Sunday, December 28, 2014

(Belated) Merry Christmas to all

The waffles were made and eaten, as well as the homemade breakfast sausages (Note to husband, there is no such thing as too much maple. Thank you for the beef sausages).  A LOT of presents opened and then played with, batteries charged so other toys can be played with. New movies watched. Alex has not yet taken off the winter hat given to her by my in-laws, she loves it so much.  I had to break our resolve not to change out of pj's all day because we needed eggs - chocolate chip cookies can't be made without them.  Fresh bread, an apple pie in the oven and chocolate chip cookies the kids made - with minimal supervision - queued up.

Some highlights: Alex saying this was the best Christmas ever primarily because we got to wear pajamas all day, even when we went outside to play in the snow (thank you snowpants).  Alex excitedly running out to tell Terry about one of the kitchen science experiments we did this morning and telling him "It's all fizzing over like beer!" Zoltan making tunnels and mountains out of his own body as the new electric train runs around the track.  Terry got the VPN working so Target no longer scorns me when I try to access its web site.

And, for the first time ever, thanks to living in a Muslim country ...... when Terry cooks up his traditional Christmas ham for dinner there was a ham just for me made from beef!  Merry Christmas indeed!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Our winter wonderland


Astana is the world's second coldest capital city, with the coldest recorded temperature of any capital (-52, not sure if it was Fahrenheit or Celsius but at that temp does it even matter?)

In the last month, we have been starting to enjoy what winter in Astana has to offer.  We went ice skating at a rink, which was important for getting some of our skates sharpened.  We then spent a few hours at the embassy skating rink (yes, you read that right. The embassy constructed an ice skating rink on the compound.  Our awesome facilities manager also created sledding hills out of mounds of snow.)  Here's the awesome part: on the embassy rink, for the very first time ever, Zoltan consented to skate without holding on to anyone or any thing. And after skating around for about 10 minutes on his own, he grabbed his hockey stick and started passing the puck with Terry. He immediately fell down after every shot. This was probably not on purpose in the beginning, but he definitely had decent enough stability towards the end that he didn't have to fall down. When skating around he would fall down and bounce right back up with an "I'm Good!"  Alex also had her stick and the three of them had a grand time until the blisters from her new skates started to bother her too much and bad mommy hadn't brought Band-Aids so she got benched.  Somewhere along the line Terry got his hands on a leftie stick so I will soon participate as well.  He was in absolute heaven playing with the kids on the ice. This is his dream come true.

There is also an ice skating rink at our apartment complex. created from boarding up and flooding a soccer pitch.  They recently added benches right outside the gate, and even flooded that area so from the time you get your skates on you are on ice.

Finally, the kids and I went to explore another phenomenon at our apartment - a sledding ramp, all iced over to keep the sled going farther, with stairs cut into the snow mound and a tunnel to play with off to the side within the same snow mound. We played out there for a good hour and the kids wanted to stay longer.

We haven't even looked for the ice city we hear gets constructed around now each year, nor have we yet snowshoe'd or skated on the river.  It's a good thing it's a long winter!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Settling in

We have books on the shelves.  The children have toy storage furniture in their rooms and the toys to fill them.  The awesome two story UAB box fort is just a pile of recycled cardboard and I think I am the only person who mourned its passing. Four boxes and two suitcases of clothes, books and housewares to donate to the nuns.  Snow tires on the car. More shelving requested from GSO and all balconies are full. We finally reached critical urgency in getting Alex new ice skates as the rest of the family's skates have arrived and skating is once again on the family activity list (spoiler alert: we got skates this morning and hit the rink this afternoon).  Beer is brewing.

We have spices, sauces and seasonings. Terry doesn't even normally like Mexican food and we've eaten enchiladas, tacos and tortilla soup all in one week.  Turns out what I suspected is true ... I don't need much in the way of clothes, toys, games, gadgets. But I must have my kitchen/pantry in shape or I'm a big grump.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Our stuff!

The day after the "psych out" I was certain something new would arise to prevent the resumption of cohabitation between my stuff and my family.  Our stuff was scheduled to arrive at 13:00. At 12:30 I was starting to get ready to go home, because if they say your stuff is coming, you go home even if you think they are teasing you.  The phone rang and the voice on the other end of the line said "The boxes are here early. Can you come home now?"

Well, duh.

These movers were fabulous. Very helpful, respectful, calling out the box numbers for me to check off my own handmade list (also good practice for Russian three digit numbers recall) and patiently waiting while I figured out which room each box should be put in.  The unpacking got overwhelming, and in several cases I had to tell the movers to stop unpacking things because a pile on the floor needs immediate attention whereas a pile neatly boxed can wait until tomorrow if necessary and there is a critical threshold of floorspace that cannot be cleared in a day.

As expected, everything was cold. Some things frozen solid (shampoo).  Some things exactly the right chilly temperature for enjoyment immediately (Yeungling).  We put all the items that, once cold, should probably not resume room temperature in one bedroom's balcony and opened the window to the outside.  We now have until April or May to consume everything located therein.

And for some other items, we now play the game of "can this, frozen and then thawed, be safely consumed?"

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Psych!

My stuff arrived in town the day after Thanksgiving. The Monday afterwards is a local holiday. I was a little surprised and definitely pleased to receive a phone call Tuesday morning telling me customs had cleared my stuff and I needed to be home by 1:00pm to receive it (the call came just before noon).

I ran around letting my boss and others know, and hopped in the car to get home in time. Lunch? Who needs that when you're pumped up on reuniting with snow tires that so helpfully keep you from getting killed as you get across town?  I got home, changed into jeans, and waited.  At 1:15pm I sent an email to the embassy shipping guy.  At 1:30pm I was looking up his phone number when he called.

Oops. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A little brag

Alex's school play is next week. She's a little mouse and in this play, unlike the Nutcracker, the mice are good guys.  Anyway, late last week I got an email from her teacher that a lot of kids have been absent and the teachers are worried about kids not knowing their lines. So, would it be OK (they don't want to put too much pressure) if they gave Alex ALL the other mice's lines to learn too, so she can say them if the kid is absent?

That's my girl!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

American English

Alex has a friend at school who has one American parent. The school is English speaking, although they learn British English (and yes, there is a difference, every so slight).  So tonight she tells us that when they are back at school she is going to ask the other girl if they can speak American English at recess, because they usually speak British English.

I wonder if they will notice the difference?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Epic Thanksgiving Post


The problem with being married to someone with artistic and design experience is that it is difficult to argue convincingly with them about layout and design issues. Of course, the family also knows not to argue with mommy about spelling or grammar, we all have our strengths. Why am I writing about this on Thanksgiving? Because I want several photos included in this post and the only way Terry will agree is if I write enough to make the pictures look nice spread among the text.

When you don't have your stuff, a lovely chilled bottle of white wine makes an acceptable rolling pin for the pie dough.  A tiny baby medicine dropper is a better-than-nothing baster. The borrowed roasting pan is too small so you use a tray meant to fit into the Mickey Mouse oven we used before getting our hands on the full sized American one, with the cooling rack sitting atop (and you hope the cooling rack is actually safe to use at high temps).  You lose a lot of turkey juice goodness because the tray is shallow and any movement makes the liquid slosh over.  There's a lot of talk between Terry and me of how things will be different next year.  The good news is that even with all that, everything looks delicious - which is why I wanted so many photos!  Notice the tray the turkey is sitting on - it's our new Uzbek pottery platter that we bought when we had a local craft bazaar at the embassy a few weeks ago. I am so completely thrilled with our purchases.

