The Pizza Diary

When I found out my family and I were moving overseas, I knew there would be typical American things we’d miss in our new home. I tried to prepare for this by “packing accordingly” — bring favorite games and toys with us, stock up on comic books, pack an entire box full of Oreos, etc.

As it turns out, what I miss the most is pizza. Just plain ole pepperoni pizza.

You can find what passes for  pizza here, though Americans tend to think it’s a bit like everything else in Turkmenistan: “interesting”. I have found two typical types of pizza here — pide and cheese-topped-chorek.

Pide originated in Turkey (according to Wikipedia) and is a broad, round and flat bread made of wheat flour sometimes topped with ground meat. Chorek is the local bread of choice. It is about 1 inch thick and up to 12 inches around, and very dense.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy pide, and chorek is one of my favorite foods here! But neither are quite pizza.

So imagine my delight when one of my friends has pizza delivered to work for lunch… and it looks and smells and tastes like American pizza (almost)! “Where did you get this?” I asked.  It is obviously not from the usual expat-pizza-delivery-place. “Here is the number. There’s one lady that speaks a little bit of English.” Wait. They make actual pizza, they deliver, AND they speak English??? I feel like I just hit the jackpot!

I tuck the number away in my cell phone; saving it for a rainy day.

Well, it rained yesterday (literally). And my husband and I both got off work late. Neither of us felt like cooking. So here I come with my magic pizza phone number to the rescue!

“Алло. Рахат Pizza.”(Hello. Rahat Pizza.)

“Здравствуйте. Вы говорите по-английски?” (Hi. Do you speak English?)

“Да. Speak English.”

“Ok. I’d like to order two big pizzas.” (“Large” translates to “big” in Russian, so it is often easier to use “big” when ordering something in English.)

“Ok. Pizza. How many?”

“Two. два.”

“два?”(Two?)

“Да. два.”(Yes. Two.)

“и big?”

“Да. большой.” (Yes. Big)

Well, it is becoming apparent that this woman speaks English just slightly better than I speak Russian. That should make the next part of the conversation interesting. Have you ever tried to tell someone how to get to your house when there are no street signs, and only most of the streets have names… in a language you barely speak? Yeah….

“где you are?” (Where you are?)

I give my address, the name of the major street, and the name of a nearby landmark. I said all of these things once in English, and twice in Russian.

“Ok. 40 minutes, pizza come.”

Alrighty. All I can do now is wait and hope my garbled Russian and her less-than-perfect English was enough to get my family their dinner.

35 minutes pass. My phone rings. I don’t recognize the number. I answer.

“Hello?”

“Здравствуйте….”(Hello…)

It is a man. He goes on to say a lot more than “Hello”, but I don’t understand most of it. I am able to understand enough of the words to infer that he is the pizza delivery driver, and that he’s asking for directions to my house. Guess my Russian is worse than I originally thought it was.

“Извините. Я говорю только чуть чуть русский.” (I’m sorry. I only speak a little Russian.) I tell him.

“Есть тот, кто хорошо говорит по-русски?” (Is there someone who speaks good Russian?)

Um… no. No there isn’t. My husband’s Russian is just as horrible as mine.

I head down to the lobby of my building, and walk outside to see if the driver is at least in the neighborhood. There are no cars that I don’t immediately recognize. I wonder just how lost this poor guy is.

I go back inside, and realize that the concierge would know how to give directions to the building in Russian! However, I also realize that they speak virtually no English; and I have no idea how to say “I ordered pizza and need directions” in Russian…

I decide to just try in English. They understand “pizza” (it’s the same in Russian). And they understand my “please talk to the person on my phone” gesture. The concierge speaks to the lost driver for what felt like 5 minutes in not Russian, but Turkmen. Apparently directions to my house are far more complicated than I thought.

I wait outside. I see a car that I’m not familiar with pulls up. A man gets out and starts speaking Russian. I can’t hear him.

“Извините?”(Excuse me?)

“вы Aмериканскa?”(You American?)

