Friday, 29 January 2010

Shocking news

Awful news today. One of our hiking group, a lovely American lady who also comes to playgroup with her 2.5 year old and 10 month old daughters, has just lost her husband to a sudden, fatal illness. None of us know what happened yet. Apparently he was suddenly taken very ill, and while being evacuated by airplane out of Kazakhstan, died while still on the plane.

I met him just before Christmas which was nice because he was a lovely, big, friendly guy, and she (wife) and I have been getting on very nicely at both hiking and playgroup. They were quite new to town, I think they came during the summer and she has done a great job of settling in: quite independent, patient, gets advice and then works out the best way to organise life. She is extremely charming, thoughtful and interesting and I am so sad for her.

Spent today running errands and sorting out my own husband's journey back to the UK to see a doctor, and have not been able to stop thinking about the poor, poor woman and her tiny children. They are really small. How completely and utterly sad.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Testing Expat Times

A lot of the time living abroad, we rather enjoy the fact that not everything is normal in our lives, that things can be unpredictable and lack a constant routine and that our lives contain a slightly greater amount of variety than they perhaps would if we had stayed in the one place our whole lives. But there are occasions when we crave the security and safety of the UK and its well-run, professional bodies that we have left behind. When I was recently checked into the Maternity wing of our local hospital, I almost wept at the kindness and competence of the staff there. They were just amazing - well-trained, hard-working, pleasant, lovely people who seem to have a genuine concern for the well-being of the people they are looking after. I continue to be amazed at the fantastic care I am being given by my new obstetrician and our GP. Their attention to detail is just excellent.

This last month or so has been a tester, though. Blimey! Even we are beginning to hope for an end in sight to the numerous issues that surround our family's circumstances: the changing plans, the last-minute decisions we are having to make, the various painful ailments that have arisen.

If you visit this blog often, you will know that our youngest daughter and I are now in the UK awaiting baby number four's arrival. I am now eight months pregnant. Since he returned to Kazakhstan (after bringing me home because I was simply too ill to travel on my own with a two-year old) my husband has been stricken with absolutely horrendous back pain. He has missed work, can't get out of bed, can't drive, can't work for the pain he is in. He slipped a disc when he was 28 had half a disc removed when we lived in Brazil. The other half has now come back to attack him with a vengeance it seems.

He is having to get painkilling injections in his backside administered by our nanny (above and beyond the normal call of duty I know!) three times a day. Luckily, she has just had the plaster removed from her right hand, which she had to wear for a month after slipping on the ice on the pavement outside her house and breaking her wrist. So she is able to give the injections (apparently, everyone who went through the Soviet education system has been taught how to give intra-muscular shots!). But these injections do not really reduce the pain, and his osteopath treatment also is not working. His pain varies from severe and constant to so bad he cannot speak on the phone. And so we are looking at having to have him stretchered back to the UK for treatment.

But he cannot leave the older kids in Kazakhstan (we have two). And I am too pregnant to go and get them at 36 weeks - no airline will let me on their planes anymore. None of our family and friends in the UK have multi-entry Kazakh visas, so noone can just jump on a place and come out and help because they won't be allowed over the border. Equally, none of the Kazakh locals we know can simply come to the UK at the drop of a hat, as they also require visas to enter Great Britain. While I have been away, and husband has been having all these problems, our friends have rallied around and been amazingly supportive. But the people who would really be great at helping in this situation are too busy or have other commitments which make flying back at such short notice impossible.

The UK health system is great, but it is not known for its speed. And whatever happens, at some point in the next five weeks I will have a new baby. I just hope that my husband will be able to stand up to meet our new daughter and at least hold her from time to time.

On the bright side, three of our missing 11 parcels arrived in the post yesterday, including Alice's book in which I have a little section (haven't read it yet, excited to see it) and my two Christmas music CDs which I ordered and were posted in the first week of December. January 27 they arrived - just in time for next year!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Hazard-spotting cont.

My continued shock at our overly-safety-conscious society continued today at a new playgroup (very nice playgroup, lovely church hall, promising looking bunch of people at it, very friendly). I was in the middle of what I thought was a nice conversation with a girl about her baby, where she lived, did she work and a general get-to-know-you chat when her nine-month old baby sent a wheeled toy whizzing across the floor to another part of the room.

We were sitting in a large room full of toys, babies and toddlers. There was stuff everywhere. And then, after watching this toy roll off, and in the middle of her sentence, she jumped up with a cry of "Oooh, trip hazard," and scuttled over to retrieve the toy from about eight feet away.

"Trip hazard" - what??????

