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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Halfway Done With Winter

We are now halfway through our first winter here in Astana.  I have been afraid of winter ever since we got this assignment back in 2021, so it's a bit of a relief to have the first one halfway done.  Thanks to this first winter, I now have a new definition of winter - the time of year when the temperature stays below freezing nonstop.  So according to that definition, I've never actually experienced winter before.  

Surviving winter in Astana requires the same mental mindset as surviving nine months of pregnancy and 24+ long days of international travel.  You can't think about how much time has passed and you can't think about how much longer you have to go.  One has to exist in the eternal now, accepting your unpleasant situation as something that is endless.  "I have always been pregnant (or flying, or cold), I will always be flying (or cold, or pregnant), and there is not an existence where I am not cold (or flying, or pregnant)."  I've realized that the real pain comes from realizing that it's only been 30 minutes since you last checked on the flight progress and that you still have twelve more hours in the same cramped economy seat next to a restive toddler.  If time doesn't exist, the frustration and longing don't exist either.

Winter here is so long that it's more of a geographical location than a season.  Four and a half months sounds like a long time, but it's a much, much longer time when you're living through it.  At first the snow was a novelty, but now it's just an ordinary part of the landscape, as eternal as sunlight, the blue sky, and the progression of days.  In Astana, you don't live through winter, you live in winter.

All the children have been disappointed with the snow here.  We've had two or three decent snowstorms this winter, but there is less than 18 inches of snow in the flat places, which isn't enough to make anything fun with.  But even if we did have enough snow, there wouldn't be much to do with it as the snow never clumps - instead it has the texture of sand.  This is because the snow is too cold to adhere to itself - if you want to make snowballs, you have to wet the snow with water first.  

We've discovered this winter that cars won't start when it gets cold enough - usually below zero fahrenheit.  Thankfully the temperature usually stays above that most weeks and Brandon doesn't have a problem driving his Fit, which doesn't fit in our very small, heated, one-car garage, to work.  However, there are occasionally weeks when it gets really cold and the temperature doesn't get above zero for a week or so.  Our last moroz, as the locals call it, got down to -31 one night with a high of -20 the next day.  After those weeks are done and the temperature climbs back up to 'reasonable' temperatures, we have to jump his car as the cold has drained the battery.  

But even worse than the the cold is when it gets above freezing.  This has happened once this winter and we're still paying for it.  In an extremely bad sequence of weather, it snowed for a week and half.  The city does a good job of clearing the roads, sidewalks, and gutters with an amazing array of bulldozers, snowplows, skid steer loaders, people with shovels, dump trucks, and snow conveyer belt trucks, but they only have so many people and so much equipment, so the snow was still being cleared up when the temperature got above freezing for about 18 hours.  All of the piles of snow in the gutters and on the sidewalks and on the sides of the road got slushy.  The packed snow on the sidewalks and driveways melted partially.  Then the temperature dropped quickly below zero and further into the negative twenties and everything froze into mirror smooth sheets of ice.  All of the rutted slushy piles of snow turned into rutted piles of ice.  Thankfully I was checking weather, so after church Brandon and the boys spent two hours scraping off all the half-inch thick sheet of ice from our driveway and front walk before it froze solid and we couldn't get the car up the driveway.  But we were about the only ones in the entire city who did this, and I've seen videos of people ice skating down sidewalks.  Then it didn't snow for weeks and weeks on end, so the ice sheets just stayed ice sheets.  Gradually the sheets are being chipped and scraped off the sidewalks and roads, but it's still not all gone yet and everyone has to walk very carefully.

The children are enjoying the winter, which is good as they get kicked outside to play every afternoon.  We've had to make a sliding scale of how long they have to stay outside.  If the temperature is from zero to twenty degrees, they have to stay out for 90 minutes.  If it's below zero, they can go outside for an hour or stay in and run on the treadmill for twenty minutes.  If it's below negative fifteen, they don't have to go out at all.  

Our neighborhood has constructed a big sledding hill, about fifteen feet tall, complete with steps and wooden railings.  The children enjoy sledding down in various formations and doing tricks.  There is also a fenced-in soccer area that gets turned into a hockey rink in the winter.  To smooth the ice out, the groundskeeping crew just puts a new layer of water on top of the ice and it freezes to a new finish.  The children have enjoyed learning to ice skate, and that seems to be more popular than sledding.  I never thought that I would own multiple pairs of ice skates, but so far we have four and probably need another pair or two.  

