Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Nanny turned housekeeper tests the Almaty Motto

We are still feeling our way here as regards what makes people tick, and so far have not come up with a huge number of ideas about how these formerly soviet Kazakhs like to live and work. Take Baktiyar our driver for example. He has been driving for 17 years, but before that he was in the Russian army (until his mum found the right official to bribe to get him out of the army, but not before he had served in the Balkans or something, a real war anyway). Not only was he in the army, but he worked as a sniper, he said, which would make sense. He is a pretty cool guy who does not easily look flustered, even though he may be underneath. He is an excellent driver in that he will chat at the right times, and not at others. He doesn't jabber away all day long with inanities, but if you ask him a question he is happy to indulge in a little conversation. His most often used spontaneous word is probably "WOW!" which he uses to cover all situations, good and bad, ranging from near-death, hi-speed almost crashes, to seeing an especially fat old babushka bending over to pick up her shopping and revealing inches of bum. In both of these situations he would probably just say "Wow!" 

But he gets very anxious if he doesn't have to work long hours, and if we don't use him on the weekend he reminds us for the next week that he can drive on Saturday and Sunday too if we want, no problem. He always turns up for work on time, even if he has been taking someone to the airport at 2am, he refused to go home last week when I told him that we would walk down the hill to the pub on Friday night, saying, "No problem Gail, I am sleeping all afternoon, I take you then I go home." On a Friday night! I guess this is more a poor reflection on myself, but I would never volunteer to stay at work for longer than necessary on a Friday night!

Allia, our nanny, on the other hand is a different type of creature. She has made it clear that she will not work on the weekends (unless I beg her and pay her heaps of overtime), and gives us a small ticking off if we say we are going out for dinner and will be back at 9.30 and actually arrive home at 9.45. She has disappeared for two days on the piss in recent memory, was off last week with her dodgy leg after falling off the bus (OK, I know, not her fault), and although I like her very much, I would not describe her as having the strongest work ethic. We all have moments when we just cannot be arsed to do thing like empty the dishwasher or hang up the washing, or run a cloth over a kitchen work surface that has crumbs on it but Allia has extended periods of this kind of thing. 

So today, I told her that I needed to go back to England for a week to do a few things, get ready for the summer, get Connie a vaccination that is not available here.  I was thinking that she might find this an onerous task, as I explained that she would need to prepare meals for the girls and collect them from school, prepare supper for husband and more or less babysit on tap for the week as he never knows what time he will be back from work. But she suddenly perked up tremendously. "Pashalusta," she said, which means, roughly, "Of course, my pleasure".

And then started talking about what she could make, and how she could get Baktiyar to take her to the market to buy the things we need for the house (he will love that!), and how she always notices exactly what we have run out of (doesn't mean she actually gets the milk out of the freezer so that it can defrost and be ready to use, but it is reassuring to know that apparently she knows that it is there) and can perfectly well manage everything, thank you very much. And in fact, looked totally delighted to be asked to help out. So perhaps I am not giving her the responsibility she wants? Maybe I should entrust her to keep the house replenished with stocks? I dare not do this for fear of bankruptcy after she spent $40 dollars on asparagus once which I hadn't even ordered. 

I feel slightly guilty for worrying about her ability to do random things when I don't expect them, such as not turn up for work when I expect her to. I do have a small concern that she might not quite get a handle on everything. In fact, I have to admit I do have mental images of husband coming home from work at 11pm to find the gate open to the road, kitchen untidied and Allia asleep on the sofa with her shoes on, snoring her head off, the kids playing their Nintendo DS games upstairs completely unsupervised which I know are probably a bit harsh! But then again, I do have control-freak tendencies of which I am well aware. 

And then she looked at me and said, "Gail, I am a woman. I know these things." I will have to go with the flow. 

Time will tell. I hope everything will be OK. Can it be I am doubting my motto here?No. Surely  Everything will probably be alright.


What to buy for a six year old

Our five and a half year old does not seem to suffer from a lack of self-esteem. She recently graded herself 10 out of 10 in a classroom self assessment exercise and yesterday declared herself better at ballet than the ballet teacher (this is the child who can fall over on an empty floor). Recently, after giving herself the most ridiculous fringe of all time which was approximately 0.5cms long and 4cms wide (the rest of her hair is about 45cms long), she declared that everyone thought she looked incredible with her new fringe. Actually, this might have been true, but perhaps she was missing the sarcasm in a few of the adults comments! 

