26 February 2013

Coping with Emergencies

Just last week the excellent Your Expat Child blog posted a guest article that I wrote on how to prepare for and cope when things go wrong. When I wrote that piece I was thinking about all the back ups we have in place as a family to deal with such situations.  I did not realise that, just a few days later, I would find myself being sent to Europe for an emergency operation.

I had been feeling a little unwell last week and so made an appointment with our GP.  He went with me to one of the local hospitals in Astana for some tests.  This is a new system for us – previously we had no English speaking GP or translation support.  I was very pleased he was with me as it made the whole process much simpler.  I do understand enough Russian to get by in day to day life but answering questions and understanding what a Doctor is saying to you about complex medical issues is very different.

The tests showed that I had been unwell for some weeks, just unaware of it, and the hospital wanted me to have an operation straight away.  Our insurers have not had any experience of the hospitals that could do the operation or, they told me, any experience of operations in Astana full stop.  They said they would be more comfortable with me travelling to Frankfurt or Istanbul to have it done.  The next available flight was to Frankfurt so I ended up packing a bag for a trip to Germany. 

I must admit that I was in two minds about which destination I would prefer.  In many ways I wanted to have things done in Astana with my family around but I also believe in listening to the professionals.  I have friends in Istanbul from our time living in Turkey and know no-one in Frankfurt but despite never having lived there I speak better German than I do Turkish.  I think, in the end, either destination would have been fine.

In a way the medevac process itself was rather underwhelming.  I remember when I lived in Nigeria practically every flight out of the country had someone on a stretcher in the back of the aircraft – not dissimilar to the set up for the little girl in the spoof movie ‘Airplane’.  Luckily this did not happen to me; because I was well enough to travel alone and without a nurse it was no different to a normal flight.  When I arrived I took a taxi to the hospital, checked in and was treated the next day.  I had hoped to travel home the same day but apparently you are not allowed to travel for 24 hours after a general anaesthetic.  Looking back that was probably the right decision – I flew home on Sunday night arriving Monday morning and despite being someone who is never ill, travels well and needs hardly any sleep I found the journey much harder than I expected. 

In hindsight the whole event seems like a bit of a dream but it has started me thinking about what really helped make it less unpleasant.  All our emergency planning and the procedures we have in place worked flawlessly which was wonderful.  The main thing that helped was that I really trusted the insurers and their co-ordinators to make the best choices for me, they updated me on their decisions as quickly as possible and were very open and thorough when discussing them with me.  

I  had an internet enabled ‘phone I could use to contact friends and family.  When we left the UK we were in two minds about whether to keep our monthly ‘phones or to use pay as you go sims when we returned.  We decided to keep our ‘phones; we get good rates on international calls and internet roaming.  Because they are contracts we don’t need to worry about getting cut off.  Our Kazakh phones are pay as you go so although they work abroad we cannot re-charge them when the credit runs out.  The UK ‘phones may be an expensive luxury 11 months of the year but I would not have been without it this last weekend. 

I was very glad that I took my computer and my kindle with me.  I did not get any work done at all but I was able to watch films on the laptop.  German and Turkish television tends to be dubbed rather than subtitled and for a lot of the time I just felt like zoning out in front of some rubbish TV without having to make a mental effort to understand what people were saying.  The kindle meant that I did not need to worry about packing enough books for an open ended stay.

One thing that, in retrospect, I did wrong was not drinking something before I left the airport.  Because I had been feeling unwell I had not eaten a proper meal in days.  I took some water on the flight with me but I should have had some more in Frankfurt before going to the hospital.  As soon as I arrived there I was nil by mouth until after the operation.  I didn't feel like eating but I was horribly dehydrated and thirsty. 
It was certainly not an experience I wanted to have and it is not one that I want to repeat.  That said it is a comfort to know that the whole process works and that our family are in safe hands in the event of any emergency.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

21 February 2013

Sugar Sugar: How to bake without specialty sugars

I had a wonderful afternoon yesterday as a friend invited  seven or eight of us over for tea and cakes.  She had made a wonderfully tasty chocolate fudge cake (my favorite) and a bannoffee and lemon meringue pie.  Yumm.  It is always good to meet up with friends because, to a great extent, they stand in for your family when you are abroad.