Edwin and Joseph's favorite past time is digging in snow piles.  Our neighborhood doesn't plow the roads, but every now and then when the line between the road and the sidewalk becomes less distinguishable, the groundskeepers bulldoze the top layer of snow into large piles.  This was the snow that they made the sledding hill out of.  Some of the snow piles they trucked out of the neighborhood in dump trucks, but some they just left.  So Edwin and Joseph enjoy digging snow caves, spending hours tunneling them out.  

I still don't like winter, but I'm the one who stays inside for days at a time, so I can survive it.  It's like living with a constant, low-level noise in the background that you can ignore if you're focusing on something else.  I try not to think of summer or flip-flops or green grass, but instead just accept winter as my current reality.  I don't mind the cold so much in the day when it's sunny, but once it gets dark I have no desire to leave the house and will go to extreme lengths to avoid it.  I will be happy when the snow starts melting and I don't have to holler at children whenever they go outside and don't shut the door.  I'm not regretting having extended to a three-year tour, but I won't be sad to be done with Kazakh winters when we leave.  It will be pretty easy to find a post that has less long winters, as the only capitol with colder winters is in Mongolia.  

The upside of these winters is that I can live in a great many of the 'colder' places in the US and be perfectly fine.  I have no plans to move to North Dakota or Maine or Wisconsin, but it's nice to know that if I had to live there, I could always comfort myself with the fact that the winters aren't as cold, long, or dark as the ones in Astana.  It's always good to have a new low to compare things to.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Paris


When my aunt and Uncle visited Uzbekistan last April, I took the three oldest children with for an overnight trip to Khiva with our visitors.  They were old enough to be interested in what we saw and hardy enough to spend all day walking without complaining about sore feet.  It turned out to be a fabulous trip and I had a wonderful time with my three oldest without the distraction of having to manage smaller children. 


I decided quickly that I needed to spend more time traveling with my older children.  Being part of a big family has lots of advantages, but there are also disadvantages.  The whole family moves at the tolerance level of the smaller children, which makes some types of vacations (really, anything but beach vacations) not very feasible.  Also, it's quite expensive to take nine people anywhere, so we travel less than we would if we had fewer children.  


But I don't want my older children to miss out on some fun opportunities because of their younger siblings.  It can be hard to be older in a large family because there are many responsibilities that the older ones have to take on.  I rely a lot on Kathleen, Sophia, and Edwin so I thought it fitting that they should also enjoy some privileges as a result of their increased responsibilities.  


We have friends that live in Paris, so I decided to make that our first trip together.  We have known these friends since the earliest days when Brandon and I were first married and living as students in Cairo.  They visited us in Dushanbe and I spent some quality time with them during my many medevacs to London.  So when I asked Janyece if we could come visit, she was overjoyed to have us come and stay with them.


Luckily for me, Brandon doesn't really care for travel, and so he was fairly easily persuaded to stay home and watch the smaller children.  If we had had reliable childcare, we would have left them here in Kazakhstan, be we don't and so he heroically stayed behind.  I didn't ask too much about what went on while we were gone ,and nobody volunteered much information, and all parties were just fine with that.


The timing worked out for us to go over New Years, so for Christmas we gave the oldest children plane tickets.  It was really fun to have Christmas and then leave for Paris three days later.  Before covid, there was a direct flight to Paris from Astana, but sadly we had to fly through Frankfurt, about a twelve-hour journey.  But when you're used to over twenty-four hours of travel time and a twelve hour time difference, twelve hours and a five hour time difference is almost nothing.  Plus, traveling with children aged thirteen and over hardly counts as difficult.  It's a vacation all by itself, having nothing to do but eat food, watch movies, and read a book.  


We, of course, had an amazing time in Paris.  Once upon a time, I never would have considered going to Europe in December because it would be cold.  But when you live in the second-coldest capitol in the world, almost anywhere in Europe is warmer.  And Paris was considerably warmer - about 45 degrees warmer.  It was amazing to see green grass and trees and no snow, and everyone appreciated being able to walk around all day in nothing but a jacket.  Even though it was mostly cloudy and there was some rain, it was still so much nicer than the frozen steppe.


Our friends also homeschool their children and are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so the teenagers immediately started bonding almost as soon as we walked through the door of their apartment.  Their two older sons came with us as we walked all over Paris and the children played so, so many games together every evening, enjoying the raucously hilarious sociality that is so special to young adult years.  


Over three days and twenty-four miles of walking, we managed to see the Arc de Triomphe, Place de Concorde, Champs Elysees, Petit Palace, Tuilleries, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Sewer Museum, the Seine, Concierge, Notre Dame, Roman ruins in front of Notre Dame, several churches, Sacre Coeur, a Christmas market, Versailles, Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, and the Versailles gardens.  Everyone's feet were aching by the end of each day, but nobody complained.  I enjoyed just walking around and being in Paris, especially with stops for pastries.


