Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ice Palace


Last year Astana did not create its usual annual ice city, I heard the rumor that the reason was a previously warm and melty winter that destroyed a lot of the work before people could even enjoy it. Last year was a perfectly normal winter, wherein it dropped below zero some time in November and stayed cold into April. 

This year, however, the city did decide to make an ice city, which sort of sucks because it has been a ridiculously warm winter, continually rising above freezing. Last weekend the temps got as low a the December norm of -20C so we went to check it out.

People kept jumping into the ice throne so we told the kids we could take photos around the bear - his legs were benchlike.
The ice castle was pretty awesome, even though it was just for show and there was no way to actually climb in or around it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas for the rest of us

Admittedly, it has been 15 years since Christmas was my own private free day, where I could read undisturbed all day and then run into other Jews in the evening having our traditional dinner of Chinese food.

I do have mixed feeling about this.

On the other hand, Christmas in our house is relatively low key, compared to the commercialism that's crept into the traditional American celebration of the holiday (at least, from movies and commercials it seems this way). In the morning the kids get presents from the grandparents who celebrate the holiday, plus a few from us (my throwing Terry a bone. He may remember how I explained to him that there would be no Christmas in my home, in our early days of dating. Sigh.)

This year via Facebook I learned of the Finnish tradition of giving loved one books for Christmas, then the family spends the day reading the new books. This is a tradition I can get behind!  Books were in today's haul, and some of them were read, but it certainly wasn't an all-day endeavor.  We then spent quality time building the science projects, playing the games, practicing with the Nerf bows and arrows, and helping Terry make the cinnamon rolls.

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My little charmers

The children are planning some kind of surprise for my birthday. They want me to be prepared. Zoltan has specifically asked me to be sure to be beautiful on my birthday (aka, wear a dress) to be ready to accept this gift.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Yay for Alex!

At the kids' school, they can earn "yellow signatures" for doing good work or extra credit work; 10 signatures earns a Yellow Card. "Blue signatures," same general regime, are given for showing the positive character traits stressed at the school. Alex came home Friday with a certificate to go bowling Monday afternoon (leaving school a tiny bit early) and she doesn't have to wear her uniform that day, for having earned 6 or more yellow and/or blue cards.

Good work baby!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Gratitude 30th

Last November gratitude. What to choose? I am grateful for the beautiful sunsets I can see from my apartment window, the brisk winter snow, and the sparkling light show Astana puts on every night between the bridges, buildings and Baiterek. I am grateful for good friends, warm apartments, games, books, and kitties (we're babysitting a friend's cat in a couple of weeks). I am grateful for family, technology, curiosity, and children being sweet and loving. I am grateful for the Wisconsin cheese of the month club gift my mom got Terry for Hanukkah, a gift that arrived early and gives to the whole family. I am grateful that at least some of the Hanukkah gifts for the kids have already arrived, since there won't be another mail run before Hanukkah begins. I am grateful that I have never once in my life had to wonder how I would pay for food the next day or electricity to keep the lights on.

There's more, but this is good for now.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Gratitude 29th

Today I am grateful for the embassy-supplied humidifiers.  They have a wider mouth so the tank can be cleaned more easily than the ones we brought over. And in dry, desertlike Astana, we run those suckers 24/7. The kids' rooms are smaller, so after about a week of constant use they have the humidity level of Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Our bedroom hasn't gotten there yet, nor has the living room, but at least we aren't quite bathing in lotion anymore. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gratitude 28th - A

I am also grateful today to my husband, who decided to try out the cinnamon roll recipe from the one cooking magazine we get. Wow. The kids agreed it was worth having to take a nap afterwards, they were THAT GOOD.

Gratitude 28th

Today I am grateful for the lady who sells me local eggs in the market.  The summer eggs are orange, winter a bit more yellowy but still a much deeper color than you find in USA grocery stores.  And she sings. Beautifully, like a bird. I will miss her when we leave Kazakhstan.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gratitude 27th

I can't believe it has taken me this long to get to this one, but today I am grateful for public libraries. For those who have always had good quality libraries nearby, in a language you understand, you can't really fathom what it is like for a reader, having to always calculate how many books are on hand that haven't been read yet or that could manage a second (or third, fourth etc) read, and how to get your hands on new material, and how long it would take to arrive, etc etc.  I am forever grateful too, for Terry for convincing me to try a Kindle and my mother for buying me one last year, as that plus library means I am never far from something to read. Now excuse me while I download a book I've had on hold at my home library for a while.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Gratitude 26th

Today I am grateful for Canada, where (I have learned) the mamas of the turkey I eat today come from.  And I am thankful for good food and good friends. And the knowledge that the "hardships" I face, while real, are hardships some would dream to have.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gratitude 25th

Today I am grateful for the job I do.  This is something I had considered a dream when I first thought of the foreign service, then for various reasons chose a different path. And yet I still get to do it!  And sometimes I manage to do something meaningful. This week I have participated in debriefings for a number of Kazakhstanis I helped send to the USA to network and share information and best practices with people doing work in the same field. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Gratitude 24th

Today I am grateful for the new apartment having two showers. And not just two showers, but two showers that are independent of each others' hot water supply. Running late getting the kids ready for bed? they can shower at the same time!!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Gratitude 23rd

Today I am grateful for my snowy walk to work. It is pretty when the sun rises over the pyramid.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Gratitude 22nd

Today I made bread and yogurt (well, trying. The chill of this apartment, while more comfortable than Nursaya, does introduce some new challenges). We went sledding (across the street!!), then had hot chocolate. The kids are watching a movie while I wrap Hanukkah presents. I am grateful for everything in my life.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Gratitude 21st