This year we're doing Thanksgiving at home, with only one dinner guest.  I am pretty sure this is the very first turkey we have ever cooked - we've always had somewhere else to go for Thanksgiving.  I am amazed at how relaxed this day is.  I made cranberry sauce this weekend and apple pie this morning. Terry made an overnight bread (started last night, baked it today).  We made dressing this afternoon while the turkey cooked, and cut veggies for the raw veggie tray.  Terry made gravy and mashed potatoes while I managed to get our car washed - it is so pretty! Such a deep dark red!  We got to the produce stand near the house and ran a couple of other errands.  We even had time to watch Frozen as a family (only our 4th time) and the kids got naps.  Our guest brought roasted beets and pumpkin pie. We managed to hit pretty much every mandatory Thanksgiving day food item without having to freak out about timing.  Maybe setting dinnertime for 5:00pm has a little something to do with it?

We also got a surprise visit from the owners of this apartment, with sweets and happy Thanksgiving wishes.  So lovely!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

cooking up a storm

Today the kids went to Sunday rugby.  Beforehand Terry made a full breakfast and I started bread.  After we came back:  pumpkin puree, pumpkin bread, applesauce, bread, oatmeal cookies, and homemade dinner.  It was quite a day.

We have friends with now-adult children. When we met them their youngest was a teenager.  They used to tell us to get the kids in the kitchen as young as possible. Part of the reason today's kitchen-fest was possible was that the kids helped and - as importantly - didn't need supervision so that it was help, not "help".

We still haven't convinced ourselves to work on their knife skills, though.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Handshake

Image result for kazakhstan flag
I know so many people around the world were excited and nervous at whatever time corresponded to midnight in D.C. on Monday, which was when handshakes went out.  I forgot that it was an important handshake day for us too.

Congrats, Terry!  Next summer when we go home for R&R, he'll actually return to post on a PCS out of his teleworking position and into the IPO slot in Astana.  I am sure that sentence just made some travel tech's head explode.

My little love

Zoltan is definitely more free with his affections than his sister. The other day they got the idea to make me birthday cards (6 weeks early).  Zoltan gave me his right away. He explained the picture and the very long word in "silly language" as meaning "Mommy, I love you. Thank you for all the love. Love, Zoltan"

I'm going to miss this when he grows up.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Borovoe


Astana is a relatively new city created in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of great open steppe around it and not much else. For the most part, a "getaway" involves an airplane. Except for Borovoe (now known by some - including Wikipedia - as Burabay, but I have never heard anyone use that word).

The Astana Outdoor Adventure group planned a hike in Borovoe that was reportedly very child friendly, so Saturday morning we got up and met almost 80 people in a parking lot and then caravanned in a dozen or so vehicles for three hours to a spot that I thought was remote enough I couldn't imagine how anyone could have discovered it. Nobody got separated from the group or otherwise lost. Some of the sedans almost didn't make it the last part of the drive, and we did agree that the Xterra really is the right vehicle for this post.

I've got to give the kids credit - they were rock stars.  Zoltan doesn't really love hikes anyway, and he missed his nap.  I had figured we would be out there 1.5-2 hours then call it quits.  We hiked around for more than 3 hours!  There were fits of whining but those were surprisingly weak and brief.  There were piggy back rides on the walk back to the cars, which was an excellent strength training exercise for mom.

When we made it back to the cars, we headed out to the second adventure of the day - a hotel stay at the Rixos Borovoe.  Many embassy families had recommended it and I can see why.  The place is a little resort - two playgrounds outside, a walking path along the lake, an indoor pool, sauna, steam room, and apparently if you can find the correct site there's inclusive deals with dinner or spa treatments included in the room rate.  We somehow hadn't eaten even a fraction of what we'd brought for the day of hiking so we ran to the restaurant after settling into the rooms.  I had promised the children at the worst moments of the hike that we could swim before going to bed so we hit the pool for 40 minutes too.  Next morning we were up early enough to see the last pink fading in the sky, reflected in the lake.  At breakfast we ran into friends who were also staying there, Alex got to borrow a book (she just runs through them and we still don't have our ship freight), and then back to the pool for a couple of hours before rinsing all that chlorine off and heading home.

On the way home we bought honey and vareini from a guy selling it on the side of the highway.  He was one of at least a half-dozen similarly-situated vendors or groups of vendors we saw on our side of the road.  Of course the vareini, made from some berry we didn't know, was очень полезно (very good for health).  I guess Terry should start slurping it down!

As a follow-up, it turns out our hike was captured on Kazakhstani television (must have been a slow week).  You can watch the clip here.  Look for Alex around 0:50.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Halloween

This was our first year of an embassy Halloween celebration that we hear is pretty common worldwide.  The offices decorated doors, staff got slightly early leave and kids trick or treated from 5pm around the building. After their bags filled with candy, there were games and activities, followed by pizza (for kids) and potluck (for adults) and more games and activities.

After last year's USA Halloween I worried the kids would be disappointed not being outside, going door to door, and the significantly lower volume of candy. I shouldn't have worried, they had a blast!

Ready to trick or treat. Note they are holding hands - adorable when they want to be!

After the face painting. Alex already had her kittycat whiskers, so she opted for hand-painting. It's a bit hard to see but a very nice looking black cat on a fence in the moonlight.  I have no idea why Zoltan is striking that pose. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Looking like Zoltan looks

When a person walks into a room, turns around in a circle and comes back out saying "I couldn't find it!", we call that "looking like Zoltan looks."

Today he misplaced something. There was drama, tears, and he even accused our nanny of throwing the thing away.  After nap he noticed it was in very plain view, right on a shelf in his room.  His comment:  "I guess I looked like I look."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bringing home the bacon

This week I had my first business trip, to Almaty.  Part of my job is meeting with people doing work in different parts of Kazakhstan. It was a good trip, productive professionally and a good time personally to see another part of this enormous country.  Our hotel's dining room was on the top floor so when I walked in for breakfast yesterday I gawked like a country yokel at the stunning mountains that overlook the city. If Terry helps me I will upload the photos from my phone.

There was no time for sightseeing but I did manage to eat Indian and Vietnamese food so I was pretty happy. I also had an expedition to the grocery store. It is well known among the Astana embassy crowd that when in Almaty one must pick up some food items that are not sold in Astana. Sadly, the cheddar cheese was completely sold out - Philly cream cheese took up its old space on the shelf (one of the store workers brought me to exactly where the cheddar was).

I did, however, manager to snag a few pounds of bacon. My original intent was to fill the insulated lunch bag I'd brought for the purpose, then when I saw the price tag ($15) I decided Terry could savor the occasional strip.  I got the bacon into the hotel minibar fridge. The next morning I had to request ice from the hotel, then fill a Ziplock I'd brought for that purpose in an attempt to keep the bacon cold throughout a day of meetings and flight back to Astana.

When I got to our apartment tonight, some of the ice was indeed still solid, and the meat was still cool enough that I felt safe keeping it.

There is now absolutely no doubt who in this household brings home the bacon!!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Drinking or no drinking?

The other night we went for dinner with friends. They speak better Russian than we do, so when the hostess asked something as we were handing our coats in to the garderobe (coat check, not medieval toilet) I didn't pay too much attention and let the friend answer.  The hostess led us from one room to a different one, and then everyone stopped and looked quizzical.  They asked the question again. It definitely wasn't "smoking or non-smoking room?" which is what I had gotten used to in Russia.

It was a Turkish restaurant. The question was "drinking or non-drinking room?"

