Sunday, December 16, 2012


October 5, four months to the day after my departure from my dear homeland, we got our first “sticking” snow.  True, it didn’t stay around all day, but it stayed on the ground long enough for me to photograph it, and I daresay we’ll get more of these in the days to come.  My first thought was that I needed take a picture, and tell everyone from home about it.  Being from one of the major snow-belts in New York State, it’s a matter of pride where I’m from who gets the first snow, how heavy it is, how long it lasts.  We like to speculate on how many minor accidents we’ll see on the newly snowy roads, liken those poor souls to “southern drivers” who don’t know what to do the minute there’s any white stuff on the ground. 

My second thought was that I needed to get online and gloat about the fact that it was my day off, so that while I could enjoy the wonderful view of the first snow from my window, I didn’t need to go out in it.  That really is the best kind of snow there is.

Snow is an interesting topic round these parts.  We either get a lot in Astana, or a little.  It all depends who you talk to.  People from Almaty, from Shymkent down south, will tell you we get a lot of snow.  Too much snow.  And it’s so cold.  Weather is often on the minds of people in this part of the world.  As I suppose it should be.  In summer it’s blinding heat and inescapable sun.  The sun barely goes down in time to rise again in the morning.  The people, especially children, seeming to have some innate consciousness of the fleeting nature of their unnaturally hot summer, and the impending lockdown of winter, seem never to sleep. 

That gloating feeling is somewhat lessened of late.  These days, deep into December, in the full and icy grasp of winter on goes outside at one’s own risk, and no at all if one can help it (or one is at all smart).  And the snow that we (and by we I mean I) were all so excited about at the beginning is valued for its utility in providing effective footing on top of the sheet of ice that seems to have grown over all horizontal surfaces.

For the first time in my life I’ve finally experienced that scientific phenomenon that happens only when it gets cold enough (and before you ask I haven’t checked to see if my spit will freeze before it hits the ground)—when the temperature is the same in both Fahrenheit and Celsius (it happens somewhere around 40.  -40).  I would like to agree with all those people out there who say that after about -30 it all feels the same—really, really cold—but I’m too busy trying to thaw my toes out to really start making comparisons here.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about—cavemen.  You see them everywhere.  Walking down the streets, on the bus, getting into cabs, in the supermarkets and malls—everywhere, cavemen.  You can recognize them by their outerwear.  Before I came to Astana I’d thought that practice of wearing the skins of other animals was a fetish reserved to only the most self-absorbed of the ridiculously wealthy (and to certain great-grandmothers who still insist upon wearing that old musty, shedding hide because it’s fashionable).  Hadn’t companies like the North Face, Columbia, and Under Armour brought us all into a new, modern age of synthetic outerwear that eliminated the need to ask, “does this pelt make me look fat?”

I suppose those fur-wearers do have a point.  While I, the good vegan, have to start ten minutes ahead of any time I actually want to leave the house in order to have sufficient time to layer enough clothing to keep me marginally warm during the time I’m forced to be outside, women here continue to wear the same knee-length skirts and high-heeled boots (ok, the tights underneath are a bit of a nod to the coldness of the situation), throwing nothing more than a fur coat over what appears to me to be the same clothes they wore all summer (during which I alternately considered purchasing a kid-sized pool for my living room and actually hiring someone to fan me everywhere I went).  I suppose I’m not being entirely truthful in painting my picture of these fur-clad women—they also generally seem to wear some sort of small furry animal on their heads.

To each his own, I suppose, but for now I’ll be sure to ask before petting anyone’s “faux” fur hat, and pick my place carefully when standing on the bus for fear of rousing the angry ghosts of 1,000 slain chinchillas.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Room of One's Own, part 1

It less than one month, I was evicted from my first apartment in Astana.  I often wonder if that has in any way colored my perception of the place.  Only time will tell, I suppose.

It was a wild ride, as these things go, finding a new place to live twice in a month.  Possibly the most fun I’ve had in my time here.  I almost feel sorry, really, for the other expats who come over here with guaranteed housing packages, moving expenses and all.  Finding your own place, dealing with real estate agents and property owners, one gets to see how the other half lives, as it were.  And the language barrier—well that just adds to the experience.

Both times, we ended up working with a nice young woman with two cell-phones on her person at all times, at least three-inch heals, and about four words of English, total.  And of course a local co-worker who came as translator.  And guide.  And negotiator.  We worked with agents—even though we had to pay a fee of ten percent of the first month’s rent—because we wished to see as many places as we could in a short time and agents, as we understand them, are good at that.  It is their job, after all.  So we ran after our good Olga (literally ran at times, even up stairs, her in her heels and we half-convinced that this was some kind of local past-time—see how many flights of stairs you can get the foreign clients to climb before they give in and take whatever ridiculously-priced apartment they stumble into if only you’ll promise they can sit down for a minute).  In one afternoon we visited one slum, one palace, and two places comparably priced, but with slightly different amenities (just how different, we would only realize after the fateful eviction notice).

