PAUL BENJAMIN: Writer, Editor, Supermodel

Everything is New Again

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to my new lifestyle. Not only is there a whole city, country, region to explore, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of routine. Maybe in a year or so, going to embassy events and such will be old hat. Probably it will be. For now, however, it’s all brand new and exciting.

 

A few weeks ago, I attended my first official social function at the embassy. It was no big deal for the locals, just another Friday happy hour at the Marine House. For me, it was as new as the relaunched DC Universe. By that I mean even the familiar things were a little bit different. Nobody was wearing tights nor were Batman and Catwoman going at it.

 

The Marine House is the building on embassy grounds where the men from the Marine security detachment live. The front room is an open social hall with a pool table, foozball table, TV and gaming console, plus a fully-stocked bar. I don’t know how stocked the bar is on a day-to-day basis. I imagine the booze is locked up most of the time. However, when they open the bar for Friday happy hour, there’s a wide variety of alcohol, wine, and even a handful of Russian beers on tap. Proceeds from the bar (and from the pizza the Marines’ cook makes for happy hour) go towards the Marine Ball fund to make that annual, formal event one of the biggest social engagements of the year.

 

When I heard a cowbell ringing, I spun around in search of Christopher Walken (if you didn’t get that joke, search YouTube for “Christopher Walken” +”SNL”+ +”More Cowbell.” You can thank me later).  It turns out there’s a big wheel on the wall ala Wheel of Fortune. You ring the bell and spin the wheel, putting your fate in the hands of the party gods. If the wheel lands on “Free Drink” then the gods have smiled on you. However, you may end up buying the bartender a drink, paying double for your next drink, or drinking a beer (mandatory) and buying one for a friend as well.

 

After the party had gotten off to a strong start, the ambassador arrived. Ambassador Krol is a warm, friendly guy and is very good at making everyone feel important. In D&D terms, he’s got at least an 18 Diplomacy. The room quieted down as Ambassador Krol first thanked all the Foreign Service Nationals in whose honor the happy hour was being thrown. FSNs are the local staff who stay in their jobs long after the American officers move to their next assignement (every two or three years). The FSNs provide knowledge, continuity, and local contacts to the American embassy staff and are an invaluable part of the mission. The ambassador then moved on to thank one of the American officers as he prepares to for his next post. The outgoing officer is one of the embassy favorites and I can see why. He’s a super nice guy who’s good at his job and extremely personable. The local staff thanked him for his service with an Uzbeki dagger (a beautiful, curved blade of polished steel that would fit right in on the set of Game of Thrones) and hand-made traditional garb. Here’s a photo with the officer’s face blurred out for security purposes since I haven’t had a chance to get his permission to post the picture. As you can see, he’s wearing the local hat, robe, and kerchief belt with his new knife at his side. The back of the robe was specially embroidered with the name of the team for which he played college basketball.

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The ambassador also thanked the embassy’s football (soccer) teams (one is an FSN team and the other is a team of American officers) and congratulated the FSN security team on their second place win in the local embassy community’s recent football tournament. Apparently they were beaten out by their arch-rivals, the FSN security team from the Israeli embassy in Tashkent.

 

The day after our first Friday happy hour, Lisa and I went on an excursion to explore our new city. We decided to take the metro (my first time, Lisa’s second) to a restaurant for lunch, then to one of the city’s many bazaars so we could compare it to our neighborhood bazaar.

 

First, a word on the streets in Tashkent. Should you ever visit this fine city, do be careful to watch your step. The gutters alongside the road are deep fissures cut out of the concrete. Long ago, i’ve heard, these gutters were covered by metal grates. However, over the years the grates have mostly been taken and sold as scrap metal. As a result, you need to be ready to hop over these mini-chasms at any time. Woe unto you’re ever accidentally zapped by Rick Moranis’ shrink ray. You’ll never make it across the street!!

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Also, street construction isn’t always obvious or marked. In the U.S., I’d expect a few orange cones around this hole carved into the road. Here’s it’s just business as usual.

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That said, don’t think for a minute that all the infrastructure in Tashkent is neglected. The metro systems in New York and Washington DC could learn a lot from Tashkent’s gorgeous stations. Though it’s illegal to take pictures of the metro for security reasons, the Internet has plenty of photos available. I’m using those here since I need to save up my diplomatic immunity for whenever I  go up against Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

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As you can see, the metro stations are filled with stunning mosiacs and marble surfaces. The metro cars, while not particularly fancy, are clean and comfortable. I don’t know what they’re like at rush hour, but on a weekend afternoon they were never full and we always had a seat.

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Lunch was at Tahkent’s Irish pub, eponymously named “The Irish Pub.” This is a favorite hang out for Westerners and expats in Tashkent. One of its chief draws for us that day was the free wifi since Internet at our house was down. Turns out we’d used all of our daytime bandwidth for the month. We’ve since hooked up an unlimited plan via DSL and while it’s too slow for streaming, it’s excellent for day to day usage and lets me download and upload art pages without a problem. I even use it to Skype with family, for business meetings, and to play D&D with my friends in Austin!

