Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Training Wheels Come Off

In Which the Training Wheels do Indeed Come Off

And Other Adventures

The lazy summer days have come and gone, and with them summer vacation, unemployment and, really, free time in any quantity. It never ceases to amaze me how the thing we lament in one period of time we come to long for a few short weeks later. Being a housewife was never for me; I knew that, and expressed it loudly. Yet busy as I tried to make myself over the summer, it suddenly doesn't compare to the hectic pace at which days fly by. Now, bedtimes really matter. Not just for school; a Saturday afternoon lost to a prolonged temper tantrum that requires bedroom confinement is time you can never get back. He's in his room screaming about whatever it is he's found for an excuse to be miserable, meanwhile we're sitting there looking at the other 99 items on our to-do list and mentally reorganizing schedules. Always we're looking forward, trying to reassure ourselves that with the future, and the time that the future brings, we'll somehow manage to get to everything. Oh and maybe fit some sleep in there too.

I was unemployed over the summer. Often I had no reason to be out of bed before noon. Jump to late August when the husband has changed jobs and I drive him to and from work every day. Then add in getting the kiddo on the bus at some ridiculously middle of the morning time, then the fact that I started a business that also involves me being busy during those busy commuting times.  Then I took a part-time job, just to add to the fun. This is where the training wheels come in, I'm afraid. The summer was practice, a warm up for the real challenge. The summer was our training wheels. Did it help? Watching the youngster struggle to learn balance on his newly training wheel-less bike, we debated the merits of the crutch. Did they really provide a helpful step to independent bike riding? Did they just create a false sense of security that was rudely ripped away when we took them off? The summer was bike riding lite. Parenting lite, even (I don't mean we were part-time parents, just that we had a lot more time to fit parenting in with all the other stuff we wanted to get done). With the fall has come the real deal.

Training wheels, unfortunately, teach that success comes instantly. It was easy to do the dishes and run the vacuum when I had ten hours in which to get it done. Now I consider it a personal victory to have no dishes in the sink by the time five pm rolls around. As an adult I realize that the dishes will get done eventually. I can see that process in the future, and can visualize the steps leading up to it. As adults we can break down the complicated problem of managing the school/work schedule by breaking it down to manageable steps. 

Kids have to learn that the hard way, and sometimes we have to learn that little skill with them. For all our ability to see the process in front of the result, we have an uncanny way of forgetting that parenting itself is a process and not a series of end-results. We watch others go at the same problems we deal with, we mentally critique their processes, convince ourselves that we can go right where they went wrong, forgetting that every event is itself a step in a greater event--making a person out of a psychopath. By this time in our adult lives, we've forgotten what it was like learning to ride a bike (though we may convince ourselves we remember exactly what happened), and manage to believe that, hard as it was, and stressful, for every other parent before us, somehow it'll be different. We have just the right way to teach it, it'll be fine. 

As the custodians of burgeoning humanity, we have an urge not to let those small almost-people fail. We believe that somehow we can teach them every thing they need to know, save them the harshness of the world, prevent the bruises and skinned knees. The happy, easy times reinforce that, reinforce our willful blindness; those are our training wheels. We forget the process for the good result we think we've reached. Then we hear the frustration in a small piercing voice, reminding us how close failure is to those who expect instant gratification. We try to remain patient. We try to explain. We try to break it down to easy steps, then hold them up and keep them from falling when they try to skip one step to get to the result they expected to happen instantly. We're complicit in their failure. It becomes our own failure. 

Parenting, work, life in general: failure is not an option when you're an adult. But if you haven't failed at anything, you've never really done something that required effort. We can look forward, and see the possibility for success, plan how to overcome failure, because we've been through all this before. Every failure is training for life. Every scream, every accusation of agonizing pain, was an urgent call to let go, not hold on tighter as we do almost by instinct, trying to save our nerves and his. Probably it wasn't what we were thinking when we just sat down on the ground and let the kiddo go at it himself, relinquished control, watched him fall down over and over. We were tired and frustrated, so we just sat down. We watched him fall, tip, yell, drop the bike, and then we watched him ride. And then, like the silly humans we are, we assumed it would get easier after this.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Tale of Two Kiddies

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sometimes at the same time. So it goes when you are six years old, I suppose. And also the parents of a six-year-old.

We went camping in the Finger Lakes for Labor Day weekend. Which was a first for me, as I'd never really been one to "do things" on holiday weekends. Usually I was working, but being unemployed has given me a newfound sense of liberation and adventure, and I now have no problem just taking off for the long weekend, work be damned. I'm a rebel, me.

I've been doing quite a bit of traveling this past month. The weekend before Labor Day involved a trip up to Maine, sadly for a funeral, though it's still a toss-up whether that or the camping trip was more stressful in the end. Most of us have now forgotten—having been adults for so long—the special power a kid has for taking even the most straightforward of situations and turning them into the end of the world. I think that just happens to be our kid's superpower, actually.

Anyway, my recent travels back and forth across New York state have revealed to me that sometimes a staycation, when undertaken in the right way, can take you to more places than even traveling half-way round the world. Just a few hours down Route 90 brings you to exotic locales like Rome, Syracuse, Ithaca, Amsterdam, Troy, Geneva, Liverpool, and Berne, just to name a few. You can also, it turns out, get to a fun little place called De Nial, and return to it again and again and again. But you have to take a kid with you; apparently only they know the way. In this wonderful land the real world is kept at bay by a careful rejection of reality for a version only you understand and can envision, a refusal to admit that your way is not the only way, and an adamant belief that if you just scream loud enough everyone will give up and do exactly as you expect.

As I said, a couple weeks ago I had to go to a funeral. It was for a distantly related family-member, though as a lot of people probably know, the length of the branch doesn't always indicate actual distance on the family tree. Although we'd only seen this branch of our family for a week a year, I'd known them since I was born, and spent some of the best times of my life with our Maine Family. The past handful of years had seen fewer trips up to Maine—there was something about a year abroad, or some such nonsense—and I'd forgotten all the exotic places we used to pass on the way up to old New England. It's funny how sometimes it takes a funeral to get all the right people back in the right place again. Perhaps it even brings back that special childhood ability to have the best and the worst time at the same time that we all seem to lose as adults. I enjoyed spending time with all the people I'd been closest to as a child. It was also quite miserable at times, for obvious reasons.

The past few weeks, with all its trials and tribulations and tripping up and down the state have shown me how much we, as adults, have evolved to simply put up with things. Much as many of us would call ourselves perfectionists, we've moved far beyond the point where anything in life must be perfect. We've learned to tolerate imperfection for the sake of practicality—and yes, survival, when it comes down to it but let's face it, kids live in a world in which they already have most of the necessities of survival handed to them as if they're naturally occurring so really they don't see a problem in seeking perfection over survival—and rarely choose to fight when it comes to getting something just right. And when we do we're usually labeled childish.

Kids have an amazing capacity for dreaming life. At times it's incredibly unintelligible to the rest of us, to the point where it seems like there are two kids living inside the one we can see right there in front of us. There's the happy one, for whom the tiniest things evoke wonder and enjoyment. Then there's the unhappy one, for whom the tiniest things evoke fear and impending doom. And we really never know which one to expect, even to the point where a treat like going to get ice cream turns into a situation worthy of an emergency emotional meltdown. And with all these swings, a kid can still end the weekend by pronouncing that, "It was a pretty good camping trip, Dad."

Now back to that first "I'm home, oh my god a whole new foreign world called parenting" post. Yes, you can often find whole new crazy worlds, exotic places, imaginary lands without even leaving familiar ground. But if anything, all the new kid-mergencies have taught me that life is rarely an emergency, that just like getting to the other side of the world may seem scary and stressful and never-ending, getting to the other side of a crazy weekend doing a new thing with a six-year-old is stressful and can seem never-ending, but one happy wrap-up is all it takes to make things worthwhile.

I think. Tomorrow is the first day of first grade, after all. Things may change. Unexpectedly.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Nerds and Non-parents

Realizing I’d promised to write about family-hood and other domestic pursuits since returning from my year of imposed solitude, I’d like to natter on a bit about step-mother-hood if I might.  Well, if you’re still reading, I suppose that answers that. If not, well, I already have a five-year-old, so I've learned not to cater to toddlers.

