Carolina

The Carolina skies are forever blue – a [near] endless succession of [almost] perfect days.  We tumble into the first week of October still wearing shorts, though the evenings are shorter (we don’t get to sit out on the screen porch in the growing dusk after our daughter goes to sleep), the leaves are rustling down, and it’s far too cold to swim in the pool.

We like Carrboro – what’s not to like? It’s quiet, it’s quaint, there are green trees everywhere, everyone looks just-suitably-alternative-without-going-to-far, hondas and health food.

But there are a few things I miss, here as well as in North Carolina in general.

A sense of realness. Too often driving down the highway I look around me and realize there are no visual cues hinting at a particular place. For half the route, trees line the expressway, the houses hidden behind the greenway, and it seems we could be driving through the deep country rather than a few miles from town.  Where there aren’t trees, there are chain shops, lots and lots of them, flat and monotonous.  Some city-towns (like Apex or Cary) seem to be composed almost entirely of strip malls and Circle Ks. Even in Carrboro, where is the center (besides the commons) – where do people gather, stroll in the evening, take a walk after Sunday morning brunch? Chapel Hill has its Franklin Street, but here I still feel we’re lacking our central reference point of place (besides the Weaver Street Market, which is and is not a genuine center).

This is partially because the towns do sprawl.  Walkability – and connected walkability – was not a central concern in town planning.  Twelve years ago I had a friend from Raleigh tell me that when you saw someone walking it was sad (because everyone went by car). There are pocket neighborhoods, pocket subdivisions, pockets of apartment complexes and condominium blocks (we live in one); but they aren’t necessarily integrated into the city except by road and car.  Every time I take my daughter to the park we have to cross a highway – and get to the crosswalk either by cutting through the back of a parking lot, or by creeping up the shoulder of the highway.

We did try to bike. I’ve had numerous people tell me how ‘bike-friendly’ the area is, but I believe they mean certain areas close to campus and as compared to other cities in the region.  Having grown up in MSP and gone to college in Portland, the Triangle Area is not bike friendly.  There aren’t enough bike lanes, and many roads don’t have paved shoulders (or sidewalks); on roads that are supposed to be ‘shared’ the cars often go too fast and there are too many curves to make it really safe for biking.  So we bought a car, and I’ll just dream of biking from one end of the cities to the other when/if we visit Minnesota in summer.

When we’re in Minnesota we’ll also take my daughter to all the parks – meandering waterfront gardens, across the Stonearch Bridge, to plenty of cleanswept playgrounds with chipper slides and swings and rolling green grass, cool paths beneath the pine boughs at Pine Point.  For here there is a lot of greenspace – but it isn’t all accessible, and the facilities (honestly) aren’t that great.  Today we finally took our daughter to Wilson Park.  For kids it’s nice – a plastic playground with clean woodchips, a swingset, a sandbox, some picnic tables.  But besides a couple of tennis courts and a baseball diamond there isn’t much else there.  I think my husband has yet to find a basketball court or an open soccer field, and there certainly aren’t that many playgrounds for a town that seems to have toddlers everywhere.

I realize I’m judging everything by Minnesota standards – every six blocks there should be a park, lakes should have public access and be encircled by bike paths, roads should have shoulders so biking is possible, neighborhoods should be organic and old.

Minnesota is also not ideal – it’s too cold to use outdoor public facilities half the year; we have great sense of place, but people aren’t as warm or friendly. We’ll find our place here – but I don’t think it’s going to change.

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New Notes

I’m back to grad school, getting a feel for the ground under my feet in a new (returned) country, a new department, a new state, a new apartment that feels increasingly like home.

Grad school last time around didn’t feel like a lot of reading; some weeks it was, but most weeks it just required a lot of attention to detail across shorter texts, much like undergrad at Reed College where we generally read one book across several classes and were expected to come to class prepared to talk about the details of argument, the nuances of thought, the exact material used and the importance of footnotes.

Here I have three classes a week – a mere three! – and yet far more reading, broad reading, where we’re expected to read one book per class and then come ready to discuss not history per se, but how various authors perform the craft of history. I can’t read for detail – if I did, I’d never finish (I already feel like I’m treading water after several weeks of settling in, of driving around town getting things for our flat, of driving up to DC to pick up my husband, of introducing the area to him and taking care of some things he needed, and of just being a parent).  But it’s also not about reading for detail; in fact, there seems to be a widespread assumption among professors and peers that most students won’t read every word of most of the books they’re assigned.

This grates against what I was taught at Reed, and seems paradoxical with the research we’ll later do, when we could spend weeks just working out one detail or shifting through archives for one file. At times (usually late in the afternoon, when I realize there’s no way I’m going to read 230 pages before my class the next day) it feels overwhelming.

At the same time, it’s wonderful that we live in an [academic] world where there is so much information, where we can really weigh and discuss and learn from different modes of doing our profession, where we don’t just learn one set of canonical sources.

So…it’s been a busy three weeks.  I need to sit down and write for myself more, to synthesize what I’m learning each week.  Gradually, gradually, the ground beneath my feet is shifting, and I’m learning how to balance.  Soon, I think, it will seem quite manageable and I’ll be able to not only finish  my work, but do it with more clarity.

A word of advice for those moving to a new locale to start a grad program (or job): try to come two weeks in advance, just to set up your living space, especially (especially!) if you have a child (and thus can’t always arrange your time according to your own schedule during the day)

 

Money Matters

When I looked at the weather report for this following week – rain and 17C in Amsterdam; thunderstorms and high 20’s in DC; thunderstorms and 31C in North Carolina – my first thought was “Damn, I shouldn’t have sold my rainboots. My second was, “Maybe I should buy a pair of Crocs”.

