29 September 2013

Book Review - Drinking Camel's Milk in the Yurt

A little while ago I was contacted and asked to review a book about life in Kazakhstan.  Drinking Camel's Milk in the Yurt is a collection of short stories, written by expats of many nations, each telling a little snippet of their time in Kazakhstan.  The writers come from diverse backgrounds, some are known to me and they write about experiences in different parts of Kazakhstan, notably Astana, the Caspian coast and Almaty.  

As expected from any anthology each entry has a distinctive feel that renders the voice unique to the author. The stories are, however, grouped by theme so the book starts out with a collection of stories about arriving in Kazakhstan. It then runs through History and Traditions, Contemporary Living, Cross Cultural Exchanges, Travelling and The Silent Steppe. 

Each of the chapters has its own charm but I found  some of them more engaging that others, probably because they resonate with my own experience of life in Astana and Kazakhstan. Stanley Currier writes eloquently of a visit to the Dolinka KARLAG museum near Karaganda, so redolent of my own experiences at the ALZHIR camp outside Astana. We have tried many times to visit Dolinka but something has always conspired to prevent us. Mr Currier's essay makes me determined to redouble my efforts. 

Laura Kennedy's chapter talks of her family's relationship with the dvor, the courtyard of her apartment block and how it has served to help her and her children integrate into the community of the building. Living in an almost exclusively Kazakh building we have come to recognise the importance of the courtyard in helping us make friends and settle into our home. 

In every country I have lived we have found our life has been made simpler, our welcome warmer, through the help and assistance of certain colleagues. For this reason, although we may have lost touch over the years I will never forget the warmth of the friendship and the importance of the support of cooks, drivers, housekeepers and secretaries around the world who have become, even for a short while, part of our family.  For this reason I found the most affecting chapter to be Nina Buonaiuto's Tea With Natasha.  The chapter speaks of her relationship with her housekeeper and how this has developed, over time, into a cherished friendship. 

The real beauty of Drinking Camel's Milk in the Yurt is that it acts as a cultural primer for expatriates looking to move to Kazakhstan.  As a destination Kazakhstan is difficult to research, there are very few guide books and very few modern travel books, this book encapsulates much of the expat experience of this diverse, new and fascinating country.

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Ersatz Expat

20 September 2013

False Friends

One of the greatest challenges for expatriates is learning to communicate in their host country.  Even a common language is no guarantee of easy communication.  I worked for an American company for a while and had to take great care with English colloquialisms, use an American spellcheck and watch out for dates  as American dates are written back to front compared with British ones.  Habits of your home country also stay with you no matter how accultured you become to your host society.  I can still amuse my English husband with the odd, inadvertence use of Dutch time conventions – 10 minutes before the half hour and so on.   

The real confusion arises, however, when you bring a foreign language into the mix.  Homophones (words that sound similar but mean different things) can be a nightmare, for example Pollo (chicken) and Polvo (powder) in Spanish, massage/message in English or  Gäste/Geste in German.  Even worse than homophones, however, are the false friends.  The Russian word for snow, снег, sounds very like snake but you will not get much снег in Sub Saharan Africa.   Интеллигентный sounds like intelligent but means cultured and if someone asks for your Фамилия they are asking for your surname not the health of your family.You might think the Spanish word embrazada means embarrassed but use that word and you will be implying that someone is pregnant  which will probably embarrass you in turn.  If you hear the words trap and tuin in Dutch someone is talking about a stair and a garden.  If a Swede mentions the word bra in conversation he is not (necessarily) referring to an undergarment but saying something is good.  There are literally thousands of false friends just waiting to trip the unwary.

Grammar can be very confusing.  Russian is a fertile language for grammatical nightmares – mostly concerned with adjectives and nouns – the adjective must conform with the gender and case of the noun.  Counting gets particularly difficult so you use a different expression to say one year, two-four years and 5+ years, then repeat for 21, 22-4 etc.  English, however, must be truly terrible for people to learn particularly the vast number of  homophones, the huge number of synonyms, homonyms a-plenty (eg rose/rose as in flower and get up) and our large number of different tenses used in subtly different ways. 

Modern technology can be a lifesaver but Google translate, babelfish and other similar programs are not immune to mistakes.  A former colleague of ours has a young baby and posts photographs of her to an album on Facebook.  Some months ago I commented on one of the photographs which means that  I see when  new people comment on the album.  Most of the comments are along the lines of ‘just like her daddy’ or ‘what a beautiful girl’.  I was very surprised therefore to see an email message telling me that someone had posted the comment ‘Whore, good health baby.’ On the album.  When I looked up the original text I saw that the poster had actually written ‘Cutie’ not ‘Whore’ but the auto translate had got it very very badly wrong.

Facebook Translation Fail

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Ersatz Expat

8 September 2013

Expat Embarrassments

One of the main character traits all expats need is a sense of humour about the situations you find yourself in.  Life has a way of letting us all make fools of ourselves from time to time and these opportunities are only ever magnified when daily life is lived in another culture; another language.  

One of the joys of expat life is to be parachuted in to a new home, with strange appliances whose instruction manuals (if present) are in a language completely alien to you.  Inevitably you will need to use them before your internet is set up to allow you to search for a version you can understand.  Even something as simple as a stop-cock for mains water can be hard to find if you do not know where to look.  Most British expats would expect it to be under the kitchen sink, many other people would automatically look in the basement or utility.  Ours is on the landing just outside the front door – not the most obvious place.  One of the first things I do is locate this valve and the circuit panel so that I do not have to hunt for them in an emergency while trying to communicate with a plumber or electrician with whom I share no common fluent language. 

