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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.

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!