Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Story: Couch surfing and mistaken intent

Unfortunately this story has no pictures.   So as a little incentive, if you actually manage to read to the end I have a bonus pic for you that I took on a little trip yesterday.

Part I - Couchsurfing 

I have had an eventful weekend.  It began Friday evening when a colleague and I jumped in a gypsy taxi after work to attend a couch surfing event. is an online community that hooks up travelers with hosts and couches to sleep on.  Different cities have different 'chapters' and members sometimes meet up to go on hikes or to throw a party for a departing (or arriving) surfer.  We were attending a party for a young woman from San Fransisco who has been traveling and couch surfing for just under a year.  My colleague said she has never attended one of these events so neither of us were really sure what to expect.

We were among the first to arrive at the 11th floor flat in old town Almaty.  To get to the flat we squeezed into a very small elevator with four other people who were also going to the couch surfers event.  On entering we all introduced ourselves, removed shoes, presented gifts of food and drink to the host, and then began to make small talk.  The flat quickly filled up with people from all over the world.  There was an Australian, an Egyptian, a young Kazakh man who has lived in Canada, the US and London, and many locals who had visited almost every continent.  I was not even close to being the most well traveled person in the room and I often found myself searching into my memory for names of countries I knew I visited briefly as a child to pad my list a little.

Over the course of the evening I debated the merits the Flyers vs. the merits of the Maple Leafs with a Maple Leafs fan.  I learned about environmental activism in Kazakhstan from a man from Astana who happens to be an environmental activist.  At one point, a young man from Turkey spent ten minutes trying to convince my colleague of the miracle bracelet that increased your strength.  Needless to say, there was plenty of hilarity involved.

Part II - mistaken intent 

Around midnight (as the party games were just beginning) my colleague and I decided that perhaps we should begin making our way home.  We spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with the hostess before finding our shoes and descending to the street in the tiny elevator.  Most buses here stop running shortly before midnight so we stood on the street to try and get a gypsy taxi.

The first couple of cars to pull over were not interested (whether it was the price or the location, I'm not sure), but finally a white Niva pulled over and we crawled in.  I sat in the front on a bucket seat that bounced wildly at every dip in the road.

The driver was of Russian descent and remarkably friendly.  We spoke (with my colleague translating) for a few minutes when the driver suddenly said in English "what is your name?"  My colleague and I lauged briefly before I told him that my name was "Leeza"  (the name bestowed on me at the party).
Apparently confused by our laughter, he then asked "what is the polite way to ask your name in English?" I was confused for a moment but realized that he was referring to the formal and informal pronouns present in so many languages (including Russian).  I replied (again with my colleague translating) that in English all are equal - there are no ti's and vi's.  The driver then proceeded to tell this story:

He owns a coal delivery business and one day he was delivering coal to a woman in the country.  When  he arrived at her house, only her daughter was home.  His efforts to communicate with the daughter in a formal manner went wrong when he attempted to ask "What is your mother's name?"  Unfortunately that same combination of sounds can also mean something quite rude (which my translator did not share with me).  Unfortunately even the best intentions of civility can go awry.

As promised, here is your random picture reward for actually reading all of this.  Next time:  "the hike" (and it will be filled with pictures).

 Yes, they are loose, just meandering down the road. 


  1. Sounds like a good party! Also a good story, the more intriguing for the enigma of What The Taxi Driver Said remaining unresolved.

  2. I actually asked what he said, and it turns out that the unspoken implications of the formal form of "your mother" are the same as the unspoken implications in English of the phrase "yo mama" (without all of the accompanying jokes). I guess the most common solution is to mix the formal you with the informal "mama" instead of "mother."