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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #006

Astana, Kazakhstan

Felicità. That’s what the 60-something-year-old taxi driver was singing the other night. After a few productive weeks in Almaty, with some excellent interviews, moody weather, nomadic housing solutions, and long night walks, I flew into Astana. I also got a cold, which I fought with some paracetamol, bought at the staggering price of 35 tenge (per 10 tablets box), that’s slightly more that $0.01 and slightly less than €0.01 per tablet. Sugar would probably be more expensive.

In Astana, I thought my first week would be slower than this, but I guess it’s good to have a quick start. So, as always, I won’t have time to enjoy the view (!) and will continue living a super-busy life. If you’re around in the capital city, please make my life busier and let’s have a coffee/tea.

I’ve already participated in one conference and will attend another one next week (evidence, with out-of-control beard attached, below).

Since my latest blog post, while in Almaty, I went to theater again, because Artishock is just amazing. I’ve also managed to do some cooking (after living for over a month in a tiny flat without a kitchen!). Had gallons of green tea. Ate increasingly often Bozbash (lamb leg in a chickpea and potato soup) at Khachapuri Khinkalevich, a small Georgian place on Kabanbai Batyr/Zenkova, which also produces its own bread (lepyoshka). And picked Manpar soup instead of Lagman a few time at the Uyghur restaurant 12 muqam, on Zheltoskan/Zhambyl. And plov, tons of it, especially when made by my exceptional Uzbek friend. And baursak, bags of them, especially when bought still warm from the store (yes, people, you still haven’t prepared home-made baursak for me). And bliny! “the thinner the better”.

I’m planning my summer/fall. There will be travels, even more than now, so I have to improve my packing skills and become even more essential.


Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #005

Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s Nauryz! (however you spell it)

Spring is here. I’m starting to run into friends around Almaty (feeling increasingly ‘local’), despite the large masses that have crowded the streets in the past few days.

Incredibly, people have been available for PhD interviews. One of them ended with a home-cooked Nauryz dinner, with the best manty I’ve ever tasted and my first try of a Gubadiya (a Tatar pie ). Stop me when I tell you too many times how nice people are here.

Also, finally went up to the top of Hotel Kazakhstan. The best toilet view in town.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #004

Aktau, Kazakhstan

Below, a short collection including research, travels, feminism, a dream and Sacco & Vanzetti.

Set up a few interviews and did some research on newspapers from the 1990s. I also took a small intellectual roundabout that could become a paper in the near future and make an exciting part of my PhD. More on that later.

Flew to Aktau to see the place again, before moving there next summer for a few weeks, reconnect with some of my contacts and visit the annual Adai festival in Otpantau. Saw oilmen, aksakals, camels, sheep heads, horses, and pipelines, in no particular order.

Personal notes:

Woke up early to a dream/nightmare: Mom and daughter were in a park that resembled Panfilov Park. The mom asked the daughter if she was tired and wanted to go home. The little one, who might have been six or so, said yes, pointing to her doll: “Her head hurts. I think because her husband beats her or something.” Woke up very upset that I could dream something so realistic… and in Russian. The scene was the typical moment in which a kid is tired but doesn’t want to admit it and finds an external excuse to go home. But the girl’s choice was chilling. I guess after two days of Femagora, a gender equality-focused event in Almaty organized around March 8, and going to theater to see Artishock’s crude and honest #прямопотолеби, this is what my memory wanted to keep its focus on: the long road to equality, to solidarity, and to happiness.


Now, what comes to mind (and brings the routine tears to my eyes) is Nicola Sacco’s final letter to his son, before being executed together with Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920s witch-hunty USA. The Italian anarchist wrote to his child not to be selfish, to share his joys with the deprived, for they are his true friends. In a movie from 1971, the adaptation of the letter contains a sentence that is not in the original, “ricordati, figlio mio, la felicità dei giochi, non tenerla tutta per te” – which roughly translates into “remember, my son, the feeling of happiness that you have when you play; don’t keep it to yourself” – which is both about being unselfish and appreciating the culture of sharing with the have-nots and, crucially at least for my memory of today, the feeling of happiness connected to playing games as kids, which was clearly lost in the girl from my dream. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but this was not like every other dream that I infallibly forget.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #003

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Doing tons of readings and reconnecting with friends. Also trying to get in touch with people to interview for the fieldwork, but many seem quite busy. I might schedule a second trip to Almaty or prolong this one by a week or so.

Side notes: we’ve had all seasons in one week here. It snowed, it rained, it was hot (around 16C) and it was cloudy and windy.

Last night, I saw two men in military gear playing virtual roulette in a pedestrian underpass.

2018-03-07 12.37.07

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #002

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Getting settled in, finally. Got an office in KIMEP. Also tried to go to the National Library to access some old newspapers, but it apparently was “санитарный день”. Their day off is Monday, but I guess a pre-Nauruz cleanup is warranted (?).

More readings done in between chores, but tomorrow it’s time to set up some meetings.

Also, while walking back home tonight someone opened the window of a car and shouted: “HELLOOOOOO!!” to me. Yes, to me. I turned around and I was alone. I’m pretty sure I don’t know them. A few meters down the road, I saw a guy wearing a sweater that said: “UPSDAB EAMILY CLOTHING” which sums the whole thing up.

