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.


Chinese in my ears

I fretted about forgetting Chinese.  Every time I ran into the ebullient Chinese teacher from the Confucius Institute who lives on the fourth floor I would stammer and spin through Chinese sentences ending in Turkish and Russian in my head.  I lived in China for over four years.  I spoke Chinese so well many people mistook me for a native [minority]. One year when feverishly sick my flatmate even informed me that I spoke Chinese while sleeping.

But I haven’t lived in Chinese since 2013 – almost four years past.  I started to wonder – fear – that I’d forgotten it.  So after visiting the US and deciding on grad schools (as the program I enter would, to some extent, determine the languages I need to speak), I determined to spend two hours a week on Chinese.  I sought out the Chinese teacher and arranged to visit her during office hours twice a week. (Bring your baby! she exclaimed. She’s so cute and guai [demure, well-behaved – she’s only ever seen her strapped in the baby carrier, and not wrecking havoc on our living room floor].  She can sit there while we practice [and rip up papers and eat the stapler]). I went through all the free material on half a dozen Chinese reading apps (do I really want to pay $14 a month when there’s a whole internet?).  I pulled out my old HSK 6 practice book before realizing that, unless I actually planned to take the HSK, the stiff language of test prep would serve me very little of practical use. And then I turned to Chinese TV.

I don’t watch TV except for the annual bout of Game of Thrones.  I didn’t watch TV when I was in China, though TVs everywhere were always on (perhaps that’s why I didn’t watch it).  However, back when I was in Beijing (and back in the days when we actually bought DVDs) I once bought a box set of a TV series and watched all 60 episodes, pausing the screen every time I saw a word or phrase I didn’t understand, looking it up in the dictionary, and carefully scribing it into my Chinese notebook.  It was a great way to pick up natural language in use, and fill in some of the gaps in my vocabulary of the everyday. Unfortunately, being out of the ‘Chinese loop’, the first twos series I chose to watch (based off of recommendation lists online, some of which are hilariously bad, and what’s actually available on Youtube), were terrible, soppy things (see here).  I can stand about ten minutes (sometimes fifteen!) before my brain starts smoldering and revolting against the plot inconsistencies, poorly drawn characters, and the way idiotic is portrayed as cute in girls and overtly critical and lovingly concerned in mothers.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten my Chinese.  I go to sleep with phrases from the TV shows reverberating in my brain, I hear their voices as little mental responses to a hundred different things during my morning.  I should have chosen better TV shows (any suggestions? Or should I just attempt news talk shows?), as the wide eyed girls from the shows squeak and squeal like cute little hamsters with crimped hair. It seems my Chinese was just latent, waiting just for a little electric prod.  My speaking still isn’t as fluid as before – my brain fumbles around words I know I know but can’t call up to the tip of my tongue.  But certainly, certainly I haven’t forgotten it. And gurgling up with the language comes all the memories – of old friends, of places once explored, of that sense of boundless possibility, along with all the things I really resented about popular Chinese culture.  I think next I’ll write a comparison of social-state themes in Chinese and Turkish TV series, as there’s certainly a lot both attempt to tell the viewer in instructing them in social norms.

Morning Shadows

I can’t remember the last sunny morning my daughter woke up after 7. This morning she was up at 6 and insistent on not going back to sleep. The sun billowed through our curtains and after making a quick cup of coffee we head outside for an early morning trek across campus. Last Friday we saw a few people out; today we were the only ones. It’s always surprising how empty a campus of 5,000 students (including 1200 residing in the dorms) and hundreds of staff (with about half living in the staff apartments) can be. Occasionally there’s a thin old man out jogging in black running shorts and a black hat. A stouter man shuffles along the sidewalk in a perfectly pressed lion red Kyrgyzstan-Olympics 2014 track suit. But this morning were were alone. Even the security guards seemed to be sleeping in.

