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Monday, October 20, 2008

Simple pleasures and random acts of kindness...

When we have down time here in Ust-Kamenogorsk, we spend quite a bit of time walking around the city. We're convinced the exercise is the only thing that keeps us from being crippled from the long hours we're spending in the car but we also just like seeing the sights. The pace of life is very different here and we're savoring the chance to slow down a bit and smell the roses...well, actually it would asters and mums this time of year but you get my point. Each day, we wander out in search of something for our dinner or some small gift to bring to the boys and we always come back with more than we bargained for, both literally and figuratively. Let me tell you about some of our simple pleasures:

Anyone who knows me is aware that my dear husband brings me coffee in bed each morning at home...and not just any coffee but a huge latte that's brimming with foamed milk. Since our expresso machine is a bit bulky to bring on our trip, we content ourselves with an occasional expresso treat in the local restaurants. We've searched out the best places for lattes and cappuccino and I have to say, what arrives at the table is not only delicious but also a work of art. The foam is swirled into a pattern, most often a heart design, and tiny sugar cubes are arranged on the saucer. When our kids are with us, they beg for the sugar cubes as their own little treat...we miss you guys..
In KZ, we drink Russian tea. We start each morning here with a cup (or several) of very hot tea; Craig favors his strong and with sugar and fresh lemon slices. This is his new favorite drink which requires us to shop for lemons regularly in the open markets.
Peeva (AKA beer) is another treat for Craig. He likes trying different kinds of local brews, especially dark beers. I like trying wines from this part of the world; the other night, we sampled Moldovan red wine with our dinner.

We have our favorite restaurants here but because of our schedule, we get back to Ust too late to eat dinner out. We've been buying our main dishes as takeout on our walks in the morning and then warming them in the microwave when we get back to the apartment in the evening. So far, we've had roast chicken, several different chicken dishes that have veggies and potatoes, and the best stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls we've had in years.
Since we got back from Ridder early on Sunday, we took the opportunity to cook our dinner ourselves. We were hungry for scalloped potatoes, something that we knew we could gather the ingredients for in the markets here. We sliced red potatoes and onion and grated cheese (it was a nice herb and pepper cheese, no clue what kind of cheese it really is but we liked it)...but we didn't have milk. We decided instead to use some of dried cheese powder like we use at home to make macaroni and cheese. (Did I mention that Craig's brother is a food scientist who makes this kind of stuff for a living? Dale actually formulated some cheese powder with powdered milk to bring to our friends here so that they could try American mac and cheese.) We sliced and diced, put it all in a casserole dish and baked it for about 45 minutes. The result was delicious and served as our main dish. We accompanied it with typical Russian salad of cukes, tomatoes, and shredded cabbage dressed with olive oil and a pinch of salt. For protein, we had hard-boiled eggs. It was a simple meal but we enjoyed everything about it...the shopping, the preparation, and certainly the eating!

Foods that we like better here than at home:
Juice—there's a greater variety and it's not nearly as sweet, the apple juice is more like fresh cider at home.
Bread—with no preservatives, it goes stale faster but it's the real deal, fresh baked bread with a nice crust just like Granny used to make. You can get dark bread or white, small loaves or large ones. No Wonder Bread here.
Carrot salad!!!
Yogurt—it's very creamy and the fruit selections are varied and delicious; I like the pear and apple yogurt best.

We like strolling through all different kinds of markets here, both the enclosed ones which have permanent stores and the open air markets which are more like our flea markets in the US. The open markets are where you get the best deals, bargaining for everything from fur coats to pots and pans to shoes; even bras and underwear can be found (though I'd never attempt to buy these; the sizing is totally different in this part of the world so it's tough to gauge the fit of such personal items!) This trip, we've also seen many more large stores than in the past. There's a beautiful new bookstore and toy store where we have found things for the boys; we enjoyed browsing yesterday and selected 2 more building sets to take to Aniyar and Madiyar. The girl who worked in the store figured out pretty quickly that we were Americans and she was very kind about communicating with me in Russian. When we paid for our purchases, she shyly said “Thank you!”; it was clear that she wanted to show us that she knew some English. (This happens to us often here, particularly with younger people who are now required to study English in school 2 hours a week as well as Kazakh 5 hours a week.) In fact, one of our favorite parts of shopping is meeting the people. I do my best to conduct our transactions in Russian and usually it goes pretty well but it's obvious to everyone that we're foreigners. Most of the time, people are very kind and go out of their way to help us. For example, we bought some produce in the green market the other day and the girl in the stall asked if we were from America. We said yes and she smiled, then told us that her sister lives in New York. We continued to chat and I found out that her sister lives in Brooklyn and told her we live near Boston; when we left, she was smiling and so were we. The next day, we went to her stall again to buy more produce and she greeted us warmly in spite of the fact that we only bought a cucumber and a lemon. We chatted a bit more in Russian and English and again left feeling like we'd visited with a friend. Yesterday, we returned again to buy tomatoes and I also selected a red pepper. She refused to weigh the pepper, telling me that it was a padarak, a gift. Then she told me to wait, that she also had some nice pears; she gave me two and wouldn't let us pay for them. It's this type of kindness that makes us feel so comfortable here...yes, she knows we're regulars now and she likes having our business...but I think she also likes practicing her English when we stop by. We experience the warmth of the people of Kazakhstan often and in turn, it warms us even though we're very far from home.

The landscape and all that's a part of it
The beautiful birch trees
The mountains shrouded in mist and capped with snow
The villages and scenes of daily life on the road to Ridder
Different birds, plants, and flowers...and even the animals (cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens) that roam across our path at times in the villages we drive through
The people who live here...we love that many of them are willing to teach us about their country, their culture, their language and their lives. There's much change afoot in Kazakhstan as the country develops...but that's the subject of another post!

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