“Да.”(Yes)

“Pizza?”

“Да!”

I feel like a dunce, but we have our pizza… and it’s still hot!

The lesson: if you want pizza in Turkmenistan, go to the restaurant!

The half-eaten pizza and the menu attached to the box of Rahat pizza.

The half-eaten pizza and the menu attached to the box of Rahat pizza.

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Groceries

My family and I went grocery shopping this weekend. Nothing out of the ordinary. We just went to one of the local malls, which happens to have a large “Walmart-type” store – it has home goods, cleaning supplies, some toys, and food. We spent 300 manat. That sounds like a lot, but it is equivalent to about $85.74 US. Considering everything we purchased… it’s pretty darn cheap, by just-arrived-from-DC standards anyways.

So, what does 300 manat get you?

One large glass mixing bowl,
just over 2 kilos of apples,
a bunch of carrots and cucumbers,
dishwasher soap,
2 liters of Fuse Tea (with a glass),
2 sticks of butter,
a medium jar of honey,
2 small cans of Pringles-type chips,
a package of noodles,
a loaf of bread,
dish soap,
3 trays of cookies,
a package of rolls,
4 boxes of cereal,
bathroom cleaner,
4 liters of milk,
a package of mushrooms,
a kilo of chicken,
a kilo of ground beef,
a block of cheese,
2 season packets,
3 bags of interesting-flavored Lay’s chips,
3 pieces of pizza,
1 pida,
2 large bottles of water,
and 10 packs of instant coffee…
plus a free taxi ride home and a free “surprise” hair dryer

Of course, this is from the expensive grocery store – just imagine the prices at local bazaars!

What $85 US buys in the expensive Turkmen grocery stores - the hair dryer was a free gift!

What $85 US buys in the expensive Turkmen grocery stores – the hair dryer was a free gift!

Bakery, produce, and pizza section of the grocery store.

Bakery, produce, and pizza section of the grocery store.

Beautiful Ruins

We have been in Turkmenistan for about three weeks now, and have met many new people and seen many new things.

Our first real “outing” in-country was to a mosque just outside of Ashgabat. It is the shrine of Seyit Jamal ad-Din. It was an architectural monument of the XV century, but  now lies in ruins because of the 1948 earthquake. It is nevertheless stunningly beautiful, and many Turkmen make pilgrimages there.

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The view of the shrine of Seyit Jamal ad-Din as you approach. This used to be the back of the mosque.

Before the earthquake, the shrine was known for its distinctive and ornately decorated mosaic – depicting two dragons – over the central arch. Today, the base of the pillars of the mosque are still visible.

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Pilgrims walk around a shrine in front of the remnants of the mosque’s once ornate pillars.

Pieces of the mosaic that covered the archway are scattered about. They give you a sense of just how beautiful this place was.

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Remnants of mosaic tiles give a glimpse of the mosque’s former beauty.

Amongst the rubble, you see trinkets everywhere. Parents leave these while praying for the birth of children – a key if you want a boy, and a hairpin if you want a girl. I’m told this practice is unconventional for Islam, and stems from local traditional beliefs.

Keys and hairpins left at the shrine by parents praying for the birth of children.

Keys and hairpins left at the shrine by parents praying for the birth of children.

After visiting the shrine, many families stop at a nearby building to eat. There is no restaurant, but out-door stoves and large pans are provided for preparation of foods.

A small building provided for eating and rest after a pilgrimage.

A small building provided for eating and rest after a pilgrimage.

Local women clean after preparing food for their families.

Local women clean after preparing food for their families.

No matter what your religion, the Shrine of Seyit Jamal ad-Din is a beautiful and serene place to visit.

Remnants of the great pillars that once stood at the mosque.

Remnants of the great pillars that supported the famous arch that once stood at the mosque.

