С Новым годом! That’s how you say, “Happy New Year!” in Russian. As I said before, Christmas isn’t really a big deal here. But New Year’s is. As the thirty-first approached, Kazakhstan did seem more like America at Christmas. There were some decorations put up. Schools had New Year’s celebrations. Television even started showing American Christmas movies (I saw Love Actually, The Santa Clause 2, and Bad Santa playing in Russian).
I had maybe made party plans a little earlier, but those had fallen through for a number of sort of complicated reasons. But anyway, it got to be the thirty-first and I had figured I would be celebrating with my host family here in town. What that meant though, I was still uncertain of. Maybe just me and host-mom. Maybe with host-sister and niece. Maybe with brothers. But part of my life here is just going with things and figuring them out as they happen. It was annoying at first, but now knowing plans is actually anticlimactic.
On New Year’s Eve, I worked until lunch and then the celebrating began. One of my host brothers from Almaty had come in that I hadn’t met, and we went gosting to some places. Then my other host brother came back from Shymkent and we had a big family dinner of traditional Kazakh food. I was then told that my older host brother was going to Taraz but I would be goolyat-ing with host brother number two. Gulyat is the Russian word for “to walk around” but it also means to just have fun.
So we checked out the local New Year’s concert down at the town’s center. It was a pretty big crowd. On the stage, they had dancing and singing. All around the crowd people were shooting off fireworks. That was maybe the biggest initial shock. It would have been so illegal in the US. Not just sparklers. But any type of firework you could imagine. Big, little, and in between. We also met up with many of my host brother’s friends from school and went to a café for a while.
We eventually made our way back to the concert, which abruptly ended at 10:00. The music stopped. The stage lights were turned off. I was confused. In America, most New Year’s parties last until well past midnight. I turned to my host brother and asked him what was going on. Had the concert finished? Yeah, it ends at 10:00 he told me, so everyone can go home and celebrate at home. Right. That is so Kazakhstan to me. In America, you go out to the concert so you can be out of the house. But here in Kazakhstan, they want to make sure they are home with their families when the ball drops. (Not that there is a ball, we’ll get to that in a bit.)
We gulyatted around town until about 11:30 when we finally meandered back to our house. When we get there, there’s a concert on TV. We have some champagne ready to break out. Things are feeling pretty normal, almost like America. Then at 11:50, who comes on the TV? None other than Nursultan Nazerbaev, the Kazakhstani president. He gives a ten minute speech and then reaches off-screen and grabs a glass of champagne to toast to Kazakhstan to bring in the New Year. Imagine if Dick Clark was replaced by George Bush. But here, that’s normal.
We actually didn’t stay inside to here his final toast, because as soon as midnight struck we rushed outside with the champagne and begin to yell happy new year (snowvem goad’em) to anyone we saw. It was an amazing scene. Everyone was in the snow-covered streets wishing happy new year to their friends and neighbors. Fireworks are going off everywhere. It was beautiful. The sky was lit up with colors around every neighborhood as people rang in the New Year was celebrating that would never be allowed in most parts of the United States. Then we went and gostied at our neighbors’ house. And then they came and gostied at ours. And then I crashed at about 1:30.
It was awesome, and definitely a New Year’s night I will remember for a long time.