During our meet up talk turned, for a while, as it always does to what you can find in the shops and how to cope when you can't.  I mentioned that I had seen some caster sugar the other day and was immediately asked for details of where and when I had seen it.  Caster sugar is quite rare here and usually you have to bake with granular sugar.  I have written before on baking without baking powder and without baking chocolate but sugar is a fairly key ingredient to any cake.

Kazakh Sugar
Granulated sugar is easy to find

I have got used to using granular sugar, as it is not difficult to turn it into caster sugar - just put it through a coffee mill.  My food processor came with a special mini mill which I use for this purpose.  Just blitz it in 15 second bursts to make sure that you do not over process.  I usually just blitz enough to use on the cake I am baking at that particular time but I sometimes do a bulk load for friends who do not have a mill.

make your own caster sugar
It is easy to make your own caster sugar
Icing sugar is easily available here and in most places.   I have made my own in the past, usually when I have realised that I had forgotten to buy the powdered sugar in the shops and had no time to go and get more.  Just blitz the sugar to a very fine powder (checking at 15 second intervals) and then add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for every 250g of sugar.

Muscovado sugar is one of my favorite baking ingredients, it makes a lovely toffee sauce, works brilliantly in a lot of banana recipes and when combined with orange juice and mustard powder gives a tasty glaze to ham and is a must when cooking red cabbage.  Muscovado sugar is like gold dust here in Astana.  I found some in the supermarket last year and bought four kilos.  I am nearly out of it now.

All is not lost, however, because I can buy molasses here.  If you add about 2tbsp of Molasses to ordinary baking sugar to get a good replacement for muscovado sugar.  Alternatively you can replace Muscovado sugar with ordinary brown sugar.  There is less moisture in brown sugar so you may need to check your recipe and add a little more liquid.  In places where molasses has been impossible to find I have used honey or maple syrup in its place.  The recipe tastes different but not unpleasantly so. 

One of the problems of using muscovado sugar is that it gets hard very fast.  I am always careful to store mine in airtight containers but it still gets hard and my four kilos became rock solid very quickly.  I know that it is possible to re-hydrate it by placing some slices of apple or bread in the container with the sugar (remove once moist).  I usually forget to do this, if I remember that I need it the night before baking I will cover the sugar with a damp kitchen towel and leave it overnight.  If I forget that I soften it in the microwave, this takes care because the sugar can get too hot and melt or burn.  Place it in a container and put a glass of water beside it.  I usually zap it in 30 second intervals checking if it is soft in between.  In extremis (my microwave was broken) I have just used it as is without softening but using the grater to break up the larger pieces., I probably should have used the food processor.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat

17 February 2013

Astana's Ishim Embankment, Perfect for a Traditional Sunday Stroll

We have always enjoyed a Sunday afternoon stroll after lunch.  From treks through the Bush in Nigeria to strolling along the River Tigris in Turkey or the dunes in the Netherlands our Sunday Stroll has been a family tradition.  
Traditional Family Sunday Stroll
When I was a child in Norway we would walk for hours through the mountains even in the coldest winters but Norwegian winters look positively toasty when compared with the temperatures we experience in Astana.   We were very worried when we moved to Astana, that we might have to sacrifice this tradition in the winter.  Sadly we were right in one respect – it is not so easy to get out to the countryside to stroll by a lake or in the woods during the winter but there are plenty of alternatives in the City.  As long as the wind keeps down it is possible to enjoy a walk in temperatures down to about -20 with kids and -25-28 for adults.   Our dog does not always join us in the winter.  She has a coat and winter boots but does not like to go outside below about -15 and even then asks to go back inside after only a few minutes.  She dreams of the warmer weather when she enjoys spending the days outside. 
Winter clothes for dogs
Our dog wears a thick coat and booties but still feels the cold very badly.
The Ishim’s course through Astana is very heavily managed and in the Winter it is frozen from November through to about mid March.  The river is lined with embankments which  are kept clear of snow making them  a lovely place to walk.  They are a wonderful place to people watch - older couples and effortlessly elegant Kazakh women with their husbands and babies wrapped up warm in their prams come here to enjoy the winter sunshine.  
Astana River Embankment
People Watching on the Ishim Embankments
You can also go down onto the River itself, many people ski or snowmobile along here,  there are ice rinks where children play hockey or just skate for fun and every now and then you come across little tents covering holes kept open for ice fishing. There is something disconcerting about walking on the river, it feels as though it should be dangerous but it is frozen solid to quite some depth and is very safe.

Astana, Ishim River, Ice Fishing
Ice Fishing on the Ishim
Astana Ishim River in Winter
Snowmobiles power along the river and perform flips on the banks.
The city constructs ice slides from the top of the embankment down to the river at set places every year.  These are fairly vertiginous and very fast.  With a good fast sledge (wax it for optimum performance) you can get about halfway across the river.  The builders, in their wisdom have built walls on either side of the slide. Steering the sledges is almost impossible because the slides are made from ice rather than snow and I speak from experience when I say that it hurts to bang against these.    We have seen little children as young as 2 or 3 send themselves down these slides on their sledges without fear but a couple of near misses, one of which resulted in broken glasses, mean that we now send our kids down the snow by the side of the slides instead.
Astana Ice Slides
Children enjoying the Ice Slides 
As you walk along the embankment you get to the statue of Kenessary Khan, a national hero who led the fight against the Russian occupation until his death in 1847.  In the summer we would cross the river and go into the Astana Park – a fairground and pleasure park near the Circus, before walking home, but in the Winter we stop off at Rafe, a Café near the Kenessary Statue that does a very tasty and warming hot chocolate.
Kenessary Khan Astana
Kenessary Khan
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

14 February 2013

About Astana

When we first heard that we were going to Astana we set about researching as much as possible.  The only thing I knew was that Astana is the second coldest capital in the world, below freezing for half the year and blazing hot for the other half.  A few books and Wikipedia entries later and I was left little wiser.  I did look on Google Earth to see the city on a fly-over and I was very excited by what I saw.

Winter Astana
Astana - Winter-wonderland
There are very few direct flights to Astana most carriers still fly to the old capital of Almaty which is a bit of a pain.  We have to fly via Istanbul, Moscow, Kiev, Frankfurt, Vienna, Minsk or Almaty adding a transit to any journey.  We arrived at 11pm on a Wednesday evening in August which meant that we got to see the city all lit up.  As we drove past a giant tent, a huge glass pyramid and many other weird and wonderful buildings our interest was piqued and we could not wait to explore.

Astana has only been the capital of the country since 1997 so it is a relatively new city.  It was previously called, at various times, Akmola, Tselinograd and Akmolinsk.  As Tselinograd it was at the center of the Soviet Virgin Lands campaign and agriculture is still very important in the surrounding countryside.  The name was changed from to Akmola at independence in 1990 and then to Astana, meaning capital, in 1998.

Khan Shatyr Astana
The Khan Shatyr, a giant tent housing a shopping center, theme park and beach
During the summer Astana is a garden city with large open parks planted with fragrant flowers.  It is a delight to walk everywhere and explore the various strange buildings and futuristic architecture.  The new city has developed on the left bank of the River Ishim.  The main axis of the new city is the long, open pedestrian Nurzhol boulevard stretching from the Khan Shatyr (a large, tented shopping and entertainment complex complete with theme park and swimming pool) to the Baiterek (Astana’s famous landmark), past the Parliament buildings to the Ak Orda (the presidential palace).

