27 October 2013

Modern technology and staying in touch with family and friends.

The autumn seems to bring a spate of family birthdays – my children, mother in law, step mother, sister in law, niece, father and my sister all have birthdays falling between September and November.  In years gone by we were not able to call family for birthdays, we could not even be sure that a card would make its way to us.  Luckily three out of the four main family birthdays (my mother, father and my birthday) all fell in school holidays but my little sister’s falls squarely in term time. 

I remember the first year I spent away from her, alone at boarding school knowing she was in Nigeria with my family, celebrating a birthday but unable to get any message to her at all.  I had left a card with our parents at the end of the holidays but I felt very bad about not being able to be in contact. Consequently I was very excited, when she moved to a prep school in the UK.  My school allowed students in my year and above (age 13) to make telephone calls.  The other girls in my year, knowing I never made calls let me go ahead so I could ‘phone before my sisters bed time.  I remember getting through to her house-mistress and asking if I could wish my sister happy 9th birthday only to be told that only parents and grand parents were allowed to call.  I explained our family situation and that nobody but me would be calling but they would not allow us to speak.  I could hear my sister pleading on the other end of the phone, wanting desperately to speak with me, before the phone was put down.  Luckily I had been able to send a card but I remember that evening as one of the most upsetting of my school life. 

The intervening years saw a lot of changes – when I went to school our post would take 3 months – I would dutifully write a letter home each week knowing that I would get to Nigeria before the letters.  The letters I received and read were full of out of date news but still precious as a tangible link to my family.  When I was a little older my family moved from Nigeria to Turkey, our post was faster and the school gave us a special dispensation to use the fax machine meaning we could receive and send letters each week.  By the time I went to university I had an email account and could send weekly letters directly to my parents through my father’s work email.  My sister’s school had not yet enabled email but I was able to call and send mail through the UK post. 

It really did feel, particularly when my parents were in Nigeria, that they were completely out of touch and that I was on my own.  When I was 12 I flew to Ireland to spend a half term with my grandparents, due to a mix up no one turned up to meet the 'plane.  The airline called my grandparents but also, despite my pleading, called my father’s UK office.  When the message that I was stranded in Dublin got through to them my parents were understandably frantic, it took them some days to get a call through to my aunt and be reassured that I was ok. 

Even in the late 1990’s we had some problems with communications.  One Sunday morning at university I received a call from my sister - due to delays she missed a connection on her flight home to Venezuela and was being re-routed.   She had tried to call our parents to let them know but to no avail.  I called home with no luck, I tried the office but my father was not in.  I asked for his cell phone number (it was too expensive to call normally so I did not have it) but for security they would not give it to me.  I finally managed to speak to someone who agreed to get a message through to him, just in time as he was about to leave for the airport.  My last option would have been to call Caracas airport and ask for an announcement to be put over the tannoy but whether or not they would have agreed to do this I have no idea.  When my sister got home and they investigated the problems with the telephone it turned out the line had been severed by a joy shot.  You just can’t plan for such happenings. 

I think about all the challenges we used to have to deal with just to keep in touch I am very thankful that it is so different these days.  My children speak to their family every week on skype – just the other day they even put on a ‘gymnastics show’ on the webcam.  When we first came to Kazakhstan I had to travel back to the UK for two weeks each month but I could still read them a bedtime story.  We are always contactable and available - mobile costs may be high but are much more affordable than in the past.  Our UK contract ‘phones are always charged and can be used for family to contact us (at little cost to them) in an emergency and they also have our Kazakh mobile numbers.  

Facebook and email mean that grandparents, extended family and friends can see the most up to date family photographs, they are able to stay in touch effortlessly and there  is no time-lag, no delay in news. We can send flowers and gifts to our family at the touch of a button, the children may not get the opportunity to browse shop shelves for gifts but they can help choose something from the internet.  The internet even allows our children to show off their school work.  Post from Kazakhstan can take some time so I regularly photograph key pieces of work and share them with instant messengers such as 'whats app'.  

Even if our children go to boarding school modern legislation means that they will be able to take full advantage of all these means of communication.    What a wonderful world we live in these days!

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Ersatz Expat

19 October 2013

How to make home made icing/frosting.

My son’s birthday is in two days time (it is very hard to believe he is seven already), his party is tomorrow so I have been baking birthday cakes.  In the UK I would always use commercially bought frosting for the cakes – quick and simple - it may be a cheat but it makes life so much easier.

