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.