As the sun grows hotter, I actually don’t mind my daughter waking up earlier.  By the end of this week temps will be pushing 90.  At mid day the sun beats down on us through the thin mountain air, and we relish our north-facing apartment.  In twenty years the university’s fledgling orchards will fill in and actually provide some respite from the hot, blanched sky.  For now the only shade is in the tea garden behind our building where we sometimes spend lazy afternoon hours.  But soon even afternoon will be hot and still.

I wish I could shape my daughter’s summer sleeping hours to match the sun’s relentless march across the sky, to let us enjoy the relative cool and softer palette of dawn and dusk.  If only I could get her to wake at 6, and then go down for one long nap from 11-3:30 or 4, during the stifling heat of mid-day, and then sleep again after 9, allowing us to stroll in that golden hour after work and then sit outside after the sun begins its lazy slide behind electric pink clouds. As it is now she wakes at 6 or 7, naps after two hours or so for an hour and a half or more, then takes her afternoon nap…sometime (it’s been a little random of late), and then sleeps around 7:30 or 8, at that hour of dusk when the light is at its most beautiful.  As I’m most productive and a natural early riser anyway I almost envy one of the other mothers in our mom-baby swimming class whose own daughter sleeps from 11-11.

Carnal Memories, and the worst candy I’ve ever eaten

The worst candy I ever ate was in rural Yunnan. It tasted like toilet bowl cleaner, or at least how I imagine toilet bowl cleaner would taste from the chemical smell. After hacking out two halves of hard ‘green tea’ flavor sugar I dug out another piece and found Hallie correcting homework assignments on the couch. “Try this” I said with extended hand. Hallie went around with bags of candy all week, crunching through them as she worked. She extended her hand and unwrapped the candy without taking her eyes up from the papers. She chewed, swallowed, then looked up at me pucker-mouthed. “What was that?! That was disgusting!”.
Hallie and I had a running competition which she would never admit. She was the good Christian choir girl who did drama and went to Dartmouth and somehow was on all the committees without doing any of the work – though her voice was always present in the planning. The year after I left she would go on to be our regional teaching fellow coordinator, then for years after that she would work at a mediocre educational consulting company somewhere on China’s eastern seaboard, a disappointment, though one she never saw.
In Yunnan we were always hungry. It rained and we were beset with a deep, wet winter cold that reached to our bones. We stroked our stomach furnaces with carbs. The skies were cloudy for days – weeks – on end. We watched for breaks in the clouds to run home and hop in a mildly warm shower before our solar-heated water tank chilled once again. Despite living directly across the street from the village power grid, our electricity was constantly out on the second floor, our space heaters moved dangerously close to the couches in the marble-floored downstairs, where we suffocated ourselves in polyester comforters for warmth. Every three days – or five – there was the village bazaar in the dusty space right below our apartment. Usually there was chicken breast; we always bought fresh eggs. But without a refrigerator, and with year round temperatures hovering in the forties to sixties, we couldn’t buy more than a day’s worth of meat to cook on our single electric hot plate. Eggs with rice noodles, eggs with tomatoes, eggs with pears and oats. In the school cafeteria they served up heaping bowls of hot rice noodles with little scoops of picked cabbage and minced meat. I always loaded mine with the cabbage, hot peppers, and ground green Sichuanese peppercorn, as spice is another way to keep the body warm. At the beginning of the year neither of us could finish a bowl of noodles; as winter settled in we were hungry two hours later, snacking on minced meat and salty mung bean moon cakes in our office above the school hall.
Lunch was more noodles, or large bowls of rice with three of four small helpings of vegetables and meat. Mostly it was vegetables, meant to flavor the rice more than provide sustenance.
I packed on ten pounds – insulation. Hallie grew an inner tube around her waist. But still we were hungry. Sweets and dry cookies and ice cream with plastic chocolatey skins and rice rolls and thick flat rice noodles and sticky rice balls we could always find, along with seaweed and tofu and sausages brushed with oil from a stained cococola bottle and grilled nightly by the young and cheerfully obese woman who ran the rice noodle under our apartment restaurant.
On market days we gorged on chicken breast; in retrospect I should have eaten more eggs and beans – despite the bother of soaking beans and boiling them for hours on a hot plate shared with four impatient housemates.
At Teach for China fellow dinners and official lunches and village celebrations – anytime there was free fresh food – we gorged ourselves on meat: chicken and fish and pork, but especially red meat, as if we were bulking up our iron supplies for the meat-free days to come, nervous we’d never see meat again.