When I was a child I always enjoyed having big statement cakes for birthdays and large events.  My mother was a virtuoso - one year  in Norway she made me a castle (with turrets made from upside down ice-cream cones), another year she sent me in to school with a bunny and a chick cake for Easter.  My children used to ask for big statement cakes as well but these days they prefer cupcakes because it is easier for them to hand them out to their friends at school.  This makes my life much much easier as they are quick to bake and easy to ice. 

Here in Kazakhstan (as in many other places) commercial frosting is difficult to find, luckily it is really easy to make at home at home.  I tend to ice cakes with a butter-cream frosting, the basic recipe is a mix of butter and icing sugar on a 1:3 ration with some vanilla or almond extract depending on taste and slackened off a little bit of milk.  The basic recipe is very versatile – it can be tinted with food colouring or flavoured in a variety of different ways.   My particular favourite is green tea frosting (perfect on chocolate muffins) made by adding Matcha powder to the basic frosting.  It is also possible to use iced tea powders to vary the flavours – apple or lemon frostings work very well and a mulled wine flavour iced tea powder adds a great flavour to Christmas cup-cakes. 

Basic buttercream frosting is very versatile and easy to use.
Certain chocolate cakes just do not work without chocolate fudge icing.  The fail-safe recipe for this is to melt butter and caster sugar in a 1:1 ratio with a little bit of water.  Pour this over a mix of 2 parts icing sugar and ½ part cocoa powder and mix to a glossy finish.  For very dark, rich chocolate cakes or carrot cakes I prefer a cream cheese frosting.  Mix 1 part cream cheese to 1 part butter then add 2 parts icing sugar. 

Chocolate fudge frosting is tasty and luxurious.

Cream cheese frosting works well with chocolate cupcakes.
Chocolate fudge icing makes a decadent topping for vanilla cakes.
Lemon drizzle cakes have the easiest icing of all – icing sugar mixed with lemon juice and a small amount of zest to a very thin consistency and drizzled over the cake so that it is absorbed leaving a moist cake with a very thin, delicate sugary crust.  I use a similar mix to ice biscuits or Danish pastries – less liquid and more icing sugar makes for a thick, white writing icing. 

Basic writing icing is versatile and effective

Change the consistency by altering the amount of liquid.
The only type of icing I find very difficult to make at home is a fondant icing for Christmas cakes.  Proper fondant icing requires gelatine and corn syrup, both items can be quite difficult to source so I tend to cheat and bring some ready made from the UK or, alternatively I just turn the cake into a ‘Dundee Cake’ ie I decorate the top with concentric rings of almonds.  I am constantly in awe of the mother of one of my sons' friends who makes stunning cakes with fondant icing.  I have no idea where she gets the ingredients or the patience to do them.

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Ersatz Expat

16 October 2013

Harvesting Stones - a Book Review.

Following my recent review of Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt I was asked to review Paula Lucas’ autobiography, Harvesting Stones.  While both books write about the expatriate experience they could not be more different in terms of the atmosphere they evoke. 

Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt is a celebration of all that is best about life as an expat.  Harvesting Stones, by contrast, is a harrowing window into a living nightmare.  Paula’s story starts with her childhood in an ordinary (if complicated) Californian family and follows her move to the big city where she meets her future husband.  The book then goes through details of their courtship, marriage and move to Dubai.  The relationship deteriorates, becoming steadily more abusive until Paula is forced to escape to the United States with her children.

Paula’s memoir is both readable and compelling.  Like many women in similar situations Paula missed the red flags, seduced by a charming, manipulative, sophisticated, sadistic man.  From the moment Paula meets her future husband, the reader is left with a terrible sense of the inevitable.  His controlling nature (so obvious in retrospect) leaps off the page and the most disturbing aspect of the story is the fact that her husband’s family were complicit in the abuse of both Paula and her children, at the least through failing to act to protect them.
Paula’s story should act as a warning for all expatriates.  It shows how the protections we take for granted in our home countries can be impossible to access abroad and the support provided by Embassies can often be tied up in red tape and bureaucracy.  It also highlights how important expatriate support networks can be; those of us who live an expatriate life are responsible for and to our friends.  This lesson that I take from this book is that I need to be more aware of my friends and their children, to keep an eye out for them and be ready and willing to support them when they need it.  I am confident that they are all ok but I hope that we are type of people they can turn to should they ever need to.