I do find myself bombarde by mom-ness these days.  It's not what you think though. Actually, it started before I even got back to 'Merica. All over the social medias I'm seeing mom-ness. Everyone who can is making babies, and throwing up pictures. All the time the talk is about the babies. For the most part I'm still pretty well conditioned to turn and run the other way when I see stuff like this. Anyone who knows me knows my feelings about having actual babies, and while I don't believe I've ever come right out and said it, my earlier post, Mountains to Climb, is a pretty good introduction to my ambivalence about the joys of parenthood. Nevertheless, I tried to use the baby frenzy as a sort of jumping off point for my imminent leap into step-parenthood.  This, along with a decided bias on the part of most of my female colleagues at work back in Astana towards The Awesomeness-and-Necessity-of-Being-a-Mom even had me looking forward, at times, to coming back to a ready-made family.

I find I’m feeling a bit left out since coming back, though.  The truth is, I’d envisioned being a step-mother as something quite rewarding—trying, at times, to say the least, but the ability to shape a young mind, to share some of the things I’d loved as a kid, to watch as a child made newer and bigger discoveries—however I’ve found it to be rather, well, not.   I suppose I imagined that in coming back to a country so much more forward thinking in terms of women and children and families, I’d feel this great influx of solidarity and warm fuzzies and feelings over my choice to be a parent. Yes, just a stepmom, but still, it was a choice I could’ve said no to.  Could’ve happily gone my own way, not got married, moved on in my happily kid-free state. So many parentless kids in the world, so many progenitors-but-not-parents, and I chose to be a parent to a kid I didn’t even make!

Let me go back just a little bit. In Kazakhstan—on a side note, I’ve also often come to wonder if I’ll still be using that phrase 50 years from now, and if people will still be asking where that is and if it’s actually a country—all women are mothers, even if they don’t know it yet. I’m not making it up! I have friends, actual real friends, being reminded every day that having kids is the thing they should and will be doing.  Doctors. Loan agents. Bosses. Relatives. Having kids is just a thing women do over there. It’s not glorified; there is no cult of motherhood there. Women just get to a certain age, have a few kids, move on.

Thus my sense of being left out—cue flashbacks to middle school and being shunned by the popular kids because I didn’t have the right color backpack (or whatever it is I was being shunned for at any given moment [I was usually reading something so didn’t really stop to find out what it is I was being shunned about])—when I came back to the land of free choice and freedom to not reproduce and all those other things women have come to take for granted back here in ‘Merica.  Now that women are so free, all the time, to do and not do things, motherhood has become this cult, and only the great sacrifice will get you in.  No buying membership to this club, no, if you didn't push it out, they will be pushing you out, and don't let the door hit you.

Every once in a while someone who doesn’t know me sees me with the husband and stepkiddo and makes the mistake of referring to me as his mother, and I immediately find myself looking around, waiting to be found out, revealed for the fake mom I really am. For someone who already has social anxiety, it’s really a stressful situation. Doesn’t matter how many meals I cook, how many lifeskills I impart, how many tantrums I successfully ignore—because every good fake mother knows that giving in and giving the attention said tantrum-creator wants is just bad fake parenting—I’m still not a real mom. I don’t get to have the real mom feelings. Don’t get to have the real mom credit.

Well, yes of course he has a real mom (this is hypothetical me, answering the totally real and next question of hypothetical you), because of course you’re going to ask that the minute I start talking about wanting to take real mom credit for any feelings or doings I do while being the fake mom. And that’s what I’m saying. I was sold a lemon. Got talked into this great scheme called parenthood, only to find out I’m not qualified anyway. People keep asking when I’m going to have one of my own. I say I’ve already got one (usually at this point I’m walking away because I don’t want to get rejected from the mom club again), when I stick around to hear the answer it usually revolves around the strange notion that I need to have a baby, will want it even; raising a kid, apparently, is not the same thing as being a parent.

But at least I’ve had one question answered. I’d always tried to fathom why it is that the nuclear family is such an important things in good old OOSA, why everyone’s always scrambling to determine paternity, why women always have to have the kid, and don’t get to opt out through crazy things like abortions or birth control or whatever. Because anything but a birth parent isn’t really a parent here. Must be one of those laws they never talk about. You’re not a card-carrying parent unless you made it, then decided to take care of it. For all you librarians and sundry computer nerds, the Boolean operator you’re looking for is AND. No ORs need apply. Have we any NOTS? Don’t worry, just like the kids, you’ll be left out. Probably forgotten.

Oh yeah, you're probably wondering about the "Nerds" in the title. Nerds, being left out, literal definitions of things. You figure it out.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Questions and Answers

I've gotten plenty of questions about my trip since I got back.  My favorite, or course, has been, "You left the country?" But the most often-asked is not one you might expect.  No, it wasn't "You went where?", "How long were you gone?", or even "What was it like in... what was that place called again, Russia?" No, the question people ask me the most since I returned to the U.S. has been, "Glad to be back?"

Now, I am by no means a psychologist, but I know a loaded question when I hear one. You've gotta know that when a person asks a question like that, they expect a certain answer. And I'm happy to oblige, as it happens. Why yes, I certainly am glad to be back in a place where things make sense, where the traditional order of things I've known since birth is still in place, and where I can take advantage of all those, well, advantages I've been taught belong to me. Yes, I enjoy knowing my place in the world.

Not that everything and everyone didn't have a place in Astana. It was just an equally, shall we say allotted, place for all. Take for example any business larger than a basement-level mini-mart. They all have lockers. Not for the convenience of shoppers, especially in malls where you might have many bags by the time you're done, but for the convenience of the ever-present security. Everyone who walks into a business—for some reason in grocery stores more than any other place I've seen—is under suspicion, without exception. Ok, maybe grandmothers, but everyone is afraid of them, so I can see cause for dispensation. And everyone who walks into these places just knows and accepts it. People aren't to be trusted, no matter how they're dressed, or whether they follow the unwritten no-smiling-in-any-place-there's-a-chance-someone-might-see-you-do-it rule.

Now, I suppose I might have come under more suspicion in the "everyone's a criminal" initiative. It's not what you think though. Well, not directly. Security didn't profile me because I was a foreigner, but because, being a foreigner, I looked differently. Being a female who wore clothes that were actually comfortable, roomy even, naturally brought me under suspicion for intent to steal everything in the store. Wearing a sweatshirt into Gal-Mart, the upscale grocery store in one of Astana's many malls, is just an open invitation for a security guard to follow you around and stare at you the entire time you're in the store.

Also, I had a silly proclivity for carrying things—a messenger bag, a backpack, a purse that could hold more than a tube of lipstick—that immediately made me stand out as an obvious shoplifter. Women in this city, as I'm sure I've mentioned, don't carry things, often not even a purse. Probably it has to do with the fact that even a clutch is enough to upset the balance and tip those tiny women right off their four-inch heels. Luckily, there are men willing to display their masculinity at every opportunity and carry the purses of their women.

Now, I suppose it was a bit easier for security people to pick me out, being that I was recognizably not Kazakh. I could've passed for Russian, I suppose, if I'd dressed differently, but clothes were so expensive I just never bothered to try. So yes, I'm also be glad to be back in a place where I'm so recognizably not the person meant to be profiled. I can wear what I like, carry what I like, do incredibly suspicious things in places of terribly expensive commerce, and I don't even get a look. You can't be that, can you?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fair Weather and Fireworks

You'll forgive the lack of a July 4th post, I hope, as I've only now come out from under the bed.  You'll say I'm not used to fireworks yet, just being back and right in the middle of fireworks season no less, and probably you'll be right, but mostly you'll be wrong.  Fireworks we had, in Astana, and quite spectacular they were.  The problem, and my reason for hiding, runs a bit deeper than that.