For in Bishkek we’ve always had enough money.  We do budget, we do save, we don’t spend lavishly, and we certainly stay away from dropping money on overpriced imported goods (I noticed last week that the croc store was having a sale, meaning their prices are now probably on par with those in the states; it’s not like I’m going to spend $80 on a pair of rubber shoes) and cafes with fabulous decor and flat-tasting food (looking at you Social Coffee…), but we’ve never had to worry that something will wipe us out.  We can get a new pair of shoes without it being in the budget.  We can spend more on dry cleaning my husband’s entire work wardrobe before we leave than half the country earns in a month.  This is in great part because, like most expat employees, my husband earns a monthly salary that is several times the country’s annual GDP per capita.  We also live in staff housing and thus pay as much for rent as we’ll probably pay for utilities in the states.  And we’ve always had the guarantee of income for months to come.

Which is very different than what we’re stepping into.

I have a five year PhD fellowship of $24,000 per annum.  That’s $2,000 – enough, for a family of three in the county where we will live, to cover rent, utilities, groceries, and maybe a few other basics. I’m lucky – most doctoral students in my division don’t have a fellowship and live off of a stipend $10k less generous.  And they do live off of it.  We have savings, and escrow – enough to supplement our budget while my husband decompresses and searches for a job.  But, mygod, the US is expensive – for the middle class.

My mother had a lawschool classmate who ended up quite well off.  He and his (stay-at-home) wife have a renovated Victorian within walking distance of Mission St. in San Francisco and paid in full for all three of his daughters to attend university.  The younger two were both undergraduates at their father’s alma mater when I started my PhD there and, besides paying $60k in tuition out of pocket for each daughter, he also managed to provide them with enough of their own pocket money that they were always dressed in designer.  On the other end of the spectrum, I had a college friend who grew up in New York with a single mom, paid not a penny to go to one of the nation’s top private high schools, and attended our LAC on a full ride before going on to get his PhD at Princeton. If I was a single mom on 24k, I’d have access to foodstamps, medicare, and free childcare programs like Headstart and after-school care, or I’d qualify for childcare scholarships.

For everyone else in between – I’m not sure how they make it.  How are Starbuck’s’ sales so high? How is there always so much stuff (seasonal, bright-colored plastic, not build to last) flooding the aisles at Target? How do people without 6-figure incomes afford $600,000 houses, and then fill them with non-clearance furniture from Macy’s and the thousand other tokens of the middle class? Because once you start adding, for a family, the US seems inhibitively expensive, unattainable almost.

I made a second budget, for when my husband starts working and we need full-time childcare for our daughter.  Rent/Mortgage, Utilities, Childcare, Groceries, Gas, Personal Spending, Travel, Escrow, Health Insurance and Car Insurance – totaled up, we’d need more than $5,000 a month to have a normal budget.  Nothing extravagant – it’s not like this would allow us to go out to dinner every night, or even get dinner from the Whole Foods deli every night; it wouldn’t allow us to drop stupid amounts on electronics or  buy $80 jeans at the mall; we’re more likely to have a cleaner and sitter come twice a month, unlike twice a week as we do abroad.  5k just covers the unextraordinary everyday expenses for a family of three. Over a year, that’s 60k  – 3.5k more than the national average household income of $56,516 .  That’s income before taxes, before setting apart some portion for savings or escrow.  If a family saves 10% and pays 15% in taxes, then they’re left with $42,387, or $3,532 per month.  Where we’re going to live, that’s enough to cover rent ($1200), childcare ($1400), groceries ($600), and have $300 left over for…everything else. Thankfully we both have degrees, and my husband is set to earn quite a bit more than average given his profession.  But still – how do people do it?  (Part of the answer is, it seems, they don’t – American’s are notoriously bad at savings, with only 17% having a three month emergency fund, and 44% with less than $500 socked away for incidentals and accidents).  I’ve read before that the majority of millenials actually have negative $7000 or so in savings (meaning their debt is greater than anything they have in the bank).

A few months ago I was talking with another Bishkek expat mom about prices of childcare and childbirth in the states vs. abroad.  She commented on how expensive the local European School of Central Asia seemed when she calculated up how much she would spend for her two preschool-age children to attend through high school.  I countered with, ‘I wish preschool in North Carolina was six thousand a year!’.  For raising children in the US is truly expensive, with the majority of the expenses borne by the parents, because we have very little state welfare/state institutions in that area. I gave birth in Turkey (where we had insurance), and our total hospital bill for a cesarean followed by a 2 night stay in a private room with 3 meals a day was…$200. For a shared room, even with insurance, we’d likely pay ten times that in the US.  Across Europe childcare is standardized and subsidized by the state.  In the US quality care can run more than rent.  Where we’re moving, the average rate is around $1400 – or on par with a nice two-to-three bedroom apartment, and twice as much as a one bedroom apartment.  It’s more than most of my fellow doctoral students are expected to live off of. So how do people afford to have children?  How do they afford to have multiple? And how does the US even have a positive birth rate? And why don’t we have more people clamouring for simple state services (healthcare, childcare) that Europeans seem to see as state responsibilities? (maybe we could afford them too if we stopped offering tax breaks to hedge funders and giant corporations, but, you know…)

Prices in the states are also odd things.  I’ve explained to my husband a number of times that you can pay $80 or $30 for the same thing (let’s say the exact model of Nike shoes he was looking at last weekend), depending on where and when you buy it (on sale vs. not, Famous Footwear vs. DSW); you can also pay $30 for something of terrible quality (like a pair of sneakers from Payless), or $30 for something really decent (like a pair of Nike from DSW, or on sale at Macy’s).  We have plenty of crap in America, overpriced everything: fashionable donut shops, fashionable clothing meant to be worn a season and then tossed in the trash, threads already dangling.  I’ve been doing household shopping on Amazon.com and recently realized I can buy 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets on clearance from Macy’s for the same price as something polyester.