Her sixth birthday is coming up, so I asked her what she might like for her birthday, still expecting a kind of cute reply from my small daughter. The list she came up with was extreme: 

"Umm, a computer, a telephone, an ipod, a robot dog (she has wanted one of these for about 4 years), real (real???) diamonds, a video camera, umm, that's all," she said. 
"What about lego?" I asked, hopefully. 

Friday, 24 April 2009

The battle for the river side heats up

So Grisha the Dog Catcher came back after getting an earful from Husband's secretary. He and his tall accomplice crept thru the garden and peered over the fence to see the 11 dogs all sunning themselves (I think they finally believed me that the dogs were there). They crept about with their wire strings, climbed over the fence and after an hour they managed to catch one of the dogs. 

They were just closing the tunnel again, to trap the dogs in (so that they can be caught later when we re-open it), when the annoying old do-gooder granny who feeds the dogs (hence their luxuriant coats and fat bellies) came along the river to feed them. Seeing the dog catchers blocking up the tunnel (which she had already re-opened and fed them more bread since the last time Grisha came), she started yelling at them to leave the dogs alone. When Grisha and his mate continued to close off the tunnel, she started hurling rocks at them!!!!! So Grisha and his friend have left again, but will come back on Monday when hopefully that f-ing granny will not appear, and finish off the job. 

One down, ten to go! 

Swings and roundabouts

Oh how life turns so quickly. Only last night I was commenting on the dogs, the garden and other stuff in general. This morning, I was playing with Connie in the garden when we went over to the fence (her favourite viewing point) which looks out over the river and the walking path, only to see nine, ten, eleven dogs sunning themselves on our river frontage and easily making their way in and out of the wretched tunnel that they like to call home. 

I called Husband's secretary to tell her that frankly the dog catchers had been rubbish and I was looking at 11 dogs once again enjoying our newly-cleared river side and sunshine and asked her to phone Grisha and give him some hassle in Russian. So I am now waiting for shifty old Grisha to re-appear with his wire noose thing and try and catch these stupid animals. 

Then the gardener ordered by our landlady appeared. He was very competent looking. In fact I recognised him from somewhere, but I am not sure where. He appeared with a guy in a suit, and a dark-haired looking labourer, a lawnmower and some tools. Fantastic, I thought, until I found out that the 15,000 tenge fee was a daily fee, and for the month it would cost 50000 ($350 US). 

This country is unbelievable for always costing more money. Everything we do, every way we seem to turn, there is always a fairly significant cost associated with everything.  So it looks like we will have to buy  lawnmower after all, and Baktiyar says he can probably find a friend who will do a lot of the gardening for much less than 15,000 a day. I hope so. So much for local rates. 

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A funny non-ha ha few days

It has been a funny old week, what with the dog catchers and Allia our Nanny off sick again. Murderous thoughts about the dogs were banished when she didn't show for work on Tuesday and didn't call in again. I don't mind if she is ill. She is, after all, a fairly overweight and relatively unhealthy and unfit 50 year-old Kazakh lady (already on borrowed time even), so she is bound to get sick from time to time. But I just wish she would call in. Gulya, her daughter was in to clean the loos etc and she agreed that this not-phoning-in-when-you-are-sick business is one of Allia's bad habits.  

It reminds me of my days working on the check outs in Sainsburys supermarkets in my gap year, a job so mind-numbingly dull that I just could not stand it. From time to time, I would call in sick, but the worst thing about pulling a sicky was having to phone in and say it, because I just knew that the HR lady knew that I was pulling a sicky, not matter how long I had screamed into a pillow to try and give myself a husky voice. So it makes me think she is pulling a sicky. But then I think, "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Gail, she is a 50 year old woman, surely she is not pulling a sicky?"

So eventually, after muttering to myself about 'unreliablility' and 'this has got to be the last time,' and ' well this time she has gone too far, I am going to definitely have to tell her that she cannot work for me any more' and 'gosh she is taking the piss, this is a job after all, not a paid hobby' etc etc, I decided to call her. And of course, she sounded really ill, and told me she was at the clinic and something something and something else that I didn't understand was wrong with her. 

