Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deck The Gers With Boughs of Holly...?

No matter which way you look at it, spending the Holidays away from your family is rough. I mean, if you like your family. I happen to love mine, so this time has been a rather unfortunate one for me. I know being here is something I've chosen for myself but that doesn't mean that sometimes it isn't a little difficult. I'm not crying myself to sleep every night but something recently has taken up residence in the back of my mind all day, something a little mournful. Perhaps its the void of Christmas Carols being blasted in every shop, the tension one builds up when you can't yell at holiday traffic or missing the vicarious joy of seeing wee children parade around the mall in their Sunday best on the way to visit Santa. Whatever it is, the fact still remains that I do miss Christmas.

As I am not Christan, over the years I have had to ferret out the reason why I celebrate Christmas or more so why at this time I am now struck with a pang of longing to kiss the ground at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. I have thought much about this and I have realized that there were two Christmastime events my family attended every year of my childhood which profoundly shaped my views of this season. Firstly, we always went to the Gospel Christmas at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This is the most joyous thing I've ever experienced. Glamorous women in sequins and big hats and men looking dapper in suits with shiny shoes filled the audience. During the concert, they jumped to their feet, clapping and hollering in agreement with the music, their elated lack of composure belying their formal clothes. All the while, the singers on stage, ranging from venerable old women to feisty young kids, sing their hearts out in praise and love, swaying to the music in their long robes which make them look like angles. It is impossible for one's heart not to swell listening to the beautiful voices and watching the sheer joy of it all. As a child I figured that Christmas can't mean anything bad if all these people love it to the point of distraction and celebrate in such an ecstatic way. We also went to the Alliance Theater's A Christmas Carol play every year. While the whole experience was magical as a child, there was something about the Ghost of Christmas Present that really struck a chord with me. In this version, he was dreadlocked and sported a kilt, quite a contradiction of fashions, I know. But it was his jovial manner and his bagpipe that really did it. Whenever he encountered a bickering couple or angry man on the street, he would blow a tune into his bagpipe and snow would fall from the sky. Then the grumpy people, touched by his benevolence via song, would be instantly lifted to smile and wish others a merry Christmas. I must confess, the story of The Christmas Carol has touched me greatly for some reason. I like it's lesson of redemption and love and the boy Ignorance and the girl Want have haunted me, perhaps part of the reason why I volunteer so much with kids. But at any rate, these two Holiday events have made me view Christmas with then lens that it isn't about presents, throwing elbows at the mall or even the birth of Jesus, but rather my homespun philosophy is that it's about joy, love and taking time to really appreciate our fellow man. (Cheesy, I know, but never the less...)

My most lasting and wonderful memories of Christmas are the trips I've take with my family during the Holidays. Wandering through snow dusted Christmas markets, laughing until my belly ached in cozy restaurants while being eyeballed suspiciously by sober Europeans, gazing around overwhelming museums and ornate palaces and even squabbling with my dear Sister over the exact location of "the line" between our separate sides of the tiny beds we always share- they're all what defines Christmas for me: family and love.
This year isn't really that desolate- I will celebrate with my friends in UB (I've promised my Grandmother a Christmas morning Bloody Mary in her honor!) and this isn't the first time I've spent this month in a foreign country. But last time I was in England, holed up on the second floor of Starbucks, laughing with friends over gingerbread lattes and watching the people of Norwich do their Christmas shopping. The Holiday spirit was in the air there, where as here it took some very precious Holiday Greeting cards from friends and family to remind me of the season. But that's the thing- I know that my friends and family love me and think of me just as much as I them. This year I'll spend Christmas with my new friends, surly laughing just as hard as I have before during this season. And, in true Holiday spirit, I know I'll see the crowded and polluted capitol through the rose and green colored glass of the season. It will be a new and different sort of Christmas, not without it's own excitements, but one when I will certainly carry gospel singers, the sound of bagpipes and loved ones close to my heart.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Wee Delimma

Reading an abridged Last of the Mahicans in class on Friday we came across the word "praise". I asked the class if they knew what that word meant and one of my smartest, sweetest students raised her hand. She said "yes, teacher, it means Heil, like Heil Hitler, right?". I didn't quite know how to react to this in front of the whole class so I told her that was sort of right but not entirely and proceeded to explain the word. This was not the first rather strange thing that this particular student had said about Hitler. She told me once that she would invite him to her dinner party and had, on a separate occasion, asked me to show her how to look him up in the World Book. So after last week's comment, I have decided to have a little Come to Jesus meeting with her about der Fuhrer. But I am not quite sure how to handle it. I have had ideas that range from showing her clips from Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," which is rather graphic but certainly would get the point across, to just sitting down with her and talking through it, although I think I need a visual to help show her what it was like. I don't want to scare or depress her and she is still young, 15 years old. But then again at 15 I had been pretty well educated about the basics of Hitler's reign of terror and in my book making comments about the badass-ness of Hitler is never really cool. So what to do? If she knows a little about the subject, is the entitled or even obligated to understand the whole thing, from extermination camps to the Nazi baby factories? That does seem a little extreme. But still I want her to know what she is talking about; she need to understand the weight and scale that name carries, especially to Westerners. She is one of my most motivated and promising students and if anyone is to study abroad, it will be her. I really don't want her rolling into America, England or Russia (all places that people here go to study) saying things like "Hitler was very powerful man, I want to make him Mongolian traditional foods". So today I think I will ask her to stay after class, tell me everything she knows about Adolph and then take it from there. Hopefully she will understand.