Today I am grateful for the car washes in the basement of shopping malls here. While Alex celebrated a friend's birthday and then we had dinner out, the car was transformed from beige (the color of mud and filth) back to gleaming maroon. And no more getting our clothes dirty getting in and out of the car.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gratitude 20th

Today I am ever so grateful that Terry and I are Pennsylvania residents. Actually, I am often grateful to this, as PA government seems to align with my major issues more often than not and more often than many other states I could have kept "citizenship" with. Most especially, I am grateful that my governor has not only refused to sign up with the other governors trying to refuse to allow Syrian refugees within their borders, but he is openly welcoming them. Can't wait to actually live there again, one day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Gratitude 19th

Today I am grateful for thoughtful, respectful, constructive disagreements conducted on social media. It almost never happens, but sometimes it does, and both parties can actually learn something and maybe even change their viewpoints. Wish there was more of that in the world!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Gratitude 18th

Today I am grateful for something to look forward to. We just booked out Rest and Relaxation trip over the winter and it involves sunshine and beaches and a country I have never been to.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gratitude 17th

Sunday was a big day, Zoltan lost his second ever tooth and Alex earned her orange belt at karate.  Today I am grateful to be able to share these moments with my family, and I think of the people who are far from loved ones (deployed by military or foreign service or working in a foreign country to earn enough to support family at home or who have had to leave their countries because they are no longer safe, whether due to general conflict or more targeted danger that leads the person to seek asylum elsewhere ...)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Gratitude 16th

Today I am grateful for the breadbox we just bought this weekend. Why did we wait so long?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Gratitude 15th

Today I am grateful none of my loved ones - or even just people I know - have been victims of the recent violence. Stay safe everyone, everywhere in the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Gratitude 14th

Today I am grateful for modern conveniences, such as internet and international shipping. We can still have Cheddar cheese sometimes, and get Alex some dairy-free alternatives to the foods everyone around her is eating, through the joy of the internet.  I still miss turkey bacon, though. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Gratitude 13th

Today I am so thankful the week is over. Starting last weekend we celebrated the Marine's birthday and a friend's (mid-week! so fun!) and then moved house, unpacking almost all of the 250 boxes in about 36 hours.  Ready for the weekend and starting fresh again Monday.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Gratitude 12th

Today I am thankful for Sensei Talgat, the kids' karate instructor. He is strengthening their bodies, sharpening their reflexes, disciplining their minds, and teaching them how to count to 10 in "karate" (i.e. Japanese)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gratitude 11th

In honor of Veteran's Day, I am grateful for the men and women, and husbands, wives and children, who sacrifice so much for the wellbeing of their country.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gratitude 10th

(this one is prepped in advance and scheduled because I may not have internet tomorrow)

Today I am grateful for my kids' imagination. When Zoltan came home today to all his toys and things packed up, he ended up deciding to run obstacle courses through the boxes. When we went out for dinner the kids made pretend magical creatures out of the cloth utensil holders the restaurant had, told us stories of their adventures (Alex really got into the back story of how they acquired their magical powers) and kept themselves, and us, entertained while waiting for food.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Moving Day (And Gratitude 9th)

I don't think I mentioned this previously, but we're moving to a new apartment.  The details are unnecessary, just that there were problems with this apartment and the embassy decided it was best if we moved, and we agreed, and the process moved forward.  Now it's all ready.

Other than the obvious, being grateful for an apartment that doesn't have the problems of the old one, the new one is walking distance from the office. And closer to school. The door to Zoltan's room is solid wood (he currently lives in a study - no lock on the door and the door is half glass, which we had to cover with cardboard to keep out the living room light, because all rooms in the current apartment open into the living room. There isn't one square inch of hallway. It's a layout that took a bit of getting used to.)

We are over the moon.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

November Gratitude 8th

Today I am grateful my biggest crisis yesterday was when the babysitter and the taxi both bailed on me at the lastest possible minute, so Terry and I were dressed to the nines for the Marine Corps ball and (almost) didn't manage to go. We were an hour late, but we went. If that was the worst thing that happened that day, then life is pretty good.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

November 7 Gratitude

Eight years in the foreign service and tonight I am going to my second - yep, only second! - Marine Corps Ball.  Today I am grateful for my husband, who is putting on a tuxedo tonight for me even though he hates dressing up.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Thursday, November 5, 2015

November Gratitude 5th

Today I am grateful that my children still hug me, and want to hold my hand. I know the days are coming to an end but as long as I can stretch it I will.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November Gratitude, 3rd and 4th

Once again I missed a day. Oops.

I am grateful for the wonderful education my children are getting at their international school at post. Not only is the teaching very individualized and high quality, but they are also learning about being in a minority (the school is 75% local children), diversity (not much socio-economic diversity but all other kinds), and just experiencing a different system (it's a British school, so my children have favourite colours, but also for example my daughter learned about "animals of the steppe" in science class)

I am also grateful for my community of colleagues both within the embassy and within other diplomatic missions. It is much easier to do my work when I look forward to getting there.

Monday, November 2, 2015

November Gratitude, 1st and 2nd

As usual I am hitting the annual gratitude a bit late. However, I have a fair excuse. More about that another day.