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hockey time

A friend kindly picked up tickets for us when she got tickets for herself this week, so on Friday we went to our first Kazakhstani hockey game. Go Barys!!  [barys = snow leopard, a Kazakhstani national symbol]  We had been warned about the madhouse of parking, and several people without kids recommended that we take a taxi or bus. We decided we'd try it in the car, as overtired children at the end of the night are best contained within car seats and not waiting outside in the cold for either of the other options.

We got to the stadium a bit less than an hour before game time. A good deal of parking still available at the stadium. Free. Yeah.  We get in and look for food. Not great options, next time we will try to get to the game even a bit earlier and grab dinner near the stadium.  The stadium seats 4,000 people. Cozy.  We hear the new stadium will be finished by next season.  We took a wander before game time and there were a bunch of rooms that seemed to be holding different kinds of practices, such as dance or karate, around the main arena.  There were two ping pong tables inexplicably in an open area by the end of the hall [during one intermission we watched people playing, apparently it's a "thing" and they bring their own paddles and balls].

It was a good game, the home team won and the kids stayed entertained. When it was time to go there was a small crush of people on the way out but we were soon outside. Walk to the car, get the kids strapped in and .... five minutes after I got into the car we were on the road. The "traffic" on the road was another 2-3 minutes, maybe.

Oh, and did I mention the tickets cost 1000 tenge? That's about $7, being generous with the conversion rate.  I think we'll be going back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Car: Finally Victory

We didn't have any more pockets of free time until Saturday morning so that is when we went to make our second attempt at getting tires.  We were told at the embassy if we had pressure sensors for our tires we had to go to this one specific place to get the tires put on, even if we buy them elsewhere (as we had to - they don't sell tires at this place). So I called every half hour Saturday morning until they were open because their hours are not on the web site nor their telephone's prerecorded message.  We did ok finding the place except that the map showed the place being several blocks earlier than it really was.  We bought the tires and they said it would be about 10 minutes and they would bring them out, we could go wait in our car.  Um, it is freezing and sleeting and my children are with us, so I think we'll wait right here.

After a bit of time Terry went down to wait in the car. The kids had a snack and were playing with the few toys they had brought. Time ticks on. They eventually try to tell me to go downstairs and wait. I tell them I will go when we have tires in the car.

Once that happens it's off to get the tires put on. Here is victory #1.  I had to explain that we wanted the spare put back under the car, one new tire on the rim of the busted tire that was currently in the car and then that put on the back, the other new tire on the other back rim and lastly the tire from the back rim to replace a front tire that was well worn.  It was all done perfectly.  And we were able to lunch while we waited, thanks to the Hardees that shares space with the gas station next to the shop.

Except the tire pressure sensor was not re-set, indicating that they probably didn't do whatever was supposed to make them the only place to get pressure-sensor-tires replaced.

Victory #2 came during naptime, when I had to run out and buy a birthday present for a party Alex will attend this week. The invite came Friday, the party is Wednesday. Felt like we were back in Russia. With the help of the car I was now completely free to use - with gas, windshield wipers and a spare tire - I was able to run to the store and back in record time. I even didn't get lost!

Monday, October 6, 2014

More on the car

This car is more needy than a newborn.

When we realized what was missing from the car we immediately sent a confident message to the transportation guy that we were sure the windshield wipers and tire were somewhere and we would be happy to pick them up the next day. Confidence does not always make magic happen. The tire was still there, yes, but nobody knew what happened to the windshield wipers. And of course it rained, but cleared up enough for Terry to drive the car to the embassy the next day (after we corrected our insurance to also cover him. Somehow that never came up when I was dealing with all the paperwork previously. Now that I think about it, I may or may not still owe our shipping guy 2200 tenge - roughly $15 - for that.)

When you put a car on a boat for long distances, you are required to be sure there is no more than 1/4 tank of gas in the car. There are many stories of people aimlessly driving their car for a long period of time in order to get to that point when the transportation folks arrive and discover a fuller-than-allowed gas tank. I have to imagine some car exploded on some cargo ship somewhere in the world and now we have this rule. Anyway, what it means is #1 priority when a car arrives at the other end is to fill the tank.  Unless you don't have a spare tire because the spare is on the car and the busted tire was taken away from the car so a second nail-through-tire mishap would become tragic. In that case priority #1 is to re-obtain the busted tire so there is a rim on which to put a new tire.

I speak Russian, Terry does cars, so we end up having to do a lot of things together that one or the other of us could theoretically handle on our own. One day last week I had enough of a break between meetings, and he had enough free time, that we decided to hold a late "lunch hour" and get some things accomplished. First was finding the busted tire at the embassy motorpool garage. First step: find the garage (10-15 minutes). Second step: let them know we came for the tire  - not as easy as it sounded as the guy we spoke with didn't know about "the tire" so I tried to explain in my level-2 Russian and he definitely came out of it thinking I was asking for one of the embassy's tires because the second guy was surprised when I said "maya shina" - my tire - and he eventually figured out what I wanted and showed me the tire, then made Terry drive into the warehouse to where the tire was to pick it up.  Getting to the gas station that also sold windshield wipers was the easy part of the whole experience, except that our car takes two different sized windshield wipers and one of those sizes was not sold there. We found close enough and the guy pumping our gas helped up get the wipers on with the help of Terry's pocket knife to open that darned clamshell packaging.

Off to the tire store! Except the shopping mall where the tire store was meant to be has  two names and the one we knew wasn't the one proclaimed in big letters on the top of the building so we had to go past, turn around in traffic, and head back.  There was a sign showing that parking could be had in the back so off to the back we went. The biggest tragedy of this story is that we didn't get photos of the abandoned construction site we walked past from the parking lot to the front of the mall. Imagine a half-built building, sitting in at least a half-floor of water like a little pond, and the road that goes along this pond has almost rusting metal bars sticking out every few inches or so into the air above the pond, dissuading anyone from jumping in (not that one would. It also smelled of sewage).  I have never seen anything like this in the middle of such a developed city - as Astana is nothing if not a very developed city.

But I digress.  We go into the mall, find the tire store, and ask for the tires we need. I had called earlier and I knew they had them but there must have been a mis-communication because they now told me they only have winter tires. We have four winter tires on a boat in the Atlantic so we really wanted all season/summer ones. Strike out!

Making the best of the situation, we headed to the grocery store we noticed in the mall. We've been in this chain before, it sells Shop-Rite brand stuff. We grabbed a bunch of things we didn't think existed in Astana and called it a victory.

Part II comes soon .....

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I drove my car

The car is here, cleared customs, registered, insured and ready to drive. We only noticed after we got it home that the windshield wipers have gone missing, as well as the rim to the tire that got destroyed in shipping (the benefit of a big car is full sized tires as spares!) I'm hoping motorpool can find those items today. We still need to buy tires as we have no spare right now ...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ribeye

There's a gourmet food store in town that people talk about because they sometimes get in bacon. When Terry went to check it out last week, they were out of bacon but told him they would have ribeye later in the week if he wanted to get some. Mmmmm ribeye. We knew it would be a treat and would definitely cost more than it would at home. We were prepared to pay up to double the usual cost because, you know, we're overseas.

I went to the store today and asked about the ribeye. Yes they have it, here it is. How much does it cost?  "Sixteen [and change]".  "Sixteen thousand?"  "Yes."