So then on Wednesday Baktiyar asked me where she was and I muttered something about her being ill, and a bit of a problem actually and I didn't know if she was coming tomorrow either. But at least Gulya called and told me that she would not be in for at least two more days because of something something and something else I didn't understand. So today I got my Russian teacher to call her and find out what has happened, and it turns out she fell as she was getting off the bus at the weekend and has nearly broken her ankle and been told by the doctor to take a week off to let it recover. So at least I was able to ask her if she needed any help (she doesn't) and will come back after the weekend. 

Then I got a phone call from the school to say that AGAIN Beatriz has got the nits. I can't believe it and I wish that we knew what the source of these creatures was. Sasha is clear again. But tonight we ordered pizza, put on Kung Fu Panda and did the two hours combing with our patented Israeli nit comb (absolutely amazing nit comb, the Assi 2000), followed by a dose of strong chemicals and off to bed. 

Then later I got another call from the school to say that Beatriz had hurt her eye falling and banging her head. This was a bit alarming (not as bad as when Sasha cut her chin at GaYong's house) and the doctor said that she thought Beatriz should see an eye specialist. 

So I called good old Dr Heinrich at the SOS clinic (I will be gutted if he leaves) who said to bring her down to the clinic. It has been at least 18 days since we were there, so I suppose we were ripe for a visit. We all went because no Allia

Beatriz did have rather strange looking eyes. Her right pupil was more dilated than her left and she was seeing double. Dr Heinrich knows all these fantastic field hospital tests for everything, lots of basic mechanical tricks to tell him if a body is working properly or not. He gave her a really good check (I think, I don't know, not being a doctor myself but it looked good), and tested her reactions, her reflexes, her sight, her ability coordinate her own body etc and listened carefully when she described what had happened which was as follows: 

"Well, me and my friend Piers were playing fake punch-each-other-in-the-face, like this (she wildly swung her hand towards her face to demonstrate) and then we were falling over because we were pretending that we had hit each other, and I fell right on my face."

Beatriz has mild concussion and has been sent home with some anti-inflammatories. Dr Heinrich told me he had seen a very nasty case of concussion on Saturday from an adult up skiing at Chimbalak who had hit ice under the fresh snow and catapulted himself head first onto the ice. This made me feel better about missing the last powder of the season which has fallen in the last couple of days but which I have not been able to try out for lack of child care. 

We got in and found the cold water running dark brown out of the taps and in the loos (cue: Ugh I am not washing my hands in that, Mummy) and water dripping through the ceiling of our living room. It has rained a lot this week, but we called Yuri the fix it man and he will come tomorrow. 

As will, I hope, a new person to cut the grass in what is our quite large garden. It all looked so manageable until I started digging and weeding it, and then it seemed like a quite insurmountable task. I have damaged my right foot, I think, digging flower beds (and the swimming pool which has been filled in with earth) so vigorously. The grass is raging out of control, and once the dandelions started to bloom and created an almost dazzling pure yellow effect on the grass and I saw Connie walking thru the "lawn" which came up to her 18-month-old thighs, I called our landlady to ask if she has a mower. 

They do not have a mower, so i found out that to buy a medium Bosch lawnmower will set us back $500, but for $100 a month, we can get a man to come and "do the whole territory" with his own stuff. Since we only need someone until November when everything dies for winter, we have opted for Man not Mower. Previously I have been told that this kind of attention costs about 300 dollars a month, so I am not convinced that this person will know much about gardening, but let us see. Hopefully, for once, we are just paying local rates and not foreigners rates. 

He is due at 9am tomorrow. We might have cut grass tomorrow night which would be splendid. 

The dog catchers cometh

Well, on Tuesday, the dog catchers arrived. Not at 9am as arranged, but by about 12.45 which would have been in the middle of my Russian lesson if my teacher had not come exactly one hour later than planned by accident. 

You know how sometimes you see these photos of humans with their pets, and each bear a striking resemblance to the other? Well, in the same way, I think sometimes you can tell a persons profession by the look in their eye, their demeanour, or their style. 

