanding the culture, I guess.

Anyway, we stopped and talked to the old guy who lives here with his family, and ate lunch with them. Still not sure what was being talked about, but lunch was good and everyone was nice. Then we set off with the old man with us in the car - presumably he knew something about what we were looking for?

Sure enough, he managed to take us right to where the saddle was lying on the ground. The cows were never mentioned again, so I suppose we misunderstood something. We picked up the saddle and continued back to the village.

But not before spotting this cowboy all by his lonesome in the beautiful landscape (he's the little speck beneath the trees).

Home, sweet home. Well, S's home, anyway - and the Beast was doing a fine job of making his way across the rough steppe roads, much better than I would have thought after just looking at him. I was beginning to think that the "ironic" part of his nickname might have to be dropped as he was proving himself worthy of the name full stop.

Another stop was made in the middle of the plain for S to get out and check this horse. I don't know how he saw it from 500 yards away, but there was a newborn foal lying on the ground and the mother was staying nearby. It was S's horse which he had turned out to feed a few days back and not seen since, so he was relieved to see that everything was OK with mom and baby. Not that he did anything about it; he left them out there to wander home on their own, which they did later that afternoon.

T men seem to spend a good deal of time just sort of sitting around in a group. I am still not very good at this (the way my knees are shaped I have a very hard time squatting) so mostly I stand, like the guys in this picture.

Eventually, a hunting trip was proposed. We agreed, not really having anything better to do, to go along to watch the proceedings.

The style of hunt for the day was a drive, meaning that some guys got out and waited at the edge of a forest while others drove around and deposited themselves every couple of hundred yards on the other side. Then, when everyone was ready the first guys would walk through whooping and hollering and theoretically scaring the animals out to the second group, who waited with guns ready.

When this proved unsuccessful, and the drive was completed, we packed up and moved on to another location and did it all over again. This is me during drive #2, I think.

Lo, and behold, drive #3 actually led to success! One of the hunters bagged a 7-point buck, in full velvet, so we all gathered for a portrait (except David, who was driving the car around to the spot).

What followed was a fascinating bit of culture, from the extremely interesting butchering style to the way the meat was processed, etc. Warning: the next few pictures might prove hard for Western sensibilities, so skip them if you don't want to see where your meat comes from.

The deer was hung similar to how we do in the West, but only after skinning the legs, which was done with only a small cut and the rest by sheer brute force (not even a circular cut by the hooves - you simply had to rip the hide free). The forelegs came off first, and the meat was just hung on surrounding trees while we worked, piece by piece.

We didn't use all the offal, but more of the innards were definitely saved than I've seen back in the US. The liver was particularly prized, and they sliced into it with 7 or 8 deep cuts and put it right on the coals (a small fire was started as soon as we started the butchering). In the lower right there's a small piece of backstrap that I skewered and threw on the fire just to have that as well.

Eventually there were enough coals to cover the liver completely, and it was buried in them.

Then they shook off most of the ashes and threw it onto the ground to split up. I would say it was about 80% cooked by this point, and the rawer interior was particularly prized (though not by me, it must be said).

Anyway, eventually all the meat was cut up into rough hunks and put into the car. I had thought that we were through, but the hunter who shot the deer had seen another buck run off, which couldn't be allowed. We piled into Beast, who was handling the steppe with utter aplomb, to go after it.

Alas, it was not to be. We tried another couple of drives after the escaped animal, but it proved wily enough to evade us. One would have to do. But at least I got to enjoy the spectacular beauty of T-land while they tried!

And that closed out the day. We arrived back at S's house around 9, drank some tea and headed back to the city. A long day, to be sure, but a great one!

David and I were talking about it afterward and I was marveling at the number of times people have told me "I could never do what you do." I guess we're all wired differently, because after such a fun day I can't even imagine having to go to work in an office or a bank or something for 40 hours a week, when I could be out hiking the steppe and searching for saddles and deer with my T friends instead!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Of Sandwiches and School

So, my savvy sentient scholars, seeking a substantive scoop on the situation in Siberia - here you are! And with that, I've officially exhausted my capacity for alliteration and now refuse to use another "s"-word for the duration of this post.

Well, honestly, it's not that exciting. As you may have come to expect, we continue to acquire culture and language. It's progressing, nothing too exciting but nothing too depressing either. Perhaps I'll post a thought or two on the topic of why T can frustrate at a later date. But for now, this:

One of my favorite deli items is a Reuben. Yeah, I know, it's not really that important, but I had by one manner or another come to want one about a month ago. No problem, except that to make a Reuben, you need a couple of things which aren't available here. The first of these is kraut.

No big deal, as it turns out. Cabbage is readily available, and we even managed to find ocean-sourced (no, that doesn't count as an "s"-word) chloride-containing curing chemicals here. No idea why that is available for purchase in T-land, but it is. A mere 3-week wait, and we had fresh homemade kraut, which I must comment beats the canned variety hands down (even if it is made in a bucket, which feels odd to me).

Next on the list was corned beef. It turns out that "corned" just means brined, and though this was a bit more complicated, homemade corned beef is mostly about patience. Fortunately, the timing for the beef and the kraut was about equal, meaning I could begin them both and just wait 3 weeks for them to be ready. The beef admittedly doesn't look as appetizing as it normally does, due to the absence of the ingredient which makes it reddish, but fortunately that ingredient is only used for appearance and makes no difference to the taste of the meat.

In the end, after 21 days - a Reuben! A bit too intense on the flavoring, perhaps, but when I fried up the meat a bit and tried again it was better. Certainly more effort than it's worth, but it was more about the process than the end result.

Well, while I've been engaged these last three weeks in the production of a hoagie's cousin, what have Bobbie and the boys been up to? I'm glad you asked, as I was tiring of talking about me and I'm positive you were tiring of reading it!

Well, the lovely Bobbie has been up to a few activities with our coworkers' English club, as well as giving a lecture on American culture down at the university. Her reception was good, but even better was that of the cookies Bobbie brought along to demonstrate what true American culture is about - eating junk food!

Also, Bobbie has been educating our two boys. They've been doing really well, and our oldest is actually reading pretty well (one word at a time, granted)! His linguistic progress has been a bit torpid, but he is making progress.

At least one young lad is proud of his ability to determine "little" from "big."

Of course, they've been going outside to play as well. It's been above freezing lately, meaning that everything is just beginning to melt. This is really the worst time of year to be outside; it's easier to deal with -40 than it is to walk through the mud and icy runoff. But once you've gotten to where you're going - it's glorious!

The boys have in one fashion or another (I blame their mother) gotten into the habit of waking me up by jumping on top of me. Then they always want to play the game of "cave" where they explore a cave made by me crossing my legs under the covers. There are always new and exciting things to find down by the end of the bed (dragons and bears both reside there regularly, apparently) if you have an imagination!

Future chefs. Or present chefs, I guess. I'm not really certain of the exact criterion for "chef" certification.

Our eldest giving his best Macaulay Culkin impersonation:

Anyway, I think that will do it for now. Hope you enjoy your week, and make certain you check in with us again next time!

Edit: I have added a video, because ... well, just because I can, mostly.