For today, I am grateful for today's snowfall, because I do love the snow.
I am also grateful nobody I know fell very badly today, because many people at work were running around the city and there were some falls, but so far as I know no major injuries. Especially broken bones. Not on my watch.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Back on the meds :-(

Haven't written in a while about Alex and dairy, because I thought we had everything figured out. I mean, the coughing is over (knock on wood) and what seemed like occasional heartburn was manageable with an occasional Tums. Last week she revealed that she has heartburn nearly every night (when she complains about it, it's almost always at bedtime) but she only complained to us when it was worse than just a little uncomfortable. After a conversation with our health practitioner, we started her on the bottle of Ranitidine we had gotten this summer in the USA "just in case." Less than a week in, she already says she feels much better.

We had thought butter was OK because it didn't trigger the coughing, but apparently it isn't OK. Our plan is for now, we keep butter and she takes meds. When we get back to the USA next year, where vegan margarine exists (because yes, margarine has dairy!!), we'll see about weaning her off. I am ever more grateful our next post is in Western Europe, where you can get soy yogurt and 3 kinds of non-dairy milk at the corner 7-11-type store.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

American History in a Box

American kids growing up abroad miss out on US history. Stories abound of children experiencing their very first year in a U.S. public school in their third, sixth or tenth grade, devastated because they don't know the Pledge of Allegiance or which states were the original 13 colonies. U.S. History in a Box fills that gap.

We ordered the K-1 set for Zoltan and the 2nd/3rd grader set for Alex. It has been a blast! It comes with a workbook of suggested activities and questions/quizzes, books to read, and puzzles and games.  We've been reading several of the books (on citizenship, the civil rights movement, the presidents, and native Americans) and playing with the puzzles and games. The kids even made up an awesome game using the U.S. map floor puzzle (each state is a separate piece, except for some of the smaller, New England states. We're OK with that):  the 6 year old steals 3-5 states, and the 8 year old has to guess which ones they were.  Given that she couldn't pronounce half the states' names when we first put the puzzle together, this is a great way to reinforce our nation's geography.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Six

Just like that, the little blob Alex used to call, simply, "baby" is six!  His personality is deepening into everything we gleaned from his early years - stubborn, determined, loving, silly, and with "dance moves" to die for.

Today was the first day back to school after a week's holiday, so it was nice to sleep 15 minutes later than a usual school day - we drove the kids into school today to bring in the cupcakes.  He got the dinner of his choice - Burger King, complete with a crown and a toy (hilariously, the toy is a protractor, albeit Simpson's themed). Back home for the gift, cards (Bubby's made it last week) and the ubiquitous Bubby phone call because Happy Birthday must be sung.  He was happy to receive his batch of coupons, and he had asked me a month or so ago to remind him that he asked me to help him choose when to use them, so that he doesn't use them all in a month and then get upset when Alex uses hers. He had gotten pretty grumpy when Alex, who is quite a saver, used a couple of her coupons in September.

What did the last year hold for him?  He made good friends in Russian and English. He "graduated" from sadik, which is what would correspond to "preschool" except it is so much more.  He got his orange belt in karate and is so proud when he is one of the kids selected by their sensei to model the moves in the front of the room, or to interpret for Alex and our other friends who don't speak Russian.  He started big school, dispensed with naps for the most part, and made a best friend. He started reading and writing.  He has been exploring his rich imagination, causing his teacher and I to both marvel - during the parent teacher conference - at the plausible sounding whoppers he's told each of us. Must remember to document the story of a field trip that (allegedly) culminated in him swimming in an electric shark.

Happy birthday baby! I can't wait to hear what you think up next.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Eight

My baby girl is a big eight years old!  What did this year hold for her?

We made chocolate cupcakes with white frosting for her to bring to school and had more cupcakes at night as her birthday cake. Her favorite meal - chicken corn chowder - is back on the menu thanks to cashew milk.  She got to sleep late and I drove the kids to school, partly for a treat and partly in order to hand over the cupcakes.

At night she opened a present from her Grammy and Pappy and fielded a phone call from Bubby, who was not happy to hear the card she mailed three weeks ago still hadn't arrived. Alex was pretty happy with this year's batch of coupons - new additions being "one day she doesn't have to do any dishes" and "one movie and popcorn of her choice" - she and Zoltan have been having some serious difficulty lately cooperating on the movie choices, which we have started putting on during Sunday afternoons when they would normally have been napping. She got to use one of last year's coupons after dinner - 30 minutes on the tablet - and still has one more left!  We'll have to encourage her to be a little less parsimonious this year and use up what she has.

In terms of the last 365 days, some highlights include her very first sleepover (with her best friend, the weekend before said friend left post); returning to school and finding at least one best friend still around;  starting karate and dombra lessons (we bought her a dombra this weekend so she can practice at home); being allowed to come home from the bus on her own - using her key - and not met at the stop by the nanny.

Her maturity in all things other than matters relating to her little bother continues to grow and I sometimes marvel at the conversations we're able to have, or the ideas, thoughts, or conclusions she manages to think up. She still devours books and still wants to be a teacher.  One of the very sweet kids-working-together experiences is that she helps Zoltan with his spelling words each week, concluding the week with a quiz in advance of his test at school.

Happy birthday baby!!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Karate

Back when Zoltan was in sadik last year, Sensei Talgat came every week to teach karate to the kids. A friend of ours also brought her son to the studio where he taught for additional lessons. Before we went home for the summer we brought Zoltan there, once for a lesson and once to test for his orange belt.

He is a completely different child on the mat. He is focused, hardworking, serious.  Today the kids went together for the first time, Alex in her white belt and with two friends who are also giving it a go; Zoltan was especially proud to be the interpreter and, as a more senior student, to help out.

