In the Ramada Lobby
*As I write this I am sitting in the Ramada Lobby surrounded with Russian businessmen and the tinkling piano tune of the “Forest Gump” theme, having just gulped down a coffee and accompanying dried fruit.*
It has been a whirlwind week getting used to the ex-pat and diplo scene here. Full credit to the Embassy Community Liason Officers, they have kept me going with various trips to Supermarkets, COSTCO-like stores, English-speaking Dentists, Doctors, the largest shopping tent in the world and many lunches/ dinners amongst staff and other ex-pats.
I am growing more confident in my Russian attempts and now feel I know the Embassy drivers well enough to ask how they are doing and to order food in restaurants.
Luckily for me, I have also been the beneficiary of many ex-pats wisdom out here, learning several lessons about Astana life:
Lesson #1: Astana is really 3 different cities. There is the Astana of the summer, a city in which everyone sits outside, enjoys taking strolls, joins in various outdoor free performances and a time in which you are spoilt for choice in the markets. There is also the Astana of the winter, a city that reaches -40 in which everyone either freezes outside or overheats inside, lives off of the stock that they have hopefully begun hoarding during the summer months, join in ice-skating, ice-sculptures and cross-country skiing or else stay in watching TV and the one time you might more safely eat sushi, if you can get it. Finally, there is the Astana of the nighttime, a place that becomes a mass of amazing neon, 70’s to 80’s space-age sculptural buildings out of “Logan’s Run” and “Blade-Runner”, filled with nightclubs and wacky theme restaurants.
#2 Food, as mentioned above, needs to be hoarded (as well as water in some cases) when the eating is good. Everything here is on limited time offer aside from Vodka, Whisky, Shashlik and Cigarettes. Expiry dates can be way out and it is wise to give all produce a squeeze no matter how good it looks (Mr T and I speak from experience as our current slightly-off bellies may testify). Also, there can be days in winter when water is shut off completely so it might be useful to keep a kettle handy in the bathroom.
#3 Transport is never much of a problem, so long as you are willing to negotiate. Here there is a prevalent culture of gipsy cabs. Locals usually will just put a hand out and wait for any car to pull over, barter over a price for a lift (300 tenge for locals, 500 tenge + for us foreigners) and head out. Although we have been warned off doing this officially, most people admit it is relatively safe, even for single females, and a heck of a lot cheaper than an official taxi will run. We heard a story of a Kazakh woman that moved to London to study and not being very city-smart at that time, put her hand out for a gypsy cab, only to hail one of the few other Kazakhs in London who stopped because they recognised a fellow countryman.
#4 Having exact change will be the bane of my life here. It appears in all transactions, the onus is on the customer to have correct change. Every time I have had to use larger bills of tenge to pay for things I have been asked “Don’t you have change?” and am expected to apologise. The hotel is actually the worst so far as I never get the correct amount of change back.
#5 Here you eat when your food comes and are thankful for it! Service is of a different standard and it is not unusual for dishes to take eons to arrive, especially if you are with a big party. If everyone waited for all to be served there would be no hot meals! This may explain the prevalence of “Business Lunch Buffets” here, which are quite good deals actually (usually about £6 for an all-you-can-eat). Conversely, the minute you clean a plate or put down your silverware, it will be whisked away before you can blink.
At "Alibaba" Restaurant
#6 Women are expected to drink with straws, even if they order a beer. No matter that a lady will drink faster and get drunk faster this way, it is unladylike to gulp. I keep making a mistake and forgetting, only to find a straw stuck halfway up a nostril.
These lessons will no doubt become very handy in the coming months, but I have also been learning about the expat community quirks along the way. It has been absolutely wonderful meeting so many new and welcoming people, but it is certainly a different form of socialising to London life. I was recently introduced to the “Astana International Club” at their fortnightly “Coffee Morning” for spouses of expats and while lovely people, each and every one, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were aspects that were a bit old-fashioned. I’m not sure I will take to the Bridge afternoons and choral groups, but I suppose I should give everything a bit of a go. I suppose the fun in these things is what you make of them! I’m mainly a bit worried whenever I mention that I am trying to figure out what I will be doing here and various fellow ‘trailing spouses’ reply with, “Oh, so you are one of us.” I guess time will tell how true that is.