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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Ashley Sherwood, International Russian Translator

 В Ташкенте прошли соревнования по конному спорту

My Russian is terrible.  I've given up hope that I will ever be anything approaching good at Russian, but I still study it because it's so painful to be so bad after so many years of studying.  At this point I can speak like a two year-old.  I understand a lot of what is being said (although sometimes I get completely lost, holding on to a few understood words like a drowning man to a passing log), but when I open my mouth everything is in the wrong case or tense or aspect.  People understand the gist of what I'm saying, but I sound ridiculous.

Last Friday, my horseback riding teacher asked if I could translate for her.  She has a horse that has problems and she had heard that there was a vet in town who might be able to give her some more advice than the local vets have been able to offer.  The only problem was that he didn't speak Russian and she doesn't speak English.

The club next door to where we ride held a four day FEI jumping tournament this past week with riders from all over the former Soviet Union and a few other nations also.  As part of the tournament, an FEI vet came in to certify the horses before the competition to make sure that they were all sound and wouldn't get injured while competing.

So after our lessons, we headed over to the club to consult with the vet.  When we got there, everything was in full swing with riders, horses, spectators, officials, and support staff everywhere.  The girls were in absolute heaven (the boys got left in the car).  We eventually made our way to the vet, who was at a table in the VIP section with several other FEI officials.  When we were introduced, he mentioned that he was Iranian.

It's always a little sticky running into Iranians when we are overseas because of the weird official relations between the two countries.  I've always found Iranians to be very kind and hospitable people, but there's always a weird understanding that on some level hanging out with them is not exactly all the way okay.  This was the same, as nobody said anything, but everyone stiffened ever so slightly when it came out that I was married to an American diplomat.  

But nobody was there to talk or care about politics, we were there to talk about lame horses and I was there to translate what he had to say in English (not his first language) to Russian (not anything even close to my first language).  Everyone at the table spoke some level of English, but it wasn't anyone's first language but my own.  I had to wonder why anyone hadn't thought of using Google translate (which has a talk-to-text translation feature) to solve their problem, but that's not what had happened.  Instead they had me.

I was able to explain the horse's problem (Russian-English translation is okay for me) and then stumble terribly through an explanation to my teacher of what to do (English-Russian translation is a different story altogether).  At one point a young lady at the table jumped in to help with the Russian-speaking end and I really had to wonder why I was there.  But then when I heard her Russian translation, I realized that her English comprehension wasn't that great and maybe I was useful after all.  

At one point in the whole endeavor, I had a little laugh at the completely ridiculous situation I had gotten myself into.  As diplomats, we get a free ticket into a class of society that everyone local had to use money to gain entrance into.  In places like Uzbekistan, that class is very aware of their status and what it means.  So there's a sense not really belonging in those places all of the way because really we're just regular people doing a government job, but still being part of that class anyway because of who we represent.  But that sense has faded over time, and now I feel pretty comfortable in those situations.  

So I was sitting at the VIP table with event officials who, at one time, I would have seen as Important People, but now I realize are people who are simply normal people doing their job like my husband is a normal person doing his job that includes attending meetings with foreign ministers and presidents' daughters.  They all understood one half of the conversation that I was having with an Iranian veterinarian, but none of them understood the other half of the conversation that was being stumbled through by the wife of an American diplomat dressed in sweaty riding gear.  My riding teacher understood nothing the vet said, and the Uzbek young lady understood half of what he said.  I understood everything the vet said, most of what the young lady said, most of what the riding teacher said, but explained everything to my teacher with hand gestures and terribly bad grammar.  Meanwhile the Uzbek military was coming in with bayonetted AK-47s to do a military half time show while the ladies in Uzbek costume were getting ready to hand out prizes to the winners of the 130 cm class that had just finished.  Most of the time my life is normal and makes sense.  And sometimes it goes a little sideways.

In the end, I was able to get the important information across, I small-talked with the vet about LA, living in Milan, and hopes for seeing each other again at another competition (because of course I attend these things in between schooling seven children and running a household), and then I left, having done the job I came to do.

I was able to peel the girls away from the horses and got back to my car so that I could get home and relieve my housekeeper who was waiting for my return.  As I got closer, I realized that yes, those were both my sons standing on the roof while a concerned Uzbek police man was watching to make sure they didn't fall off and die in a random back alley.  I herded them back inside the car, went home, and then resumed my normal non-translator-at-international-jumping-competitions job where I tell children to do their homework and break up fights.  Just another day of a homeschooling mom in Central Asia!

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Uzbekistan Saturday Fail

 There's a new park outside of town that I've been eying for months.  I'm always a sucker for parks.  It's not like one park is materially different from another - all parks are essentially the same combination of trees, grass, paths, benches, and maybe a playground.  But somehow I always think that a new one will offer a different combination that will make my park experience significantly better from all of my previous ones. 

We've seen it while heading out of town go up and play in the mountains, and we've watched the construction as the months have passed.  This park, New Uzbekistan Park, looks to have the same combination of trees, path, grass, benches, as all the other parks.  But still, I've wanted to go and see it every time we drive past it.  I know, logically, that it will be almost the same as any other park, but emotionally it still feels like this one might possibly be better as a result of some mysterious combination of elements that can't be defined.  

