Friday night was nothing special, the same thing happens that often happens when other Peace Corps Volunteers happen to be in the capital: a mix of mass text messages – what are you up to? Who you with? Where you going? Where you at? – an aimless wandering in the light February snowfall, ducking in and out of different establishments for warmth, weak beer, cheap snacks, looking for empty seats or tables we can push together.
And then, finally, coming in from out of the cold into a crowded bar to find other Volunteers. It wasn’t until I had sat down, small-talking with my friends, that I noticed the volume at which the bars’ half-dozen televisions were set, each fixed to the same channel of Russian co-anchors in matching sweaters previewing winter sports in an all-white studio. The Olympics were starting soon, and I had forgotten. And, luckily, I had stumbled into a place packed to watch the evening’s opening ceremonies.
Other patrons of the bar had tables packed with vodka bottles and pitchers of tomato juice, ashtrays full and still smoking, and they seemed somewhat indifferent to the opening of the Games. Among my friends, we joked about the advance journalists’ coverage of Sochi’s hotels and the shocks they faced as normal – finding exposed wires in a shower, plumbing fixtures without handles, falling light fixtures – all things I have experienced (often) in Kyrgyzstan.
Throughout the March of Nations, most of the other patrons seemed indifferent, bored even, more focused on their conversations and their vodka. We talked about the Cyrillic alphabet, the complexity of international politics and recognition of self-determined states, how cheering for the US in a bar full of Kyrgyz, Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, and other nationals would be received. The discriminatory policies in place in Russia, the immense expenses of invested in Sochi. We talked about Russian and Soviet history, how the opening ceremonies would differ from Moscow’s in 1980, whether or not Putin could resist entering the arena shirtless, riding a bear. The rest of the bar seemed equally absorbed in their own conversations, occasionally glancing up at the televisions.
That is, until, the Kyrgyz flag appeared for the brief five seconds allotted by Russian television – the bar exploded in an unexpected and thunderous applause – cheering and the slapping of backs to see this small country’s single competitor smiling under his kalpak, waving the red-and-gold flag so far from home. Our long table of Americans clapped and cheered just as loudly, and it seemed to give some credence to our presence among our neighbors in the bar.
The moment was brief, but exceptional to witness. Immediately after, cigarettes continued to be smoked, vodka continued to be drunk, and the seeming indifference to the festivities on television continued. But the bright spot of Kyrgyzstani pride hung in the air like so much cigarette smoke, a highlight of the unexpected evening among friends and strangers.