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Sunday, June 11, 2023

Summer Bedtimes

Astana is, by far, the most northern place we've ever lived.  Brandon and I have, surprisingly, spent a lot of our marriage hanging out around 40 degrees north, only dipping below when we in Cairo, at 30 degrees north.  Astana, by contrast is at 51 degrees north, about the same latitude as London and Calgary.  Each degree of latitude is about 69 miles, so we've moved about 700 miles north of our usual stomping grounds.

Being this north has the expected effect of making everything a lot colder.  Winters here are very cold, summers aren't that hot, and the cold lasts several months more than we're used to.  I was mentally prepared for the winter, but I wasn't prepared for the extended spring that really didn't give way to warmer days until the end of May.

I also knew that being further north would have an effect on daylight hours.  Because of Astana's place in the timezone, the sun rises pretty late in the winter.  At winter solstice, the sun wouldn't creep above the horizon until almost 9:30 in the morning, an hour into our school day.  It wasn't as bad in the evening, with the sun setting just past 5 pm.

What I hadn't considered about daylight hours is the effect it's had on the summertime sunlight hours.  I knew that it would make for nice, long summer evenings.  I love long summer evenings, those times when winter is a distant memory and it feels like the lazy days will last forever.  We live in a neighborhood that is pleasant to walk in, so Brandon and I will often take evening walks after the kids are in bed and enjoy being outside when it is both light and warm.  

I knew that the summertime evenings would be long, but I didn't realize exactly how long they would be.  I'm writing this around 8:30 in the evening, and the sunshine is still coming into my western-facing windows.  The sun won't set until just past 9:30 and the last vestiges of light don't leave the sky until around 10:30 at night.  We're still ten days away from summer solstice (the saddest day of the year as the light starts going away), so we haven't reached peak daylight hours quite yet.

Usually, I'm a pretty strict bedtime person.  Half of the house is awake by 5 am, so everyone needs to get to sleep reasonably early.  I still have younger children, and they're much happier when they've gotten enough sleep.  Also, I want to have a little bit of downtime before my own bedtime - and that downtime doesn't happen when children are still partying.  I even send my high schoolers to their rooms by 8:30 or so - they'll often stay up talking or reading past that time, but they're shut in pretty early.  I know that Kathleen is in for a huge shock when she goes to college next year and is introduced into the world of late night everything.  

But these long summertimes evenings have made me have to readjust my early bedtime policies.  It feels like such a criminal waste of precious summer daylight to make everyone bundle off to bed when the sun is still pouring in the windows.  The winter is so long and so dark that I feel like we have to utilize every opportunity we have to be outside and enjoying flip-flop weather.  

Even if I wanted to send everyone off to bed at their regular hour, it would be pretty hard to convince them all it was sleep time when their circadian rhythms were saying something else entirely.  You can tell them to sleep, but it won't do much good if they're not actually sleepy.

So I've decided that we have a more seasonal approach to bedtimes.  During the long, dark, cold winters, bed is the only reasonable place to be in the evening.  It's cozy, it's warm (although our house isn't anything like cold in the winter), and it's the logical place to be.  But in the summer, it's time to relax and enjoy the beautiful long evenings.  School is out, the kids don't have to get up so early, and everyone can enjoy summertime when the living is easy.  Winter will come soon enough, so we might as enjoy what we can while we can - and that most definitely includes long summer evenings.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Spring, the Best and Worst Season

Spring has finally arrived in Astana.  The nights are above freezing, and all of the trees have started leafing out.  We have our windows open all the time, and the city shut off the heating.  The sun rises while I'm exercising and sets after the time the children are put to bed.  The children have to mow the lawn this week, and I've put my tomato and basil plants outside.  

I love spring.  It's my favorite season.  I love the new, bright green color of all the leaves as they emerge.  I love the flowers.  I love the longer days.  I love the first strawberries of the season, leading into summer fruits and vegetables.  I love putting away my winter clothes, and wearing sandals or flip-flops every day.  Spring is the season where life, light, and warmth return to the world, washing away the memories of a time when they were hiding.

Spring here is even more wonderful than in every other place that we've lived.  After five months of continual snow cover, seeing green grass again feels like a miracle.  When going outside in the winter requires multiple layers of clothes, simply walking out the door with no thought at all is an unalloyed pleasure.  And enjoying the long, long evenings is recompense for all those short winter days when the sun didn't peek over the horizon until after nine in the morning.  

The entire city has turned green, and every time I drive somewhere, the bushes are a little more covered in new leaves, more trees have decided to come out of dormancy, and I've even spotted a few flowers peeking out.  All of the people have come out of hiding also, with the shrieks of children playing in the neighborhood playground floating through the warm evening air long past the time when our own children have been put to bed.  Eleanor has asked if perhaps they too could have a night or two a week when they could enjoy the long evenings.  Our neighbors can be seen outside, working in their gardens and yards, just as happy to be outside as the children are.  