Luckily, many apartments are available already furnished, and owners may even be good enough to add pieces we foreign clients find lacking (rule 1: a pull-out sofa is not a bed).  As I said, after our first day of hunting we were left with a choice between two places (the slum and palace being out of the running for obvious reasons).  Between those two, really, the choice was simple—we picked the one that looked nicer.  It looked newer (how old the building actually was we couldn’t say; I got the impression from various translations that the place had been recently remodeled), was slightly bigger, and utilities were included in the rent price.  This was important because we’d been forewarned about the difficulty of understanding utility bills in this country—even the locals had trouble, it seemed.

The view from the front door

Kitchen, no expense spared.

Except, as we found later, an oven.

The living room (first half)

Living room, second half

My bedroom.  With access to balcony.

I took it as a positive sign, also, that our new landlady—during the signing of the lease and finalizing all those details that weren’t really translated to us—seemed to intimate to me (and my co-worker and new roommate) that she had two sons, both of whom were not married.  Any advantage we can get, I thought to myself, we should take, smiling along with her and deciding that if she liked us that much already, we should have a very pleasant year here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Necessity and Luxury

This is, as you might have guessed, a continuation of my previous post, Luxury and Necessity.  

So I decided to take a shower (after a thorough cleaning, of course).  It’s been stated by a very reliable source that when traveling through Europe it’s best to bring your own soap.  Whether or not it simply wasn’t used in these countries, or they just didn’t give it away to tourists, no matter how much they paid for their hotel rooms, it was best to carry some on your person lest you find yourself having to send out for it in the middle of a bath.  Unfortunately hot water is not an easily transportable commodity, well, anywhere.  Especially not enough for a shower.  Also unfortunately in this country, they are not overly concerned to inform you when you might otherwise inexplicably run out of, or not have any, hot water.  Or even any water. 

On this day, not many days after I’d arrived, I decided to take a shower before work.  Regardless of my insecurity issues with the toilet, I was generally feeling pretty confident about the shower.  I’d worked out my earlier confidence problems involving the lack of a shower curtain or wall to keep the water in, and the lack of any shelf to hold the soap which you so painstakingly carried throughout your travels.  I was ok with the fact that no matter how much I cleaned there was always dirt on the floor that would stick to my wet, freshly-showered feet (Does this cleaning product clean floors or windows?).  By ok I meant that it happened and I accepted the fact that I could do nothing about it.  By this time I’d also accepted, though with much less aplomb, the fact that if I didn’t buy an elevator card I have to walk up 6 flight of stairs every time I came back to my room. 

Taking a shower though—I may have to pay for my drinking water, but not being able to wash my hair on a daily basis, now that is an injustice I truly cannot abide.  What’s more, it’s the cavalier attitude that everyone takes towards it.  All water in your building turned off indefinitely and without notice—fine; not knowing what kind of meat is in the meat pie in the cafeteria—fine; open manhole cover in the middle of a sidewalk—fine.  Try to cross the street when the sign says don’t walk though—there’s a fine for that too.  In the U.S. if someone had even considered the possibility that they might fall down that open manhole, there'd have been a lawsuit.  It must be some kind of lack of a sense of personal responsibility here.  They just accept it, and don't bother to do anything about it.  Any self-respecting American would've taken some damn initiative by now and found a way to cash in on that example of gross neglect on the part of someone else who doesn't care and is probably much more likely to fall down that hole and need some settlement money.  Well, not everyone can be as free as us.

I arrived in Astana in June.  It was still spring, or late winter, then, but summer also arrived soon after that.  Looking back, I’m not sure why I worried so much about whether or not I got to shower, since any time my Anglo-Saxon blood encounters temperatures above 80 degrees my body to proceeds every last drop of moisture it contains in what I can only interpret as an effort—well-played, I might add—to make me look as much as possible like a stinky, slimy foreigner.

Astana summers and the lack of running water also made me glad I only had 100 pounds of luggage to bring with me when I moved here.  I tried that one out on a dear friend back home, and her first thought was, poor dear, carrying all that luggage around in that heat!  But no, actually it was practically freezing when I got here—it was only just the end of winter then—so that wasn’t such an issue.  Actually, I was glad of the luggage limit because I ended up leaving most of my clothes in the U.S., so at the very least I only seat all over half my worldly possessions.

In the end, though, I can be glad that my unease with the toilet in my dorm room was never combined with any significant water outage.  I could tell another story, of a day when the water at work was shut off for 7 hours with no prior warning.  Our drinking water was bottled, , of course,because you don’t want to drink the tap water; but it wasn’t exactly getting enough to drink that we were worried about that day.

Ahh… luxury, and necessity.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Luxury and Necessity

Not long after I arrived in Astana—who are we kidding, even six months in I can talk about the present as “not long after I arrived”—I decided to take a shower.  I shower every day, of course, but this day is mentioned as, well, noteworthy.  (On a side note noteworthy as a descriptor for events has also undergone quite a change in the past six months).

