Saturday, December 31, 2011

Presenting Misha the Snowman

Since New Year is the focal point of the season here, school children don't even start their vacation until around Dec. 28. That fact plus our work schedule, the cold weather, and being sick made us decide to celebrate our Christmas on New Year as well, thus magically gaining an extra week to do Christmas shopping. It wasn't hard to explain to Misha that Dyed Moroz (Father Frost, aka Santa) comes on Dec. 31 in Kyrgyzstan. All the children here have to wait until then for their presents.

Even so, we did let the boys open a few presents on Christmas Day, and we enjoyed a breakfast of snowman-shaped pancakes.

On Wednesday, I got to see the results of Misha's much-anticipated, much-rehearsed Novi God (“New Year”) school program. It was adorable! (I am aware that I am probably biased).

Before the big event, we had to buy Misha a white shirt and white pants to wear under his snowman costume. We found a good shirt, but to Misha's dismay, we could only find grey pants in our last-minute shopping run. However, we discovered that if we turned them inside out, the soft white lining looked just like snow. With Misha appeased, we took his white clothes to school the next day. I sent Misha off to his classroom, only to have him come running back out saying that his teacher wanted to talk to me. Oh great, I thought. (His teacher is a nice Russian lady, and Russian people in my experience are extremely blunt.) Didn't you bring any white tights? she asked in Russian. I confessed that the only pants we could find were these sweatpants. She looked at the pants and gasped in surprise, "Ani na-iznyanku, chto-li?!" (which would translate rather like, "You meant to tell me they're inside-out?!") -- to which I explained that Misha and I thought they looked nice and snowy. She paused and said, “Nu, da, mojet-bit.” (Well, yes, maybe.) In the end, they worked out perfectly. After all, it's only a party for six-year-olds and their own parents!

My cute little snowman

Santa, Kyrgyz style

Misha and his partner performed a Snowman Dance

All the kids in Misha's class were dressed up in various costumes, from mini Santas to snowmen to animals and even pirates. The teaching staff also dressed up to give the performance its own Dyed Moroz (Father Frost), Sniegurichka (Snow Girl, the granddaughter of Father Frost), Baba Yaga (the Russian witch of folktales), a snow-woman, and an animated bag of toys. The kids sang and danced and remembered their choreography quite well! This time, Misha was able to sing along much better now that he has learned more Russian, and it was easy to tell he really enjoyed doing the songs and dances. At the end of the show, Dyed Moroz reached into his bag of toys and gave each child a big bag of candy and a game. 

This is a short clip from their performance. They sing, "Ni zamyorz! Ni zamyorz! Ni adin iz nas. Dyed Moroz, Dyed Moroz, greyet nas sechas" - (Don't freeze, don't freeze, not one of us. Father Frost, Father Frost, warms us up right now.)

Afterward in the hustle and bustle of parents collecting their children and getting them changed back into their normal clothes, Misha whispered to me conspiratorially , “Mom, do you know who that Dyed Moroz REALLY is? He's our teacher, the one who teaches us the dances!” He is firm in his belief that the real Santa is indeed out there, although his questions are getting more detailed, like his recent query, “Is Santa really real, or does he have an airplane?” Way back in summer, he came up with one that still makes me smile: “Do the elves make ALL the toys, or only the wooden ones?”

A few other cozy moments:
Sebby loving his hot cocoa.

Little watercolor painters

Misha's masterpiece

A moment of peace: brothers watching the Grinch.

We have just witnessed the craziest fireworks display we have ever seen at midnight. People have been setting off firecrackers all day, gradually increasing as the hour grew later, but nothing could have prepared us for 12:00. We watched open-mouthed from our window as some people shot Roman candles directly from their apartment windows while other groups of people spread out below to blast firecrackers across the small courtyard. Little children as young as five and six clutched firecrackers as long as their arms. Huge city fireworks lit up the sky in green and red in the background as misfired balls of sparks went spitting across the lawn, crashing into our building and exploding. Car alarms went off left and right from the jolts of deafening explosions. A mini hot-air balloon drifted as high as the 9-story building across from us before catching fire, falling rapidly, and burning out from its position stuck in a tree. This went on for more than half an hour, with intermittent firework fun continuing the rest of the night. Thank goodness for winter and cement buildings!

