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Monday, November 30, 2015

Journey Into Insanity and Thanksgiving Adventures

One of Denver's cows!
If I were to give advice to anyone wanting to make a round trip between central Asia and the United States in less than a week, I could sum it up in one word:  Don't.

Scott and I went to Denver last week for a conference.  The travel portion itself went about as well as could be expected.  None of our flights were cancelled, like when we went to the same conference last year.  We didn't have to sit next to anyone objectionable, like what happened when we flew back to Kazakhstan after our winter break last year.  Still, though, it's an awful lot of time in planes and stumbling through airports between flights, with all sorts of opportunities for having jet lag and contracting minor diseases from our fellow passengers.

I used to adjust to new timezones very quickly, and never really understood the problem of jet lag.  Now, I totally understand.  I didn't do so badly in Denver itself.  I woke up several times each night I was there, and felt wide awake each time, but always managed to get back to sleep.  Coming back to Kazakhstan was another story.  We returned late Wednesday night, and I got some sleep then.  I then proceeded to put in a full day of work on Thursday, and thought for sure I would sleep soundly Thursday night.  Wrong.  I was up most of the night, and looking down the barrel of another full day of work on Friday.  I'm so disappointed; I feel like I've been stripped of my only (somewhat) super power.

Regarding the diseases we had the opportunity to catch from our fellow passengers, Scott was sick with a cold most of the time we were in Denver, and is still recovering.  I thought I might escape this one, but then I started coughing on Friday.  It's the type of cold with a dry, itchy cough that seems completely impervious to any cough suppressant once I lie down, and I'm looking forward to recovering.  I spent much of last night trying to arrange the neck pillow I take on long flights so I could sleep sitting up.

On the bright side, Scott's conference presentation went very well, we got to catch up with some old friends and colleagues, and we got to eat some of the foods we had been craving.  While we didn't get to do as many Denver-specific activities as I might have hoped, the mountain views were very pretty.  Also, we shipped some stuff to my parents' house and I got a flu shot.  Try not to envy my glamorous lifestyle too much...

We celebrated Thanksgiving with some of our friends here on Saturday.  Thursday was a regular work day here and many of us had been traveling, either to conferences, or on student recruiting trips.  I volunteered to make a "pumpkin" pie out of butternut squash, using this recipe.  I was excited to try making the pie with butternut squash, and we had most of the ingredients we needed.  We didn't have any brandy on hand, but Scott suggested that local cognac would be a good alternative.

I had two problems:  I didn't have a pie pan (or anything remotely similar), and though I've made pie crust before, I didn't feel like doing it in my kitchen here.  Before we left for Denver, I purchased some sort of frozen pastry dough that I thought might work as a pie crust.  I intended to buy one of those disposable aluminum pie pans while in the United States.

On our first morning in Denver, we trekked out to Whole Foods to eat at the breakfast bar and pick  up some important provisions like peanut butter.  I kept my eyes peeled for an aluminum pie pan, and didn't see one.  What I did see were aluminum pie pans with graham cracker crusts.  For some reason, it didn't occur to me to just buy one of those and use the crust they came with.  I suppose my ability to reason was another casualty of jet lag, and I was kicking myself all day Saturday for not having purchased one of those.  There were no supermarkets particularly close to our hotel in Denver, so our Whole Foods trip was our only chance to take care of that problem.

As Saturday approached, I emailed everyone in our Thanksgiving crowd to ask to borrow a pie pan.  Our good friends/next door neighbors offered a silicone cake pan that they had baked a pie in, and I gratefully accepted it.   On Saturday itself, though, I started having doubts.  How would I get a crusted pie out of the silicone cake pan without having it crumble?  Also, would one pie even be enough for a crowd?

I doubled the filling recipe to take care of the problem of feeding a crowd, but was still at a loss for how to make the pie.  I did some looking on the internet, and came up with the idea of baking two things with the filling:  crusted mini pies in my muffin tin, and a crustless larger pie in the silicone baking pan.