So, in sum, we’re stepping into a very different economic environment.  We can no longer afford everything without thinking twice and yet we have access to so much more. We’ll have to think more before we spend in part because we’ll be surrounded by so many more options. A Target Greatland carries more variety of goods than most people in our current country would ever dream of on their own; stepping into one after a year in Central Asia is like suddenly waking to a materialist dream. It’s easy to spend in America, simply because the availability of variety makes it seems like the unnecessary is also essential.

Our budget will be fine once my husband starts work.  We can even make it work if he goes into consulting or doesn’t work full time for a while. But I have no idea how most Americans live, how the consumer society stays afloat, or why anybody would pay $44 for polyester sheets.

On Leaving Kyrgyzstan

I’ve been in Bishkek longer than any other city I’ve resided in since I graduated highschool – 11 years ago. And yet I have almost no connection with the city.  Our departure is looming – one week away.  I’ve been thinking that I ought to have things I want to do, places I want to visit, one last time.  After all, we may never be back. Do I want to go to the Osh bazaar? Do I want to battle with parking and traffic police (or hard-bargaining taxi drivers with grimy cars) and the heat and crowds and worrying about pickpockets and my daughter getting sick from the many germs that float around an overcrowded bazaar? Anything I want to eat?  I’m not particularly fond of samsa (or the wheat-meat diet that is the mainstay of local cuisine); the only thing I really want to try is the Pad Thai at the new (and only) Thai restaurant that just opened up in Bishkek.  And then I remind myself that I’m moving to a country where there’s a Thai restaurant in every stripmall.  Half of our friends are gone for the summer, and we said our [envious] goodbyes when they left for the seaside months ago.  So…no, there’s nothing I’ll miss.  The mountains, pristine, presiding over the city, magnificent in the morning light, brilliant and sharp under the winter snows, coated in glimmering hues of rose gold and deep purple blues at dusk. But part of the beauty of the mountains is that they are so untouched by the city.

I’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan almost as long as I lived in China, and in Bishkek at least twice as long as I lived in Beijing or any other single Chinese city. I left China with the rhythm of the country ingrained in my memory – the regional cadences of speech, the sizzle and smell of a stirfry mixed with voices from a back kitchen, the bustle of a railway station, the texture of soupy rice noodles against my palate, a sense of expectancy, of the future always bringing more challenges, more possibilities, the idea that tomorrow would always bring something different, would always be an opportunity to grow.

In Kyrgyzstan I’ve felt stagnant; after 3+ years I’m still standing at the starting line.  I’ve tried so many different things – I came here thinking I might break from academia, thinking I wanted to explore different career options, establish a profession for myself.  I’m leaving having established no profession, having spent a lot of time trying to unearth opportunities that it turned out didn’t exist, a lot of time pursuing ventures that didn’t pan out.  In total, I worked for five different employers (though never for what I would consider a real wage; never what anyone could consider a real wage), I wrote one (thirty chapter) textbook, I collaborated with two entrepreneurs on joint projects including initiating three start-ups, and I started maybe 8 blogs or websites. I got more out of the three months I worked at a think tank in Turkey while I was pregnant.

Looking back, of course I could have done certain things differently – there are a thousand little choices along the way that could have set whole new paths, a hundred assumptions I shouldn’t have made.  I would have been happier – and felt more integrated into the city, invested in life here, if I spoke better Russian.  But, after taking two months of private lessons, I just failed the placement exam for full-time intermediate Russian group classes at the London School of Bishkek, as I guessed at the difference between “вход” and “выход” (“Entrance” and “Exit” or “In-going” and “out-going”) and thus got that whole section wrong.  I could have looked it up in two seconds, though my Minnesota moral code told me that would be cheating (would it matter though, when I’m not getting any professional or academic recognition for either the test or the classes I could not then take?). And so I didn’t take intensive Russian, as that was the only course available at the time, and I limped along only partially knowing the language of the city until I decided I just wasn’t interested in learning it anymore. One small choice – one click on my phone and I could have altered the entire trajectory of my time in this city.

And now it’s time to leave.  It’s done; our exit is just around the corner. I’m already in North Carolina, smelling the wet green of rain on the leaves, mentally arranging our apartment and filling up my Amazon shopping basket with necessary things for our new home.  I wish I’d had a more productive experience, that I had something more to show for my time spent here, that I had focused on one thing with the vision I have now and actually created something I could take away (apart from my acquired knowledge of Turkish).  But I can’t change that now; I can only make step ahead and relish the opportunity now to intensely focus on something, to step up and sharpen my skills, sharpen my mind once more.

Namaz and Nightime Noises

For the first few weeks the call to prayer startled me from my sleep every night and again in the early morning.  The wail reached through my open window at an ethereal pitch.  Then, gradually, it became part of the background of night noises: dogs barking, neighbors chatting on their balconies, a child crying, early morning garbage trucks trundling up the street.

I don’t remember if our daughter was woken by the namaz in her first few weeks of life.  I don’t remember a lot from those weeks – wakings, the glow of a nightlamp, groggily making my way to her crib, working with my husband to change her tiny diapers in a flail of fumbling fingers, going to the kitchen to find something to eat (usually yogurt) at 5 am, waking up with a start and looking at the digital clock – has it been two hours?  Should we feed her?.  But did she wake up at the call to prayer?  I don’t recall.  I doubt it – she slept through half of a coup attempt, gunfire and bombs going off down the hill, the sonic whoosh-boom of fighter jets flying low overhead.