The second-worst piece of candy I ever ate was at the wedding of Daniyar and Malika, at the former’s family home in Ozgen. We woke up at the pink fringes of a summer dawn, got out of the house by 6, and bought a few bottles of water for the ride before waiting – and waiting, and waiting – for a local female friend to get ready. She hopped in the car blurry eyed and we started off on the ride south. Somehow my husband didn’t realize or remember that there is almost no food to be found on the entire winding north-south road. We stopped after cresting the mountains at the gas station where the road forks straight to Talas or through thick forests to the Ferghana Valley, held our breath as we used to outhouse, and bought some cherry candies and mint flavored Russian tea cookies. An hour later, as we rounded the bend from high meadow into pine forests, where women by the roadside sell honey redolent with the scent of alpine flowers, we stopped at a restaurant built like a Swiss lodge. My husband thought he had stopped here  once before for a tasty lunch. We ordered kurdak and laghman and a Nescafé that never came. The kurdak was grisly and tasted old; the laghman noodles were soft and slimy in a sauce of oil and overcooked vegetables. We set down our forks and headed down the road, past the actual restaurant my husband had visited on his trip past, and where we stopped on our way back to have fresh grilled fish on a dais hanging over a stream.
By six pm we arrived at Daniyar’s family compound, a series of low houses – parents and cousins and aunts and uncles’ residences – connected through their courtyards. We were ushered in and sat down around low wooden tables on a raised platform. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another two hours, but we were proffered tea and fizzy dairy drinks and stacks of hard glossy tandoor bread and the ubiquitous plates of gloriously wrapped Russian candy I’ve seen at every wedding in Kyrgyzstan since. We dug into the candy. Our local friend divulged truffle and wafer and cookie alike of their wrappers. I bit into one – and silently crumbled the other half in its wrapping before sliding it under its napkin and softening some bread in my bowl of tea. Dinner could wait.

Yesterday we headed to Daniyar and Malika’s country house for a May 1st barbecue picnic. Again they offered candy. The first piece I ate actually wasn’t awful, – sweet but not sickly, a bit of a crunch instead of that disconcertingly buoyant chocolate shell – and so I tried another. Again I slid it into my napkin.
Later, during dinner, I realized I still eat meat like I’m stocking the winter larder. Full after the first plate of shashlik, I ate on, until my stomach was hard and extended like I was four months pregnant and we avowed we would never eat meat again. This wasn’t entirely my fault: every time my plate was near empty (except for the chunks of charred juicy fat I kept pushing to the side), I’d find another kebab being slid off the skewer and the happily-offended protests of good hosts at my protests against more meat. But still – I’ve realized that my China habits never went away: the tendency to snack on high-starch carbs (instead of sensible things like almonds or a hard-boiled egg) especially when out from home; the desperation with which I face a plate of meat when eating away from my own table. I shed far over ten pounds within a month after departing Yunnan, but the memory of perpetual cold, that fear of not having, still lives on in my gut.

Dreams of Summer

My husband sill wants to go back to Turkey to see his family and have a vacation this summer.  I’m…not sure.

We planned, after our daughter was born, to go back every 3-6 months for pediatrician check-ups and seeing his family, as well as for our annual summer vacation.  The trip is relatively short – a five-hour flight followed by a 45 minute flight.  With check-ins and transfers it makes for a long day (but doesn’t flying anywhere these days, with the long lines and security delays?), but we’re far closer than we will be for the following 5+ years, after we move to the States.