When she came back, I was tempted to ask her if she thought that by leaving her baby for five seconds on a wooden floor, she had not been risking a "bump hazard" or "potential cranial trauma incident (P.C.T.I)"? What if her baby had accidentally fallen over while she had been away for the shocking length of time of about 20 seconds (which obviously means that she is a lax parent because she was not attending to her child for every second of the day). But I didn't. Don't want everyone thinking I am a freak!

I will have to watch my tongue. I really enjoyed the playgroup today, and met a couple of genuinely nice, normal, sensible, fun and interesting looking girls around my age which is great. But if anyone else starts wittering on about bloody ridiculous safety issues to me, I will be unable to maintain my shy and polite silence and put them in their place. And then live with the consequences as I am ostracised as a weird witch for holding such subversive views.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

An example of not my favourite kind of day

Friday was the kind of day that can make you want to give up, go home and get into bed! Or at least have strong drink at the end of it, which I am not currently able to do.

It all began with the weather being a heavy drizzle (for those of you who are reading this in countries with sensible weather, you may not know that just as the eskimos have about nine words for snow, we British have mini-dictionaries dedicated to terms for the weather, including regional variations in terms for the same thing. For example, what I would call heavy drizzle (or just plain shit weather), my husband from Scotland would refer to as "a wetting rain"). Heavy drizzle, low skies, enough for your wool coat to really get quite wet in the time it takes to put a child seat into a car parked in the street.

I had purposefully set the alarm to get up early enough to be able to put some washing on, have a shower, feed two year old and myself, get dressed and out of the door by 8.45am in order to attend a "Kidagility" class at our local leisure centre. For 15 months plus, this is basically bouncing on mini-trampolines and practicing your jumping up and down skills, and sounded right up our two year old's street.

We managed to leave at 9am, only 15 minutes late, and drove through the drizzle to the traffic jam at the end of the road for the morning rush hour. It took us 30 minutes to drive about three miles (too far to walk, and too wet to even consider it) to the leisure centre, so when we arrived we were already slightly late. Class fully booked. Me and about five other mothers with two year olds sadly turned away, or offered a slot at 10.30 which I couldn't go to.

We went instead to the shops to get new swimming costume, goggles and arm bands for two year old so that we could swim later in the week. In our haste to pack up and leave Kazakhstan, and given that we thought I might be in premature labour at the time, my packing list did not extend to things like swimming costume and accessories for the little one, so once again I am re-buying items which I already own in another world.

Dashed home for a rather pointless visit by a health visitor from our local doctor's surgery. While I miss having any medical support when we live in Kaz, I am also slightly concerned to see that our wonderful National Health Service is wasting so much money on silly services that people don't really need.

Managed to shoe-horn two-year-old back into her all in one red plastic rain suit (she looks like Po from the Tellytubbies, if you know them) and set off for our second session at the local library's Rythmn and Rhyme lesson. The librarian had been so welcoming the first week we attended, I thought she might be disappointed if all her good work was not rewarded with an enthusiastic follow up visit.

We arrived as everyone was putting their offspring back into their plastic rain proof suits. Half an hour too late, my mistake, missed the session completely. So I decided to stay and read from the amazingly large selection of children's books that are there. Little one and I had a lovely time, read many books, and while doing so, I managed to sit, with my chair leg, heavily, on the mobile phone that was in my coat pocket on the floor. Realised this as I tried to call home to get a lift home because it was still raining so hard outside. The phone came off worse in the chair leg experience and is utterly destroyed.

Discovered that I had obviously not moved my contacts from Phone to SIM and so appear to have lost all my phone numbers for the UK, carefully collected over three years.

Went to see a place for us possibly to rent when husband the remaining kids come over to the UK for the birth of our new arrival. It was a lovely cottage but significantly smaller than we could use, actually with not enough beds for all our current family members, let alone new baby's moses basket. But in its favour, it is in a great location and with mobile phone reception, internet etc so hopefully we will be able to cram in there. For a month!

Drove through the rain again for 30 minutes to go to the mobile phone shop one mile away. Slipped on a sloping travelator (flat escalator) in the car park because it was so wet pulling muscle in my thigh, but fortunately not crashing to the floor. It is too complicated to simply get a new phone here. Left the shop with a new USB cable in order to download software and fix my spare dodgy phone (which switches off whenever anyone calls me and I answer it). Got home, found that I cannot insert the phone USB cable at the same time as using my dongle for the internet - dongle too wide and blocking second USB slot. Decided to download software and then install to phone later when off line. Spent nearly two hours downloading software, only to find it is not mac-compatible. Grrrr! Phoned T-mobile service provider - shut for the day. Tried another number where lines were open but they were undergoing a system upgrade, so could not order a new phone until Monday. Yawn.

