Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Kaz Post - honest or dishonest?

Well, it is now December 30 and there is no sign of any of our parcels from the UK. Granny has posted 11 separate items, all individually numbered so that we can check if everything has arrived. Quite apart from the pure expense of 11 parcels' worth of presents going missing, I am gutted that she has spent hours and hours of time, miles and miles of selotape and countless trips to the post office to send these things and NOT ONE has arrived. I am hopeful that they have just been delayed in the UK post (strike backlogs still perhaps?) and then arrived into Kazakh end-of-year, can't-be-arsed-to-do-my-job-properly-pass-the-vodka-dimitry apathy which is quite likely. But there is the overriding worry that some undeserving Kazakh postal or customs officer has stolen our things.

We are still hoping, and I think I will continue to hope until the kids go back to school on January 11th, then I will give up.

We have, so far, been one of the lucky families whose post has arrived - many people that we know here have had huge problems with their post. Our local Post Office clearly have a sorting box marked "random foreign people living nearby" as some items which have been addressed to our house have been delivered to my husband's office.

Last year, we were on holiday for Christmas, so the fact that all our presents didn't arrive until January didn't really matter. Everyone posted their things much earlier this year, so we were fully expecting things to arrive by the 25th. It was only because other Grannie brought a large suitcase of gifts with her when she came to visit in November that the kids had anything to open at all on Christmas Day this year - phewy.

Of course, if everything does not show up, then that will be the end of any gifts from anyone in the UK, forever - boo hoo.

No one will use a courier (I researched couriering our gifts for Christmas from John Lewis on Oxford Street, and for £135 of presents it was going to cost £185 to send! I could not bring myself to spend that money on shipping a load of plastic Sylvanian Families half way around the world.) - the only solution will be for husband to find a European conference in the third quarter of the year which he absolutely must attend, and fly business class via London where he can pick up things and bring them back. However, he has been very reluctant to offer his services as a courier, after I overstepped the mark once and ordered a flat-packed desk to be delivered to his hotel in London and made him carry it back to Korea! ha ha ha

Keep your fingers crossed for us...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Further shots of Chimbulak

I know I am getting pretty boring about this, but you may like to see some more shots of my favourite place in winter in Kazakhstan. Such a beautiful spot. I can't stop taking pictures and also still can't believe (a year and a half on) that we live 25 mins drive from this place.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Favourite place in Kazakhstan in Winter

This is my favourite place in Kazakhstan in Winter - the valley you can see is where Chimbulak ski resort is. We took this photo yesterday, after spending seven hours with all the kids skiing and playing in the snow. The eldest two went with their dad and did their first attempt at skiing down the middle ridge of trees, through the powder snow and under branches - a massive step in their skiing ability. Even he said that he felt quite proud of their efforts, and he is not easily impressed. The youngest stayed with me at the bottom of the slopes and practiced walking about on her tiny little plastic strap on skis that I imported from Scotland.  At seven months pregnant, I have hung up my ski boots - not actually because I feel I cannot manage a gently glide down the slopes on a quiet day, but more because of the disapproving tutting that is emanating from everyone I know at the thought of a pregnant woman skiing.

We had a delicious lunch together, the sun shone, it was quite simply magnificent to look at and everyone felt great at the end of the day.

Festive fayre and Christmas Excess

Last year we weren't at home for Christmas and so I didn't have to prepare anything. This year, I am not sure why, I have literally taken it upon myself to prepare absolutely everything festive that I could possibly think about. I love cooking, and I really get a kick out of making delicious things for friends and family to eat, but I think I have slightly overdone it this year. The thought of even starting our Christmas cake (yet more dried fruit) is enough to make my stomach turn.

We have had mince pies in their hundreds (I specially brought back vegetarian suet from the UK in October and then proceeded to prepare about 8 kgs of the stuff because that was how much the suet made).

I am about to send the last 36 or so of these little beauties into husband's office as a New Year british delicacy that most people will not have tried in Kazakhstan.

Then we had the Christmas Cake - as yet unopened - which has been in the preparation since September. My Turkish friends all thought the idea of a cake you keep for 3 months before you eat it, utterly disgusting, but I am hoping I will be able to fob off a few slices at the New Year baby group coffees. Catch a few unwitting non-Brits, for whom the sight of a raisin for the first six months of any year is enough to have them running for the Alka Seltzer.

On December 23rd I casually mentioned to husband that I was planning to make a sherry trifle instead of a traditional Christmas pud and he looked at me as though I had said I was going to sell our youngest child to pay for presents, in total shock. "What?" he choked, "You make a million mince pies which I don't even especially like, but you are not going to make my favourite part of Christmas lunch - the pud?". So I got out the recipe book again and prepared Christmas Pud a la Kazakhstan - with grated cold butter instead of suet (had used all mine in the bloody mince pies), and another kilo or so of the amazingly good dried fruit we get here in the market.

Apart from going out for a Christmas Eve drinks party and forgetting that said Pudding was still only on hour 6 of the cooking process and nearly burning the house down, we managed to come back in time to switch it off and on Christmas day, it very satisfactorily burnt purple flames with brandy long enough for two little girls to run upstairs, find their newly acquired cameras and rush back down to take a photo of the glowing pudding. Here is a picture of the pud with a Tawny port trifle, sherry not being available at the moment in Almaty.

As for the turkey, our main dish of the festive period, we ordered a fresh one from the Turkey lady at Zelony Bazaar. On Christmas Eve, four-ish kilos of large bird arrived in a plastic bag looking like it had been clubbed to death, such was the concavity of its chest space. I made a pork, apple and pistachio stuffing for this, and once this had been inserted, it began to resemble an overbred, Katie Price-breasted bird, as we would expect at home. Sage and onion up the bum, a few packs of bacon and it was all looking quite promising on the bird front. I wasn't sure how it would taste - maybe a bit stringy? But it was a fab turkey, delicious, tasty and tender.

And finally, because I had been worried that the Turkey might be a, well, turkey, I ordered a smoked ham just to make up the meat section of our lunch. They could not guarantee the size when I ordered it, so I explained it was for five adults and six children. And also on Christmas Eve, a 5kg (that is nearly 11lbs!) ham arrived from the butchers shop. Covered it in mustard and honey breadcrumbs a la Barbara, and baked that down the road at my friend's house. Actually, it was the most delicious thing on the table, but we have a lot left.... 

It has been a delicious and gorgeously-smelling feast of Christmas. Once the ham is gone, we will all live on soup for the rest of the holidays I think. 

I forgot to mention the quantity of chocolate that has made its way into the house: 

3 x Raxat Christmas pudding-shaped round boxes (Raxat is the chocolate factory here)
1 x Happy New Year large gift box of chocolates from Raxat
1 x large gift box of Mint thins
1 x large box of choco truffles
2 x large boxes of Cadbury's celebrations
1 x large tube of Dutch chocolate dragees
1 x multipack of Dutch chocolate dragees in different flavours
3 x Terry's Chocolate oranges (total result - we will hide these from the children and eat ourselves!)
6 bags of chocolate coins from father christmas
3 x Cadbury's celebration novelty champagne bottles full of chocolates
3 x large bars Raxat chocolate - will save for choco mousses later in the year (maybe September, when we feel like eating again!)

How obscene is that?? I am going to hold a chocolate amnesty for the kids who had stashed the stuff in various baskets and boxes all over the house and send some of it to the office for husband to share with his colleagues over New Year, or we will end up looking like Roald Dahl's Augustus Gloop family, suffering from diabetes and sporting blackened stumps for teeth. 