Friends, we declined to buy the $90.00 per kilogram ribeye.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cashew milk

Astana is a consumables, Pouch-only post. There are few non-dairy milks to be found around town and the only ones I have heard of so far are ones I don't drink.  What does this mean? Any non-dairy milk I drink must be procured within the year after my arrival, and too bad that expiration dates don't quite take me all the way to the end of the tour. So, we will be experimenting with the home-grown variety.

On our super-productive trip to the rinok this weekend we found the nuts and dried fruit vendor and got a small volume of cashews to work with for our first experiment. We'd heard it was a super easy nut to milk and if the blender/food processor is good enough you don't even need to strain anything.

First off, we don't have our ship freight so we don't have the awesome Ninja blender. We have the tiny food processor that attaches to the 220v stick blender motor. Second off, ignore the first off. With our inadequate equipment and the need to strain the liquid I still managed to make something I wouldn't mind drinking with a chocolate chip cookie, PLUS a small batch of homemade cashew butter.  Cashew butter is relatively tasteless, or perhaps something is missing from the recipe?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Adventures in fresh produce

We love us some farmers markets, rinok, produce stands, whatever you want to call them. Although we had a major packout fail this time and didn't pack spices in air freight, when you have fresh produce you don't need much additional flavor. Plus, we like to do some "putting up", and made sure to put canning supplies in air freight.

All this leads to ... the weekend farmer's market running in Astana through the fall, wherein farmers from some nearby areas bring in their produce every weekend at low, low prices. We decided Saturday that it was a good use of our time to figure out the bus schedule and route and pile everyone out to the "сельскохозяйственная ярмарка" (agricultural fair). 

Unfortunately, by the time we got out of the house and the bus got through traffic, it was mid-day. The hoardes of people (yes, I used that word intentionally and ironically) meant that any stop at a stall to try to buy some of the food we came to buy would take longer than our patience and hunger levels could tolerate. For example when the kids and I went to the honey stand, a woman in line was calling out another woman for just walking up to the front and told her they had already been waiting 1/2 hour.

Conveniently, the mall next to the fair held Burger King, so it was lunch and back home for us. Getting what value we could from the experience, we silenced the whining Alex by telling her that when you try something new, sometimes it is wonderful and sometimes it doesn't quite work out.  The kids got 2 bus rides out of it, so they should have been pretty happy. 

We were wary, but in need of ingredients for various culinary projects so Sunday we headed out again. This time we got out earlier in the day, made the kids take backpacks with toys and snacks to keep them entertained while they waited for us to hunt and gather, and went to Evrazia.  The best way I can describe it is that it is as close to Sennaya Ploschad as anything I have found here so far. There's inside and outside vendors, selling all kinds of meats, farm fresh eggs, dairy products and fruit and veggies. Oh and honey too!

We got tomatoes, peppers and onions for salsa. We got three different varieties of apples for sauce, apple chips, and pie (one variety was pretty fresh/sour). The strawberries should have been passed over, but we ended up incorporating them into apple-strawberry sauce. I can't wait to make scrambled eggs from the 10 (they don't sell by the dozen here) that Terry chided me into buying - I was sure they would all break all over everything on the bus ride home. Can you tell which egg in the photo is store bought vs. market? And of course the honey! It is so good that offering the children bread and honey for treat elicits squeals, not groans.  We'll be back often.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The one where we mess up pretty big

With care and attention, Alex has been healthy and medicine-free for about six months.

And then we moved to another country.

We thought we were still being diligent. We kept her away from known dangers, and even read the labels on the chocolate bars (thank you Kazakhstan for having so much delicious non-milk chocolate!!) Without our stuff to make it, though, we had to buy our bread from the store. And this was our ruin.

We tried a few different types of loaves and found a good sandwich bread, and then we found this bread.  I have been told it is actually Uzbek or Tajik, but anyway it is in our grocery store and delicious. The week we discovered it we ate 4-5 loaves in the week.

I have had no confirmation about this but I suspect the bread is made with milk. In retrospect, the taste and consistency definitely point to milk in the recipe. I also only now remember that we had to read labels carefully in the USA because so many brands of bread had milk.

Alex has been coughing for a week, and I had a massive dairy reaction last week as well.  She's been back on medicine and the coughing doesn't seem to be quieting down as quickly as usual but Terry tells me I'm misremembering. I hate when I'm an idiot.

Disclaimer: I am also working with Alex's school to check out the lunch menu to be sure there wasn't anything verboten there, but I don't dine there and I also had a big reaction. The bread is the only thing that didn't either have a label or was clearly safe like fresh fruit. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

UAB forts

One thing that has become a tradition for our family with each UAB shipment is the follow on cardboard forts.  We pack a couple of box cutters and a roll or two of packing tape in the UAB boxes.  When they are emptied we give the kids a play area that they are so excited to have.  Another benefit is that the three walled cardboard used for UAB is it really sturdy, so you can make dual level structures.  We could probably go higher but I have visions of Zoltan wiggling out of a window back down to the floor for a nasty bump on the noggin.  So when UAB showed up the kids were very very excited to the see all the big boxes.  The first night we put together a relatively simple structure with two levels (Upper right photo).  The kids each agreed on one entry box being their own houses and the two in the middle are the shared house.  You have to go through one or the other kid's house to get the shared house.  They were quite pleased with the arrangement.

This tour is unusual that we also got an HHE by air shipment. The movers in Maryland packed it just like any other UAB shipment.  So we have lots and lots of boxes this time.  I decided to expand the fort some the next night.  I added another bottom section but not actually attached to the the first section.  Then I added a second section on the second level that you can use to as a bridge to go from one side to the other.  Alex was showering when I finished this up.  She can out and went in the fort and proceeded to go to the second level when she saw the new addition.  Her words were something like "Hey what the? Oh Cool!!"  Unfortunately the written word can not really catch the confusion in her first statement followed by the excitement in here second.  Not sure how many of these we will build before they become boring to older kids (or they just don't fit) but right now it is such fun to watch.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Air Freight!!

Glory glory be. 23 days after arriving at post our air freight has arrived. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome kit life

Now that our air freight is here (glory, glory, blessed be - finally!) I will try to explain what it is like to live off the "welcome kit". Mind you, I am not trying to compare our "privations" to the lives of the impoverished, for whom even our meager surroundings may seem a bounty. But for those of you reading at home in your stocked houses or apartments, imagine this:
  • You have to do laundry frequently because nobody has enough clothing to last a week.
  • Down to the salt and pepper (in our suitcase this time!) if you want to make a meal, you must go out and buy every single ingredient. You don't already have in your pantry a bottle of olive oil, a jar of basil, a can of baking powder. Now repeat this experience a dozen times or more. And while we're at it, remember you have no car and you're new in town so you have to hand carry home every item you buy and you might get lost in the process. And sometimes you have to go somewhere else for your fruit, or your meat, or your dry goods - not a lot of one-stop shopping outside the USA. Good for building muscles!
  • Your children have four toys so they spend a lot of time aggravating each other for entertainment. You can't count how many times you have told them about your friend's aunt whose toys throughout childhood were "One red pencil. And one blue pencil. You at least have more than that. Now go play."
  • For two-pillow sleepers it is especially challenging to get a night's sleep, as the welcome kit pillows are more like one-half pillow. I resorted to snitching the kids' lovey-pillows if they weren't sleeping with them that night.
  • Tummy bugs cause real panic, because there is exactly one set of sheets per bed. If the vomit doesn't make it into the bowl, the kid sleeps on a bare mattress until laundry can be completed. (We were blessed with sufficient notice, decent aim, and very good friends who loaned us a set of sheets).
  • On a similar vein, on laundry day nobody can dry their hands or take a shower either, as there is also exactly one towel per person. Extra bonus for the exfoliation skills of the towels we have, as they are at least half sandpaper (be careful drying those sensitive spots!)
Ah, yes, the glamorous life!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Plov

I worked a long, long day on Tuesday. Kids were already in bed when I got home.  But, there was a delicious plate of plov waiting for me, as well as tomato and cucumber salad (lots of dill of course!)  The house was clean, the laundry folded. And Terry was happy, because he did absolutely nothing to make all of that happen .... well, nothing except do his job, thus ensuring two salaries with which to pay our almost-full-time housekeeper/nanny.

