Kazakhstan Trip! The Night Train to Almaty

The last person to whom we had to say goodbye was our translator, Ed. We can’t help but feel if Ed had been in charge of this trip from the beginning, instead of us, there would have been *zero* mishaps, because Ed is a most excellent new member of the Fisk family support staff.

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A few, of many examples, are as follows:

(1) Hotel receptionist to Scott: “How many nights will you be staying in Karaganda?”

Scott: “I don’t know. I don’t even know what day it is.”

Ed, consulting his little brown notebook: “They will be staying [fill in the correct # of nights here] and will need a taxi to the train station on [fill in correct date here] at [fill in correct time here].”

(2) Me: “Um, Ed? I brought a gift for you from the US — some tea from Charleston, SC — but I had to give it to Uncle Vasiliy, b/c I forgot Oksana had a second brother. Scott said you’d probably rather have a tip for your gift anyway . . . sorry I’m a screw-up.”

Ed: “It’s okay. And it’s pronounced Va-sa-lay. [waits until I have the correct pronunciation, for the moment at least]. Also, Scott is right.”

(3) Ed: “Do you have your coat?”

Me: “No — I’m okay.” [It was warmer in Kaz. than we thought it would be.]

Ed: “I think you should probably get your coat.”

Me, hours later, chill from the wind: “Ed? I’m glad you sent me back for my coat.”

Throughout the trip, Ed kept his eye on all the things I was wont to leave behind: coat, sunglasses, etc. And we made a deal with him that he honored well (at least, we think he did): he was not to translate anything we said that was inappropriate or stupid. 🙂

Ed and Scott were bowling rivals; they bowled just the two of them before we met the family, and it was Scott and Ed who came up with the idea to make their favorite Kaz activity into a family fun night. Coming soon (once I figure out how to upload video): Ed performs a “victory dance” after his strike. Scott told everyone that they had to dance, b/c it’s an American tradition. I’m not a bowling expert (I can count on one hand the # of times I’ve bowled), but I think he made that up.

Ed saw us off today before leaving for his home in Ukraine, where he lives with his wife and two kids, and where he works as an English grammar instructor. Before he left, he said that we were working together but are now “friends” and that we are “good people.” Right back at you, our Ukrainian friend.

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^ Aunt Nadya and Uncle Yasha love Ed too. As Arina said: “He’s such a good Ed.”

As for the night train back to Almaty . . . Scott and I have decided that train classes are similar to hotel classes. We thoroughly enjoyed our train ride to Karaganda, but nonetheless, it was a Motel 6 compared to the Holiday Inn we rode back to Almaty.

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Plush blue seats that fold into large beds, a television over the window, a complimentary pack of travel necessities and treats, etc. Adding to our comfort was the fact that we actually understood how things work this time around. Scott had his shoes on and was ready to go when we stopped around lunchtime, and he came back with freshly fried fish (we had just passed a large lake area), noodles, and juice.

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Still, he was a bit out of sorts when he got back to our cabin. He told me that some Kazakh lady was really mad at him, and kept pulling on his arm, and he didn’t know why. “I don’t know where she wanted me to go,” he said, “but I wasn’t going with her.” A few minutes later . . . the “really mad” lady came and explained.

She didn’t speak English, but it only took a few minutes (through memory, charades, and the one word of English she kept repeating) to understand what had happened. The lady was actually our next door neighbor on the train, and she had seen Scott pull out his wallet and flip through what probably looked like a lot of tenge to pay the vendor. The lady mimed Scott having his wallet snatched and said, in very clear English, “STUCK!” She pointed to him, and then to me, and then to Arina with an especially tragic look on her face and said, “STUCK!” She had been trying to pull him back on the train but was satisfied when he broke free and went back there himself.

Yep . . . if Scott’s wallet had been snatched . . . we would have been “stuck” indeed. Scott took her hand, bowed his head, and said “spaseeba” (Russian for “thank you”). She then smiled in a very motherly way, shook her finger again, and went next door — no doubt to tell her husband what the “crazy American” did.

She should definitely be a member of the support staff too.

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Day 2 with our Kazakh Family, or: My Big Fat Greek Wedding Goes Bowling (Kazakh style)

I’ve already mentioned that meeting our Kazakh family is like something out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but let me be more specific. It’s like this scene, with just a few revisions.

(1) Instead of all the Nicks, we have: Irina, Arina, Elena, Zarina, and Marina — and Eliza, pronounced, Eleeza, so that it rhymes with all the others. 🙂

(2) Instead of the patriarch Gus, we have the matriarch Granny Valentina.

(3) Instead of being shocked and horrified at the chaos of it all, we absolutely *love* it. We love it so much, in fact, that we decided to take our “big fat greek wedding” family bowling! — Kazakh style.

So we rented a taxi van/bus that sits 12+ people and arranged to pick up aunt/cousins/sister/uncle at Granny’s house. Of course, on the way inside, Arina had to pause for this:

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It seems that a hallmark of Kazakh culture is an outpouring of affection, even from its animals.

We didn’t stay at Granny’s house long today, because everyone was excited about bowling, but — of course — Granny had her special “goodbye, be good” moment with Arina, and what I especially like about this photo is how happy Ira looks in the background, as she’s flipping through photographs from yesterday that Scott — in a stroke of genius — had developed at a 1-hour photo shop before our visit.

