Can you call a place home if you’ve never been there before? Does it truly belong to you when you can’t see it in your mind’s eye?
We switched flats while I was away in Ankara – same apartment complex, same layout (but that it was mirrored) as the flat we lived in two years ago. But I’d never seen it – when I imagined being back in Bishkek I kept thinking of our old flat, the one now occupied by someone else – making cappuccinos in our broad kitchen with the tiny counterspace, overlooking the parking lot and dismal Soviet west end of the city; exercising in the office/gym from where I could watch the pink dawn breaking over the city stretching east to the mountains at the end of the Kazak steppe; watching movies with Erdem on the couch that looked like it had been pulled from my (twenty years deceased) grandmother’s basement.
But home I am, in a new flat, in a city that seems to have little changed in the six months I’ve been gone, except in ways continuous and predictable. There are more land rovers in the parking lot – their price (as with all car prices) has dropped exponentially in the past few years. The roads are still dusty and the sidewalks still broken, still framed by boys selling buckets of fresh strawberries from the back of station wagons and single-room shops offering beer on tap and salty snacks. The grocery store is still inordinately expensive and nothing looks tasty (coming back from Turkey and from eating intense green salads and fresh food for six months I’ve realized that food in Kyrgyzstan tends not to have sharp or distinct tastes – everything is along the lines of hamburger helper in terms of presence on the tongue. Again – eating healthy the way I want to eat will be a huge challenge, because so many things simply don’t exist (or require running all over the city to find and/or are sold at inflated prices – a shock after the beautiful, bountiful bazaars of Turkey). But that’s an old problem. Bishkek is like an old sweater that doesn’t fit quite right and is sorta the wrong cut and color but is still familiar and oddly comforting.
We originally planned to leave Ankara August 6 – and that changed after last Friday’s attempted coup. While I could get out without hassle, our daughter has dual citizenship and as soon as news started coming out of certain passport holders (just government employees for now) being banned from international travel (to prevent “coup conspirators” from fleeing the country) my husband began to worry and asked us to leave as soon as possible. So I changed our tickets to this past Sunday and spent a whirlwind, exhausting week taking her to the doctor for checkup and shots, getting my contacts renewed, packing, more packing, taking my Turkish exam, and getting our daughter’s first visa (does a one-month old really need a “Business visa”?!?). Flying with an infant was actually oddly easier than I expected. She fussed a bit in the airport, then stared with wide-eyed intent at everything on the first flight before falling soundly asleep until halfway through the second flight, waking up only to nurse or a few minutes in a handicap restroom in the Istanbul airport (already missing Ankara’s mandatory “nursing rooms” at every mall and clinic).
Then, as if to shred all notions of sanguinity, she screamed on and off for an entire two hours of the second flight. I suddenly realized how unjustly resentful I have been of parents of infants on previous lights. Toddlers – no. By the time a kid is two you’ve had enough time to shape their character and influence their notions of appropriate and inappropriate public behavior. Plus they can talk, so you can 1) understand what they want and 2) reason with them. But with an infant – sometimes they just wake up in a new place with strange smells and they are stressed out. And they can’t breastfeed comfortably (I did wrap a blanket around me and feed her a bit, which worked in terms of discretion as I was sitting in the corner seat of the first row) and they can’t be picked up and bounced around or stretch their limps or have a moment of quiet. So I spent the entire two hours laying her stomach on my quads and bouncing her, putting her in the sling and using my arms to bounce her up and down while in my seat, trying to breastfeed her, trying to calm her down by laying her on my chest and leaning back – and eventually she fell asleep from exhaustion. But – sympathy for all other newborn parents, especially those on cross-continental flights.
But, people were generally helpful and understanding and I got to cut all the lines at the airport/use the diplomatic channels and it’s super easy to navigate an airport when you can stow all your carry-ons on the baby buggy instead of having to lug them around.
So, back in Bishkek – at 2 am, with a tired husband and a flat I’d never seen before. We all fell into a deep sleep, and then I woke up at 8:30 and re-organized the entire flat. We moved from a 2 bedroom flat to a one bedroom and expect to move to university housing in September so my husband hadn’t really unpacked most of our stuff. Months after he moved there were still boxes everywhere. So I consolidated, shifted, thew out the chaff, made space for the baby and myself, put away all our clothes, and established domain over my desk by the window. I believe I did a pregnancy’s worth of nesting in one day.
There was stuff in the boxes we haven’t used in years, but have just shifted from one house to the next: E’s photocopied Russian exercises; a pair of bleach-stained purple jeans I bought in university and carried through four cities in China (where I wore them maybe 5 times); back to the US (wore them maybe once); and through three flats in Central Asia (never worn them). I emptied one of the giant boxes and just piled it with papers and stuff. And by the time I was done, the house felt like a home – fresh sheets on the bed and space to move around. Unfortunately I had also placed a box of books, notebooks and journals next to the entrance to sort through before tossing/giving away some of it – and E took that out with the trash too. But I somehow feel lighter without it – if I haven’t opened it for years, and I can’t even name the contents anymore, do I really need it? Or was it just weight to be cast of before starting our new life as a new family?