Saturday, October 29, 2011

Back to Bishkek: Settling into Kyrgyzstan

We were half wondering if our decision to come back to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with kids was slightly crazy. And in some ways, it is. However, all the reasons that pulled us back here are just what we had hoped for.

We are immersed in the languages and cultures of Kyrgyzstan. We have Russian and Kyrgyz neighbors and friends. The kids hear Russian in school and day care all day. And we interact with friendly local shop-keepers, fruit vendors, waitresses, and taxi drivers, doing our business and having conversations. We have many friends from our previous two years here with whom we immediately reconnected. They have been so very helpful and generous with helping us settle in, find apartments, scope out schools, take us to the mountains, and help us find out anything we need to know. Being in a country where we already have such a support network and already understand the language has made coming back to Kyrgyzstan far easier than it would have been to start over in a new country.

Misha and our fabulous friend, Saule. Everyone is amazed at how big Misha is now! He was only a year old when he left.

The boys in Derjinski Park, one of my favorites.

Walking downtown

Eternal Flame monument

It's still the same old Bishkek, and yet so much has changed. The last time we were here, five years ago, the streets were filled with dilapidated Russian Muscovitches and Jigulis. Now, new cars abound - lots of British and German models and even Lexuses. The new Turkish three-story mall, which was under construction when we left, has long been operating on the corner of Sovietskaya and Gorkiva, making that area of town home to many other new bars, casinos, and stores. The mall, called the Vefa Center, has name brand clothing stores like Zara, as well as a supermarket, a play place for children, and restaurants offering everything from Kyrgyz and Turkish cuisine to pizza and sushi. These restaurants even deliver, something which was very rare before. To top it off, the whole mall has free Wi-Fi, making it a popular place for high schoolers to come after school to sit around the fountain and chat on their phones with the internet. While it is still very rare for people to own a laptop and even our most internationally-oriented friends have never seen an iPod Touch, almost everyone has a phone with internet capabilities. Popular restaurants throughout the city offer Wi-Fi, and of course internet cafes are everywhere.

The boys love watching the fountain in the Vefa Center.

The average salary has gone up, but not always in proportion to the rising prices. The cost of meat and gasoline has doubled, for example. (Gas here costs about the same as in the U.S.) Apartments are more expensive. Taxis also cost more, and it's harder to just grab one on the street like before because most companies work through call-ahead ordering services. Like before when we lived here, it's often hard to break a 500-som bill, even though it's worth only about $12. Even with inflation, you can eat a good meal in a restaurant for under $5, and our electric bill for the entire month of October was only $4.

Misha and Sebby are adapting to all the changes very well, with the amazing flexibility and curiosity of children. They have their staples that make life predictable - Legos and watercolor paint - plus new experiences like trips to the mountains and new playmates at school who talk entirely differently than what they're used to. The food and the city are different, but they're adapting, especially since we've taken them to four continents within the span of a year.

Soon after arriving, we got Misha a little scooter to ride. At first, as he attempted to ride it on the cracked and broken paths, he asked, "Why are the roads like this?" I explained, "Because the Russians made them a long time ago." Misha continued riding for a bit, and then asked: "But why did they make them so bumpy?" With a laugh, I told him that they were once new, but now they're just getting old and it's too expensive to replace all the sidewalks.

Out for an afternoon walk as the schoolchildren head home.

The kids love playing outside. Soviet-style parks are all over, each essentially a copy of the same design. In the sunny afternoons, the parks fill up with the children who live in the neighboring apartments to play on the slides, swings, and gymnastic bars. And Bishkek is filled with trees, making the rather drab city look beautiful when draped in overgrown, untethered green. With fall in full swing, the trees are even more striking as Oak and Locus leaves turn colors and swirl to the ground. Now that winter is already showing its face, the city is losing its color, but we are all looking forward to a real winter nonetheless! When Misha saw the first snowfall this weekend, he got so excited that he's dreaming of making snowmen already. It has been two years since he's seen snow.

Swinging by our apartment

Making friends: four kids in a tree.

Our first month in Bishkek was dedicated to getting everything set up - namely, finding an apartment, finding a school for the kids, and stocking our place with needed supplies.

Apartment Hunting

Because of the kids, we opted not to stay in the small dorm-like housing provided by the school, even though we're paying out of our own pocket to rent our own place. With the help of friends and an apartment-seeking service, we checked out six different apartments in the city. Seeing all these apartments whose exteriors and interiors looked so similar really drove home how very Soviet the city is. First, the apartment buildings themselves all look the same. Countless times, the boys have run up to a door that wasn't ours, ready to head upstairs. Then, the layout of the apartments themselves are very familiar, following the same general pattern with only minor adjustments as to how many rooms are inside. Most apartments have identical kitchens, often with the same table and bench-seat set. There are almost always two bathrooms, one with the toilet and one with the bathtub/shower. I was very amused to see that all six of them had identical bathroom mirrors mounted on the wall. Other furniture is also standard - almost everyone has the same style wardrobes, couches, and living room chairs. The closets and overhead storage places are usually in the same places. In the end, we chose a nicely furnished place close to the school where we teach, in the area of the city we lived before. We are really happy with it because the kids have their own room, and we have an enclosed balcony and a washing machine. Also, our apartment has a lift - much-appreciated with a stroller.