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The family was so impressed by Scott’s photos that they wanted to take even more today than yesterday . . . and we took *a lot* yesterday. Here is a rare family photo that Scott and I actually escaped somehow. I don’t know how we did it. I must have been talking to Granny. Liza (daughter of Aunt Elena), in the Adidas sweatshirt, seemed more interested in taking photos with me and Scott than with Arina. She had someone take a photo with us at every single location we visited: Grannny’s house; on the bus (she had saved me a seat beside her); at the bowling alley; at the hotel. Also in the photo: Aunt Nadya, who had to work at the sausage factory yesterday, but who was able to come out and play today!

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The bus ride was festive, as expected — but even more so because Ed had translated Arina Speaks! (our fundraising project):

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Yes: Arina Speaks! is now available both on Amazon and in Russian. Everyone also enjoyed an original Arina-ism below:

Arina: “It’s too bad Granny couldn’t come bowling with us.”

Me: “Yeah — but it’s hard for Granny to walk, you know.”

Arina: “Yeah — I know. Oh well. I’m *sure* she would have won, had she been able to come.”

The image of Granny winning the figurative bowling trophy, promptly translated by Ed, made everyone laugh — but, Arina reminded us of Granny’s how-I-met-your-grandfather story yesterday:

Babuska and Dedushka were young and living in the same hostel; they were playing cards with a large group in Babushka’s room, and were the last two standing; Babuska won the card game and Dedushka was so impressed that he just decided to stay. 🙂

So, yeah: had Granny been able to bowl today, she may have won; and she may have secured husband #3.

The Valentina family was the most impressive group at the bowling alley, if I do say so myself, even though many of us were bowling for the very first time. By the end of it all, I think every single one of us had scored a strike (for me, it was my next to last play after probably-a-hundred straight gutter balls). We played so many rounds that I don’t think any of us will be able to use our arms tomorrow, but I think part of the reason we played on and on and on (seriously: I lost count) was that we just didn’t want the day to be over. And, we had pizza and fries and beer and wine and apple juice and orange juice and chocolate and:

Me, to Scott: “Did you order Arina ice cream?”

Scott: “No.”

Me, to Arina: “Who ordered you ice cream?”

Arina: “Uncle Yasha. He asked me if I wanted some, and I told him ‘no,’ but he didn’t believe me and ordered it anyway. He did read my book, you know.” [see Beverly Luria’s illustration of Arina’s ‘favorite thing’ about the zoo, below.]

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Although Arina “didn’t even want ice cream,” she managed to finish it with Andrew’s help.

And, we took lots and lots of photos . . .

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^ of the grownup girls (Aunt Nadya, me, and Elena);

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^ of the grownup boys (Yasha and Scott);

and of the kids!

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^ Eliza and Ira

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^ Christina and Arina

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^ Ira and Arina

After bowling, the adults talked for an hour in the hotel lobby while the kids watched television and played in our room. I’ll have to write about that conversation in more detail later, but it was lovely and is pretty easily summarized by: I love love love love love you. As for goodbyes: I’ve never had so many hugs and kisses, b/c Kazakhs don’t just hug. We all held it together pretty well, except for Uncle Yasha. I considered making a dash for Kleenex, or at least toilet tissue, more than once for him. But, he managed to pull it together for one last fun-Uncle-Yasha photo and all was very, very well.

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Kazakhstan trip! Day 1 with our Kazakh Family

So we were a little nervous about going to visit Arina’s birth family today, because our translator, Ed, went to see them yesterday to arrange our visit, and he warned us that they are “very poor,” emphasis on the very. In fact, he said that Granny asked for us to bring some fruit and candy from the market, and he seemed to suspect that what we brought might be the only food that was served — so he suggested we get some bread and cheese and sausages too.

We got up early to go to the market before our noon visit, and we got everything Ed suggested and then some. Then, we went over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house and arrived around noon:

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One of the first things we noticed was a boiling pot in the kitchen, so we were able to add to rather than completely provide what soon became quite the feast! — and a beautiful mixture of foods, I think:

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Of course, before we even thought about eating, this happened:

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^ Arina and her maternal grandmother

And this:

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^ Honestly, Scott and I joked that Granny seemed as happy (if not happier) to see me than Arina, since the latter got to go play with her cousins, while I — her “daughter” she said — had to sit right beside her for hours. Note the change in head scarf; she was that taken with her present from my mother.

She was one happy babushka:

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The other most visibly over-the-moon person in the room? Uncle Yasha!

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We knew Uncle Yasha was special. After we found Arina’s birth family and we started getting letters from Granny, he was always in the postscript: “Uncle Yasha is very happy to hear from you,” “Uncle Yasha sends his love,” etc. Uncle Yasha was 15-years-old when Arina was born and was having a very. hard. time. When his father died of a sudden heart attack in 2003, Yasha had to support the family . . . at only fourteen years old. Arina was born a year or so later and was left with Granny and Yasha for a month, so she was the one bright spot in his day. He’d care for her to give Granny a break as soon as he got home from work and swears that she recognized his steps at the door as an infant. Uncle Yasha was the one who rocked her to sleep and got up with her at night to give her bottles. He’s now married and has a six-year-old son, Andrew. Andrew and Arina became fast friends, despite the language barrier, and Uncle Yasha was in seventh heaven.

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^ Andrew loves the train whistle we brought him, and is holding up three fingers in imitation of Scott’s “one, two, three: smile!”

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^ Arina and Andrew

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^ Arina and Andrew playing dress up with some fun animal masks.