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Oh Christmas Tree, oh christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches tra la la

Last year we moved house on December 11th, mother in law arrived for a month-long stay on December 15th and we went on holiday to the Philippines on December 17th. Our christmas tree was a shambolic plastic affair that I happen to own courtesy of a friend who sold Xmas decorations, and who had lost a section of one of her display trees. Rather than throw it away, she gave it to me to use as I saw fit, and for a couple of years, that stumpy-at-the-bottom, narrow-at-the-top deformed sad tree constituted our festive foliage. But since we will be at home this year, husband and I decided to stump up and get a real one this year.

On the same outing that I purchased some (probably-illegally-cut) logs, I had spotted a place called FssYay Dlyah Sadoo (Everything for the Garden) and I remembered the road. We headed out there last weekend with the express purpose of bringing back a good, big, real, pine-smelling tree.

We selected our tree (not the blue spruce which was coming in at a cool 1000 USD), forked out a not unsubstantial amount of money for it, plus extra for delivery (could not get it in the back of the car with three kids and granny in tow) and followed it home. Here it is, on the back of the van.

And only 6 hours, 800 fairy lights and all our decorations later, here is the finished thing:

We're pretty happy with it! This really kicked off our festive season, and I followed the tree up with the mass production of enough mincemeat to make about 5000 mince pies, multiple visits to Santa (five to date), Christmas concerts at school and the wrapping of half the European wine lake as presents for teachers.

All I have to do now is find a turkey.

Fire! Fire!

On Sunday night, husband and I were woken by a strange popping sound which sounded like it was coming from the garden.

"What's that?" he murmured.
"Sounds like firecrackers. Do you think someone is in the garden?"
"Sounds like rocks being thrown in the river," he said.

Being woken up is nothing special. I honestly cannot remember the last unbroken night's sleep I had, there are such a large number of interruptions possible every night:

1. There are often fireworks here, so we are quite used to being woken up.
2. The constantly expanding pack of wild dogs which still live under our garden wall are now quite unbelievably loud at all times of day and night (I am moving back to murderous thoughts on this subject and think I will tackle this issue in the spring).
3. Our three children seem to be on a permanent cold and flu cycle this winter and consequently one of them wakes up every night. The larger ones wander into our room to be met with a short and firm, "Have a drink of water and go back to your own bed'" from us. The little one simple wails "Mummy, mummy, mummy," incessantly until either she falls asleep again, or one of us goes and gives her a cuddle.
4. New baby is now kicking hard enough to wake me up roughly every 30 minutes through the night!

This popping sound was a new phenomenon though, and when husband got up to go to the loo he suddenly said, "Bloody hell, FIRE!".

The photo is the view from our bed. I am not sure if you can tell from this mobile phone snap, but these flames were rising at least 20 feet into the dark night sky.

It was obviously someone's house on fire, very close to our own. Husband grabbed his jeans and headed off to see if anyone needed any help. He came back 45 minutes later reporting that they had woken the people in the next door house by banging on the windows (they had all still been asleep which is quite amazing considering the noise), and that the police were there. There were also five fire engines which had eventually turned up, but because of the three inches of compacted, sheet ice on the road, only two had been able to get access up the lane. And it had then taken fire agents at least 30 minutes to locate the fire hydrant which is in front of our house (we did not know this - it is disguised as a normal drain cover, completely unlabelled, and is most likely covered in snow for most of the winter - and obviously neither did they!).

It was awful to think of these poor people, their entire house being burnt to a crisp in the middle of winter and only a matter of days before New Year and its celebrations. We still don't know if anyone died in the blaze. The house that burnt down was one of the ramshackle little wooden cottages that still exist among the newer (not necessarily any more fire resistant) houses that have been recently constructed.

Husband came back to bed, snuggled under our lovely duvet and said: "This is why we could never leave the kids alone in Kazakhstan". He is dead right and of course we already knew this. It is a random place Kazakhstan. You never quite know what is going to happen, and how things will be dealt with.

Friends here almost set their huge house on fire with their patio heater recently. It took over an hour for the fire services to arrive, during which time they had melted their roof, blown up their barbecue, destroyed both patio heaters and burnt a significant hole in the floor of their pool house, before seeking refuge a long way from the flames in case of further explosions.

Other developing world fire stories that I remember include seeing a fire engine screaming down the road in Sao Paulo very fast, responding to a call out.  It went shooting through a traffic junction, but didn't take into account the variable camber of the road, and with all the bouncing around, every single roll of coiled hose fell off the roof and they had to stop and pick them all up.

And the most awful of all was in Bangkok where the road next to our nanny's road caught on fire and there was a huge fire that destroyed an entire slum located behind the US embassy in Sathorn district. We later found out that all the American embassy workers who parked their cars in the back streets of this part of Bangkok had been pre-warned that it might not be a good idea to park on the roads next to the slum. And even worse, the blackened limits of the fire were all in straight lines around a large rectangular plot of land. Lo and behold, the area which had previously housed around 5,000 people was soon redeveloped to build a five-star condominium and the poor people from that area set up new homes under canvass in a new plot of land next to a 6-lane road. Evil!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Head of state on the slopes

I happened to be up at Chimbalak, our local ski resort, yesterday on quite the most glorious morning. There had been about 7 inches of snow over night, and because President Nazarbayev was evidently planning a visit (we worked this out from the solid presence of policemen and people scraping ice off the road all the way up there), the slopes had been pisted even before 10am when the lift opens.

Chimbalak, and Almaty in general, will host the 2011 Asian Winter Games if a certain development company gets its act together and manages to upgrade the infrastructure in time. The credit crisis has taken a serious toll on this much-leveraged firm, and while their vision and ideas for the city were obviously ground-breaking and impressive originally, their cash flow management leaves much to be desired. Having had an entire summer to work on putting in new lifts and upgrading the frankly rotten facilities at the top of the hill, there has been no change at Chimbalak except for the removal of the car park closest to the piste, and the installation of tons of plant which is now sitting in the snow mainly unused. The result is that skiers have to park on an unpaved area of mud half way up the side of the slope, pick their way through cables and past diggers and then slide down the slope to the ticket office (conveniently placed so you have to take off your skis to get to it!). At the end of a hard days skiing, you then have to clamber back up this slope, duck under the cables again to get back to your car. It is pretty basic, but at only 25 minutes from our front door, we don't actually care that much as long as some of the lifts are working.

From time to time the president likes to have a few runs, and Tuesday was one of these days. He will be 70 in a couple of weeks time, but President Nazarbayev is pretty spry for his age. He brought with him around 30 honchos and heavies, camera men and assorted hangers on. They then stopped the normal flow of skiers making their way down to the chair lift, and off he went.

The person on the chair lift with the red jacket is the President of Kazakhstan. 

It left me wondering how many current heads of state go for a quick ski during their working weeks!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

When shouting works!

A couple of incidents lately have left me wondering about the local psyche.

First of all, I had a long conversation with my Russian teacher about the way English people behave. Apparently, in general, we are considered "tricky" to deal with on account of our lack of propensity to say exactly what we mean, because we are always trying to be polite. Turns out that many other nationalities find our pleasant interactions frustrating and baffling and they cannot understand why we don't just spit out what we mean, instead of couching things in gentler terms.

"But if someone is nice to me all the time," she asked, "How can I tell if they are my friend or not? Maybe they are just pretending they like me."

"Well, yes, maybe," I thought, "But surely you would prefer that to someone treating you as if they don't like you?"
I explained to her that one of the things foreigners living here most often complain about is the surly first-contact experiences they have with locals. Having lived in many different countries, I have finally learnt not to take first impressions too much to heart (it took a while). You simply cannot understand where a person is coming from by their first reaction to you, if they do not share the same cultural background as you.  I would much prefer that the norm here was to be smily, happy and helpful, but that is just not the way it works. It may be the case in other countries, notably the US where service with a smile is an oft-repeated mantra, but in the UK that whole idea is a relatively recent concept.