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While the menu items in The Irish Pub are not exactly what you’d get at an Irish pub in the U.S., they’re not that much different. There’s the usual pub food like fish & chips as well as generic Western dishes like fajitas or a ham & cheese sandwich. I tried the steak with mushroom sauce and found it wonderfully tasty. I washed it down with a Bamburg (Russian beer) on tap. Even if the food is not 100% authentic (mind you, I’m comparing it to American Irish pub fare which is, I imagine, already one step removed from actual pubs in Ireland), the clientele is exactly what you’d expect in any good Irish pub. Here’s a group of fans bellying up to the bar to watch the latest football match.

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Next came the bazaar. Like the others I’ve visited in Tashkent, the bazaar is a large, open air market much like the farmers markets in America. Here they are generally covered in some fashion, protecting shoppers and retailers alike from the harsh, Uzbeki sun. At the bazaar, one can find a wide variety of fresh fruits and veggies. Imported items like bananas are relatively expensive but most are comparable or less costly than in the U.S. Of course, you have to wash them with a bleach solution to be safe due to use of traditional farming methods here (i.e. lots of fertilzer on the crops), but they are fresh and delicious.

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Here you can see the green, semi-transparent roof that spreads over the bazaar. I should also mention that people will call out to you to sample their wares as you pass by, often saying “brother” or “sister” (in Russian) to get your attention.

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There’s also a wide variety of grains and beans available in the bazaars. In this one, we were excited to find black beans for the first time in Tashkent. Those will be gracing our dinner table soon.

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One of the coolest features in this bazaar is a row of vendors selling honey. The honey is ladled into glass jars from these big, metal drums, each one featuring a label that indicates the region and flowers of the honey’s origin. This honey is pricier than a generic bottle one might find in an American grocery store, but less expensive than a similar artisan honey one would get at an upscale grocery store like Whole Foods or Central Market. The vendors also give tastes of their products. You can definitely taste the difference between one honey and another!

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In search of something (besides raw honey) to sate my ever-ravenous sweet tooth, we popped into one of the tiny shops flanking the bazaar. This one was full of cookies in all varieties. They sell cookies in this fashion at many bazaars and it’s fun to pick out different ones. I took home a kilo of tea cookies. They lasted me a week, which tells me I really need to cut down on my cookie consumption.

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Laden with groceries and on our way back to the metro, we passed this aptly named, upscale fashion store. It’s nice to see a bit of blunt honesty on the part of retailers for change!

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Remember that new, unlimited Internet plan I mentioned a few paragraphs back? For some reason, we just couldn’t get it to play nice with our Apple Airport wifi device. After asking around the embassy, we got a recommendation from one of the staff drivers, a local FSN, on the specific wifi device one of our fellow diplomats is using for the same Internet service. Armed with a brand name and serial number, I headed to the local electronics bazaar with my driver, Victor. Take a look at the  two photos below and you’ll see a strip mall lining either side of a street, full of shops with brand names blazoned over each small storefront. In the states, you’d expect that the store with the Samsung sign over it is a store selling Samsung products while the LG store sells only LG. I was excited to spot even an Apple logo over one shop.

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However, here in Tashkent, things are a little bit different. The logos indicate that you can probably find those kinds of products here, but each store sells a variety of items, all from different retailers. The logos over the doors are irrelevant to the contents of the shop. Most stores had a cell phone counter near the front and then a variety of different products. You might have to go into several storefronts, but eventually you could find just about any electronic device you wanted, from laptops to routers to televisions to hairdryers or kitchen appliances.

 

After searching four or five shops, Victor and I found one with my specific router in stock. I let Victor do the talking since my Russian isn’t game ready yet when it comes to buying electronics. The guy at the counter across from the one with the router was able to tell us the price (114,000 soum, which is around $65 U.S.) . However, he wasn’t able to sell us the router. The guy who could sell it was out at lunch. Obviously, in the states, when a store is open, you can generally buy the goods there. You don’t have to wait for someone to finish their meal. I don’t know why this guy knew the price but couldn’t make a sale. My guess is that each counter was operated independently, kind of like when you want to buy comics in artists’ alley at a comic book convention and the person at one table might have nothing to do with their neighbor.

 

Victor and I moved on. Ten stores later, we found another router. This one was more expensive and the salesman was out to lunch as well. We went another five or six shops down (to the end of the shops) and found a third router. This one was even more expensive at 176,000 soum (over $100). It had been a while now, so we walked back to the first shop where we’d found the device and the retailer was back from lunch. We bought it and considered it a bargain. I later discovered that I could have bought the same device on Amazon for around $45 – $50. However, then we would have been without wireless for 3 to 4 weeks. It was easily worth the additional $20 to have wifi now, since my iPad and Lisa’s Nook were far less useful without it.

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On that same day, I went with Victor to a bookstore that he thought might carry American comic books in Russian. I figure learning Russian would be more fun with an issue of Spider-Man or the like. Though the store did not have any comics, they did have a Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. The cover for this one jumped out at me since it features a familiar scene from a book I’d just finished a few days earlier. Sure enough, I recognized the author’s name as George Martin. I couldn’t translate the title since I don’t have the vocubulary, but Victor confirmed for me that it says, A Feast For Crows. I didn’t buy the book, as something with the complexity and length of a George R.R. Martin book is not the ideal choice for cutting my teeth in Russian. However, hopefully after two years I’ll be capable of reading this or its like! Now to do some writing work so that i can take a lunch break and finish reading A Dance of Dragons!

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