And, obviously, Arina’s 17-year old biological sister, Ira, was excited too. But she’s a much quieter personality than Uncle Yasha and takes her job as Granny’s caregiver very seriously, so she was often bustling around with food and dishes, but was always willing to pause for a sisterly hug:

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You know how I said I suspected this reunion would be the Kazakh version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Well: I. was. right. Granny’s house today was a constantly revolving door of cousins anxious to meet (and play!) with Arina and with us. Their only disappointment was that Jack wasn’t with us. Cell phone after cell phone rang with: “We’re getting gifts! Is Jack there?” They laughed when we said that we didn’t risk a 20 hour plane ride with our 3-year-old yelling his classic, “I’m hungry and full and cold and hot and tired!”

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^ Arina’s 22-year-old cousin, Aleksie, and her 16-year old cousin, Christina (children of Aunt Nadya, Oksana’s sister) — with a photo bomb, courtesy of Andrew 🙂

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^ Arina and Christina

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^ Arina and her 13-year-old cousin, Zarina (daughter of Aunt Elena, Oksana’s sister)

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^ Arina’s 8-year-old cousin Cyril (son of Uncle Vasiliy, Oksana’s brother)

While Arina and her cousins watched Disney cartoons in Russian and played hide-and-seek outside, Scott and I were able to do the more serious work of visiting her birthmother’s grave and learning Oksana’s story. You know how I posted a photo that I *thought* was Arina’s maternal grandfather? . . . well, actually, that was Granny Valentina’s first husband, Aunt Nadya’s father. Arina’s maternal grandfather, Granny’s second husband, is where both she and her mother get their Russian rather than Kazakh looks. See, below, Oksana as a child:

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And here is Oksana’s wedding photo. Note: this isn’t Arina’s birthfather. Oksana’s first marriage was short-lived, because he was physically abusive.

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Oksana passed away in 2009. At that point, she was estranged from her family; reading between the lines, I suspect it’s because they didn’t care for Arina’s biological father (a heavy drinker), with whom she was living. They got a phone call; the person on the other end said that Oksana had “died in the field of liver failure.” They rushed to the morgue but her body was already being processed, since her partner had told the authorities that she had no relatives. They managed to have her remains moved to the family plot; the metal monument they had erected was stolen, unfortunately, and a simple wooden cross stands in its place:

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Oksana’s family didn’t find out until after the fact that Oksana took Arina to the orphanage and relinquished her rights. I suspect that she didn’t want to place a further financial burden on the family, since they were already raising Ira and barely making due. Whatever the case, we’re all grateful to have each other. As Scott said, our family just got a *whole* lot bigger:

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Kazakhstan Trip! Return to Malutka Baby House

We rolled into Karaganda around 11:00 am, Kaz time, well-rested and ready to go! Arina and Scott seem to be completely over their jet lag, thanks to the overnight train rocking them to sleep like a big pair of babies. I’m still struggling a bit, because I *couldn’t* be on a train and not read a Victorian novel. But, that’s why I’m going to bed, like now, while Scott and Arina and our translator, Ed, just went bowling. Reading or bowling? Novel or a heavy bowling ball that is unpleasant enough to lift,  let alone maneuver in any significant way. I think I chose wisely.

We were thrilled to be back in the Dostar-Alem, the hotel that was our home away from home in Summer 2006.

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The Apollo Restaurant, the bowling alley next door, even the gold curtains and bedding: all still here. The first thing we did, after three meals of bread and pecans, was order: spring rolls, fried calamari, and veggie pizza. It may seem like an odd hodgepodge but I think after such bland food, we were looking for something with an exclamation mark.

After we rested up a bit, Ed took us to Malutka Baby House, Arina’s home for nearly a year. We visited during nap time — you’d think we would have remembered the schedule — so we didn’t see (or hear) many children. They take nap time *seriously* at Malutka. We did spend some time, though, with one of Arina’s former caregivers (pictured below) and the Director of the Orphanage, who we remembered very well from our last visit.

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Rosa, the Director, thanked us for coming and showed us all the changes that were taking place. The building has fallen into disrepair due to rain damage and also due to the fact that they no longer have the funding for building repair that they used to have, especially since international adoptions have halted. Currently, only Kazakhstan citizens can adopt. Say what you will about the politics of adoption, but Rosa definitely favors widening the doors as much as possible — because, quite simply, there is a direct correlation between the number of people who are intimately connected with the orphanage and the amount of financial support the orphanage receives. And there are so very many children. Because of being unable to use some of their rooms (mold, I suspect), they are literally sending children to other institutions. Normally, they’re able to house 140; but, with fewer rooms, they’re capped at 100.

Rosa was so appreciative of the children’s clothing we brought with us, as gifts, that we wished we had filled all of our suitcases with donations alone. I seriously contemplated stripping Arina and leaving her clothes as well . . . but then I thought that might make Rosa doubt her decision to approve our adoption in the first place. We forgot Arina’s hat, which may have made her doubt us a little already. They *always* have hats for the children, especially when there is a chill in the air.

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^ Arina and some of her little roommates, 2006

The most depressing part of the visit? Finding out that Sergei, the little boy who took such good care of Arina, is still in the orphanage system and has aged out of Malutka into the “middle school” orphanage. He’d be around 11 or 12 now, I suppose. He told us, when we adopted Arina, that we had to adopt him too, because Arina was his “bride.” He took such good care of her as the 4- to 5-year old “senior” boy of the Baby House. He had the kiddie bed next to Arina’s, and she would sneak over to cuddle with him each morning before getting up. They were inseparable.

