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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Refrigerator Tetris Time!

I wrote recently about central Asian melons, but really, at this time of year, there is quite a bit of all sorts of produce available.  We went to the Yevrasia bazaar with some friends yesterday, and ever since we got back, I have been playing Tetris in my refrigerator, trying desperately to maximize on space until we can either eat or freeze our bounty.

Yesterday's haul included tomatoes (4 kg. of tomatoes, to be precise!), basil, cilantro, plums, peaches, nectarines, eggplant, strawberries, raspberries, walnuts, cashews, dried apricots, and a few types of Korean-style salads.

A couple of our friends hosted a tomato sauce cooking party, and we now have three ziplock bags of tomato sauce in our freezer.  I tried loosely basing the sauce I cooked off a recipe that suggested cutting the tomatoes in half, scooping out the seeds, and grating them.  I tried a spoonful of the sauce, and am happy with the result, but I think roughly chopping the tomatoes and then blending the sauce in the end would give a similar texture with a fraction of the work involved.  I'll have to try that next time, and there almost certainly will be a next time because ideally, I would like to have more than three dinners worth of tomato sauce in my freezer.  It's amazing how the 4 kg. bag of tomatoes that made my shoulder hurt all day yesterday cooked down so much.  I don't think I'll ever take for granted the ready availability of canned tomatoes back home again.

We've also cooked down the mushy berries (in the case of the raspberries, almost all of them were mushy or broken apart by the time we got home!).  The cooked berries are good for stirring into yogurt, putting on top of pancakes or French toast, or--my favorite from last year--making upside-down cakes.

I know realistically there is no way I'll have either the time or the energy to fill our entire freezer with yummy summer produce.  But having some of it will both boost our spirits when the only tomatoes available are crunchy and cardboard-y (which is probably not even all that long from now) and salvage dinner time on at least a few hectic days later in the semester.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Torpedo Melon

Does anyone know the name for this very tasty melon?  My melon vocabulary stops at cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew.

Central Asia is known for its melons, and we're taking advantage of the tail end of melon season now.  We were eating with some fellow expat friends the other night, and the subject of this type of melon came up.  I referred to it as a "torpedo melon" but then wasn't really sure why I did, other than its rather torpedo-like shape, of course.  Had someone told me it was called a torpedo melon?  Or did Scott or I come up with the term to distinguish it from the other melon (one that is fairly small and round with an orange rind) that is common here, but not common back home?

Anyway, I figured out why yesterday when I was ordering groceries.  The word torpedo factored in to the Google-translated version of our online grocery store's description of this kind of melon.  So the name torpedo melon has stuck, at least until I hear something I like better.

I ordered the one in the picture from the online grocery store this week.  It's pretty big--a great thing to not have to lug home from the store, in my opinion.  Unwieldy though it may be, we'll certainly enjoy it.  It'll be cold before we know it, and produce pickings will be slim, so I want to eat as much summer produce as I can.

Same torpedo melon as above, with my hand to give some idea of scale

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Pop Of Color

I have no talent at all for interior design.

Also, anyone who has visited any of the places I've lived (or worked with me and seen my desk, for that matter) knows very well that I am not the tidiest of people.

BUT...I still have opinions on the aesthetics of my surroundings.

One thing that bums me out about our apartment in Astana is the preponderance of beige, brown, and white, broken up only by rather garish prints on the walls.  I haven't really attempted to deal with this problem because (a) as I mentioned, I have no talent for interior design, and (b) I didn't want to spend time and money fixing up what is going to be a temporary home in the end.  Some of our colleagues have done a good job making the most of our bland looking furnishings; our apartment is personalized mainly by our piles of clutter.

Our apartment came with one set of white sheets.  We wanted to get another set of sheets, preferably in another color, but non-scratchy sheets proved elusive, and we gave up.  Over the summer, though, we visited our storage unit, and I decided to take a set of sheets out of there to bring back to Kazakhstan.  The sheets closest to the top of the precarious pile of stuff in the storage unit were blue.

Anyway, when we got back, I decided to put these blue sheets on our bed, and I was amazed at the difference a little bit of color makes in the room!  I think our bedroom already looks less dreary, which has probably improved my mood every so slightly.  I'll take any sort of mood improvement I can get in light of the early semester chaos we're dealing with right now.

I don't expect to develop any talent of interior design any time soon, but at least now I think I can understand why some people are so passionate about it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What Made This Trip Easier

Soooo....we're back in Astana now.  I have mixed feelings about this, to put it mildly, particularly in light of some of the annoyances I found waiting for me.

That being said, the trip back went reasonably well, with no flight cancelations or delays.  This was a pleasant contrast to the trip I wrote about here.  It was also a departure (ha, ha) from our first trip out here last August, in which the following transpired:
1.  We had a good deal of excess luggage, many pieces of which turned out to be overweight.
2.  I dropped to the ground at the ticket counter, frantically moving items from one bag to another in attempt to redistribute above mentioned excess weight, and exposing my packed undies for the world to see in the process.
3.  Our initial flight from Raleigh to Washington-Dulles was cancelled.
4.  We flew from Raleigh to Washington-National, collected our immense collection of luggage and took a (large) cab to Washington-Dulles.
5.  We checked in again with Turkish Airlines at Washington-Dulles, only to learn that my carry-on piece of luggage was overweight.  Prior to that day, I was under the impression that airlines cared only about the volume of carry-on luggage, and that as such, it was an ideal place for small but heavy items.