The weather has been fair these past few weeks, bordering on and running smack into foul. When it hasn't been sunny and warm, it's been not just rainy but downright tempestuous, with thunder, lightning, winds, hail and more. Soothsayers are calling for the apocalypse (again), and though I haven't expected to see ghastly men on horses and ghostly souls floating up to heaven with their worm-eaten corpses along for the ride, I have been waiting to turn on the news one of these days and find that California has finally fallen into the ocean, or that New York's been flooded for good (I don't watch the news, but if I did I'd decide not to just in order to avoid the risk).

And there are the days that the weather does cooperate.  And it's fireworks season. It wouldn't be so bad if it was only the professional fireworks shows that are sponsored by the local communities, businesses and whatnot.  But in America, of course, we're free to do anything we want up to and including buying illegal fireworks, lighting them off in our backyards, and unexpectedly taking out an eye, a hand, a tree, even our neighbor's garage. It's the unexpectedness of the fireworks that's had me hiding under the bed, and not just during the 4th. We're so patriotic around these parts that the fireworks started even before July did, with the last weekend in June leading up to the actual holiday and on into the next weekend. And then there are the leftover fireworks, the ones we frantically threw into a box and stashed in the garage because the police sirens that sounded far away at first suddenly seemed a hell of a lot closer and was that a flashing light I saw the next street over? So now it's the week after the 4th and we've all these fireworks just sitting around that'll never keep till next year so why not just light them up on a Wednesday night? It's been a gorgeous day, finally no rain, and I'm sure the neighbors won't mind.  And if anyone asks, it was just a drone.

So on the one day I finally come out from under my doorway (on an inner wall, far away from any gas lines, electrical outlets, and spontaneously combusting rhubarb chutney [no really, it's an actual news story, read it]) to enjoy the non-purgatorial weather the next thing I know a bottle rocket comes flying at my head from three houses over. And I thought I had enough trust issues with this weather! You see, it all started, well, about a year ago when I moved to Kazakhstan. The weather began as the typical springs I knew: blustery, rainy, sometimes cold, sometimes not. But when it started to get warm it just kept going and didn't seem as if it would ever stop. Fall came, or at least made an appearance before winter pushed it aside. I'm pretty sure winter was still there when I left, end of May. It sort of cohabitated with spring for a month or so, each vying to take control of the general weather pattern. And that was when my distrust of the weather began. And it hasn't gone away.

In those carefree days before I knew there could be any climate but Great Lakes-mediated temperate with a healthy dose of Western New York irascibility I went outside of a time without thinking about what I should wear. Except in the most dogged days of August the weather was rarely so warm that a minor wardrobe miscalculation could be a fatal mistake, and winter was, well, winter. You wore boots and a coat and made your mittens with you and knew as long as you didn't decide to take a nap in a snowdrift you were generally not going to become an icicle. Astana changed all that. Besides unbearably hot summers and murderously cold winters, the in-between-climes had one constantly scrambling for the right clothes, never knowing if the temperature in the morning would in any way resemble that of the same evening.

I began taking a sweater with me, even when the weather was predicted to be summery (summer, for home). I would sit in the sun waiting for the bus, sweating in my light jacket, and fear taking it off lest a late season squall would blow in and take half my fingers with it. I began not just to understand my local colleagues who always wore a sweater, even in summer, but to identify with them and to agree with them. I looked forward to returning to New York as an opportunity to enjoy the summer I missed last year. But I've found I can no longer trust the weather. Even a sunny morning has me looking for rain, and wondering whether I ought not bring a sweatshirt for a quick outing to the grocery store. No, I don't walk to the store anymore, or have to wait for the bus. But I'd hate to catch a chill between the car and the door.

So I think for now I'll just stay in my handy doorway, and wait out the worst of it. I've got a cardigan. Hopefully it doesn't flood. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Civic Duty

Well, it's officially over.  I can stop running.  Most people who skip the country do so for financial reasons.  Unfortunately, mine were not so lucrative.  Nor did I leave in order to escape from a dismal climate to a more tropical abode.  Not even to get away from a clingy family friend who just can never take a hint in social situations.  I tried not to bring it up, whenever possible.  A stigma like that can only lead to awkward conversations, averted gazes, whispers.  But it's over now.  I suppose I can talk about it.

For all of my adult life I'd avoided that most tedious of necessary duties, that most thankless of thankless appointments, that longest of remedial sitting activities, by which I mean Jury Duty.  Yes, somehow for eleven blissful years I had moved often enough among the counties of New York State that I never got pinned down to serve in a municipal or country court trial.

And then my summons came.  Twas almost a year ago now but I can still remember, with the haziness of something fairly uninteresting and not really worth remembering, the day my mother said to me over Skype that my jury summons had arrived.  Her exact words were (not really), "you'd better email them that you're out of the country or you're going to get arrested!"  (She likes to exaggerate [I'm nothing like her]).  At the time I was happy, even optimistic at the fact that I'd get at least a year's reprieve (surely it would take them a while before they realized I was back in the U.S. again).  All I needed to do was email a copy of my work visa to the court, and I was off scot free.

Or so I thought.

In a move I did not see coming at all, the court sent me a jury summons two weeks before I even left Astana!  And in even worse news, it was for a week when I'd already planned to be out of town for an author signing (you remember those; no? well, there are these people who write what are referred to as novels, and then these people write a fair number of novels and then readers [the ones who read the novels] like them, and the novel-writers [novelists, if you will] become famous and then when they publish a new book they go all over the country and read from their book, and talk about their book, and you can buy their book and they will sign their book.  delightful, truly), which was to last from Thursday of my jury week until the weekend.  Wonderful.

Despite what I'd heard about jury duty being tedious and taxing and all that, it turned out actually to be quite tedious and taxing and, well, just plain annoying.  For starters, it was repetitive.  Every day for a week?  Just wonderful.  Taxing, as well.  All those cell phone minutes spent on local calls!  And the way that it was run, why, you'd get the impression they had no idea how it was going to turn out from one day to another.  No wonder people with good, steady, well-paying jobs dread this sort of thing.  The time commitment is just dreadful.  All the time, I was watching the clock.  One week began to feel longer than the entire year I'd just spent larking off.  It really was as bad as everyone said.

And they just heaped one indignity on top of another.  It wasn't just the complete disregard for people's valuable time.  They also treated everyone like just a number, referring only to designated juror numbers for all announcements, as though we're no more different than cattle.  Cattle!  Every day I called into the number listed on my jury summons, and was subjected to the same pre-recorded voice, spewing out orders as though we were all just products on an assembly line that needed to be added in the correct order.  "These numbers go here.  These numbers be prepared to go here on no notice at all.  These numbers call tomorrow."  I really wanted to quit, after the second day.  It was interfering with my family life, causing stress around the interruption of my personal time, and had the possibility of derailing a trip that had already been paid for.  What a nightmare.  It really is a wonder that anyone calls in the second day, though I'd be willing to bet call completion goes down quite a bit after the first.

But I didn't give up.  I made the call every day until the announcement was that we were all dismissed.  I made a quick cheer (I couldn't help myself), and decided since I'd already gone ahead and gone on my trip I might as well enjoy it.  I feel, to this day, still a bit exploited by the whole experience, and may yet write a strongly-worded letter about making jury duty a more humane process.  I just may.  But for now, I will put my trepidations away, until the next time I have to do my civic duty.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Land of the Free

Even after nearly a month since I got back to the old ancestral abode, it's nice to know my consciousness that any minute could be my last, if not my heart, is still in Kazakhstan.  Culture shock is a funny thing, not least reverse culture shock.  From the realization that the light doesn't actually have to say walk for me not to get killed while crossing the road—I literally had to have my husband teach me how to cross the street again—to the sudden giddy knowledge that in this country you can literally pay someone to do just about anything.  And not only will they do it, but they'll be pleasant and happy and actually act like they want to do it.  Whether or not they actually do is, of course, irrelevant.

The best part about being back though?  The freedom.  You can do anything here! Be anything.  Say anything.  Only in America can you not only pay anyone to do just about anything, but you can have a job or not have a job.  You can choose to blame yourself for lack or surplus of said job, or blame someone else.  You can expect to go out and find a job, or expect someone else to find you a job.  Only in America, do citizens have the freedom to go jobless.  Entire families have the freedom to go hungry, live out of cars, and ask other people for the money to get by.  It's that easy!