Painting in our brightly-colored kitchen.

School and Sadik

Another top priority was finding a good school for Misha and a sadik (day care) for Sebby. We talked to the director of the public school near us, who recommended that Misha attend the "podgotovitilni" courses, which is what six-year-olds in the school system here usually do. These preparatory classes teach kids to read, write, and do math so that they're ready for first grade at age 7. It's essentially kindergarten. After looking at a few day cares, private schools, and combinations of day cares and kindergartens, we were able to get both kids into the same facility, a small, private place called Pochemuchka. Since the word for "why?" is "pochemu?" the name of the school refers to little kids who ask a lot of questions, something like "Why-Askers."  Sebby goes to the 2-year-old class for day care, and Misha goes to the prep-classes with the other six-year-olds. Their classes are small, about 14 in a group, and they get to participate in lots of activities. For example, Misha has reading, writing, math, dance, exercise, nap time, English, art, and recess. Naturally, art is his favorite.

Misha's classroom

Sebby's classroom

For Josh and me, one of the most exciting parts about being here is watching Misha and Sebby acquire a second language. School is a bit challenging for them because their Russian is so limited, but they are learning quickly. In a few months, we are confident that their comprehension will be impressive. They get hours of Russian input every day -  a great opportunity for them.

Every day, Misha comes home telling us the new words he learned: "tiha" for quiet, "ni trogai" for don't touch, etc. He can answer basic questions about himself as well as count to 50 and name colors, animals, and body parts. He also knows most of the Russian letters and can write simple words by sounding them out. (Russian is very phonetic.) He finds the Russian alphabet fascinating, especially because it's similar to English letters with some funny and easy-to-remember differences. Naturally, it's daunting to interact with new kids in a new school in a new language to boot, but even after just a month of going to school, Misha is starting to understand a lot more and say a few things to the other kids.

Sebby, after quietly listening to the unfamiliar language in the beginning, now attempts to repeat what he hears. He cheerily shouts "Dos Vidania" when he leaves the school, although it sounds more like "dosi-dania!"  He also likes to say "Paidiom! Let's go! Paidiom!" Recently, he has stopped saying "no" altogether, instead opting to use "nyet" to respond to everything I ask of him. "Sebby, let's put your pants on!" I say, only to hear his quick retort "Nyet, mama! Nyet!" as he runs out of the room. To Sebby's advantage, many young Kyrgyz children speak Kyrgyz at home and only learn Russian when they start going to day care. In many ways, Sebby is like a good many two-year-olds - just now learning Russian.

Misha's shkafchik (cubby)

The school had a 10-year celebration party one Saturday morning.

On the swings with their friend Alihan.


We have a love-hate relationship with the bazaars. On one hand, the huge bazaars are noisy, dirty, very crowded, and time-consuming - a good half hour drive out of the city, not to mention a good deal of wandering around searching for what you need. On the other hand, going to the bazaar is a great adventure, where we are surrounded by vendors shouting in Kyrgyz, the smells of shahslik, and colorful rows of fruit, bread, and everything from saddles to pots and pans and pillows. Nothing makes you feel that you are truly in a different country like the bazaar, and that is what I love.

Socks, coats - it's all at the bazaar.

Freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice.

There are two main bazaars which are famous for their immense size, amazing selection, and cheap prices. Osh Bazaar is better known for food, while Dordoi is the place to go for household items and toys, though you can find a little bit of everything at both. We have already made several trips to the bazaars for warm blankets, kitchen supplies, and toys for the boys. The last time we went, we took Misha and Sebby along. The result? A crazy afternoon of trying coats and shirts and shoes on the kids, appeasing the hungry boys with ice cream, and chasing Sebby down crowded aisles as he wove his little body among the shoppers. Luckily, I think we're done shopping for their winter needs for awhile, so they won't need to join us at at the bazaar next time! If you're wondering why we simply don't buy things at the mall, it's because the mall is extremely expensive. in Bishkek, there is no middle-ground - there is either ridiculously expensive or, if you're willing to make the trek to the bazaars, very cheap.

"Lepioshka" bread for sale.

Fruit, glorious fruit.

Beautiful Kyrgyz cushions called tushuks.