I used a coffee mug as a template to cut out circular pieces of pastry dough to line the muffin tins.  I put it in the oven to bake.  When I checked back, the pastry dough had puffed up like giant flaky muffins, way past the point of using them for pie crusts.  So, that plan was obviously out.

My next plan was to bake two crustless pies, one inside the silicone cake pan and another inside a bread pan.  The one inside the bread pan was obviously not going to look very pie-like, but I thought ensuring enough dessert for everyone was more important than appearance.

Amazingly, in spite of the improvisation, the two crustless "pies" turned out well.  I would definitely make pie out of of butternut squash again.  I like using canned pumpkin for baked goods when I'm back home, but I think the roasted pureed butternut squash was somewhat more flavorful.  I'll look forward to having a pie pan and options for crust next time, though.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Slippery Cakes Up Ahead!

I received the following in an email, written as usual in English, Russian and Kazakh:

Due to the weather conditions, roadways and sidewalks areas were covered with icing.

Ha!  Icing would have been easier to walk through than what we actually had.  Scott and I had been out of town, and returned to ice so hard and slippery that I was sliding around even in YakTrax.  One of our friends told us there had been freezing rain in Astana right before we got back into town, which is unusual here.  Usually, we get snow instead.

I know how difficult it is to learn foreign languages, and I would never want to make light of anyone's attempts to try, but I'm very comfortable calling this one a Google Translate tragedy.  Just for fun, I plugged the Russian version of this email into Google Translate, and got the exact sentence that I saw in the English version of the email.  Interestingly, that's exactly the sort of thing that I and other instructors and professors here have gotten after our students about.  A cautionary tale on the importance of learning (i.e., studying and practicing) foreign languages, perhaps?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Last Day In Tbilisi

The clouds lifted both literally and figuratively on our last day in Georgia.  It was our only entirely rain-free day during our stay, and since we went exploring on our own, neither Nikoloz nor Lado were there to try to hydroplane us all off the road or anything.

Since we all had a better feel for Tbilisi at that point, we started out in the old city and just wandered around.  We had lunch at an outdoor cafe.  I was enjoying watching all the cats scurrying about outside while we ate, until three of them got into a scuffle right at my feet!  I was eating a vegetarian bean pastry, so I'm not sure what they thought they were fighting over, but I ultimately resorted to spilling a little of my water on the ground to get them to disperse.

It was a pretty relaxed day, and the best part was that by going in search of an old Zoroastrian temple, we stumbled upon a walking path up to the Narikala fortress.  It was great to see so much up close; plus, it was on this walk that I encountered my favorite of Georgia's furry friends.

I liked the idea of having so many birdhouses on one wall.

My best picture of Mother Georgia!

The domed buildings are the old bath houses.

After this wonderful walk, we had a dinner in which we shared copious quantities of our usual favorite Georgian foods, as well as some new ones, like a spinach and walnut dish.  It was the perfect ending to a trip to a country I had not thought of visiting prior to coming to Kazakhstan, but would happily visit again.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Linguistic and Housekeeping Note

As I was trying to be a responsible adult and clean the apartment today, the following occurred to me:

Depending on which definition of the word you choose, our vacuum cleaner either does or does not suck.

Maybe trying to be a responsible adult is overrated.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tbilisi and Mtskheta

The other tour we signed up for in Georgia was one of Tbilisi and Mtskheta.  We had signed up for it mostly because it presented an easy way to visit Mtskheta, a very old city whose monuments have been designated UNESCO world heritage sites.  But we thought it would be a chance to learn more about some of the sites in Tbilisi, also, even if we had already visited them or planned to return on our own.

The day probably got off to a questionable start the night before, when Nikoloz suggested we get a later start in the morning.  In retrospect, that probably should have clued us in to the fact that we weren't going to get to see everything we had planned on, but part of the reason to hire a guide in the first place is to let someone else do most of the thinking and planning.