Worth. Every. Penny.

I can't wait for the next meal she makes for us!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Photos of Astana

I am a little slow in getting some the photos of our first days in Astana.  Finally I have the first batch edited and up online.  The photo on the left will take you to the album.  The photos are from our walk down the Nurzhol Boulevard (formerly the Green Water Boulevard).  This is a pedestrian walkway the goes all the way from the President's residence called Ak Orda to big tent.  The official name of the big ten is Khan Shatyr.  It has a shopping and restaurants and on the top floor an indoor beach with pools.  Very expensive from what I hear.  Although might be worth the cost in the -40 winter days.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Where's our stuff?

When our home in Astana is at full complement, we will have received four shipments: UAB (air freight), HHE by Air (extra air freight), POV (our car), and HHE (ship freight - the bulk of our stuff).  In the normal course of things, UAB and HHE by air arrive within 2-4 weeks after an employee gets to post, the car and HHE arrive within 2-4 months.

Our car will arrive the same week as one set of air freight - juuuust inside the 4 week timeframe. The other set of air freight hasn't even been scheduled yet, nor has the bulk of our stuff. Alex and I are running out of rice milk, we are running out of meals that can be cooked in two pots and/or one small pan, and we all will need hats and scarves soon as the temps are into the 30s Fahrenheight at night already. I am totally patting myself on the back for packing everyone's winter coats and the kids' sleeping bags in our suitcases.  I am eternally grateful for the new friend who has loaned us a blanket indefinitely, as our welcome kit blanket can't hold up to Astana September nights.

Zoltan came down with something last night. We had to borrow a second set of sheets from a friend in case he vomited in the middle of the night and didn't grab the bowl in time, because we have exactly one set of sheets per bed.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A day of firsts

Alex started school for real today. She rode the bus for the first time and was collected at the bus stop by our new nanny for the first time.

Zoltan started at detsky sad today.

Terry started teleworking today.

Our new housekeeper/nanny started working today. Our house is so pretty and clean!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Astana

We're 3 days in and things are starting to move along at rocket speed.  Alex has been assessed at school and we've bought a first tranche of uniforms. She even has a special school logo backpack she has to use (sorry, mom). Zoltan managed to snag a spot in the detsky sad where we wanted him to go. Terry has a local phone. Technically I have a work phone but it isn't the phone number I was told it was, and nobody knows what it is. Also, it doesn't make outgoing calls or texts.  In case we haven't mentioned it yet, Terry got his teleworking finally approved so it is really going to happen. September will be a big month for everyone, as the kids to back to school and he starts working after 2 weeks on leave.

On the work front, as they say, "everything is awesome". My portfolio rocks, I have already started meeting people and racking up quite a business card stack - now i understand why the embassy printed me a bunch before I even arrived.  My colleagues are wonderful. taking time out of their hectic schedules to explain things to me, give background and relevant info.  The local employee who works on my portfolio is as wonderful as everyone said she is, and as a bonus she gardens so can give us tips for next summer.

Our apartment is huge and not perfectly laid out, so it remains for our stuff to arrive and for us to figure out how to arrange things. Zoltan's room may need to double as consumables storage, and the office will need to be co-located in our bedroom. On the plus side, the bathtub is the size of a jacuzzi and we have three lovely balconies for when the weather is nice. The apartment building takes up an entire city block (like a big hollow square) and the inner courtyard contains not one but two sets of playground equipment. We can walk to a bunch of tourist sites as well as a huge shopping mall that contains a grocery store.  Next week I will try my hand at walking to work.  I also hope to have some photos up soon ... got to get Mr. Photographer working!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The cloud, then the rainbow

(the cloud) When I went to double check that the hotel in DC had confirmed a reservation with a taxi to the airport, the gentleman at the counter confirmed that no reservation had ever been made. Grrr. But he did what he could, and a taxi almost big enough showed up only 15 minutes later than our reservation time. With the help of bungee cord, the "almost" became "just enough."  No traffic meant we made it to Dulles with plenty of time.

(the rainbow) Pretty much everything that has happened after we got to the airport was wonderful.  The whole check-in online thing has really streamlined the time spent in line at the airport. The kid are big enough and motivated enough that they are quite helpful - they each pushed a 360 spinny suitcase and Terry and I were able to manage the rest of the luggage.  TSA Precheck was the most glorious perk of official travel I have experienced in a while. No need to remove ANYTHING from any bags ... except that I forgot a bottle of milk from Zoltan's breakfast and they did have to screen that, but it wasn't too much of a wait.

The flight was uneventful. As usual, the kids did not sleep ... well Zoltan did pass out on a makeshift bed on the floor under his and my seats but a tiny spot of turbulence meant we had to get him up and buckled and that was the end of that. The inflight entertainment options were plentiful and the kids never asked for the tablet. The kids' TV shows were largely shows they like and the movie options included Frozen AND Lego Movie AND Cars AND Cars 2. We could have stayed on that plane all day.  One glitch was that we didn't request kids' meals 24 hours in advance, but as we knew that we bought a sandwich in the airport before the flight and cobbled together snacks and the roll that always accompanies airline meals into a decent enough meal. The flight attendants very kindly asked if we needed anything more and did in the end bring us applesauce for each kid.

At the airport we quickly got our bags and equally quickly found the place to leave the bags overnight.  Off to the hotel!

This is where I rave about the Frankfurt Marriott hotel. The gave us early check in (9:00am - super early!) AND late checkout (3:00pm - kids can nap before the red-eye!) AND adjoining rooms. The month and more we spent living in hotels last summer did wonders for Terry's status with Marriott so we got executive floor access, including the club room. This means breakfast, a "happy hour" with enough food to fill our bellies, and water whenever we want it. Score!  We ended up eating lunch in the hotel restaurant too and although European prices are still heart-attack worthy, the food is at least delicious. I am still thinking of the tomato and buffalo mozzarella starter we had. The staff has been so amazingly helpful and gracious. When I asked if one dessert had milk in it, the employee I asked checked with the kitchen, came back to say sorry it does, and then told me that if we would still be guests of the hotel tomorrow night the chef would make something special for Alex.  They gave the kids sweets and again were sensitive of Alex, handing her bags of gummy bears along with the chocolate candy for Zoltan.  I can't say enough good things about this hotel and look forward to staying here again when we PCS.

And another shout out to my mom for her mad shopping skillz.  The Hungry Hungry Hippo travel game has already earned back whatever she paid for it, and Alex has already done half the templates included in her magnetic mosaics toy. We should have guessed that Zoltan would be absorbed with anything vehicles and not bothered packing anything else, but the tape road was a big hit in the hotel room.