The only complaint I have about spring here is that it is so late.  The city turned off our heating the last week of April - and we've still had several below-freezing nights after they turned the heat off.  The house is, ironically, colder now than it was in the depth of winter.  I remember when we regularly filled out pool in Uzbekistan during the first week of April - and I'm pretty sure the river was still frozen over the first week of April here.

I'm used to seeing the trees leaves start peeping out in March, not May.  I grew up in North Carolina, where daffodils will sometimes come up in February - here there are no daffodils, as the bulbs would all freeze and die over the winter.  I've seen a few irises and tulips - which I'm used to seeing bloom in March or April - but I think that I won't see any flowers from them until June.  Our neighbor's apple tree is just about to come into bloom.  In Uzbekistan, it's already cherry and apricot season.  Here, the apricot trees haven't even bloomed yet.

The worst part about spring being late is that it is something that we all want so desperately.  I've found that it's been easier to bear the cold winter months because they're winter months.  They're colder than any winter months I've ever experienced, but winter is always cold.  One doesn't expect to wear flip-flops in winter, because it's winter.  Even March wasn't too bad - we were so excited about the snow finally melting that the warmer temperatures (sometimes above freezing) felt like a gift.

But once I got to April, I was ready for spring.  April is never a winter month, it's a spring month.  It's the month where we can look forward to seventy-degree days and flowers and green.  April in Astana is not a spring month.  It's a month of teasing when the weather pretends that it's considering warming up before hitting you with the heaviest snowfall of the year.  The days get longer and the light looks like it should be warm and springlike, but it isn't.  Instead, it's an entire month of frustrated desire.

Brandon is probably tired now of all my complaining, but it kills me to see all the cherry blossom pictures when the trees outside our windows still look like dead sticks.  Even Brandon, who likes winter, had to agree that it's just wrong for the trees to wait until May to leaf out.  The months of warmth (temperatures above seventy) here are definitely shorter than the cool and cold months, so having those days take so long to show up just feels like robbery.  

Thankfully, we have finally, finally made it past false spring and into real spring.  When I think of winter, it's a bad memory that I shudder away from.  I'm looking forward to another beautiful, glorious Kazakh summer where it's hardly ever dark and I almost never have to turn on the air conditioning.  It's gonna be great.  And when the little voice in my head whispers that winter will return, I tell it to shut up.  It's finally made it to the warm and it's beautiful part of the year, and I intend to fully enjoy it.  

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Edwin Wins the Prize

There are certain milestones that come with parenting.  Some milestones are good ones - first smile, first piano recital, first day of school.  And then there are the other kind - first time staying up all night with a sick child, first child in the hospital, first major home damage caused by a child.  I feel like we've been really lucky in the bad milestones, especially with health.  I've been especially grateful for this while living in countries where medical care isn't always well-equipped to deal with emergencies.  

I've always known that, statistically, one of my children would eventually break a bone.  With seven children, there's no way that I could escape that milestone.  Ironically, I was the first one in the family to break a bone in 2020.  But last week, Edwin took the prize for the first child to break a bone.

After I had gotten up from my Sunday nap, Edwin came and asked if he could get some ibuprofen.  Edwin never asks for any kind of medicine, so the warning flags immediately went off.  I asked him what was wrong.  "Oh," he casually told me, "I was chasing Joseph outside and slipped on some snow and fell down.  It's fine.  It just hurts a little.  But it's not broken or anything.  Definitely not broken.  I'm fine."

I gave him the ibuprofen and grabbed his arm for inspection, not trusting the judgment of a thirteen year-old boy who doesn't like to cause problems for adults.  I moved my way down his forearm until he started wincing.  I checked for swelling, which was already noticeable.  Then I had him move his arm.  

He waved it around in the air.  "See," he showed me, "I can move it just fine.  It doesn't hurt."  I looked at him and told him to stick his arm out and rotate his hand back and forth.  "Well," he hedged, "I'd rather not.  It's kind of uncomfortable."  When I moved it for him, his face was a dead giveaway.  I called Brandon to come and give a second opinion.

"I think that Edwin broke his arm," I told Brandon, "but I know that I tend to jump to the worst possible scenario.  Could you look at it?"  Brandon inspected it and agreed that yes, he'd probably broken it.  We called the local doctor that works at the embassy and told her the story.  Yes, she sighed, it would be necessary to bring him in and check on it.  

Brandon loaded Edwin into the car and drove him up to the embassy.  Roza spent about two minutes inspecting his arm and announced, "It's probably broken."  So they headed over to the government hospital that had a functioning after-hours emergency department (private hospitals keep 9-5 hours).  

When they showed up, Brandon told me later, the emergency room was filled with children cradling various broken limbs.  Evidently the first warm weather of the spring combined with a lot of melting snow made for lots of scenarios similar to ours.  The doctor took a cursory look at Edwin's arm, announced that it was broken, and sent him over for an X-ray where they confirmed what everyone knew - Edwin had indeed broken his arm.  Ironically, his break was in almost exactly the same place that my own break was three years ago.  It wasn't as bad as mine (which wasn't too bad either), so he was quickly casted up and sent home.