The first thing we planned to see on the tour that morning was the open air ethnographic museum in Tbilisi. turned out to be a holiday in Georgia, so it was closed.  Again, we hired a guide in part to let someone else do most of the thinking and planning....

After that, we took a walk around Turtle Lake in Tbilisi, which was pleasant, but perhaps not a top must-see with limited time.

On the trail around the lake, we found this advertisement for ajari khachapuri, one of Scott's favorite Georgian foods.  It's a bread with cheese and an egg in the center, and you mix the egg with the cheese before eating it.

Then, for reasons I still don't understand, we were driven up one mountain to this weird theme park.  It was closed that day because of the holiday, but we could walk around.  It looks like a theme park that nightmares are made of.  Not a place I would recommend, especially not without exhausting sites in old Tbilisi and museums.

It was clear that most of the Tbilisi old city portion of the tour was falling by the wayside, but we insisted on taking the cable cars to see the Narikala fortress, which is something very worth seeing.  Nikoloz, meanwhile, was flipping out because so much of the day had passed and he was still supposed to take us to Mtskheta.

Picture taken from below.

Picture taken from cable car.

And a view from the top!

Mother Georgia in the trees

Narikala fortress

Another view of Narikala fortress
 We then visited a modern cathedral in Tbilisi.  On the way out, a group of people were taking wedding pictures, and were using a drone to get an aerial shot.  I had never seen a drone up close before (evidently Nikoloz hadn't either, as he stood transfixed for several minutes despite his worries about the time), and I have to say that at best, I think they're a very annoying technology, with the buzzing noise they make.

A drone shattering the tranquility of the day.  I've seen videos of animals trying to knock these things out of the sky, and I think I understand why now.

To Nikoloz's dismay, we insisted on stopping to buy some khachapuri (a cheesy bread) before getting on the road to Mtskheta, as it was getting way past any sort of normal lunch time, and we had sites to see there before eating our scheduled lunch around dinner time.

Mtskheta was almost magical looking, especially with the clouds and the mist rolling in.  Mtskheta on its own made up for the somewhat slapstick nature of the tour up until that point.  I wish we could have spent closer to a whole day there.  Maybe on a future trip to Georgia!

We visited the Jvari monastery first, and saw amazing views of the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, as well as the monastery itself.  While we were inside the monastery, someone's phone rang, and the ringtone was the theme music for Mad Men.  I was simultaneously entertained to hear the theme music to an arguably rather irreligious show in such a context, and relieved that someone besides me was probably committing the worst faux pas at that moment.

Then it was on to the town itself, where we saw the Svetitskhoveli cathedral.  I think we all could have happily wandered longer if it hadn't been relatively late in the day and if we hadn't been hungry.

Looking up at Jvari monastery from below.
Dinner was next!  We went someplace famous for lobio (a Georgian bean dish), and khinkali (large dumplings filled with broth and filling.  You are supposed to take a small bite, slurp out the broth, and eat the dumpling).  Someone innocently asked if we could get wine at dinner, to which Nikoloz replied that we'd had our wine tour the day before.  This prompted someone else to (quite accurately) ask what wine tour he was referring to.  This act of resistance proved too much for Nikoloz's ego.  He left his father Lado to eat with us and proceeded to passive aggressively order large pitchers of wine to our table from somewhere else.

After a very tasty dinner, we rode back to our hotel in Tbilisi--women in Lado's car, and men in Nikoloz's car.  When we arrived, the guys were already there, and one of our traveling companions was throwing up on the side of the road.  The last we saw of Nikoloz that evening was him dashing across the street, pretending not to see.  So, if anyone wants to visit Georgia, I have plenty of recommendations of foods to eat and sites to see, and one recommendation of a place not to say and a guide to not tour with.

Fortunately, our friend felt well enough to do some site seeing the next day.  Also, that evening, Scott surprised me with an early birthday cake!  It was possibly the tallest birthday cake I've ever seen, and was delicious.  I only regret not having time to eat more of it before we had to return to Kazakhstan.