One important lesson we learned is that when we let the kids pack themselves, we need to double check. I added a ton of extra clothes for Zoltan but we trusted Alex to follow directions and in the end she will be sharing socks with Zoltan and/or me until UAB arrives.  And we should have had her pack a bit more pants and a bit less shorts, that is our fault though. Thanks to the insight of one of my A-100 colleagues who suggested flying with a bag of the little detergent packs we are ready for laundry, which will be needed as we don't have a ton of clothes in general. The laundry packs already saved us in the hotel last week, as we got to fly with all clean clothes.

Also, the two travel nights' bedtime went like this:  We give hugs and kisses to the kids, then retreat to our hotel room while Alex reads a story to Zoltan in their hotel room.  It's pretty adorable.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The pack out

It all started so auspiciously. The pre packout inspection was the most thorough I've seen, he was detailed, wanted to see absolutely everything and wrote down what was going where and how.  High hopes.

I even got a phone call early enough on the Friday before packout that I hadn't thought to call them yet. Confirmed the team would arrive between 8:30am-10:30am.

The team arrived well within the timeframe. There were three guys. My heart sank a bit but I cheered remembering a recent blog post I read of the packout power of three (apologies to the poster, I now can't find it amid all the packout blogging going around these days).

One guy started packing the downstairs UAB (90% of our air freight was piled in the study), one was in the kitchen working on UAB stuff there, and one guy started going through the kids' rooms packing whatever needed packing there.

Things started to go south rather quickly. Knowing the weather forecast, Terry and I each encouraged different team members to start on the outside stuff right after doing UAB because Monday would be clear but Tuesday rainy. Being ignored by people who are supposed to work for you doesn't really lead to good relations. By 5pm Monday we knew there was no way we'd finish in 2 days.  And, because the movers never touched the stuff outside, Terry and I had to drag it all back into the house or shed because the deluge that would become our Tuesday was already starting.

Tuesday was rainy as predicted, and the movers brought a 4th person. Things moved a bit faster but by mid-morning we'd added a third day and I had cancelled or rescheduled all my consultations for Wednesday.  To say I was annoyed would be an understatement. We'll come back to this.  By 5pm all the HHE was out of the house (thank you Mother Nature for the brief interlude in your deluge so the movers could actually move the boxes out of the house, we thought they would have to wait until Wednesday.)  The movers wanted to quit for the day.  The team lead said he was sure we could probably be finished on time Wednesday. I said "probably" wasn't enough reassurance, they needed to stay a bit longer. A bit after 6pm we all went home.

Boy, was I glad I made them stay Tuesday when 4pm Wednesday rolled around and they weren't done!

Why was I so annoyed at the extension of packout? Let's compare:  Philly 1200 sq. ft. rowhome, 5 movers. St. Petersburg only HHE/UAB, no storage, 4 movers. So how anyone could expect 3 movers to pack out a 4 bedroom home full of stuff, furniture and tools is beyond me. What was the purpose of that detailed prepackout survey if it was so entirely useless? We had a full day on Wednesday.  This means the move took 50% longer than expected. I don't think it unfair to say usually if someone is wrong by 50% we question that person's opinions/skills/expertise.

I know my husband's answer to the problem for next time: own less stuff. There is a tiny chance I will try out such a possibility before our next packout.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Philaldelphia

Terry's dad had the kids for the weekend a couple of weeks ago. It was our only chance. We cashed in a bunch of miles and booked a room downtown, right by Reading Terminal Market, henceforth known as RTM. We packed an overnight bag and threw all the ice packs in the cooler. We knew what a weekend in Philly meant - food!

We drove up first thing Saturday morning. Went to RTM and bought as much Lancaster county-grown steak as we thought we could eat in 3 weeks. Managed an early check-in. Moved the car, went to lunch at Vietnam and bought a soft pretzel at RTM on our way back to the hotel. I'd totally forgotten what a pretzel could taste like. Took a nap, went back for another pretzel on our way to Italian Market. Wandered around, popping into stores, buying fresh mozzarella in marinade and duck prosciutto and blueberries. Wishing we'd brought 2 coolers. One more stop by RTM - we had thought we'd find cannoli in Italian Market but hadn't.  Back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Mmmm Malik's. We were worried it wouldn't be as good as we remembered. We were the only patrons in the entire restaurant and it took an hour to get our food. But - worth it! And we drove by our old Philly house for the first time since we moved. The tree we planted is gone, whether it died a natural death or not is up for grabs.

Sunday morning we ate the desserts we hadn't finished Saturday.  Yet again to RTM, this time for beef ribs as we hadn't managed to fit that into our calorie budget. We finished our trip with New York style pizza. Then on to Terry's sister's house, which is conveniently right between our house and Terry's dad's. We met up, had an early dinner and took possession of the children. And got to taste some treats we'd bought at RTM to bring over - the cinnamon rolls really weren't anything to write home about, which was surprising, but the pecan rolls were absolutely delicious.

I hadn't realized how much I missed Philly. When we were there last year I didn't feel like this, but then I was also going through stress at dealing with Alex's medical issues and sadness at leaving Piter so abruptly. This time we left with heavy hearts and a heavy cooler of delicious reminders.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two!

I had my Russian language exam Friday. I went into it feeling confident - I knew I was at the right level, my teachers has prepared me well for the general format of the exam, doing lots of practices to get me comfortable with it.

The end result was the 2 I needed, so it means I go to post on time!

One part that was very funny to me: After giving me the score, the tester asked if I wanted feedback. Of course!  Well, the gist of the feedback was that I needed to work on everything. It was funny to me because level 2 is a very low level of ability so of course I needed to work on everything - if I didn't, I should have gotten a higher score. For the record, the score is spot-on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The travails of two working parents

Yesterday I got a phone call from Zoltan's preschool. His eye was red and swollen, he might have conjunctivitis, someone needs to come get him.  I call Terry. "But I am about to go into a meeting."  "But I need to go to class, there's a zero absence policy and I test in 2 days." Long pause.

We agree that he'll go get her, but he's in Virginia and needs to get the shuttle back to DC to metro home. I go back to work (well, studying, but that's my job right now). Then it's time for class. An hour after our last conversation my phone rings. "I'm stuck in traffic on 395." @$(%@!*$)%)(*

So I got to discover how not exactly 100% attendance is required, because, obviously, there are certain exceptions. We're lucky I took the car, because it would have been a lot longer to get there otherwise.

And of course by the time I get there, the area around his eye is a tiny bit swollen but otherwise fine. Not red, not gooky. He must have gotten something in it, and after it was flushed out it took a bit of time to heal from it. But as I was there, I took him home. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our house is rented!

Our property manager is someone I grew up with - it just happens he is a property manager in this area so of course he's the guy I called. He came by, went through the house telling us what we needed to do and what we could do if we wanted. We got the place ready and in due time the house went up for rent.

The conventional wisdom I had heard was that you don't want to be hanging around when people come through to look at your house. Find a park, neighbor, or errand to run, but in any case don't be home. Well.

We must have done something right marketing-wise because we had about 6-7 people come through in the first few days after the listing. For three of the people, we were indeed home when they came through - it just happened that way. It turns out those are exactly the three people who put in applications to rent the place!

We chose one application, there was a little back and forth and in the end we have a 2 year lease signed, sealed and delivered!

Now I really need to pass the Russian exam as we will be homeless two weeks after I take it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

We took advantage of the extra day off for the 4th to make a cabin trip. My mom was here that week, she stayed with the kids for the 4 workdays and then came with us for the long weekend. Between the extra passenger and the need to bring a ton of stuff up there that weekend we ended up driving two cars.

[the worst of times]
One hour out of town I hear "I need the potty."  "I do too."

One half hour after that stop, "I need the potty again. I need to make a poopy."