The lesson is in late afternoon, so by the time they were done with the rigorous workout (I wanted to jump into class!) they were exhausted and starving. They ate dinner with practically no complaint - a rarity, especially for a new dish.  We're all loving karate!

Monday, September 21, 2015

A very big week for Zoltan

Two wonderful things happened this week:  One, Zoltan was his class' Star of the Week. Then Sunday night his very first tooth, that had been wiggling for weeks, finally came out!  It turns out he does have the same tooth fairy as Alex (we weren't sure) so he got a new toothbrush and a few hundred tenge - apparently this tooth fairy has kept up with currency fluctuations and knew the tenge is worth less now than when Alex lost her last tooth.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thank you internet

Because of the internet, and the ridiculously low (comparative) cost of nuts in central Asia, I have started making cashew milk rather than worry about shipping in enough boxes of rice milk, and expiration dates, and nobody even likes it all that much anyway.

Because of cashew nut milk becoming a regular staple, and doing some experimenting with the recipe (more sweet vs. more savory), I have come up with a version of the milk that I decided would be a good cow's milk substitute for Alex's favorite, birthday-request dinner - that she hasn't tasted in two years.

It turned out delicious.  I have a very happy little girl who will scarf this down tomorrow night while the rest of us eat enchiladas smothered in cheese.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

He's turning British

Within 24 hours of beginning school at his British school, this was the conversation I had with my son:

Me: Zoltan, did you leave your sweatshirt at school?
Zoltan: My what?
Me: Your sweatshirt.
Zoltan: Yes mommy, I left my jumper in my locker.

Of all the Britishisms I love, and there are many, jumper is the solitary one I can't stand. It gives me scary flashbacks of that unfortunate skirt/overalls combo wardrobe item too many poor little girls had to wear in the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Archery

The kids are junior archers! A couple of weeks ago we went into the steppe for a picnic and for them to practice shooting the bow.  When they focused on what they were doing, they did a pretty good job hitting the target.  Especially Alex. She got competitive when Zoltan hit the target first.
Not pictured here are the lovely rows of trees, clearly planted rather than rising on their own, that we wandered through when they took breaks. And the farmer and his cows that appeared at the end of the lane around the time we finished for the day.

We went back this weekend  for more practice. My little princess wore her pretty dress, and hooked the quiver into the elastic waist of the leggings we made her wear to protect her legs.  Her aim is getting better and better.  Zoltan ... well when he actually aims he hits the target. We should have a few more chances to go out before the winter hits.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Camping

We were supposed to go camping last weekend. The weather was turning up perfect, and we figured it was the last (and first) chance this year to go. We had everything packed up. We had the shashlik we'd make for dinner all marinading in the fridge. And then the menfolk (male-folk?) each came up with a medical reason that the trip would not happen.  So since we couldn't bring Mohammed to the mountain, we brought the mountain to Mohammed. Translation: We set up the tent in Zoltan's room. And then the kids and I slept there overnight. Before bed we turned all the lights off and let them put on the headlamps we'd gotten for camping. You would have thought we'd gotten them a puppy and gave them chocolate cake for breakfast and dinner the way they squealed and cheered.  We do still hold out hope of getting that tent outside...

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Day of Knowledge


September 1, the Day of Knowledge, is a traditional first day of school in at least two countries where I have lived (Russia and Kazakhstan).  Today the kids met their teachers, listened to a lot of speeches, and then went home by lunchtime. Tomorrow will be the first real day of school.

We're happy that Alex's class is pretty much still together, and one of the very few new kids is another American!

Zoltan snagged a class with several friends, so although he was nervous and grumpy, we think he will settle into class faster than if he'd been with a full slate of strangers. Of course, one thing that makes it easier is that we don't bring him in - he rides the bus - so he can't cling too much.

Alex, in Key Stage 2, now has to wear the blazer and house tie. Appropriately, we just watched Harry Potter 2 over the weekend so she liked pointing out the similarities in attire. Edmonstone is most like Ravenclaw because it has blue. (And Ravenclaw is the house for the cleverest pupils ... and, you know ...) Sadly, Haileybury has no cloaks. I'd dig cloaks. I wouldn't even complain about the ridiculous prices if it were for cloaks.


Monday, August 31, 2015

A perfect date

Early in the week we booked the babysitter. 7:00 pm on Friday evening we're still bantering back and forth "where do you want to go"? We decide to try Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in Highvill where I have had several business lunches but have never had a real meal.

The night was stunning (and of course the camera was at home), we weren't starving, so we decided to go for a walk first. Somehow a year in we had never ventured into the Pyramid Park, but this was certainly not the last trip!  We spent about 45 minutes strolling the grounds, watching the fountains, and checking out different angles for possible future family photos with Astana backgrounds.

At the restaurant the waitress spoke excellent English. She asked if we wanted our pasta al dente or soft.  When she forgot our water she remembered on her own and was appropriately apologetic.  When I did not finish the dinner she asked if anything was wrong with the dish: "Really, you can tell me. If it wasn't good we want to know." (it was tasty, just too much food). I have rarely experienced this level of customer service outside USA or Japan. We tipped heavily.

The food was also good. The pesto was fresh, they used generous quantities of fresh mozzarella on the brushetta. Terry's carbonara sauce tasted more like a light alfredo so it was a surprise but actually the dish was a bit better than mine. His strudel didn't look much like a strudel but tasted just right. All in all we'd go back on the rare night we're in the mood for Italian food.