"We don't like to give out our smiles at the start, but then the next time you meet someone, if they like you, you will be able to tell," she enlightened me. And she is right. My general approach everywhere, is to be smiling and courteous, and to persevere even in the face of the grumpiest, most sour-faced bureaucrat as I tempt them to crack their dour expression at least into a twinkle in the eye. But, my goodness, you have to persistent to get results sometimes. If I fail, I generally find it quite funny. Being that grumpy takes a huge amount of concentration! Most of the time, with enough smiling and general pleasantry-making, you can eek out some kind of signal that you are making progress. And the next time you come across that person, you will practically be asked to go and drink vodka with them for a couple of days.

Contrast this with the over-zealous smiling of the Thai nation, for example, where foreigners complain that everyone is so nice all the time, but then they will stab you in the back as soon as look at you - the famous crocodile-smile complaint - you just can't win.

But I digress. I am going to share a still-being-developed theory for social interaction in Central Asia with you. On two occasions recently, I have had cause to get annoyed with people and, forgetting my usual "be nice to all" mantra, I have let rip with a torrent of abuse then stopped speaking, slightly horrified at myself, only to find that the torrent has worked, and the recipient is now a meek and pliable bit of putty in my hands.

The first victim was an officious security guard at the ski resort, who was trying to force my 6-year-old to queue to go through the ticket machine even though she is too young to have a ticket. By queueing with me, she usually loses a ski or two as we struggle to get through the turnstile together, and then we hold up the whole queue and other people shout at us to get a move on, and it is all quite stressful. However, there is a plastic fence located down the side of the line, and she can easily ski up the outside, wait at the end until I get through the ticket barrier and then nip in at the front. Considering there are legions of VIPs who regularly do this anyway, it is not as if she is the only person doing it.

The security guard kept telling her she had to go with me, and could not go through at the top, until I yelled at him in patchy Russian not to be such an idiot, that she did not have a ticket, and it was very difficult for her to come through the machine with me, and honestly, what was the problem with one small young child waiting for her mother on the other side of the turntable, get a life! And immediately, it was no problem. They practically gave her a seat and a cup of tea to enjoy while waiting the next time we came around. Extraordinary.

Second time, was in a shop, where my toddler had put some items on the floor while we were trying on some trousers, and an assistant came round tutting and complaining, "What's all this then," as if we had single-handedly de-stocked all their shelves and were planning to leave everything in disarray.

"Oh get over yourself, I will put them back on a minute," I snarled. Moments later, she re-appeared, smiling ingratiatingly, and offering to search the stock room for anything I required. Amazing.

I have told a few people about these rather weird experiences. And especially among the friends of mine who are working here, my observations are met with sniggers and nods, as if I am the last person on earth to have worked this strange thing out.

It seems that to come across as too friendly at the beginning of an interaction is taken as a sign of weakness, and one should not reveal one's hand too early. Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen is modus operandi for this town. And so the brusque approach which most people reserve for dealing with people round here, is the one to take. They are not, as it turns out, being incredibly rude. Just normal.

Monday, 23 November 2009

How to tell your mum you are up the duff

I am now a full five months pregnant, but I have not told my mother about this. We have a fairly close relationship, but by dint of my being abroad, she has not seen my expanding waistline so has been utterly oblivious and also completely engrossed in the arrival of her fourth grand daughter who was born three weeks ago to my sister.

I was really nervous about telling her. She has made it clear that she thinks that one more kid will be too much to handle. She feels that I might have been pressurized by my husband into having four (admittedly he has been keener than me on the idea, but at the end of the day, I am happy to go along with his idea of the perfect family and I am sure that in the long term, having a bigger family will be terrifically rewarding and fun).

I am old enough that I think I should be able to organise my life without being answerable to my parents, but there are some things in life that never change. Perhaps it is because I am Piscean, but I seem to still crave her approval in most things. Not that I really pay that much attention to what she says (our views  on many things are not aligned), but if she has made it clear that she thinks something is not a good idea and I am then basically going against her advice and doing something anyway, it does make me anxious. Perhaps I am doing something totally crazy? Readers of this blog will be aware that I have questioned my own sanity on the subject of this pregnancy. Maybe I will not be able to cope? My own self-doubt has been reinforced with her worry! Maybe, in an awful way, she will be proved right. What if I find myself drowning in an emotional whirlpool of screaming baby, crying toddler, sullen and neglected primary schoolers, the older children weeping in misery as a domestic implosion occurs, sucking us all down, and which is all my own fault for having too many babies.

Well, finally yesterday I managed to break the news to my parents. I had been talking to my sister who has just had her first baby. Despite having been offered a brand new, lightweight, compact stroller from us (admittedly it would fall into the category of hand-me-down which this baby is not going to experience if she can have anything to do with it!), they decided to buy a Phil and Ted's deluxe gigantic pushchair. Surprise, surprise, three weeks into parenthood, they are finding that their designer chair is so big that they can hardly get it in the car, and it weighs so much that they are both in danger of slipping disks in their backs from heaving it around the place. I was telling my mother this, and we both agreed that you just can't tell people things sometimes, and it is probably better to just let them spend their money and they will buy a smaller stroller in the end anyway.

I then told her that, well actually, in fact, umm, our own lightweight stroller  is going to be drafted back into action next March in our house.

Silence on the end of the phone.

"Oh" came the response. Not as bad as I expected, I was half expecting for her to say something like, "Oh god, you are joking aren't you? You're not serious? Oh, for god's sake."

There was a reasonably long pause before my father piped up to rescue the situation from his armchair (they use the speaker phone on our phone calls so they can both chip in) with the classic "That's great news, darling".

There is a lot to work out, especially if I end up not having the baby in Kazakhstan, when we will actually be in rather desperate need of some support and help from our parents. On both sides they have plenty of grandchildren these days, so no one is jumping out of said armchair and offering to rush over and help out. The novelty has completely worn off. Although we live away and so they hardly ever take the kids, that works very well for them. They come for visits and when we go and stay with them, I am always around.

If Mummy did come and help out, it would not be her preferred new born experience - lots of cuddles and walking around holding a pleasantly-snuffling little tiny one, making the odd cup of tea and going for proud granny walks with the pushchair. It would be straight into bedlam that is our house, with the three other kids careering around, bouncing off the walls (it will be the end of the winter and we will have relatively been inside rather a lot), probably eating nothing but eggs and breakfast cereal.

It was understandably a bit of a news thunderbolt for them, and sweetly, the next day my father called to offer all the help they could give. "Just make your plans to use us as much as you can," he said. My mother also, had sent a hasty email to apologise for the lengthy radio silence that had greeted the news, "It was just such a surprise, I didn't know what to say," she admitted.

And now that the news if officially out and about in family-land, I feel incredibly lucky to have such a supportive bunch to help us through what will be a challenging but perfectly-manageable time.

Lurgy central

Wow. Last week was a house of sickness in Almaty. First our eldest daughter crashed, vomitting and feverish, to the floor for a two-day bout of television watching and recovery. Then, while preparing a large lunch to celebrate our smallest's 2nd birthday, second daughter went bright red in the face and was overwhelmed with a high temperature for two days. By the end of the lunch party, I was feeling rank, coughing and also feverish and took to my bed for what turned out to be a three-day spell of feeling so hellish that doing anything apart from lying in bed in a gloomy room was enough to make me weep. Half way through the week, husband also succumbed and "worked from home" which actually meant wandering the house hacking and coughing and complaining of feeling rank, in between heavy doses of Lemsip and sleep.

I have never had flu before. Nasty, nasty bug. Even the smallest domestic task felt like an insurmountable effort. At our lowest point, when both of us were feeling dreadful, the children ate cheerios breakfast cereal for their supper!