Another hour later I am hungry and grumpy and need to stop for a snack.

Almost two hours later we stop for lunch and groceries.  One last half hour later we are finally there.

Terry starts unloading the truck while I unload the children and the Bubby and start putting the kitchen things away. He calls from the basement to come down. I enter the room and gasp in horror. The floor is soaking wet and the back wall is speckled black. Mold. We turn the dehumidifier back on - oops - and grab mop, bleach, rubber gloves, rags. One door is so nastily moldy that Terry takes it off its hinges and brings it outside.  We become very thankful for the decision to use the semi-gloss paint downstairs as the mold wipes right off the wall. We also become very thankful for the Bubby, who entertains the kids upstairs, feeds them a snack, and generally keeps them from coming downstairs to the mold and bleach dangers that await them there.

[the best of times]
We drove on the 4th itself. Learning from past mistakes, we planned to keep the kids up for the fireworks. This meant late nap and late dinner. Everyone except Terry napped. Afterwards the kids and I went up the hill to check things out. We saw the mature trees (aka the old apples, the plum, and the various Adams County new fruit trees). We picked black raspberries - we probably got a whole cup of them.  For dinner we grilled the steaks we'd bought on the way up, as well as corn and potatoes. Later came the fire and S'mores. When it got dark we pulled out the glow-sticks and let the kids pick two each. We watched the fireworks from the deck - there were some to the side, barely visible through the trees but there was a second display right smack in front of us on the water. The kids were beside themselves with excitement and happiness. Turns out fireworks are their very most favorite thing.

The next day we went to the beach for a while. I hadn't planned to go in the water so hadn't worn a bathing suit. There was an "emergency" - the beach ball went beyond the marker where Alex was allowed to go - so I ended up swimming in my shorts and Tshirt. And glasses But I did rescue the ball. The kids really do love the water. When it was time to head home for lunch and nap, they were reluctant to leave but handled it remarkably well given that they had not slept nearly enough the night before. Our traditional dinner at Grotto's and another round of S'mores back home and it was once again bedtime.

On Sunday, Terry's dad and step-mom came. The kids told me how excited they were to have two sets of grandparents together at the same time. And it was pretty cool. With so many grandparents I felt not a shred of guilt leaving them all together and Terry and I went to check on the game commission yearling trees. This was our 2nd or 3rd try at rebuilding a healthy forest and Terry told me later he planned to give up if this wasn't successful.  One of the main differences this time was that he had done a lot to prepare the area where the trees were planted - cleared all the weeds and ferns for a decent perimeter - and some lucky trees also got the assistance of tubing. I am hoping he will pop on one day and blog about the reforestation dream and adventure. This time, well more than 50% of the oaks were still alive and I think 75% of the cherry trees were alive. One cherry was maybe 3 inches off the ground with two tiny leaves, surrounded by ferns reaching past my knees. I was sure there was nothing there to find, but even that little baby persevered despite all the competition.  We had to clear more weeds and ferns, but they seem like many of them will actually make it. Next year will be the big test.

[back to the worst of times]
And then it was time to leave. We got all the kids's stuff situated with the Pennsylvania grandparents and Terry, mom and I took off for home.  Usual 4th of July weekend traffic meant that although we only stopped once, it took just as long to get home as it took to get there, and on the way there we had a sit down lunch. The "highlight" of the awful trip home was the major delay on Route 15 that led Terry to decide to get off at Gettysburg and find another way. I followed him dutifully, past the center of town, past the horse-drawn carriage, and right through Gettysburg battlefields. Well, it was in the battlefields I turned to my mom and said "We are so lost. We're going to have to turn around eventually."

Silly me for doubting my husband who can follow the sun and carries a map in his head. Soon thereafter we saw the highway we'd gotten off of about 5 miles back (but now we were 5 miles farther along it) and traffic was moving. As in, going the speed limit.  From there on out the traffic was bad but not as bad as we'd expected. We got home before bedtime, it was a win.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Russian language highlight of the day

Background: language instruction at FSI in generally thus: 3 hours of speaking practice/lesson; 2 hours of reading practice/lesson; one hour of language lab; 2 hours of homework. Sometimes people have the same teacher for reading and for speaking and sometimes they are different. Right now I have different teachers for the two.

The highlight: My reading teacher is amazed at how well I guess the meaning of an article when I actually know so few of the words. He thinks my ability to guess is even more impressive than if I actually knew what the article said.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The goodbyes begin

Several people from my A-100 class left for post this past week. Several others have finished their time at FSI and are doing their other stuff (leave, consultations, outside-of-FSI-training) and will hit the road within the next few weeks. It's funny how going from post to post is bittersweet and nostalgic, but this is the first time I really feel like I am leaving something. My language training is the last FSI training I get and I'm in it right now. There are several people I'm making plans to see and I know this time will be the last time for a while. My mom is coming this week to spend time with the kids - unless she comes to Astana, when Terry drives her to the airport at the end of her week here it will be the last time we see her until R&R.

On the upside, we found our Rockville version of shashlik in the park. There's a wonderful water ice place across the street from a playground. Sugar the kids all up with a frozen treat then work it off. Meet up with friends and it's a party. We'll be there once a week until we leave!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Russian

Last week I began my six little weeks of Russian language training that is supposed to get me to the level I need to be to be allowed to go to post and talk to people in their (likely but not 100% certainly) native tongue. I will have enough knowledge not to accidentally start an international incident, but not enough to really have a deep, meaningful conversation. My hope is that by going out there and talking to people frequently enough the ability will deepen and eventually I will speak well enough to hold my own in the kind of conversation Terry and I have over the dinner table - in Russian. This may take longer than my two year posting!

But I digress.

Language training at FSI is a unique and interesting experience. Because we are learning language for our jobs, we discuss current events and political theory rather than the price of apples in the market or where one can find an English speaking hockey instructor (However, if anyone knows where to find an English speaking hockey instructor in Astana, please let me know!). Yes I can say "according to experts, earthquakes may be caused by drilling for gas" (aka fracking, but I don't know how to say fracking), but not "Oh look my child is hitting yours with a shovel. Let's stop that."

When I went to Tver for my two week intensive study, I had four hours one-on-one with an instructor. Including rewriting my notes and doing assigned homework, I spent another 2-3 hours at least on instructive learning. I napped every day. At FSI we have 5 hours of classroom instruction - just me and one other student with our instructor - and an hour in the language lab doing online exercises. We have homework every night. Our teacher told us to spend no more than 2 hours on the homework, if it took longer just don't worry about it. At the end of every class hour we have a quick break and each time the teacher says "pereorif" I look up surprised that so much time has already passed. However, there's no napping.

My commute is between 45-75 minutes and I have to drive because of the schedule - the last shuttle to the metro is 10 minutes after my last class and it's a long walk or expensive cab ride if I miss it. I barely participate in family activities anymore such as dinner, doing laundry or running errands. I desperately miss taking naps. I have resigned myself to a six week daily coffee habit and hope my clothes still fit at the end of it.

This may seen like complaining but I only mean to paint the picture of what the day looks like. Well, the commute part was complaining. If it weren't for my nervousness about the exam at the end of all this I would be celebrating - my only complaint is that I don't have more time!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Inching closer

I have Travel Orders!And a housing assignment! And flight reservations, sort of!  Last week I was able to apply for my and Zoltan's passports. I scheduled my packout. I am trying to find time to meet with the ever-popular Ash at CWT to make our flight arrangements - hoping it will be next week. I went to get the first round of shots this week. (ick!)

