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.

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