Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Aside from relaxing and having fun, one of our goals on this trip home was to take care of various medical and dental appointments.  I suspect we are not the only people who work abroad who do this.  An interesting aspect of our situation, though, is the lack of an obvious home base.  We have never owned a home, and we have no plans to return to the last place we lived (and had medical care) in the US.  We decided to use my home town, where we are spending the majority of our break, as a home base to take care of these sorts of things.

My parents were able to give us recommendations for doctors and dentists, and my mom helped me make appointments.  So far, so good.  The funny part was actually going to these appointments.  As anyone who has been to any sort of medical or dental appointment in the US knows, there is always a lot of paperwork to fill out.  One thing they always want is the patient's address.  So, I spent a number of paperwork-completing sessions feeling vaguely like a liar as I supplied my parents' address, a place where I have not actually lived for many years.  Giving our Kazakhstan address is likely to (a) ruin the day of whomever has to enter the information into the computer, and (b) lead us to have to explain multiple times why we live there.

Of course, after having written my parents' (US-based) address on one of the forms, the next question asked for the name and address of my employer.  Knowing how discordant this would appear, I gave the name of my Kazakhstan-based employer, and hoped to not have to give a lengthy explanation of our circumstances.

The same thing happened with our phone number, of course.  Giving our Kazakhstan mobile numbers seemed counterproductive, at best.  We have no US mobile numbers, so we gave my parents' home number.  Again, I felt like an impostor.

It's not too hard to remember the address of the house I grew up in and the phone number my parents have always had.  The most challenging question for an impostor like me was the pharmacy I would use for any prescriptions.  It took some effort on my part to remember that the pharmacy closest to my parents' house is no longer the Eckerd Drugs where I worked for several summers, but a Rite Aid.  I don't remember what year it became a Rite Aid, but I know it wasn't really all that recent.  Missing that question almost certainly would have uncovered my dishonest ways...

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hanging Out With The Fancy People

I'm happy to report that we made it home for the holidays!  After our last trip to the US, I decided that if we could successfully leave Kazakhstan, I would try not to complain about anything else that happened.  Amazingly, the trip went pretty well.

We flew through Abu Dhabi this time, and one thing that did happen is that our flight from Abu Dhabi to New York was delayed several hours.  This was somewhat of a problem since we had a connecting flight to catch in JFK.  By the time we discovered this, it was the middle of the night in Abu Dhabi and we had already make the rather long hike to our gate's general area.  So, we had to hike back where we came from and talk to the transfer desk.  To my pleasant surprise, someone had already booked us on a new flight out of New York.  An even greater surprise was that the person who was helping us actually felt sorry for us and wanted to make our stay in the Abu Dhabi airport more comfortable.  First, he called the airport hotel to see if we could crash there.  For some reason we couldn't--I think there was a minimum number of hours you needed to be stuck in the airport before getting a free hotel stay.  So, he called one of the lounges next.  They were willing to take us, but we had to wait until 1:30 AM.  We were very tired at this point, but also very curious about the lounge.

We did go at 1:30, and amazingly, they let us in.  I wanted to take pictures, in order to document this momentous occasion, but decided that obvious wealthy people tourism was the sort of thing that might get me thrown out, and once I went into the lounge, I didn't want to leave.  The lounge probably wouldn't have seemed that great anywhere except an airport, but most areas of airports are so uncomfortable.  There were couches in the lounge, which, sadly, other travelers had already claimed.  There was a free buffet, as well.  I usually try to avoid eating in the middle of the night, but I was hungry, and in no mood to turn down free food.  After sampling a wide range of offerings (some sort of sesame noodle dish, chicken and rice, fruit salad, stuffed grape leaves), Scott and I napped a little in some padded chairs.  I got the sense that some of the other people in the lounge were probably first-class and business-class travelers, but I got the sense that some others were probably people like us whose flights had been delayed.