When we came back to Bishkek we’d wake each other up at night.  I was forever in a hyper-alert state of light sleep: if she shifted in her bassinet I’d wake up, lean over to check on her, and often, inadvertently, disturb her sleep.  As soon as we moved into our new flat, when she was near 3 months old, I convinced my husband to move her to her own room.  We both began sleeping better, often through the night – once she actually settled down for sleep.  I’d put her to bed at 7pm: feed her, read to her, wait until her little eyes closed and then place her in the crib and turn out the light before creeping downstairs.  If we spoke too loudly, she’d wake up.  If I sneezed, she’d wake up.  If we accidentally dropped something, or made too much noise while making dinner, she’d wake up.  And every evening the last call to prayer – would wake her up.  She was waking up two or three times after we put her to sleep every evening.  I’d go up, pick her up, breastfeed her back to sleep.  Eventually, around 4 months, I decided I wasn’t going to breastfeed her in the evenings again, and it became my husband’s duty to help her settle herself back into sleep.  She stopped waking up.  Sometimes we would hear wailing through the walls, look at each other and whisper, “is it her?”, then sit in silence for a moment longer before realizing it was only our neighbors. On New Year’s residents in the flat across from ours – twenty meters across the parking lot – let off strings of fireworks from their kitchen windows.  The sky across the city lit up with like explosions.  Not a peep from upstairs.

But then Ramazan came, hot and sticky nights, silent days.  The narcoleptic population became nocturnal, emerging from their homes only as dusk began to settle over the city, the buzz of anticipation at 7 pm, the high hum of 8.  The Namaz emitted from the behemoth mosque squatting by the university entrance was a pious hoarse croak, amplified by the electronic speakers.  Then we could practically hear the clanking of plates, the scrape of forks on the metal serving trays used in the student cafeteria.  We shifted our daughter’s bedtime to match the Namaz – there was no point trying to put her to sleep before it, as she’d wake up with a start, crying and shaking her crib rails.

Night was no better.  The population reveled – two hundred people spilled out of the soviet block opposite.  Kids biked up and down the street, bought ice cream.  The dogs that hover around the shops below waiting to be fed spammy sausages or a chunk of bread sent up howls whenever a car came up the street, or yipped as they chased bicyclists and strangers from their territory.  We shut our windows, turned on the fan.  Our daughter woke, and woke again at 3 am, when the cry went out to wake the population to prepare the pre-dawn morning meal.  We didn’t sleep much.

Following Ramazan the full, throaty cries to prayer returned with a vengeance, booming over the campus.  Before only one or two of the religious study students whose duty it is to emit the call were excessively loud; now every one of them seems to shatter the air.  Our daughter wakes most nights after 10, at the last call, and sometimes again between 5 and 6, at the first.  Usually she settles herself back to sleep after a single sob; sometimes she shakes the rails, tears riveting down her red face. We walk in, lay her back on the bed, cover her with a summer blanket, and usually she falls right to sleep, just needing someone to settle her. Sometimes I wake in the morning vaguely aware that I’ve woken at night, sleepwalked to her room to put her back to sleep.

Sometimes we still wake up – dogs barking, neighbors sobbing.  Our neighbors to the right are a family of four – plump stay-at-home mom who always says “hello” (in Turkish) on the stairs; two seemingly cute kids about age 5 or 6, a dried-out looking middle-aged man whom I’ve never seen without a cigarette in his hand. Their apartment reeks of stale cigarette smoke whenever they open the door, when they place plastic bags of trash on the landing to pick up later. In the evenings we can hear the son bouncing off the walls like a ninja.  Later at night sometimes the girl sobs and sobs, cries more intense than any our daughter emitted in infancy half muffled by the wall.  Sometimes the mother shouts (usually in tandem with the daughter’s wails).  Last night E woke me with a shake. We heard high-pitched cries and screams coming from behind our headboard.  It was 12:18. Tutya slept on and, once again, we felt blessed to have such tranquility in our own home.

From Little Caterpillars to Children

The most shocking part of parenting so far is looking up and realizing I’m the parent of a kid.  Some time in the last month or so my daughter has gone from babyhood to childhood.  She’s a toddler – a small child – with a full-blown personality and mind and manners and opinions and conscious desires of her own (often realized in contradiction of my own).  She’s no longer a baby-baby.  Yes, of course she still cries when she’s frustrated (she had a few minor melt-downs this morning), but she’s becoming conscious of herself.  She acts, and then reacts: she pops the top off a jar and then laughs and holds out the top to us, showing us what she’s accomplished; she pulls the garlic chives and arugula out of the grocery bag I have unwisely left next to her in the backseat and then pushes a fistful of greens towards me when I open the door; she struggles to open the zippers on my purse and then shakes it and yelps her frustration.  When she does THINGS NOT ALLOWED (like throwing her spoon on the ground) she favors us with a rapturous grin and nods her head up and down like a bobble-head doll, delight and mischief sparkling in her eyes.  We find it hard not to laugh, which is of course what she intends.

Tutya garlic chivesSuddenly, she’s a person (not a baby); a person not just with emotions and desires, but conscious of those emotions and desires, and aware of her own knowledge.  This seems to be developing along with her mobility – the more able she is to move at will, the more conscious she becomes of the possibilities around her, and the possibility of doing something different than her parents are offering at the moment.  Oftentimes this consciousness of desire seems to arise when her will is in opposition to mine, in realizing that there are other possible actions, in watching my reaction.  Sometimes she’s exhausted by bedtime (we’re also struggling through the transition from two naps to one), and she slings her pajamas over her shoulders and crawls onto her toilet (backwards).  Other times, as soon as we strip her down and unfold a diaper for night she hustles into her fort and sprawls, naked, against her stuffed animals, then flashes us a wide gummy grin.  And somehow, suddenly, I’m no longer mother to a baby.