The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Paris temple.  The children were not able to attend the temple this summer, as we were not able to return to the US.  So one evening we went with our friends to perform vicarious ordinances for those who had passed on and give them the opportunity to receive the blessings of the Gospel.  It was a beautiful evening and a reminder of the most important things that we can have.  I hadn't been able to serve in the temple with my children before, and so it was special for me to see them together in a sacred place.  I hope that we can spend many more such times in many more years to come.


In the end, however, we had to come home from our endless partying and sight-seeing and resume normal life in the frozen steppe.  As we landed and snow once again coated the landscape, I sighed to myself, knowing that longing for more would be fruitless. But it was amazing fun while it lasted, and I'm already making plans for our next trip together.  

Sunday, December 4, 2022

First Impressions of Winter

Winter in Astana is a serious thing.  When we would talk about various places we could live in,  Astana was in my bottom five, along with Nigeria and New Guinea.  Five months of below-freezing temperatures were enough to put it on my 'absolutely not' list.  This is a feeling that is very prevalent with most people in the State Department, as it is very hard to get anyone to come here because of the winters.  

Ever since we accepted the job in fall of 2020, I've been dreading our first winter here.  I hate being cold.  I grew up in North Carolina, where one person described their 'winter' as "running through a freezer naked" - unpleasant but short.  Often mid February would bring several days or even a week of 70 degree weather, and you could usually wear ballet flats all winter long.  It wasn't nice enough to want to be outside all day, but it was bearable.  

And since we've joined the Foreign Service, I've really been able to avoid any kind of real winter.  Cairo's winter was seventy degrees for months on end, and the other places we've lived have only had occasional short-lived snowfalls.  I figure that I've been pretty lucky considering that Brandon speaks Russian, and Russian-speaking countries are generally not known for their mild winters.  Brandon likes winter, so he's been shorted.

But both of us have been dreading our first real winter.  Brandon has been dreading it because of me and I've been dreading it because I hate being cold.  So when temperatures started dropping in mid-October, it was almost a relief to finally get the winter started.  I had been fearing it so long that I just wanted to get the unpleasant anticipation over with and get to the torture already.

We've now been below freezing for almost three weeks straight, with not even a bare possibility of seeing the other side of 32 for months to come.  Last week the temperature was -28 when I woke and I considered myself officially ushered into my very first real Astana winter.  Brandon's car froze up after that -28 night and refused to start for several days until the temperature clawed up to 12 degrees - forty degrees warmer than it had been at the beginning of the week.  Not only is it cold, it's really cold.  I've experienced temperatures that I hoped to never ever see for my entire life.  But that is standard for the Foreign Service - you end up doing so many things you'd hoped to be able to avoid forever (*cough* giardia). 

But we're okay.  Thankfully, Kazakhs take winter very seriously and their buildings are constructed with that in mind.  Our house is so well insulated that it took below-freezing nights to make the house cold enough to need any kind of heating.  Occasionally snow will blow up against the windows and it won't melt - and our house isn't cold inside either.  The water for our radiators comes from a city heating plant, so we have no control over the temperature.  That sounds like a recipe for a cold house, but it actually has the opposite problem - houses that are too warm.  We have both heated floors and radiators, and a lot of the rooms only have floor heat, because the radiator heat makes the rooms stifling.  I took the temperature in the kitchen recently, and it was 81 degrees.  Elizabeth usually runs around in summer sun dresses because the house is so warm.  

I'm the one who is the least affected by winter, as I usually don't leave the house Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, which I am perfectly fine with.  The children, however, have to go play outside every day, which I was worried about.  But we've been able to work out how many layers of clothes and gloves to put on - the answer is several - and they've gotten used to the cold pretty rapidly.  On that oh-so-warm twelve degree day, Kathleen admitted rather sheepishly that it felt almost springlike.  

I've outfitted myself locally with winter gear, the kind of gear that can't be found in the US.  Anything but mid-calf length coats are pure foolishness, and mine has a wonderfully soft, warm raccoon fur edged hood that acts as the warmest scarf imaginable when the hood is down and cuts the viciously freezing wind very well when it is up.  I also have a fur hat which makes me look like a character out of Dr. Zhivago, but does a wonderful job of keeping my head warm.  I sourced my snow boots from Canada, and clomp about in them during snow play days looking like someone who's ready for an Antarctic expedition.