This shower happened in the dormitory in which I was living for my first month in Astana.  I had basically the room in which you would expect to spend the next nine months with a complete stranger if you were a freshman at a mid-size state university in the United States.  Plus a private bathroom.  I’m led to believe that in some university dorm rooms private bathrooms are standard.  In my state university, alas, this was not so.  But anyway, it was a dorm room—large, angular (read: lots of corners, ouch!),modular furniture, littler leftover floor space, and a window that didn’t always open and close the way it should have.  Oh, and no curtain.  Not even a curtain rod to hang a sheet over.  I saw many windows in that building with newspapers taped to them to block out the daily frown of the sun. 

I lived on the sixth floor.  Though there was an elevator, a passcard was required to operate it, which you were required to purchase, and which “ran out” after a certain number of rides, and you had to pay more money to use again.  My American sensibilities—what, you have to pay for an elevator, a basic service to which I’ve grown accustomed?  What about the disabled?—of course, precluded my from purchasing said elevator card.  (I’ve since revised my opinion of elevators and cards, but I’ll get to that another time).

At any rate, on the day in question, which was likely about three days after I arrived, I decided to take a shower, which is generally accepted as a good thing to do before heading off to work.  So out of my clothes I went and into the shower I stepped.  Before getting into the specifics of that adventure, though, I feel it’s worth mentioning the rest of the bathroom.  It was a small space, as seems logical in a dorm room, but not really as small as you might expect.  Now, I’ve watched enough home remodeling shows on basic cable DIY channels to know that a room with such Spartan accoutrements could be laid out in a much more space-saving way, thus freeing up more space in the actual dorm “room.”  There was, simply, a sink, a three-foot-square shower—I’ll call it a stall, for lack of a better descriptor at this point—and a toilet.

A word about toilets:  One’s feelings about toilets can really set the tone for a lot of one’s subsequent life.  There are some people who seem absolutely fastidious in their outward appearance, general cleanliness, and the way in which they organize their lives.  You work with these people, maybe even share an office or cubicle.  You regularly have lunch, even drinks after work, together, and in every aspect they seem to exhibit the proper amount of regard for sanitation and cleanliness.

Then something happens.  They’re fumigating your apartment building, or a water main breaks, or something else that otherwise forces you to decamp from home for a few days.  And this co-worker offers you a place to stay.  And of course  you accept, because this person is someone you’ve come to rely upon for cleanliness, punctuality, and overall lack of being an ax-murderer.

Everything is great.  Clean place, nice guest-room, or at the very least a well-made-up sofa bed, reasonable expectations for cooking or cleaning or whatever it is you need to agree upon for whatever period of time your stay will last.  Everything is great, until you get to the bathroom.

What do you do?  What do you say?  Should you say anything?  How do you deal with someone else’s toilet?  I suppose you could raise the point that any time you are a guest at someone else’s home this is an issue, though plenty of people have been know to get through a three-hour dinner party without using a strange toilet.  When you are a house guest, you are at the mercy of your host.  People who are generally lax about cleanliness in their own homes can freeze up completely when asked to use someone else’s toilet.

I’ve also found that this houseguest-toilet-syndrome is specific to personal toilets.  People who have issues at someone’s house or apartment seem to have no problem using a public toilet (I suppose I should qualify this.  No one likes using a truly public toilet.  Even those few who have no compunctions with squatting over a hole in the ground can’t use a truly public toilet without a little shiver of distaste, if not disgust.  In this case, by public I mean the kind of toilet you use at a workplace or other familiar yet not-home environment.  Even the toilet in a department store holds less fear than the toilet of a dear friend in whose home you are not a frequent guest).  Why?  Perhaps it’s a transferal of responsibility:  This company has 150 employees and manages to turn a profit every year.  Obviously they‘ve got the simple process of cleaning a toilet figured out.

Me, I’m typically pretty phlegmatic when it comes to the rigors of cleaning.  It needs doing, I get it done, end of story.  But this toilet, my toilet, I should say, had me completely at a loss.  It turns out that familiarity is just as important with toilets as it is with say, street signs.  No clear directions and I’m completely at sea.  When one of the first things you have to do on your first day in a place worlds away from the one with which you are familiar is clean the toilet (a toilet that looks and works quite different than the one in your own previous bathroom), well, it can be a little daunting.  Do these cleaning products clean the same way as the ones I’m used to?  What are these words I don’t recognize?  Do any of them say antibacterial?  And let’s not even get started on the actual physics of toilets from one country to another.

Is this symptomatic of how I will spend the rest of my time in Astana?  I suppose we'll find out.  Does how I felt about my toilet necessarily effect how I felt about my shower?  More on that later.

Wondering when I'm going to get to that shower?  Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to In No Sense Abroad: Luxury and Necessity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

To My Anglo-Saxon Hips

Oh, hello there.  Listen, I know we haven’t always gotten along.   You’ve seen me through some pretty tough times though and, well, I just want you to know:  I’ve always appreciated it.  I haven’t always treated you right, and you’ve let me know.  Loudly.  Clearly.  We’ve had our differences, but we always make it up in the end. 