Harvesting Stones is a story of true grit and determination – Paula does succeed in outwitting her husband and saving both her children and herself.  Not only that but she managed to found two charities, the Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Centre and the Sexual Assault Support & Help for Americans Abroad Program.  Paula is a brave and inspirational woman who has turned her traumatic experiences into a personal vocation; her story deserves to be heard.  

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Ersatz Expat

13 October 2013

Kurban Ait in Astana

We have a  half term holiday this week.  It is a fantastic opportunity for us to recharge our batteries and to spend some time with the children.  The week coincides with the Kurban Ait holiday which is the local name for Eid Al Adah or the Feast of Sacrifice, a major Islamic celebration. 

Kurban Ait commemorates the willingness of Abraham (and the acquiescence of Ishamel) to sacrifice Ishmael at the request of God.  Before the sacrifice could be completed God provided  a lamb in place of Ishmael.    (This differs from the Christian tradition which states that Abraham was called on to sacrifice his younger son, his legal heir, Ishmael’s half brother Isaac).  Eid al Adah (Kurban Bayrami) was also a major celebration in Turkey – most of our friends would travel back to their families to enjoy the long break, everyone was on the move meaning we would stay at home, away from the horribly busy roads and airports. 

The tradition of Eid al Adah calls for people to dress in their best clothes and join in Eid Prayers  in a large congregation.  Families who can afford it will either sacrifice an animal which will be divided between family, neighbours and the poor or will pay into a communal sacrifice.  Here in Astana the city authorities specify the places where slaughter is permitted – they have to meet strict sanitary and epidemiological standards.  From there the mosques co-ordinate the distribution of meat to the needy.  Families spend the holiday together, enjoying special food and exchanging gifts.  Slaughter is not permitted in back yards, gardens or out on the streets but, I suspect out in the villages, as in Turkey, this still goes on.  I did notice a documentary on the television the other day on how to slaughter your sheep (I switched over very quickly).

Kurban Ait is a popular family holiday celebrated by most of our neighbours.  Over the next few days everyone we meet will be carrying bags full of food to prepare for the big celebratory meals.  They are always happy to include us in their celebrations in one way or another, exchanging greetings or asking us to come in for a few minutes.  It is not uncommon for our children to be given sweets or boursak (savoury doughnuts) by neighbours who meet them in the lift or courtyard.  Last year my husband and I had popped down to the building’s little convenience store to pick up a few essentials.  While we were there we got talking to an elderly lady we had not met before.  She had not realised that any foreigners lived in the building and was very interested to find out more about us.  We were talking for some time when she invited us to come up to her house for a meal; she wanted to know where we were from and what we thought about life in Kazakhstan. 

The afternoon became one that I will remember with particular warmth.  We helped her carry her shopping up to her apartment and as soon as we arrived we were sat down with a cup of tea.  She spoke to us in a mix of Russian and Kazakh that taxed our understanding, telling us about her pride in her children and their achievements.  Sadly her children lived in another city so she was on her own a lot although they were coming to get her for the holiday.  She had also, she told us, survived two heart attacks and a stroke.  All the while she was pottering around her kitchen getting a spread of fruit, fish, meat, biscuits and sweets, when the food was ready she gave a blessing before serving the meal.  We were travellers, she said, and on such days, travellers were both blessed and welcome.  We stayed and talked to her for some time, making sure that we ate at least a little of everything on the table, enjoying her company and trying our best to communicate and understand each other.  I truly wish I had been more competent with the language to be able to understand more of the detail of what she was saying and to be able to communicate our enjoyment of our time with her.  Nevertheless it was one of those situations where you realise how much you can communicate when both parties are willing.  When we left she pressed packets of sweets into our hands for our children. 

I have seen her around the building a few times since then and we always wave at each other and say hello and I popped some chocolates over to her for New Year and Nauruz.  Now that Kurban Ait has come around again I will bring something over and offer congratulations.

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Ersatz Expat

7 October 2013

Dressing for the Cold

We had our first snow of the winter last week.  This usually happens in the third or fourth week of October so to have it in the first week came as a bit of a shock.  This summer has been a wash out and with last winter having been relatively mild everyone is saying that we should expect a very cold one this year.  That said people give dire warnings of very cold winters every year and they have been absolutely fine but with the snow showing its face I thought it would be about time to check on our winter coats to see if they need any repairs and to make sure that they still fit the children.  At the moment and for the next few weeks we are still wearing our woollen Autumn coats although we will gradually supplement them with warmer and warmer accessories until the switch to full winter gear becomes inevitable.

