13 Jan

It was the middle of December when, while attending one of the needlessly long staff meetings, I stroked my chin in what I hoped was a thoughtful manner. Suddenly, the tips of my fingers connected with something that, by any standards, was not supposed to be there. I traced the invader all the way to its end. It was so long I could use a curling iron on it if I were so inclined. How did that happen that I let this one lonely hair grow to such a length, unnoticed? I pondered while giving it another thoughtful tug. Sometimes we are mysteries to ourselves. Any normal woman would use the first opportunity to pluck it. I guess I am far from normal because three days later the hair was still there. The meetings were getting longer and more frequent and I took to stroking it and curling it with my finger to calm myself.

 Spontaneity is endearing if you decide to start dancing in the public square because the music is so compelling. You are going to be the only one embarrassed when the music stops. However, when it comes to casting, what seems like spontaneous decisions that involve over a hundred people becomes a hindrance. Maybe a bit of planning would be a good thing, went through my head as I listened to my students telling me that the Christmas concert was postponed ‘til January. How typical, I thought. Some higher-up comes up with a half-baked idea and, even though time is not working in our favor, we the teachers and our poor students are expected to do our best. We had never had a Christmas concert in the past but, for whatever reason, this year we were told to prepare some performances that would impress the parents. “You realize we only have four days to do this,” I pointed out to our VP, while thoughtfully stroking my chin hair. “And just out of curiosity … they didn’t know this, say, two weeks ago? So we could actually plan something?” I could not resist digging in. “Yes, I know. It’s crazy. It was not my idea.” That was a typical response. 

Zoe - our VP, the tiger without any teeth, always acknowledges what we the teachers say but doesn’t do anything about it. She can’t. We realize that she has very little power to change anything, but sometimes it’s nice to just vent. I adopted Grade 6 for this haphazardly planned event, gave them a script of a very simplified version of the Christmas Carol story, and we started to practice at least once every day. Which would give us a whopping four practices before the concert was to take place. On Friday morning, the day of the concert, my students told me that the concert was moved to the first week of January after they come back from their break. Obviously, someone realized that having only four days to prepare for an event that involved not just the students and the teachers, but the parents as well, was a bit unrealistic even by Uzbek standards. We, the teachers, never received any message from the Admin letting us know about this rather drastic change of dates. In fact, we were not even officially notified of the event itself! “Thank goodness we have our students to keep us in the picture,” I told Dave. “Yep, never a dull moment around here,” he acknowledged with a smile. Yes, it’s critical to maintain a sense of humor in this rather fluid environment, went through my mind for the hundredth time.

With the dreaded concert safely tucked away till January there was nothing but some ever present grading to be completed before we all called it a break. “Oh NO! We can’t call it a break. We, the teachers don’t get any.”

“Actually, they are getting better. We got a four-day weekend,” Dave corrected me when I started whining again about the pitiful lack of holidays. “Yes, and we will enjoy every minute of it.” The planned enjoyment began with a leisurely breakfast on the Christmas Eve Day. 