But do we go to Turkey this summer?

I’d love to go.  Turkey is a stunningly beautiful country and the dripping golden sun along the coast, fresh fish eaten by the shore of the epic blue sea, exhausting our limbs swimming and then exploring town or heading off to dinner with our hair still crisp with sea salt,  leather sandals and ancient cobblestones, driving down the sweeping coast to have calamari by a boat house or seek ruins among the pines, feeding slivers of moist white cheese to ferocious kittens that prowl beneath outdoor tables, stopping in a village bazaar to buy figs bursting with the heat of the fields and green olives so briny they pucker your mouth, a beer and long conversation as the sun settles softly over the blueviolet horizon – is to me the definition of vacation. We should also see his family (we haven’t in a year), and bring back the baby to let her be coddled and bounced and hugged and kissed and smothered with the ebullient affection of a Turkish family.

But can we? It’s definitely better if we save more money now, as my husband won’t be working for several months after we move to the states, we basically need to set up an entire new household once we arrive (pots, pans, dishes, bicycles, replacements for everything that’s gradually worn out over our years abroad or is too low-quality to bother shipping), and we’re thinking of buying a house within the next year. However, it’s also en route to the US, and we’re closer now than we will be later. Fiscal considerations aside, however, I still wonder whether we should, if we have anything to worry about.

Living abroad it’s impossible to read the news and understand what the situation is like on the ground for people actually in the country.  I understand that Turkey’s meta political situation is currently not going in a positive direction.  I understand that, for people living in working in Turkey, the arena of free speech, of free movement, is becoming gradually constricted.  Especially after the [moderate, non-partisan] think tank I was working for last year was seized and shut down in the post coup-attempt sweep, I wouldn’t want either of us to be working in Turkey right now, as we would always have to be careful, always face that insecurity of the government just sweeping in and seizing companies or making it impossible for non partisan-supporters to do business or firing contracted state employees.  But we won’t live there, at least not for the present, so we wont necessarily face the concerns of daily life.

My husband’s family believes everything is fine (really?!? we watched the coup night bombing from my in-laws panoramic living room windows). What I saw when I was there was that change (social, political in the everyday) was not swift, but a gradual chipping away, a gradual constriction of old patterns: a few more police on the corners, a new tension in the air whenever we passed a demonstration downtown, a chill on the streets after each incident, a new worry at work or new words making their way into everyday conversation.  Over time the change is monumental, but from day to day, buried other a thousand other mundane things, inconsequential.

So – potentially volatile political situation, potentially few changes along the Mediterranean coast, impossible to predict what steps the party in power will take before the constitutional changes of the recent referendum come into being in 2019, especially considering the push-back they’ve received both from in-country opposition parties and the larger international community.  Maybe they’ll be slow and kind and cautious.  Maybe Turkish passport holders would have trouble getting out of the country.

Adieu, Sweeping Summer Eves on the Meditterranean

The Daily Sabah has been busy the past few days attempting to convince the international community that Turkey just held a legitimate referendum, that the country isn’t ideologically split, that democracy is still strong and healthy…and that the left party (HDP) is actually the polĵitical half of a terrorist group (the PKK) and joining into alliance with the centrist party (the CHP) still improbably holding on to the country’s last shreds of political dignity in this theater of farce. Turkey as we know it – as we hoped to know it – is gone. With hope I would add “at least until the tide changes” or, “unless opposition parties sweep through the 2019 elections and oust the AKP from power”.  But we both know that’s improbable – the party is entrenched, now controls every level in the political system, and no longer is so careful about making claims it would have cringed from in the past. As soon as the president declared victory (never mind a contested victory, with players and spectators from all sides calling ‘foul!’) he began talking about reinstating the death penalty.  Couple this with his hold over the court and the recent allegations that the opposition is arm-in-arm with terrorist groups, and it’s not hard to see that theres not much chance of a change in the balance of political powers.  So our summers in Turkey – may be at an end, at least for the forseable future.