2018-02-28 12.08.14

again, technically not “assistant professor”.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #001

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Back to KIMEP today. Did all the necessary things to register, although I still need to finish up a few things before I can have access to my office. In the meantime, I’ll use the national library for some newspaper browsing sessions.

It was quiet at uni, because it’s reading week and most students and faculty are off. It was a beautiful sunny day, so I used it to walk around a bit and see some new features of the city (Panfilova is pedestrian-only now!!! and yes, they renamed Furmanova…).

In the evening, I went to the premiere of Don Quixote, in a surrealist version proposed by the talented theater group “Art & Shock” (ARTиШОК). Two take-home lessons: I need to improve my Russian and I still like theater (I hadn’t been in a long time).


2018-02-26 22.25.07

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #000

Almaty, Kazakhstan

A lengthy period of PhD fieldwork in Kazakhstan just started for me. I plan to keep a very short diary of my activities in the country.

To make it easier to follow on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ll use the hashtag #дәптер – notebook in Kazakh – so that I can also use it as motivation to learn some more Kazakh.

My first day just ended. Met some friends, ate lagman, settled into my tiny flat.

Currently fighting jet-lag, so if I you see me using a pen to operate a calculator when it’s turned off surrounded by tenge coins, €50 notes and random graphs as in the picture below, you’ll know why.

Back to school


Edinburgh, UK

After three years of incredible personal, professional, and business growth, I take my leave from The Conway Bulletin to undertake a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow.

When I started at the Bulletin as a Kazakhstan correspondent, the newspaper had only 3 pages. Back then, everyone was excited about the start of the Kashagan offshore oilfield, which would have soon disappointed hopefuls when its pipes broke. Interestingly, Kashagan just re-started a few days ago. But now the Bulletin counts hundreds of subscribers, not just dozens, runs 12 pages packed with news every week and has a fully-working archive with over 7,000 news items from the past six years.

Now, after writing well over 2,500 news stories and around 200 news wires, covering  elections around Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and doing an immense amount of daily research, it’s time for me to move on to my next challenge, back into academia.

At Glasgow, I’ll fold back into my research of Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with a particular eye this time to its social impact. This means that I will travel more to Central Asia, attend more academic conferences, and write more for a diverse range of outlets.

For a brief period, I will continue to work part-time at the Bulletin, hoping that my replacement can be found soon. And I will stay on in Edinburgh until there’s a good reason to move.

After almost two years, the blog is back. Or is it?

Which Side Are You On?

Tallinn, Estonia

DISCLAIMER-THAT-I-DON’T-NEED: I may or may not have made references to past, current, or future employers/schools/publications/friends. The internet is not a real place anyways.

Throughout my mature life, I was/am/will be torn in between controversial issues for my own beliefs. Working for a company/organization which has interests in furthering what I hate the most (wars, economic blockades, antagonistic discourses, racism, supremacism, machism…). Writing articles that make people working in these places/publications twitch and edit it all out or refuse it. Working for a government that despises its own Constitution, which says that “Italy repudiates war” and still our army kills and gets killed in armed conflicts abroad, among other horrible things. Studying and getting a bursary to link and justify a regime with limited freedom to the eyes of armchair bureaucrats and intellectuals in Europe. Keeping my friendship (or even Facebook friendship) with people whose beliefs are so distant from mine that I can’t believe our relationship even started. Possibly applying to work for energy companies that pollute, exploit, and corrupt (all of them?). Arguing in academic circles about the relevance of the use of a confrontational and biased attitude from our Western (or sometimes Semi-Western) perspective built by newspaper articles and rhetoric from various pundits (isn’t the purpose to understand and analyze? Aren’t we just judging and misrepresenting instead?).

Coping and sucking it up has become a true skill of mine. I should put it in my CV: “I will be able to withstand all the bullshit that goes on at your workplace”.

But isn’t that what most of us does every day? What am I complaining about? I am sick of this fake “courage” of mine that pushes me into dead ends where I can only realize how awful the world can be on this side. While I try to gain the necessary courage to successfully make the move to a side that is more in line with my thinking, I will keep learning to the tiniest details what is bad and needs to be eradicated.



I’m on that side. The other one.

New adventures

Tallinn, Estonia

Getting to a country where you have no clue about the local language is tough. Buying food is tough: what exactly am I buying? I just figured out how the announcements on the bus work. I get names and streets confused all the time, I can’t pronounce anything correctly. It has never happened to me before (maybe in Paris… Yes, I’m being sarcastic). It is also absolutely my fault, because the lack of time impeded me to get a grasp of this difficult language.

Now, in the streets of Tallinn, I hear more Russian than many here admit. Right now, a lady is saying да и нет on the phone.

The modern European feeling is mixed with the Soviet-era apartment blocks and the cute and medieval old town.

Clean and tourist-friendly, this small capital city could teach a lot to many West European cities. Its long summer days are about to start and humidity has allowed the flowers to bloom.

My part-time job will be the first of the new adventures. Some activities are still ongoing, like the preparation of a co-authored book chapter, a long paper, and 4 presentations about them.

These are going to be, again, very busy months. And the blog activity will be the first to suffer. Also because the e-magazines with which I am collaborating (The Hidden Transcript and VostokCable) would probably prefer that I devoted my time to writing for them.