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^ Sergei and Arina, 2006

We had asked about adopting him too, but one thing that we like very much about Kazakhstan is that they do what they can to help birth families keep their children, allowing them to stay in the system, as if it were a country-run daycare, until they can get back on their feet, so to speak. The only children who were actually available for adoption were those who were either abandoned or for whom parents relinquished rights, because they felt that — for whatever reason — they were unable to parent, even with this commitment of government assistance.

Sergei’s maternal grandmother hoped to get him out. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve proposed to Scott that we walk around the market every day calling for “Sergei’s babushka!” to see if there is anything we can do. Of course, identities are protected — we were never even given Sergei’s last name — so calling for “Sergei’s babushka!” would, sadly, be our best chance. I’m open to suggestions, though.

The most fun part of the visit? Arina indulged us by visiting our old haunts (the merry-go-round on the playground, the indoor swing in the playroom, etc.), and we even talked her into striking the same poses, which we consider quite the accomplishment for a 9- going on 19- year old.

^ Coming through the doorway in 2006:

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^ Coming through the doorway in 2013 (definitely less excited):

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^ 2006

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^ October 18, 2013

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^ 2006

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^ October 18, 2013

Kazakhstan Trip! The Night Train to Karaganda

After a lovely stay at the Astra hotel in Almaty, we left the train station to catch a ride to Karaganda. Scott has discovered a yet-to-fail-us formula for finding the Kazakh person in the room able to speak and understand English.

young + iPhone + earbuds = our new bff

Let’s just say we would have *never* managed to find our train and get on it in time without the help of a college-age guy who not only spelled things out for us, but who also remembered our train ticket information and came to find us later to tell us “um . . . your train has arrived . . . get on board.” We were just sitting there, of course, and now I realize what the elderly woman on my left was trying to tell me. What do you do when you’re absent your support staff? You recruit!

I’m on the train now as I’m typing this update, and, for the most part, the train ride has been wonderful and super relaxing. We have our own sleeping cabin with a little table and a window where we can watch Kazakhstan roll by as we snack. Because I know Jack will want to see them, here are more photos than I normally post at one time:

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^ It’s a train!

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^ It’s a hallway in a train!

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^ It’s Scott and Arina in our train cabin!

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^ It’s me proving that the top bunk is safe! Seriously. Arina insisted.

As for snacks . . . we skipped lunch, because we had such a fabulous, filling breakfast at the hotel (I opted vegetarian, and there was this breakfast rice with sweet peas and cooked fruits I couldn’t really identify — mango, maybe? — that rocked my world). So, when lunchtime rolled around, Arina and I were full and Scott was too nervous (about whether we were going to get on the right train at the right time) to eat. I bought some fresh bread that a vendor was selling and some water and figured we’d get stuff along the way, since we read that vendors set up their booths at train stops.

Hours later: Scott and I had finished the bread, Arina had finished the lone granola bar left over from the plane ride, and we had broken into the one food item we brought for Granny: a sampling box of Youngs pecans (salted, honeyed, and chocolate). We have more gifts for her . . . and, well, Granny wouldn’t want us to go hungry.

We weren’t seeing vendors at stops, because we were primarily seeing vast areas of uninhabited land for the first part of our trip — beautiful land . . . kind of a cross between the American west (see the blurry photo of a Kazakh version of the cowboy, below) and the Yorkshire moors (but with hills of gold rather than heather, although maybe that’s because we visited England during the summer and are visiting Kazakhstan in October).

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When we finally got to a town big enough to have vendors, we had been napping and weren’t prepared. Since I — believe it or not — move more quickly than Scott in such situations (the secret being slip-on shoes), I grabbed some tenge and followed some of our fellow travelers off the train to get food. I was so freaked out about being left behind, though, that I went to the first booth I saw, said “I’ll take this! this! and this!,” thrust some money at the vendor, and jumped back on the train.

Scott enjoyed pointing out the fact that I got us the exact same thing — the type of bread we had just eaten, and bottled water, with the addition of . . . a carton of apple juice. I enjoyed telling Scott that he could get his shoes on more quickly next time.

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We had a *brief* moment of panic when we realized, at one point, that the train had started going in the opposite direction. Scott sent me to talk to “the train guy” on our car who doesn’t speak a word of English to find out if we’d missed our stop.

Me, breathless, to the train guy: “Karaganda? Did we miss it?”

Train guy, nodding and smiling: “Yes! Karaganda!”

Me: look of horror

Realizing what I thought, he hastened to reassure me by teaching me to understand the train schedule taped to the wall. I saw that we had *not* missed the Karaganda stop . . . that we had 10 more hours to go. Good thing the Fisk family has a thing for trains. 😉

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Kazakhstan Trip! First (couple of? few?) Days

Scott and I were saying this morning that we kinda feel like we’re in the third Harry Potter novel, because right now my iPhone clock reads:

“11:22 yesterday” for New York and “9:22 today” for Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The time travel in Prisoner of Azkaban messed with my head, and so does this. I’m totally guessing about when to take my birth control pills at this point. I just stared at them last night, at a loss for which day/days to take.

