I realize that expat life sounds exotic. In America, [almost] anything foreign is exotic, exciting. But actual life as an expat is pretty, well, everyday.
Friday we dined with a co-worker and his young family in an over-stuffed Kyrgyz restaurant serving up sumptuous savory shashlik in a warm tomb of leather sofas and gilded walls before heading back to their flat for tea. Short walk in a warm night. Early spring smells of black dirt and young grass. Once at home their three year old bounded around and showed us every toy in her possession between grabbing spoonfuls of sugar and little chocolate buttons, and I practiced my Turkish with the co-worker’s Kyrgyz wife (despite all that grammar practice, or perhaps because of it, Russian is gone. Mostly).
Saturday broke grey and brooding. Our plans for the park were dashed; the mountains would be colder. Instead we spent a slow morning at home, making breakfast, reading news. After a late, late breakfast we drove over to the tiny plant bazaar packed between warehouses stacked with sacks of flour and 5 kg bags of pasta, in the extended, messy pazar boulevard stretching south from Osh. We parked across from the kitten bazaar, and picked our way through the dusty, hole-ridden sidewalks to the fresh warren of shacks covering ferns and tulips and marigolds and tomato seedlings and fir trees. Outside the city rumbled on, dust and dirt and desperation. Inside, the cool dirt, unfurling green leaves, and the faint smell of flowers. As a child my mother and I visited a flower bazaar outside our town every spring, picking up pansies and crocuses, soaking in the same smells of earth and spring promise. E wanted tomatoes. I picked out a pot of ivy for my desk. And a lemon tree. And a desert rose. We bought bags of dirt (imported from Russia) and fertilizer, hefted it all back to our car, and spent the good part of an hour clearing our balcony to create a little indoor garden.
Our cleaners – two young girls at the university, nieces of E’s secretary – looked at us askance when we showed them our potted tomato plants on Sunday morning. Balconies are for laundry and storage boxes. Tomatoes are for the farm. And no one who could afford to live in a high-rise apartment would want to track the dirt into their new home, risk ruining the gold curtains, or create a clash with the kitchen chandelier. Our last cleaner mixed laundry detergent with water in the spray bottle bought used to spritz the plants (and the cats), and used it to clean the windows. We unwittingly watered our plants, and they all died within a week (the cats, however, are fine). Our last cleaner also ate the olives and cheese from our refrigerator when we were away at work, and tied the bags up with the impossible knots common to all Turkish women. She also asked for a raise twice in one year, and then refused to do the clothes or even take out the trash unless we paid more again. So away she went. Our cleaner before that was a giant woman who smelled like sweat and crashed the vacuum against kitchen table legs until the table wobbled, who washed our whites with our darks and hid the stray-died dresses, and who never, ever cleaned in the corners. Little things from our flat went missing – a spatula, a mop – and didn’t show up even when we cleaned out to move. The day we fired her she huffed her way to our flat, flopped down on our sofa, and asked if we could pay a few weeks advance.
Our new cleaners are from the village. Sweet girls who work hard and and always try to please. But there are still some things that don’t commune between Kyrgyz village and American-Turkish urban households. Neither of them had ever used a washing machine. Every weekend I have to remind them that the bathroom is a room that actually needs to be cleaned, and we do not store cleaning supplies all over the bathroom floor. And no, they do not need to iron our underwear or the black sheets that cover our sofa, but yes, please do iron E’s shirts for work, and please, please don’t burn them.
The rest of our Sunday – E went out with his co-worker to change the tires on our car; I bought some groceries and walked over to Old Edgar where I sat on the open patio and soaked in the fresh green sunlight. We had burgers and salad for dinner, and at eight the co-worker, his wife and daughter came over dessert and tea and terrorizing the cats, who came out from hiding and flopped exhausted on the floor the moment they left. A weekend in Bishkek – not so, so different from something in the states.