But can we talk about something serious for a minute?    I feel like there’s so much between us, sometimes; so much we just don’t talk about.  And it hurts me.  And it hurts you.  We’re less productive when we don’t communicate.  We don’t get out and go places.  Things don’t progress as naturally as they should.  So, let’s talk.

We feel, well, downright out of place here sometimes, don’t we?  Can’t compete with the local selection.  When we walk around town, do you feel like people stare?  Is it something we did, or is it just who we are?  We have blond hair—that stands out, for sure—but is it something more?  We walk differently, move differently; it’s as if we displace matter in a way wholly foreign and not understood round here. 

I mean honestly, I feel like the titanic over here.  They float up, and don’t have to worry about the lurking icebergs.  Something’s got to let all those women wear their ridiculous heels through construction sites and on ice without ending up with broken bones.  Are they made of balsa?  Bamboo?  (Does bamboo float?)  What’s that?  Ahh, yes you’re right.  Sailing metaphors probably aren’t much good round here.  Can we talk about trees?  The mighty oak and its deep roots and all that?  I suppose you’re right.  No, no, no, they have trees, just not the big ones. 

I’ve noticed, though, you have gotten thinner since we arrived.  Trying to blend in, eh?  No, sorry, it was just a joke.   A bad joke.  No, I don’t think you need to lose weight; I think you’re perfect just the way you are.  Steady on.  We’ll see this one through too.  You know, when I look at those shoes in store windows, I don’t mean it.  I would never do that to you.  Women here might be able to traipse around in four-inch heels all day, but I just couldn’t put you through that.  We weren’t made for it.  Yes, I miss the hills too.  Can’t run up and down hills in heels, that’s for sure.  Ok, maybe in San Francisco they do.  But we’re not from San Francisco, and we don’t wear heels anyway. 

By the way, are you feeling better now that winter’s here?  The heat does take its toll.  I don’t know about theirs, but this mortal coil is not cut out for arid climes.  I mean, I love sun as much as the next person, but I want sun that smiles at me.  Their summer sun, it frowns, as if it were trying to bore straight through us.  Perhaps if we stay long enough this flesh really will melt.  Yes, yes, I know we only decided to stay here a year.  And yes, I know winter’s supposed to be bad here too, but we’ll get through.  It’s what we were made for, after all.  Yes, all right, next time we’ll pick a temperate climate. 

I know, I know.  We need to look out for the food too.  Yes it is hard to be a vegan here.  Now don’t look at me like that.  We all hurt, when we don’t eat right.  It’s not just you.  Oh, please, don’t bring back the guilt again.  Look, it was a long time ago, and we were young, and, and idealistic maybe… What, are you saying you’d trade it in?  Give up everything we’ve done since, and because of then?  What happened in Newport was, well, unfortunate.  I hurt just as much as you do.  Born to be sailors, we were, but maybe it’s something you have to work up to.  Maybe when we’re rich and famous, then we can buy our own boat and sail round the world.  Yes, yes, far away from landlocked countries. 

Well, I’m glad we had this talk.  Yes, we’ll do yoga more often.  And lay off the sugar.  I’m sure the teeth would appreciate that too.  Yes, they know we’re just overcompensating for other things we can’t have when we do that.  I suppose it doesn’t make them feel any better, though.  Yes, ok, we'll floss more too.  Good night then.  Good talk.

Monday, November 12, 2012


 I went out the other day, thinking to undertake what I did not realize would be a perilous journey of, while not quite epic proportions, at least of semi-epic proportions.  It involved a long walk down treacherous avenues and byways, navigating my way by the celestial bodies where human-crafted directional objects failed, and swimming through a sea of chaotic, motorized turmoil where necessary.  I was going grocery shopping.

Astana, as you know, is a growing city.  Proclaimed the capital (literally) of a new nation only 20 years ago, its people have been busy turning it from a modest little city into a world-renowned center of business, architecture, and culture.  Upon my first view of the city proper, my first response looking up was, “for this, only for this, it was worth coming half-way round the world.”  Everything glitters and sparkles and shines.  Beds bloom with bright blossoms amid stone-paved walks and fountains and monuments.  Astana is a celebration in itself. 

And truly, I mean that, even many months into my stay.  Astana is really a remarkable city.  Perhaps most remarkable for that fact that it was decided that it should be.  It glitters with and optimism and a naiveté that no self-respecting American city could ever muster.  It’s clean and bright and shining new.  So new, in fact, that in some places (like the dormitory in which I lived my first month in Astana) there wasn’t even a sidewalk to get you there.  Or a paved road, for that matter.  This situation wouldn’t be quite so bad but for the fact that the dirt road that does run that way is obviously what those in the business would call a quick fix.  There are ways (they tell me) to make dirt roads quite stable and usable for long periods of time, even under heavy use by large construction-oriented vehicles.

This road is not one of those.  Riding in a vehicle of any nature down this road one feels rather like the great Vikings of yore, crashing through the waves on their fearsome long ships, swinging side-to-side with the rolling of the waves, and always knowing there was the possibility that the ship would complete its swing and come out (or not) on the other side, most likely with all hands lost.  The Vikings at least had the prospect of plunder and copious amounts of alcohol at the end of their journey.  Generally, we who lived in that dormitory had the prospect of work at the end of ours.