Other than that, though, everything is great! Photo evidence is below:

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Well, actually: Arina seems a little unsure about flying in this photo — we couldn’t get a natural smile from her before the first leg of the trip — but she quickly became a seasoned flyer, rolling her eyes at me for being nervous and beside herself with excitement at her own set of headphones and all the in-flight movie choices. She even made a friend on the way to Frankfurt, Germany. She sat on the row with us, but was much more interested in interacting with a very nice older gentleman from India on her right than she was with us. He helped her with her seatbelt; she offered him some of her pink Hubba Bubba tape.

Sadly, our layover wasn’t long enough to explore Frankfurt, but we cheered up quickly, because Frankfurt Airport has welcome dogs. It was, in fact, the first day of their welcome dog program. They must have known we were coming.

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For the second leg of the trip, we flew from Frankfurt to Almaty; so, basically, we flew right over Karaganda and will be taking an all day train back there today. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to fly into Astana, which is a shorter train ride to Karaganda, but Scott and I flew into and from Almaty when we adopted Arina in 2006, so it was good to see it again. And they say that the best way of seeing Kazakhstan, the  9th largest country of the world, is by train!

We got to Almaty in the wee hours of the morning, Kaz time at least, but we had no problem getting a taxi to our hotel. Someone approached us immediately, asked if we needed a taxi, and I said “yes” — proud of myself for securing us a ride so quickly. Then . . .

Scott to me: “We have to make sure that this is a legal rather than illegal taxi.”

Me: “What would happen if it’s an illegal taxi?”

Scott: “I don’t know. Someone will drop us off at a random location after stealing our money and our luggage.”

Me, scoffing: “I have great intuition. It comes from being an English major and a critical reading expert. This guy is super nice . . . he’s carrying my luggage for me . . . wait . . . where is he?”

*Brief* moment of panic, but then we saw him waiting for us at the door. Hurrah!

Scott and I agreed that we would only ride in a taxi cab that looked official . . . there were some regular cars with drivers who claimed to be taxi drivers and those were suspicious . . . but our guy’s car had the taxi light at the top, so we felt 100% confident with our choice . . . until our guy ushered us into the backseat and his friend took shotgun.

Me, under my breath: “Do taxi cab drivers in Kaz have ride along partners?”

Apparently, they do! Both men were super nice — Arina sneezed and the older of the two taught us to say “bless you” or “gesundheit” in Russain, which I promptly forgot. They got us and our luggage to our hotel in fine shape, although what we thought would be a 500 tenge cab ended up being a 12,000 tenge cab, and we hadn’t exchanged enough money at the airport. Thankfully, they took “dollars” too.

We figure that the cab ride cost us $100, which seems shockingly expensive, although I remember being equally shocked at how expensive cabs were the last time we were in Boston or DC or New York. Happily, we shouldn’t have to take very many cabs here. Still . . . those of you who haven’t bought one of our fund-raising books . . . um, could you do that — like now — please. Just in case. . 😉

http://www.amazon.com/Arina-Speaks-Nicole-Plyler-Fisk/dp/0615846238/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381983109&sr=8-1&keywords=arina+speaks

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Summer 2013

Apparently, we were having too much fun this summer to take many pictures . . . but we’ll share what we have. This summer we celebrated Arina’s 7th Adoption Day in July and her 9th birthday in August. We don’t have Adoption Day photos, because for the first time, she celebrated her Adoption Day on the road to Texas, but at least we were able to get a quick hug that morning before she left with her MeMe and Papa Fisk, Aunt Kelly, and cousins.

We were, however, able to get photos of the birthday girl in August:Arina as a 9 year old

And of the brother of the birthday girl shoveling cake:Jack as a fan of cake

He shoveled cake all weekend, in fact, and seemed to be trying out the cake-look with a variety of polo shirts.

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Memorable summer trips included a weekend in Savannah with Scott, sans kids. I presented a paper at a conference, and we stayed in one of Savannah’s most haunted hotels. No ghost sightings, but it was lovely . . . as was our trip to Springfield, Missouri to visit our church family. Yes: we live in Holly Hill, SC but our church is in Springfield, Missouri. Because that’s how we roll.

For the fifth anniversary of CCC Springfield, Dr. Ray organized a conference with Bishop John Shelby Spong as the keynote speaker. Because the conference, on August 3rd, corresponded with Scott’s birthday, Roger brought out a cake at the after party. So, for Scott’s 37th, Bishop Spong sang him “Happy Birthday” and had cake. Most. memorable. birthday. ever.

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And, as always, Roger made sure that Arina’s and Jack’s time was just as memorable. Although they weren’t as impressed by the Bishop as we were, Jack was *very* impressed with this:

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Train ride through the Ozarks? Yes, please.

Afterward, we visited a toy store, and Arina was *very* impressed with this . . . so much so that Roger decided she had to have it:

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As always, we left Missouri wishing that we lived closer and looking forward to our next trip. Before we make the now familiar trek back to Springfield, though, we’ll be stopping by Central Asia for a visit.

In mid-September, we’ll be spending a weekend with our Kazakhstan family, celebrating Ira’s 17th birthday! We’re super excited to meet Arina’s biological sister, along with her maternal grandmother, Granny Valentina, and more aunts, uncles and cousins to name. Scott and I are imagining a Kazakh version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

We’ve had a couple of fundraisers for the trip, since it’s going to be wicked expensive between the flight tickets, the hotel rooms, translator fees, the donations we want to make to the orphanage, and the customary gifts to our Kazakh family. Fundraiser #1: lollipops, which I’m *over.* Fundraiser #2: a book, which is more up our alley and is available for purchase here:

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Someone asked how long we’ll be selling the book. Scott says “as long as it takes for us to pay off the trip,” which I’m assuming will be a long, long time.