Today, Josh and I finished last-minute wrapping, while Misha conspired with Daddy about my presents and then conspired with me to finish up our secret gift for Daddy that we've been working on for quite some time. We also made oatmeal chocolate-chunk cookies, some of which we left out for Santa. I asked Misha, “Do you think Santa needs one or two?” “Mom, he's HUNGRY! I think he needs four!” was his response.

Now the boys are sleeping peacefully (they missed the midnight madness), and Josh and I are looking forward to watching them discover their stockings and toys in the morning.


Our family time in December was spent mostly adding ever-more decorations to our house, playing outside for brief periods at a time, and listening to our Christmas music classics (thanks to Misha, who has been playing them steadily since early November). Here is a barrage of recent photos:

The boys proudly display our Christmas chain:

Our count-down to the 25th has all of its doors open ... so we made another week-long calendar that goes until New Year's Eve!

Misha and I cut out snowflakes, and he helped me tape up the cut-out letters for our "Merry Christmas!" message. Misha has since made origami bells as well.

Sebby has been pretty good (most of the time) about just picking up and moving around the presents without opening them. He pretends to read the labels, running his finger along the paper and saying, "To Sebby!" And instead of saying "Christmas tree" or "Merry Christmas," he simply refers to everything as "Merry Christmas tree!"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Through the stomach

Perhaps the way to the heart of a culture is through the stomach. If that's the case, then we are doing an amazing job. Not only have we been enjoying national dishes at the restaurants, but we have been cooking them at home (with lessons from our friends) and accepting invitations to neighbors' feasts  - all of which have been keeping our bellies full and our hearts content.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance who lives in our area invited us to his home to have an evening meal with his family. When we arrived, we were promptly led to a table packed to the brim with salads, fruits, cookies, and tea. The boys nibbled and played with a new friend, the four-year-old daughter, while we drank tea, chatted, and obediently followed the commands of our hosts to eat more. A short while later, out came the main course - even though we were already stuffed! Of course we ate more anyway, as it was delicious manti, a type of steamed dumpling stuffed with meat and onions.

Jyldyzbek and his daughter.

Sebby at the feast.

On to the cooking lessons! In this photo is the gan fan that Saule and I made. Since I used to cook with Saule last time we were in Kyrgyzstan, it's about time we did it again. Gan fan is one of my favorite Kyrgyz dishes. First, you fry lamb (or beef) in a generous amount of oil. Later, you add the veggies - peppers, carrots, onion, garlic, raddish, cabbage, or whatever you like. Add a bit of water and season with a bit of tomato paste, salt, pepper, and hot peppers if you like. Serve over rice. Delicious! We've been making this at home a lot lately.

Then Anara taught me the Kyrgyz way of making plov, something I've attempted to recreate but haven't gotten quite right. Again, you fry meat in oil, later adding rice, onions, carrots, and garlic. It's delicious served with a salad of tomato, cucumber and onion.

Anara also makes fabulous manti. On a cold snowy night, we happily walked the short distance to her house to eat finger-scalding manti taken straight from the mantejnitza - a cool stacking manti-steamer (like this).

Anara's manti, waiting to be gobbled up along with spicey salads and hot tea.
Misha and I enjoy the meal.

On another occasion, Anara showed me how to make samsa, made from triangular-shaped, layered dough (rather like filo) filled with your choice of meat (chicken, in this case) and onions.

Fold them up ...
Bake them until the kitchen smells wonderful ...

and enjoy!

Misha and Alihan dig in.