I've quickly come to realize that the cold here is something to be taken very, very seriously.  As a friend commented, you worry about sunburn in the summer and you worry about frostbite in the winter.  Any time we go out, I have to think through how long we'll be outside, how long the walk from the car to the building will be, and how cold the car will be when we get back into it.  Our garage is heated, keeping my car a toasty 35 degrees, but it doesn't stay that way when we're parked somewhere else.  Sometimes we'll come back to a car with ice-covered windows inside the car - our breath has frozen and iced over the windows.  Sophia was hot a few days ago, opened a window for half an hour or so, and succeeded in killing several houseplants completely from the cold.  While driving home yesterday with the children, we counted how many people on the street weren't wearing hats.  During the twenty-minute drive home, we saw three.  I learned very quickly never take a deep breath as the cold will make your lungs ache, if it it's cold enough, the bones in your face start to hurt pretty quickly.  I wouldn't mind the cold so much if it didn't hurt and if it didn't hurt so much.  

I keep reminding myself that we have almost four more months left of the cold, and then I also remind myself that there's nothing I can do about so I'd better just not worry about it.  People can get used to a great many things, and winter is something that I am quickly getting used to.  Thankfully the weather usually stays pretty sunny and the reflected snow keeps the house very bright.  When I pray at night, my grateful prayer for a warm house is more sincere than it's ever been before.  And with a warm, cozy house, winter is something that we can make our way through without too much trouble.  But still, I won't be sad at all when spring finally rolls around.  Not sad at all.  

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Eagle Hunting


This past Saturday we got to go on a little trip out of town to see some traditional Kazakh activities.  Kazakhs are very proud of their nomad heritage and we were happy that they could share some of their traditions with us.

We started the morning with a drive outside the city.  Since our cars are not yet registered, we haven't had a chance to get out of the city and see what it's like.  Once we were able to get out the industrial areas (which in some places felt a lot like the US), the landscape opened up to wide open steppe.  

Eventually we pulled off the highway and followed a dirt track to a ridge where we could watch the sports from.  They started with horseback riding.  We got to watch the riders do all sorts of tricks on horseback, jumping on and off the horses, standing on their backs while galloping, and wrestling to pull each other off.  The demonstration even included a horseback chase of the female member of the team.  If the guy chasing her didn't get close enough to kiss her, she got to chase him and try to whip him.


After the horses, we watched the local hunting dogs running.  They are long and lean like greyhounds, but with furry ears and tails.  It was impressive to see how quickly could run, which is probably pretty helpful for catching rabbits on the step.

The demonstrations ended with a golden eagle catching a killing a rabbit.  It was impressive to see how fast it flew and caught the rabbit, with the entire thing lasting less than thirty seconds.  We got to gather round and watch it eat the rabbit and then take pictures with the handler while he fed the eagle.  

Golden eagles are prized family possessions among Kazakh families, with eagles being passed from father to sun as they can live from 80-100 years in captivity.  The Kazakhs will catch an eaglet when they are young and then train them up for hunting, taking them hunting on horseback for foxes and hares.

We finished the day with pictures, petting the dogs, and rides on the horses.  The children enjoyed petting the dogs, which were remarkably calm and quiet, not barking a single time despite being surrounded by people and children.  I suppose they're saving all their energy for running fast to catch hares.

Despite the incredibly windy weather (a taste of things to come soon) that made the day pretty cold, we had a nice time seeing a little more of Kazakhstan and its traditions.  



Sunday, September 4, 2022

Canning Day


I am, generally, not a big canner.  I learned how to can from my mother, who grew up canning.  When I was a child, we would have various days - applesauce day, peach day, tomato day - that I do not have fond memories of.  I still don't care for canned peaches.  When I was first married and we lived in Utah, I canned applesauce and pears because they were both grown locally and not very expensive.  When we lived in a duplex that had a Concord grape vine, we canned grape juice - because free grapes.

As a general rule, I only can things that are a significant cost savings or taste significantly better when home canned.  As we've never managed to live in a house with any fruit trees or grape vines (each time I hope that we'll get one of those, but we never have), that restricts the list to two things - tomato sauce and jam.  Tomato sauce because tomatoes are cheap in the summer and jam because homemade jam is vastly better than commercial jam.  My children want me to add applesauce to the list, but apples are available all year round without needing me to take the time and effort to can them.

Since I had unpacked the last box and organized the last closet on Tuesday, I deemed this Saturday Canning Day.  Nur-Sultan doesn't have the multitude of bazaars that Tashkent does, but starting in mid-August they have farmer's markets that are open on the weekends.  Farmers from surrounding regions bring in their produce and sell it from the backs of trucks and pop-up tents.  

We went to one close to our house that was held in the parking lot of the big hockey rink in town and were surprised to find it swarming with people who were stocking up for the winter while being entertained by a live singer (who was actually very good).  There were vendors selling bags and boxes of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions, melons, pumpkins, and various other produce.  In addition to produce, there was honey, eggs, fresh butter, cream, and so so many carcasses of sheep and cows.