Creeping Towards Normal

There was a big volleyball tournament on Saturday morning at the local sports palace. It was scheduled for 10am but I figured that nothing here starts on time so an 11 o'clock arrival would suffice. I rolled in with a couple friends to watch the games, only to find the space all but empty. We hung out and chatted for about an hour, fielding wild gestures and unintelligible comments from the ancient Mongolian man sitting next to us, while people blearily filed into the gym. The tournament gained momentum and finally people were actually playing, rather viciously, too. Sitting there, joking with friends in the morning sun that streamed through the skylights and watching the volleyball game, I felt strangely normal. I wondered how many people around the world on that day would be sitting on bleachers somewhere, their hands wrapped around travel mugs just as mine where, cheering on their friends or family. It felt like such a natural thing to do. I sat there for a while just marinading in how predictable it all felt and how strange it was to feel completely comfortable, something that hasn't occurred in many months. This feeling took me by surprise and though it didn't last too long (shortly after, I went to the indoor market which always has bizarre and wonderful things for sale- discovery of the day: Asian pears- so amazing!) it's nice to know that it happened.

In other news of the normal, I had dinner at a Mongolian friend's house tonight. She is the most sophisticated woman I've met here thus far and we spent hours talking and laughing. She laid out an amazing spread of potato salad, rice with vegetables and cheese, a spiced meat stir fry, fruit and goldfish crackers with tea, juice and coffee on a low table.  Three of us (another Peace Corps Volunteer was there, too) sat on the floor, soaking up the warmth from a heating pad under the rug. Over food and wine that spilled into coffee with Bailey's and chocolate we talked about everything from traveling to teaching and from boys to boob jobs. It was so nice to get to know a new friend on a real level, not just have awkward small talk (a thing that I do daily here). I feel like I have a real friend in this woman; she even called me 'sister'. Getting to know people isn't really anything crazy unusual back home but this is pretty exciting here because for me building relationships is the most special part of my job. I suppose making friends and having a wider circle of people to share life with is something that I consider to be normal. It is also something I haven't been able to do genuinely with many locals yet, so this is a wonderful step. Somehow my life is crawling towards steady after months of new and strange experiences.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Good Morning, Mongolia!

Every monring I wake up thankful for several things in particular: my apartment with running water, health and happiness and the fact that I don't have to be at work until 10. Some of the other Hovd Volunteers drag themselves to school around 7...not me! I get to roll in around 10:05is after morning coffee, a little pilates, washing dishes and sometimes Skype. But when I finally make it to work one of the most interesting parts of my day begins. I always teach in the afternoon but the hours between 10 and 12 are filled with random activities that change almost daily- one of the perks of working here is that there's always a new morning crises or task. It wasn't always this way, in the time of Swine Flu, not so very long ago, the library was closed and parents were too paraniod to let their kids out of their hasha (the mud wall around the family compound). So even though no one came to the American Center all morning, I still had to go hold down the fort. On those mornings, I would hunker down in my comfy chair with my back to the sun and flip through the library's poetry anthologies. One of the greatest women I've known is Mrs. Kathleen McMannus, a Georgria Shakepeare Festival staple at whose knee I spent hours learning the ins and outs of Shakespeare. She taught me that the best way to read Shakespeare's cannon by just opening to any page and delving in. Now it's the only way I've ever been able to read poetry. So on those cold mornings, with my down coat slung over my lap, I paged though volumes upon volumes of random poetry books, bathing in the words. I like being busy again but there's a part of me that misses the peace of those mornings. Now that life has sort of gotten back to normal, I have been tutoring the Director of the Library in English for an hour in the mornings. Joined by my counterpart (who, I think, just wants to bask in his presnce and giggle coyly at his English butchering), we started from scratch. Today he bursted into the room with "Hi!Hello!Howareyou?What'sup?I'mfine!Thankyou!", a rather exciting development. Apparently all that work has been paying off. I have also begun tutoring a young Mongolian woman about my age. She is very sweet and doesn't speak a single word of English. I agreed to her request because so many people ask me for lessons, I say yes and then they never come. I figured this would be the same. But so far she's shown up, even on time to boot, and up to now we've worked on the English sounds. Before, I never really realized what a cruel joke the "th" sound is (as in there) or how difficult "rrrr" (as in are) can be. Bless her heart she keeps showing up, even though I can see that she concentrates so hard it visibly pains her when she tries to pronounce some of the English words. But as long as she keeps coming, I'll keep teaching. There's also always a random assortment of things in the mornings that pop up- editing friends papers (yesterday someone brought in one about otter migration), making tests for library hiring, trekking to the post office to retrieve a new and thrilling package, last minute lesson planning, catching up on my People magazine reading, teaching the tots who live in the ger behind the library the finer points of Playdough, etc...So when 12 comes around and I go for my lunch break, it's almost like I've had a full day already, even though I have the luxury of getting to work at 10am.