Friday, July 31, 2015

Bless America!

One of the many blessings of annual trips home is we appreciate our country in ways that people who don't leave it for extended periods of time can't.  I don't think I will ever tire of an American grocery store even after we retire and spend decades in one place. So much stuff. So many choices. Thank you America, for having sugar snap peas, fresh green beans, endless sweet corn, steak, bacon (both piggy and turkey varieties), hot dogs, Turkey Hill All Natural ice cream, any kind of otherwise dairy food in a dairy free option (Alex has eaten her own weight in Tofutti Cuties). And when I go through the produce section, it is possible that I may not find even one rotting piece of fruit, even if I am looking for it. I think I gained 5lb in our first week. We've eaten Chinese, Thai, BBQ, Nepalese, real PA pizza, cheesesteaks (No, NOT with "whiz". The better, Lehigh Valley style with Provolone and tomato sauce).

It's mostly the food, but it is not just the food. I speak the language fluently. "Graduate school in this language" level of fluency, truth be told. It means I can communicate anything I want with anyone I want. Customer service? Ooooh. Nobody does customer service like good ol' USA - except the Japanese. But here, as aforementioned and how we can distinguish from Japan, I speak the language. And, for the most part, things just work properly here. This bears repeating. Things just work properly here. Until you live somewhere that things just don't work I don't know if you can have the same level of appreciation. Maybe you can. I didn't.

It's easy to watch the news and figure our country is going to hell in a handbasket. But the on-the-ground truth is that there just isn't anywhere quite like home.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer vacation, Foreign Service style

It's summer in the foreign service, which means we are on a several week whirlwind trip to see as much family and as many friends as possible, plus handle a year's worth of medical needs, grocery, clothing, and other purchases, and maybe get some "relaxing" done at the cabin.

We had dentist appointments last week. While checking out one of the kids, the hygienist asked when we would go anywhere for summer vacation this year.  We both just looked at her.  "This is our summer vacation," I explained.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th of July!

Well, picnics and fireworks and red, white and blue weren't in tonight's plan here in Astana but I did manage to get a little of 'Murica ... went to see Terminator: Genesis and it was IN ENGLISH!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Astana Airport



Image result for astana airport photosIt has been quite a week for us, Astana Airport. It all started when my flight from Istanbul touched down at 6am on Friday morning. You had no idea that you'd be seeing me again in fewer than 24 hours, as I brought my family over so they could go home (a.k.a. 'Murca. Which is something I never, ever call it.) And then again 12 hours later to pick up the delegation.

Sunday is a day of rest, as we all know. In our case Monday was as well. But Tuesday our 5am date happened as scheduled. And Wednesday. Ah, Wednesday, when I went to Almaty for the day.

One pick up, one drop off, one inbound, one outbound. We've watched the sunrise together a lot this week, dear Astana airport. I'm glad to know I have a whole week before I see you again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alnwick Castle

When we went to England, we were desperate to find a book long enough to keep Alex's attention for more than an hour because we didn't have enough space or weight to carry as many of her usual books as it would take to make the trip.  I thought Harry Potter would be the perfect complement to an English vacation.

She stubbornly refused to read it. In retrospect we should have had her watch the movie first.

The scene in the first movie where they have their first flying lesson?  Alnwick Castle, about 1.5 hours' trip from the hotel.  Turns out a Downton Abbey Christmas Special got filmed there too.

The place is impressive, with several smaller museums in various towers, the main State Rooms beautifully decorated, a library I could kill for, and for the kids a whole Knight's Quest area with costumes for dressup, activities to pursue (they made soap) and medieval games to learn to play. In addition, for the older and/or braver ones, a Dragon Quest that was like a tamed-down version of a haunted house but with the addition of riddles and games to solve to get the answer to the Quest.  And, finally, the broomstick flying lesson.  Because there must be a broomstick flying lesson. It went way longer than we expected so halfway through Zoltan got bored and tired and went to sit down.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sheep

My dad knows a guy ... he's got some sheep. Well, he had about 700, then they all bear twins so now it's more like 1200 or something like that. The numbers are fuzzy. The lambs are fuzzy too.  While we were in England (yeah, the trip was practically a month ago) we got to visit a sheep and cattle farm. We had a blast!  The kids especially loved hand feeding a few baby lambs - normally the mama takes care of the babies but sometimes you get a bad mom, or something happens to her, so they hand feed.  Apparently sometimes they can convince a different mama to "adopt" a baby or two.  We also got a see a one day old calf. We also got to ask a lot of questions about their care and the operation of a sheep farm. Career #next?  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hadrian's Wall


You just can't spend time in northern England without checking out Hadrian's Wall. And it turns out one of the better sites is one of the closest ones, and of course we wanted to stick close to home for the first day (everyone needed a nap, you know, after the long, started-at-4-am-travel).

