Well, I officially spent Thanksgiving the capital of A-stan. We arrived last night to Ashgabat (“The City of Love”). Thankfully, our entry was facilitated by the CIP (VIP) entryway. Well worth the price, as we sat in a lounge while an expediter got our visas and passports. We loaded up the van and came through the empty streets past a giant marble fountain with colored lights to our hotel just across from a giant circular marble circus building with a giant gilded cone. The hotel was pretty dead. The bar closed at 8pm (there is an unofficial curfew in the country around 10pm), and there was no one milling about the lobby.
The Clinton Curtis Band had a far different entry, that involved a plane full of Turkmen bag ladies. Apparently, plane loads of Turkmen women fly to Istanbul, but never leave the airport just simply shop at the duty free to buy bags. Clinton and the gang said that the women were eying them wondering why they were on the flight. The ladies were also fighting for space in the overhead, dropping people’s stuff out as they were trying fill up the bins with their duty-free bags. When they landed, the women tried to hand them bags to bring them through customs, but they refused in confusion.
We kinda milled about thursday. I took a little walk through town, then made my way to the American Corner Library, where people can use the internet and check out books. The center was closed, but was to open later. I met Chef Jim Lahey, who was going to be cooking us Thanksgiving dinner. Apparently, he is a famous chef and baker of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. He had been at the culinary diplomacy soirée in DC. Great, the Dellas had wanted to help cook turkey and bake pies! I asked if he could use some assistants, which he was pleased to accept.
I sent the Dellas off to help bake, and met some of the other bands, members of the Clinton Curtis Band and the Ari Roland Quartet. Some press appeared out of the blue and wanted interviews, which Ari and others gave. The journalist and photographer kept trying to rope me in to an interview and photos, not seeming to understand I wasn’t really with the band.
The Dellas returned later, unbaked over some confusion. The chef was glad to have them, but the Turkmen matron of the restaurant would not brook their presence. Meanwhile, her own stuff slowly slowly chopped veggies to the rapid consternation of the chef. But they thankfully ended up meeting a woman who owned a restaurant next door, who gave them such rare commodities as lettuce and other fresh veggies that were edible to their tummies.
All the bands loaded up their luggage and we drove across the splendor of Ashgabat. Giant new marble buildings as far as the eye could see. Huge fancy new glass structures surrounded by marble apartment buildings. Golden monumental towers flanked by statues of great Turkmen wrapped in gold filling.It looked like a Central Asian Dubai. But all is not as it seems. I was told that most of the apartment buildings were uninhabited, given that their price tag was far more than anything that the average Turkmen could spend. Many of the buildings were owned by various ministries, who in turn leased or sold them to favored employees. We even passed the famous statue of the Turkmenbashi that would rotate to always face the sun. That had been in the center of the city, but after his passing, it was moved to the outskirts. It no longer rotates.
We drove to the palatial domed theater which was flanked by giant statues of lions. We entered through the back of the theater to find a bit of the surreal. Flat on the stage were two giant (20 feet or so) pictures of President Obama and President B... As the bands started unpacking, the portraits slowly were raised high above. On first hoist, the Obama picture was a little higher than Pres B. so it was dropped and raised again. We later came to find out that this was the first time another president was displayed side-by-side of Turkmenistan’s president.
Ladies first, and the Dellas got first sound check. They were about 45 minutes in to their sound check, when they found out that this was not even a real sound check, and they would have to do another the following day. They were not happy. 45 minutes of feedback in their face for nothing left them a bit sour. I got Celia to come talk a walk to cool off, and we crossed an underground passageway to a giant golden conically-tapered monument flanked by statues wrapped in gold. We spied out across the marble city, of which the likes I have never seen.
An afternoon of faux sound checks, and then we headed out across marble city to have our Turkey dinner. Apparently, on the older buildings it is marble façade- marble grafted onto the old Soviet architecture. We drove through golden roundabouts and domed marble ministries and column was. The Dellas in the White City.
We arrived for a lavish turkey dinner prepared by the aforementioned chef. There was a bit of schmoozing before we got down to eat. The thanksgiving feast was phenomenal. Your standard Thanksgiving accoutrements of delicious turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, some of the best stuffing I have ever had and an incredible cranberry sauce with hints of tangerine. The only thing I missed was the cranberry in a can, and my family’s sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows.
I spent the evening chatting with two Turkmen girls who work for the US Embassy. Both had studied in the US (Idaho and North Carolina) under the FLEX exchange program and a college exchange program. Sadly, budget nitpickers are cutting these academic exchange programs. What I have found across the ‘Stans are so many people who work for the US embassies who had previously studied in high school or college exchange program in America. The return on investment is quite incredible. The present and future generations of FSN have studied and lived in the US, and are socialized to American norms and values and end up being key players in American cultural and public diplomacy outreach. This is an incredible bit of public diplomacy socialization, that is drying up over short-sighted budget cuts.
Chef Jim later came out to discuss the feast he had prepared. He spoke of the joys of roaming the Ashgabat markets in search of ingredients for his feast. He said he felt like a kid in a candy shop. He spoke a bit about the new culinary program of the State Department, and the use of food in fostering connections. He said something I really liked: “Food is culture; food is people.” The evening finished with some incredible pumpkin and apple pie. The pumpkin pie was some of the best I think I have ever had. The pumpkin filling was perfect, and the crust tasted like it had a bit of toffee crunch to it. Both pies were covered in homemade whipcream.
This Thanksgiving was a bit poignant in that being so far away from home, in such a unique country, I could really be thankful for all we have back home.