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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy To Be Home

We left our apartment in Astana to go to the airport early in the morning last Saturday.  Ever since this trip, flying out of Astana has made me very nervous.  Having a flight canceled and needing to return to our apartment would have been a particularly unwelcome development in this case since we had already gotten rid of our food in preparation for our leave of absence.  I decided that my main goal for the day was to leave Kazakhstan, and that I would try not to worry too much about how long it took to actually get home.

It was probably good that I didn't set the expectation bar too high because we had a very Kazakhstan-esque (or at least Astana-esque) exit from the country.  Not only did our plane need to be de-iced when it came in from Austria, but the high winds made it impossible to get it de-iced.  So after they boarded us late, we sat on the runway for a couple of hours, waiting for the winds to die down.  We did eventually take off and land safely in Austria, but by the time we got there, we had already missed our connecting flight.

There were no more seats on flights to the US from Vienna that day, so we had to fly to Munich, and from there, to Newark.  The flight to Munich was fine.  The layover was short, but we didn't need to go through customs or security, so we had enough time.  Newark was another story.  By the time we got through customs and rechecked our bags, the TSA had closed one of its security lines.  In order to cope with the influx of passenger in its other security line, the TSA instituted a cordoned-off multi-line system.  We stood in one order to get to another order to get to the line where we actually removed shoes/belts/coats and ex-rayed our carry-on luggage.  By that time, we were running against the clock, and the gate was far away.  We took off in that direction...only to find out that there was a last minute gate change that would require running in the other direction.  We then overshot the gate because it fell somewhat out of numerical order.

In the end, we had to beg to be allowed on the plane.  The employee at the gate was convinced that we were garden-variety dopes who had simply failed to arrive at the airport two hours early (I ask myself here why information like what flights passengers are coming from isn't more readily available to these employees).  Another gentleman joined us completely out of breath, having also come from an international flight.  Even though my primary goal was to get out of Kazakhstan, I was relieved to not have to spend the night at Newark.

Scott and I are now happily ensconced in my parents' house and pathetically grateful to be out of the clutches of the airlines for the foreseeable future.  Several of us in the house have colds at this point, but even being sick is a bit easier at home.  We are happy to be home, and anticipating a very merry Christmas tomorrow.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Some of My Recent Creations

I am mostly packed now, and anxiously awaiting my trip home.  I find it hard to be very productive during these times.  For one thing, I always feel antsy before big trips.  Also, once I have something packed, I don't feel like unearthing it again until I reach my destination.  So, now seems like a perfect time to document some of the pieces of jewelry I made this semester!

Scott gave me this lovely silver bead with a gingko leaf as a gift some time ago.  It was made by Anne Choi.

I didn't think to photograph just the bead before making the necklace!
As is often the case when I receive a special bead, it took me some time to decide how to use it.  I received some unexpected inspiration when we visited Austria last spring.  One evening, when we went out to dinner, a woman at the next table was wearing an amazing necklace.  It was chain with long metal beads added in such a way that they rustled like leaves.  I knew then that I wanted to incorporate that concept into whatever I made with the gingko leaf bead, but wasn't sure how.  I decided that I probably wanted to use green beads of some sort to echo the leaf theme, but when I started experimenting, I discovered that may green drop-shaped beads didn't fit very neatly onto jump rings.  I finally tried the beads you see on the tassel below the bead with some jump rings made of fairly thin wire, and had success!  I didn't have very many of these particular jump rings, and I didn't feel like trying to source more exactly like them, so I decided to be content with just a small section of the necklace rustling like leaves.  One thing I like about the beads I ended up using is that they are shaped sort of like gingko leaves.

The entire necklace!
I beaded a ring to create a bail for the gingko leave bead + tassel.  I used cellini spiral (a variation of peyote stitch that incorporates different sizes of beads to create a spiral) for the rope it is on.  I added some spiky beads near the front of the necklace, both for added texture and to keep the pendant in place (and keep the clasp from migrating to the front of the necklace).

Following the theme of using different sizes of beads, I also made this bangle.

This time, I arranged the different sizes of beads in a different sequence so that instead of getting a spiral, I have more of a zig-zag or bumpy effect.  I'm looking forward to wearing it once I no longer have to wear long sleeves every day.

For a quicker project with less bead weaving, I designed a necklace with this bead that I bought from a coworker a few years ago.

Again, I didn't think to photograph the bead on its own before adding anything to it.  Check out the detailed barnacles on it!

I originally had grander plans for the necklace, but eventually decided that I didn't want the large seashell bead to be lost in a sea of other things.  So I ended up with a single-strand necklace with two glass beads covered in smaller beads, and everything else fairly simple.

One of the many things I'm looking forward to back home is slightly better equipment to take pictures of my jewelry.  The kitchen window sill and I had a good run, though, I suppose.  My beading projects provided a welcome distraction from some of the more challenging aspects of this semester, and as has happened many times in my life, I was grateful to have a portable hobby.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Scott's Masterpiece

Behold, Trunks the elephant, our fourth and only pachyderm office mate.  Scott's desk in our office had a whiteboard behind it, so he drew this elephant over time, changing details occasionally until he was happy with the result.

The three humans in our office liked to imagine that Trunks was a gatekeeper or bouncer of sorts who would take care of any less-than-stellar students who came to ask for extra points/extra time/extra understanding for excessive absences.

Farewell, Trunks.  May you never disappear from the whiteboard!