Landlords also often forget to explain conventions of the host country that everyone grows up knowing because it is done as a matter of course.  It simply does not occur to people that expats might not know that they need to do something.  Our first winter here in Astana our pipes froze, our neighbour very kindly thawed them out for us and explained that because, our building is poorly insulated we have to keep a tap running when the temperature falls below -30.  It never occurred to us that we would need to take special care as we are in a large apartment building (although we would have asked had we been renting a house or were in the countryside) and so we did not ask the landlord if it was necessary, a local probably would have. 

It helps to be prepared for bizarre surprises, in Nigeria we called for someone to come and help clear and service our blocked air conditioner.  We assumed that the service engineer would bring a vacuum device, we did not realise what form this took and were surprised to see him suck the blockage clear with his mouth.  We felt rather bad as we could have performed that rather unpleasant task for ourselves.

We were reminded of the penchant for expat embarrassment when we noticed a slow puncture this week.  We drove to the petrol station and looked about for an air pump to keep us going long enough to have the time to change the tyre.  In Europe every station has air and water available, usually for free.  The attendant came up to ask why we were exploring (poking about) and looked rather surprised when we asked where the air was; they did not have any - we had to go to a specialist shop.  We called a friend to ask where she checked her tyre pressure and she explained that this is not a self service service and is not available at all stations.  She directed us to a supplier near her home; we were not hopeful as it was about 10pm at this stage but she said they worked late.  The man came out, took one look and removed the wheel for us to give it a thorough inspection.  It turned out we had picked up a nail and he patched and replaced the tyre in a matter of moments.  Far less time than it would have taken us to jack up the car on our emergency kit and swap over to the spare.

Because there is little time to get to know their idiosyncrasies hire cars have a wealth of embarrassment potential.  Most people will know how awful it is to pull up to the petrol station  only to remember that the hire company forgot to tell you whether the car takes petrol or diesel, you forgot to check which side the tank is on and you have no idea where the tank release is.  The first (and thankfully only) time I ever had to drive an automatic car I thought that I had to put the thing in park and move through neutral, D1 and D2 at every stop or traffic light.  I spent the whole time wondering why anyone would ever want to drive such an invention of the devil instead of a simple manual car.  People who drive automatics assume that those who drive manuals understand the differences but while my driving instructor taught me how to drive a manual and how to handle a 4x4, he never touched on an automatic.  My mother, laughed for a solid 10 minutes when I complained to her when home at last.  

The worst of it all is that we are pretty competent and reasonably practical.  I know we are not the only people to ever feel like fools in situations like this,  a sense of humour certainly helps and at least I know that, if nothing else I have learned how to keep an AC running.  It is easy to laugh about stupid situations after the event but they are resolved so much more easily if you can laugh at the time, much more constructive than standing on pride.   

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Ersatz Expat

2 September 2013

Celebrating the Day of Knowledge

I recall, that when I was very young each September heralded the start of school.  When I look back at those years I cannot help but think that some sort of ceremony, a red letter day, would have gone some way to alleviating the feelings of dread that I recall in my very first year as I stepped up to face the unknown or, in later years, the sense of disappointment I felt as my summer freedoms and family time came to an end. 

My very traditional British boarding school understood this well and had a ceremony called 'handshaking'.  All pupils were expected to attend a chapel service to mark the start of the school year, the prefects would then usher us out class by class, youngest first, and we would proceed slowly down the corridor shaking the hand of every member of staff from the Headmistress to the most junior house-staff. As we had 80 staff and about 480 pupils this took some time but it did mean we felt we knew what our teachers looked like.   Here in Kazakhstan, and indeed across much of the Russian speaking world, they also understand the need to make pupils feel comfortable in their schools so they have a special ceremony to mark the start of the school year.  

My own daughter insisted on having white pom-poms
in her hair.  It is a local tradition for 1 September.  
1 September is  known as the Day of Knowledge and marks the end of summer and the beginning of Autumn and another school year.  I have, this year, joined my husband in working at the same school that our children go to so the last week has been spent setting up and making preparations so that the school will look like a welcoming and exciting place to be.

All schools will be open on the Day of Knowledge, no matter which day of the week it falls on.  Parents spend the run-up preparing their children's uniform (complete with white hair pom-poms for the girls) and getting the right bags and equipment to see the children through the year ahead.  Many pupils both old and new, bring flowers, chocolates or other gifts for their teacher.  The pupils and parents go to the new classrooms and meet their teachers and classmates.  The whole school then gathers for an opening ceremony.  At our school the pupils traditionally gather together to listen to an address from the Headmaster before releasing balloons into the air (one per pupil).  For most schools, however, the tradition calls for one of the youngest girls in the school to ring the Первый Звнок (first bell).  

At our school pupils love releasing balloons into the air for 1 September.
There are no formal classes and most pupils will leave shortly after all the ceremonies are completed, ready to return the next day and settle in to their very first lessons.  The day itself is a very sweet tradition.  It helps to ease new and possibly nervous pupils into their school environment and it is lovely to see the city full of children with their white pompoms in their hair proud of their shiny new shoes, uniforms and bags and, more than anything else, proud of their school community. 

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

Ersatz Expat