8 Things I learned my First Week in Turkmenistan

We have arrived! After a very long plane ride — and massive jet lag — we have started settling into our new life. This is my family’s first time living overseas. We weren’t really sure what to expect when we arrived here. We had been told that Turkmenistan is an “interesting” place, and after being here for almost two weeks, I can certainly attest to that. Ashgabat, the capitol city, is an amazingly beautiful place. The locals have been very kind and polite. But there are some things that took me by surprise. To give you an idea of what Turkmenistan is like, here are 8 things I learned within my first week of living here.

Fountain in the middle of Ashgabat

Fountain in the middle of Ashgabat.

  1. The Turkmen people respect their elders. On a 30 minute bus ride, I saw at least three young people give up their seats for an elderly person.
  2. Turkmens like children. On New Year’s Eve, our first day in country, our “sponsor” took us to lunch. A man sitting at the table next to us left the restaurant, went to the shop next door, bought two candy bars, and gave them to my kids as we were leaving. Just about everywhere we have gone, I have had people come up to me and tell me how cute my kids are (at least I’m assuming that’s what they’re saying because my Russian is very poor!). Even the police are not immune to the adorableness of a child. My daughter smiled and said “Здравствуйте” (“hello”) to a police man, and he smiled back… Which is, as I’m told, quite the feat because police men here rarely smile at anyone.
  3. Police men rarely smile. There is a huge police presence in the city of Ashgabat. There seems to be a police man on every corner guarding government buildings. They stand at their posts, or march a small circuit, stopping people from taking photos.
  4. It is illegal to take photos of government buildings. And because so many things here are State run, there are a LOT of government buildings. Most of those buildings are intricate white marble structures with accents of gold, blue, or green. The city is quite honestly a photographer’s dream. Except for the fact that you aren’t allowed to take pictures of most things. Ironic.
  5. Irony seems rampant here. The U.S. Embassy is located on 1984 street. Just across the street from a Lenin statue. Neither of which you are allowed to photograph. Yep. The Orwellian future has arrived. 😉
  6. You have to have a sense of humor to live here. There are so many little quirks. Both of the dominant languages — Turkmen and Russian — are very difficult to master. If you can’t laugh at the situation when all your ex-pat friends are rushing to the local grocery store because of a rumor of fresh broccoli, or at yourself when you “moo” at a butcher because you’ve forgotten the local word for “beef”… You’re going to have rough time here.
  7. There are people to help you adjust. The ex-pat community here is so welcoming. I can’t tell you how many times people we’d only known for 5 minutes invited us over for dinner (and gave us the left-overs!), offered to drive us to the grocery store, or offered to pick up things we need and deliver them to our apartment. I came here expecting to be a bit lonely, isolated, and expected to have to struggle through my first week. Honestly, I expected to have a mental melt-down. But because of the kindness of strangers, that didn’t happen.
  8. The idea of “Pay it Forward” is genuine among the ex-pat community here. They’ve all been in my shoes. And they all know the struggle of adjustment. Hopefully one day I will be able to show another family the kindness I have been shown.

Becoming Real

My “pack-out” was yesterday. That means most of my family’s possessions were boxed up, and are now on their way to our new home. Our new home very, very far away.

Our new home is somewhere in this sea of lights.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Our new home is somewhere in this sea of lights and marble. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the past six months, I’ve known that my family would be  moving on from our temporary residence in D.C. For six months, I have been preparing for this new “globe-trotting life”. And for six months, part of me believed it wouldn’t happen.

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Me. Not believing that change is coming.

As I look around the now barren apartment, my new life becomes real. This is happening. Next month, my children will be attending school in a country that is half way around the world from here. We will be the minority. We will speak very little of the language. It is nerve racking.

It is also incredibly exciting! We are being welcomed into a country that few Americans ever see, or even know exists — I certainly had never heard of Turkmenistan before I was told we were being posted there. We will be able to learn two languages while we are there: Turkmen (the official language) and Russian (the “business” language)… At least I hope that we will pick them up! And we will experience many local holidays. My daughter is especially excited about Carpet Day and Melon Day!

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Amy is excited about the excess of packing paper available to her!