If I could have taken a quiz called "Guess my job" I reckon more than I would have guessed something like Dog catcher, works for Rentokil or something like that! 

There was a ring at the door and I opened it, these two scruffy guys came in holding round lengths of wire with a sort of plastic device at the end. One of them, a little, wiry guy was wearing a really shiny grey and orange T-shirt with a pair of bright blue trousers and flip flops. The other, a tall half-wit-looking guy was wearing a tracksuit with the top zip done right up to under his chin, so he looked like his mother had done it up and sent him out. The small wiry guy had very shifty eyes, the kind you don't often see if you are a law-abiding person. The last time I remember seeing those eyes was when one of the kids had locked our downstairs loo in Thailand for 10 days and there was no sign of the key, so our maid got one of the guys from her street to come in and sort it out. He had those shifty eyes, and was able to open the door with a cut up plastic water bottle in about 5 seconds. Useful skill, but how you become so proficient at that kind of thing you just don't really want to ask!

"Sabaki (dogs)?" I asked 
"Da (yes)", the wiry fellow replied. 

I took them round the back and we peered through the hedge at two of the annoying dogs, out of their pipe and lounging about and sunning themselves on my river side patio. I showed them where the tunnel was and we crept down to open the gate onto the river bank. The larger dogs of course legged it and the dog catchers set to work, clambering about in the river and all over the bank picking up little bits of sticks and rocks and making themselves busy. I made a mental note to add dog catcher to my list of worst jobs in the world (alongside cleaner of the toilets at the border with Kyrgyzstan as previously mentioned in this blog - although clearly that person has gone on sabbatical about 20 years ago). 

The deal with the dog catchers was 5000 tenge paid up front, if they don't catch them no refunds. So they poked about around the tunnel where some of the dogs were sleeping. Stuck a few sticks inside and pulled out a couple of the rocks from around the front of the tunnel. Then the tall stupid looking bloke got some massive rock and started pounding on the top of the pipe while the shorter wiry looking guy stood with his wire noose around the exit of the pipe, ready to snag any mutt stupid enough to make a dash for it. 

This didn't work, so then the tall guy started stuffing little firecrackers into cracks in the ground and letting them off, to try and scare them out with noise. 

At this point, I started to feel quite sorry for the dogs, imagining them cowering inside their stinky old tunnel, all scared and quivering. It was all very well to order a dog catcher, but quite another to watch these rather rough looking blokes catch a dog - the wire ring looked like it might strangle them in one go, and neither dog catcher looked like he gave a stuff about animal welfare at all. I know some of my previous comments about the dogs have been murderous in tone, but I did not want these annoying dogs to really suffer, I just wanted them to go somewhere else. And I am sure that if you call dog control in England it is someone who has worked for animal welfare projects, or even a fully qualified vet who will come with some amazingly expensive bit of dog catching equipment which would make it all seem much better. 

So I stopped watching for a bit and came back to the house. Finally, my Russian teacher arrived, so we began our lesson, just in time for them to re-appear, already giving up. 

They shambled over - no, they had not been able to catch the dogs, so they had blocked off the tunnel and in a couple of days the dogs would surely be dead, he told me. 

Aghast, I got my Russian teacher to translate to him that this was not really an acceptable solution. Presumably, 10 dogs trapped in a tunnel would bark incessantly to be let out, whine, moan and eventually die a slow agonising death, followed by making a disgusting smell for the rest of the summer of rotting dog corpses. 

"Well", he said, "They will most likely find a way out of the back of the pipe, which will also be a good solution for you". 

I agreed, that was a good solution for me (not as good as a dog catching van full of 12 dogs on its way by road far far away from my house, which was the image I had had in my mind when dog catching came up in conversation the first time), but what if they couldn't find their way out, then we would be back at barking dogs dying slowly and smelling. Not good. 

"But can't you come back in a couple of days and open the blockage to the tunnel, then catch them as they rush out into the light?", I asked 
"Maybe", he said, "But you will have to pay the 5000 tenge again, that is our call out rate and you have to book us through our company,"
"But you haven't caught anything yet," I said, (and haven't tried that hard, I thought), "How about you come back for 2000 tenge and we don' tell the company?"
He was quite nervous about this idea, but finally agreed on the understanding that if they did catch lots of dogs on Thursday that we would have to pay the full 5000 because then they would have to take the dogs back to their headquarters. 