I was able to easily find tomatoes in addition to both strawberries and raspberries.  Evidently the season for berries is in the fall here because summer takes such a long time to get started.  By the end of our shopping trip, we had 63 kilos of tomatoes, 9 kilos of raspberries, 6 kilos of tomatoes, 1.5 kilos of garlic, a kilo of butter, two flats of eggs, and a bucket of honey.  It's hard for me to know when to stop at farmer's markets.

I can't say that the children were excited to get to work when we got back home with our haul, but they were amenable enough to being pressed in to service once we got an entertaining audiobook started.  There were enough able hands that I was able to split them into two teams, one working on berries and the other on tomatoes.  It was a long day, but by the evening, we had canned 47 quarts of tomato sauce, 15 quarts of pizza sauce, 15 pints of raspberry jam, 12 pints of strawberry jam, and frozen three sheets of raspberries.  I was grateful to have so many people to help, but as Sophia pointed out, without so many people, I wouldn't have needed to can nearly so much food.

By the evening, everyone was exhausted and didn't want to see another tomato, strawberry, or raspberry for a very long time.  But the best part of canning day is that it only happens once a year.  And we're all grateful for that.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Stuff!

On Tuesday, our stuff finally arrived from Tashkent.  I'm not quite sure how it took five weeks to travel 1000 miles, which averages out to 28 miles a day, but I think that probably the travel was not what took so long.  Our air shipment, which is supposed to be the fast shipment full of the most important things, showed up two days after our ground shipment, but I guess that's government for you.

Regardless of how long and by what method it took to get here, our things finally did arrive.  Despite the fact that the boxes had been packed up only five weeks ago, and the children had theoretically labeled all of the boxes themselves, the process of directing boxes to the correct rooms involved a lot of shoulder shrugging and head scratching.  Ninety percent of the boxes were labeled one of the three things - books, toys, or stationary, despite us possessing a lot more than just books, toys, and stationary.

After the boxes were lugged to their appointed rooms, I had the movers open and unpack every box and furniture item in the house.  There is a hot debate in the Foreign Service community between complete un-boxers and people who like to go box by box themselves, but I prefer to have piles of stuff laying all over the house rather than spending days and days opening and unwrapping everything on my own.  I did that once while six months pregnant in Cairo, and swore I'd never do it again.  

I've been slowly putting the house to rights since Tuesday, working room by room.  The first task in unpacking is sorting out all the stuff that doesn't belong in the room that you're working on.  Our house in Tashkent was arranged differently than our house here, so stuff that all lived together in one room there now is getting split up into multiple rooms here, and the opposite is also true.  If unpacking only meant actually putting things away, it wouldn't be that bad.  

But of course, it never happens that way, and that's without the efficiency of movers making things worse.  Their job is to squeeze everything into the smallest space possible, so they pack empty bins full of random stuff, fill the tops of half-empty bins with more random stuff, and empty out mostly empty bins to put more random stuff in.  That's how we managed to have two Christmas decoration bins filled with empty canning jars, and one of the hand-me-down clothes bins filled with girls' clothes and snow boots.  

But unpacking is mostly a happy activity because it means the end of the tunnel that we entered back in May when preparations for the move got serious.  As each room is cleaned out and put to rights and our lovely things get settled into their new places, the cycle of uprooting is completed, and we settle a little bit more into our new home.  Unpacking is a bit of a ritual where an empty shell that could belong to anybody is transformed into a home that will be ours for the next three years.  I'm always reminded of a dog arranging its bed just so before contentedly settling in for a good nap as I arrange and rearrange things until I get them just right and I can settle in to my life again.  Home is mostly where the heart is, but it's also where the stuff is too.  And it's good to be home again.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Hello, Fall!

When we decided to come to Nur-Sultan, we knew that it would be cold.  It is, after all, the second coldest capital city in the world.  Once November hits, the temperatures drop below freezing and stay there for five months straight, never ever getting above freezing until April.  So, it's cold here.  Really cold.

When we got here exactly one month ago in July, the weather was absolutely beautiful.  We left Tashkent on a day where it had been 108.  When we landed in Nur-Sultan, it was in the eighties.  We were able to open all the windows in the house and enjoy a lovely breeze and the children spent the first few days outside for almost the entire day.  It was so nice to be outside and not feel like you were going to melt into a puddle within five minutes.