After driving home we decided to go for a walk around the Baiterek to digest some of that dinner and were amazed how many kids were still out so late in the evening. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dinnertime, foreign service style

Last night for dinner we had steaks, snow peas, and baked potato. Halfway through the meal Terry looked at me and said "You know, these peas cost more than the steaks."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Polite society

Kazakhstanis are known for kindness, generosity and tolerance.  Here's something I am really getting used to and will miss when we move on.  When you let someone into traffic, or quite frankly even when they cut you off, they put on their hazard lights for a few blinks to say "thank you."  It turns out that being acknowledged for doing something for someone, even if they forced you to do it, reduces stress and road rage by 50% (using my very non-scientific method of asking Terry and mentally rating how I feel.)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Our summer vacation

What did we do on summer vacation?

We spent as much time at the cabin as humanly possible, although as always it wasn't enough. Cabin highlights included:
  • counting the trees (planted last year) that are still alive. Not as many as we wanted, but at least the counting required us to go through a nice nice hike in the woods.  
  • grilling dinner and roasting marshmallows over the fire
  • fighting over who got to spend time in the hammock. Next year we put up a second one. 
  • beach time! for some reason my children get along like Brady Bunch children when they are in or near water, and that's the only time.
  • an "after dark" night hike up to the field to look at the stars. Mommy misjudged the time, we went to early, and the kids were bored before the constellations were visible. Next year we'll try again.
  • Walking straight through the lower part of the property that we are studiously adversely possessing. We've been mowing it and are considering putting in a pond. That would certainly be notorious!
We went to Massachusetts to see my family. Highlights included:
  • going into Boston to see my dad and riding both the Duck boat and the swan boats. Alex even got to drive!
  • shopping with Bubby. No, seriously, the kids like clothes shopping.
  • Terry grilling dinner in a thunderstorm. He pulled the grill right up to the sliding glass doors so he could get the least of his body outside and still cook food over fire.
  • the epic game of Uno where my mom finally pulled out of last place when she decided to apply herself.
  • spending time with both of the kids' uncles at one time, a feat normally accomplished once every 5 years or so.
  • (for Terry and me) stumbling upon some kind of open air music performance at the park by the water in Newburyport on our date night.
We managed to hit one cousin's kid's graduation party. We managed a few date nights while grandparents got to spend quality time with the kids. We got to see some friends although not nearly enough.  We got to see some siblings although not nearly enough. Terry and I went ice skating one afternoon while the kids napped.  We saw movies in the movie theater (in English); spent loads of time at the grocery store; shopped for a year's worth of [fill in the blank]; left the kids in grandparent care in order to run errands; and managed to glut ourselves on various sorely missed food items.

Bless America! See you again next year!

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.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Istanbul was Constantinople ....

There was a conference that was supposed to be held in Nepal, but then the earthquake happened, and it got moved to Istanbul.  And then I was invited to go to the conference.  10 days before it happened. And two days before the family left to starts summer vacation 2 weeks before me.

The conference itself was awesome, I met a lot of wonderful people doing incredible work to make the world safer and better. I ate my weight in Turkish Delight, pide, kabobs, and one one night, Chinese food, because I could.

I flew in on Monday night and flew back out Thursday evening - both direct flights, thank you Air Astana!  The conference was Tuesday through Thursday. Needless to say, I saw more of the hotel conference room than anything else.  It is also worth mentioning that Istanbul is one of about 5 places left that I am dying to go but had not yet gotten to in my life. Of course, this was just an appetizer, but then it means I will still have a lot to discover together when I eventually go with my family!

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!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spring Days

One of the days we were in England we went into Hexham and it turns out a spring fete was going on.  There was live music in a park, and plenty of food trucks, sweets, and activities for the kids.

Alex loved her horseback ride. Zoltan refused to go.  They both loved their face paint though!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Peacocks!

The peacocks like biscuits ("cookie" to you Yanks ... well, um ... us Yanks)  It must be mating season because the two males with long feathers kept yelling at each other and shaking those tailfeathers

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.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Leave it to the IRS!

Last week we received a letter from the IRS and a $1.00 check. Yes the decimal is in the right place, we got a check for $1.00.  Today we got the letter and explanation:  you see, we overpaid somehow, by $19.00.  We were assessed a fee of $18.00 for failing to pay the correct amount, and that left $1.00 to be refunded to us.

Speechless.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Observations from outside Kokshetau

Kazakhstan had a presidential election Sunday April 26. I was one of the embassy folks who participated as an election observer. I'm not going to talk about the work now (or, quite honestly, ever), but the general experience was definitely something to write home about.

The region I was assigned to was around a biggish town outside the oblast (state) capital of Kokshetau.  The train ride from Astana was 4.5 hours to Kokshetau, then about 30-90 minutes by car, depending on where exactly I was going, to get to these little villages.  I have now taken the train three times to cities within Kazakhstan and have to say I greatly enjoy the rides.  The train carriages I have been in so far have all been a series of 4 person compartments.  In each compartment are, essentially, bunk beds - sometimes fixed, sometimes that fold out of the wall. Each passenger is given a featherbed/mattress, pillow, linens and a blanket. Usually I stretch out and read or do work, and the rhythm of the train often lulls me into a catnap. In one ride in one of the fancy Spanish trains we were given little toiletry bags with soap, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, etc

It turned out that one of the villages we went to was where our driver had grown up.  To get there, you drive until the dirt road itself disappears, and then you follow tire tracks through fields.  He told us when he was young they would go to the disco in the nearby town - a good 20-30 minutes away by car - by horse. I should note I still considered him young, so his story can't be more than 10 years old. In retrospect, it probably took the same amount of time to travel by horse as the car couldn't exactly speed down the not-road.

