Civilization.

frozen skull

Never fear, faithful readers. I’m back again to share my misadventures in Kazakhstan, energized by the changing seasons, and inspired by my recent travels. (Writing, I’ve found, is like running: it doesn’t take long to fall out of practice—plus, sitting on the couch is just easier.)

The idea for this post has been spinning its wheels in my brain for some time. The seed was planted while we slipped across treacherous, ice-covered parking lots and steered Mishka past frozen piles of vomit. It grew into longing as the winter dragged on, like an itch I couldn’t scratch. One more snowstorm became one more snowstorm. (At that point, it was getting personal.) And the thought of navigating the hostile, frigid market made me want to sink further into bed.

I found myself wearily watching street sweepers sweeping a six-lane highway by hand, with brooms that looked like something stolen from a witch. Why was so much effort being wasted on something so seemingly pointless?

Then, sometime in February, I had a dream about a supermarket: the entryway was bursting with blooming perennials; the store attendants, wearing matching aprons and matching grins greeted me with a “Hello!” and a shopping cart; rustic, reclaimed wood had been used to construct all of the produce stands and display shelves; the interior was beautifully, logically organized…and then, I started crying—sobbing in fact, in such a deep way that I woke myself up. Then laid in bed in a stupor of confusion and longing for several minutes trying to decode my dramatic reaction.

And suddenly: clarity! My longing emerged from ambiguity to reveal itself as longing for civilization. Glorious civilization! Someplace clean. Someplace polite. Someplace safe, and efficient. A place that is bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, dog-friendly. Someplace green (ecologically-leaning), and green (containing parks and tree-lined streets). International. Artsy. Neighborhood-based with thoughtful, durable architecture and locally-owned businesses. Modest. Democratic. Hard-working. (Note: This is not to say that Kazakhstan is none of these things, but five solid months of winter would make anyone throw a serious temper tantrum.)

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I recently picked up Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. This exploration of small-town America was attractive to me for two reasons: because I grew up in a tiny, central-Illinois town, and because I could sense that Bryson was longing for something, too. His attempt to find the idyllic, American small town resonated with my own pursuit of civility. As Bryson travels, he compiles a list of desirable traits and highly livable towns, and many times during his travels, he almost finds what he’s looking for.

Bryson’s approach is brilliant. At first, his goal indeed appears to be finding “Amalgam,” the tidy, sunny town from his childhood memories, but the end product is, instead, a hilarious yet critical account of the people and places he discovers along the way. Bryson wasn’t looking for America’s perfect small town: he was looking for a story.

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In all it’s rudeness, crumbling infrastructure, and head-first diving into conspicuous consumption, a brilliant fellow expat pointed out to me that we’re lucky because every day something wacky happens in Kazakhstan. Today, it happened before 10:00 a.m.:

Arman is my favorite apartment security guard. He has the body of a bear, a head like a giant potato, and a full grill of gold. He is always smiling, and he speaks no English. This morning, he gave me a giant hug when he spotted me post-run. (Yes, I was sweaty.) He immediately began shouting something in Russian—each sentence louder than the one before it. Finally I understood that he was wondering where I had gone. Running? No. (People on the sidewalk were staring now.) The shouting was getting even louder. I held back a smile and tried desperately to channel my Russian instructor: past tense of “to be”…now make it feminine…the verb directs the case of the following noun…add the appropriate ending…At last I was able to communicate that I had been in America for ten days. Phew.

Which brings me, in my typically meandering way, to my recent trip to the U.S. This was my second trip to the States since Sam and I moved to Kazakhstan. While the first trip felt necessary (culture shock is a bitch), this second trip had a much different feel. I realized three significant things while I was there:

1. America isn’t as awesome as it is in my head. It’s true: absence makes the heart grow fonder. But for all the wonderful things America has to offer (bike lanes, recycling programs), it is also often overwhelming or overdone. For example, one of the grocery stores that my parents frequent is massive, but filled with so many choices (and so many sugar-filled and chemically-derived foods) that I left feeling bewildered, not blessed.

2. Rudeness, inefficiency, and filth are everywhere. Not just in Kazakhstan.

3. Almaty isn’t a prison. This was the biggest lesson I learned from going home, and one that came as a complete surprise. It was the friends and family I stayed with who helped me understand that my trip wasn’t that special—but I don’t mean this in the bratty way it sounds. My trip wasn’t special because our ties to the U.S. remain as strong as ever, and our ties to Washington, DC will last as long as our overseas assignments do. My first return to the States proved that I could leave Kazakhstan, but on this trip, that was never in doubt.

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It turns out that what I thought was “civilization” was actually just my preference. Much to my dismay (I now realize), the world is a big, dirty place. The bigness, the dirtiness, the elbowing through crowds, and shouting on noisy street corners—this is how most of the world lives. This is civilization.

The consequence of wishing my preferences, my civilization on everyone is that every place would be clean, quiet, and efficient. Every person would be like me. It would all be so easy. All of my stories would be tidy, scrubbed behind the ears, and in bed before 9:00 p.m. And if I’m honest with myself, those stories would be, well, pretty boring.

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After the snow melted, this skull (species unknown) smiled up at us each morning from the busy intersection where we park our car. Photo by Sam Kraegel. 

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