The post-Communist world, for all its progress, certainly can't boast that.  In Kazakhstan, you're still forced to feed your family, even if you can't get a job.  The government will literally use its own money to feed you.  And if you're extra oppressed, the government might even go out of its way to get you a job.  True, you can still choose to have a ridiculous number of kids, but be aware that if you get pregnant, the government will force you to let it pay for your doctor visits up to and after the baby is born.  

Surely, it can't be all that bad, you ask?  Well, no, not entirely.  You still have the freedom to smoke all the cheap cigarettes (and they are cheap, thanks to lack of taxes and, I'm gonna assume, also regulations) you want and no one says a word.  Exercise is also relatively frowned upon, unless you're an Olympic athlete, so you shouldn't feel an inordinate amount of pressure to be fit.  But be aware, no matter how long you live, unless you die before you retire from your government-provided job, you will be forced to live off the government mandated pension fund that was put away for your future benefit.  So don't get too damn cocky.

Ah, to breathe the free air again. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mountains to Climb

Or, stepping out of the steppe (and into a wholly unfamiliar existence)

The other day, less than a week after my exciting 24-hour voyage back to good old Fairport, I did something totally new and, to be honest quite terrifying for me.  I attended a 5-year-old's birthday party with my husband and his son.  Apparently, this is a thing among the kids these days.  But rather than 10 screaming kindergartners running around some poor parent's backyard, with bursts of games, cake, and gift-opening mixed in, this particular instrument of parental torture was hosted at a place called Bounce-It-Out, which, as the name implies, is a warehouse full of various bounce houses and other climbing/jumping paraphernalia.  Waterboarding has nothing on the shrill ferocity of 15 kids who suddenly realize they're allowed to run around indoors.

But of course before we could actually attend said party, we first had to go buy a gift, which involved soliciting the dubious advice of our own little attendee.  Upon hearing of the fateful party and gift, I couldn't help but think of the musings of McSweeney's own Dr. Amy Fusselman on the subject of child gift-giving in her column, Birthday Parties Are Different Now.  Generosity, thy name is not kindergartner.  The boy was more concerned that his friend not receive something he himself did not already own, or that didn't fit some other arbitrary criteria he made up on the spot ("No, I don't want Christian to have a monster truck").  There is nothing children don't already have that they really want.  Or that doesn't cost more than what their parents have already spent on the party.

And of course, while the children run around and play games as though they've known each other forever (which, in their conception of time, they have) the parents who actually decided to stick around for the party mill about, each in their own little bubble of free space, rarely crossing orbits or making eye contact.  If they're anything like me—which is unlikely—they're all wondering what is going to go so wrong in the next 10-15 years that will turn these little social, semi-sociopathic, butterflies into the constrained social unicorns we all have become, and if it's really worth it.  Somehow I doubt that's what everyone else was actually thinking though.  As far as I can tell, alcohol was the popular subject parents broached when they did manage to utter a social word or two to each other.  Don't get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with them, but is a three-story-high, 170,000 square foot room full of air-inflated dirigibles really the venue for that kind of talk?

Possibly the biggest hit among party-goers was what they called an "indoor playground," but which for some reason reminded me of Rambo 4.  Maybe it was the dark, jungle-esque atmosphere of the bottom levels, and all the mesh netting everywhere.  And the screaming.  At least there were no flame throwers.  The other big attraction was the giant inflatable slide.  Over and over kids went up then down, up then down, up then down.  But ask them to take their clean laundry upstairs to their bedroom and suddenly they have lead feet.

I also got back just in time to catch the tail end of the school year.  Having grown up living out the "the country," I never got to experience that kind of school's out feeling you see on movies and tv shows where children, dismissed from class,  pack up their stuff and proceed to have all kinds of adventures walking home from school every day.  Where I come from, if you missed the bus, then you'd better home you run into someone going your way who has a car, because mom's working til 6 and otherwise you get to hang out in the school lobby til she comes to get you.  Here, the young one takes the bus in the morning but, living 1/4 mile from the school we have have the option of walking him in if we want, and we walk up to get him after school (except in the case of the kind of rainstorms that wash small animals down the streets).  And I say up because the school somehow manages to be built upon the only hill in the entire village, and yet still only 1/4 mile away.  I feel like an astronaut just returned to earth every time I try to climb that hill and realize that my steppe-atrophied legs an barely get me there.

I guess I've got a long way to go before I feel comfortable doing this kind of thing.  How far to Astana?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Final Tour

Picture Merlin, from Disney's animated The Sword in the Stone, just back from Bermuda, coming to a screeching full stop, still in his Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, surfboard in hand, right in front of a bemused child-Arthur.  That is me.  And you are child-Arthur.  You'll forgive me, of course, for disappearing this past month, but I, too, was off on a whim.

I've been in serious training, you see, for something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, and finally, my moment arrived.  Just what was this whimsical and serious adventure?  I was training to participate in the national sport of Kazakhstan, which is of course competitive bus surfing.  How do I know this?  Just look around; it's happening everywhere, everyday (as with most sports, it gets better promotion and funding in the cities).  Like American youths watching and waiting in the wings, and then bingeing beneath their blankets at night in hopes of someday becoming the competitive eating stars they idolize, so the youth of Kazakhstan hone their skills on city streets  all over the country.

So I knew, with one month left before I leave this great country, possibly forever, that I had to get in on the Olympic-sized action.  I set off on a whirlwind tour, seeking out every opportunity I could find, every secret trick and technique, every great guru to emulate.  And then I returned to Astana, capital city and home of the great practitioners of the sport, to train.  It was intense.  It was grueling.  But it was worth it.

Competitive bus surfing is, as it sounds, a sport that takes place on public buses.  It is not, as you might be tempted to assume, performed on top of buses, but in the buses themselves, in the public standing areas, and it measures not just one's physical prowess and balancing skills, but also artistic interpretation and performance.  It combines the physical beauty of figure skating or gymnastics with the real proximity of danger you see in auto racing or American football.  A tumble in competitive bus surfing can cost  you more than style points; it could put you out of the action for months.

Bus conductors are generally recognized as the best at the sport, being required to stand on and navigate often crowded buses without the benefit of a handhold, all while counting change for fares.  These people sometimes perform their job sometimes with a kilo or more of change in pockets and purses on their persons, and you rarely see one miss a beat.  Conductors, being professional athletes are of course barred from competing on the national circuit in keeping with the old Olympic spirit.  Making the jump from paid athlete to amateur national sports icon (if you make it big) is tough, and few can succeed in this cut-throat sport.  Most aren't bitter about it, and can be great role models for training, but it's best to be circumspect if you decide to emulate a conductor's style.

What follows is the place I would show you pictures of different surfing styles as exemplified by the conductors who practice them.  But they wouldn't let me.  Turns out they really can throw you off of public buses.  Instead I will do my best to describe some of them to you.

  1. In what is known as the gorilla technique, competitors swing from bar to bar, rarely letting their feet touch the floor.  This technique is more prominent among males, whose longer arms and fingers allow them to reach these bars, which are often out of reach for shorter bus riders.  This method is somewhat less prevalent among competitive bus surfers because, requiring much less balancing upon two feet, there are far fewer opportunities to score points.  When done right, however, this method can be a slam dunk when combined with the technique of the one-handed multi-task.
  2. The SoCal boy, a personal favorite of mine, is perhaps most reminiscent of the sport's namesake—actual surfing—and relies on the technique of leaning into the turn.  Buses in Kazakhstan, unlike their more docile counterparts in European countries like the United Kingdom, rarely slow down for turns, and approach bus stops often at alarming rates of speed.  Competitors using this technique must master the concurrent skill of foresight, as one lean in the wrong direction at the wrong time can doom a competitor.  Extra points can be gained for the longest lean, and the bus surfing version of the slalom, completed during long runs in which buses weave in and out of traffic.
  3. The moving target relies on constant movement by the competitor, usually in a forwards-backwards orientation to the direction of travel.  This method is considered by some to be the laziest, as mistakes can be covered in many cases simply by keeping your feet moving and not running into anyone.  The jackpot of this move is the dismount, though—the ability to arrive at the door at the exact moment the bus stops without a stumble and can often prove a game changer.