The end of a season

Last night I stepped out onto the balcony with my daughter before tucking her in to bed (a nightly ritual) expecting a brace of cold air.  Instead I was greeted by a warm – almost balmy! – breeze. Today we took a walk in Ataturk park and I noticed the red dogwood brilliant against the mud.  Spring has come.

It’s been such a strange season, this winter.  Our first snow(s) came in October, which Tutos found magical, humming every time I put her in the baby carrier (she hums when she’s content; today she hummed at steamed broccoli).  We bundled up and prepared for a long, hard winter full of the Siberian frost that last bit in 2012. And then the snow melted.  And then it snowed again.  And melted. And snowed. And melted. And snowed.  We saw green grass at least once a fortnight all winter, and altered between going outside in a sweater to bask in the sun, and bundling up in every item of clothing we own. And now, the winter we so long expected, and always seemed to be on the cusp of arriving, is over.  Odd that.

I also am not sure what I’ve done this winter.  Several times these past few weeks I’ve been visited by that vague sensation of dissatisfaction, that my time is going by, but I haven’t really applied it to anything.  In fall I applied for graduate programs.  And then I waited, and I got in and  we planned a trip to visit them all.  But apart from that I feel like my time has been spent a little bit aimlessly, or less directed and less productive than it could have been. Perhaps I should have taken my husband’s advice and rested when I could, when our daughter is napping or the babysitter is here her 8 hours a week as, even with so little accomplished, I also don’t feel rested.

The problem seems to be that I’ve spread myself over so many small tasks – trip planning, teaching a few classes here and there, the odd editing job, studying languages (Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Uyghur), pursuing a few part-time jobs I could carry with me through the next few years – that I haven’t concentrated on one thing, and in turning my attention to many, haven’t done a single one truly well. The season has passed, and I look back and can’t see one single trajectory, one project I’ve worked on (besides raising a child), one thing I’ve done well or built a knowledge base on or developed my skills in. This is definitely something I want to change – I crave focus, focusing my attention on one thing (or several; as a former/future academic I tend to have multiple projects going at once).  It’s hard to make even medium-term plans now, as the immediate future is full of unpredictables.  March 11-April 3 I’ll be back in the states visiting grad programs I was accepted to.  Then we’re back in Bishkek for…several months? Until my husband completes projects at work, his green card arrives, and he secures a job near the school/community we’ve chosen? Or will we spend some of the summer in Turkey finally bringing our daughter to visit family before we move across the Atlantic (provided Turkey is relatively more stable by that time)? I don’t even know if we’ll move in April (unlikely) or August (slightly more likely?).

But what can I do in the short-term, in the spare hours (or more often, minutes…) in the 15 days between now and when we travel March 11? Honestly, I would probably spend my time best extensively researching the schools and arriving on site with a pack of smart questions in hand – the ones I (later) wished I’d asked when I did visit weekends at Chicago and Berkeley four years back. Perhaps if I focus on that, make a really smart choice for us, I will come back with a much better sense of our timeframe and what I should focus on in that period.  Sometimes it’s hard to make choices until we’ve settled on the preliminaries.

In the meantime, it looks like another winter storm is on it’s way.  Winter isn’t over. And I still have time before deciding that I’ve squandered the season.

Can-Do Recipes: Golden Milk Cauli Proats

A few weeks ago I decided to do the Whole30, in great part to finally discover whether or not (and to what extent) I actually am allergic to dairy and wheat.  I’m back to my pre-pregnancy size (i.e. not a single pair of pants in my closet is tight – I actually have no idea what I weigh, as I haven’t stepped on a scale since 6 weeks postpartum),  I generally eat pretty healthy anyway – our weekly groceries are 90% whole foods and zero processed items with unpronounceable ingredients (unless you count my inability to pronounce ingredient names in Russian), and all the digestive issues I developed in China gradually dissipated once I started eating lean-clean-green.  But after hearing about the program here and there I googled it and decided that 1) it couldn’t hurt, 2) if I did it I would finally figure out whether I’m allergic to wheat, dairy, peanuts, soy and anything else, 3) it might help clear up my skin, and 4) it would be good to finally not eat any wheat for a month, as I keep saying that I’m not going to have bread/pasta/wheat, etc…for a week/month etc… and then realizing I’ve just eaten bread on the second day.