But seven whole days (and a large packet of antibiotics) later I am delighted to report to feeling more or less back to normal!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Where's Mummy? Bed

Since going to see the doctor's in London, and being advised to rest for at least one hour a day for the duration of this pregnancy, I have felt much, much better. Turns out that having three children and being pregnant for the 6th time can take its toll on your body. Unless I rest every day, come one o'clock in the morning, I am woken with horrible crampy pains across my abdomen which only subside as the sun rises and it is time to get up again. Doctors think this is due to general wear and tear, and bed rest has been the key to stopping this rather degenerative sleep deprivation.

You may think it is simple to just go to bed. But basically, if I go to sleep for two hours a day, then that means that two hours a day of not pottering around and getting things done. I don't get an extra two hours awake at night, because I am still as knackered by the end of the day as normal, but I do get to sleep at night, rather than wander around drinking peppermint tea and reading blogs by candle light!

And especially on the weekend, when we have no one around to help out with the kids, it is husband who has to take up this extra child minding, dishwasher loading etc etc. I feel so sorry for him (although of course, he is half responsible for my predicament to start with). He is so knackered and really needs to lie in or nap, but if he does then we tend to run out of time to do anything at all with our free time and he hates that, so it is his sleep which is being sacrificed while I snore away.

On the bright side, the resting is really working. I have gone from an average of three or four night's lost sleep per week to none since beginning to put my feet up.

This last week I have been well and truly knocked out with the flu. The sleep tally has risen. I have never spent so much time in bed. It is not, surely, natural for a human to sleep so much without actually lapsing into full-on hibernation? Days and days, hours and hours of being unconscious during the day and then sleeping again at night. Having just awoken from another long nap (I went to bed thinking I would not be able to sleep since I had only been up for five hours and the sum total of my efforts today has been playing lego and putting the marzipan layer on the Christmas Cake, but was out of it within minutes and pushed out another couple of hours of good quality zzzs), it is probably only another few nano-seconds until it is time for bed again.

A couple of days ago, he went to get our toddler out of her cot before heading off to Tajikistan for the week.
"Where's Mummy?" he asked her, and although I was actually downstairs plaiting the hair of our other two for school.
"Bed!" she confidently replied.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

St Thomas here we come

For those who check in every so often to Big Beluga, you will know that I have just spent a week in London on a "shopping trip". For those who know me well at all, the idea of me going on a shopping trip is one that I would like the idea of, but not something that I would normally fork out 800 dollars to go and spoil myself with. And in fact, it was not just a shopping trip. I went back to have an amniocentesis test done at a private clinic where I could be sure that the practitioner's cock-up rate was low.

I cloaked my trip in lies about having a shopping trip and visiting my sister who was having her baby.
I didn't want the news of this pregnancy to come out three days before the arrival of my sister's first, much waited for child. But I had to go this week in order to be within the time limits for this test (which is up to 20 weeks of your pregnancy), because the week afterwards, my husband was on a business trip to Moscow for five days. Super nanny is very nice, but we cannot leave all our children in her care while we are both out of the country.

I did the test (which was pretty unpleasant, but I survived and so did baby), and also visited a couple of places where I could possibly have the baby next year when it arrives.

I can hardly describe the sense of security I felt being seen by a proper consultant at the St Thomas Landsell Suite maternity unit near Waterloo station. He seemed so nice, has so many letters after his name, has many many years of experience, works in several of the cleanest, best practice hospitals in London. The staff in the unit are lovely (I have been there to visit a friend when she had had a baby before, and then also, they were utterly fantastic). They are classic no nonsense nurses and midwives: sensible but friendly and pleasant and extremely professional. And english-speaking too, working in an environment that I can understand, with a system that is vaguely familiar. The relief I felt, sitting in the waiting room of a place that smells like a hospital, where there is obviously a good system in operation, and where everyone seems to know what they are talking about was extraordinary.

And it made me think that for the six or seven weeks disruption that it will cause our family next year if I do go away, I would much, much, much rather have the baby somewhere like that, than try to stay at home and be absolutely bricking myself with worry about everything.

It may not be London which is only convenient for one of my sisters and we may need more help than that (she has a full time job which interferes terribly with being on hand 24 hours a day to be my helper! ha ha). But somewhere in the UK. There is still lots to work out, but I am sure we will get there.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A wish for a simpler life...

Well, I have finally come to terms with my pregnant state. It only took four months to accept it and become even happy about it and so I am really glad (not to mention relieved) about that.

But now, we have a few logistical things to consider.

Our clinic does not particularly recommend having your baby in Kazakhstan. They couch everything in very diplomatic terms, but when the opening sentence from your doctor is:
"Now, the thing you should remember is that you won't find the sort of facilities here that you are probably used to for having your baby," you start to wonder what it is going to be like. I have had babies in Brazil, Hong Kong and Seoul and so I am not exactly "used" to anything. But last year's miscarriage was not great (even though it was the best you can get here) and I have serious heebie jeebies about doing it all here. Even if it might be easier for others around me (kids and husband).

Another girl I know who had her first baby here described it as "a nightmare, the worst thing that I have ever done." And someone else I know, who had her first baby in Almaty last year (so she had no idea what it could be like), thought it was OK. When I probed a little further I realised that it had been pretty tough for her as well, but she just hadn't known because she had never done it before!

And after my miscarriage last year (see my Gynacologia! Gynacologia! post of last October) I have to admit that I would not be going to hospital to have this one feeling relaxed and I have recently heard enough medical scare stories to put you off even visiting a doctor's in Almaty, or in fact, anywhere in the former CIS. Admittedly, I do not yet know the full intricacies of Kazakh birthing options, but I can't believe that practitioners here use the latest best practice, and in the awful event that a new born needs serious medical support, well, that is simply not available. Fabulous neo-natal care is not available here.

And all this considered, husband and I are thinking that perhaps it might be better for me to go to the UK to have this one. Which leaves a few other things to sort out:

1. What to do with the other three children we already have?
2. Where to stay if I do go back to the UK - we sold our flat recently so we are homeless. Stay in a hotel? Rent a flat near the hospital? It will most likely be central London (where our health insurance works with various hospitals) so not cheap.
3. When would I have to go back? We have to work on the assumption that everything will be straightforward, in which case I can fly at 36 weeks. But if anything gets complicated, then life will take a stressful turn.
4. When will husband come back to make sure he is there for the birth - I don't fancy doing it entirely myself, nor do I like the idea of asking even a close friend in to see me grunting away in labour! I may have to schedule a caesarian.
5. Will we ask my parents to come out to Kazakhstan and help with the older kids? For how long? Could they leave my aged grandmother for weeks on end? No. My father may be having treatment for an illness in which case, they will of course, be engrossed in that.
6. Will we bring all the kids back to the UK when the baby arrives (neither husband nor I like the thought of leaving the oldest kids on their own in Kazakhstan without either parent). To stay where?
7. What about MIL? Sister in law will have just had her 2nd baby and so is probably relying on her own mother to be around to help out. I would feel bad to interfere with that.
8. How will the kids be without me for weeks on end? Maybe six or seven weeks by the time I have the baby and get its passport and visa for Kazakhstan.

All in all, trauma.

You can add into this heady mix of questions the fact that my husband will be in his "busy" season at work which usually means working 18 hour days for him, and the fact that the kids have a 10-day half term a week before my due date. Oh yes, and our eldest daughter will have her 9th birthday on the 12th March (my due date is the 4th or 5th - my birthday is the 4th as well!). It is all complicated.

I could stay here. But I just don't fancy it. Should anything go wrong, we are not sure that the medical care will be adequate to save me or the baby. So no matter how much it costs, how complicated it all gets, I think we will go to England.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Pregnancy crisis cont...

I have to admit, this 4th pregnancy thing has sent me into a bit of a spin.