A few days in July, the temperatures climbed into the upper eighties and even maybe the low nineties and I turned on the air conditioner in a room or two inside the house.  But those days didn't last long, and the long, sunny, pleasant days were oh so refreshing after years of sweltering through summers in both Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Then the weather started cooling off.  I've been enjoying running outside, and this week I started wearing long sleeved shirts because my arms were going numb in the upper forties low fifties morning weather.  We've had to start keeping the windows closed because the refreshing breezes are a little too nippy for the house most the time.  The children have started putting jeans on to go play outside in the morning, although Elizabeth keeps insisting that her sun dresses are good enough.

But the weather has still been pleasant enough - low seventies and sunny is pretty good weather if you ask me.  Sure, it's been cold in the mornings, but it does warm up in the afternoons.  However, when it dipped into the fifties this weekend, I realized that summer is officially over.  We took the kids to the embassy to swim (in the indoor pool), and everyone was wearing jeans, long-sleeved shirts, jackets, and shoes.  The house is getting a little chilly, and we won't have any heat until the city turns on the hot water for heating in October.  The grass everywhere is perking up and turning green with the cooler temperatures.  I've noticed some trees starting to change colors.

I keep reminding myself that this is August, because it feels like October to me.  If we were in Tashkent, we'd still have another six weeks of swimming season, and in North Carolina it's still hot and humid with no cool weather in sight.  But although the temperatures feel like October, the days are still long summer days, with the sun rising by 6:15 and setting by 8:30 at night.  I've never lived in a northern place like this before - we're the same latitude as London and Calgary - and I'm having to get used to a whole new cycle to the year.

But as with all things in life, we'll get used to the seasons here in Nur-Sultan, and by next year August will be associated with fall instead of the depth of summer.  And it will be strange to think of people in other parts of the world going to the beach when we're pulling out fall jackets and having bonfires.  For now, however, it's going to take a bit of adjustment.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Sweet Sixteen



This week, Kathleen turned sixteen.  It seems like it wasn't that long ago that I was dropped into the crazy, sleep-deprived world of being a new parent.  But in reality, it was sixteen years ago and now I have a young woman that's not that far from being a full-fledged adult.  Time moves in funny ways when you're a parent.

Kathleen celebrated her birthday in a fairly quiet fashion this year, as we've only be in Kazakhstan for a little over three weeks.  Because her birthday is in August, she either celebrates it in the US with family or in a new country with nobody and nothing to celebrate it with.  She celebrated her third birthday in temporary housing in Cairo, her twelfth newly arrived in Tashkent, and now her sixteenth just three weeks into her new life in Kazakhstan.  

Since we're still living out of suitcases and making do with a miserably stocked welcome kit, the usual celebrations were a little less personal this year.  Instead of getting an elaborate breakfast, Kathleen had to make do with pain au chocolate made with frozen croissant dough.  In place of a special cake made by me, she got to go to the grocery store herself and pick out whatever cake looked good.  And no special home-cooked meal, just delivery sushi.  

But Kathleen is a cheerful child, always looking for the good things around her, so she was happy to celebrate her birthday, even if it didn't have the usual level of fanfare.  Everyone had forgotten about shipping times in the flurry of moving, she her presents are still on the way.  But her brothers came through and gave her some yummy treats for her birthday and I did remember to pack candles in our suitcases.  

In addition to celebrating with us, she also got to go to the mall with some friends.  We live a mile and a half from the biggest mall in the city, so it was easy to drop them off and let them enjoy themselves without the watchful eye of a parent to disapprove of their clothing purchases.  She came home with a pair of non-skinny jeans, which just further confirmed the fact that she is young and fashionable and I am old and not.  But no mother should compete with their teenaged daughters for beauty, so I'm happy to be the old, unfashionable middle aged mother to my young, fresh-faced, beautiful daughters.

It has been fun to see Kathleen grow up into a capable, confident young woman and see my fears about bad parenting not come true.  She only has two years left with us before she moves on to the wider world of college and autonomy, and it's starting to become something that isn't so strange to imagine her capable of.  We'll make sure to treasure those two remaining years with her and continue to enjoy seeing what kind of lovely young woman we are having the privilege of raising.  Happy birthday, Kathleen!

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Hello, Kazakhstan!

We have now been in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan for seventeen days now and everyone is fairly settled in.  Kazakhstan is the biggest -stan country in Central Asia, and is also the most economically developed because of oil and gas fields.  We're in the capitol city, which is in the very far north part of the country, about 200 miles from Russia.  

Our transition from Tashkent to Nur-Sultan was supposed to be the easiest move ever.  We packed up our things on Monday and Tuesday, watching everything in our house get wrapped in paper and packed into boxes for their short(ish) journey to our new home in Kazakstan.  We had scheduled three days for the move, but it only took two days, which was quite nice.