Arina got at least a couple of birthday presents, though, that are necessary for the trip.

Birthday present #1: a passport!

And birthday present #2: her first ever check in the mail, from Aunt Nat and Uncle Joel. They decided to pay her $10 for every year, which adds up when you’re nine! So, Arina has tucked the money away for the trip and has concluded that she’s “RICH, for a kid.”

In other news, Arina has started a new school, which she loves (so far): South Carolina Connections Academy. It’s a virtual public school, so she does her work online! — with me, on my work-from-home days, and with Mom on my work-at-work days. And, she’s decided that she enjoys hanging with me and the big kids at the university sometimes too.

We made this move for several reasons, but one is that it gives us flexibility to do things like . . . go to Kazakhstan in September for Ira’s birthday . . . or to Missouri to visit Dr. Ray . . . or to Nana’s *during the week* sometimes.

Here’s Arina, on her first day of 4th grade! — well, actually, it’s the day before her first day of 4th grade. I forgot to take the picture on the actual day, but I can vouch for the fact that her 4th grade cuteness level was pretty much the same both days.

Day before the first day of 4th grade

To conclude: as summer 2013 draws to a close, 9-year-old Arina is into soccer

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and horseback riding.

Arina and Tiva

Three-year old Jack is into pirates and trains, as this photo testifies (note the pirate hat and Thomas the Train tattoos).

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And, now, for some Arina-isms:

1) What I found when cleaning A.’s room: a vampire book and a wooden stake, in her nightstand.

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2) “Jack: I love you sometimes, Buddy. And then other times I really want to be away from you.”

3) Me: “I don’t like the fact that Bobba Jo plays with you in after care but won’t even talk to you at recess b/c Skylar is there and says ‘you can’t play’ with them. That’s not being a good friend, or a good person even.”
Me, again: “Does Harley play with you at recess?”
Arina: “Yeah. Harley will.”
Me: “Well, *that’s* what friends do. Harley is a friend; Bobba Jo is not. I want you to understand the difference.”
Arina: “When I have recess.”
Me: “What?”
Arina: “You do know I’m always walking laps during recess, right?”

4) Me to Arina: “We should leave in an hour or so, b/c we have to meet Nana in Columbia.”
A;: “I thought she needed a break this week.”
Me: “Me too. But I talked to her last night, and she said she’d meet us.”
A.: “Whew! I was so worried last night! I thought I was going to have to spend the whole day with you!”
Me: blank stare.
A.: “Not that I didn’t want to . . .”

5) Arina: “So, where are we going tonight?”
Me: “Out to eat with our friends, Josh, Agata and Kuba.”
Arina, surveying me, Scott and Jack: “Well . . . at least I look good.”

6) Arina, to Scott: “Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I have a surprise for you later — if you and Mom will let me make it. I mean: it’s going to be kind of messy . . . but I can do it, right? I’ll clean up afterwards.”

7) Arina, on Javert’s death: “He’s jumping off a bridge! That’s crazy! I do lots of things wrong, and I’m still here. I guess his Mom never taught him that when you realize you were wrong, you just try to make it right.”

8) Me, explaining fiction and nonfiction to Arina: “So, Harry Potter is fiction, because Hogwarts and magic spells and wands and all that stuff isn’t real.”
Arina: “Except dragons. There used to be dragons.”
Me: “No. You mean dinosaurs.”
Arina: “Oh. Bummer.”

9) Me, explaining the difference between declarative and imperative sentences to Arina: “An example of imperative: ‘ARINA FISK! GET DOWNSTAIRS RIGHT NOW!’; an example of declarative: ‘Arina, let’s meet downstairs.'”

Arina: “Huh. I’ve never heard you use declarative.”

10) Listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter vs. reading it:
Arina: “EWW! Why do they call it pottyjuice potion?”
Me: “Polyjuice.”

And some Jack-isms:

1) Me: “Jack, did you get your pants wet today?”
Jack: “Uh huh. But Ms. Nicki changed them.”
Me: “Did you tell her thank you?”
Jack: “No.”
Me: “Why not?”
Jack: “Because I don’t like Ms. Nicki.”
Me: “Why?”
Jack: “Because I like Rina.”

2) Arina, in our backyard with a flashlight: “C’mon Jack. Let’s go exploring!”
Jack, unsure.
Scott: “Tell us if you see any ghosts!”
Arina: “Okay.”
Jack: “I’m not going. It’s too scary.”
Me: “Well, Jack, tell Arina to yell if she sees a monster.”
Jack, to Arina: “Yell if you see a monster. And run.”

3) Jack: “Mom, I’m really really really tired. I’m so many ‘really-s’ of tired.”

4) Scott to Jack: “Why are you crying?”
Jack: “Because Arina called me a bad train!”

5) Me, to Jack: “Are you a happy boy?”
Jack: “Yeah . . . but my heart was broken.”
Me, surprised: “Why was your heart broken?”
Jack: “Because I didn’t see a train today.”

6) Jack, singing Les Mis:
“Look down, look down, what happened to your eye?
Look down, look down, at all the problems.”