This took me through to about 9pm and I was feeling weary, man! Went to bed and fretted. Got up at midnight and farted around on the internet for another two hours until I was so exhausted I could only sleep! Goodbye Friday.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Tuning into the UK

A week has passed since husband left me and our youngest daughter here and had to fly back to Kazakhstan (with his suitcase of haggis!) to be a) at work, and b) with our other two daughters whom we had totally abandoned for five days.

It has been an odd week. I usually enjoy being back in the UK since it is part of a holiday or at least a break from the routine, and I have a long list of things I want to do and people I would like to see. This time, though, it is slightly different. I am not supposed to be here yet. I have a long list of things I need/want to do but they are all in Almaty, not Dorset. So I am having to start from scratch and get some kind of routine in place.

Having our little one with me is pretty much a joy. She has settled down, and despite a few tearful conversations about where her Daddy and her beloved sisters are, she is very happy at "Banny's" house. I am enjoying her company tremendously and she is so easy to look after. We wake up most mornings in the same bed with her hugging my head as hard as her small little arms can go.

We went to Rythmn and Rhyme at the local library on Friday. Daughter was pleased to see some other children even though they were all about half her age, and enthusiastically joined in with her jingly bells and all the songs she knew. There is a playgroup on Monday mornings for mums and tots in hhe local church hall which I will go to next week, and story time at 2.15 on Monday afternoons again at the library. Tomorrow morning we will check out the local swimming pool for swim times for mums and little ones.

It is quite interesting to be making genuine forays into life with small kids in the UK, when I have always done my child rearing abroad, usually in an environment trying very hard to imitate "what we would do at home" (albeit with an awful lot of foreign mums unable to go anywhere without their nannies (!) so with double the necessary number of adults present).

It strikes me, after my 10 day sojourn to date, that the UK is a pretty cushtie place to live. In general people seem to live fairly pampered lives, although they tend to feel that they are all miserable and work far too hard, and spend no time at all rejoicing in their good fortune that they weren't born into a Mumbai slum. There is no comprehension at all of a) the hardships that joe public endures in places like, for example, Kazakhstan and b) how incredibly luxurious (unnecessarily luxurious) their lives are. Everything is such high quality, relatively new, well-maintained and unbelievably safe in this corner of England.

Lots of small things have struck me since arriving. All the toilets are immaculately clean, the public services are quite good (buses etc) and it is all SOOOO easy to understand being in English and not Russian. Scarily, the strength of the "Health and Safety" authorities/lobby is extreme, its depressingly bland fingers reaching into every corner, and I think it has most obviously affected new parents. Spotting potential "hazards" is almost a competitive activity among young mothers. One of the girls at Rythmn and Rhyme, like a pious, goody-two shoes pupil at primary school who knew the answer to a question before the rest of the class, was worried about the kids holding the sets of obviously extremely well-made and clean jingle bells, in case a bell might be ingested by her one year old child. Oh, come off it! The librarian tactfully told her that they were quite safe and washed every week which shut her up, but it was symptomatic of the over-cautious nature of modern western life. Gigantic pushchairs (for added safety???), huge baby car seats (the car seat lobby has been very active in the last decade) and a bunch of neurotic, over-booked, under-relaxed older parents all fretting about keeping their offspring alive, rather than absorbing their new arrivals and carrying on with life.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Counting my blessings

Thank god that we are normally a fairly healthy bunch. I am not a religious person, but I do regularly appreciate my lot in life. I am largely unbothered by traumas and problems, mainly happy (in fact, in a recent Sunday newspaper quiz, I came out proven Extremely Happy with life - more so than husband who was disappointed to find that he was just Happy Enough) and have three, gorgeous, healthy children.

So when I was sick last week it came as quite a shock to all of us. None of us were used to mummy just having to lie down for days and days, unable to eat or walk or really sometimes even speak because of the discomfort she was in. My husband learnt to cook roast chicken, freshly prepared pizza (the bread maker is officially a fab machine!). Despite numerous trips to the doctor and the gynaecologist, we could get no diagnosis of what was the problem, and so they sent me home with a packet of Panadol and told me to rest. The Panadol did not even make a tiny dent in the pain and we were constantly concerned that this was something to do with my seven-month pregnancy. So after five days of no sleep, constant pain, no appetite at all and feeling pretty, darn miserable, husband took the plunge and decided I had to fly home. He was amazing. Booked me and our youngest on the first flight out of town, and arranged things so that he could come with us to help on the flight. We packed that afternoon and left in the night.

