Friday, October 28, 2005

here be dragons

ust-orda II


thanks Sandra

almost November and still no snow. Everyone keeps talking about how mild it is. Word from our slightly unhinged language teacher is that we'll pay for this in winter. Not good news, I feel. Worse for the goats. Did I mention? We have goats.

a burnt out case

In an odd kind of way, I'm beginning to appreciate grammar. There are six cases in Russian. What this means is that a word can change its form (ending, usually) depending on its role in a sentence. Obviously, this doesn't make things easy. There are 13 different ways to say 'my'.
At first, this made me resentful. But now I'm starting to come around. When the early Russian literates sat down with empty grammar tables and a bottle of vodka, you can see what they were getting at.
Take genitive case (oh, go on). It has to do with ownership, so you know when you see a particular ending that your word is probably owned by another part of the sentence. For example, when you see 'life meaning' in Russian, you know just by the genitive ending of 'meaning' that this reads 'the meaning of life' and not something else, such as 'life has no meaning', or 'life has meaning, just as my bathroom floor has asbestos'.
In this way, you can have quite complex expressions without need for messy prepositions (the little words) or articles (the pointless little words). This seems to me a wonderful and carefully planned thing.
Four of the other cases are just as useful. Instrumental case is gratuitous.Then there are perfect and imperfect verbs, with which I can, for example, indicate that I completed this post today, not just added a bit to it. Handy. And verbs of motion, so you know in just a word whether I walked to uni or caught the bus. You see? Useful.
Why don't we have any of this in English? It seems like an oversight.

bathroom II

The toilet is back. The workmen worked two days. They put a hole in the ceiling. They ripped our pipes from the wall and filled our bath with rubble. There was nothing wrong with our pipes. On the third day they stopped. Our toilet flushed grey, but it flushed.
The brown tiles of our bathroom were somewhere under a foot of concrete and plaster dust. Bits of wire and powdery threads were dangling from the hole in our ceiling. The new pipes were rusty, probably because they had been left out in the rain. We waited a day for the mem to come back to finish.On the fifth day we went to see the kommandant, Natalya Viktorovna.
"When will they clean this up?" we said.
Natalya Viktorovna said, "Oh, you do that yourselves."
"Of course we do," we said. So that was my Saturday morning. The water ran black for a few hours but now seems to be okay. We can't dry anything on the pipes because they leave red rust stains, and the hole in our ceiling drops dust and plaster every now and again. On the upside you can pass things through the wall between the bath and our toilet.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

the water's fine

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

here, kitty

today I learned the word for a person who deals in stolen cats. It's koshatnik.

listvyanka II


consumptive, or lungs of steel? you be the judge

Sunday, October 23, 2005

zvezda irkutsk v dinamo barnaul

Thursday, October 20, 2005

our house, in the middle of our eyesore

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Sunday, October 16, 2005


This morning I went to the hospital, where Olga was out. Her fill-in doctor looked at the latest lot of lung x-rays (which I'll post some day, when computers work in Irkutsk. Yes, on that day).
And she said, "It's asthma. What you have is asthma."
"Not tuberculosis?" I said.
"Not tuberculosis," she said.
"Could you write this down?" I said.
"Of course I can," she said. "Happy to help."
Now I have a pretty certificate. It says, so far as I can make out, that I won't be interrupting classes by dabbing at my lips with a blood-spattered handkerchief
"See you again," she said.
"You know," I said. "I'd be surprised if you do."

Saturday, October 15, 2005


First they came for Joseph and Anit's bathroom, but we did not speak up because it was not our bathroom. Next they came for the Finns' bathroom. Again we said nothing, for it was not our bathroom. Then, this afternoon, there was a crash in the corridor and plaster shot out into our bath. And there was nobody left to speak for us. Word is we'll have a toilet again by Tuesday.

Friday, October 14, 2005

olkhon III

kill me

I just referenced Christine Anu

Thursday, October 13, 2005

my island home

Olkhon Island is fantastic. I’m serious, it’s a wonderful, magical place. It’s one of those places that makes you feel anything you suffer to be there is worth the trouble. ‘Take me, polyclinic’, it makes you feel. ‘I’ll sit your tests, I’ll pretend to take your drugs. Do your worst. I don’t care because, when you’re done, perhaps paralysed beneath a thousandweight of your own paperwork, I’ll be on a bus with four or five babushkas and a stack of jerry cans on the way to Olkhon.’
Kathy and I had the weekend. We stayed in Khoozhir at the Gostinitsa Baikal, run by a lovely woman named Tanya who may or may not have been shagging our bus driver. The only other guests were Sergei and Alla who were definitely on a dirty weekend, so perhaps there was something in the air.