It is taking a long time to come round to the idea:

1. Having four children - how does anyone manage that and enjoy it?
2. Where to have the baby? Here in Kazkahstan - in some post-soviet clinic full of doctors who have qualified in psychiatric care, working the night shift in a gynacological ward because they haven't been able to get a job in their chosen field? In England? If there, where will I stay? What will I do with other three kids? Leave them in Kaz? Get mother in law out to help - she may not be available, sister-in-law having delivered her second in late Jan? Be forever in her debt? Agh. I don't know yet.
3. Actually having it. I feel I have had enough of the birth stuff:  disposable paper knickers, sore bits (I had more stitches than in applique quilt after #1 - ouch).
4. All the other websites and blogs I read from mums of four nearly always have husbands around quite a lot. My baby is due in March next year. Last March was in the middle of a fairly gruesome period when my accountant husband worked 66 days straight - no weekends (66, the number of the devil, you know). Even with him trying really hard to be supportive, I know he won't really be able to be around.
5. Becoming a mum of four. I don't really see myself in that group. I have always thought mums of four were a breed apart. Either earnest, earthy, knitting types who wear hemp clothing (they grow their own hemp), or those scary, incredibly-organised super mum, pony-club breeders who breast feed their youngest while running as the local MP (and winning), or successfully launching a new range of organic baby food in Sainsbury's.  I have never really seen myself in either camp. I am just not that kind of girl. Don't have the gumption.

The hemp type mums all seem to agree that you just have to go with the flow, reduce your expectations of what you will be able to achieve at home and not worry about it. But I don't want to live in a house where the older kids have to forage for their food when they come home because I haven't had time to prepare anything, or where everything is all jumbled up because even starting to sort things out, like toys etc is such a huge task that to start is to open the doors of hell.

The super mums don't seem to blog - I am sure that if they did they would be so smug that some lesser blogging mortals would track them down and super mum would be found, murdered by drowning in a five-gallon vat of her own, organic, plum puree.

And to top it all, husband and I have now fallen out. I am being too "weird" for him. I have told him quite a lot of these concerns and he shrugs them off as logistical problems to be solved in a calm and orderly manner. Why are men always so blooming logical? SO annoying! He cannot understand why I feel slightly overwhelmed at the prospect. It is a real Venus meets Mars situation, and after 16 years together, I have to admit to a certain disappointment that the love of my life seems to have such a small grasp of my mental processes. To his credit, he remains unbelievably (some might say, insanely) positive about everything. He is just that kind of guy - loves life and wants to wring every last drop of excitement, experience and fun out of his limited time on the planet. Which I suppose makes me a bit crap for whinging on. I should just look on the bright side and stop whinging, or I will end up like one of those whiny, spoilt housewives who I detest so much!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Why I love Mondays

Monday, 2 November 2009

Total Denial

It is one thing to miss a period and thus enjoy a long-awaited holiday in France with uninterrupted nookie with husband, but quite another when you realise that this missed menstruation almost certainly means that you are pregnant again, with child number four.

Oh lord, four? How can I possibly manage four? Three is bad enough at times. My life usually feels like I am on a hamster wheel, never quite getting over the top of the hill which is within my sights but somehow never getting any closer to the summit no matter how fast I peddle.

And then, from time to time, a window of light opens up. Perhaps the two eldest are at school, the toddler is asleep, and I am able to quietly get on the internet, do those jobs that have been hanging around for 10 days undone, wrap those presents, post those letters, do that admin, weed the garden, make supper for the family in advance, so that when the girls get home from school we play badminton in the garden, or do a puzzle while a luscious pasta bake bubbles in the oven, filling the house with a delightful homely smell. Then life is sweet, I feel in control, that I am doing a reasonable job as a mother and home maker, and not just winging it.

I waver between thinking everything is going fine, and feeling like I am drowning in a sea of toys and baby wipes.

I spend half my time feeling that I am so lucky, my husband has a great job, works incredibly hard and is utterly dedicated to his brood. He is Scottish, sensible with money which he understands (I don't really get it), and has spent decades putting his career together with reasonable success. I shouldn't really worry too much about money. We have more than enough to live. We enjoy a high standard of living.

The other half of the time, I may wake in the middle of the night, utterly fretting about cash. How will we ever be able to retire? Will we ever pay for a decent roof over our heads? If we continue to live where we do now (Kazakhstan), we may have to look at boarding school for the kids when they are older. I know they won't all go at the same time, but that is 25 grand a year just for fees, never mind flights home for holidays. Oh god! And with this news, it will all be times FOUR?

So I decide that I am probably just late this month. No problem. I will come on a bit later. Just a blip.

Two weeks pass. No sign. I am stocked up with tampons ready for the onslaught, but they are only getting used by toddler as she helpfully "unpacks" my entire suitcase for me one day.

A month passes. I am officially a month late.
"You know, you are pregnant, don't you?" says my husband.
"Oh well, no, I expect I am just late a bit, you know," I mutter, pulling up tent pegs at the end of the trip.
"Aren't you going to do a test?" he asked.
"Yes, I'll get one in England. You can get those ones now that tell you the date of conception," I say.

We make our way back to England and my husband flies back to Kazakhstan and goes back to work. We make our camp  at my mother's house for a few weeks of British Summer beach (this year mainly in the rain), ice creams and feeding the ducks.

Taking it easy on the coffee and beer, my mother disapprovingly says, "I hope you're not pregnant again. I think you have more than enough on your plate, don't you?"
"Oh, no chance of that," I scoff, realising that she has already more or less sussed that I am up the duff (I am 37 years old, why do I still behave like a teenager in her presense?).

I decide it is far to risky to buy pregnancy vitamins and a pregnancy test, in case my mother sees the packet and confronts me, so I do neither.

Three weeks later I come home to Kazakhstan and finally make an appointment to go to the doctor. We do a pregnancy test, and he confirms that I am, in fact, pregnant. I text husband. I AM UP THE DUFF. He calls me laughing, "We both know you are, I can't believe you have waited all this time to do a test."

I am still not sure. Having had a couple of miscarriages, I am very suspicious of my little bleeding spell. It is far too early to feel anything at all, so I won't believe that I am actually really properly pregnant until I see the ultra sound and the gynacologist tells me that I am. At the clinic they have an appointment for a scan later that afternoon. There is no putting off the moment of truth.

The russian gyny has an interesting and very soviet approach to human relationships. Her language is uncompromising.

I fill her in on my history of pregnancies, births etc (this is my sixth pregnancy, for heaven's sake).

"So you will monitor this pregnancy in Almaty or in Abroad?" she asks. Many foreigners go to their home countries to have their babies from here as the facilities are sometimes a bit basic, and certainly the bed side manner may be very different to what you may expect.
"Well, probably here," I say, "I have already got three kids, it will be a bit complicated to leave them all here," I say, glumly, the memory of my miscarriage operation in an Almaty clinic last October still fairly fresh in my mind.
"So you will have born [sic] or will be medical abortion?" she asks. My husband snorts with laughter.
I look at her, to make sure I have understood what she meant, and reply,"Born."

Then we do the ultrasound and see a perfectly healthy, normal-looking, 14-week-old (14 weeks!!!!) foetus wriggling around. My husband is delighted. I am still very ambivalent. It is a weird feeling. I am waiting for the joy to kick in, but full of so much apprehension about becoming such a large family, another four years of small people being the entire focus, another four years at least of not really being able to take advantage of most job opportunities. Having to buy six airline tickets every time want to go anywhere. Six tickets - oh my god. We won't fit in a normal car, we will barely squeeze into a family-sized tent. Panic.

What is the matter with me?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Happy Halloween

With halloween rapidly approaching, and it being a handy festival to spend a few days getting excited about during half term, a friend and I had arranged a party for 13 kids at her house. I was to arrange for a mass pumpkin purchase so that everyone could make their own lantern, parties not being complete these days without a craft activity!

The Green Market here is a fantastic place for veggies and there is a pumpkin section where you can buy a bag of ready carved pumpkin for less than  dollar a kilo, so I really did not envisage a problem turning up and ordering 13 whole squashes in one go.