Bayterek Astana
Baiterek - Landmark of Astana
View from Bayterek to Khan Shatyr
View from the Baiterek to the Khan Shatyr along Nurzol Boulevard
View from Bayterek to Ak Orda
View from the Baiterek to the Ak Orda 
Across the river along the same axis you get to the giant pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.  Many other buildings are close to this main axis – the beautiful concert hall, a new museum in the process of being built and the Astana Mosque which was finished only recently.  Astana changes rapidly with new buildings springing up all the time.  In the photo of the view from the Baiterek to the Khan Shatyr you can see an unfinished building.  The photo was taken in August 2011 and the building finished shortly thereafter.

Astana Pyramid
The Pyramid - Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
Pyramid, Astana Mosque and Kaz Eli
The Pyramid with the Mosque, Concert Venues and Kaz Eli monument behind.
Away from the main boulevard there are many parks – opposite our house is the Arai Park, perfect for teaching the kids to bicycle or for walking the dog.  The river is calm, frozen for half the year; we enjoy walking along it in the winter or sledging down precipitous ice slides.  In the summer there are pleasure boats and you can see scullers from the Astana Rowing club. Many people enjoy swimming in the river in the summer and there is even a beach for sunbathing.  The river has a beautiful embankment making it a pleasure to run, cycle or even roller-blade along.

Astana Arai Park
Arai Park in the Winter
Astana - Ishim, Ak Orda and Majlis
The River in Summer with the Ak Orda and Parliament buildings behind.
Astana has a permanent circus building – it looks like a flying saucer particularly when it glitters with flashing lights at night.  A lot of touring circuses come through and the kids love to go and see a show.   Despite Kazakhstan being as far away from the sea as you can get in the world Astana has its own Oceanarium.  There are some displays of local fish but the showstopper is the tunnel through the main tank.  Here you can walk through a water wonderland and see sharks and fish, truly a miracle in this land-locked country. Nearby you can explore all Kazakhstan in miniature at the memorial map complex.

Circus Astana
Astana Circus with beautiful summer flowers
The right bank of the river is the older part of the city.  It has a very different vibe to the newer part and younger expats prefer to live here close to the night life.  Respublika Prospect is the main artery of this part of the city and is vibrant and chaotic in equal measure.  Over on this bank you find the Concert and Organ halls, the bazars, some very good museums and, if you know where to look, some interesting antique shops.

Everyone who comes to live in Astana worries about the weather and this is as true for locals as it is for expats.  Winter 2011/12 was very cold with temperatures getting down to the very low -40’s at times and consistently below -20 but we found we were able to enjoy life nevertheless.  This winter has been much warmer with temperatures rarely falling below -20.  The cold in Astana is very dry so it does not penetrate the bones in the same way a wet cold does.  The biggest problem is the wind as windchill can have a big impact on the temperature. 

Astana Gardens in Winter
Nurzhol Boulevard Gardens in Winter
 Because of the extreme weather living in Astana is like living in two different cities, both are beautiful, exciting, enjoyable places to live.

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

Ersatz Expat

12 February 2013

How to Start a Family Pancake Day Tradition

Shrove Tuesday; children around the world get to enjoy pancakes for pudding at school or as a treat when they get home.  My mother would always have pancakes ready for us when we got home and I try to do the same for my children. 

I usually cook pancakes or waffles for breakfast on a Saturday morning but I held off last weekend and promised the children pancakes for supper today.  It always surprises me to see pancake mix on the shelves of the supermarkets in the UK.  They are the simplest things in the world to make and when I read the instructions on the side of the ‘ready made’ mixes they usually say ‘just add milk and an egg’.  Since the basic ingredients are milk, egg, flour and baking powder I am at a loss as to what people think that they are buying.  I did once buy a packet to see whether it had a special ‘ingredient x’ that made the pancakes taste superior to my own but I was underwhelmed. 