Even though personal cars and taxis pack the streets, the mass transport system of marshrutkas is still the cheapest and most popular way to get around. For only 8 som (about 20 cents), you can jump onto any minivan and ride it until you want to get off. There are only two downsides: the winding routes and frequent stops take time, and the vans be can unbelievably crowded. With two children, riding the marshrutka is anything but fun, so we rarely do it as a family. If it's just Josh and me, though, it's something else entirely. Some anthropologist part of me thinks I could stand squished against the window all day, hanging onto the bar on the ceiling for dear life as people keep climbing while almost nobody gets off, until you simply can't believe there could be room for even more person. And yet there is. Eventually, as the marshrutka follows its route, jerking to frequent stops as more people flag it down, the passengers decrease and those remaining can decompress. But only temporarily, as the ebb and flow of people continues all day.

Misha rides his scooter as marshrutkas cruise down Sovietskaya.


Josh and I love the national dishes of Kyrgyzstan, especially plov (rice with carrots and onions topped with lamb and a salad or fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions), gan fan (rice topped with spiced veggies and lamb), and lagman (veggie and lamb soup with thick homemade noodles). We also love shashlik (marinated grilled lamb, beef, pork, or chicken, usually with chunks of fat grilled on the skewer as well, eaten with vinegar and raw onion). The boys, however, didn't warm up to the restaurant scene so quickly. "Normal" food like chicken nuggets and grilled cheese doesn't ever appear on a menu at most places. After several attempts and ordering various dishes for them, we have found a few things that they like, and they are starting to like others. Blinchiki are something we can always count on - they are basically crepes, served with sour cream and sugar. Misha likes chicken shashlik. And Sebby is a big rice fan, meaning that he will usually help me with my plate of plov or gan fan.

Gan fan.

Misha and I enjoy plov and blinchiki in the popular restaurant Faisa.

Sebby outside Fatboy's, a famous Western hang-out.

Of course, we cook a lot at home, especially now that we are starting to get a supply of ingredients at our disposal. Fruits and vegetables are easy to buy on the street corners or at little markets all around. Grapes, bananas, strawberries, raspberries, and apples are all available at this time of year. For veggies, I can get carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, squash, and sometimes even zucchini and broccoli. Meat is the more challenging food group. Americans are used to pristine-looking, boneless meat, so anything less looks a bit scary to me. Instead of buying room-temperature meat from little markets, with splinters of bone from chopping, I pay a bit more and get the meat at the mall, where I can get nice slabs of beef and lamb and even frozen chicken breast. I am getting more creative with cooking at home, but the kids' daily favorites continue to be peanut butter and cream of wheat.

My shopping buddies.


Josh started teaching immediately after arriving in the country, meaning his first week was rather surreal. Luckily, I didn't work the first month, because we still had to figure out the school situation for the boys. I started teaching two classes a day in October, which has been very enjoyable. Most of our students are Kyrgyz or Russian high school kids, with a few older working adults or a few younger kids, depending. The small classes (8 or 9) mean that class-time is fun and comfortable, and the students are very good-natured and curious. My students make me laugh every day.

We are still adjusting to everything and learning a lot. Presidential elections are Oct. 30, so we are curious how they will turn out.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fitting it all in

Though we spent the whole summer in vacation mode, we had the "what next?" dilemma constantly in the back of our minds. Hoping to travel again for a better opportunity to learn languages, we continued to apply for teaching jobs abroad, but our hopes were dimmed by rejections based on the fact that we had some extra baggage - children. In the end, an ad caught our eye from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where we had taught in 2004-2006. We had always planned on showing Misha his place of birth - we just didn't know it would be so soon! Since traveling with kids is stressful enough as it is, it was reassuring to think about going to a place where we could get around in the language and where we were familiar with the city. We were also excited about seeing old friends.

Meanwhile, we were busy fitting as many summer activities as possible into the last few weeks of August before flying out!

Fishing with Grandpa was a huge success. In Misha's words: "I caught the fish by myself. Grandpa didn't reel it in for me. Grandpa told me when to pull it up. Grandpa caught two and I caught three. All together we found eight, but we threw some back in because one was too small and some were bullfish that Grandpa didn't like to clean. And the bullfish didn't taste good in the summer time of year."

Three grandkids in the tub!

Clean little boys in pj's.

Bubbles in the backyard:
Up to the campus bookstore to see Grandpa in action

... and to engineering to see Grandma!

Cookie-making fun with Aunt Tanya

and watching ever more monarchs hatch:

A fun evening of croquet in the park.

and a great visit from Gloria and Bill

Grilling on Tanya and Aaron's deck


Sebby and Nara help with the husking.

Back to the kids' museum...

and McCrory Gardens

Soccer with Grandma and Grandpa ...

And you can't forget raspberry picking at Sanderson's Gardens! We had fun making jelly, jam, and pie with our treasures.

Our family threw us a wonderful goodbye party before our departure. We miss you!

Stay tuned for an update on life in Bishkek. :)