There are many breeds of municipal bus in each city, and none more diverse than in Astana, the new-old capital and ever-expanding dream city.  There are the cadillac lines, whose stateliness is only outdone by the plushness of the almost-new, most-new seats of all the buses (none of them were ever new, it's speculated).  There are the closer-to-microbus lines whose pluckiness and utter lack of shock absorbers make great training grounds, but can also prove hazardous to the the uninitiated.  And then there are the self-assured veteran lines, who will always be guaranteed usefulness and patronage, who go just fast enough to stay on schedule, and feel confident in their ability to get away with the occasional erratic move without too much grumbling by riders.  Whatever the variation, you will see the noble competitors practicing their moves, if you only know what to look for.

There is only one segment of society who scoffs at this great sport, but we also know better than to say anything because if we do it will mean an immediate end to birthday cards filled with money and all the ice cream we want.  I speak, of course, of the babushkis, the grandmothers of Kazakhstan.  These ladies are both wonderful and terrible, and also completely assured of their place in the nation's favorite sport.  Having the natural balancing ability of women, and the toughness only life under Stalin and a subsequent regime change can provide, these grandmothers of the nation are hands-down champions in the sport of bus surfing.  They also know this all too well, and having nothing to prove instead force the younger generation to give up their seats at will and just generally terrorize everyone.  And we love them for it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Astana is for Lovers

Romeo had his poetry and pointy sword.  That guy from Hi Fidelity had his ridiculously oversized radio.  The prince had Rapunzel's long hair to climb up.  Here in Astana, they do things a little differently.  I've been living in this apartment building for almost nine months (for the amazing story of how I ended up here, see A Room of One's Own, parts 1, 2, and 3), so this is a behavior I've been studying for a while.  At first I was quite baffled by all the commotion, but I believe I've figured it out.

In Astana, as they say, men are men, and women are women.  And there's nothing women like more than being wooed from their 8-story windows on a brisk, -20-degree evening.  From the parking lot.  I say from the parking lot, but really once the sun goes down any reasonably horizontal space becomes fair game as parking in this city.  But the parking is essential to this form of courtship.  Like the brightly colored birds in the Amazon forests who dance around and build elaborate summer homes for their prospective brides, the men here in Astana use their overly elaborate car alarms to attract the attention of their lady-loves.

After all, who has not experienced strong, nay overwhelming, feelings when wakened from a deep sleep by the strident beeps, whoops, sirens, and even computer-generated verbal warnings of a car alarm.  I have to say, I feel especially strongly about the ones that repeat, endlessly, until someone physically comes to the car to turn them off.  The amorous men of this district can't help but attract some attention with these ingenious little devices.  And I have to say, the women in this apartment complex are rather spoiled for choice.  Come evening-time the lot is full of cars, to the point that no more can even drive through, much less actually park.  On any given night you can hear the amorous warbling of not less than five lovers a-wooing and a-waiting.  I can only guess that this complex houses some of the most beautiful women in Astana.

Cars in Astana, like in most cities, are a bit of a status symbol.  And the price of gasoline is exorbitantly low, so cars can reach enormous proportions here.  The bigger the status, the bigger the symbol, so to speak.  And these valuable pieces of pretension are always kept running, warmed up, one would imagine, to provide an inviting egress for the newly-wooed.  Also, as I understand, an already-running car provides a much faster getaway for that playful pastime they refer to here as bride-napping.  Personally I prefer the local term—alyp qashu—so quaint, so un-indicative of its actual meaning in English.  But the women know what they're getting into, I suppose.  One would imagine it's quite easy to judge a man's worth by the size of the car he drives.

And now that the weather is getting warmer, I can only imagine the courting will increase in intensity.  The days are much longer, so the men have more time for driving around and deciding on their targets come nightfall.  Not to mention it's much easier to stand outside and wait for your call to have its desired effect when the temperature is above freezing.  And bride-nappings are much more likely to succeed when one doesn't have to contend with completely iced-over roads and giant piles of snow preventing escape from already impossible-to-escape parking lots.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nomads Exist!

This morning I decided to undertake a long-overdue task that I'd been avoiding all winter, namely because it was cold outside.  No, cold is an understatement.  It was hellishly cold.  That task was walking across one of the many bridges that criss-cross Astana.  Any tourist worth her salt knows that one's travels are not complete if no bridges have been traversed.  This brings me to the second condition that prevented me from bridge-walking for so long—finding the river.  Really, it's a bit of a charity to call the sluggish ditch meandering through the city a river (I think the reason this city even has a river is so that we can refer to it's two halves by the prosaic "right bank" and "left bank").  As in, "Oh, you live on the right bank?  That's so hipster.  I bet you were living there before the Soviets built Tselinograd, weren't you?"

I'm not ever sure the river is actually visible from the top of Bayterek, which, by the by, is by far not the highest point in the city, but if anything is to be espied from a high place, then it seems only fitting that all height-induced discoveries in this city should be made from the giant symbolic bird's nest.  Nevertheless, we did eventually find the river, and I would say that, while not the most spectacular bridge in the city, this one did have some interesting features.  It was near to the president's palace—ahem, residence— also had a lovely view of the giant glass pyramid that, as far as I can gather, was placed by aliens that the president summoned with his psychic powers.  Oh,  you haven't heard of the president's psychic powers?  I think it's a level-up you earn when you reach 15 years of being in power without any significant uprisings.

I now have reason to be happy that I waited so long to check this box on my Kazakhstan Tourist Travel Card (one more box and I get a free bottle of Kumis!), though, after what we saw on our walk.  I now have irrefutable proof that nomads exist.  Once thought only the stuff of legend, they yet walk (or rather, ride) among us.

At least he was riding against traffic.

It's difficult to say what, exactly, brought him out of the steppe and into the vast metropolis, but he obviously had something important to get to.  I, for one, wouldn't leave the pedestrian area and get anywhere near the driving lanes for any amount of kumis, shashlik, or manti.  But I suppose I take an outsider's view of things.

This brings me to an interesting point of Kazakh culture, though.  At one point while crossing the bridge, we encountered some military personnel, and I thought that perhaps they would stop this solitary nomad, tell him that horses didn't belong out on suspension bridges, especially anywhere near automobiles—how drivers in this city avoid fiery deaths everyday still eludes me—but they simply watched him pass.  Then I remembered that a horse can go nearly anywhere in Kazakhstan.  Why, once I even heard of a man on a horse walking right up to the presidential pal.. , erm, residence, and setting up camp in the presidential dining room.  I think the horse actually slept on the table.

In another account, a Kazakh man decided he wanted to go to the premier of The Dark Knight Rises, and didn't want to leave his horse out in the parking lot (I think it was asthmatic, and at that time of night the idling taxis raise quite a cloud of exhaust), so he took his horse into the theater with him.  There was a bit of a debacle when the horse's tail got caught in the escalator (they're still working out the lawsuit on that one), but no one seemed to mind when the horse—almost systematically—went around and sneezed into everyone's popcorn.  I suppose, given the choice, it's still better than having the teenager working behind the counter sneeze into it.

Yes, nomads exist, and they walk among us.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Cranes are Flying

One of my favorite activities when traveling to foreign lands, I've found, is walking around, looking up.  There's so much to see that one often misses when only worried about what's directly in front of you.  So ran my thoughts the other day when I hopped a bus that fortuitously took me the bazaar to buy my produce for the week.  Luckily, this bus happened to run in that direction, and kept running so until it subsequently arrived, which is not underheard of, but also not entirely, so to speak, heard of.

I had an interesting conversation with the lady who sells me apples.  She explained to me that the official bird of Kazakhstan is the Ьеркут (Berkut). I'm not really sure how we got on the subject of birds.  Actually, no, I am.  I absolutely know why we started talking about birds, and that there is a certain breed of local, existing in every culture, who upon finding out that someone is a foreigner feels it is necessary to tell something about their culture.  This telling does not rely upon any rational scheme for deciding what is worth telling, does not, generally, spring from any previous experience with the foreigner in question, and almost always consists of random facts.