I approached the the pumpkin tables and explained that I needed 13 medium sized orange pumpkins for my kids to make lanterns with, and that I wished for the vendor to remove the seeds and clean them out a bit for me. How many people turn up with an order of this size I don't know, but you would have thought I was asking these women to remove their gold teeth with tweezers the way they rolled their eyes, and muttered "ochin tijolo" several times (which means ooh, very hard work).

As usual in these sort of situations, everyone on the pumpkin section became involved in the discussions. I think even a couple of the dried fruit and nut chaps chipped in from the aisle next door, such is the way of Central Asia.

"Ooh, that is an awful lot of work," they all said.
"Oh come off it," I said, " You carve up pumpkins every single day for eight hours - how hard can it be?"
"Well, you see, we carve them like this (holds up pumpkin and shows me top to bottom slashing action) and emptying them whole, well, that is a totally different game," said one lady.

I sighed, thinking to myself that for people who sit in a freezing market for hours on end, surely the opportunity to earn a days wages in one fell swoop would be incentive enough to make a transaction like this easier for the paying punter? But no. First of all, they cannot agree to do this too early, or I might not over-pay them enough. And secondly, frankly, they cannot be arsed to do the work. So they would rather that I and my wallet wandered off and found the pumpkins elsewhere then they would not have to empty them. Save them the bother.

I took a deep breath.

"Ok, let me put it like this. First of all, I know that it will only take you seconds to prepare each pumpkin. I have done it myself on numerous occasions. I would do it again, except I have a dinner party to prepare for tonight and to tell you the truth, the addition of 13 pumpkins for carving might upset my preparation time plan for the three course dinner. And secondly, I will pay you extra to clean them out. Come on. We both know that you can do this in no time and I will doubtless be paying you more than a local would. Can't you just agree?"

"Well, it is an awful lot of work, I am not sure," said one woman, but I could see her beginning to weaken.
"You don't have to do them now. I can come back tomorrow to collect them," I said.
"Shall I do one today to make sure we are doing it right?" suggested the one woman on the stand who was willing to make the sale (three others were shaking their heads and saying Ochin Tijolo, over and over again like the members of some weird pumpkin carvers trade union). Sure enough, within about two minutes, she had cleaned one out completely.

"See, it took you less than five minutes to do that one," I crowed. "Can't you just do another 12 like that? Please?" And so the deal was done subject to an upfront payment, and I left.

She did a great job, in fact, and kindly presented me with a whole free pumpkin as a bonus offering when we went back to pick up our halloween booty.

Here is a picture of our prototype and Sonia, the pumpkin lady.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a friend's house for the pre-trick or treat party and all 13 kids in attendance were able to make their own lanterns which then glowed and twinkled through the night. Although I say so myself, the pumpkins were a triumph!

I have only really started to enjoy Halloween since living abroad and knowing enough American and Canadian families to be shown how to do it properly. It is such a fun event for kids. And when you have a proper trick or treat scenario set up (we have to do that living in buddhist and muslim countries like Thailand and Kazakhstan where pagan / christian festivals are not exactly de rigeur) in some suitable neighbourhood it makes it just a fantastic night for the kids.

In Almaty there is one compound where several foreign families live and it has become something of a tradition to hold Trick or Treat there, with many other pre-tricking parties being held in different houses until it gets dark.

The week beforehand, participating mothers hand over large bags of sweets which are then distributed among the houses. Then the people in the houses decorate their front steps in scary fashion and are delighted to be called upon by the hordes of witches, demons, grim reapers and fairies that turn up. This year, one guy dressed up entirely as a vampire (think Muppets vampire, not Lost Boys!) and was hilariously in character for all the kids who were there. It was brilliant.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Nose stuffing

Our soon-to-be-two year-old is bit of a character. The third of our children, she is independent, easy going and busy. If her repeated requests for things are ignored (or lost in the general cacophany which is our home), then she will do her 23-month best to sort herself out. As a result, we have had the kitchen flooded as she gets her own water, seen an ipod ruined as she stirred her pretend tea with it, and numerous other small events have eventually been traced back to her little-fingered endeavours.

On the whole I applaud her can do attitude, sunny disposition and toughness.

But of course there are somethings that she likes to do, about which I am not so keen! One of these is her recently developed penchant for "nose-stuffing". This started with a small plastic bead in her right (always the right) nostril which we removed with tweezers while visiting a friend's house. A couple of days later there was most of her honey sandwich at breakfast time. I managed to get her to snort this out, and the blockage was cleared. On Sunday, we had the green mini-smartie sweet jammed up there and removed by means of gentle prodding of the outside of the nose.

I have not had a "stuffer" to deal with before. I have nannied four American boys, au paired for numerous french children and now had three children of my own, but this nose stuffing is a new thing. I hope the novelty wears off soon, before she ends up having to have something surgically removed (a girl I knew when I was 12 was locally-known for having had a brass pixie surgically removed from her nasal cavity!)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

half term

After a whole four weeks back at school the kids are now on half term for one week. How was that organized? There seems to be a kind of strange relative phenomenon which is that the more you pay in school fees the less time kids spend at school. Anyway, what with that and generally being pretty rubbish at the moment, my posting rate has slipped. I feel a burst of output coming on... watch this space!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Never boring, Philip Kurkorov and Kazakh excess

The last few days have been great, everything running smoothly after my trip to the UK, everyone happy and healthy. We have been in a routine, noone late for school, no bags forgotten, no chaos. In fact, so ordinary, that I did begin to think "Gosh, our life is so normal here!".

And then I got to Friday.

Ha ha ha.

I arrived at school to pick up Eldest and take her for a one on one hot chocolate as a special treat, only to find that the somewhat delicate traffic system there was being disrupted by the most enormous, white stretch limo that I have ever seen blocking the drive. On further enquiry I discovered it was taking some year 3 kids to a birthday party.

As eldest daughter and I walked to the car, we were looking at the gigantic, white ostentation-mobile and chatting about it. She then commented that a girl in her class was particularly well off, and had some really amazing stuff as a result.   Of course, kids notice if someone in their class has all the best kit. In Kazakhstan there is some stiff competition for gadgetry and utterly cool toys but fortunately, our kids' school has a pretty strict uniform and rules on taking things to school. So we don't have to cope with kids running around with Louis Vuitton school bags and Macbook Pros aged 7 years old (they have them all at home, but are not allowed to bring them to school!).  The particular child she mentioned happens to be quite closely related to President Nazarbayev, so I explained to her that, you know, the fact is that when your grandfather is the benign dictator of the oil-rich, ninth largest country in the world, that you might get the odd toy more than normal. So just an average after school chat with your kid.

Then, we got an email from a guy setting up a black tie St Andrew's Night dinner in a hotel in town. At first glance, you would think that this would be very run of the mill: an expat boozy night (isn't that what expats get up to all the time, anyway?) some Scottish flags, lots of whisky, cock a leekie soup to start. But reading down we realised this would be a night with a difference. The same guy is very interested in rugby and the Kazakhstan Ladies First XV is one of the top ranked ladies rugby teams in the world. So at the end of the normal information about a black tie event, we read:

During dinner, we will also be holding Kazakhstan's first 'Ballroom Scrum' competition.  The winner of the Scottish (& friends) men's vs Russian (&friends) men's team will compete against the Kazakh women's team for the 1st Annual Ballroom Scrum Trophy.

ha ha ha. As you do! A totally normal evening!???? Sounds hilarious actually, and I think we will probably go to see this event. 

And finally, today we attended the wedding and reception of the son of a business person that my husband does a lot of work with. This was a reception for more than 300 people at the newly-opened Rixos hotel in town. 