I never measure my pancake mix, I just add the basic ingredients by judgment and mix them up – more milk for crepe’s and a thicker mix with a little more baking powder for American style pancakes.  If I want a richer taste I might add an American cup measure of yogurt or ricotta.  Sometimes I use a cup of sourdough starter instead of baking powder.  I always fry my pancakes in butter, it gives a much nicer taste than oil.

Pancake Mix and Frying Pan
Melt the butter while preparing the mix.  The pan has to be very hot.  
Brown and ready to eat.
When I was a little girl my mother would sometimes add sugar and apples to the mix.  She fried the pancakes in a beautifully heavy, thick bottomed, cast iron pan.  This was never washed in soap but always oiled and layered in kitchen paper before being put in the cupboard.  It is a thing of beauty and I truly covet it.  I thought about taking it home with me when she died, it traveled round the world with her but sadly it is too heavy to bring abroad on our limited baggage allowance.  I have left it with my father for now, I use it sometimes when I visit him and it always brings me fond memories. 

Uzbek Pottery Serving Dish
My beautiful Uzbek Pancake Serving Dish
This year I have been able to start a tradition for my own family.  Uzbek pottery is beautiful stoneware decorated in colourful patterns making it a feast for the eyes.  We know a potter who comes to Astana a few times a year.  Sukrob brings plates directly from his own workshop and is able to fulfil individual requests.  My Christmas present last year was a full dinner service that my wonderful husband ordered for me.  He also bought me a pancake server.  This is actually a ‘plov’ dish, designed to keep rice warm but it works wonderfully for pancakes or just about anything else.  I look forward to the day when I can cook my Shrove Tuesday pancakes on my mother’s frying pan and serve them to my family in my plov dish.  I wonder what my daughter will add to the pan and the dish when she passes them on to her children.

Uzbek Pancake Dish
Pancakes in their dish.

Pancake on Uzbek dish
All rolled up and ready to eat.

7 February 2013

No chocolate - no problem, easy and quick substitutes

One of the lessons my home economy teacher drummed into me at school was that I must never use ordinary chocolate for cooking.  She never explained why but my guess is that it is due to the high sugar and low cocoa content of eating chocolate.  

I have seen huge 5kg bags of cooking chocolate buttons on sale at the cash and carry here in Astana, but I rarely use cooking chocolate.  I prefer to use a really good quality dark chocolate in my cooking, it is usually possible to buy 75% or even 90% chocolate very easily here and this gives excellent results and you don’t need to reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe.  Good chocolate like this melts very easily or you can chop it into chips.  I now use my food processor to do this but for many years my kitchen was too small to accommodate one and I used a mezzaluna to good effect.  Aside from saving my wrists I find the real advantage of the food processor is the by-product. 
Home made chocolate chips
Chocolate chips in the food processor.
As well as the chocolate chip rubble you get a considerable amount of powdered chocolate.  I love hot chocolate, it is one of my real failings and I add the powder to warm milk to make a really luxurious drink.  If you are using very high percentage chocolate you may want to add some sugar - I like my hot chocolate strong and bitter, my husband has to have sugar.  This is the sort of luxury product you pay over the odds for if it comes in a packet, in fact you could, if you are that way inclined, get some natty cellophane packages, ribbon and labels and make up some gift packages.  I can usually not bear to part with the extra.
A tasty byproduct from home made chocolate chips
Luxurious hot chocolate is a tasty by-product.
I never bake with ordinary milk chocolate as I find that even the best quality eating milk chocolate is too sweet.  The quality of milk chocolate is also very variable, popular brands such as Cadbury’s (UK) and Hershey’s (US) have very little actual chocolate in them.  Not at all pleasant to cook with and probably explains why supermarkets in those countries carry an extensive range of cooking chocolates. 