Another of my favorite Kyrgyz dishes is uchpuchmaki. Not only is it fun to say, but it makes a perfect portable snack. The uchpuchmaki that I buy on the way home from work look far more professional, but mine still turned out pretty well. The dough is bready, which I made from a rather arbitrary mix of milk, yeast, egg, flour, and salt. For the filling, I prefer lamb (or beef) with potatoes, green onion, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper, and a bit of oil or lamb fat. Brush a bit of beaten egg on the tops before baking to a golden brown.

Of course, we don't eat Kyrgyz food all the time. We make our fair share of pancakes, crepes, French toast, Ramen noodles, pizza, chicken with broccoli, omelets with hashbrowns, and stew, lots of stew. And now that we have brown sugar (thanks to my parents' care package), we are back to making cookies! Our oatmeal-peanut-butter-chocolate-chunk turned out so satisfyingly American that they disappeared in two days. We may need more brown sugar ...

Misha and Sebby are always quick to volunteer to help with the cookies!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Let it snow

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful.
Since we've got no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

After a few teases of snow which melted within a day, we finally have a white world. The grass is no longer visible, and the sidewalks are covered with icy patches that no one shovels or salts, making for interesting walks around town. Misha is always thrilled to look out the window and see the flakes swirling down, and snow always makes me feel nice and cozy as well, especially as snow brings the promise of Christmas.

Misha got a head start on his letter to Santa; he wrote it in November! He cleverly asked for two laser flashlights so that Sebby would have no excuse to steal Misha's.

We have been busy with all the fun traditions of the season. First up, sugar cookies! Mix, roll, cut, bake, cool, frost, sprinkle. They turned out pretty good, although not exactly like my American version.

And of course, Misha and I have an annual tradition of making a Christmas-tree shaped calendar with doors counting down to the big day. This is our third ever Christmas calendar. It certainly helps motivate Misha to wake up in the morning. I simply say, "You can go open another door!" and his eyes pop open. Off he runs to the calendar - even though he's the one who drew all the pictures behind the doors in the first place!

The big, bright stockings that arrived in the mail from Grandpa and Grandma really make the house feel Christmasy. And this week, Josh and I went to the bazaar to get a (fake) tree, so now we are in full Christmas mode.

Misha eagerly decorated our tree. We used our play-dough snowmen and hearts, as well as a few origami things and some ornaments we bought at the bazaar.

Misha's play-dough snowman.

Sebby's star

After Grandma mentioned that walnut shells could make great turtles, Misha decided we should try it out. Our turtles turned out super cute!

The only logical follow-up was to make a few Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Sebby is delighted with the Christmas tree. He keeps running over to it, shouting out the color that the lights are glowing at that moment. "Bluuuuuuuuue!" he cries, jumping up and down. He also keeps touching the ornaments to make them move. "See dat? See dat, mama? I make it wiggle!" He has already opened one of his presents, which I had to re-wrap. So far, he has tipped the entire tree over only once.

Misha has been busy creating his own projects and games to wrap up and put under the tree. He made a top-secret origami present for me, but he needed a bit of help with step 4 so I gave him a consult. And again for step 6, and 7, and 8. So I unintentionally saw the final product, but as Misha said brightly, "At least you won't know what I'm writing on it! How do you spell 'Happy Merry Christmas'?"

Holiday celebrations at the boys' school are in full swing now as well. Both boys come home singing "yolochka" (little pine tree) songs in Russian and Misha has been showing me the dances they practice for the New Year Show they will soon perform. 

In Kyrgyzstan as in Russia, New Year is the big holiday which includes the tree, opening gifts, and visits from Dyed Moros (Grandfather Frost) and Snegurichka (Snow Girl, the granddaughter who helps deliver presents). A huge, towering yolka (pine tree) has recently been erected in the downtown plaza of Bishkek, and soon Dyed Moros and Snegurichka will be there to visit with excited children. 

I really appreciate how the New Year holiday here encompasses the fun children's traditions as well as the generosity and good will of the season without binding itself jealously to one religion or another. The Kyrgyz people are generally Muslim, though not in a very strict sense, while the Russians are generally Russian Orthodox (they celebrate their Christmas on Jan. 7) -- but everyone celebrates a joyful New Year.