The wedding organisers had hired 30 top of the range white limousines for their entourage, including Rolls Royces and brand new stunning Mercedes etc. The rumoured cost of the event was over US$400,000 and I can well believe it. From the very beginning we were pretty over-awed. The descent to the ballroom was lined with stunning models, on one side dressed in gorgeous traditional Kazakh dress and on the other, in similarly gorgeous Korean Hanbok (dress). Between these very attractive human ornaments were 9-foot-tall arrangements of flowers, mainly white and pink roses. 

The ballroom was decorated with huge arrangements of flowers, candleabras, and stunning white tables. In one corner stood a full Yurt, another corner had a half yurt serving kazakh delicacies and drinks (If you wanted to chew on some dried camel milk curd, this was the place to be!). The bride emerged from the main yurt in traditional Kazakh dress, accompanied by the music of a nine-piece kazakh band. That was the start. 

The whole event was spectacular and deserves its own post. But the most notable thing about the event was the entertainment. There was literally no expense spared. They had 11 acts before dessert. The Bride and Groom were accompanied on their first dance by 6 ballerinas from the state ballet. We listened to, I think they are called, Yalla, an 70s Uzbek folk/rock band who were apparently huge in soviet times (they were brilliant), Korean drummers, some modern Kazakh beautiful female instrumentalists who do classical music with kazakh instruments with a beat, a couple of opera singers, a superb jazz band, and finally a gigantic star flown down from Moscow called, I think, Philippe Kurkova, who looks like a fat, Russian Michael Jackson and lip synced his way through a set while the guests went wild, and his dancers (who looked like a bunch of muscly eunuchs) writhed around him. It was fabulous! Amazingly entertaining and spectacular. I just looked him up on Wikipedia and it is worth a look, especially the Controversies section at the bottom of the page. Or not to be so mean, you can see him perform one of his hits on You Tube if you click here.

And so the last couple of days have been a bit of a refreshing break from our normal routine. There have been some eyebrow raising moments, which I have to admit I really like. 

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Technological solutions

After an extraordinarily long period of time and huge amounts of consideration, I finally bought a new computer yesterday.

I have ranted and raved, cried (in John Lewis' customer services department which was excruciatingly embaressing), whinged, prevaricated, almost fluffed the decision several times and finally settled on a new Mac.

In order to reach my decision, I had to get past the fact that these days (I sound like my Mum) it doesn't matter how much you spend on an item, you are stuffed for after-sales care. It may not sound like much to lots of people, but I consider 800 pounds a lot of money. I spent this amount on a new macbook two years ago. I still remember the frisson of excitement as I removed said lap top from its sleek Californian box; I was so pleased with it, and excited to be moving into a land of virus- and glitch-free computing.

But within 11 months the hard drive died on me (in the middle of a week when I was packing up my house in Korea to move to Kazakhstan and halfway through editing the last edition of the magazine that I worked on). It was still just within its first year's warranty. So although it rather threw the whole system that the machine had been purchased in the UK, was living in Korea but moving to Kaz, I was able to have it repaired free of charge.

Apple will fix things for you if they break soon after purchase, but then on the replacement parts that they put in, they will only guarantee them for 90 days. If you want a longer guarantee, you have to pay for it (about 200 quid for two years) And for a component as important as the hard drive, I think they should be surer about the quality of their bits than they are.

Eleven months after the first failure, the dreaded white screen of death appeared again. Apparently, my techno mate told me, the plasticky macbooks are prone to overheating because of their plastic covering which does not allow the hard drive to sufficiently cool. This may or may not be true, I don't know. But another friend who has a macbook (and a lot more patience than me) is on his third hard drive in three years. I figured after two hard drives in two years it would be better to to cut and run. I did try to seek help from Apple and also from John Lewis where I bought it, but no luck.

I was out of guarantee. I was out of Apple Care, I was out of John Lewis' store guarantee. It was just tough luck.

I tried to buy a PC but just couldn't bring myself to get such a clunky, niggly machine when the sleek lines, lovely keyboard and smooth operating system of the mac system was glowing at me from the mac section of the shop.

So I am typing this on a new 15" MacBook Pro, 1299 pounds poorer but able to play around in the dark because the keyboard lights up at night! Fancy pants!

Contagion and a bit of steam!

There is a certain establishment here with which I have many dealings. It is the kind of establishment where one would hope some basic norms of honesty, straightforwardness and a desire to do the right thing were driving forces.

But this is not always the case. I think it is because so many other things in Kazakhstan are so difficult to achieve without bending the rules, that the powers-that-be forget what is normal and good and honest, and start to apply their twisted logic to every situation.

Because so many people are inured to this kind of 'flexible approach' there is no way to redress failings of the corrupt system. It is a dog-eat-dog, look-after-your-own world here and, sometimes, I do not much like it.

One of the most challenging things about living in the developing world is learning to live in a place where the systems are weak enough that those in powerful positions can truly exert much more influence than they rightfully deserve, or which is fair. In the UK where, I am well aware, people also try to get advantage over others in some systems, there are usually some brake points included along the way to prevent anyone over powering an organisation or public body. Here the braking mechanisms are the equivalent of 25 year old brake pads on an ancient old Lada! Not very effective.  Money talks, and you have to basically take it up the arse if you don't like it - or pay up! Drives me NUTS.

And with corruption rife at the top level, life is just more expensive and less convenient for the normal people living at the lower levels. Shocking.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Big Beluga gets some mind-space and reflects on her attitude

This week I have been on my own in London. Not in a lonely, I-don't-know-anyone-or-have-any-mates way, but without the kids or my husband around who I have left in Kazakhstan. I have been staying with my younger sister in North London, shopping by day, visiting friends (I have happily coinicided with several people being in town from abroad which is double bonus), and been around for the final days of my other sister's first pregnancy (she is in labour as I type). It has all been great.

As quite a busy mum, with my three daughers at home, I suddenly realise how long a week is. When I am at home, the weeks just fly by, and quite often I just yearn for an hour or two of peace and quiet to myself, just one day or even half a day, to get a few things done. But this never seems to happen. And, I hate to admit it, I sometimes feel a bit fed up with the whole Mummy thing. I feel too busy, too tired, too hassled, with too much noise, mess, kids stuff around. Brits in Bosnia puts this feeling very well in her post today (click here to read).  I have now had six days by myself, and it has been very nice, but I am absolutely ready to go home and give the girls and my husband a big cuddle. I hope that I will be able to reflect on these moments of calm and quiet that I have had this week, and not be such a grumpy old cow of a mum when I get back.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Techno hell and indecision

The white screen of death which I faced last week on my laptop has now been joined by my mobile phone. Obviously feeling left out, my Nokia handset has found a white screen in its armoury, and to give added umph to its strop, it has taken to randomly cutting out midway through a call, or refusing to function at all.

Our video recorder has had the same tape of the TellyTubbies stuck in it for more than three months. And since husband managed to unlock the DVD player so it does actually play things that aren't in Korean only (What a great day - the whole family jumped up into a sponstaneous dancing cheer - it had been three years after all!), we have had unrivalled access to a world of film. So I dare not touch this device these days for fear that my electronic kiss of death starts to affect this area of our life as well.

Faced with an electrical appliance not working, I will work my way through the possible causes. Plugged in? Yes. Properly assembled? Check. Have pressed 'On' button? Yes. But more often than not, the device will remain inoperable. Then another person will come along. It can be anyone, just NOT me. They will press the 'On' switch, and the device will roar into action, and that person will look at me, and usually say something like, "What's the problem?"


I have come to accept that I am a techno-spaz, but it can be annoying from time to time.

Today I will fly to London for a week. I will be without the kids and I must replace laptop and phone for new, working models. Should I get someone else to buy them on my behalf so that I don't pick up another 'Friday afternoon' job, like my last Macbook turned out to be? I wonder if I can trick my destiny by getting my sister to purchase them on my behalf.

