Leaving Almaty was much like leaving every other place in our overseas lives — attending goodbye parties, winding down professional projects, helping our office and home staff find jobs, selling the stuff we wouldn’t take with us. But this time, we had the added challenges of moving into our new home far from both the States and Kazakhstan.

Once in Italy, I wrote early letters to family by hand. I was too busy setting up house to search for a computer with English-language programming. 

[Click on photos to enlarge.]

kazakhstan administrative map courtesy of Nations OnlineFrom Political Map of Kazakhstan, nationsonline.org



May 17
As you know, I’ve been hired by the Russell’s Washington consulting firm to write a short book featuring case studies of 10 successful NGOs which have been nourished by their Central Asia Rule of Law project. We’ll also have brief overviews of 10 others. The book will be in English and Russian, designed so that if you look at the Russian version, then flip it over, you’ll have the English text. I met today with Russell and staffer Oksana (translator/coordinator of the effort). We’re well on the way to bringing this task to fruition.

After that meeting, Russell, his project admin. officer and I conducted a workshop for local staff on first steps in seeking a job after this project ends. We’re trying to help them do something very strange to them. Under the Soviet regime, people were often simply assigned a job and did it for the rest of their lives. Under the new regime, people have to learn how to search for jobs, write resumes, interview, etc. This workshop series will hopefully help them develop these skills.

May 30
I’ll be coming to the States in July, seeing dentist and doctors, opening our storage in Virginia to sort our worldly goods, arranging shipment to Italy and contracting with an auctioneer to sell what won’t be hauled across the Atlantic.

August 1
My Stateside trip was all that I’d hoped for and more. Visits to dentist and doctors ended with positive reports, and I was able to talk by phone with both sides of our family. Dad came up to help with organizing our stored items. Friend Betty and I opened boxes and sorted while he kept inventory. The process took two days, but it would’ve been even more without him.

I managed to get just about everything on my shopping list — for ourselves, for the project and filling friends’ requests. Among the latter items: a raincoat for Valodya’s wife, Ludmilla, and a cocktail dress for one of the ALC staffers. (That was much more fun than finding 32 oz. of liquid protein for another staffer.)

people sitting on a mountainR & I had decided I should buy a tent for Valodya’s family, so they can stay overnight at their mountain property, where they’ve kindly hosted us and guests on numerous day trips. I found a perfect four-person tent at REI and set it up today with V’s help in our garden here. He’d never seen a dome tent and was fascinated by the engineering. Then I said, “This is a present from our family to your family, a thank-you for all the good times at your mountain dacha.” His eyes filled with tears.

Awhile back, I was recruited by Kazakhstan’s AGRO Private Farmers Association to write and produce a TV program which would also be distributed in videotape to other farmers’ groups. Their grant was approved weeks ago, but the check still hasn’t been written due to one man’s bureaucratic hassling at the U.S. Embassy. No one knows when the project can start, and our time here is winding down. With all that’s left to do, I’ve regretfully had to withdraw from the project.

I did manage to complete a short, bilingual video about the NGO conference some weeks ago at Lake Issykul. The Russian version was shown on Kazakh TV, and the English version got sent to DC for USAID consumption and distribution.

August 23
Russell’s been receiving a number of inquiries about doing some short-term consulting next year. Exactly what we’ve both hoped. Since these inquiries are coming from projects funded by a variety of donors, it’s a good sign he hasn’t been forgotten while “lost” in Central Asia.

August 30
R will return to DC for a “Chiefs of Party” Conference. A week-long trip, most of it traveling half-way around the world and back. I’ve asked him to buy bulbs for our Italian garden when he passes through Amsterdam airport.

September 5
I’ve been working on my Italian — oh, those irregular verbs! And why do we have to say both “the” and “my” as in “la mia machina”? I’m making painful progress. Studying a language when you’ve over 50 is tough. Researchers report the best time to learn new languages is before the age of 12 because of brain wiring. I believe ’em.

One of the reasons I want to get my Italian up to basic speed is that we have to install a kitchen from scratch. I need to be able to talk with potential suppliers, communicate what I need, discuss compromises and oversee installation.