April 2013

Since my last Fisk family blog post, Christmas happened:

Arina, Christmas 2012

And there were trains:

Jack and Christmas trains

And then we rang in the New Year at the loveliest lake ever (and in Clemson Tigers territory, no less), with friends Alec McLeod and Michael Williamson (pictured below), and Amy and Steve Ross (not pictured, since they came with their fur-baby Abby, after the photo shoot was over). We had so much fun that we’re thinking: a new New Year’s tradition?

Godparents

Being Fisks, we decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip for my birthday (January 11th). We drove to Florida, because we wanted to personally thank Frank James of Lone Star Jewelry and Pawn for refusing to sell guns until meaningful gun control laws are passed. Being Fisks, we neglected to call to make sure he wouldn’t still be closed for the holidays. Arina, below, is highlighting the fact that . . . he was indeed still closed for the holidays.

Closed

But, being Fisks, we laughed; spent a lovely time at Madeira Beach instead; and  mailed Frank James a packet of thank-you cards and donations when we got back home.

Arina's card

Much fun was had in February and March: one memorable event was a girls’ day out with Paula Feldman that involved visiting a sea turtle hospital in Charleston, SC and shopping for the necklace worn in the annual Fisk Family Easter photo, below:

Fisk family, Easter 2013

As always, Easter was festive: filled with Fisk cousins, lots of Easter eggs, and new, bright spring clothes:

Arina and Jack, Easter 2013

And we just arrived home after spending a fabulous weekend with our friend, Dr. Roger Ray and his congregation in Springfield Missouri. We joke that we have to drive 15 hours to find a church that’s progressive enough for us. But what a church it is!

We were scheduled to arrive in time to serve food to homeless, runaway teenagers and street youth. Being Fisks, we were late. Our conversation, through texts, with Roger:

Roger: “Remember: I’m counting on you and Scott to help serve dinner tonight to runaway teenagers.”
Me to Roger, b/c we’re running late: “Say a long prayer?”
Roger: “I’m picking up the food at 5:00.”
Scott to Roger: “Can we help you with your flat tire? nudge/nudge/wink/wink”

I remain convinced that Scott made us late on purpose, because ever since I read an article a couple of years ago (about New York City’s homeless LGBT youth population), I’ve been trying to talk him into adopting a homeless teenager (e.g. “But we have a spare bedroom!”; “But we’d have someone to help us with Jack and Arina!”; etc.). Roger confirmed that, as in NYC, a large number of Springfield’s homeless teenagers have been turned away from home, because of their sexuality.

Although we missed serving, we were able to tour the Rare Breed facility in Springfield, a safe house for youth in need. One of the highlights was talking to a young man, now in his 20s and working there, after finding it as a disconnected teen himself. Rare Breed has earned a spot on the Fisk’s donation list for sure.

We enjoyed a fabulous dinner, drinks and company at Springfield Brewery, and then breakfast at Roger’s house, before the next big church event: clean up at a local lake! Arina and Roger tag teamed the lake cleanup, while Scott, Jack and I worked together. I think Roger and Arina won, filling up the most bright orange trash bags. Jack and I picked up trash, walked across piers, and kept asking Scott to take our photo:

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We lunched, played and shopped in Branson. Well, Roger, Scott, Arina and Jack played; I shopped! There was a Romantic/Victorian-inspired clothing store (called The Secret Garden for goodness sake); hence, I spent all my time and too much of Scott’s money there, while Roger and Arina rode go-carts . . .

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. . . and Jack rode: a train!

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Then: the kids’ (and Scott’s) first ever Dixie Stampede experience! Arina, horse-lover that she is, was mesmerized the entire time. She stared open-mouthed, at the show, and barely touched her plate. Scott, comedian that he is, thoroughly enjoyed himself as well; he laughed at all the jokes, although his favorite was Roger’s explanation of why we were sitting on the Northern, rather than Southern, side. For those unfamiliar with the Dixie Stampede, it’s:

“essentially a modern-day Wild West revue, pitting sections of the audience against each other in a good-natured way as ‘the South’ and ‘the North’ battle to win various horse riding competitions.”

Apparently, Roger specifically requested to be on the Northern side, because:

“Even if we won as ‘the South,’ I’d still feel bad.”

Jack’s experience? As Roger said afterward, it was “about six horses and eight too many pigs for Jack.” In other words, he loved it — except for the last 20 minutes or so. Then, after each act, he’d clap and say, “Yay! It’s time to go now.”

We had a lovely time at church on Sunday: we were charmed by everyone we met, and I got to wear my new dress! And, yes: it is called the Titantic dress, and it is *very* Downton Abbey.

Missouri trip

Thanks to Roger and friends for taking such good care of us all weekend. We had a blast, and I came home to the best kind of new Facebook friend requests.

And now for some Arina-isms, for those of you not on Facebook:

1) Arina: “Somebody needs to wash clothes! I haven’t had pajamas to wear in three days!”

Me, warningly: “Arina . . .” [she has strict instructions *not* to point out what a sh*t show of a mother I am].

Arina: “What? Somebody could be Nana.”

2) For Christmas, Arina’s 3rd grade class drew names. A. had to get a gift for a girl classmate named Erin, who isn’t nice to her.

A.: “I’d like to get her a rock, Mom. Thanks.”

3) I read The Elf on the Shelf book and was careful to emphasize the following line: “There’s only one rule that you have to follow / so I will come back and be here tomorrow: / Please do not touch me. My magic might go, / and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.”

