Hot off the press check out my latest entry on the Kiva Fellows Blog:
I am sitting in the back of a ‘corporate’ inspirational speech by the CEO of the microfinance institution I am working with in Kyrgyzstan. If there was any chance of me being inspired it vanished when I learned the lecture would be in Russian…and that I would be following him to 5 such lectures in 3 days. I did get to contribute an icebreaker awareness game from my time as a leadership facilitator to this one, so I feel justified to pull out my laptop in the back and do something productive as opposed to staring in my usual ‘concerned and understanding’ look I give for long monologues in languages I do not understand.
With that rousing intro I will tell you about my experience at Anton’s the other day. I have been member of couchsurfing for a few years. It is the 21st century version of SERVAS, an organization that connects people from all over the world by setting up host/guest connections at no cost to either party. You set up a profile with your languages, interests, places you have been, etc. and each time you stay with someone they typically give you a reference as to whether you were normal enough to live with for a couple days. I have hosted in Chicago and ‘surfed’ in Bangladesh, Turkey, Japan….and now Kyrgyzstan. When I got here and was looking for an apartment I stayed with a really nice Canadian guy for a few days. Feeling my couchsurfing spirit revived, and not knowing many people here in Bishkek, I decided to try and start biweekly meetups at a bar. The first of these was the other day and I decided to host it at Anton’s. I had been told about Anton’s by that same nice Canadian guy I had couchsurfed with, Amadeus. He referred to it as the ‘bomb-shelter’ pub. I understood what he meant when I got there.
The entrance to Anton’s is near the corner of Sovietska and Gorkava, a large bustling (for Bishkek) intersection quite near my house. From there things get interesting. A bit off the corner is a metal gate enclosing a courtyard, not unlike many private courtyards adjacent to homes around the world. Once in the courtyard you head to the furthest back door on the right, which is a large, metal, unmarked door. Next to the door is a tiny doorbell, which you ring on arrival. Soon you hear rustling and a lock being opened. Anton (literally ANTON) opens the door, ushers you in from the cold, and most disconcertingly, locks the door behind you. Let me pause this vivid description to remind you that I am organizing 15-20 strangers to meet at this bar – a bar where the metal door is locked behind you. Anton guides you down several flights of decrepit stairs and a winding hallway covered in peeling paisley wallpaper to a series of smoky rooms. The furniture is on its last legs (literally, I think my chair had 2 legs left) and the décor is soviet era mountaineer chic. The beer is 75 cents a liter and they charge extra for wiping down your table (not really but Anton’s mom gives you a staredown that makes you wish they did). I was in heaven.
The event went well. A lot of people came and we had a good time. At some point, admittedly a few pints deep, I decided to order the dried fish someone was telling me about. I got Anton’s attention and in my limited Russian (greatly expanded for as I said, I was a few pints deep) asked for ‘one fish please’. He responded with a question in Russian which threw me off. Seeing my lack of comprehension a friend near me told me that he asked “which fish?” Thinking this meant which type of fish, I told my friend to tell Anton, “Whatever type you like best” my go-to response to questions I have no idea how to answer regarding food. He wasn’t satisfied so grabbed my arm and marched my up to the small bar. There, hanging above the bar on a half-dozen rusted hooks, twice smoked by the copious cigarette smoke hanging in the air, were the dried fish. Anton wanted me to tell him ‘which one’. I held back a chuckle and picked one. The process of eating these fish was no less dramatic. Apparently the Soviet traditional way to eat them is to whack one as hard as you can on the table to loosen the flesh before eating it. In the end, this part was more fun that the actual eating. They tasted like a salty cigarette, with an overpowering fishy aftertaste. I suppose if it was a vodka night at least they would cover the taste of the alcohol.
From the sound of mass synchronized clapping (CLAP…CLAP…CLAP…CLAP… whenever people clap here I feel like I am at a Bulls game) this presentation is done, so I should wrap up. All I can say is that I will be back to Anton’s, but I will not be coming for the fish.