It is real. After spending the next month or so stressing about living out of suit cases, getting paperwork in order, getting last minute health check-ups, and spending almost 20 hours straight in airplanes and airports, we will start over. We will finally embark on our adventure!

Hope the world is ready for the awesomeness that is my family! ;)  Photo courtesy of Olivia Fischer

Hope the world is ready for the awesomeness that is my family! 😉
Photo courtesy of Olivia Fischer.

“Emergency”

At some point in everyone’s life they are asked the question “If you only had 5 minutes to get out of your house, what would you take?”. This morning, I got my answer.

A few minutes after waking up today, while everyone was still lounging about in PJ’s and deciding what we were going to eat for breakfast, we hear an alarm in the hallway of our apartment building. My husband opens the door to investigate. The emergency lights are flashing and fire alarms are sounding. “There has been a fire related emergency in the building. Please use the nearest stairwell to exit. Do not use elevators”, is the automated message being played.

“Get pants on!” My husband yells to the kids.

“What’s going on, Daddy?”

“There’s a fire alarm. We need to go outside.”

The kids run to their bedroom and pull on their fleece pj pants on under their night shirts. My husband grabs the leash. The dog is excited. She loves walks!

I run around the house frantically trying to find the cat. Normally, she commandeers one of the kids’ beds after they get up in the morning, but she’s not there.

My husband takes the slipper-clad children and the over-excited dog down the stairwell and outside.

I finally find the MIA cat hiding under the bed. Apparently she is not impressed by all the “early” morning commotion. I drag her out and put her in her carrier.

I shove my phone in my pocket, and grab the hard-drive with 10 years of my artwork cataloged on it as I run out the door.

Outside, there is a small group of people wondering aloud “What’s happening?” “Is this a false alarm?” “Do YOU know what’s going on?”

Someone on the seventh or eighth floor yells from their balcony. “Hellloooo!” They wave happily and laugh at the “paranoids” who actually decided to heed the alarms and vacate the building. I shake my head and hope, for their sake, that it IS just a false alarm.

My son shivers. It’s about 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and both children are in tank-tops. My husband takes off his wool jacket and puts it around our daughter’s shoulders. My son stands close to her as I button them both in the over-sized jacket. They look like a funny two-headed, four legged cartoon character, but at least they’re warm now.

We hear sirens down the street. The fire department here has a fast response time. The alarms have been sounding less than 5 minutes before two fire trucks are parked outside our building. Firemen fully clad in gear – several with oxygen tanks – file fearlessly into the building.

We wait outside, talking with our neighbors. All taking mental inventories of our belongings still inside.

Soon, the firemen exit the building. They look both relieved and annoyed. It was a false alarm. It was safe to go back inside. No one was hurt. There was no fire. No emergency.

We breathe a sigh of relief and climb the stairs back home.

As I cross the threshold of my apartment, I realize that my family may have a lot of “stuff”, but very little of that is important.

In all, we took the clothes on our backs (plus pants!), easy to slip on shoes, a phone, an easily-accessible hard drive, the pets, and ourselves.

Today I learned that we were willing to lose most of our possessions. It is all replaceable.

Today, I learned the most important things in my life are my family, my pets, my art… and pants.

Today, I learned that you cannot forget the pants!

Just Another Day

Today has been a productive day at my house.

It’s raining. The kids’ bus was 20 minutes late. And it’s “cold” — a whole 64°F (all my Utah friends are rolling their eyes and laughing at me right now). Normally, I would be in a pretty foul mood under these circumstances.

But today is different. Today I decided to be positive.

Today, despite the cold, wet, and late start, I have been able to read the news, attend an important meeting that I nearly forgot about (thank you Google Calendars for the reminder!), work on a new piece of Art, study Russian, admire the subtly-changing colors of a new Season, write a short blog post, and take a couple cell phone photos. And the day isn’t over yet.

Never mind the fact that my “To Do” list is about a mile long. “Productive” is a relative term.

My good friend taught me to “Celebrate the small victories”, and I intend to do just that.

So be happy today. Be productive. And celebrate. Because today is another good day.

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