It was hard to leave, especially since the security procedures for flights to the US turned out to be pretty involved.  Our gate was blocked off, and it took a while before anyone was willing to tell us that we had to go to the end of the corridor for additional screening.  We had to stand in a long line and do the whole shoes off/liquid toiletries out of the bag routine.  They also made me get rid of my bottle of water.  Ordinarily, I just buy another one, but after going through security, we were routed through an area of the airport where there were no shops.  Sigh.  The food was pretty decent on the flight (both full meals had a vegetarian Indian food option!), but I felt like we were not offered nearly enough to drink, considering that the flight was about 14 hours long and that I didn't have my own bottle of water.  We made it, though, which is the important thing, and I had the fun of getting a glimpse of how people with an abundance of money travel internationally.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Astana These Days

We're leaving soon for the holidays (yay!) so I thought I'd write a post on some of the things that have happened around here lately.  I don't always get to post a lot on what I'm doing because, frankly, a lot of what I do involves work, and there is a lot about work that is best left unposted, in my opinion.

1.  Christmas decorations abound.  This surprised me, especially because Kazakhstan is a majority Muslim country.  Even more surprising was that I started seeing Christmas decorations right after Halloween, kind of like in the US.  Malls and shopping centers are big here, so I think commercialization plays a role, but I've also seen decorations outside of retail establishments.

Okay, this isn't a great picture, but maybe you can see some of the decorations.

2.  Winter has set in.  It's much colder here than I would like.  We haven't gotten any of the famed -40 F days yet, but we have gotten plenty of subzero temperatures with serious windchill.  So far, I think wind makes the biggest difference in my comfort.  If it's not too windy, I can layer enough clothing to make the walk to work less miserable.  When it is windy, all bets are off.  Windy and sunny might be the worst combination.  When it's sunny, the snow reflects the sunlight, making it hard to see.  However, when I put on sunglasses, they fog up almost immediately, also making it hard to see.  The snow tends to be pretty powdery, which is easier to walk in than wet, icy snow.  However, snow removal is pretty uneven, and in some cases, people cart away the bulk of the snow, but then leave a layer that becomes compacted and icy as it is walked over and driven over.  I haven't fallen yet, but I fear that yet is the operative word.

A truck carting away some snow.

3.  Our building now has the promised grocery store and restaurant.  We saw signs for both when we moved in in August, but I had really given up hope.  However, they both came, and at around the same time!  The grocery store doesn't have everything, but, honestly, neither do the larger supermarkets in town.  And with the above-mentioned cold and snow, I prefer to shop without leaving the building whenever possible.  Amazingly enough, they manage to keep a small selection of produce, so it's been surprisingly useful.  The restaurant is pretty good, too.  It doesn't rate as one of the best restaurants ever, but it's also not one of the worst.  With both of us working full-time, it's useful to not have to worry about cooking every single night, and we live in such an isolated area that other restaurants are rarely a realistic option.

4.  I've turned in final grades.  I am now dealing with the fallout of doing my job because not everyone is happy with his or her grades.  Some of the unhappy people are very whiny and pushy about their dissatisfaction.  Maybe the students I had last year were just an exceptionally mature group of people, but I never imagined getting this level of pushback.  Personally, the idea of challenging a professor on my grades never even occurred to me in college.  I think I viewed them as authority figures who deserved at least a display of respect (imagine that!).  I keep trying to remind myself that many of my students are terrific, but we all know that saying about bad apples...

And, that's about it!  I'm looking forward to some time with my family soon!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

This Gladdens My Pedestrian Heart

Check out this great video that Scott found today!  I've had my share of problems with drivers' understanding of the concept of a crosswalk, so I greatly enjoyed this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Public Service Announcement

A picture is worth a thousand words
It's that hazardous time of year now.  The wonderful sign above, along with an email from an Entity That Shall Not Be Named advising us to avoid wearing stilettos on the ice, should ensure that we all have a safe winter free of falls!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Out of the Music Loop

Scott and I went to the bazaar today, braving the cold and the snow.  It was easy enough to have reception in our building call a cab to take us there, but getting back turned out to be another matter entirely.  Gone were the usual swarms of taxi drivers outside the bazaar entrance.  Maybe the demand just becomes too high in the winter.