Thank goodness he came with me, because I think I would actually have collapsed at some point during the journey if I had had to make it by myself, so rank did I feel by that point. Even walking was becoming quite difficult, and getting from the plane to the luggage collection point at Heathrow has to go down as one of the lowest points in my extensive life experience of long haul flying. Simply awful.

It was scary to experience how a physical sickness can utterly take over and make you absolutely no use to anyone at all. Quite quickly - it was only five days - I had gone from being totally fine, to being really not at all fine and barely able to function.

Getting back to my parents' house, I staggered into the living room and collapsed on the sofa. But miraculously, an hour later, the pain passed and that is the last I have had of the grips of this condition to date. Our local GP had very thoughtfully and kindly arranged an appointment to see me immediately, so we went over. In comparison to the "Pain" period, I felt so much better, but I probably looked pretty rank. She spotted that  I had jaundice within about two minutes of our being there, and proposed a few theories about my condition before referring me to hospital where I was admitted.

In the main hospital, they checked me and the baby over very quickly but very thoroughly, made up a set of records and tested me for all sorts of things within an hour. Quite amazing considering that I do not qualify for state medial care. I had no NHS number and it took a midwife half a day to sort out my paperwork the following day. They will treat me on the NHS where necessary and bill our health company later - how awesome is that?

It turned out that I had some seriously iffy blood readings which were probably the result of gall stones blocking not only my bile duct, causing my liver to stop working properly, and affecting the small intestine. To add to the mix, the stone was also preventing my pancreas from properly functioning and causing pancreatitis which is a very uncomfortable condition indeed (I can now say with certainty). It seems that the offending gall stone has now stopped blocking everything up, and so I feel normal again.

What a scene the last week has been. I feel quite post-traumatic about the whole experience, looking back on what was so-recently an utter, scary nightmare. I feel so lucky to be back within striking distance of such competent medical care. My mother asked me today what might have happened had I stayed in Kazakhstan. I breezily replied, "Well, I guess the same thing as here probably. Eventually, it would have moved and the pain would have passed, but we would still not have known what was the matter". I don't like her to worry too much. I don't really like to dwell too much on that question myself. The pancreas is not an organ to mess around with. You don't want to annoy, antagonise or even meet your own pancreas. They like to be left alone to do their job and that is all. Gall stones present fairly typical symptoms, so I don't really understand why this was not explored at all in Almaty. If they had done some basic blood tests, they would have seen some very alarming signs. For example, one of my readings was up at 2000 whatevers, and is now back to within normal levels, my normal level being 6.

So for the time being I will remain relieved that the whole drama is over. And extremely grateful for having such a trooper of a husband who looks after me when it is all going to shit and he is also utterly exhausted - he never gets cross or grumpy, always remains as cheerful as possible, never slacks for a second, just makes sure that what needs to be done gets done. And so completely happy to hear that none of this has been caused in any way by being pregnant, the baby is absolutely normal and I can look forward to a standard birth.

I now have to get used to the idea of being here for a lot longer than we ever planned.

The Haggis-buying B*astards of Bournemouth

Husband and I organise an annual Burns Supper in Almaty - a night of Scottish revelry to celebrate the life and works of the Scottish national bard, not as you may think, a mercy mission to help those hapless Kazakhs for whom New Year is an opportunity to test out their operating skills for large, cheaply-made fireworks after drinking vodka all day long. 

It is a charity fund-raiser with 225 paying guests, and last year we made nearly $30,000. This year, we have sold all our tickets in advance and may make more. Hope so. 

To make our event as authentic as possible we get a Scottish band to fly over from Edinburgh, we find men in kilts from all over Central Asia to gather together and worship the haggis, and, we bring the finest MacSweens haggis into Kazakhstan by the surreptitious suitcase-full to Almaty where it is then prepared by the Intercontinental hotel for our guests delectation.

Last year, we dragooned some friends into bringing back 30kgs in one go. They managed to smuggle it past customs and we were sorted. But MacSweens is very fine haggis indeed, and we were met by howls of dissatisfaction at the portion sizes allowed on the night (it was more of a sample mouthful than a full course of the meal!). So this year we decided to bring more back. We had more time, we knew plenty of people flying back and forth to the UK. Easy. Or so we thought.

The first lot was duly delivered to a hotel in central London. Our courier (who shall remain nameless) is a metal head, and went to see Motorhead in concert the night before flying back to the Stan. Early morning, faced with the boxes in the hotel fridge, he had a brainstorm, thought that twice as much as possible had been sent by accident, and left 18kgs behind.

Not to worry, he told me, as I looked on aghast at the news of 18kgs of missing haggis. He was traveling back for another meeting and could pick it up in a week’s time. Except that during that week, the hotel lost it. And then said that their fridge had broken down and it had spoiled and been thrown away. Either way, no haggis for us and a wasted business class flight’s worth of baggage allowance passed us by.

Second consignment was the veggie version (which I have slightly over-ordered). Perfect delivery, smuggling and straight into the freezer in Almaty - very efficient smugglers those two! 

The third consignment was to be delivered to a large hotel in Liverpool for a family of smugglers to secrete about their persons. No problem, don’t worry, there is nothing that can go wrong, said the lady at the delivery company when I phoned to make sure my order was perfect.

Nothing can go wrong, except the coldest winter in the UK for 20 years. When a really-quite-small amount of snow fell in the UK and all delivery services pretty much gave up and decided not to even try to deliver anything at all. No haggis for us. 

As I have now arrived unexpectedly in the UK with my husband and knowing that we were 18kgs short, we set about procuring all the MacSweens for sale in the Christchurch and Bournemouth area. But it is the month of Burns Supper, and other haggis eaters abound. When my father spotted (and unfortunately did not buy) a mountain of fine chilled Haggi (is that the plural?) in a corner of the Waitrose chiller there were 24. When we went back later the same day to buy them, there were only nine left! Eek!

We managed to get 11 from a local butcher’s, but when they arrived they were frozen which we cannot take with us to Kaz in case they defrost on the way – to re-freeze would be a health risk. They must remain chilled and then be frozen on arrival at the hotel.  We sent them back and found another 13 in another butcher’s. Also snaffled.

We phoned around all the local meat purveyors in vain, looks like we had bought all the available, non-frozen, meat MacSweens haggis in our area. The remaining bundles will have to come out with the band. 

I guess our activity might cause some panic and distress among the Scots living in the Dorset area who find that some b**stards have bought all the shops out of haggis before Burns Night, leaving not a single one, round, scrumptious haggis for the stabbing of (haggis are addressed with a poem and then slit from top to bottom with a dagger on Burns night, releasing the delicious aroma of this essentially-sausagy item). But it is dog eat dog in this situation (or should I say Scot Eat Haggis?), and with my husband leaving with a suitcase of haggis yesterday bound for Kazakhstan, I am afraid that our actions cannot be undone! We are the haggis-buying b**stards of Bournemouth! 

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The joys of being far from home

My on/off tummy aches that I have suffered for the duration of this pregnancy have been occurring, not with increased frequency since I started resting a lot more, but with increased severity as the pregnancy has progressed. Last Saturday night was pretty awful and so I went to see the doctor on Sunday. Although the baby is fine and there is nothing apparently wrong with the set up, these pains are not normal so she has prescribed bed rest and suggested I head back to the UK sooner rather than later to be near my hospital and doctor there.

So as usual we have a rushed crisis - trying to book flights at the last minute - even knowing the sales director and CEO of an airline, this weekend is completely and utterly fully booked for direct flights to London.  As usual, there will be barely any time to prepare the new baby's things or get the new baby's space ready (we still don't know quite where we are going to put her - seems she will have to share the converted broom cupboard with our youngest, but I think we will delay that decision until after I get back). After all, a tiny baby will be in her moses basket in our room for a few months.

I know, I know, there is not much preparation for a new baby required, you only actually need to dig out a few baby grow tunic thingys and muslim cloths to look after a new born, but it goes right against my fairly strong nesting instinct not to turn the house upside down, wash all the clothes, have the full range of baby clothing sorted by age and size into appropriate and clearly labelled boxes. The thought of where everything is almost brings on a panic attack. There is stuff all over the place stuffed in here and there, following our chaotic start to living in Kazakhstan a year ago which I have still not gone and sorted out. So my fault for not being a totally anally retentive and organised housewife to start with, but equally, I was expecting to have a month with the older kids in school to be able to get all this stuff ready for the new one to arrive. And now I will be in the UK.

And it may sound a bit wet, but I will be away from the older kids for the whole of their half term of school which is ages long, and I feel so bad that I won't be there for them. The little one will be bereft without her sisters (indeed any playmates) for so long, and I will be without my husband who is my total rock. Oh, moan moan moan.

Anyway, there is nothing to be done, we will just have to put up with it and focus on the fact that this is the last time I will be pregnant and life will be back to some semblance of normal (whatever that is supposed to be) by about April time.