December 2006

December 2006
Hello All,
Happy Holidays to all! I can't believe it is the middle of December already. The time is just flying. We are in Pavlodar this weekend picking up our plane tickets for China. That's right, from December 30-January 7 we'll be in Beijing! We can't wait.

We had a really nice Thanksgiving this year. We invited over our two principals, our host mom, and our host sisters. Using just our hot plate and a toaster oven (and three days of cooking and having to serve everything cold), we made roast chicken (I heard of a place you could get turkeys from, but they come un-plucked and un-gutted, and I just didn't think I was ready for that--let alone able to cook it in a toaster!), mashed potatoes, stuffing, my grandma's noodle pudding, and two types of salad. Then for dessert I made apple and pumpkin pie--from a real pumpkin! I was terrified the whole week because I have never made Thanksgiving dinner before, let alone with so few resources, but it all turned out okay in the end. Everyone except for our host sisters seemed afraid to try the food, but we did the Kazakh thing and just kept heaping everyone's plates until they couldn't help but eat some of it. I'm pretty sure they enjoyed it. Our Russian is finally good enough that we had some pretty good dinner conversation too, although we all were sweating like crazy. Everyone here is always concerned that we can't light our coal furnace properly, so Jack really got the thing going that day and it was really hot! They were highly impressed with Jack's skills :)

Be sure to check out our website when you get a chance: Jack spent all day yesterday updating the website and it looks great. There are tons of pictures (in a much faster loading format) and he reorganized some of the bigger areas so you can skip around easier.

Happy Holidays everyone! Here's from Jack:
Whenever youíre away, no matter for how long, there are certain things that you miss, and certain things that youíre glad youíre without. After December we will not have been in the United States for 18 Ĺ months, including all of 2006. Itís not really something that you think about every day but itís a little weird that we havenít been in the U.S. for a whole calendar year. So, after all that time, what do we miss, and what are we glad to be rid of? I actually surprised myself with some things. Minus sports, I donít miss American television. Nope, I donít. Movies are a little different because Russian movies are terrible, but thatís a different story.

Shopping is much different here. Here in the village there is no supermarket- just a lady behind the counter. So thereís no browsing, no price comparison. You tell her your order, she says yes or no. The bread lady likes me so yesterday I got bread, the lady next to me didnít. Since there are no lines here, the inpatient mob behind you grumbles with each new item, corrects your language mistakes, and worries that you will buy the last of something. The lady at the grocery store, after a year, can finally understand my Russian. She knows that when I say I want flies I really want flour. (The words are nearly identical in Russian) She knows one kilogram potatoes, one kilogram carrots, one kilogram cucumbers, 200 grams peanuts, and the large jar of tomato paste with the red label. This brings us back to the U.S., where we have Kroger. Iíll admit it- every once in a while my antisocial self wants to go to Kroger, not talk to a single living being, put the stuff in a car (not on my back) and go home- and not by walking. Before Kazakhstan it never occurred to me that 5 kilograms of produce actually weighs 5 kilograms. Itís like Lord of the Rings, the closer to home you get, the heavier the groceries become.

Incidentally, the most we have ever spent at the store at one time is $20. And thatís because we bought potatoes, sausage, onions, cucumbers, flour, carrots, bread, milk, eggs, tomato paste, pasta, rice, toilet paper, and a case of beer.

Our American grocery stores are very clean. This is mostly very good, but sometimes it is slightly unnecessary. Americans are border-line obsessed with germs and cleanliness. It never really occurred to me, for example, how dirty carrots are- they get cleaned back home. The other day I thought to myself, ďWhy are these carrots so dirty?Ē and the answer came back, ďBecause they grow in the ground, stupid.Ē And thatís normal. Eggs are filthy too, by the way, for a slightly less hygienic reason. Ever wondered why? The answer came back, ďBecause they grow under a chicken, stupid.Ē Chickens are filthy, heinous, barbarous creatures. And if you can think about what else the chickens are doing while not really moving too much but still eating a lot, then you can think of what chicken eggs are covered with. How do they get them so clean in the U.S.? And more specifically, who is getting them that clean? Iím not as fanatical about cleaning my food here- you just canít be. Itís actually amazing what the body can handle. I will spare details, but I have seen things with animal parts that would make you sanitize your keyboard just reading it. We share dishes, spoons, and even hand food back and forth to total strangers and have been less sick than in the U.S. My favorite new game, by the way, is take a bite and pass it down. Or look at the glass, wipe off the lipstick smear, shrug and give it to somebody else. But still, I wonít mind getting back to those clean eggs one bit. I miss Kroger because the I know the eggs are ďalways safeĒ rather than ďusually safeĒ, the milk is ďalways safeĒ rather than ďusually unsafe.Ē (As a precaution we now always buy the condensed milk you get in cans. Itís not exciting, but it wonít tear your guts out either.) Kroger milk doesnít give me the worst abdominal pain I have ever had, continuously, for ten hours, even though I took three thousand antacids and a short ton of Advil. Also, I refuse, for example, to buy the fish out of a bucket here. It is a white un-refrigerated bucket filled with un-refrigerated water and white un-refrigerated fish. No thanks. I have to admit though, it is funny when someone buys one, and the lady behind the counter just grabs one and hands it to the customer. Hand me a fish, will you? Here you go.

Cars are another part of life thatís different, obviously, and one that Iím conflicted about. I love not maintaining a car, for example. Cars are actually quite a pain. Can you fix a carburetor yourself? I thought not. I do, however, miss the convenience of that 7 minute drive. I miss being able to do all my errands in one day. I donít miss doing them. I think a car is like many other things here- I miss having it, but I donít miss needing it. Life does not require a car. Having a car, though, would allow us to avoid the bus ride that is only 140 miles and yet takes between 4 and 5 hours. Anyone with a calculator will quickly realize thatís an average speed of about 35 miles and hour. Yes, it is. And itís excruciating. But I donít ever have to buy gas. I donít even know how much it costs. I donít get routine checkups, oil changes, and I donít have to pay a lot for this muffler.