We stopped in the gift shop because that is also where you buy the tickets (clever, eh?) and Zoltan immediately fell in love with the swords.

It started raining as we walked the half mile to the actual site - it was a former Roman village on the wall plus a little museum - so we stopped in the museum in hopes the rain, rain would go away.  The kids found the dress up area then became little menaces to anyone who got too close as they might have accidentally hacked off an unsuspecting arm if it happened to fling itself into their swordfight. Thankfully, nobody was slain, or even maimed. By the time they got a little too boisterous, the rain had stopped and we went out to enjoy the site.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ben Nevis

A long, long time ago Terry met a guy who introduced him to the Scotch of Ben Nevis distillery.  This stuff is rarely found outside Scotland. The first bottle was purchased in Edinburgh, if I remember correctly. The second bottle when we made the pilgrimage to the distillery itself.

The distilery won't ship outside the UK, and we can't receive liquids anyway.

In preparation for our trip to England we decided to try to order some Scotch and have it shipped to our hotel. But ... the web site doesn't have a place to enter a different ship to address than the bill to address.  When I tried calling I got a repeated busy signal.

And then I sent an email.  Through email, the manager? owner? really awesome guy who works there agreed to send it to the hotel where we will be staying and when we get there we can call him with our credit card information so he can be paid.  In the end I was able to work out with him a Paypal invoice that we could pay in advance, but in the meantime he had gone ahead and sent the Scotch so it would be sure to arrive while we were still in country.

And now the bottles sit proudly on our apartment waiting for the jet lag to subside so Terry can properly enjoy them.

Love good customer service.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

5 Pros and Cons on Astana

The New Diplomat's Wife is hosting a pro/con list of everyone's posts here. I figured I'd jump in.

Highlights
1. Winter activities.  If you can handle the cold (easy when you dress warmly enough), you can easily stay busy all winter.  Snowshoeing, ice skating, cross country skiing, snow fort building, all available for 6 months of the year.

2. It's a real city.  Everyone seems to think central Asia is a total backwoods.  We have Zara (although admittedly not Ikea). The opera is really good, haven't been to the ballet yet. Museums are few but not bad.

3. Pedestrian rights. When you walk into a crosswalk, the cars stop for you. Nevermind the car was trucking along at 30 mph 10 feet from the crosswalk. They will literally burn rubber to stop and avoid crushing you.

4. Fun architecture.  Where else can you give such a direction as "head past the pyramid, and when you get to the dog bowl turn towards the bread basket." (these are nicknames of buildings). The monument near our apartment puts on a nightly light show, as do several buildings.
Image result for astana pyramidImage result for astana dog bowlImage result for astana architecture
5. Indoor entertainment, especially for kids. The number of indoor amusement parks, restaurants with play areas, and even special treats like the indoor beach (sand imported from the maldives!) make the cold winter and hot summer much more fun.

Lowlights
1. Astana is like an island. The city is in the middle of the steppe, which is like an ocean of grasses.  The closest anything is Borovoe, 2.5 hours away, and it's a resort-ish town.  Basically you need to fly to get anywhere.

2. No cheddar cheese. In fact, no cheese of significant flavor. Food in general can be a challenge, epseically in the winter where of course nothing is fresh/local. There is a beef industry but I don't know what they do to these cows.  It has taken a good deal of trial and error to find meat tender enough not to stew.

3. Traffic.  There is little public transit infrastructure and all the lovely wide avenues means most things are just a bit too far away to walk.  The trip from our garage to Zoltan's preschool (less than a mile away) to work (about 1.5 miles away) takes 45-60 minutes if we leave the house too late. We could almost walk it as fast.

4. Pollution. In the winter they burn coal. You can smell it in the air, and some days look foggy but it isn't fog obstructing your view of across the street.

5.  The driving. This is related to, but separate from, the traffic problem. Many people drive like they just got their license (or perhaps never did).  The number of ridiculous, dangerous or just stupid things I have seen on the road ... just gotta shake my head. Of course this is a problem I find in Virginia too, just not quite so bad.