If very sweet milky chocolate is the only stuff available you can still use it.  Look for the highest level of cocoa solids you can find and remember to cut the amount of sugar in your recipe.  Substitute the milk chocolate for the cooking chocolate on a 1:1 ratio and then remove 1 teaspoon of sugar for each 6 grams of chocolate so, if your recipe calls for 100g of sugar you will need to remove 16-17 teaspoons of sugar from your measured weight. 

If I can only find milk chocolate I prefer to make my own cooking chocolate.  It is very easy to do and I speak from experience when I say that the ingredients are available almost everywhere in the world even in the middle of the African bush.  All you need is butter and cocoa powder on a 1:1 ratio.  1 table spoon of  butter combined with 1 tablespoon of cocoa is equivalent to about 25 grams of solid chocolate. 
How to make your own baking chocolate
Simple ingredients make a good substitute for cooking chocolate.
Just melt the butter (I use a microwave but otherwise place a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water without letting the water touch the bottom of the bowl).  Sieve the cocoa powder into the butter and whisk together to a smooth paste.  
make your own baking chocolate
The paste can be used immediately or kept until later
You can either use this directly in your cake mix or pour it into a container lined with baking paper or buttered cling film and refrigerate it for later use.  Remember that because this is butter based it will melt at room temperature so it has to be kept in the fridge.
Chocolate ready to go
Once set keep in the fridge until needed.
Don't be tempted to eat this, it does not have a pleasant taste on its own but it does give a wonderfully chocolaty flavour hit in any cake.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat

5 February 2013

Ersatz Expat - Baking Without Self Raising Flour or Baking Powder

I truly enjoy baking but as an expat it can be a bit more of an adventure than baking at home.  In the UK or the Netherlands I just run down to the shops where I can buy... self-raising flour, caster sugar, muscovado sugar, chocolate chips, flavour extracts, shortening, ready chopped nuts... the list is endless.  In many other countries it can be more difficult to get the ingredients together.  Sometimes they are not all available and the ones that are may come in a different form and so need some work before they can be used in the recipe.

I have found that expat bakers fall into two categories – the ones that get frustrated by the substitutions and the ones that turn it into a bit of a treasure hunt.  I love experimenting with substitutes, and a lot of friends ask me how to swap ingredients.  It was the inspiration for my blog's name and I thought I would do a series of posts on how to substitute in baking and cooking.

How to make your own self raising flour.

One of the few things you really do need for baking is baking powder.  Self raising flour is quite difficult to source in most parts of the world so you have to add baking powder to the flour to make your own. 11/2 teaspoons per 125g of flour.  

When I first arrived in Astana a fellow expat told me that baking powder could not be bought in Kazakhstan and had to be brought from home.   I did not believe her; after all it is possible to buy cakes here so there must be baking powder. That said, I could not find any translations in my dictionary and there were no tubs of anything that looked like it in the supermarket so I did start to think that my confidence had been misplaced. 

I decided to ask a lady in the cake section what I needed to add to flour to make the cakes.  She must have laughed herself crazy at my gesticulating and at my pigeon Russian.  Nevertheless she very kindly took me over to the baking section and handed me a small packet of baking powder which is called  Разрыхлитель Теста in Russian, problem solved.  I had been looking for the large tubs that are common in the UK and last for years.  Here the baking powder comes in small 7-10g packets.  When you think about it this is a much more sensible way to package it as it means that the powder will be used before it goes old.