September 23
The local International Lawyers Club President hosted a family dinner to say farewell. You never saw so much food in your life: a 6-foot table covered with fish, caviar, chicken, meatballs, sausages and fancy salads. When we’d eaten to the bursting point, they brought out the traditional bishbarmak [see Post # 33], and we had to find room to fit some of that in. Then came a variety of desserts and fruits. All this accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol — wine, champagne, vodka, cognac. Lots of good conversation and one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had here.

October 9
We were expecting to use our remaining vacation time visiting Pakistan, but we had to cancel the trip. I was concerned that Taliban’s conquest of Kabul could result in the new government shooting down a commercial flight by mistake. Not as farfetched as it seems. The old regime scrambled jets more than once to see who was flying above, and the PIA flight now crosses Kabul during the night, when it’s harder to identify an aircraft from a fly-by. Russell was less concerned than I, but we decided discretion was the better part of valor.

We got good news from our home office this week. They allow more air freight from here than we anticipated, and the company will contribute toward the moving of our effects from Virginia and their temporary warehousing in Italy, should the latter become necessary.

woman standing with a group of childrenOctober 23
I spent a morning at the School of Tomorrow, one of a chain of private primary schools based on the American model which have opened across the former Soviet Union. I was asked to speak English with the students, children of local elites. Mostly this consisted of answering their questions: “Do you know any Bible Stories?” “What’s your favorite color?” “How many rooms do you have in your house?” “When you were our age, did you take dancing lessons?” I brought a few photos of our Italian house, and guess which ones drew the most attention? The bathroom! They were full of interest that the toilet is in the same room as the bath and basin, that the shower is a modern, self-contained unit, and that bathrooms in the West have windows. All this is in great contrast to facilities here, which are usually dark, dank, poorly plumbed and in two separate, tiny rooms.

I’m trying to complete the Valued Inventory Form which the shippers sent. It’s extremely detailed, asking for a list with replacement value in Italy for every item in our shipment from Virginia. Impossible. When we were in the storage unit this summer, we didn’t know about this requirement, so Dad and I created the final list of “Box, kitchen,” “Box, MBR,” etc. And how are we supposed to know the replacement value in a country we haven’t lived in? All very frustrating. We’re sending the shippers a fax asking them for their advice. Surely we aren’t the only international family to have such a problem. We have to fill out a similar form for the stuff shipped from here, but that’ll be easier: at least we can see them.

October 31
Great news about our shipment of household goods from Virginia: very likely it’ll arrive during the two weeks we’ll be at the Italian house before coming to the States. No warehousing in Naples, and we’ll be home to receive the shipment and supervise unloading. We’ll have a sofa-bed to sleep on and won’t need many nights in a hotel. So we’ll be relaxed during R’s DC-based debriefing and while visiting family over the holidays.

November 7
Headaches: on Oct. 26, we received a fax from American International, which is handling our VA move, asking for documents required by the Italian authorities: copies of passports, resident visas, or applications if visas not yet granted, copies of airline tickets to prove we’re really coming.

I went to the Italian Embassy here to check whether we’d been granted our resident visas. No, but they’d fire off a missive to Rome and give us copies of the applications. I sent these documents and xeroxes of our passports via fax and pouch to AI.

Long story short, lots of glitches with everything, taking days and days with all entities refusing to budge until all paperwork was complete. The VA packers wouldn’t pack up our stuff, let alone the shippers schedule space on a boat. Finally, the major roadblock — photocopies of our tickets — was surmounted, and all seems to be well. (Hopefully.)

[Our final weeks were filled with moving goodbye parties, not the least of which were the office event and the ones hosted by Valodya’s family and by Sasha and Nadia’s. I was especially touched at a dinner given by two foreign diplomats during which their wives spoke with feeling about their regrets over what I’d endured from an International Women’s Club leader as I organized a team of researchers for the Almaty Guide, then wrote and edited the text. Their words meant a lot; that experience had been close to soul-shattering.]

Men and women dressed up in evening wearNovember 14
We went with three other American couples to the Marine Corps Ball. We’d shared many happy times with them, and this was one last chance to be together. Even if the women had to figure out what we could wear that was both warm in the freezing Almaty night and half-way “ball-ish.” During the speeches, I realized what a historic occasion it was. We were sitting in the private, ultra-fancy ballroom of the former Party big-wigs, celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marines and listening to the American Ambassador discuss our recent elections. Who could have predicted that I would be witness to such an event, especially given my generation? We never thought we’d see the fall of the Soviet Union, let alone dance the night away in the Party leaders’ ballroom.

Last weekend, I met with the new tenants of this house for a walk-through and discussion of how everything works. They agreed to keep Valodya at the same salary — a relief because he and Ludmilla haven’t been paid by their regular jobs in months. The tenants also bought nearly all the things we’re selling, so I have U.S.$ to spend on the Amelia house and don’t have to cart much to the office for a “garage sale.”

November 21
I’ve accomplished most of the work to export the cats [Mama and one daughter] to Italy, and friends there have identified a vet to neuter them and someone to board them while we’re in the States. I chased after three types of documents to satisfy both governments: a certificate of health and vaccination for the Italians, a certificate from the Kazakh Ministry of Agriculture and another ministry’s certificate that they are not national treasures. I got the “sky kennel” from KLM early, so they could get used to it. They think it’s a kitty playground.

We’ve had some happy news which may, unhappily, affect how long Russell will be in California. Honolulu-based firm PACMAR submitted a proposal to the Asian Development Bank for a three-month project in Vientiane with RBS as Chief of Party. Their proposal was ranked first on technical merit, so PACMAR will go to Manila in early December to negotiate the budget. Assuming that effort turns out well, ADB will require Russell and his team to be in Laos in mid-January. He’s very disappointed at the thought that he might not have as much time with his California family as hoped, but he really won’t have any choice if all goes according to ADB plan.

In that event, I’ll return to Italy alone and do all the house-tasks without benefit of R’s help and advice. Not exactly a perfect situation, but that’s the consulting business — you have to go when there’s work, not necessarily when it’s convenient. He’ll come to Italy sometime in mid-April to discover (I hope) a new kitchen, closets in the bedrooms and bulbs in the garden.

Political map of ItalyFrom Political Map of Italy, nationsonline.org



Empty kitchen

February 1
Today I celebrated two weeks in the house by having buttermilk pancakes for breakfast, cooked on a hotplate in the fireplace, surrounded by boxes in a completely stripped kitchen. Well, they weren’t exactly buttermilk pancakes. I had to use yoghurt instead of buttermilk & extra soda instead of baking powder, but they turned out OK, especially because I had a small bottle of pure maple syrup that I’d saved from one of the U.S. hotels during the holidays. After the remaining half-bottle is gone, it’ll be honey on those hot cakes.

Interesting to see what’s available in shops. Of course Italian specialities which are hard to find in America are plentiful & inexpensive. On the other hand, there’s no maple syrup or baking power, & you really have to search for soda. But I found Kellogg’s All Bran for muffins in Terni, the nearby town of 120,000. So it’s like every place for shopping — some things are easy, some things are hard or even impossible

I may not have a kitchen, but I’m thrilled by the plans. I’ve been working for the past week with the local furniture store (M.A.P.) to design the kitchen. I gave them the layout, chose cabinets, tile & appliances. Then they presented a scaled floor plan & computer images of how it would look. (All this service for free.) I’ve OK’d the plans, but it’ll be 4-6 weeks before delivery & installation, because most items have to be shipped from the suppliers.

We’re creating a country kitchen with Mediterranean colors, tile, etc. The cost is so low (for excellent quality) that I’m still pinching myself. I had frankly expected twice the price & almost fell off the chair when they showed me the estimate. A large part of the cost-savings is due to two factors: 1) This is the land of ceramic tile & marble, so these items cost c. 1/4 of what they would in the States; 2) The kitchen units are made in modules, so you just order so many from column A & ditto from B & C. Only one had to be constructed to specifications — I wanted a lower cabinet with a couple vertical dividers instead of shelves, so I could store trays and cookie sheets upright instead of stacked.

A big, public thank-you to [sister-in-law] Sylvia who sent those Sunset Books on kitchen design a year ago, while I was still in Almaty. By the time I was ready to take real-world decisions, Sunset had educated me on all the basics & the esoterics too.

While the kitchen will be inexpensive by U.S. standards, a lot of other things aren’t. For example, hooking up a telephone line with fax, phone & answering machine is costing over $1500, even though the line is already strung to the house. And I had to wait 2 weeks while we sorted out all the bureaucratic docs required. No docs, no phone. I still don’t have one. Bureaucratic gods willing, it should be operational c. Friday, February 7.

Speaking of red-tape, I haven’t been able to buy a car. A foreigner can’t buy a vehicle without a local-police document certifying that he/she does indeed live where he/she says. I’ve been trying to get this doc for 6 weeks, since we were here before our Stateside holidays. It’s now signed & sealed (literally), but it’s being held up by the top-ranking bureaucrat who hasn’t got around to looking it over. This situation is supposed to be resolved in the next week, when I’ll turn in the rent-a-car & buy my little Fiat (or whatever).

Despite the bureaucracy, I’ve found almost everyone to be unfailingly kind & helpful. For example, when I needed one metal washer to weight a mirror frame so it would hang straight, the local hardware folks just gave me one. The store which sold me a fridge & washing machine offered a significant discount & free delivery (from Terni!) as a sign of welcome. Yesterday, when I bought my vacuum cleaner after much discourse in my weak & ludicrous Italian, the cashier gave me a big smile & said, “Welcome to dis-eh koontree.”

And that’s the way I feel, most welcome to dis-eh koontree. Today, the vet was kind & considerate, despite having to deal with two cats in heat who don’t want to be handled. But he’s OK in their book, & mine too. (Maybe they’ll feel differently about him after their spaying in a few weeks…)

February 19
After a month of cooking on a hot plate in the fireplace, I no longer even have that! The reconstruction of the kitchen has begun, & right now, it’s utter devastation.

Maon with a jackhammer

All day yesterday, the mason was here, cutting channels in the stone walls for plumbing, gas & electric lines. Flying bits & dust everywhere. The cats were locked in upstairs, much perturbed about the noise & confusion, but especially the confinement.

Meanwhile, the electrician was outside, installing the first 6 of what will be 9 exterior lights in total, not counting the existing 3 lamp posts along the driveway. The covered terrace has 5, the main entrance one, & the patio 3. Altogether, we will have installed over 30 lights in this house. It seems strange that the custom here is to take them all with you when you move. And of course, the tradition of wall sconces means a house here has more lights than we would in the States. For example, there are 6 sconces in the living room, plus 2 overheads.

Acting as general contractor has really given my Italian a boost. Including a few swear words in local dialect…

Some of the furniture which I ordered has been delivered. Some rooms are starting to look more like a home & less like a warehouse. We shipped only our best furniture, putting the rest up for auction. So I’ve ordered 3 beds (1 double, 2 singles), 2 chests of drawers (delivered), an armoire for the storeroom & a large “china closet.” All are in keeping with a rustic Italian farmhouse, & I’m looking forward to seeing everything in place.

I’ve had 2 different firms come out for estimates on some construction projects: bookcases in the living room, shelves in the pantry & built-in closets in the bedrooms. The latter have so far proved to be more trouble that I could have imagined. As you know, the Italians use armoires (“armadios”) for storage — often massive pieces of furniture that cover a whole wall. The previous owner had built alcoves for his armadios. Therefore, 3 sides of a closet already exist. All that’s necessary is to frame in the remaining wall, add a door, a shelf plus a bar or two, & it’s done. Should be simple, right? Wrong!

Although others do such construction in the big cities, contractors here have never seen closets, so they think the idea is foolish, ugly & (my favorite response) unhygienic. “But, signora, how will you clean under them?” Yesterday, I had a younger, less hidebound construction engineer come out, & he was more amenable to what I want. Let’s wait for the estimate & see what the bad/good news will be.

The cats get spayed March 1, the kitchen cabinets & appliances will be installed that week, & I’ll celebrate my birthday. All’s well with RBS in Laos. So it’s happy times in our part of the family.


Italy, 1997:

Getting Our House in Order


Please take a moment to share your thoughts.
Your comments help make the blog better, and I always answer.



* * *

If you enjoyed reading this post, I hope you’ll SUBSCRIBE by clicking on the button below. Every month, when I post a new excerpt  from my life overseas, you’ll get an email with a link so you can read the next installment. Subscription is free, and I won’t share your contact information with anyone else. Your subscribing lets me know you’re reading what I write, and that means a lot.