The official bird, then, of Kazakhstan is the Ьеркут.  Ьеркут is not a word in English, but extrapolating from my recent experience this spring in looking up, I've come to the fairly certain conclusion that it translates roughly to crane.  Cranes, these days, are flying everywhere.  I suppose it's a sign of spring.  Spring is in the air, cranes are in the air.  I've never seen such cranes as they have here in Astana.  They soar above streets and above buildings, stark against the blue sky.  Sometimes they appear in groups, sometimes singly.  The great cranes of Kazakhstan, I think they must be symbols of rebirth, or growth, or something even more poetic, heralds of the trip that pilgrims will soon embark upon in just a few short years to this unique city.

Now, I've never been much of a birdwatching aficionado, but I did manage to snap some shots of the cranes in the almost year that I've been here.  You might be surprised to know that they even fly in the winter, though there are a good deal less of them.  Here are some pictures of the spring flocks.

This flock has been living here since before I arrived in Astana.
Sometimes the numbers change, but it's always been there.

One of my favorites.  I really like the juxtaposition of urban space and natural fauna.

Don't be fooled by the snow, it really is spring.

I believe this building's going to be an opera house.  These cranes know where it's at.

Oddly, they never seem bothered by the large amount of construction going on.

I think this is a family unit.  Anyway, they're quite close-knit.

A little obscured by the tree, but they're there, off at the city limits.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rites of Spring

Spring has certainly done whatever is the equivalent of springing in Russian/Kazakh here in Astana.  After the rivers of water flowing down the streets we're starting to see signs of real life here, especially in the form of actual people-shaped people, rather than amorphous blobs of winter coat.  This past weekend marked the official beginning of spring, and with it the beginning of the New Year in Kazakh culture.  This, naturally, means that all the cultural objects that were put in the attic for winter have been brought back out for the enjoyment and edification of the populace.

Tulips, culturally relevant, I suppose, for the fact that the Netherlands is one of the few countries in the Western world not currently trying to exploit Kazakhstan for some reason, decorate every building and street-corner.  And horses, so important to the historic and culinary identity of Kazakhstan—sensitively explained to us by the American and British news media—are also everywhere.  Life-size statues of them proudly prance at all the prominent intersections, mocking drivers with their apparent speed in the face of the ridiculous traffic jams that constantly ensue when motorists become convinced that if two lanes of traffic are good, three must be better, even is only room for two lanes (a remnant of the Soviet era, I suppose, when Russia proved that anything is possible if you're willing to let enough people starve to accomplish it [a noble principle, indeed]).

Yurts abound, especially on the aptly-named Green Avenue, which connects the president's palace—erm, residence—on one end with KhanShatyr, the great tent-shaped center of shopping and all things circular, and features numerous fountains, gardens, and needlessly placed steps throughout its length.  These yurts show how life used to be on the steppe (perhaps even where we're sitting right now [though not, I gather, in the winter—those nomads really knew what they were doing with the whole nomadic lifestyle thing]) and there are also lots of (horse-oriented) statues that illustrate the fun games the Kazakh nomads used to play for spring (naturally, on horseback).  Walking among all this festivity really made me appreciate how public funds can really beautify a city without relying on private investment.  Just goes to show you can do anything when you've been doing it for twenty years without asking anyone otherwise, I suppose.

It's great to see all this culture coming back out of storage, but I can't help but think of it in terms of those dioramas of Native American longhouses we used to make back in grade school.  For a couple months a year we learned all about the people that used to make their homes where our desks were now sitting, and were all very fascinated by it and so very sad that all that was left of those once-thriving cultures were casinos, cheap cigarettes, and tax-free gasoline.  And then we moved on to the Titanic and found something new to be fascinated by and sad about.  But the tribal displays, festivals, and cultural celebrations live on, and a few times a year (maybe more out west, where the reservations were more defined [and more resonant of genocide and cultural collectivization] than back east) you can go see the longhouses (or tipis), and colorful dress, and interesting religious practices, of the cultures that would probably still exist if they hadn't been forcibly replaced by something far more staid and, well, American.  And because you're a good open-minded American you'd be very interested and fascinated, however guiltily (part of being a good, open-minded American), at least until the next Starbucks came round the corner on your way back to civilization.

Personally, I haven't gone to see the yurts yet.  They're just a little too educational for me.  There aren't any little shops to visit (love a little shop), no way to carry home a souvenir of your cultural experience. That's where these Kazakh people are still making up ground, I suppose.  But when you don't have the responsibility of governing the land your people once called home, like these Kazakhs are now saddled with, now the Soviets have given up (didn't have that good old American fortitude to keep up with the forcible occupation gig for the long haul), I suppose you have more time for creating kitsch and clutter, more time for remembering without the day-to-day trials of actually living a culture.

And, not to be upstaged by horses and yurts, even the Bayterek's dolled up for the occasion.  Every night for a week you can drop by and see a great light show (it's on loop, it can go all night), with music to boot!  Just don't spend all your time looking up if you decide to walk around: the ground's a warren of cables sending power to all the light tower installations (tourists be wary!).

Bayterek, with laser-light entourage.

Great shot of the color change, except for the unfortunately-placed streetlights.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Change is Good

What a difference a week makes. And what would those innocents, those pilgrims of almost 150 years ago think, if someone told them they could escape their long trek, take a vacation from the vacation, as it were, for just a week, and come back with a new perspective on it all? Would they believe, someday, that a day's travel would take them to the other side of the world and bring them back? How this world has changed since those innocent souls undertook their light-hearted journey. What a difference there is in the twain.

But I digress.

A recent week's trip to London has thrown off my writing schedule (already somewhat dodgy) a bit. But as I said, it does provide some perspective for this year-long pilgrimage I've embarked upon. (Pilgrimage to what, you ask? Perhaps by the end I'll figure that out too). In the Great United Kingdom of Britain, etc., etc., (everything is quite great and grand there), the pound sterling is still the currency of the realm. No Euro for the Brits, no, they're far too independent for something so pedestrian. But it's not really much of a change, from Kazakhstan to the UK, at least in terms of currency. Coin is where it's at, in both places. The notes are big and colorful, and the coins are many and varied. It's enough to drive a staid American mad, trying to navigate either. The one country, so old and rarified, the other so new and proud of its independence, and both run on a currency that no one but a born and bred native could navigate.

How they treat their coin, though—therein lies the difference.  In the venerable old kingdom, you can pay with practically any note you like, and you'll get coin enough to kill any number of tourists from the top of the Empire State Building.  I had so much coin by my last day there that I was paying for whole meals all with little seven-sided metal disks with the queen's head on them.

What a difference a day makes though.  And a week, for that matter.  In a day I went from winter to an irascible spring that blew in just a little too temperamental for my taste.  A week gone by and a day's trip returned me to a city transformed.  Instead of Astana, fantasy winterscape of the steppe, we now have Astana, Little Venice of the biggest landlocked country in the world.  I have expected to see gondolas poling down Sauron Avenue, and little footbridges sprouting between Soviet-style block apartments.  Astana is an altered city.  In a day, in a week, in a month.  Everyday it's changing, and no one, it seems, can keep up with it.  Especially not the municipal drainage system.

A simple walk to the grocery store, on the day I got back to Astana, involved fording an impromptu creek where a street used to be, navigating a marsh of ice, slush, mud, and standing water, and a lovely walk past a parking-lot-cum-lake (lovely late afternoon reflection off the surface, though I wouldn't drink the water).  It certainly does wonders for the boredom engendered by five months of snow and ice and bone-shaking cold.  But what didn't change, lamentably, was the change.  Change-hoarding, I've come to understand, is not an easily changed habit.  In Astana, I hoarded change at all opportunities for fear of the cashiers who refused to take a large note and give change, but always demanded the change.  Some even went so far as to peer into customer's coin purses to make sure they were telling the truth about not having correct change.

Yes, in London, even a little change is too much.  Tradition rules, even when it doesn't.  In a pub, waiting for chips, we watched the Queen sign a proclamation advocating for equal rights for all.  I wondered what a figurehead could do, but, well, if this is what it takes to keep things moving forward, then by all means let's stick with the past.  But in Astana, there's never enough change.  The landscape is altered in a season.  People come, buildings appear, one season is, literally, washed away by the next.  Nearly all the people I work with, no matter of what nationality, are not natives to this city.  Every day I wake up wondering how much change is required.