Sleep with Children

Sleep
Sleep is an odd demon.
Sometimes I wake up, refreshed, at five am, rejuvenated at the sight of a rosy red dawn and the first fresh whiffs of mountain air. I actually hope that my daughter won’t go back to sleep after I feed her, so that we can catch that beautiful golden morning light on our walk, that serene hour of summer golds and greens and blues before the sun boils.
Sometimes I sleep in until 7, or 8, and wake as if from a coma, dragged from some deep place. My daughter slowly enters my dreams, crawling across the screen. I gradually become aware of her dropping her pacifiers on the floor (there are many) and chatting as she rattles the side of her crib. I interact with her in my dreams, reluctant to let myself rise from slumbers. Her chattering grows more insistent, and my subconscious self slowly allows me to become aware that she’s calling me from outside the dream. I open my eyes but barely, pull my legs from sheets tangled in sleep, and give her mussy hair a morning kiss. Usually I hope she’ll fall back asleep once I’ve fed her – even if she’s slept her ten or eleven hours. Vain hope. I bring her back to bed with me, where she snuggles between us and turns to me with expectant mouth and bright eyes.
Sometimes she falls to sleep again, and I wake up an hour or so later, wondering at the thick sun pouring through the window. More often, however, she has her morning sip and then begins babbling away, nuzzling up against her (still-sleeping) father, crawling all over us and then collapsing into chest-hugs, standing on the edge of our bed to place her hands on the window ledge and play peek-a-boo with the curtains. I finally sit up, take her downstairs to wash up, talk about the day as I make a cup of coffee, and then stretch out on the living room floor, shaking the sleep out of my joints.
Our neighbors are silent almost all throughout midday – not a kid in the garden or a bike on the street. They sleep, hibernate through the heat. At dusk they appear, spilling out onto the sidewalks, filling the tea garden. When we sleep at ten or eleven I can still hear them, little kids calling to each other and scootering up and down the street below. My husband tells me to sleep when our daughter sleeps, to nap during the day. I can’t. If I did, I wouldn’t get anything done. My entire day would be taking care of our daughter, or preparing meals, or sleeping. But I also *can’t*: my body doesn’t know how to sleep during mid-day. Once I’m awake, that’s it – I’m up. Unlike my husband I can’t just drop off for a nap after watching the baby for two hours. I’ve tried to explain this to him again and again on my morning to sleep in – that if he hands her off to me while he uses the restroom, or takes a half an hour to get them out of bed, then that’s it for my sleep. I just drink coffee throughout the day, and then somehow, around 6 or 7 pm, I feel awake. In the evening I try to do everything I couldn’t focus on during the day and then, once again, I can’t sleep until well past 10:30.

Nearby Excursions: The Farm Guesthouse at Rot Front

From the Farm Guesthouse at Rot Front
There’s honestly not much to do here. In a sense that’s ideal for us – a break from the stress and dust and daily life of Bishkek where my husband is more than busy with work, and every day we have to contend with being a non-Muslim family surrounded by a mostly conservative Islamic-oriented community covered and fasting for Ramzan under the parching summer sun. I’m tired of worrying about wearing shorts every time I walk outside. It’s hot; how can those women bear to wear full skirts and overcoats when it’s 95 degrees?!
An occasional break from Bishkek is good – clear our lungs, clear our minds.
But I wouldn’t want to live in the Kyrgyz countryside, for it doesn’t seem a place of happening, possibility. What would you do if you were a youth here? What are the possibilities? For there doesn’t seem to be a great notion of innovation, of opportunity. Men squat by their cars in the shade; cows bellow as they wade through the grass or take great, lumbering strides across the road, oblivious to the traffic stopped for them to pass; women stand around in small groups, babies on their hips, or hang laundry in the garden. The people I pass seem to be waiting – perhaps not waiting for anything in particular, but not likely to initiate momentum themselves. Waiting for someone else to take the first step, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the government to come in, waiting for commands, options, instructions.
The other guests at the farm are an older Swiss German couple. The husband works for a company that sold some radio equipment to a station here and has thus traveled here for work dozens of times over the past decade. When I asked him what changes he had noticed in the Kyrgyz countryside he paused and then said “Nothing. They have more modern tractors”.
Across the street mountains loom over the fields and quaint white houses with peaked roofs painted sky blue. Last night as we drove through the winding countryside the mountains were a study in gradients of grey. This morning was hot and lush and green, the colors of a Kyrgyz summer – brown earth, blue skies, green leaves and grass, bright red cherries in the trees, a poke of purple or yellow flowers by the road. Beautiful, but still.

I can’t really complain about the guesthouse, and yet there are so many ways in which it could be improved, details here and there. Perhaps it’s usually more on target, when the owner/managers are on the property, for the gushing reviews seem to be describing a different place than the one where we stayed. Meals – communal, held at the long table outside the summer kitchen – are sometimes an affair of awkward silence, as if the youth working here aren’t quite sure how to talk to their few guests on equal footing. The food is also not our usual fare. I thought the huge mound of pasta peppered with slices of spam-like salami we were served up last night was on account of the power outages following yesterday’s storm. But lunch too was a literal mountain of pasta, with a tiny side salad, and a few chunks of meat barely visible atop the sliced and steamed potatoes covering the noodles. Dinner was a bowl of rice and potatoes with some sauce, and a plate of pork to share. Our only vegetable was the leaves of lettuce used for garnish on the plate of pork. Ironic – I’d expect more fresh food when staying on a farm in mid-summer. After our meals I felt both overly full and under-satisfied, as if I’d eaten too many calories, but not gotten enough nutrients.
I realized how healthy we usually eat this morning when breakfast turned out to be a stack of thick golden blini and a half bowl of buckwheat porridge. I looked at the pancakes and almost asked if there was yogurt and fruit, or eggs on the side. Even our one year old was perplexed – she’s used to having “little little into the middle” at every meal, with half her plate being fresh produce, and some protein at every repas. I ran back to the mini fridge in the guesthouse and took out the hardboiled eggs and cheese we had brought, along with a container of mixed nuts and dried fruit. Later we snacked on cucumbers and sour cherries from the guesthouse tree. Three meals a day can’t just be based on starch. (Though they are in many parts of Kyrgyzstan, which is how the country has simultaneously high rates of type II diabetes *and* malnutrition). When we got back to Bishkek I threw together a French carrot salad, and our baby sat in her high chair stuffing handfuls of shredded carrot into her mouth. More balanced meals would certainly be better.
So would a number of other little things here and there – actually comfortable seating in the garden (backless benches do not count), a cleaned-up courtyard outside the guesthouse, a better attached shower-head that wouldn’t droop down and bop you in the head mid-rinse, better sweeping up of the cobwebs that seem to be in every corner. Even *I* saw too many spiders for my own comfort this weekend. Dropping down to the floor to find a fallen pacifier I also noticed that the floor seemed to have not been swept in… a while. Not good when you have a toddler still crawling around on her hands and knees. Our room has three beds plus a crib in it, but no wardrobe or place to hang clothes or store the suitcase, which means there’s barely space to walk, and it’s dark. Little things that are easy to do. The guesthouse is nice for Kyrgyzstan, but I’m tired of saying “nice *for*”; especially when places can be nice in and of themselves. They already have the farm; why not turn the guesthouse into something wonderful – meals made from fresh produce, a nice garden where guests could sit and read books or sip coffee, a clean place to retire to at night.

