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.