We started trudging towards the nearest major road with all of our stuff.  Scott suggested we try to find a Korean restaurant we'd gone to previously.  We found it, and enjoyed a good dinner.  We still had to get back home, however.

It took us a while to get anyone to stop for us.  Finally, a car with two young guys stopped and agreed to take us home.  It was a longish ride with the combined factors of actual distance, traffic, and snow on the road.  It was a pleasant ride, though.  The young guy in the passenger seat had learned some English in school and chatted with us, and his friend was a good driver in the snow.

Aside from chatting, we had an opportunity to listen to some of the music these guys liked, played from one of their phones.  I thought one song was very interesting and unlike anything I'd heard before.  The title was "My Ummah".  The song was mostly in English, with some Arabic, and was about Islam.  In the Middle East, I used to hear plenty of Quranic recordings in taxi cabs, but no songs about Islam that I recall, and certainly no songs with English lyrics about Islam.  I was fascinated.

With the powers of Google, I found out that the artist in question is Sami Yusuf, that he has been producing albums since 2003, and that the song I heard is from 2005.  Apparently, I should listen to new music more often!  Has anyone else had the experience of thinking they had stumbled upon something new and interesting, only to find out that it is now several years old?

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Few Reflections on the DC Trip

I lived in the DC area for about six years, so my relationship with the place is a little complicated.  On the one hand, I love all that DC has to offer, sometimes regret having left, and often scheme about how I can live there again.  On the other hand, I know very well from my own experience that unless you have the money to live within reasonable proximity to reliable mass transit and cultural attractions, the aggravations of urban living will often outweigh the benefits.  Personally, I was surprised and dismayed to find out exactly how much money would be needed.

Anyway, since I lived in the area for so long, I wasn't really up for taking pictures of all the usual attractions, although it was a treat to see the ones that we got to see.  I'm delighted to see the Washington Monument without all the post-earthquake scaffolding, for instance.

One thing that was new and that I deemed photo-worthy in my post-travel haze was our hotel for the first night.  As I mentioned in my previous post, we had all sorts of travel snafus.  This resulted in various hotel plans falling through--we were scheduled to spend the night in NY the day we arrived in DC, for instance.  We made a last minute hotel booking in DC, and ended up with what was billed as a boutique hotel.  I don't believe we had ever stayed in a boutique hotel before, so I was curious about what that would entail.  In the case of this particular hotel, it meant funky decor, a leopard print bathrobe, and Pez in the minbar.

I resisted eating from the minibar despite the unusual goodies inside.

I thought I'd provide a few lists pertaining to the trip, rather than run through all the details.

Best Foods Eaten

  • Oysters at Hank's Oyster Bar!
  • Cardamon gelato at Pitango Gelato
  • Breakfast from the Whole Foods breakfast bar
  • Indian food at Shangri-La in Bethesda
  • Kale salad at Nando's
  • Donuts at GBD
  • A large breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, including a goat cheese and mushroom omelette, a green salad on the side, and bread with chocolate spread
Regrets and Disappointments
  • The top regret is definitely not getting to see any of our DC-area friends.  I think it was smart to not try to make plans under the circumstances (especially considering our travel difficulties), but there are some people I would have loved to have seen.
  • Not having time to go to Rockville for some of the wonderful Chinese food there.
  • Not having more time in DC in general for any number of things.
  • Finding that a Malaysian restaurant we had enjoyed for years had closed.
Non-Exhaustive List of Stuff Brought Back to Kazakhstan
  • Sugar-free peanut butter from Whole Foods!
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder and powdered sugar for flourless chocolate cookies I want to make.
  • Staplers with staples.  I spent nearly half an hour attempting to staple forty quizzes together recently, and decided I needed better office supplies than what I could find locally.
  • Folders.  See above.
  • Cough syrup
  • All kinds of chocolate--Ritter and Milka chocolate from the Frankfurt airport, an Endangered Species chocolate bar from Whole Foods, and chocolate-covered ginger from Trader Joe's.
  • Chamomile and white ginger pear teas.
  • Warm tights that are long enough for me.
  • Dried mango
We're looking forward to a longer trip to the US later this month!