Several times along the way our headway was slowed by cows or sheep crossing the road. I really wish I had gotten better photos.

Kazakhstani hospitality was in full bloom all day.  In nearly every polling station where we stopped, we were invited to sit for tea and something to eat. Also in nearly every polling station where we stopped, the commission members wanted to take photos with us.  I would not be surprised to learn we were the only non-Kazahstani people some of these villagers had ever met.  Although only hours from the capital city, it felt remarkably remote.  Chickens, ducks and geese wandered around, there were small garden plots around most homes, and most villagers seemed to have cows and/or sheep and/or horses. One of the villagers mentioned that everyone had a dog, and they were working animals not pets.

All in all it was a wonderful experience and a chance to see part of the country far from the main tourist attractions (although actually geographically pretty close to some tourist attractions - forests and lakes and resort type holidays.)

Friday, April 24, 2015

The most hilariously awful vacation ever

[it's been a grievously long time since my last post. Life hit hard. By life I mean work + bidding + work and more work. I see an end in sight now, at least I see a vacation soon enough. But it turns out this gem never got posted so here you are]

A few weeks ago [more than a month now] we went, with a whole passel of folks from the embassy, on an overnight trip to Borovoe.  We have been to Borovoe a couple of times and it is a treat. However, this trip was a disaster from the start.

First the hotel that had been booked cancelled all reservations with a week's notice and for no reason.
The second hotel apparently tried to cancel the reservations the night before. The poor coordinator of the trip nearly pulled all her hair out.
We are always early to everything, so between being early and the people who were late we ended up waiting 45 minutes in the embassy parking lot to caravan with the group. We're idiots. And because we waited so long, rather than scooting up there in just over 2 hours as we know we can, we had to do a pit stop on the way for a bathroom break. Except the bathroom was an outhouse and everything was all frozen. Alex is not cut out for third world life and let's just say it was a tough decision for her, attempting the frozen squatter or peeing her pants. (Let's just say I am happy with the decision she made).

When we arrived lunch was waiting. Except it was all full of dairy. And it was "impossible" to have anything else (nevermind the vegetarian in the group did manage to score a different meal) The only saving grace was that, being all Russian-y, the meal started with soup - that was safe for Alex to eat - and she was full by the end of it.  After having just spent 3.5 hours in the car we planned to stick close to the hotel and find something hill-like for sledding for the afternoon.

Somehow we ended up agreeing to join the group heading to the "ski resort" that had "good hills for sledding" and was "only 15 minutes away". Adding in getting lost time, it was more like 30 minutes.  Given we were already frustrated and car-ed out, every extra minute was a minute too much. And then we got there.  It was the saddest little place, one run that was barely downhill and a rope tow that made the rope tows of my youth look fancy.  The kids could sled if we gave a good push and had a relay of adults giving an extra nudge on the way "down". There was a group who had planned to go snowmobiling, as this "resort" advertised it.  There was one snowmobile. They took turns going on 10 minute rides.

At the hotel we were on the 4th floor, walk up, so we got some much needed exercise during the trip.  The room was large, I'll give that to them, but felt like it was crumbling under our feet.  The shower didn't drain.  They had to come back twice to bring extra towels for Alex and Zoltan.  They said they would bring a folding cot for one of the kids to sleep on - the other would have the couch - and that never happened.  When we tried to use the pool it took half an hour to find someone to take our money and bring towels (yes, again with the towels!).

At breakfast the next morning Zoltan threw the most monstrous mighty fit.  I tremble for his teenage years.  That certainly wasn't anyone's fault, but it was in keeping with the tenor of the weekend. At that point we were mostly just done.  Knowing we needed to eat before getting on the road, we stopped at a cafe that looked open.  After unsuccessfully trying to order about half a dozen different things only to be told each time they were out we finally got one of each item they did have, and it was surprisingly good. Additionally surprising was the fact that the kids tried all the unfamiliar dishes without complaint and even each chose a favorite.

Lest it sound too complain-y, there were some highlights and fun times.  Conveniently located right next to our hotel room door was a comfortable couch, where Terry and I retreated when the kids went to sleep.  He had brought some bourbon and I had a brought some wine.  It was lovely.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spring has sprung

Today we went outside. No gloves. No hats. No scarves. No snowpants. No heavy jackets. No long underwear. No boots. Sneakers, and fleeces over short sleeved shirts. Oh, how sweet it is.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Nauryz!

On March 22, otherwise known as Nauryz in Kazakhstan and a few other countries, we went to see how they celebrate.  We had gotten some advice of where the celebrations would be and headed over there.  I was a little surprised that it wasn't more crowded, although it threatened and finally did rain.

There were the traditional swings
 Men handling eagles


Yurts - it appeared as though different groups/organizations each decorated a yurt and then the public was invited in to check it out. I so want a yurt. Terry says we have nowhere to put one. I don't see where logic fits into this conversation.

We popped inside for lunch and it was raining when we came out. We popped into Congress Hall for the exhibition but it seemed to be the same kind of market as any other day.  We did linger at the honey stall, though, and brought home some treats.

Monday, March 23, 2015

the best day ever

According to Alex, today was the best day ever. Started with pancakes.
Then a Kiwi Crate...

 Zoltan-bird
Woodpeckers pecking at a tree for bugs
... followed by an egg hunt (they even filled the eggs, I just hid them. Only two had special treats).
A movie, lunch, rest/nap time.
Then the epic bath, in our ridiculous tub.
No joke, there's room for 2 more in there
Homemade pizza for dinner, thankyouverymuch Vegan Essentials and Pouch delivering our packages expeditiously.
Dessert was a piece of freshly homemade bread, courtesy of Terry, slathered with the honey we bought yesterday that is seriously, legitimately, a treat. Almost marshmallow-y in its lightness and sweetness but with better flavor.