It was some weeks before I found my way to the old city.  As I said, Astana used to be a modest city in the middle of the steppe, frozen half the year.  It likely wouldn’t even be a city without the dubious help of the Russians, who once upon a time had grand notions of “civilizing” the people of the steppe, and it certainly reflects that in the industrial feel that radiates from old run-down apartment buildings, from the balconies that seem to hover on the sides of buildings held up through no fault of their own and no known laws of physics, and through the wrought-iron fences that surround every building. 

Over the years people have burrowed ways under, or widened gaps between bars, or found ways to climb over a weakened bit.  My first thought, upon seeing these disused relics of a past age was “why not tear them down?”  An American sentiment, I suppose, since we are of a mindset that any obstacle can, in fact should, be overcome, especially if it means tearing it down.  Many a forest has been cleared, or obstinate hill obliterated, in the name of progress and civilization.  Astana, meanwhile, expands gloriously outwards, while from the center the old city seems to rot away.  I wonder, sometimes, where it will end?  Is there a plan for this new emerald city?  I find myself looking up at the shiny toy-like buildings around me with bated breath, wondering always what will happen next.

It was with great trepidation and also with a giddy feeling of rebellion, that I climbed my first fence, crossed my first open lot, even walked boldly through a construction zone without consideration as to whether I’d better have a hardhat.  Writing home once to a dear friend of mine, I happened to mention this little triviality (or so it now seems to me), and this friend was quite astonished at my boldness.  “My dear friend, I exclaimed, “why, where was I to walk?  I needed to get to the store, and the sidewalk on that side of the road wasn’t to be built till tomorrow!” 

Looking back, it seems odd to me that this friend remarked so upon it; I suspect I am beginning to succumb to what’s known as “going native.”  Indeed I often find myself crowding forward with the press of people at bus stops and cashier lines, as if I had not been brought up in the stoic Northeast with a proper respect for the line and all the safety from chaos it represents.  Ah yes, now we are brought to the line again.  I know I have mentioned it previously, in relation to a somewhat more perilous situation, but you’ll forgive me if I once again make a promise to revisit it in another post, when space and time permit.

Going native, though—that is a topic worth discussing.  It is quite inevitable, to be truthful.  Survival (in the metaphysical sense) depends upon it.  The custom, for example, of servers in restaurants asking for your order almost immediately upon seating you, is quite unheard of here.  As also is the practice of encouraging diners to leave as soon as physically possible by bringing the check very nearly before the meal is served.  When one goes to a restaurant here, it’s almost best to pack a snack, because you are guaranteed not to be served until you’ve had at least your second drink, and for that you often have to shout just to get the server’s attention.  Meals can take hours, here, which can be quite excruciating for stout-hearted Americans used to eating on the go, as it were.  Visitors, take note: it is advisable to go to restaurants in the company of locals, lest you find yourself still sitting there when the next meal time comes round.
Which would be a shame, because then you would miss out on the feelings of wonder which Astana elicits every day.  It’s very much a different feeling than I’ve ever run across before leaving home.  New York, for example, has many remarkable buildings which were certainly so-designed to be remarkable, but there is such a feeling of inevitability that accompanies any sight-seeing trip to New York, as if the city couldn’t help but have become as it was.  Everyone wanted, and still wants, to go to New York.  For 200 years it has been a destination for all types of people, and though many have passed on and left little trace, the ones who stayed, or who made their mark before leaving, did so in grand style.  They remade the landscape, leaving no trace of what once had been.  Manhattan changed rapidly from one kind of wilderness to one of a completely different quality.  Astana is growing rapidly, but instead of an old canvas painted white and remade into a vastly different image, it is as if the painter has begun to fill in some of the blank spots, and changed focus from the center to what surrounds it, painting over with brighter, but no more verdant, colors.

Astana, though a new city by most standards, ever feels older than the old cities of America.  It is in the dust one walks upon every day, the air one breathes.  To the American eye, and spirit, change and newness are not native to this city.  Give us bold, give us new; we’ll even go so far as to remake an old building to exactly its specifications 200 years ago, just to have something new that looks old.  It is inevitable, it is planned, it is America.     

Friday, October 12, 2012

A First Impression, Once Made...

After leaving Istanbul, it was a short (and by short I mean 12 hours shorter than the flight into Istanbul) flight to Astana, my prospective home for the next year.  I have relatively few memories of that part of my trip, other than the terribly close seats, the decidedly inedible (for a vegan) in-flight meal, and the absolute difficulty of getting any real sleep.  To this day, even, I’m not really sure what to make of that plane ride.  Because of my lack of sleep, by this point, it seemed longer than the first two legs of my trip put together.  I began to wonder if I’d got on the wrong flight after all, or if the pilot had decided to take an unexpected detour to, say, Vladivostok, or something.  And then, suddenly and without warning, we were landing. 