Baking Powder from the Kazakh Supermarkets
Baking Powder, the name can be confusing on some packets because the lower case t is written m in Cyrillic
If you can't find baking powder you can make your own - just add Baking Soda and Cream of Tartar in a 1:2 ratio.  Baking powder is a mix of alkali (baking soda) and acid so if you are really stuck you can use lemon-juice or white vinegar instead of cream of tartar in a 1:5 ratio with baking soda instead of 1:2.  You need to be really careful with this though as you may need to adjust the amount of liquid in the mixture and you will almost certainly have to add a little more sugar.  Add the substituted soda/acid mix to the cake batter just before putting it in the oven.  With commercial powder the chemical reaction works in two stages, the first on the bench and the second in the oven.  With a home-made substitute the chemical reaction will start straight away.
Ingredients to make your own baking powder
Ingredients for emergency baking powder, 1 tsp soda to 5 tsp lemon juice.
Quick reaction from home made raising agent
Baking Soda and Lemonade starts to work quickly so use it immediately.
Be prepared for your cake to fail if you use this method, my success rate has only been about 50% but it is worth a try.  I find cupcakes work quite well because there is less work for the raising agent; if you use lemon juice instead of vinegar you have a lovely base for a lemon drizzle cupcake.
No baking powder - you can still bake
Cupcake made using baking soda and lemon juice instead of baking powder.
Ersatz Expat

1 February 2013

Packing Problems

My recent post about moving got me thinking about one of the key questions all expats wonder about.  Why do things always get lost in moves?

I should mention that I hate packing, it is one of the most horrible jobs I know, worse than ironing or going to the dentist.  The other day I worked out that I had lived in over 30 different homes and, in my life, gone through about 8 international moves and many regional re-locations.  

Coming to Astana has been a completely new experience.  When I was a child my parents moved around the world with the support of a large international corporation behind them.  We could take what we wanted (within reason).  When we came to Kazakhstan we were given a sum of money (£2000) to spend but no idea of how much volume this would buy us for this particular destination -we were only advised of this the day before the packers arrived and, predictably, the answer was – not a lot. I mentioned in my earlier post that  I remember being very unsettled by moves when I was young so I wanted the children to have as much of their home with them as possible to make it easier to settle in; cramming it all in with 24 hours’ notice was a challenge.  Well, we made it, although I must admit to some envy when I visit the houses of friends in the diplomatic service or those who are working for the international companies who have all the comforts of home.

One thing I have noticed in every move and that our friends also mention is the amazing attrition experienced.   Something always seems to go missing whether it is thrown away with the packaging or from more sinister reasons.  My mother could pack and unpack a house in record time and the tips she gave me to help minimise this were:
  •       Do your own inventory – it is a pain in the neck but very worth it;
  •       Supervise the packing very closely and pack precious items yourself;
  •       Check each box and the packing paper thoroughly before it is disposed of.
Because I was so stretched for time in the last move I was not able to supervise as closely as I would like.  We had what was possibly the worst moving team I have ever encountered and when I came to unpack our clothes most had been balled into ordinary packing boxes instead of wardrobe boxes.  I spent a fortune on dry-cleaning and about a week washing and ironing. At least this time we did not have any truly nasty surprises.  When we moved from the Netherlands to Turkey we unpacked the boxes to find the mummified remnants of a packer's lunch and an empty cola can amongst the kitchen ware.

Our old inventory was a lengthy beast – we traveled with over 1,000 books, about 800 VHS cassettes not to mention crockery and cutlery to feed 80 (yes really, 80) people and various other necessities.  Everything was listed together with the replacement value.  Originally the inventory was typed up on the old Amstrad computer and printed out on our snazzy and rather noisy dot matrix printer.  You may remember the ones - they used the spools of paper with the perforations at the edge and green and white striped lines running across the page, rather annoyingly the lines of typing never matched with the lines on the page.  Over time, the list migrated to a more modern platform but in my mind's eye it is still on that old paper.

Mistakes can still happen of course - I recall one move we made back to the Netherlands for a short posting of a few months.  We waited for a long time for our boxes to come only to find out that we had received a shipment belonging to another family with the same name.  Our stuff had gone to Oman and by the time it arrived we were practically ready to leave for our next country.

This time our list was so short I wrote it out by hand.  We are now the proud possessors of iPhones and an iPad so we will probably dictate our inventory on the next move, in fact there is probably an app for it.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat