My Friend Across the Table

The only language he and I shared was smiling. And food. So we did a lot with those. The backyard table was piled with freshly baked bread, homegrown vegetables harvested minutes ago, eggs laid by the chickens over there, and an impressive variety of meat-based products from salami to horse sausage. And don’t forget the vodka. I was in Kazakhstan, centered in the great Eurasian steppes, and they never forget the vodka. The current bottle was flavored with…I don’t know. Currants?

I loved (and hated) that the same wine is available in the grocery store around the corner in California

I had come to Kazakhstan knowing no one but it wasn’t long before I was invited to join three new friends heading into the mountains for a short trek out to a lake that was purported to be missing from most maps. Along the way, we would stay with one of their parents, as we explored territory that sees few outsiders. When asked if I would like to get off the normal tourist loop, the answer is always easy.

The flavor of rye bread and homemade sausage was familiar by now, and this was not my first Central Asian hard alcohol. Similarly, despite decades of experience with humans, the kindness and eager warmth with which we welcome each other no longer surprises, yet continues to amaze me (especially when you escape the main capitalist currents and pitfalls). And this outdoor table, where cats stopped by for a cuddle and the cow bawled at the gate when she got home from the day’s perambulations, had more hospitality than I could have asked for. I looked at the faces around me.

How did you get dust on your nose, kitty?

My new friends were quickly rising in the ranks, and the host mother made me feel like I was home already, but her husband, sitting across from me, was the surprise. Truth be told, I sometimes find adult men inscrutable, with our silly codes and constipated emotions, and this man was coming from a tradition entirely alien to my own, not to mention a sterner generation. And yet we clicked. And our glasses clinked.

As the only men at the table, he and I were the last two drinking, and I have learned enough in my travels to know that if possible I should accept offered libations. I have a decent sense of my own limits, and luckily the hearty meal was in no hurry, so the glass tipped up to steady rhythm. Only one other person at the table spoke English, and I am reluctant to make anyone translate when they would rather be relaxing, so I floated on top of the conversation, bemused and jolly, untroubled by any need to comprehend. I mean, I would have liked to know what caused the chuckles, but I felt safe riding along anyway. And when my buddy across the table lifted his shot glass to me, we had all the understanding we needed. Na zdorovye!

That’s not bad editing, night had fallen by the time we reached dessert. Something like 45 degrees north, in July.

It was only later that I learned more about him. “My dad? He was in the Soviet military,” was one of the things I learned. “He was an officer, in charge of his (was it division? Something like that).” And where was he stationed? Not just Kazakhstan, or some other nearby locale. No, my drinking buddy was a commander in Cuba. His service spanned 1962. That means my buddy, with whom I had shared no words but plenty of connection, had been one of the commanders during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The guy with the mischievous eyes who clearly loved his daughter more than words could say, and who welcomed an unknown American to his table, had once had the ability and authorization to launch nuclear weapons at the continental United States.

If I ever make it back to that town, and I would love to, I hope I get the chance to sit across that table again. If possible, and if he is inclined, I would love to hear all about that experience from his point of view. But if he doesn’t want to talk about an old moment of near disastrous international stupidity? That’s fine. Because we don’t need that old saber rattling diplomacy. No. We speak the global language of smiles and food. And that is enough for me.