Oh and they got to to wear pajamas all day.
Yeah, it was a pretty good day.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Four Peas Online

Product DetailsWhen Alex started preschool at the tender age of 2.5 years old, my mother was quick to jump on this shopping opportunity.  "She needs a backpack."  Well, OK.  Mom did her research and showed me some options and we chose a cute little pack from Four Peas Online with few frills, an adorable monkey, and the option to personalize (bad opsec, yes we know. You are welcome to argue with my mother.)

Fast forward two years later. The backpack is still going strong. Zoltan is about to start detsky sad. My mother vetoes getting him a bag from Four Peas because she wants something that might actually wear out someday.

Fast forward three more years later.  After a few years of daily use, Alex started school and needed a bigger backpack.  The Four Peas backpack, still going strong, became the "restaurants and travel" bag (restaurants and travel are still several times a month so it isn't like the bag got mothballed). Now, however, the zipper doesn't work properly sometimes.  A zipper malfunction during a vacation led us to decide that it is time to replace it.  The fabric and stitching are still sturdy and could probably go another few years.

At the same time, Zoltan's other-brand backpack is also showing a few signs of wear, and it isn't quite big enough, and is a little too bulky.  My mother was thrilled to be allowed to buy two backpacks simultaneously and generously agreed to buy from Four Peas Online even though she knows she may not buy another bag for a while.

We just got the new bags.  The zipper seems more solid than the last bag.  Sorry, mom.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Happy birthday darling

Today is something like Terry's birthday. Although he downplays these annual displays we do at least normally get ourselves some good grub.  Unfortunately, our plans for tonight had to go on quick reshuffle when Alex complained this morning that she didn't feel so good and a quick zap with the new fun ear thermometer revealed 104. (I doubted so whipped out the old glass-and-something-not-mercury-anymore but it was right).

At least we'll still have pie.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Barcelona: Sagrada Familia

When asking for recommendations on Barcelona must-see spots, I received surprisingly varied replies on Sagrada Familia, ranging from "sublime" to "give it a skip".  With small children possessing small attention spans, any tourist site may stale after a mere half hour so you end up being judicious in your choices. Did I think my kids could manage 2 hours in a cathedral?  Did I think I would spend 2 hours in a cathedral?

And yet ...

When we bought the tickets [on Terry's Smartphone standing 3 feet from the ticket taker, rushing through to just get ourselves inside] we accidentally bought a ticket to go up the tower an hour later. Oh well, we figured the add-on cost wasn't much so if we didn't make it, no harm done. Instead, we scoured every inch of the inside, marvelling at the stained glass and how beautifully it contrasted with the mostly plain stone walls.  We popped outside for some sunshine and took in the stonework on the facade.  One of the things I found so fascinating was that many different styles were used, yet in my eye it all worked.  Also, to be honest, I found it a highlight that the carving itself was the adornment without paint or gilding.

The kids enjoyed checking out the schoolhouse Gaudi built for the children of the workmen. Alex did several of the math problems left on the board and we pointed out how sparse the yard was - no playground?!?

When we realized the hour had slipped away we went to find the tower for our trip and discovered Zoltan couldn't come (FYI, children under 6 not permitted. It was clear on the web site, so says the attendant at the elevator. Not clear enough that we noticed it!) Alex and I went up in one shift, then Terry went on his own while I took the kids outside to each their sandwiches.  Terry would have taken longer up there but he ran out of room on the SD card so couldn't take any more photos. After lunch we finished exploring and then headed to the playground we could see from the tower.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Barcelona: Montjuic Castle

One thing to know about travelling to Barcelona in February: a lot of stuff is closed. No magic fountain, no cable cars, no Tibidabo. In some ways it makes things easier, not quite so much to decide between in our few short days.  On Tuesday we decided to see what we could find in Montjuic Park, which appeared from our map to host about a dozen museums and tourist sites.

We chose Montjuic Castle for the first (and as it turned out only) stop.  It is mostly a ruin, just the walls really, but the views are stunning.  Looking out over the sea one direction and what seemed to be all of Barcelona city the other direction, one could easily see why a fortress was placed here.  When we got to the top the kids commandeered a turret and happily played with their toys while I soaked up some sunshine and Terry took photos.

When we tired of the views we decided to wander the park and see what else there was to see.  When cutting through some greenery we saw this

Why don't more people take advantage of hills by building a slide right into it?  It is the shortest and safest way to get a kid from point A (high) to point B (low).  They had a blast going up and down, and when it was time to continue on Terry and I also popped on for the ride down.  And of course a few short meters along the path we came to a playground with a cafe next to it. Sadly, the cafe was not open or we could have sipped cappuccino and nibbled on something and been very refined while the kids acted like wild savages.