Then I went to London, and, prepared for the inevitable demands for exact change, instead was given change for every note proffered, without a struggle of any kind.  One cashier even seemed surprised that I would ask if she could break a twenty.  So I found myself carrying around a purse full of enough metal to kill a man at a single swing.  It's no wonder I was tired after all the walking we did.  When my husband would leave change on the counter because he didn't want to carry it around, I hurriedly scooped it up lest we need it later to placate some barista or shop-worker.  And just when I got used to not having to dig about for the proper coins, I returned to Astana, where I was immediately greeted at my first foray for food by a demand for the change on my groceries.

Yes, change is good.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Rhythm of Life

Ahh, the rhythm of life.  Every morning, rain or shine, I know it's time to rise and face the day, for the simple reason that no one, even the soundest sleeper among us, could possibly maintain a placid slumber when the city starts growing again.  Like the proverbial rose, Astana by any other name would still resemble a playground for giant toddlers playing with human-sized erector sets.  Toddlers with a twelve-hour attention span who start their work when this city is still under cover of dark, and end long after the nine-to-five crowd has made its way homeward.

Like the worn-out refrigerator in my rented apartment kitchen, years older than the building itself, there is a rhythm, a predictability to the sounds here.  I can always count on my refrigerator motor coming on, like clockwork, at about the time I'm drifting off to sleep, in the middle of the night when I'm in the middle of a particularly pleasant dream, about twenty minutes before my alarm goes off in the morning, and pretty much any time I'm sitting in the kitchen trying to Skype with someone back home over a particularly choppy internet connection.

Just so, the city wakes and slumbers to the time-keeping of the industrial-sized triphammer, more regular than any pendulum, that somehow still manages to pound holes in the ground even in the dead of winter.  So regular is the construction here, the rampant growth of everything, that they measure time, not in hours, days, weeks, months, years, but in height—at this rate, I estimate, we'll see spring again when one more story has been added to the building sprouting above the roof of the apartment complex immediately out my bedroom window.  Just so, I imagine venerable old grandmothers telling tales of the city in their girlhood, when all the buildings stood less than three stories in height, and no one ever had to buy an elevator card.  And do you see that plump-cheeked boy toddling about the snow-covered playground?  He only learned to walk when the ice layer was just beginning to grow on the sidewalks and every other paved surface, and now look: it's a mere four inches thick and he's running like he was born to it!

In December, when the snow and ice just began to take hold, I caught a glimpse of these ant-like workers adding another story to that far-off building.

And now they are preparing to begin another story.  I wonder, do they even know when they'll stop?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Responsibilities of Celebrity

I went to the bank a week or so ago—I go now and again just to make sure it's still in business—and while there I was reminded of something which, to my mortification, I often forget.  I'd gone this time to look into what I'll call a glitch in my account, and found myself being helped by the same woman who had helped me the time before that, and now that I think of it, the time before that as well.

This happens at other businesses too.  The grocery store, the other grocery store, the bazaar, the convenience shop downstairs.  I always interact with the same person or small group of people.  They are memorable to me because I always see them in the same context.  I always run my errands on Friday, my day off, and as I have a repeating schedule I expect that others do as well.  The same was so in the U.S., after all.  Even on bus routes I've come to know the fare-takers who work during the times I regularly use certain routes.

Now, I have never considered myself to be an overly memorable person.  I have never gone out of my way to attract attention: in fact quite the opposite.  However, before now I was an American among Americans.  Now I'm a American in a place where Americans are rather few and far between.  Instead I'm a foreigner among locals, and so memorable.  When I go to the bazaar, if I have bought a thing once I am remembered and expected always to buy it.  The women who work the Korean salad stal see me coming and immediately ask, "Tofu?"  Indeed, I have a suspicion that they think tofu is all I ever eat, and I find myself buying other things just to prove that it isn't.  At the bank, where my story begins, when I walk in I see the woman at the desk noticeably sigh and seem to prepare herself for another encounter with that inscrutable American girl who knows just enough Russian to be a pain in the ass.

My progress with Russian also suffers as a result of this unexpected celebrity.  When once a person finds out I am American and speaks English to me, I feel obligated always to speak English.  At work they placed the communal microwave and refrigerator in an office where some of the occupants are learning English, and, knowing that many of the foreigners bring their meals to work, use our desire for refrigerated, bacteria-free food to force us into English-language interactions for their own benefit.  At unexpected times i my work day I am lured into impromptu interviews about curiosities and commonplaces of my life in the U.S.  They seem to want to know everything and anything, from how symmetrical heart-shaped valentines are achieved in the U.S. (they're not, unless one purchases them [anyone who's tried to cut out a heart using the fold-in-half method knows this]), to in which direction books are read (left to right [unless one is reading Manga {in translation, of course}]).

Disorienting as this constant interrogation is, the more so is my odd response to it.  I now understand what celebrities in the U.S. experience.  I now find myself answering questions and beginning statements with, "As a foreigner...," or "As an American..."  For instance, the other day a colleague made a comment about the weather.  I'm not sure now exactly what the gist was, but I replied, "Well, as a foreigner I find that snow falls heaviest when it's just cold enough to snow but not so cold that the moisture falls out of the air before it even makes it up to the cloud layer."  Fascinating and inspirational as I'm sure those words were, I'm beginning to feel the strain of being a foreigner and constant curiosity.  It's just so oppressive to always be aware of one's celebrity, and to always have to live up to it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bring in the Faith-healer!

It's now time, I fear, that we must address an issue of some import to those hapless travelers to this faraway land.  I've alluded to this in previous posts—Planes, Trains, and... pt 2Inevitability; A Room of One's Own, part 3—yet decided against discussing it outright before I had a complete representation of the prevailing situation.  Creeping into my ninth month of residence here in this fairy tale city, though, I feel I've gathered sufficient data.

One sees it everywhere.  In point of fact it can't be avoided, and it spreads from person to person—a red tide, if you will, far away as we are from the sea.  You can track the infection as it multiplies.  No I, of all people, realize the delicacy which a discussion such as this requires and indeed I would not even feel I should bring it up but for one consideration which elicits some urgency and for which I cannot remain silent and it is this: that foreigners are not inoculated against this epidemic.

I was dismayed, when I first arrived, to see this condition taking hold of those around me, but comforted myself that such could never happen to me.  For months I even deluded myself that I suffered no ill effects from repeated and prolonged exposure.  But I can't pretend any longer.  A recent trip to the United Kingdom has confirmed my worst fears, and it's time to speak up.  If we continue to ignore this problem, it will always lurk there, just beneath the surface, just waiting for a chance to come back.

In the fair land of my birth we have never a lack of faith in anything.  In fact we have so much of it—faith—that we must needs address it in our constitution and in our schools, and everywhere in our daily lives.  We are a nation guided, nay ruled, by faith, and so I thought that even when I went abroad I should always carry enough of it with me.

I didn't have enough to save me from the epidemic lack of it here though.  Perhaps it is because it reveals itself so gradually, so innocuously, that by the time it becomes all-too-apparent, it is too late to do anything about it.  You find yourself standing at the bus stop perhaps, with three or four others.  A bus appears, lo-and-behold, on the horizon, destined for your stop.  At this point neither you nor anyone else is even sure it is that bus for which you are waiting.  One or two begin to creep forward, towards the front of the platform.  You wait, thinking to yourself, there are only three of them, there'll be plenty of opportunity to get on the bus.

The bus approaches, you see it is yours, you step to the curb, patiently waiting.  The bus is slowing, but not yet stopped, and you remain on the curb, confident that when it stops an orderly flow of people off will be followed by an orderly flow on.  Everywhere in life you've been conditioned to a certain faith in that great tool of orderly society: the line.  Roped off queueing areas are a commonplace, and respect for personal space before and behind an innate awareness.  But back to that bus stop.  Even before the bus comes to a complete stop an old grandma comes out of nowhere and not only gets in front of you, but practically pushes her way up the steps, through those trying to exit, and onto the bus. And all of this before your shocked, albeit patient, American foot has left the curb.