On Wednesday we got the rest of our affairs in Tashkent wrapped up, which included dropping both our cars off at the embassy so that they could also get shipped up to Nur-Sultan.  The State Department only pays to ship one car, but we decided to pay ourselves to ship the other one because it's been reliable and we bought it for a really good price in Tashkent.  It was a little painful to pay more for shipping than we had paid for the car, but such is life sometimes.

Wednesday evening, the first change to our plans showed up in an email to Brandon.  We had had a house assigned to us about a month earlier and had been sent pictures of our future home.  I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to set everything up and looked up the address in the neighborhood we would be living in and gotten my mind wrapped around our situation.

Then the email arrived, telling us that our housing assignment had been changed.  It was in a different neighborhood, it had one less bedroom, and fewer rooms downstairs.  And the biggest blow was going from a kitchen with two stoves - one European and one American - to a mini-sized European stovetop and equally mini-sized European oven.  Everyone was in shock and quite disappointed by the news.  But such is life when someone else pays for your housing.

Our flight the next morning was supposed to leave at 7:15, and as we were traveling with sixteen suitcases, our ride showed up at 4 am.  So we got the children up at 3:30, dressed them, put their shoes and backpacks on, and started shifting all the suitcases into the waiting van.  At 3:43, I got a text from Air Astana.  Due to the closure of the airport, the flight was delayed by twelve hours, not departing until that evening.  

So everyone climbed out of the van, Brandon started dragging suitcases back into the house, and I realized that we had neither food nor money for the next twelve hours.  Not being able to do anything about either food or money at four in the morning, we all went back to bed and got some more sleep.  

When we woke back up, I texted a friend to see if she could lend us some money.  She offered to have us over for lunch and playtime until we had to leave in the afternoon, an offer that we happily took her up on.  The kids enjoyed having a second goodbye party with their friends who they had just been hanging out with the night before, and I enjoyed having food to eat and a non-empty house to occupy the children.

The rest of our transition went fine, and we were able to board the flight, enjoy ninety minutes of flight time, and land in Kazakhstan just as the light was finally fading around 10:00 at night.  Our sponsors very kindly picked us and our sixteen bags up and we made the six-mile journey to our new home in Kazakhstan.  

As we've settled in to our new house, I've come to enjoy it very much and am glad for the switch.  In addition to not having any crazy wallpaper that Central Asians are inordinately fond of, we also have the biggest yard in the entire neighborhood.  The children are already planning epic snow forts and sledding hills and tunnels.  Our backyard adjoins the neighborhood park, and the children have spent many, many long hours playing and enjoying the much cooler Kazakh summers.  Kathleen has made a Kazakh friend who she practices Russian with, and they also ran into other American kids who live in the neighborhood.  

The girls and I have already found a new horseback riding teacher and are enjoying the new stable and new horses.  We've found plenty of grocery stores nearby for the kids to go to and have discovered that almost everyone in Nur-Sultan accepts Apple Pay.  I have even paid a delivery grocery guy with my phone, which is pretty amazing.  The other embassy families in our neighborhood have been quite welcoming and we've already been given a tour of the city and been invited over to dinner twice.  

One of the main reasons we decided to take a job in Kazakhstan is because we didn't want to start over in a new place with new systems and a new language.  We reasoned that it would be easier to settle in somewhere where we knew the language and could get around independently.  I've definitely found this to be true.  Thirty-six hours after we landed, Brandon and I took a walk to the local mall and got SIM cards for my phone and the kids' phone.  This was only possible because of Brandon's Russian ability and our confidence in being able to figure things out.  

On the day of our first riding lesson, I got a taxi on an app, asked the driver if he could wait while we went to the store, and then asked if he could take us to the stable and then return in two hours after our lessons were done and take us back home.  Then I asked him if he could come back and drive us the next week.  That was something that I never would have felt confident doing when we first moved to Tashkent.  Not knowing the local language is severely limiting as you can't feel like you can do anything but the most basic things, and you can never quite settle fully into a place because of it.  

But we are settling in nicely, thanks to our long acquaintance with Central Asia and the Russian language.  I may start singing another song when the snow starts falling and we don't see above-freezing temperatures for five months straight.  For now, however, I've decided that I like Kazakhstan quite a lot, which has surprised me.  There's something about the open steppe that I find alluring and I love that it's literally a mile from my house.  The city is convenient and has enough amenities that are close to us that life will be fairly easy here, and we've found the embassy community to be very welcoming.  I'm happy that we got the rough parts of the transition over with first and now we can enjoy the good ones!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Farewell, Tashkent

Tomorrow morning, a team of movers will show up at our house to pack everything we own in a flurry of paper, boxes and tape.  I've spent the last week preparing the house, throwing out and giving away the last piles of things that we don't need, separating stuff, dis-assembling furniture, washing linens and tuppeware, and worrying if we will be overweight or not.  