But first I must agonize over my choice of machine. The question is whether to replace my broken laptop (apparently my model is prone to over-heating because Apple use an unsuitable plastic for the casing - thanks, Apple) with a more expensive Macbook Pro. Or whether to take the hump with Mac altogether (after having two hard drive failures in two years and being offered a paltry GBP54 in a discount coupon on the next purchase if I go Apple again from this generous company), and plump for a PC again.

I hate these decisions - since I know that I may well make the wrong one. I am a computer sales guy's dream - clueless, fairly uninformed, worried about choosing the wrong thing, but inclined to try to penny pinch when making large purchases, so he can usually sell me an old model if it is 5 pounds cheaper. I must remain strong and decisive and buy a proper machine at market rate!

Any suggestions what I should get? All advice gratefully received!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Another bad day in goat world

The animal welfare lot would not have enjoyed this day trip out. Last Thursday, I had been to watch the Kokpar (Kazakh horse polo played using a headless goat instead of a ball) with my friend. It sounds gruesome, but in fact the horsemanship was extraordinary, and the game itself quite compelling to watch, and so on Sunday we headed back with the children, husband and some friends to watch the final.

We found our friend Nurlan, a team manager who we had met on Thursday, looking very nervous as his team lined up for the grand final, which carried a cash prize. This was it for them. The game began and the pace was aboslutely furious compared to some of the games we had watched earlier in the week. At times, the whole team would crash over the side line and almost into the spectators - we realised why the chest-height, solid metal fence was around the ground.

There was a bigger crowd watching, and the commentary was fast and furious but unfortuantely entirely in Kazakh which is nothing like Russian and so we couldn't understand much.

Tied up behind the commentary box was a spare "ball" - a very dejected looking white goat which had obviously also been an onlooker as its friend, a grey goat, was beheaded and its head and lower legs thrown uncerenoniously into a storm gutter running the length of the ground. Between our group we had nine children, two of which had been inquisitive enough to find the extra goat head lurking in the drain and took great and gruesome delight in staring at it for a long time, rather than watching the game.

It sounds barbaric to use a dead goat in a game. But then you need to think how this sport has developed and why they do it. Horses are part of life in Central Asia, a vital part of survival in this harsh and inhospitable climate. It is so cold in winter that vast tracts are frozen solid for six months, and then boiling hot in summer. The ground is not fertile enough to support arable farming in the main, and so the land has been used over the millenia by nomadic farmers who kept sheep, goats and other livestock and moved from place to place according to the grazing or shelter opportunites. When you drive across the steppe here, you are always seeing flocks of animals being herded by a lone shepherd on horseback. When the Soviets collectivised farming and tried to introduce mass cultivation practices on the land, over a million Kazakhs starved to death - and that was this century.

Another little-known fact about Kazakhstan is that more wolves live here than in than Canada and you do not need to have a PhD in Aesops Fables to know that sheep and wolves do not mix. The skills of Kokpar are all related to shepherding. Being able to reach from your saddle while riding at speed, and scoop up a 25kg beast in one hand, is no mean feat. To then gallop along while holding an irregularly-shaped, hairy lump under your leg or arm, would be similarly challenging, I imagine. Yet these riders can do all this and much more, with complete ease. And I am certain that the riding skills developed in Kokpar were born from practising this art.

The goats are slaughtered cleanly, used for the game, and then I am not sure what happens to their smashed remains. But the spare goat is not killed until it is needed (only if the original goat has disintegrated).

The Anti Fox-hunting lobby would be squealing with horror at such a sport, and would probably demand that a realistically-shaped imitation bean bag were used instead, but I think that this kind of concern is a long, long, long way off here.

Again, I am having problems formatting my posts on this borrowed PC, and today I have no option to upload my photo of the spare goat, so I will just hope for more success later.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Not a good day for goats

This morning was crystal clear, perfect blue sky, snow on the mountains, a chill in the air - the perfect weather to go and watch some outdoor sport, and luckily it fell on day two of the National Kazakh Kokpar championships which is held at a ground on the road to Bishkek. Kokpar is Kazakh polo. Teams have ten members, with four players from each side on the field at any time. The field is about 200 metres long and 100 metres wide, and marked with two large circles and two smaller ones. At either end, there are some built up "goals", like giant, flat, doughnuts, made of straw, I guess, and covered in a tarpauline.

The game begins with the "ball" - a headless goat, its legs also removed below the knees - being chucked into one of the larger white rings. A player from each team then enters the ring and they jostle and wrestle each other to try and pick up the goat. The horses lean right into each other, trying to push the on-target player away. The on-target player is trying not to be pushed away from the goat so he can get a chance to reach down and grab the dead beast. The horses are literally wrestling, I have never seen anything like it, they are really feisty and it is a real tussle to get the goat. They have two minutes to succeed, and if noone can manage, then another two players have a go.

Once someone has managed to grab the goat off the ground, they stick it under one leg, or hold it under an arm and gallop off as fast as they can away from their immediate opponent and towards their goal. The rest of their team members gallop along as fast as they can and try to block the opposition from coming in and pinching the carcass, or prevent them from making their way to the goal. Once they get around the circular goal stack, there is a massive blocking action from the defending team and the play can move backwards and forwards a lot. Sometimes the goat holder is so fast that he gets a break away score, hurling the goat into the centre of the ring and then riding back towards the commentary box, where he raises a hand triumphantly to claim a point. At the end of the game the teams do a canter past each other (riding towards each other in two columns) and touch hands.

It is an amazing spectacle - really physical, fast and exciting to watch, actually a very good spectator sport. The goat looks more like a fluffy sack than a dead animal, although by the end of a few games the "ball" was decidedly the worse for wear, having become more elongated and with traces of entrails hanging from its arse! Poor goat, it is not a noble way to go!

We met a guy who manages one of the teams and who was very keen to help us understand what was going on, which was brilliant. His name was Nurlan and he manages a team from the Almaty region which had jusy won its game in the tournament and so will play again tomorrow for a place in Sunday's final. He was filling us in on lots of details which were all very interesting.

"You may wonder why we use a goat?" he mused.

I almost snorted with laughter, thinking "Nah, mate, didn't even notice that you were using a headless, footless, farm animal instead of a ball!" but instead I merely nodded politely, and said, "Yes, we had wondered that."
"Well, the goat skin is thick. If we use a sheep it doesn't work. how do you say?"
"Falls apart?" I hazarded.

"Yes, it falls apart," he concluded.

I smiled, and admitted that actually, we were quite curious about the goat thing, because in England where I come from, people also play polo, but they tend to use long stick-like implements to knock a small ball around.
He smiled back and nodded, clearly thinking that English polo is only for poofs!

As well as the horses and games to watch, there were some classic people kicking about. I talked for a while to an ancient and grizzled old Dombra player. A dombra is a two stringed instrument which is the national instrument of Kazakhstan and which is a very fantastic instrument to hear being played, as they tend to play it incredibly quickly and it has a very pleasing deep resonant tone indeed. This old geezer claimed to be on very good terms with Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Dimitry Medyedev among others! And as well as the spectators, there are plenty of horsemen kicking around between games wearing enormous leather boots up to their knees, then jeans, a team top and some kind of funky Central Asian head wear on top. They all look a bit like you imagine Ghengis Khan's marauding horsemen might have looked as they streamed into a tiny settlement to raze it to the ground. I found it all extremely dramatic.

It was a Wow day today. A "Wow, I can't believe I am watching this" combined with "Blimey, I can't believe that I live here," and with a hint of "I wonder what everyone is doing in England," sort of day. And for my youngest daughter, who is nearly two and came along for the fresh air and the "horsies" it made a total change from her usual Thursday routine of Playgroup! She spent the whole of the journey to school later making horse noises and bouncing around in her car seat in a state of high excitement!