Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it: Valentine’s Day. Not even in Kyrgyzstan. I was curious about February 14 in Bishkek, having lived in the U.S. -Valentine’s Day HQ- for many years, where I felt helplessly swept away by the merciless annual tidal wave of heart-shaped candy, red roses, endless Hallmark card aisles, coupons for romantic dinners for two, herds of stuffed animals, and all kinds of objects made in the shape of a heart. Consumption ad absurdum, feeding a gigantic industry in the compulsory name of love, all dipped in red and pink.
A year ago in Bishkek, Valentine’s Day took place on a smaller scale, but it’s an up and coming commercialized day. The good thing about Valentine’s Day is that it doesn’t sneak up on you and hit you over the head out of nowhere. There is a gradual build-up to it that allows you to brace yourself for the final onslaught. So, too, in Bishkek, days before February 14, street vendors sold red roses wrapped in cellophane. Heart-heavy ads filled the stores, cafes, and movie theaters. Beware of Bishkek’s cupids preying on you:
On Valentine’s Day, cocktails are for lovers:
More hungry for chocolate cake than for love? At the French Bakery, cake (Brownies, Three-Chocolate, and Sachertorte) is for chocoholics. Let them eat cake, too:
On the actual day, dressed-up young men with gigantic bouquets of flowers were hurrying to meet their dates. Couples were strolling through town, showcasing the symbolic markers of love: red balloons, stuffed animals, and flowers. The usual sights on Valentine’s Day.
But then there was the recurring spectacle of sight at Ala-Too Square. My favorite part of any holiday celebration in Bishkek is the display of the popular photo ops at Bishkek’s central square. On these days, public space transforms into a marketplace of photo motifs, often with more than a dozen different sets to choose from. It resembles a crowded fun fair without the rides. Instead, it attracts with a wild medley of bright colors and an eclectic mix (no match) of designs: themed cardboard decorated with hearts, doves, butterflies, cupids, swans, and plastic flower arrangements. Or a combination of all of the above. Against this backdrop, plastic cars and motorcycles, dolls in traditional clothing, rocking horses, and huge stuffed animals for children to sit on are carefully arranged for the perfect photograph. There’s a place for everyone in these photographs, for the toddlers as much as for the grandparents.
For those with butterflies in the stomach, butterflies in the heart:
For the more daring, Valentine’s Day at Ala-Too Square offers a probing preview of how it looks to stand under a wedding canopy:
Each set is a composition of its own. The markers of national and ethnic identity are never far from Ala-Too Square. Props also include the Kyrgyz flag and the komuz (the traditional Kyrgyz string instrument, similar to a guitar):
Part of the holiday displays are live animals. Fisher Price aesthetic with a county fair touch. On Valentine’s Day, not lovebirds, but pairs of doves and rabbits find themselves in a graceful though lifeless swan embrace:
Granted, it’s kitsch at its best, and it’s a commercial spectacle. But families love to have their photos taken on holidays in Bishkek. And they are serious about preserving the memories of a multigenerational trip to the capital city to participate in the celebrations. It’s a seriousness mirrored in photographic conventions: people look straight into the camera but usually don’t smile for these staged portraits, even though they are surrounded by a hilarious cast.
For the romantic couples who want to escape the crowded square, the Cinderella-inspired dream of a ride in a horse-drawn carriage may come true on February 14, even without a fairy godmother. Right at Ala-Too Square. No ol’ pumpkin carriage waiting for them in Bishkek:
No holiday celebration in Ala-Too Square without the street vendors selling the classic snacks (popcorn, pink&white cotton candy, and candy apples) and matching accessories, such as shiny foil balloons and teddy bears:
Sweets for sweethearts. Wasn’t there a whiff of something in the otherwise polluted Bishkek air? The smell of sugarcoated apples? Or was that the smell of plastic, the stuff the Valentine’s Day merchandise that flooded the bazaars and stores, is made of? Amidst this colorful tableau of larger-than-life swans, flowery hearts, white doves, and balloons with love messages from Barbie and Spiderman (P.S. I Love You) wrapped in sugary cotton candy clouds that is Ala-Too Square on Valentine’s Day, a Proustian moment of evoked memories of splendid 1980s disco nights.
Time for a public expression of affection for a city. Bishkek, when all the red hearts, balloons, and flowers are gone, and when you are back to your own grayish self: will you be mine?