It was about three in the morning when my plan landed, to which I can ascribe some of the blame for the apparent lack of any civilization, but even at night one would expect to see city lights of some kind.  We were landing in the capital city of the ninth largest country in the world.  Instead, black.  All around.  Which is absolutely unbelievable because from the ground Astana positively glows.  Paris has absolutely nothing on Astana when it comes to unnecessary and superfluous light.  Each building, be it a hotel, monument, house of government, or even just an apartment building, shines with its own pattern, its own (often changing) colors, in short is an Eiffel town in and of itself. 

It took many weeks, to get used to this nightly light show.  Did Christmas come early, I’d find my sense wondering.  Is there some holiday or special celebration going on that I don’t know about?  What do you suppose is the electricity bill these places run monthly?  Day and night, this city is a riot of color.  And for no other reason that simply to have it.  Bayterek Tower, lit up in green and purple all night long, brings to mind those hippies in Independence Day, right before the alien ship opened up with the ray of death.  Then there are those office buildings, so mundane by day, with their alternating patterns of white and colored lights that bring to mind the landing strips which certain overly-celebratory Christmas decorators build on their rooftops, as if they really do expect Santa to land there come Christmas Eve. 

And all I could think, riding into the city on my first night/morning there under the Arc that reminds one disconcertingly of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, watching the distant glow the city in which I’d spend the next twelve months slowly get closer, was, “Who’s going to pay that electric bill?”

Friday, September 28, 2012

Planes, Trains, and... pt. 2

Terminal 1. 

Not the smallest of the terminals, at least according to the map, but perhaps most diverse in terms of airlines flying out, Terminal 1 does not inspire confidence.  My frustrations over the train (and the fact that I was carting around 100 pounds of luggage) meant that I didn’t get a chance to compare it to the other terminals.  But once I’d checked my luggage (again, after waiting an hour for the six people sitting at the desk to decide that they were now working), I had free rein of the place.  Well, of Terminal 1.  Two full-body x-rays per day were quite enough for me. 

There are approximately five places to get food in Terminal 1, four of which are duplicates between one end and the other of the terminal.  Large international flights leave from this terminal, yet there isn’t enough seating in the waiting area for everyone on even one plane at a time.  As a result one generally spends one’s time in walking from one end of the terminal to the other, or sitting on the floor, or queuing in the mass of people who refuse to recognize that there is in fact a queue, or that queues are more than theoretical formations of individuals.  Instead they stand in a large lump of humanity in front of one desk or another.  When one section of a plane is called for boarding, everyone stands up. 

This was my first experience with this type of line, this mass line.  But I digress.  The line is a subject for another day.  Finally, I was making it, had made it through the boarding process and I was on my plane.  Things were certainly looking up.  The seats on the plane were large and comfortable, I had more gadgets than I knew what to do with, and I had a window seat. 

I didn’t sleep on the plane.  I never can sleep on planes.  Travel, whether to the other side of the world, or the other side of the state, is too exciting for sleeping.  I took pictures.  I wrote numerous emails that wouldn’t be sent until I found a reliable wireless internet connection again.  I wanted to document everything.  I wanted to tell everyone about everything.    I wanted to let my spirit of adventure soar, and land triumphant—there’s that word again—in a new land.  I was blazing a new trail, going where no person (or at the very least no rural Western New Yorker), had gone before, and goddamned if I wasn’t going to remember ever minute of it.

I remember very little of it now.  They say sleep is key in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory.  Oh, hindsight.

Istanbul was beautiful.  From the air, the city was a patchwork that seemed to stretch for miles in all directions.  The Mediterranean was the blue of happiness itself.  From the airport… well, I didn’t see Istanbul from the airport.  The international terminal in Istanbul is quite a bit bigger than Terminal 1 in JFK, but no more inviting.  After an interminable walk from the arrival gate, I was greeted by no less than three different, but to a foreign eye indistinguishable, lines, and virtually no guidance as to which would safely get me to my connecting flight (I say virtually because in fact there were signs, but not informative signs, and people just milled about, occasionally hopping lines and all in all making getting anywhere quite a miserable prospect). 

I got lucky, though—my second choice proved to be the correct one.  Who knows how long I might’ve stood there in my first—incorrect—choice of line, queuing like a good American, while all around me people milled, shuffled, and moved forward for inexplicable reasons, speaking indecipherable words that brought to mind images of Babel to me, but seemed to get them where they needed to go.  But I didn’t just stand there (for too long).  I made the correct choice (second).  Once again American guts and ingenuity were proving unstoppable.  I was on my way. 

Next stop: 6 more hours of layover in a foreign airport that I couldn’t leave.

In popular culture, air travel is romantic.  It’s an adventure.  Even when someone gets snowed in, or misses a flight, sleeping in an airport is not that bad because it leads to the inevitable reward of the storyline.  People who sleep in airports are atoning for a relationship sin, earning or re-earning a loved one’s trust, enduring love’s purgatory until they are once again reunited with their soul mate—or at the very least that fictional person designated in this particular fiction as their one true…whatever.  In short these people are questing.  And it’s noble, and it’s romantic, and it’s even somewhat glamorous. 