So, Whole30: as the name suggests, the basic premise of the program is that one eats only (and they mean only) whole foods for thirty days, with a complete ban on sugars, grains, dairy, legumes (including soy) and peanuts based on the idea that these foods often irritate people’s digestive systems, and it takes about 30 days to clear everything out of your system.  For a more complete summary, see The Kitchn‘s post. Most people go through the program eating plenty of meat, fresh produce, and lots and lots of eggs, avocados, and sweet potatoes.  We have scant supply of the last two in Bishkek. I realized about two days in that this would be rather difficult and would require conscious eating, plus a few (fun!) modified recipes.  One you’ll find below.


For anyone who has done the Whole30 (and lives in a country without much fresh produce in winter, or any avocados that don’t look like glossy lumps of coal) you’ll know that, most mornings, breakfast options are eggs, eggs or eggs (or some strange sausage-spinach combination with more cholesterol than I care to count, or something with shredded coconut, nuts, and dried fruit that really seems more like a hippie candy bar than actual fuel. So today, wanting something hot and warm, I did a twist on cauli proats (cauliflower protein oats): golden (non-milk) cashew cauli proats sweetened with banana. It was soft and satisfying and rich and warm, an actual porridge that I might actually make again after the whole 30 (though I might add a tad of honey and a tablespoon of oats).

– 1 1/2c water
– 1 TBS raw cashews
– ½ TBS chia seeds (can be omitted)
– ½ head cauliflower, grated (cauliflower rice)
– 1-3 egg whites
– Golden milk spices (turmeric, cinnamon, ginger…)
– Salt to taste
– OPTIONAL: if you want it sweeter/creamier, top with coconut milk/cream, add in coconut flakes, add in chopped dates, dried apricots or raisins (I didn’t, but you could)

– Stir cashews, chia, and spices into the water
– While grating the cauliflower, bring the cashews and chia seeds to a simmer on the stove
– Add the cauliflower and chopped banana to the pot
– Stir in the egg white(s)
– Cook on low until tender (maybe this was 15 minutes? It doesn’t need close supervision, so you can go and get dressed or make coffee or do some stretching while your breakfast cooks)
– Top with dried fruit, sliced banana, or coconut milk

Feeding our Daughter

tutya-at-dinnerOur daughter is now eight months old.  As we started feeding her at 4 months, this means she now eats everything we put in front of her and still pines for more. For two months I was able to spoon feed her, and then one day she discovered that she could use her fingers to transport food to her mouth (!).  And after that, all innocence was lost (along with the prospect of an easy-t0-clean meal). Now, the only thing I can spoonfeed her are a few purees, like carrot.  Even oatmeal she refuses, and apparently yogurt is a finger food (or else she’s just a little ahead on the growth curve and already trying to apply her own facial masks).  As she will, eventually, have to feed herself anyway, we’ve adapted the way we feed her.  Little bits of everything go on her tray – some smashed peas, slices of steamed squash or carrots or sweet potatoes, roasted tofu (easy to clean!), tender flakes of chicken, banana-oatmeal baby ‘pancakes’ or homemade flax-oat-banana baby crackers.

Tutya sees the food on her tray and starts launching herself toward it, as if she’s swimming in air, in my arms.  I latch on the bucket bib and she’s already reaching out for everything on her tray, grabbing it and bringing it towards her magnetic mouth.  Much of it gets mushed or falls into her bib. But she enjoys herself, humming as she eats and looking up at us in bright-eyed amazement. When she wants more, she bangs her palms against the tray, delighted at the sound it makes.  By the end of the meal she’s a mess, and we take her into the bathroom to wash her hands and face… and hair.