I finally started reading about the organization that runs it on our way back. It’s called “Act of Kindness” and is run by a biblical Canadian couple and their Canadian daughter and her local husband. Their mission with the farm is to provide a place for orphans who have ‘grown out of government assistance’ (I.e. are too old for orphanages) and yet still need some structure and support. Not a lot of work seems to be going on on the farm, but, again, that might be in part because none of the people who run it were on site this weekend. I don’t believe in private charity towards persons – the inevitable creation of a hierarchy of persons and class divide between benevolent endowers of charity (who may remove their charity at any time) and grateful recipients makes me uneasy in a way that state aid (which persons have access to based on their *rights* as *citizens* to a certain equal minimum standard) does not. But it’s not my project. It would just be nice to know a little more about it (i.e. that it’s not primarily a guesthouse) before arriving. This is because, for guests, the farm seems to exist in an odd, in-between, space. Because you are paying (1000 som/night including all three meals) you do expect some service (I.e rooms cleaned of cobwebs and dust, functioning shower heads, etc…); but, because it’s a charity, it’s also awkward to ask for any of these things. Is your presence – and payment – part of the act of charity too? The same with meals – CBTs (Community Based Tourism, through which locals rent out rooms in their houses to tourists) are around 450/night per person, but offer only breakfast. I’m not going to count in the cost of preparing the food, as guests eat with the half dozen or so residents of the farm, and everybody eats the same meal. Do we eat 550 som/day of ingredients in lunch and dinner? I’d say not, as all the ingredients used to prepare the meals are cheap – rice, potatoes, wheat flour, noodles, a bit of carrots, cucumber and meat from the farm. We just stopped at Globus to do our grocery shopping for the week, and our entire bill – including wine and meat – ran just over 3000 som. So the guesthouse offers accommodation comparable to that found at a CBT, but we’re paying more for food than we’re consuming. And yet, because it’s a charity, what can we say? Can we ask for eggs at breakfast, or salad with dinner? Perhaps their operating budget doesn’t leave a lot for food. Though even if it doesn’t, they could at least introduce healthier fare – beans and buckwheat and rye and seasonal vegetables are not expensive in Kyrgyzstan. The World Food Program works with Kyrgyz elementary schools to provide nutritious and well-balanced lunches for school children for 15 som per student per day – introducing healthier fare need not sink their budget. I also can’t see how condoning or encouraging residents to prepare and eat food that is actually harmful for their bodies – especially when there are so many programs in the country working to educate people in inexpensive healthy nutrition using local ingredients – can be an “act of kindness”. For me, I just felt bloated and irritable all weekend.
I also feel like a farm guesthouse should either be a place where one can go and relax – which would entail having places where guests could sit and read a book or have a comfortable conversation somewhere other than the rather dark rooms or the long benches by the dining table – or a place where guests can pitch in an actually have some active part, or both. When there’s neither – well, what are you supposed to do there?
In all, yes, we got away from Bishkek (and -sob!- missed a free open buffet Turkish brunch celebrating the end of Ramadan), but it ended up being less truly relaxing and enjoyable than I had hoped for. Alas.

Lessons Learned from the First Year of Expat Parenting

Our daughter is on the verge of becoming a toddler.  Next Friday she turns one (a day after my husband’s 35th), and I’m still grappling with the fact that we’ve been parents for a year and we’ve been parents for only a year.  The last 51 weeks seem both eternal (haven’t we always had our daughter in our lives? how did she ever not exist?) and impossibly fast.  The days when she curled her legs under and slept like a ladybug lump on our chests seem eons ago; walking, pregnant, under the blossoming boughs of Ayranci and Besevler seems like it was last week. Must be the first few months of sleepless nights and the rush of everbusiness that accompanies a baby.