Real airports are a wasteland of trackless granite floors, hard metal chairs bolted to the floors, and armrests that don’t go away and so prevent any kind of productive sleeping.  For about half my layover, I wandered these trackless wastes, alone, tired, not really hungry because I’d eaten an overpriced sandwich in a restaurant that promised free wifi but delivered only a token facsimile, and just plain bored.  There are only so many times one can read the departing flights boards, especially when they only put up flights two hours ahead of time.  When you can’t even see your own flight number, all interest and novelty is really taken out of the endeavor.

I wandered the barren departure terminals, with their frozen empty landscapes of so-called chairs, counters where once smiling flight attendants had stood, and the inevitable pillars which prevented one from seeing the counter from the seat one is always forced to take, far from the gate, because one got bored and wandered off for just a minute, only to return and find the waiting area completely full of people.  I sat in empty rows of chairs, half-convinced myself I would sleep for a while, but then ended up wandering on after mere minutes.  I tried, time after time, to find reliable, free internet, trekking up and down the hills and valleys, wandering all the various caverns extant in the local geography. 

I got to know the well-trammeled terrain of that airport quite well—the forests of pillars, the resplendent but far-flung fountains, twinkling oases in this desert of wifi capabilities.  It was indeed purgatory, of a sort, but there was no carefully choreographed romantic reunion at the end of my little interlude.  Oh, how I lamented my decision to ever leave my beloved country, with its surfeit onfStarbucks and Starbucks derivatives who fed off our great nation’s desire to appear hip, cutting-edge, and different by doing what everyone else in the industry does at exactly the same capacity.  Some would call it mediocre; at that moment, I called it dependable.

Instead, more wandering, more desert.

Until I happened upon a place that changed my (travelling) life forever.

There, at the far end of the airport, shining like a golden ray of hope, I saw it.  Like the gates of heaven, those doors opened for me, and I was saved.  I’ll never truly know if I was, by virtue of my international boarding pass, actually allowed in that Turkish Airlines lounge, but whether or not I had the correct ticket, I had the correct attitude.  Yes, once again, America wins. 

You see, I was unsure:  was I allowed in?  was I not?  But I had a goal.  Just out of sight, I knew there was another world waiting.  I didn’t quite know what was in that world, but I knew it had to be better than where I was, and I wanted in.  Turnstiles.  I hate turnstiles.  But that was it.  Standing in my way was a turnstile, and a little red line that would scan the code on my boarding pass, and tell me whether I was worthy.  Surely my time in purgatory—tired, far from home and my loved ones—was enough to grant me surfeit from the desolation surrounding me.  I tried it.  And when it didn’t work, I tried it again.  Finally after a third try, with my obstinate refusal to go away, the man at the desk let me pass. 

And it was glorious: clean bathrooms, free wifi, free food, an entire room devoted to giant reclining chairs and relaxing music. 

Once again, America wins.  When all else fails, act like you belong there.  Invariably you’ll find that you do.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Planes, Trains, and ... pt. 1

It was a pleasant Tuesday morning when I set out on my journey.  My flight was at 12:15pm, so of course I was sure to arrive at the airport by 10:00am for the obligatory 2-hour wait in the terminal.  Even with flights to Toronto to keep it busy, the Rochester International Airport very efficiently gets passengers through security and off to the one operating terminal of its two (prudent of them, really, to keep a back-up on hand at all times [really, I’ve never seen the other one in use.  I always fly out of terminal 2]).  Luckily, I had a brilliant view out the windows in the gate waiting area.  And the terminal was so calm, so peaceful, without the hustle and bustle of so many—I’ll say less organized—International Airports.  Such a relaxing lack of shops or restaurants, or really anything to do or see to distract one from the pleasant quiet and solitude to be found in Terminal 2.

My overseas flight, booked with Turkish Airlines, left from JFK with a layover in Istanbul, but I had a separate flight to take me from Rochester to New York.  I was fortunate in this.  Having flights with two different airlines meant I needed to recheck my bags once I arrived in New York.  If you’ve never pushed a trolley, loaded with enough baggage to last a year, through JFK Airport, then truly you are missing out.  JFK has an extensive train system to take you anywhere you could possibly want to go in the airport, except where you need to go.  Indeed, I’d no sooner figured out how to disengage the brake on my trolley and pushed it onto what I thought was the train I needed to take me from terminal 5 to terminal 1, then I was told that this train, the train that was marked as going next to 4, then to 3 and 2, and finally to 1, was going somewhere quite completely different. And the stairs!  There were at least three separate levels from which trains arrived and left, and while there were stairs and escalators in abundance all over the place, it was as if they were purposely trying to hide the elevators from anyone who was actually trying to accomplish something with a large amount of luggage and small amount of patience or, shall we say...patience... with airports that cover a larger area than the town in which I grew up.