Edwin has taken everything stoically and figured out how to do his life one-handed.  Thankfully spring has finally decided to stay, and he can wear flip-flops everywhere and doesn't have to get help to put on socks and shoes.  He also doesn't have to try and pull a coat over his cast.  It was good timing for breaking an arm.  

There have been some benefits for Edwin.  He has shed no tears over having to take a break in piano playing, and doesn't mind having to hand his dishwashing job off to another sibling.  Although he's still going to taekwondo three times a week, he doesn't have to do any pushups - but that won't be so great when we has to get back into condition after the cast comes off.  

As a whole, having a child with a broken arm hasn't been particularly stressful.  It helps that Edwin is old enough to figure out how to shower and dress himself and isn't inclined to whine anyway.  As a first broken bone, it's been very un-dramatic.  I'll be happy if he stays the only one with a broken bone, but I'm not holding my breath.  Statistics usually catches up to you in the end.

Sunday, April 2, 2023


This year for spring break, we went to Thailand.  We've enjoyed our spring break trips for the past two years, and so I've decided to make it a family tradition.  I'm enjoying having children that are old enough to travel fairly easily after so many years of always having babies to make things difficult.  We don't have that many years left in the Foreign Service and so we have to take advantage of travel opportunities when we can.

After making it through most of an Astana winter, our spring break this year was especially welcome.  I've decided that the first week of March is the best time to travel.  The anticipation and planning helps us make it through February and January, the coldest months, and by the time we get back in March, winter is nearly over.  

We decided to invite my parents to come and join us, and they eagerly took us up on the offer.  They're thoroughly enjoying their retirement and had just finished a trip to the Caribbean a week or so before crossing half the globe to come and join us.  The children were happy to have the undivided attention of the grandparents, and we were all happy to have an audience that kept us from getting too grouchy with each other.

After doing some research, I settled on Koh Samui, an island south of Bankok that isn't as heavily developed as Phuket.  I found a nice house on the south side of the island with an incredibly helpful Englishman as the host.  He booked all of our excursions for us, found and hired a chef, and even did all of our grocery shopping.  We were within walking distance of two completely deserted beaches, and the walk was through fields of coconut palms.  It was very nice and quiet.

We spent a lot of our time at the beach and in the pool.  When I asked the children about how many excursions they wanted to do, they all told me that too many would get in the way of our beach time.  The beach provides endless entertainment for everyone, and I'm perfectly happy to sit on the beach and watch them enjoy themselves.  

While we were not at the beach, we managed to fit in a tour of the island.  We saw two waterfalls, fed bananas to elephants, ate a delicious seafood lunch at a beachfront restaurant, visited numerous wats, a large Chinese statue, had fresh coconut ice cream, and visited a night market.  

My parents are I are all scuba certified, so we took a diving trip with Sophia, Edwin and Joseph.  The scuba sites were two islands up, so we had a speedboat all to ourselves with two dive instructors and crew.  We did two dives with lunch in between before heading back to Koh Samui.  All the children really enjoyed their first experience with scuba diving, and I had a nice time diving after an eighteen-year break.

We took the whole family on a boat trip to the Anthong Marine Park, a group of islands to the west of Koh Samui.  The trip was on a big boat with a lot of other tourists, and we visited two different islands on the trip.  Some of the family (not Elizabeth, whose legs were too short), climbed to the top of one island and enjoyed a lovely view.  Eleanor and I took a 'hike,' which consisted of scrambling up slopes with the aid of ropes, to a limestone cave.  We all got to do some kayaking and then hike up incredibly steep stairs to see an emerald lagoon at another island.  When I asked all the kids about their favorite part of the trip, they all said that the boat trip was their favorite part.

My favorite part of the trip was the chef.  Every day he spent five or six hours preparing amazingly delicious dinners.  When our host first sent us the menu, it was list with eight different dishes on it.  I asked him if I had to choose what I wanted, and he replied that those were the dishes for just one meal.  Every night we would have at least one curry, a salad, several meat dishes, some kind of rice, and dessert.  He cooked so much food that we could never finish all of it.  I knew Thai food was good, but I had no idea of the variety of dishes.  The kids all agreed that Thai food is the best food in the world.  I'm inclined to agree.

My other favorite part of the trip was the mangoes.  I love mangoes inordinately, and was overjoyed that Thailand's mango season had begun when we arrived.  I had mangoes every day, and smuggled several back in my suitcase so that we could enjoy them later.  I shouldn't have bothered trying to smuggle them, however, as just about every other passenger on the plane carried plastic crates of them on with them for the return flight.  

But even more than the mangoes and the food, I enjoyed having a lovely week with my family in a lovely place.  I don't have many more years left before the children start leaving me to start their own lives, and so these times together are even more precious.  These trips will be memories that we will all enjoy together for many years to come.  We are so blessed to have them.

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


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


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.