But taking this year to a close, I realized I’ve learned a few things that I really wish I knew (or had been able to convince myself of) from the start, for it would have made the first year of parenthood much easier.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is important – without it you can’t properly function as a normal human being.  Attempting to run on less-than-adequate sleep while diving into a brand-new, full-time, highly demanding job with a boss who doesn’t even send memos (and can’t yet speak your language) is nearly impossible.  Prioritize sleep for the first six weeks. Don’t take on new assignments; turn down projects if need be. Take naps.
  2. Following on this: Sleep train early. This was especially hard for us, as my husband gets really nervous whenever our daughter cries and, at first, whenever she stirred in the night (is she still breathing? Can you just check on her?). Most babies make lots of noise in their sleep for the first few months.  They make even move around and flutter open their lashes without actually waking up.  “Checking on them” can  wake them up; wait a little bit and let them settle themselves down if they can.  Likewise, watch your baby to figure out when their natural bedtime is.  We were having an awful time last August: starting around 7 or 8 our 2-month-old would just fuss and fuss, until she finally fell asleep, exhausted (no less than we) at 10…or 12, usually after I’d rocked her in the sling through an entire playlist of songs I collected expressly for this purpose.  Then I figured out that maybe she just wanted to go to bed around this time.  We started switching off or dimming all the lights in the apartment by 8 and, voila! suddenly we had hours more in the evening to enjoy being adults (and catch up on lots of overdue sleep).
  3. Continuing in the same vein: take night shifts.  After the first few days, there’s usually no need for both parents to get up.  So split the night in two shifts, say 8pm-2am and 2am – 8am.  Let whoever’s not on duty sleep on the sofa if need be – but let them get a full six hours of sleep, and you’ll both be more civil, rational, and all-around happier creatures.
  4. To make the above possible, get your baby used to occasionally drinking from a bottle from the beginning, even if you plan on exclusive breastfeeding.  Little-little babies do not discriminate: if it has milk, they will (usually) not object.  But if you go for several weeks without giving your baby any milk from a bottle, you may discover (as we did, when she was around 2 months old), that they will no longer drink from a bottle – and then there goes all hope of having your partner put them to sleep or having an evening out.  Relatedly, start going on date nights and having someone watch your baby early on, before they are old enough to realize that you’re leaving.  I think if we had started this earlier it would have seemed more normal to her and induced less anxiety.  As it is, she’s generally fine when we leave her with the sitter (who’s watched her since November and is thus a familiar face), but clings to us when we get back, and has a hard time going down for naps
  5. Don’t belittle the contribution of your spouse, however little it may seem.  If you’re female, or the primary stay-at-home parent, then you’re most likely doing more work around the house and in taking care of the baby than your spouse – both when they’re at work and when they’re home.  It’s easy to be scornful of their contribution when it seems so small (Congratulations.  You made one meal and cleaned the dishes. What about the other twenty meals in a week?), but it’s important to keep their experience in mind.  Babies bring big changes and force adjustments in everbody’s life; while what my husband contributes may not be a significant portion of all the work that goes on around here, it is a significant contribution (and a significant change) for him.
  6. That said, things will (would for us) be much easier if you talk to some current parents, figure out all the new chores you’ll actually have once the baby arrives, and then create a system for divvying them up before the baby arrives. One of the issue we had was that I watched our daughter alone from 3-6 weeks, after my husband had to come back to Bishkek for work.  Weeks 0-2 we stayed together with his relatives, and the third week we stayed at an all-included resort hotel in Antalya (great idea for new parents) and didn’t really have to worry about food or laundry or cleaning up. A lot of changes occur in those second three weeks, and, when I came back, my husband had no personal experience in that area – and thus no idea how much work went in to watching and taking care of a baby. Having clear areas of responsibility going in means discussing a lot less later.
  7. Going back to Antalya – take vacations with your baby!  But take it slowly, and make sure it isn’t more work than fun.  If you can go with a relative or reliable friend who will sometimes watch your baby so you can sleep in an extra hour, or take an after dinner walk (drink in hand), it’s more than worth their room rate.
  8. Enjoy being parents.  This can be hard if you’re overtired or stressed out or if it feels like too much work or someone is complaining or you feel your spouse isn’t doing their share.  But parenting – reveling in your child’s smiles and discoveries – is actually a lot of fun, if you let it be. Part of enjoying parenting thus relies on having some time off to yourself, and being able to relax once in a while before diving back in.
  9. Don’t plan on doing anything else while your baby’s awake.  I don’t know about all babies, but ours certainly does not play in her crib, and she’s only now starting to play by herself.  Plan on being present when your baby is awake, and don’t think that you can get work done while watching them, as composing more than a text message can be tough. Divided attention means that you end up doing neither task very well, and  you’ll have a frustrated baby on your hands.
  10. At the same time, choose one thing to work on or complete each day that isn’t related to your child.  This should be something that will make you satisfied, whether it’s actually finishing a film or updating your resume or getting some work done.  But it should be one thing.  As soon as your child goes down for a nap – do it.  Don’t first pick up the living room or wash the dishes or this or that; you c do these things later.
  11. Buy lots of clothes, preferably second-hand, preferably easy-on and off. For the first two months babies get a lot of their own liquids on clothes.  Just when their bodies are getting better at self-regulating, their introduction to eating produces a whole new realm of wardrobe wonders.  Having extra clothes on hand (and not having to do laundry every second day) makes life easier.  At the same time, as cute as baby clothes are, you have to know that they’ll get dirty before lunchtime and your baby will grow out of them in two month’s time anyway, so buying them in bulk off of departing expats is fine.  I found an American couple leaving Bishkek and bought about two bags of baby clothing off of them…I wish I’d been less picky and bought more, knowing now that anything
  12. Arrange “double dates” and make an effort to get out (even in winter, especially in winter).  Babies get cabin fever too, and it’s better for everyone if you have others to interact with (and commiserate with)
  13. Have dates with your spouse (and -see above – get your baby used to having evening with a babysitter early on). You need time together to keep up a whole relationship.
  14. Fret less.  Being first-time parents in a country that isn’t exactly known for its great infant health and overall public hygiene, we were nervous about everything.  Exacting, I could say.  And yes, babies are fragile creatures when newborn, but there’s no need to be tense about every little thing.
  15. (A running theme…) Start things early so they’ll be easier later.  Our daughter is now starting to toilet train herself (!) – she squirms in her seat, has a dry diaper, and then pees the moment we put her on her toilet – probably in great part because we started giving her “toilet opportunities” as soon as she could sit, and she soon discovered that it’s much more pleasant to not poop in her diaper.  Eating is also an area of no concern (though plenty of mess), because we let her eat with her hands as soon as she discovered she could use her fingers to pop food in her mouth.  Don’t push, but let your kids begin when they’re ready – and give them early opportunities to explore.
  16. Stock all your bags. The minimum you need is a diaper, wet wipes, and a change of clothes (for the earlier months).  Keeping a smaller bag stocked with the essentials and a larger diaper bag stocked with everything you could possibly need for an expedition (I sometimes feel like I’m a human caravan…), and replacing things as soon as you use them will make getting out the door much easier, as well as ensure that you never discover that your bag has five pairs of fresh socks, but not a single pacifier.
  17. Exercise.  Yoga will save your back, and tight gluts/hamstrings/shoulders/anything affected by suddenly carrying around a growing infant. I do ten minutes of yoga as soon as I wake up and again before sleep.  If I slack off for a few days I can definitely tell.  Likewise, having a strong core will help you put less strain on your back.  Plus exercise reduces stress, gives you endorphines, and will all around make you a happier, more energetic person 😉
  18. Meal prep.  Trying to prepare breakfast or lunch while watching a baby is no fun, while being able to pop things out of the refrigerator ready to eat is fantastic.  Plus, if you plan ahead, you’ll more likely eat more logical meals.  I often take an hour or so on Sunday to make two big salads (one cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, scallions, herbs, olive oil and lemon juice, the other grated carrot, grated beet, thinly sliced onion, fresh mint, vinegar, and cooked chick peas), soup for lunch (usually Turkish lentil soup with carrots, mint and pepper), and sometimes overnight oats or oatmeal muffins. I also prep the French Press before I go to bed, so I don’t have to think about making the coffee before my mind is fully functioning (and don’t end up trying to screw my thermos lid onto the coffee canister or scooping coffee into my oatmeal…)