[I know I haven’t been writing many blogs of late.  It is hard to find the time for a cultivated blog with a baby at home and so many things to do in the hours she sleeps.  Sometimes I feel I don’t have enough time to truly delve into and develop my thoughts enough for a post – or even to figure out my own opinions! Still, I want to write, and I do want to capture this place and our livesnow.  I’ve thus decided to post three times a week, anthology style, with a photo and text.  One post will be recipes, one our daughter/family, and one a certain place around the city.  Enjoy!]

The birthing of anxiety

Months after giving birth, when my husband again starts in the night because our baby has made a little noise in her sleep, I realize that there’s one aspect of medical care in Turkey that I distinctively do not like: the instilled anxiety.

My husband is not usually (was not previously) an anxious person.  He likes to do things well and won’t let certain things (like a odd noise coming from the car) slide.  But high-tension he is not.  Not, that is, until the night after our daughter was born.

She was born via [planned] cesarean at 8:46 am on a brilliantly sunny June day (just the day after my husband’s 34th birthday to be exact, on the auspicious date of 16/06/16).  It was hot in our 9th floor hospital room, with the unblocked sun baking the room overlooking rolling green hills on the city’s western side.  Our daughter fed at 11 am, and then mostly slept until dusk when the simmering city began to cool, refusing to be fully roused.  She fed again at 7pm, and later at 11.  Every few hours the doctors and nurses had been coming around to check our vitals, but at 10pm, as it was after hours in the maternity ward, we had to take her up to the intensive care unit on the 14th floor.  There they weighed our baby and, while I waited long minutes in the half-darkened hallway outside the swinging metal doors leading to that sanitized ward, told my sleep-deprived and shocked husband that, if our baby’s weight dropped any further (she’d gone from 3.1 KG at birth to 2.8, though one erroneous chart listed her birth weight at 3.3), she’d have to stay – days, weeks – in the ICU. My husband looked around at the blue-white premies attached to tubes in their tiny plastic crates and shuddered to think of our daughter so small and alone under those same fluorescent lights. As soon as we were back in our room he rushed out to the night pharmacy to purchase formula, a syringe and a bottle, and for the next two nights we tried (with laughably low success) to syringe 30ml of formula into our unwilling baby’s mouth every 3 hours.  It was only later (when I’d caught up on sleep and had time to read), that I found at that many doctors in the US now don’t encourage supplementing unless the baby hasn’t regained birth weight after 2 weeks – or even a month (!).  As I’d initially thought, it was just better to bring her back to the family’s cool and shaded flat, where neither excess sun nor heat would force her to sleep.

But it didn’t matter by this point.  For everywhere we turned there was anxiety in the Turkish hospital system. Was she too hot?  Was she too cold?  Would the dust from the street strangle her if we went on a thirty-minute walk? Would she have complications from jaundice?  How many times today did she eat?  When she was first born I attemted to write down every time she ate, slept and wet her diaper.  Drank for 3 minutes, from 2:14-2:17 am on the left breast? It went in the book. At one point I resigned myself to her having lifelong thyroid complications and we rushed back from our mini new-family vacation in nearby Safranbolu, skipping the relaxing day we had planned wandering the old town, to head to the local health clinic…and find out that a nurse at the hospital where she was born had just taken one blood sample a few days too close to birth. During our drive to Antalya a few weeks later (for a much, much-needed five day stay at an all-inclusive resort where all we did was sleep, eat, swim, lie on chaise-lounges and stroll around with the baby) we stopped every two hours on the dot to wake her up, feed and change her because we were still so nervous about her losing weight.  Poor baby. She probably just wanted to sleep. Experiencing an entire new world at once is exhausting, without anyone shaking you out of respite.