And that was that. I think I have seen two of the dogs at the front of our house in the last two days, and although the barking is slightly less, there are just so many bloody dogs in this town that you can barely notice the difference. I have been and checked the tunnel twice and there has been no appreciable desperate whinings of dying dogs, so I am assuming that they have made their escape and are now living happily somewhere else.

Needless to say, old shifty eyes has not been back today, but I do have the privilege now of having "Grisha the dog catcher" as a contact in my mobile phone!


Thursday, 16 April 2009

The dogs days are numbered

"I have arranged the dogs demise," said my husband after work yesterday. 
A russian friend of mine from playgroup sent us the number of a dog catcher (for that read dog catcher and then shooter) who had helped her deal with some canine nuisance, and we have booked them for Tuesday morning. 

However, since the river at the bottom of our garden started to flow, the noise from the river bank has significantly reduced and I don't think that we have been woken by barking for at least four nights. So perhaps the mutts have moved of their own accord. 

I think that the treacherous torrent has made it difficult for them to cross to the path side of the river, where they scavenge for most of their food and have access to the bridges, so perhaps they have just gone to live somewhere a bit more des res for the season. In which case, they have had a lucky escape! 

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Our first non-family visitors

We have lived in Kazakhstan for over six months now, and have enjoyed the company of my mother in law for six weeks (two separate trips). But apart from her, we have had no other visitors. 

Living an expat life, we are used to having people come and stay for long periods of time. Showing friends and family around a new country or city with a little bit of local knowledge is one of the things I most enjoy about being abroad. I love to be able to share the things that I find fascinating, funny, frustrating or just plain old wacky to other people first hand. 

In Thailand we developed a pretty slick tour operation. We could handle people leaving in the morning and a new lot arriving in the evening. We hosted our French friends (a family of five) with less than 12 hours notice after FP phoned up in the evening to say:
"Gail, Hi, 'ow are you?"
"Great, thanks. I am at a friends house for supper at the moment, what's up?"
"Well, we 'ave decided to come to Thailand,"
"Fab, come and stay with us, it is no problem,"
"Wonderfule, we would love to,"
"When are you flying down?"
"Ah, um, tomorrow. Is that ok?"
(Gulp!)"Yeah, sure that's fine," (F******* ha ha ha)

Of course, it was great for people to have a free bed in Thailand (and our helper Goon was a brilliant Thai cook which was also awesome for all concerned) so of course there was a steady stream of people either staying with us, or stopping for a couple of nights on their way to the beaches. 

South Korea saw rather fewer people wending their way, but still, our guest room was pretty regularly inhabited. you do start to sort the wheat from the chaff when you live in these out of the way places. My sister admitted that she and her husband were always keen to see us, but just could not think of a reason why they wanted to visit Korea at all, and that was why they had been absent from that place!

Anyway, it is with great excitement that we prepare for the visit of Peta, Steve and Felix for a week arriving on Friday night. I have been cooking all week - there are vats of soup, lasagne, cottage pies and cakes galore in the freezer (so that I do not have to do cooking preparation in the middle of the night which is what normally happens when people are visiting and I have not got ready in advance).

I reckon that we have done just about enough in the way of mini-exploratory trips ourselves that we can spin it out for seven days. Maybe I should tell them to bring ear plugs to combat the anti-sleep properties of the bloody dogs by the river, which, as I type are yapping away. Aghh! Evil thoughts of dogicide!

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Summer beckons

A glorious weekend of sunshine saw us out in the garden doing battle with the weeds, the creepers and the 12 dogs which have made their home under our garden wall. Oh no. Need a dog catcher telephone number to call. My Turkish friend told me that a Russian girl in playgroup has one... must call. 

Today it is proper raining in town, only 4 degrees, so we will rush up to Chimbalak after the kids swimming lesson and have a go on the new powder.

Camping equipment is almost all ordered now for summer. Hurrah, can't wait. We have had our tick borne encephalytis shots, and are tracking down one that Connie at 18 months can have. Then off we go! 

Still having some issues with the mac, so no new pics for now.