Perhaps I should’ve taken it as a sign.  Though Terminal 1 of JFK Airport was not so pleasantly bereft of activity as Terminal 2 of Rochester International, it was quite lacking in anywhere to sit, or anything to do, really, during a four-hour layover.  I don’t mean to say that I sat in a tiny international terminal for four hours with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  I mean this to be a true and accurate depiction of my travels, and so it shall be.  No, at least 45 minutes was spent trying to traverse the broad and trackless wilds between Terminals 5 and 1.  And then of course there was the hour, at least, that I sat on the floor in front of the Turkish Airlines counter, waiting for it to open and let me check in and re-check my luggage.  Two hours being the natural maximum pre-flight period to allow check-ins for people arriving for an 18-hour flight to a place half-way around the world. 

But back to my sign.  The train system would seem to have been encouraging me to spend more time away from Terminal 1.  Go out, see the airport, even take a ride into the city, it said to me. Enjoy your freedom.  For once you enter the realm of Terminal 1, you’ll be in a wasteland of bad internet connectivity and non-vegan dining options.  Oh, and sitting on the floor.  (I suppose I don't really mean wasteland.  There were things happening in Terminal 1.  There were shops in which to buy liquor, jewelry, and overpriced clothes.  There was a giant door marked Air France, through which on could watch people mysteriously go in and out, and disappear inside, as if walking through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia.  Perhaps this, in itself, was a sign.  

I didn’t heed the signs, though.  Still high on my conquest of the week before, when I single-handedly brought the Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan to its knees, I stepped boldly and bravely into a new world.  

Terminal 1.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Trip of a Lifetime

It was to be the trip of a lifetime:  to spend a year in an exotic and interesting part of the world, see a new capital rise, listen to the cacophony of languages mixing in a picturesque tapestry of sound, to thrill to the sights and sounds and experience of a new and rising and flourishing nation… and pay for it?  No, no, no; this was employment!  Hard enough to come by in the States, but they’re practically giving it away here.  Ah, I thought to myself: a professional traveler. 

I’ll experience the culture of Kazakhstan as it really is, and of course I’ll write a blog about it.  They may be a new nation, but I have the eternal optimism and “get it done, yesterday,” American spirit of the perpetually young United States.  I would go forth and conquer; I would make my mark.

That, of course, is the most important part of any blog-worthy travel experience.  Or any blog-worthy experience, for that matter.  Certainly, had blogs been around when he walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s iconic words would’ve been blasted across RSS feeds all over the world and there’d have been a lolcat meme about it before he even got home to earth. 

Making one’s mark, though, is harder these days than ever before.  The world is getting smaller, not bigger; it’s been conclusively round for many hundreds of years, in the U.S., even, non-whites and women have all the theoretical rights of their white founding fathers.  Wars have been fought on a global scale, and Justin Bieber successfully escaped Canadian pop-stardom.  What more, really, is there to do?

And honestly, I’ve pretty much done everything here in Astana.  Pictures of Bayterek Tower.  Pictures in front of Bayterek Tower.  Pictures of Bayterek Tower at night.  Pictures in front of Bayterek Tower at night.  I even have pictures of President Nazarbayev’s residence.  They brought me here for something, but in all the rush of preparing for it, of moving, of arriving, of going to work, of coming home from work, of taking the bus, of walking to various parts of the city, of taking photos of Bayterek Tower, of learning how to be a vegan in the most meat-based dietary culture I’ve ever encountered… I forgot quite what that was. 

How would I do it?  A pertinent question.  Would I go native, renounce the culture of my birth, adopt the language as though it were always my own, and finally say “we,” not “they?”  Would I write humorous reminiscences about the silly, simple ways of the people and situations I encounter, with just the right amount of amusement and condescension? Or would I find my niche by hating everything and turning to a patriotism I’d never before known?

Make no mistake, though, I will make my mark.  It’s the American Way.  I’ve got the American Spirit, the can-do attitude, the optimism.  I did it yesterday, will have done it yesterday, and I have conquered.  Or will conquer.  It’s manifest.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Introduction: A Pleasure Cruise

This blog is a record of my residence in that new and wholly independent Republic of Kazakhstan, of which we all know so well.  In it, I intend to set forth such trifling and amusing instances which may crop up from time to time in my year working at a large university library.  As such it will not contain that gravity to which readers of expatriate blogs are accustomed, and which is so proper to writing of that nature.  

For months, the offer of work in that younger sibling of nations, Kazakhstan, had been bandied about on professional job-boards which librarians are known to frequent.  It was a novelty in the way of employment tactics.  To my experience, its like had not been tried before.   The fascination it elicited was equaled only by the very opportunity it represented—the experience of a university library in the so-called “Western world,” and all one need to was move oneself twelve time zones into a future world.

It was to be a vacation on a grand scale.   The participants would greet each day with the certain knowledge that they were enjoying the pleasures of living in an unknown and exciting land, they were getting to “take a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and many a land renowned in history.  It was a brave conception; it was the offspring of a most ingenious brain.  It was well advertised, but it hardly needed it: the bold originality, the extraordinary character, the seductive nature, and the vastness of the enterprise provoked commentary everywhere and advertised it in every household in the land.”  How could I not but take the offer?