On Thursday morning, we'll all happily board an Air Astana plane and arrive in Nur-Sultan before lunch time.  Because of State Department regulations, we'll be skipping our usual six-week home leave in the US and instead going straight to Kazakhstan.  We're sad that we won't be seeing as many of our friends and family as we can cram into the weeks-long marathon of late nights, park visits, games, movies, stories, laughter, and fun.  But we're not sad to miss the jet lag, endless suitcase packing and re-packing, flights, car rentals, and nervous anticipation of a yet-unseen new house, city, and country.

Everyone in the family is ready to leave.  Brandon and I are done with the endless preparations for departure, and disruptions to the usual calm rhythm of our life.  The children are tired of being pressed into service to clean out another dark corner and are excitedly waiting for the delights of a new place to explore.  We aren't ready to leave because we want to leave Tashkent, however, we're ready to leave because we're all tired of the process of moving.

Tashkent itself has given us a wonderful four years.  When we moved here, I had six children eleven years old and younger.  As we leave, I have seven children, ages almost sixteen to two years old.  When we arrived in Tashkent, I was just beginning to crawl out of the swampy middle years of motherhood where the days are long, the children are needy, and mothers have nothing for themselves.  They are hard years.  Now four years later, I'm firmly in some of the best years of motherhood - children old enough to be helpful but still with young children to adore.  I've taken up two hobbies - horseback riding and painting - and am very happy with my life.

The children have grown tremendously during our time here.  I arrived with six children, and now I'm leaving with two young women and a rising young man.  Kathleen, Sophia, and I can share each others' clothes, and Sophia, Edwin, and I all have the same sized feet.  Two children have grown taller than me, and Edwin is close.  Our baby is potty-trained, talking, feeds herself, dresses herself, and has strong opinions about how everything should be run.  Sophia and Kathleen are intermediate-level horseback riders, with Sophia jumping one-meter jumps.  Eleanor has gone from a little girl who knew nothing to a recently-baptized eight year old who is getting pretty good at piano, canters her horse happily around the ring, and devours novels while she's supposed to be going to sleep. William has gone from a baby who was just learning to walk to a five year-old who is learning to read and teaching himself how to write.  Four years doesn't seem like a long time until you see how far everyone can go in that amount of time.  

Tashkent has been a good city to spend four years in.  We've enjoyed our house and our yard, and especially the pool.  It can be a pain to get across town here, but the traffic isn't too bad and it's very affordable to do fun things here.  We've been able to see the Silk Road cities and go up into the mountains and do some sledding and hiking.  There are enough good restaurants to not get too bored and there are enough fun things to do with the kids on holidays.  We've also taken some fun trips, visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka.  It's been a pretty easy four years.

We have, of course, made lots of wonderful friends during our four years here, despite the isolation that COVID brought in the middle of our tour.  Kathleen and Sophia made their first teenage friends, organizing meetups and book clubs and pool parties without any input from me.  It's been fun to see them grow into socialization and nice to be able to have taxis to do the ferrying for me.  Eleanor has found her best friend and already has plans for letters and packages that will be sent back and forth between the two countries.  We even found a family that was crazy enough to want to meet us somewhere for a vacation - and we had a wonderful time together.  We have had wonderful teachers that have become good friends and that I'm already missing.  I will always remember Tashkent for the wonderful people that we've been blessed with during our four years here.

And even Brandon has had a good four years at his job.  He was able to see some really good progress on some of the issues he was working with and has been recognized for those efforts.  Most of the time it has been the usual daily grind, but there have been some moments that have made him feel like he was pushing forward the Lord's work.

In four short days, our time here in Tashkent will be entirely in the past.  It's always strange at those transitions, when your life switches entirely.  One would think that that switch happens in some gradual fashion, a transition from one place to the next, but it never goes that way.  One day you're living in the same place that you've been living in for four years, and the next day it's all like a dream, entirely in the past, never to be repeated.  And the fuzzy future that you've been planning for and thinking about and researching and looking forward to is suddenly the very real present.  

Within a month, we'll be settled into our new place and new house and new friends and new grocery stores and new teachers and new rhythms.  Life will again be as it is supposed to be and the old will rapidly fade from memory.  We will reminisce about our time in Tashkent and the funny stories and good friends and great pool and warm winters.  But for now, we're in Tashkent, if only for a few more days.  And then, it will all be over and the next part of our life will have begun.