We first tried to go and check it out in late February.  The weather had warmed up for a brief False Spring, a short string of seventy-degree days that lures everyone into thinking that it won't be long before flip-flops and shorts will be a permanent feature in their wardrobe.  It also tricks the newcomers into turning their heating systems off much too early and then suffering through the inevitable cold and rainy March with a snowstorm or two that always follows False Spring.  We've been in the region long enough to recognize False Spring for what it is and no longer are taken in by its counterfeit promises.  

Brandon had heard reports from a co-worker who had been a few weeks earlier that the park was quite nice - and more importantly - had a good playground.  A good playground is key to a good park.  It keeps the children entertained so Brandon and I can enjoy the weather and scenery without having to break up fights or ignore complaints of boredom.  

We decided to make a picnic of it and bring lunch.  It would be a perfect outing after being cooped up inside all winter.  But after we drove up, parked, all piled out of the car, and strolled up to the gates ready for a good time, the surly guard informed us that it was closed.  Looking through the fence at the sunlit lawns of perfectly green grass just a few feet away, we were crushed.  Brandon asked the guard why, and he tersely replied, "Repairs."  We couldn't figure out why a brand new park needed repairs, but there was no getting around the guard.  Deflated, we went home and ate our 'picnic' at the kitchen table.

The next time I tried was with a friend.  It was a Sunday a week or two later, and we decided to take a walk and enjoy the weather and have some time to talk.  I told her about the new park and we drove out together, figuring that surely a few weeks was enough to finish the 'repairs.'  Sadly, it was once again closed.  Having already driven out, we just decided to take a walk around the park, figuring that we were next to the lovely view and it would be close enough.  It was a nice enough time anyway because honestly we were mostly there for the talking.

Real spring finally arrived this week.  March this year was especially cold and rainy, with three weeks straight of cold, cloudy, rainy weather.  Our rain gauge, otherwise known as the empty pool, showed that we got at least six inches of rain over that three weeks.  Everyone was excited to get out of the house to enjoy some nice spring weather this Saturday.  We planned to go hiking with friends, but ended up delaying the hike for a few weeks.

Still needing something to do, we decided to go to the park.  Our friends had passed it over Navruz holiday and reported that it was definitely open.  There were throngs of people and everyone was enjoying all of the grass, paths, trees, and benches that have been empty for so long.  When we drove up to the parking lot, the gates were open and people were hanging around outside them.  

Having done this a few times before, Brandon left us in the car (getting everyone in and out is quite the exercise) and went to see if it was really open this time.  He asked the people and they assured him that yes, the park was open.  Everyone joyfully tumbled out of the car, happy at the thought of exploring a new park and a new playground.  

Sophia and Kathleen started talking about what games they could play together, Eleanor was already imagining herself as a wild horse galloping through the grass, and William wanted to know if there would be swings.  I was anticipating finally getting to see this new park that had been beckoning me for so long.  The grass was perfectly green, the sky was perfectly blue, and we had friends to be with.  Who could ask for anything more on such a beautiful day?  

We swarmed the entrance, happily looking forward to a perfect morning at the park.  We made it to the gates that opened up to a beautiful vista and manicured greenery.  But standing in our way was another surly guard, foreboding in his black jacket, black pants, and authoritarian black cap.  I've never seen a guard at a park in the US, but it seems that here parks are a natural resource that needs to be preciously hoarded, guarded carefully against people who would want to actually use them.  

"You can't go in," he told us with a frown.  Everyone stopped, frozen in their tracks from dismay.  How could it be possible?  We were just told that it was open.  It certainly looked open.  People were inside.  Why couldn't we go in?  "It's closed," he curtly informed us.  "Repairs."

How was it possible, Brandon wanted the guard to tell him, that it was closed when it had just been open for the Navruz holiday?  Why were there people inside right now?  When was it going to ever actually be open?  "It's closed," he told us again, not answering any of our questions, "Repairs."  Maybe those were the only words he actually knew in Russian, so he was stuck repeating himself like a recording anytime crazy foreigners who actually wanted to go in the park asked him long and increasingly irritated questions.  

We considered swarming him as a mass and seeing what he would do.  After all, there were nine of us and only one of him.  Maybe if we waved our diplomatic IDs while rushing the gate, we could claim diplomatic immunity to park closures and surly guards.  We could claim that we were there on behalf of the US government to inspect the park and have the children test the playground equipment for US safety standards.  Joseph suggested we could scale the fence and skip the guard altogether.

In the end, we just retreated the car, frustrated with our repeated failures.  Everyone sadly piled into the car while wistfully looking through the fence at the park, just out of our reach.  Once again, the lovely, new, shiny, unknown park had eluded us and we were relegated to going to a park that we already knew, one that held no allure of something novel to see on a perfect spring Saturday.  One that was nice enough, but not the one we wanted.

I suppose that sometimes we get lulled into a sense of normality here in Tashkent.  We have grocery delivery and mostly consistent internet service and somewhat decent restaurants and the open ditches on the sides of the roads are even getting curbs put up to guard the unaware driver from dropping a tire in them.  Things here mostly work and life isn't that bad.  But it's good to be reminded every now and then that we're still living in Uzbekistan, the place where things can stop working at any time with no warning.  Because it's when you forget and start expecting them to work all the time that you get set up for serious disappointment.  So thanks, Tashkent, for reminding me that I'm still in Central Asia.  I certainly wouldn't want to forget it!