I do miss sports a lot. The sports here, when they even exist, arenít really interesting. Watching the World Cup was a good time, but I miss Michigan football. I miss that the Tigers went to the World Series without me. I feel that this is especially unjust since I spent all those years watching them when they were really bad. But, thanks to mom and dad we got tapes of the Tigers postseason, and I was able to see most of it. When Magglio Ordonez hit his 9th inning home run to send the Tigers to the World Series, I wept openly. After that I couldnít even be mad at them for getting clobbered by the Cardinals.

I donít really miss television all that much. I definitely do not miss CNN and their people with two last names (Anderson Cooper) or no actual names at all (Wolf Blitzer- Wolf is warm blooded fur bearing carnivore. Blitzer is a linebacker or defensive back rushing the quarterback. Wolf blitzer is a wolf rushing the quarterback or, alternatively, a defensive back or linebacker rushing a wolf.) I do wish that our TV spoke English- Russian television, which is mostly what we get, is simply awful. I do miss movies in my native language. But I donít miss my TV telling me why the world is going to end this week, or what to eat. I simply donít care if the Atkins diet works or not. I do not miss knowing that Britney Spears has just started another re-separation trial divorce counseling period again for the seventh time since last Tuesday. I like that I get international news on my short wave radio courtesy of the BBC and China Radio International. However, Iím tired of the BBC explaining why all problems in the world are Americaís fault, even if it is true, which it isnít. Some things are North Koreaís fault.

I miss that when you want to do something in the U.S., you just do it. When you want a telephone, for instance, you call Bell Telephone and say, ďGive me a telephone.Ē And after they donít show up twice, you get a telephone. But you do get a telephone. To get a telephone, we had to get a signed note of permission from the mayor. Yes, I am serious.

I have to admit that I like the relaxed work day. Our jobs, from a work standpoint, are one hundred and ten percent stress free. But every once in a while I wish that we could just sit down and get something done- without lunchÖand teaÖand a three day breakÖ.Most days, though, I like the fact that work is a challenge for reasons other than I have a lot of paperwork. The other day it occurred to me that it didnít occur to me (if thatís at all intelligible) to speak a language other than Russian at work. English is what you speak at home, Russian is what you speak at work. Is there any other way to do it? Some days I wish I didnít have to think so hard about everything I said, but I am going to miss that I need to speak a second language to do things. The other day I decided I was officially competent in Russian because I told someone over the phone that I had to come to their office to receive a flu vaccine. And for the first time ever in class, I spotted a studentís grammar mistake in Russian and corrected it.

I donít miss politics, I just donít. Iím sorry. I know as an American Iím supposed to. I did still vote, but it wasnít really that much fun. They probably wonít even count it. In America we have an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and senate hearings to examine everything that has ever been said by anyone. But in Kazakhstan we have a popular president and an economy growing at 9% per year. Our bus station just went from a departure board that was a chalkboard to one that was a flat screen TV. Which would you choose?

I definitely miss food choices. There are four things to eat here, two of which are based on cabbage. I do like it here that people pressure you to eat rather than not to eat, but I kind of wish we got a choice. Going over to someoneís house? Besbarmak. Every single time. I like that instead of diets, the old lady next to me says, ďHere, eat this fat. Itís tasty.Ē But I also donít want to eat any more fat. The ears I donít mind, the brainís not too bad, itís the fat Iím tired of. Itís too fatty.

Itís kind of cool that it gets down to minus forty here. Until you have to go outside- to go to the bathroom. This brings me to the outdoor toilet, which isnít that bad. But itís not that cool either, and when we leave I wonít miss it. Incidentally, here in Kazakhstan, there are two temperatures. There is the normal temperature that everyone feels outside. Here we have also been introduced to a new temperature. It is only in the bathroom, when you are moreÖvulnerableÖthat you realize how cold it can really get. Itís not like you can wear a snowmobile suit to squat down, is it? You canít really even wear a long coat, because the potential long term consequences for the coat are rather dire. Itís a game of inches, and I choose not to risk it.

I kind of like the fact that there is some skill to lighting the furnace, but I wonít miss cleaning the ash out of it, and I wonít miss when it doesnít light properly and the house is cold until you can clean it out and start all over again.

Getting water from the well also isnít that bad, but Iím not going to miss that either. The water spills, and oh, the gate blew shut and I canít open it because Iím carrying all this water which I canít really set down because thereís no level ground, and now Iím being chased by that stupid dog from down the street, and now Iíve spilled the water into my boots, my only boots, which I canít dry because Iíve lit the furnace improperly, and itís freezing outÖdid I say it wasnít that bad? I suppose it is a funny story for make glorious culture of America.

So in other words, I miss the convenience of the United States but I donít miss needing it. I like that our challenges here are usually not paperwork related. I donít miss parking lots and errands. I would be lying, though, if I said I didnít miss some conveniences. The running water thing is pretty cool. Even though there are a lot of things I donít miss doing in the U.S., I do miss being able to do them. Itís not really that bad that lifeís a little harder here. It just makes you do it. I could not clean and light the furnace, but we would freeze to death. Iím not being dramatic; body parts stop working pretty fast at -40. But, that makes it an easy choice! Just like with everything, I wish a lot of things here were different. But I wish a lot of things were different in America too. So, when Iím in Kazakhstan I miss a lot of things about America. But when I come back to America, Iím going to miss a lot of things about Kazakhstan too.

Jack & Amy