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Pack of Un-showered Academics Coming to a Civilized Restaurant Near You

Our apartment here loses water more often than any other place I have ever lived.  The only rival for this honor is the apartment where I spent a summer in Jordan years ago.  Jordan is a country with frequent water shortages; I'm not entirely sure what the problem is here.

We lost water around 10:30 on Wednesday evening.  When I brushed my teeth, it was fine.  When Scott went to brush his teeth, it was gone.  I always get antsy when this happens because we never know what to expect.  Sometimes it's out for just a few hours, and when that happens at night, it could be fine by the morning.   Sometimes it's out for considerably longer, though, and very little information is communicated to us about what to expect.

Scott had to get up early for a work function that started at 7 AM (!).  No water at that point, so he had to go stumbling out in the cold without the benefit of a hot shower.  I got excited when, a few minutes before 7, I heard water in the pipes.  I turned on the faucet, and it was running again!  The water is usually yellow or brown when it starts running after being off for a while, though, so I did not immediately leap into the shower, thinking that I'd have time to let the water run clear and still get a shower before needing to give a final exam at 1 PM.  But about a half hour later, when I tried to turn on the faucet again, the water was gone.

I figured maybe I would wait it out.  I fixed myself breakfast because I was hungry, and wanted to eat before the shower I would surely get to take before giving my exam.  Still no water, but I created a few icky dishes with food congealing on them.

As the morning wore on, I tried to get some things done, but I kept being distracted by the water situation, and getting up to try turning on the faucet.  Then I had to give myself a time limit for the water coming back on.  It takes time to walk to my office these days because of all the slick walkways, and going outside with dripping wet hair is not the best idea.  At around 11 AM, I received an email saying to expect the water to be out all day.  Grimly, I resigned myself to a sponge bath (made possible with tap water I had stockpiled in old bottles after having been subjected to a few too many water outages) and headed to campus.  At least there, there would be flushable toilets.

Maybe it shows how spoiled I am that not having a shower would cast such a shadow over my day.  But it did.  It's hard to feel as if I project any authority when I feel like stench waves are radiating from my body like in the cartoons.  Then there was the thought of food congealing to my dishes at home.  I'm not a great housekeeper, but the thought of a mess getting worse as time goes on really bugs me.

Sometime in the afternoon, a friend of ours suggested a group outing to Kakao Dak, a local Korean restaurant.  The main branch of Kakao Dak is located a ways from the university, in a large complex where faculty who either (a) have been here for several years, or (b) occupy higher positions, live.  So, a big, un-showered group of us piled on to the university shuttle that takes the people who live there home at the end of the day.  We then proceeded to take our unwashed selves to Kakao Dak and drown our sorrows in Korean-style fried chicken.  Fortunately, Kakao Dak wasn't very crowded.  I think we inspire mixed reactions from the locals even under better circumstances, and it's hard to see how descending un-showered on a restaurant would improve our image.  (In my opinion, it was completely worth it to avoid the problem of more dirty dishes that couldn't be washed, however).

I was pathetically grateful when the water came back on in the evening.  Having running water in one's home is such a convenience, and I can only imagine the resourcefulness required of people who do not have that.  That being said, I'm looking forward to what I imagine will be fewer water outages next semester while we are on leave.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Trilingual Tissues

Yep, that's snow outside my kitchen window!
When I went to the little store in the dormitory the other day to buy tissues, I was more concerned with having something softer than paper towels to blow my poor nose into than I was with the design on the box.  But when I brought it home and took a look at it, I thought it was interesting.  The design on the box has cartoon hippos showing us how to say certain words (basket, flower, butterfly, and ball) in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

I've always had some trouble wrapping my mind around language use in Kazakhstan.  Both Kazakh and Russian are widely spoken, but since I don't speak either one, I get only occasional insights into when each of them are used.  I know that the government is working hard to increase usage of Kazakh.  It also seems that some parts of the country prefer one language over another.  When I traveled to southern Kazakhstan last spring, I was interested to hear from some of the Russian speakers I traveled with that some of the locals seemed to have trouble conversing with them in Russian.

Scott and I are taking a semester of unpaid leave in the spring, and one of my classes threw a lovely going-away party for me last week.  The language situation in Kazakhstan was one of the topics we chatted about during the party.  I asked them if they thought that the use of Kazakh was growing in Kazakhstan, and they thought it was.  They told me that Kazakh pretty much disappeared as a language of instruction in most of the schools for a long time, and that the textbooks were in Russian.  They said that even now, most films and literature are in Russian, so it was useful to maintain Russian skills.  One student pointed out that it was also useful to have a way to communicate with people from other former Soviet republics.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is that the students said that while they often mixed Kazakh and Russian together when they talked, there were certain words that they always said in Russian.  One student said that she had a four-year-old nephew who was saying those words in Kazakh because he heard them on a Kazakh cartoon show.  So, it seems that Kazakhstan's language use is evolving over time.

Interestingly, one of my students also asked me if it was true that Americans speak Spanish as well as Kazakhstanis speak Russian.  I had to reply that although Spanish is a popular language to study there, foreign language education in many parts of the US is very weak and many Americans did not think learning a second language was very important.

I do think American attitudes toward foreign language education are changing.  I know some communities are starting foreign language classes in elementary school, and I know preschool foreign language immersion programs have become popular in some areas.  But I will be surprised (and thrilled) the day I find an American equivalent of the trilingual tissue box I found in Kazakhstan.