After certain number of years of marital bliss an inevitable predictability sets in. Instead of an excitement of sharing a breakfast in bed with your loved one you start carefully planning whose turn it is to take the kids to school and who is feeding the family on that day. That could involve a lot of talking because negotiations are usually verbal. When that stage of life is over and the kids are no longer any concern you may find yourselves sharing a breakfast quietly. There’s nothing wrong with peace and quiet but, after a while a while, it may get too heavy. That is where technology is a big help. “So what’s on the news today?” Dave asked as he whipped out his trusted tablet. I sipped my coffee and looked up expectantly knowing that no answer to his rhetorical question was needed. Sometimes he uses what I call a real news and provides us with a daily dose of horrors across the world. But often he goes to a site that is full of ‘news items,’ such as ‘20 facts about famous people that will surprise you’. Recently he regaled us with the surprising fact that many people visit an ER due to injuries suffered during an episode of ‘wrap rage.’ “Did you say ‘wrap’ as in wrapping a package?” was my reaction. “Yes. Wrap Rage,” he repeated. “That is hilarious. It is so me.” “Yes, I know,” he chuckled. I thought back to my last wrap rage just a few days earlier. It is funny that such a small thing as how the seller ties a knot of a plastic bag with your purchase could make a big difference to you. Every time this happens, I am reminded that I am no longer in Kansas, and clapping my heels is no help. Uzbeks just tie knots differently. I recall the scene easily and feel the inner heat rising. I stand in my tiny kitchen trying to untie what should have been an easy knot. But it’s not going well. Yet again, I had watched the seller, oh so carefully, as she expertly took one corner of the bag and somehow whipped it around and, voila, it was tied. When I tried to reverse the process, it did not work. I attempted to gently pry from the top of the bag to discern how the corners were twisted, but to no avail. I tried again. Nothing. It even seemed to be getting more tangled. After a while, I savagely ripped the bag from the side, spilling the tangerines all over the counter. “Another knot conquered,” I commented to Dave, who watched me from a safe distance with some amusement. 

We have been over-indulging in the tiny, unbelievably sweet mandarin oranges for more than a month! The same thing happened last year. The orange manna appear at the beginning of December, lasting for two months, and then just tapers off. Every time we go shopping we bring a big bag of them home, and it only lasts a couple of days. I have been personally known to eat eight of them in one sitting. Oh, but they are so small, I excuse my own gluttony. “Are you planning to go to the Bazaar?” Dave interrupted my musings. 

“Yes, I already told you.” 

“Ok, ok. Don’t forget to buy more of the mandarins.” 

“Yes, it’s on my list. And I already told you that too,” I sighed. Is he even listening to me, or does he listen and promptly forgets? I wondered yet again. 

Unlike in the West, where New Year is typically welcomed in with a party, the Uzbeks celebrate New Year with their families. Everything public is closed on the 31st of December; all restaurants and all bars, which could be a very unpleasant surprise to an ignorant traveler. The bazaar is always busy but, during the holidays, if possible, it becomes even busier as everyone is preparing for the big families getting together. 

The spirit of community still seems to be strong here. People seem to be more attuned to their surroundings, which includes the needs of their fellow citizens. Whereas, in the West, if an altercation happens in public many people prefer videotaping it as opposed to stepping up and helping. This point was brough home while I was browsing in the bazaar. Even though Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, the Christmas decorations are everywhere. I had just circled the tall Christmas tree and passed yet another large poster of a jolly looking Santa when I noticed four guys arguing over something. Tempers flared and, within a few seconds, they were at each other throats. Just as quickly three men, who were tending their fruit stalls nearby, stepped in and physically separated the brawlers. It really pleased me to see that prompt reaction. So what if the brawlers were just ten years old! 

Christmas Day began with a disconcerting experience. I was in that state where reality and dreams become enmeshed. I woke up with a start and hugely distressed. How could I have forgotten? What kind of a person am I? What kind of a terrible daughter am I? The guilty thoughts were swirling in my head. The previous day was 24th of December … the Czechs’ most important day of the entire Christmas season. Traditionally on the eve of the 24th, Czech families prepare a very festive dinner of fried carp and potato salad. Afterwards, somewhere between various Christmas related activities, including carol singing and indulging in Christmas cookies, a bell rings announcing the arrival of Little Jesus. There is no Santa Claus involved in the magical appearance of presents under the tree. That feat rests squarely on the tiny shoulders of Little Jesus. The importance of the 24th of December for the Czechs cannot be overestimated. Over the years, even if I could not be with my mom physically, I would always call on that day. I don’t remember ever forgetting to do that. The mini panic attack that followed the realization that I DID forget was truly unbearable. However, it didn’t last long as it was promptly followed by even deeper sadness. Now I was fully awake and, in my full state of wakefulness, I remembered that mom had passed away in the year of COVID. There was no one to call anymore.

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