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.