A lot of these sorts of travel-related annoyances are obviously out of our hands, but here are a few things that probably contributed to making this trip out here easier.  Unfortunately, they all cost some money, but I think they were all ultimately worth it.

1.  Luggage Scale.  Why on earth didn't I have a luggage scale last summer when we first came out here?  Good question!  Answer:  Because I didn't feel like forking over all of about $25 to get one.  I also thought (erroneously, as it turns out) that I would be able to estimate the weight of my luggage better.  On previous trips that have required a lot of luggage, it was all I could do to lift a 50-pound bag.  So I thought that if I could lift my suitcases relatively comfortably, they must be under fifty pounds.  It turns out that my lifting of wimp-weights at the gym must have had an effect because it turned out that I could semi-comfortably lift quite a bit more.  Anyway, after last summer's debacle, we bought a luggage scale when we were home for Christmas, and I would say it was definitely worth the price to not have to crawl around on the airport floor rearranging things in my bags.

2.  Luggage Storage at the Vienna Airport.  Shockingly enough, there are not multiple flights every day between Vienna and Astana.  As a result, we had about a 12-hour layover in Vienna on our way back to Kazakhstan.  We had already decided that we would go into the city for part of that time, but we were sort of dreading lugging our carry-on bags.  However, once we arrived in the Vienna airport, Scott asked an employee, and it turned out they had luggage storage!  I don't know exactly what the fee structure was, but we paid 16 euros to store two small rolling bags and two backpacks for several hours.

This is the first time we've gone into a city during a layover, so I have no idea if other airports offer this service or not, but it is certainly something I will look for in the future.  We were very happy to see Vienna again, but what with being exhausted from travel and it being a hot outside, walking around would have been nearly impossible if we'd been encumbered with our stuff.

3.  The Airport Lounge.  I've only had one previous experience with airport lounges, which I wrote about here.  That experience was free, which makes a lot of difference.  What made Scott and I start thinking about airport lounges again was the length of our layover in Vienna.  We had been thinking about checking into a hotel near the airport for showers and naps, but the best candidate for that was fully booked.  Plus, since it was far enough away to require a shuttle from the airport, it probably would have complicated our scheme to get both some shower/rest time and some time in Vienna.

I think airport lounges vary in both policies and amenities, but the ones in Vienna had showers and let anyone in for a fee.  We paid 25 euros per person (with a slight discount for our choice of credit card).  This fee got us showers, free (and pretty decent) wi-fi, unlimited food and drink, and a comfy place to rest.  After many, many hours of travel--and with the addition of free food--it seemed like money well spent.

We purposely decided to not have much time back in Astana before starting to work again, so we wanted to make the trip as restful as humanly possible so we could hit the ground running when we returned.  Scott and I were talking earlier about how when we were in graduate school and were doing quite a bit of international travel, we never would have spent money on any of these things.  Times and circumstances have changed, though.  We're both obviously older, for one thing.  The other thing is that studying or doing research in a country of your choice (particularly one where you speak the language) is a very different activity from returning to your place of work in a country you didn't exactly choose where you don't speak the language.  The first set of circumstances is usually exciting....the second set of circumstances is remarkably like returning to any other job after a vacation, but with the added difficulties of being outside your home country.  In the end, as surprising as it would have been to my 25-year-old self, my 35-year-old self is perfectly willing to consider anything that might make life and travel easier, even when it comes with a price tag.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Necklaces From Souvenirs

I think the fact that I associate summer with travel must have inspired me to make two necklaces out of souvenirs this summer.  The first one was one I had been planning for months.  It incorporates nine souvenir squashed pennies from places in North Carolina--a great thing to wear when I miss home!  These were all squashed pennies that either I collected myself or that my parents collected for me.  I had to wait until I was stateside from the summer to work on that necklace because I needed tools and space to punch holes, cut lengths of tube, and create tube rivets for each one.  That part was the time-consuming part.  The finished necklace makes a fun jangling noise when I wear it.

The second necklace features a large pendant I bought in Uzbekistan.  Actually, I think it has been used as both a pendant and a brooch in the past--there is a large safety pin attached to the back, and I've been trying to decide if it bothers me enough to remove it.  When we visited Uzbekistan, I decided I would buy a piece of jewelry if I found something I loved that looked very different from jewelry I had seen elsewhere.  This pendant definitely fit the bill.  To make a necklace for it, I stitched two beaded tubes for the sides of the necklace, and strung the pendant on a length of chain between them.

The pendant is sitting at an odd angle because of the safety pin on the back.
I'm happy with how both necklaces turned out, but I think what I like the best is that they both have personal significance to me, since they remind me of places I have visited.  I can wear them on days when not much seems to be going my way, and remember fun travels I've had.