On the Saturday we walked through the town, half empty, then set off northwards along the island. In an entire day’s walk the only other living beings were a dozen sheep skittering away down the side of a hill. Then, a few kilometers later, we met a Buryat man and his dog.
“Seen my sheep?” he said.
The lake was the chlorine blue you get in the nice bits of the Mediterranean. The trees were the kind that grow only on one side because the wind has scoured every shoot that has budded towards the sea. The land looked artificially bleak, as though turf had been laid to make the rock look presentable, but then left unwatered.
In the evenings Tanya fed us blackberry jam and sweets that tasted slightly of soap. In the winter, she said, the hotel stayed open and there was plenty of heating.
She may have been lying. There may be no winter heating. Winter may be when they reserve beds for the exclusive use of staff from the polyclinic. I don’t care. I tell you, Olkhon - as Arj Barker used to say: it’s the shiznik.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


It has been almost a month since I gave a morning and afternoon of my life to Russian medical science. You may recall that there was a stand-off, there was a blood test, and that a few days after the blood test I was to hear the results of the blood test.
The days passed.
Around a fortnight ago I turned to Kathy.
“Who knows what happened,” I said, “but I think we can put that polyclinic saga behind us.” She nodded. We opened a Siberian beer with a polar bear on the label. From the heavens there came a noise, throaty and rumbling.
“Was that the gods’ mocking laughter?” said Kathy.
“Nah, the pipes,” I said.
Next day during class there was a knock on the door. Inga, the Buryat administrator, wanted a word.
“Mattyoo,” said Inga, when we were outside. She was looking at the floor and not pronouncing her ‘th’. “Mattyoo, the polyclinic have been in touch. They would like another blood test.”
“I’m not going to go,” I said. “I gave already. What happened to the last test?”
“They don’t know about the last test,” said Inga. “Nobody seems to know. It might not have worked. Please go. For me. It’s the last time. It’s just the regulations.”
“I’m not going to go,” I said.
In the afternoon I went to see the dean, Vitaly Viktorevich (if you’re male and live in Irkutsk, you have to be called Vitaly. It’s one of the rules. Another is that you must own at least one Olympics tracksuit). Vitaly Viktorevich is 54 and a former doctor. Since May he has headed the international faculty at Irkutsk State Tech. He is human kindness with a moustache.
“Ah, Mattyoo,” said Vitaly Viktorevich. “How is your health?”
I gave the rundown.
“Asthma, hmm?” said Vitaly Viktorevich. “I have a program we started to help athletes overcome their asthma problems. They meet twice a week at the chin-up bars. Perhaps you’d like to join?”
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “But can you call the polyclinic for me? I need you to explain the situation, answer a few of their queries, put their medical minds at rest. You know, call off the dogs.”
“Consider it done,” said Vitaly Viktorevich. “Go on back to class.” Like I said, Vitaly Viktorevich: human kindness. And bristly.


Towards the end of that week, I began to get sick. It was nothing serious, just a stuffy head and a bit of mucus. Kathy and I took the Friday off and headed for Olkhon Island, six hours north on the west coast of Baikal.
On Monday after class Inga collared me in the corridor. Would I go to the polyclinic for the blood test? For her?
“Did they speak to Vitaly Viktorevich?” I said.
“Ah yes, they weren’t pleased about that. They said, ‘He is no doctor. He is an academic.’ I don’t think it’s helped things.”
During our weekend on Olkhon, I had come to realise that - the goodwill of Vitaly Viktorevich notwithstanding – I had only one realistic course of action. I knew I would return to the polyclinic and jump through their hoops. Of course, I also knew that if I gave tests while anything was actually wrong with me, I’d be diagnosed faster than you could say “but wasn’t that eradicated?”
In a moment of rashness I confided this to Inga.
“Oh, I understand,” said Inga. “There’s no sense going to the doctor until you’re healthy.”
“No?” I said.
“Oh no,” said Inga. “It’s a crazy idea.”
That Inga, I thought. Then in class we learned a dialogue that went like this:
“how are you feeling?”
“I have a headache.”
“have you been to the polyclinic?”
“no, I cannot see the doctor because I have a temperature.”
“I will go to the chemist and buy medicine.”
I need no assurance that this will be useful.