We could have continued on, but with the cafe closed and us not having enough snacks in our bags and being a no-nap day we were all getting grumpy so we cut it short and headed back.  There's a mall by the metro so we jumped in for some late touristy lunch, then decided to see if the mall had a grocery store (common in Europe. Why don't we do this in the U.S.?)  Yup, so we got a few things we needed then noticed a "bio store" (bio = organic).  I found my beloved Oatly milk that I discovered in Malta and grabbed some soy milk yogurt - what a treat! Should have gotten more as Alex ate hers then half of mine.  On the way home from the metro we stopped in the little grocery store/tourist goods store right by the metro and picked up a few bottles of wine. We did not buy the 1 Euro wine but seriously considered it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Barcelona: Park Guell

Bright and early Monday morning we got to La Boqueria to gather the produce for the week.  We wandered the stalls, the family sans moi tasted jamon and bought some cryovac'd packs that don't need to be refrigerated for 2 months (thus easy to get home), kids and I got amazing fresh juices and we loaded up on fruit for the week .... that we ate by Wednesday. I had threatened to prohibit Alex from eating any apples during the trip because apples are the one fruit she eats regularly, but Terry pointed out they are shipped/stored better in Spain and are thus better apples so we did get a few kilograms of them too.  We got 2 kilos of strawberries, a kilo of cherries and of yellow plums, plus oranges, clementines, a mango, apples.

With our load we had to go directly home, and it was time for lunch and nap anyway.

After nap we hit our first real tourist site: Park Guell.  The kids had a blast playing hide and seek among the columns, I was entranced by the mosaics, Terry took photos of the spring flowers.  There is a building you can go into, I am not sure exactly what is inside, but by the time we thought of it the line was 45 minutes long so we bagged it and headed toward the metro while looking for a place for dinner.  Not finding any by the time we were within a block or so of the metro, and noticing a playground in what was essentially a median strip, we let the kids go while we searched online for a restaurant that would be open at 6pm (once again thankful for the local SIM cards and frustrated with Barcelona schedule. Look, I love me a siesta as much as anyone, but in Malta everything was closed 1-4pm. This I can work with. In Barcelona everything is closed 4-8pm. Ugh.)

We had a place in mind but walked past the crowded place we planned to go to the night before and as I'd hoped it more open on a Monday night than a Sunday.  Tapas, very abbreviated menu.  Delicious.  Steak, patatas bravas, fish, pork. They had a house brewed beer so we tried that. We ate well in Barcelona.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Barcelona: Beach and La Rambla

Sunday we were up bright and early, thank you jet lag.  By the time we had eaten, showered everyone and played a bit the sun was up and we went out to explore.

As in the ad for the apartment, the beach was only a few minutes away.  We encountered a playground on the way, though, so our arrival was delayed. The sun was strong, the kids played in the sand, then on the climbing structure, then we all looked for shells to bring back for the jar at the cabin of rocks and shells collected at beaches wherever we happen to be around the world.

After lunch and nap we headed out to Pla├ža de Catalunya which is supposed to be a major tourist site in addition to hosting a major tourist information office. And a hoarde of pigeons that the kids enjoyed chasing even as other tourists were buying birdseed at vendor stalls to feed them.  We didn't notice anything more spectacular than anywhere else, but did pick up some info and maps and wandered over to La Ramblas, a long promenade filled with shops and booths hawking anything a tourist could want.  We strolled and enjoyed the sunshine until the kids got tired and crabby.

We hopped the metro home with a recommended spot in mind for dinner, which was of course completely packed when we walked in.  Second choice was only half a block down and was empty.  It was also a very fancy seafood place where Terry indulged in lobster and I had turbot - can't remember the last time I had that! Alex gobbled up her jamon, and Zoltan was thoroughly unimpressed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Barcelona: Travel and arrival

For our first jaunt out of Kazakhstan since arrival - Alex's February winter holiday (she also has/had weeks off in January, March and April) we decided on Barcelona.  Somehow in all my travels, I've wanted to go there for about 20 years and had never made it.

The trip started at o'dark-thirty when the taxi came to get us to the airport. One of Alex's friends was going on a "girls' trip' with her mother (one of my friends) and took the first leg with us.  Girls sat together, Terry was with them so I have no idea what they were doing but they were definitely entertained. Zoltan was able to stretch out on 2 seats and rest his pillows against me and slept about 1.5 hours. Always a good start to a trip.

At some point during our transit, Alex's wiggly tooth fell out.  It turns out that Spanish tooth fairies, like Kazakhstani and American, leave one coin (in this case a Euro) and a new toothbrush for the first tooth lost in-country.

Our transfer didn't allow much time, just breakfast and about 1/2 hour in the family fun zone, then on to Barcelona! We had debated whether to buy SIM cards upon arrival or not and in the end our bank account is eternally grateful we decided to spend the 15 Euro for an hour of talk time and 900mb of data.  We got to use it all pretty quickly, as our taxi driver had trouble finding the address for the apartment we rented.  He got pretty close when I pulled it up on Google Maps, and in the end we had to call the host and put her on the phone with the cabbie. Turns out we had stopped one half block away from the place, so she came out and walked us in.  First impression:  the place is super crazy tiny and absolutely freezing.  There is barely an extra inch for storage so we had to get creative with the suitcases after unpacking. The kitchen area was also "cozy" so not much room for provisions after figuring in the crockery and cookery. We got the heat going and it didn't seem to help. Jet lagged, we all lay down, me still in my fleece coat.

Our afternoon was simple:  we found a grocery store, fruit stand, playground and restaurant.  We realized it was Saturday in a city where much was closed on Sunday, so some level of provisioning was essential. On the perimeter of the little plaza a couple of blocks from the apartment were not one but three bakeries.  Only one had breads without milk, though, so it was our haunt. I think by the end of the trip one of the ladies there recognized me.

Upon our return home the apartment was still cold. It was bedtime for the kids so we got them as cozy as we could and into bed. We were soon in bed ourselves.  I was still freezing. Terry decided to check the filters in the split-pack and his hunch was good - they were caked and filthy.  As soon as he removed them the heat started to flow.  He cleaned and returned them and all became right in the world.