In shops and other places of business it can be even worse.  Lines, instead of being straight and true with an apparent beginning, middle, and end become amorphous masses when once they consist of above four members.  The ebb and flow with the whims and caprices of those standing in them, often growing at inexplicable places when a new queuer joins somewhere in the middle, the reasoning, I suppose, being that if you know someone in line you can simply join them, no matter the number of people already waiting, and the closer to the front the better.

Perhaps most perplexing for the classically-trained queuer is the personal space conundrum.  Whereas your average American has been raised knowing innately that a certain amount of space is afforded to the person in front of you, and also the proper measure of distance for indicating that newcomers may step in front of you—the 'please, I am only waiting for my sister, who you see ahead there, step in front of me' distance—may find standing in line here quite perplexing.  If one leaves even the slightest gap, it will soon be filled by someone too impatient to wait, and with no faith that the line will soon move forward, as all lines do, to its destined completion.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dill, That Under-used Herb

Once of the peculiarities a traveller faces, no matter where where ends up is that of the food in any particular foreign culture.  Kazakhstan is no different.  There's one ingredient that achieves degrees of ubiquity previously unknown to me in any cuisine.  And I come fro the land where a cheeseburger and fries make a healthy meal as long as one eats the pickle.

I speak, as I'm sure you're guessing, of meat.  Meat is everywhere.  It crops up in the most innocuous-seeming of dishes, and the idea of purposely making a main dish of only vegetables that tastes good is quite a foreign concept.  As I mention in my previous posts The Trip of a Lifetime; Planes, Trains, and... pt.1; A First Impression Once Made; To My Anglo-Saxon Hips; and Cavemen, I am a vegan.  I don't eat meat, not even milk or eggs.

When I first arrived in Astana I was put up in a dorm room (also discussed at length in Luxury and Necessity), which did not have its own kitchen.  There was one shared kitchen for each floor, and of course I had only one set of borrowed cutlery and place setting, and no kitchen utensils with which to make anything.  Also, due to the, well I'll call it thorough nature of labor law, human resources and accounting procedure, and banking—let's call them rules—that stipulate that before a foreign worker can get paid she must wade through a sea of paperwork (at least a third of which is duplicates, or just pieces of pater with official stamps and raised seals on them), and further undergo a waiting period determined, I believe, by a complicated calculation involving the length of one's stay in this country multiplied by the degree to which one is in danger of starving if some sort of salary is not soon paid to the now all-but-helpless employee...

What I'm saying is I had nothing to cook with and no money to buy anything with which to cook.  It's common practice, I gather, for foreign employees to work pro bono, as they say, for the first month, while sufficient personal data, DNA, and guarantees of transfer of one's first-born child are gathered to open a bank account here.  I survived with a small amount of money borrowed from a colleague.  Most of my meals were eaten in the university cafeteria.

Which brings me back to the original conundrum.  Meat.

And when it wasn't meat: milk.  Either or both appeared in nearly everything served in the cafeteria.  Rice, dressed salads, and fruit became the staples of my once diverse and protein-rich diet.  And what should appear in nearly every salad and side dish in the kitchen (and for that matter restaurant in the city)?  Ah yes, now we come to the crux of the matter.  Dill.  That (as I used to think) under-used herb. So green.  So innocent.  So pervasive.  I tried a Korean-style salad with rice noodles.  Dill.  I tried a salad with cucumber and tomato.  Dill.  I tried a salad with carrots and cabbage.  Dill.  I tried a salad that had what appeared to be seaweed.  Dill.  In Italian restaurants the pasta dishes (generally the only things I ordered since they were most likely to be, or be adaptable to be, vegan) were topped with dill.  I could even swear—though at this point I may have just been paranoid—that the french fries at the burger places and the vegetable stir-fry at the Chinese restaurants had dill in or on them.

At first I was fascinated.  Perhaps they know something here from which I could learn.  Variety is the spice of life, I told myself.  I decided to embrace the ubiquity of this aromatic little weed.  It's so cheap and so very available, that I looked through my cookbooks and found every recipe I'd ever tried and liked, every recipe I'd passed up because dill was so hard to find back home, and began to cook with dill.  (This is, of course, after I moved from the dorm room into an apartment.)

A few months went by.  I brought lunch to work most days, but still occasionally bought a salad to round it out.  The dill was still everywhere, in everything.

It's been a while since I've cooked with dill.  Or consciously chosen a dish anywhere that I thought might have dill on it.  This little-used, little-known spice, once so spell-binding, had begun to haunt me. Dill pickles, once my favorite part of a sandwich or burger (vegan, of course), no longer had such warm memories.  Worry not, dill, for while I may pass over you at the supermarket or bazaar, you'll live always in my memories.  And in my teeth.  And, of course, in my nightmares.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Kazakh Step

Attention good readers!  There is a horrible inequity being perpetrated amongst us every day!  Everyday there are those that are raised up, while the majority find themselves cast low, equal only unto themselves in a world devoid of equality.

I speak, of course, of that injustice which is called the "Kazakh Step."  One p.  One e.  What is the Kazakh Step?  In every staircase there is one step which is different from all others in the set.  There is no pattern, no rhyme or reason which determines which step it will be.  Most often it is the first or the last.  Rarely it is another.  This step, whichever it may be, is always just a bit taller than all the rest.  This step inequality causes unrest among all the others.  Indeed the users of these unequal stairs cannot help but trip and stumble their way through the mire resulting from this arbitrary step warfare, and it should not, nay must not, be tolerated.

And it is not only in Astana that this terrible state is allowed to persist.  The stairs of Almaty, too, toil under this curse.  To the American stride, this is indeed a heavy load to bear.  Raised in a country that believes in dignity and equality to all its citizens, that one step out of many is allowed such great standing through no greater merit of its own does great injury to our civic spirits.  We are a tolerant people, but a civilization must have order; it must have justice; it must be able to walk up a flight of steps without falling on its face.

Take the elevator, you suggest.  Ah, yes, the elevator.  That great equalizer.  And yet, in many buildings, in order to use the elevator you must be one of the elite--possessor of that object of great worth, the elevator card.  Buy one, and you can ride 100 times.  Do not squander your rides though, for you will have to pay again when your 100 times runs out.

We are caught, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place.  Watch your step.  The only way out, is up.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Room of One's Own, part 3: Success?

How do you measure success when finding an apartment?  Location?  Amenities?  Low utility bills?  Great neighbors?  In Astana, Kazakhstan they measure by number of months you can stay in one place without being driven out by a lessor with delusions of empire.

If you'll recall, in my first post in this series, A Room of One's Own, part 1, I described my apartment hunting experience.  During that time I looked at a number of apartments before settling on the palatial prison.  Turns out we should've taken the place that looked less nice.

There are some rules for interior decorating I've noticed in my months here that it seems property owners should follow:

  1. All rooms must have at least 2 different wallpapers (except bathrooms)
    • with the corollary that all rooms must have wallpaper (bathrooms optional yet not excepted)
  2. All rooms must have a chandelier-like light fixture as the primary source of light
  3. All apartments must be decorated according to a pre-1990 style or contain at least 2 fully non-functional items with resemble functional items
  4. All apartments must contain at least one anachronistically-placed appliance or piece of furniture
Our new (also current [5 months and counting!  cross your fingers!]) apartment (we went back to the less-pretty apartment) breaks some, though not all, of these rules.  And it's my hypothesis that the less an apartment follows these rules, the less likely it will be that the property-owner will conform to the crazy landlady paradigm.  Our new landlady takes a hands-off approach to the lessor-lessee relationship, only dropping by after calling in advance to pick up the rent money or coming over to fix a problem.  

She's also wonderfully patient with the fact that I only understand about half of what she says (she only speaks about 5 words of English), and that I generally only reply with "yes" or "no" to her questions.  And she also handles the utility bills for us, paying them when they come in and letting us pay her back afterwards, instead of us having to stand in line at a post office and then getting yelled at by a disgruntled postal worker in a language we barely understand.

So, were we finally successful in finding a good apartment?  I'll get back to you in a few months.