By last Wednesday the head cold had cleared and I was healthy again. In class we made it all the way to the phrase “I’m in a good mood” before the knock on the door. It was Inga again.
“Mattyoo, the polyclinic rang. If you don’t go tomorrow and give a blood test, the polyclinic will wait no longer. They will ask the university to deport you. I’m so sorry.”
I thought for a moment. Would deportation be bad? I know it sounds bad – the bent head, the weeping relatives. But what about the cameras, the spotlight, the farewell words? (“Don’t think you’ve seen the last of me. I’ve seen the inside of your hospitals. I have stories. You’re deporting a healthy man, I tell you. A healthy man!”) It’s just like with Trotsky. Everybody thinks of the ice pick. Nobody remembers the villa in Mexico.
I gave blood. The blood test was clear. They wanted a spit test.
“Do you have a sterilised glass?” they said.
“Oddly, no”, I said. Inga volunteered to boil one up at home.
“Come back tomorrow, first thing,” they said. “Don't spit at all before you get here.” I said I never knew that’s how this worked.
The next day I spat in one of Inga’s vodka glasses. The polyclinic wrapped it in plastic and took it for testing. While we waited one of the head doctors dropped in. She asked me questions. They were simple and easy to understand. She waited for my answers. She was helpful, she was patient. She was, I swear, a visiting angel from a land with a code of medical practice. She was Vitaly Viktorevich in all respects but the moustache.
After hearing my symptoms (none but for the head cold) and history of asthma (long but uneventful, like a Nikita Mikhalov movie) she wrote out a letter.
“You’re healthy,” she said. “Blood test, clear. Asthma, fine. With this you’ll be fit to study.”
I said, “Oh, that’s great. Thank you so mu...”
“...the only thing left to do,” she said, “is to get this stamped by the other hospital.”
At the other hospital they seemed surprised to see us. Olga was interrogating a man with bow legs. We waited until he sauntered out. On reflection, it may not have been a saunter.

“What?” said Olga. She’s always the charmer.
Inga said how things were. She asked for a stamp.
“We couldn’t do that,” said Olga. “We’d like to, but we couldn’t. Unfortunately the first two x-rays we took were inconclusive. We’re not satisfied that Mattyoo doesn’t have pneumonia. Or doesn’t need a lung transplant.”
From this point, Olga picked up speed and I lost all but the gist.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Can you speak slowly and use easy words?”
“No,” said Olga, glaring from behind her plastic-framed glasses. “Medical words aren’t easy.”
A few times in the gabble that followed I caught the word tuberculosis.
“Do you think I have tuberculosis?” I said.
Olga chattered on.
“No really,” I said. “Do you think I have tuberculosis? Seriously? [Russian: seriOZna]”
“It is a bad illness,” said Olga. “A very terrible thing to have.”
It seemed not to worry Olga that I am at large in Irkutsk, already having spread my plague – whatever its nature - about town and countryside for a month.
On Monday I pop in for an x-ray. It will be my third. I’ve now given blood four times, had my breathing listened to twice and forever spoiled one of Inga’s best vodka glasses. There’s no longer much hope for fast results from the new tests, or in fact for any results. The way things are going, I’ll either hear nothing until in three months a passing doctor mumbles “you had asthma, by the way” – or a few days from now Kathy and I will have a visit from the immigration police and 20 minutes to say goodbye to our friends.
The odd thing about all this is that, like Ani di Franco in her less squawky moments, I’m not angry anymore. I have bung lungs. I could have pneumonia. I may, apparently, have an illness that last did for the Bronte sisters. But I have made my peace with Russian bureaucracy. And if I can do that, Russia is my oyster. Or Mexico.

Irkutsk 0, Barnaul 1

Against the expectations of my mother, in Irkutsk there is plenty to do. On alternate Wednesdays we head to the stadium to see the local football team, Irkutsk Zvezda.
Zvezda means ‘star’ which, to judge on form, is meant in the sense of an unstable composite of wildly volatile ingredients, rather than, say, some sort of celestial beacon.
The Wednesday before last we (what? Zvezda and I go way back. Zvezda and me, me and the Zvez) hosted Dinamo Barnaul. Dinamo hail from the Altai, one of the ‘I can’t believe it’s not autonomous’ autonomous republics along the border with Kazakstan.
The first half, all went well. True, beer was banned, which kept crowd numbers to a couple of hundred and two thirds of the stadium roped off – the two thirds that caught the evening sun. Before the game Alaskan classmate Joseph and I gave an interview to the local television station ‘gorat’ (town).
“As foreigners, what do you think of this controversial ban?” they said.
“It is interesting,” we said. “Neither good nor bad. Perhaps clever, perhaps splendid. But not popular, usual, or comfortable.” We have been learning adjectives.
In the second half things deteriorated, both for us and for Zvezda. The sun went down. The temperature dropped. Other people sat on their cushions. We had no cushions. Twenty minutes from time, Dinamo’s teenaged striker worked his way into the penalty area. Our (yes?) keeper fell over. The two dozen hardcore fans under the scoreboard set off flares.
This week we’re away to Omsk. It will give me time to buy a cushion.

olkhon II

olkhon I