I met my Desk Officer and got an initial briefing on what's up in Kazakhstan. I started my job-specific training and am learning how to do my job.

We have a bunch of construction and smaller house projects to complete in the next two weeks. Terry will be assisted by a professional for some of it, and his father (also a professional, but much cheaper) for other parts of it.

We are totally moving the ball forward.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Memorial Day Part 2

The only reason I'm making a second post is Terry has antiquated views of how many photos one can attach to a single blog posting and I am trying to honor his request. So, where we were? Ah yes, the fun we had on Memorial Day weekend.

Our friends' kids shoot bows and our friend has brought all the necessary equipment, including a smaller "starter" bow and arrow set. Both of the kids loved it, prompting us to purchase a set of our own. Check out the look on Alex's face after she shot.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Memorial Day Part 1

For Memorial Day we ended up going to a Pennsylvania cabin ... but not ours. Our friends have a cottage so we went to spend the weekend there. Now we are slightly regretting our cabin doesn't have a stream running through the property, because although Zoltan does not love the "quiet woods" he took to the stream like a duck to water (couldn't resist).
Friends

The kids played by the water or in the field around the cottage almost unsupervised for hours. Of course, they resurfaced every hour or so to devour a good portion of the fruit we'd all brought. At night we roasted marshmallows and our friends had glowstick bracelets for the kids to wear like little portable nightlights.

One important lesson we learned this weekend: Alex is not quite up to the foreign service threshold. The cottage's pump went so to wash our hands in the bathroom we had a couple of buckets of water from the stream. To flush the toilet we then poured water from those buckets into the bowl. She expressed her displeasure.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Holy Moly Zoltan is reading!

After Zoltan's T-ball game this morning, we went to the library. While we were looking for books appropriate for Alex, Zoltan was also hovering over the bookshelves. All of a sudden he says "Zoney?" and points to the word "Zone" on the spine of a book. Then he reads the rest of the title. Then we go to the books Alex loves to get, the "my first reader" ones that are about 3 years below her reading level and let him pick one out. He knows none of the rules, like the silent "e" or how 2 letters sound together ("th", "sh", "ch" etc) but by golly the boy is reading!

To say we were not expecting this or preparing for it would be an understatement.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Another Alex update

When last we touched this topic, she had started coughing again. The M.O. is thus: 1. we get her coughing under control, thus far it has/had been exclusively through medicine. 2. She's fine. 3.She gets a cold (I am starting to think it is actually allergies) consisting of runny nose and a wet cough. 4. Around 1-2 weeks the wet cough subsides as it would with a cold, but then the dry cough begins. 5. Dry cough goes on forever, until we beat it down with medicine.

So, what did we do this time? As it went to *the* cough pretty quickly, consisting of hours of coughing including the middle of the night, we put her back on Ranitidine ASAP. And, simultaneously, cut out ALL dairy (have I mentioned that most margarine contains dairy - I have found one version of one brand that doesn't? And thank you Whole Foods and Fresh Market for carrying dairy free chocolate!) When the coughing was pretty well over and a good 3 weeks had passed, we took her off the meds again. Sure enough, within 3 days she had a runny nose and cough. BUT this time the cough subsided on its own (so maybe it was a cold?). I waited a good extra week before writing so as not to tempt fate. She is still coughing about once a day, which makes me think maybe it's dairy plus something else, but the something else is very mild.

Last weekend we reintroduced butter only, to see how far this thing goes. I know several lactose intolerant people who consume butter with no problem, and my own dairy issues don't touch butter, so we're really hoping. She had a couple of "excursions" with baked goods that likely had some dairy in them in the last few weeks, too. Will report back on what happens.

Friday, May 23, 2014

We bought a car!

Our first large tangible step towards the new assignment. Kazakhstan follows Euro4 automobile standards which essentially means that neither of the cars we already owned could be brought to the country. Terry went to test drive one last night and in the end bought it!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sometimes State totally rocks

There's always so much to complain about, right? Well that isn't today's episode around here. I'm talking about the Emergency Backup Care system. It's an employee benefit that recognizes that most of us have 2 working parents and sometimes %#@#%&; happens.

The gist is this: when normal child or elder care falls through, State finds care (if you need it to, otherwise you find the care) and pays for it, with a nominal copay. You can use the service up to 5 times a year per kid.

Our situation: Alex's school closes its doors to Kindergarteners two days in May to show upcoming Kindergarteners what to expect. As it isn't a normal school closing, her afterschool care isn't open all day as it is on school vacations and such. We expected Terry to just take the day off and it turned out it was a day he couldn't take off. What to do? Call Info Quest of course!

Our regular morning babysitter is available that day to watch Alex. We'll pay her normal hourly rate for the day. We'll fill out a reimbursement form and send it back, and up to $90 will be covered; they cover up to $100 of care minus a $10 co-pay. $90 doesn't get a full day's care in DC but it defrays a large chunk and I am thrilled that this service exists.

If we didn't have a regular babysitter, we could leave the job of finding care to the fine professionals at Info Quest and they would find either a daycare/childcare facility or a private nanny. We can call the night before and get childcare arranged for the next morning - think "Snow Days", put into quotation marks because half the time there was barely any snow. These people have really thought of everything.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mother's Day

Bubby makes her annual migration in May, and on all the years I've been in the USA she stops in VA for Mother's Day weekend. This year was of course especially poignant as we're heading back overseas this summer.

Why can we never get 3 simultaneous smiles and 3 sets of open eyes?
 A sweet moment between daddy and daughter
 Kids being cute
 We're only missing one Madnick for the "Bubby + 2 generations" photo.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Starting to prepare

Just in case anyone is curious (and just in case anyone is reading) I figured I'd go through the process of preparing to go to post.

We've met with the guy who will be managing the house when we rent it in our absence. He's a childhood friend, so I feel very comfortable with the situation. Based on his assessment, we know what we need to do to prepare the house and what isn't as important. Now we need to get quotes and determine when it will happen (so far so good, the first quote was well within budget although it leave Terry doing a chunk of the work).

We've gotten all the information from Post we can find and it turns out neither of our cars will be allowed into the country. So we need to buy another car. And it will be new or relatively new. It will entail a car payment, which is something I have avoided for my 40 years until now.

We're started our Consumables list. Astana is in fact a post wherein we're entitled to Consumables shipments, although at any post we put together a list of the food and other consumable items we love and can't get at post, for example Thai red curry paste. Or peanut butter. Chocolate chips appear to only exist in the USA. You get the picture.

We did a decent job of purging when we moved into this house, but as the baby years are now firmly behind us it is time to find new owners of the things we've held onto. And, of course, there is always more purging one can do.

My boots have survived 3.5 Petersburg winters (I got them during the first winter). They have no tread and owe me nothing. I have ordered the replacements. My down coat has kept me warm 4 Petersburg winters and also owes me nothing. After trolling all the usual suspects (Cabelas, REI, Lands End) I have determined that nobody has warm enough coats out yet. My fingers are crossed that this situation will change before August.

We're still working out the departure schedule and who exactly leaves when; i.e., will I get to fly alone for the first time in 7 years, thus blissfully sleeping through the red eye flight with no guilt or children pulling on me?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Great Falls

Last weekend some folks from A-100 decided to hike the Billy Goat trail at Great Falls. Although I had lived in the DC area for 4 years, and now almost 1 more, I have never been to Great Falls. The rest of the family was at the cabin so I jumped at the chance.

The weather was amazing and the company just as good. A few shots from the day ...