A шуба or fur coat is the best option in the cold dry climate that we have here in Astana – it is warm and wind-proof.  I tend to wear a long coat most days as it is the most practical option for living in the city – I can wear an ordinary thin dress underneath and still be warm enough for a long walk.   Cosy lined boots  a warm fur hat, scarf and lined gloves keep all extremities warm.  Mink (норка) is the most popular fur – usually dyed black but sometimes left natural and seen in a stunning white tipped with grey and sometimes in brown.  Fox (лиса) and beaver (бобер) are also popular and rabbit (кролик) is often used for scarves, tippets and trimming accessories. 

Fur is practical in the cold
The downside of fur is the expense. Families here can save up for years to buy a coat and it will be handed down as an heirloom and often shared between family members.  You have to be very careful with handbag straps that can wear the fur, make sure that you do not sit on the same patch of the coat for extended periods and pay for cold storage over the summer.  For many expats fur brings ethical problems to the fore.  It is possible to buy ethically farmed fur and some manufacturers claim that the environmental impact of real fur is much less than that of the manufacturing process for faux fur.  Before we came to Kazakhstan I was adamant that I would not wear it but it really is the most practical option for keeping warm. 

Sheepskin: Heavy and very warm a дубленка or sheepskin coat is a popular and a cheaper option than fur but is, if anything, even warmer.  Sheepskin tends to be more durable, (women can wear a shoulder strap handbag) and does not need to be cosseted to the same extent.    The downside is that a full length coat can be extremely heavy indeed and very very hot as soon as you come inside a building.  Sheepskin does not seem to carry the same ethical dilemma for expats.   My husband tends to wear a sheepskin coat, his is short so if he plans to be outside for a long time he needs to wear thermal leggings under his trousers. 

Down and sheepskin keeps the family safe and warm.
Down:  Down coats are extremely popular – much lighter than the other two options but every bit as warm because of the loft of the down.  Down coats are available for as little as £100 or sometimes even less making them one of the most affordable options around.  The downside is that you can look as though you are walking around in a duvet.  Some of the designs are quite fetching, however, and many women's versions come with an elastic belt to help give some shape and definition.  Astana is dry but of course we do get snow sometimes in the winter and down can loose its effectiveness when it is wet.  Down is also very popular with children mostly because it is light, cheap and effective.  Ours wear down coats with a waterproof outer so that the down is protected when they play in the snow.  Salopettes, warm fur lined hats, mittens and snow boots mean that they are covered head to foot and can stay safe outdoors. 

Waterproofs mean that children can play in the snow without getting the down wet. 
I very rarely wear technical outdoor coats because I find it is just not effective.  It also screams ‘I am an expat’ but there are times when it is necessary.  This is usually when we decide to go skating or sledging outdoors.  Then I swallow my pride and morph into the michelin man, wearing salopettes and a winter-weight wind-proof fleece with waterproof jacket, a warm hat and earmuffs.  I usually find that I have to wear a number of layers underneath to stay comfortable and I am considering giving in and purchasing a ‘down duvet’.

Even the dog has her winter clothes - it is too cold for her to enjoy being outside for long and she needs protection for her feet as the ice can burn her pads.  We have thick warm coat that covers her body and chest (most coats don't protect the chest) and some rubber booties that slide over the feet, she doesn't like the sensation of having them put on but once they are on she does not remove them.  They are malleable enough that she can feel where she is putting her feet but they are protected from the worst of the cold. 

Dog in Astana
Technical clothes are useful for 'playing' outside.
Even the dog has to wear a coat and shoes.  It may look like a thin layer of snow
but it is a recent fall sitting on a whole winter's worth of ice.
Of course  in addition to coats warm accessories are a necessity.  We have just about every different type available from mittens to lined gloves and wrist warmers  to be worn in just about every permutation depending on the severity of the cold and the activity we are planning outside.  My pride and joy is a handmade fuzzy Orenburg scarf bought on a trip to Moscow.  It is incredibly warm and the yarn so strong that I can hold the whole scarf from a single fibre of fuzz.  They are not elegant but I also have my eye on some валенки (traditional felt boots) which are reputed to be very very warm.  

Unless you are coming from somewhere equally cold there is little point in buying winter clothing in your home country.  Astana is set up for the cold weather so the stuff you buy here really works.  Before we came we bought some gadgets called ‘yaktracks’ a pair for my husband and a pair (designed to fit over heeled shoes/boots) for me.  Sold as an essential in the UK we have never used them here, the boots come with more than enough grip.  

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat