Although we have only been here a few days, I think that we were fairly well prepared for Astana, Kazakhstan. Susie and I have even discussed that we might have been a bit over-prepared. Of course, it is our first post in the Foreign Service, and like any place, things are going to be different. You need to know about the weather, availability of food and other products, cultural norms and customs... and it’s been fairly easy to find out whatever we have wanted to know. But you have to keep in mind who is telling you the information and what their experiences are, despite the difficulty in doing that when you haven’t met them. Every bit of information comes from someone who has different experiences from you and no matter how similar they might be, they won’t know exactly how you think.
When we were finding out information about living in Astana, it was emphasized again and again that the supply management of stores, especially grocery stores, was haphazard and prices for things (especially imports) were very different from what we were accustomed to in the U.S. In a given store, they might have a big shelf of sauces from America one week then the next week it has been replaced and you won’t see those same products for a month or more. Fresh foods like vegetables are even more unpredictable. They just buy what they can when they can, and “seasonal” takes on an entirely new meaning. The entire place is run like a closeout store.
That said, Susie and I lived in rural Japan for two years. I know that our experiences don’t apply one for one, but we know what it is like to be in a place where you never know what you can get. People here pine over peanut butter like it was as rare as gold (and not without reason, because it’s priced like gold when you can find it). But even in large cities in Japan you can’t find peanut butter. People complain of sticker shock when it comes to American foods and fresh vegetables, but so far, our experience in Japan was tougher. At least here you would recognize the vegetables they have. We sometimes wandered through the produce section of our Hok Food Market without seeing anything that seemed familiar. Worse, we would look up some things in our dictionaries, thinking that they might just be unusual in the U.S., only to find out that the translation didn’t help at all. We will never forget the almost entirely uninformative “Devil’s Tongue” entry in our dictionary.
We’ve been able to get apples, bananas, frankfurters, beef, bacon, eggs, sliced bread, carrots, lettuce, coke (of course!), frozen vegetable mixes, frozen pizza, and apparently in town there is a KFC and a Hardee’s. Some of it isn’t exactly the same as what we are used to, but even the things that are a little off are available, which is more than you could say for the middle of nowhere, Japan.
Our feeling of preparedness does come with one significant caveat, though. We are living in what is unquestionably the coldest capital city in the world. I know we have mentioned this to our families, but for anyone who doesn’t know, Astana holds the world record of forty degrees below zero in the winter. The marines in the embassy have shirts that call it the coldest post in the world, and when an eagle scout and U.S. marine with years of outdoor survival experience tells you it’s uncomfortably cold, you get a sense of how serious this is. We were made aware of the weather possibilities before we came out here, thankfully. We bought some intense cold weather gear in Washington. (On a side note, we got it extremely cheap. Down jackets go on clearance in 100+ degree summers.) We have boots and polypropylene long underwear on its way. We’re going to find fur-lined hats and gloves shortly. But we are still intimidated by the weather. Astana cold is overwhelming, soul-crushing and dry. We need to buy lotions and vaseline, balaclavas and goggles... it’s not going to be easy.
The only consolations are that we’ve lived in some very cold places before, so we have that experience, and people here agree that past a certain point, your body just doesn’t register the temperature being any colder. We won’t have to spend much time outside, but we just don’t know how bad it will really be, and it has got me worried. I suppose that making it through this will be good, though. They literally can’t post us anywhere that will be colder! We will have hit the limit, so any other place we go will be warmer.
At least I have these Mega Bacon potato chips to comfort me while I await the coming Winter.