My anxiety gradually lowered.  Over the ensuing weeks and months I spent enough time around her to realize what she could handle, to differentiate cries of hunger pangs from fear or pain or just plain boredom or discomfort.  From our old apartment, situated right across the street from one of the local maternal hospitals, I also watched enough women carrying and taking care of their babies in ways that completely flew in the face of everything I had read to realize that, while we should still be careful, our baby probably wouldn’t break even if we didn’t follow everything every doctor and every child-rearing manual said to the letter. Instead of “doing this will immediately and undoubtedly bring instant and unalterable harm to your baby”, I realized that, for the majority of warnings leveled at new parents, the message was more likely “if you do this, there is a small chance that, for some babies, there may be non-optimal results ranging from slight discomfort to more serious reactions”.

However, my husband still viewed our baby as a most fragile thing, and – six months on -still starts at the smallest whimper. And no wonder – for all we were fed in the Turkish hospital system was fear.  From the 32nd week on we were worried that the baby would be born too early – that she’d already dropped into the birth canal, that she wouldn’t be able to turn around, that I didn’t have enough amniotic fluid, that I’d go into labor early.  My husband almost flew out to Ankara a month before he was due.  One night I stayed in the hospital just to be hooked up to an IV and pumped full of fluid again.  But I felt perfectly fine afterwards and continued walking everywhere up until 10 days before her original due date, when we went in for a checkup and were told I needed a cesarean immediately as she had dropped into the birth canal without turning and my amniotic fluid levels were down again. Could we have waited for a normal birth?  Would she have turned around during labor, as do half of babies in similar positions?  We’ll never know.

After she was born all we heard for weeks was nervous advice – look out for this, watch out for that, be sure to do this, that doesn’t look quite right.  I think sometimes we even doubted whether we’d given birth to a whole child. Looking back upon this – of course it makes sense (in a way).  People don’t go into Turkish hospitals as much for ‘soft’ checkups or little complaints.  The problems doctors see, and that doctors are accustomed to looking for, are usually severe.  What kind of babies does and ICU employee most often come in contact with? Not those who are discharged from the hospital within the first few days.

At our first visit to the [American] doctor in Bishkek even I faced her positive assessment with initial disbelief.  Surely there had to be something wrong. Jaundice – clearing up nicely.  Spots on the skin – a combination of sensitive new born skin and prickly rash from the Bishkek heat. Weight – exactly at he 50th percentile.  Teary eye – stuffed nose. Sleep patterns – pretty normal. Reflexes and neck strength – excellent. Strangely, there was nothing for me to worry about.

These past few months our daughter has fallen sound asleep at 7pm – only to wake slightly twenty minutes or two hours later when she rouses herself from that first cycle of sleep.  Sometimes she dozes off by the time I make it up the stairs, or if we pop a pacifier back in her mouth. Other times she wakes completely, giggles her ‘good morning’ laugh and thumps her legs against the bed in wakeful excitement.  The past few weeks I’ve been (slowly) working on my husband to use the 5-10-20 method – go in and see if she’ll go back to sleep easily, but if she doesn’t, calm her down and then wait 5 minutes before gong in again, then 10, then 20.  It’s usually during the 10 minute wait, when her chatter turns to cries, that he begins to break.  “It’s been long enough” he pleads after a mere 7 minutes.  “Can’t we go in now?”.  Wait, wait, I caution.  She needs to learn to fall back asleep on her own, and she’s perfectly fine.  We just went in, and she knows we’re here if she needs us. She wails again and my husband turns to me with wide eyes, voice rising to an anxious pitch, “She’ll never fall asleep like this!”.  Wait, wait, I tell him.  Two minutes later we hear nothing but the occasional murmur as she rolls back and forth a few times settling herself into sleep.  Five minutes pass.  “Shouldn’t you check on her to make sure she’s alright?”.  I tell him I’ll most likely just wake her if I go in before she hits deep sleep.  We wait a bit longer, and she sleeps long and deep through the night, until the grey morning light begins bringing hue to the sky at 7:45.