The Inconsistencies of Central Asia

For hours today we listened to the same dizzyingly giddy Kyrgyz folk song interspersed with announcements concerning an international sports tournament held at the university, the broadcasts echoing off the apartment facing us and reverberating through our walls all day.  I’ve heard Kara Jorgo on national TV, at sporting events, during every public holiday, and even during weddings; I’m not sure there’s any event where it isn’t played, at least once, if not a dozen times (no, there’s not, as Kyrgyz abroad are even addicted).  It’s somehow a song that you can hear a hundred times (or more, much more) and yet somehow not detest.  Naps were shortened, windows were shut, and then finally we gave up and ventured out into the sullen late afternoon heat and humidity that comes before a storm to look at all the flagbearing students standing staunch on the soccer field sticky with sweat under the relentless sun.

The opening ceremony officially began this evening at 8, half an hour past our daughter’s usual bedtime.  We realized there was no hope of getting her to sleep with all the noise, so we took her down to the old soccer field and stadium behind the tea garden and stood on the track (as the stands were packed) with several hundred other spectators – students, most of the university families we know with young kids, media, people from around town.  Each team marched around the track under their country’s flag: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey.  Somehow the university here chose a teal horse as its mascot, and one slim kid swirled and pranced around in a sleek and velvety hip-hugging horse costume complete with a head that must have been hot. Apparently [someone at the university decided] teal is an ancient Turkic color. We chatted with friends and then all migrated over to the tea garden once we realized that the team parade would be followed by at least an hour of speeches from the various rectors and other ‘important figures’.  Little girls in white flouncy dresses and giggling university students in folk costumes and elaborate gold turbans or feathered headdresses snapping group selfies stood shuffling, waiting, by the gymnastics bars.  

Our daughter finally grew sleepy enough (and disinterested in the commotion enough) that we knew she would sleep, so we took her home.  While she shifted in her bed and splayed out into a soundless sleep the speeches reverberated off the building opposite.  After speeches – long, formal, all male – there were dances and quite a number of musical performances, everything from Kara Jorgo (twice) to It’s time for Africa half-translated into Kyrgyz. The pack of pint-sized street dogs that lives around the university shops began to yap and howl.  Our daughter slept on.  Then they were joined by fireworks close enough to shake the windows (I’m always amazed at the proximity of fireworks, and the seeming disregard for public safety – launch fireworks out your window on New Years, sure, no problem, but take a baby outside without a hat and – god forbid! I’ve never seen such a fuss [apparently babies are not flammable but, on the contrary, catch cold easily even in 90 degree heat]).  After the fireworks there was one more round of It’s Time for Africa, and then somebody started to DJ, and apparently the soccer field turned into an open air disco. The night call to prayer – sung live by the students from the university’s religious faculty – was drowned out by Pitbull rapping about partying in Miami. Little girls in flounced white dresses and embroidered vests flooded the street below our apartment building and flocked around the little stores with their proud parents, club of ice cream in their hands, as somebody blasted Daft Punk and then Rhianna over the university sound system.

The top administrators at the university – reflective of the current trend in Turkey’s ruling party – are all male, upper-middle aged, and have covered (headscarved) wives who walk around in shapeless button-down overcoats and have never had employment outside of the house. We’ve seen the faculty body grow more conservative over the years.  And yet somehow someone gave permission for students to flood the campus with songs about A$S. Comic.  

I remember being shocked the first time I boarded a marshrutka (before I learned better – the minibuses would be better termed “public saunas on speeding wheels of death”) when I was blasted with Like a G6 from a dusty speaker under a dangling decal asking protection from Allah.  After years of being inundated with pink bubble pop in China – where lyrics were all dripping romance and censored to not get past your socks – I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of girls in long dresses with pastel-colored hair clips listening to lyrics like “poppin bottles getting slizzered” on their way to university classes where they might giggle at the thought of flirting with a classmate, or schoolchildren dressed in mock-folk costumes tapping their toes to beats I hope my own daughter doesn’t understand for another two dozen years.  But here we are – in Central Asia, where things we hold so separately in the US often layer on top of each other.

It’s a bit like when I returned to the US and people would ask me, “How was China?”, like I could just neatly summarize an entire country and all its people into a pat little response that would fit neatly inside a midwest framework.  “Big” I’d inevitably say.