A. to Scott: “So, Dad: if I wear gloves, I wouldn’t really be touching the elf, right?”

4) Arina, on the Christmas Eve homily:

Scott: “So, what was the homily about?”

A.: “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening.”

S.: “What if they had given you a test?”

A.: “I would have failed.”

5) Me to Arina, as I was brushing her hair: “I don’t like your hair down, now that it’s longer, but I really like it pulled back. You look like a ballerina. Or a supermodel.”

A. to me: “I don’t like my hair pulled back, but I like it down. Because I look like a wild girl who could live in the jungle.”

6) A. had been saving her allowance and asked to spend it. I logged onto the Amazon toy store, typed in her amount, and told her to have fun.

This is what she picked:

Ninja Arina

7) Scott: “How was school today, Arina?”

A.: “Someone kicked me.”

S.: “What did you do?”

A.: “Uh . . . I kicked her back.”

S.: “You know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. Did she tell on you?”

A.: “Nope — because I told on her first, after I kicked her back.”

8) Jack: “Arina had to sit in timeout at school!”

A.: “Jack!

Me: “Why did you have to sit in timeout, Arina?”

A.: “Because I accidentally spit in someone’s eye.”

Me, exasperated: “How could you accidentally spit in someone’s eye?”

A.: “I meant to just spit in her face.”

9) Me: “Arina, last night I dreamed that you drove Ms. Dale so crazy that I had to take you out of school and home-school you.”

A.: “Yep. I dream that all the time.”

10) Me: “Arina, clean your room.”

A.: “Who’s coming over tomorrow?”

Me: “No one.”

A.: “Oh. So, I’m just doing this for fun.”

Me: “Is cleaning your room fun?”

A.: “No. Not my idea of fun. I meant your idea of fun.”

11) We do *not* have dog poop in our house (all our dogs are trained), but Jack is obsessed with the idea that we *could* have dog poop in the house.

J.: “I smell dog poop!”

Me: “Will you find it and clean it up for me?”

J.: “But — no!”

Me: “Whoever finds it, cleans it.”

Arina, to me: “Is that the rule?”

Me: “Yes.”

Arina, to Jack: “We won’t be cleaning it then, b/c we’ll just never ‘find’ it.”

12) Arina: “Hey, Mom: if you come to check on me tonight, be careful of the rope that runs across the bottom of my door.”

13) Me to Scott: “So, when Arina gets her driver’s license, we’ll give her my car, and I’ll get a new one?”

Scott: “We’ve put almost 50,000 miles on your car in less than 2 years; we’ll be lucky if it’s still running 8 years from now.”

A.: “Oh, I can fix it. Because I’m a girl.”

14) Me to Arina: “You need to be kind to Ms. Dale tomorrow.”

A.: “Okay. I won’t make her yell.”

15) Bad news? A.’s first trip to the Principal’s office.

Offense? She locked all the stalls in the girls’ bathroom [from the inside and then crawled underneath the doors].

Good news, according to A.? “I told you I wouldn’t make Ms. Dale yell today, and she didn’t! She just did this [here, she demonstrated an eye roll heavenward and a heavy sigh].”

Jack-isms:

1) Jack dropped his toothbrush between the sink and the upstairs water heater.

Scott: “Jack — you dropped your toothbrush.”

Jack: “You will get my toothbrush, Dad. Your hand is strong.”

2) Jack: “I want mac & cheese!”

Alec: “Okay!”

30 minutes later . . . when Alec presents homemade mac & cheese:

Jack: “No! I want mac & cheese! This NOT mac & cheese!”

Alec: “What?”

Me: “Dude: it’s us. Our kids only know Easy Mac.”

3) Jack decided to pour a scoop full of chicken feed in his diaper. Then, he started crying and yelling, “I have corn on my penis!”

4) Jack: “I want to go to McBee.”

Me: “We’re not going to McBee this weekend. We’re going to the circus on Saturday, and to MeMe’s on Sunday.”

Jack: “And then we can go to McBee.”

Me: “You’ll have to ask Nana and Pop about that.”

Jack: “I already asked them.”

Me, knowing that he hasn’t: “Oh yeah? What did they say?”

Jack: “They said ‘sure.'”

5) Jack’s new thing: watching train toy reviews on youtube.

Train toy reviewer (a middle-aged adult male): “You’ll see that the wheels on this toy train should be rated 7 out of 10.”

Scott to train toy reviewer: “Dude. Time to get a girlfriend.”

Jack: “NO!”

6) Scott: “Jack: you were in timeout, b/c I told you not to touch the box, and you touched it anyway.”

Jack: “But it has m&ms!”

Scott: “No means no.”

Jack: “But it has CHOCOLATE!”

7) Jack: “Somebody needs to play my trains with me.”

Me: “I’m working, Jack. Go see Daddy.”

J.: “But he’s way downstairs!”

Me: “You can go downstairs.”

J.: “But I can’t. It’s too far. You better say, ‘Scott! You need to play Jack’s trains!'” [as he impersonates me yelling from top to bottom floor].

8) Jack, pointing to an orange: “Can I have that apple?”

Me: “It’s not an apple, Jack. It’s an orange.”

Jack: “Can I have that orange apple?”

9) Nana was in Holly Hill, watching Jack, while I worked. Jack wanted to go to McBee. I overheard the following conversation:

Jack to Nana: “I want to go outside!”

Nana: “We’ll go play in the backyard.”

Jack: “No. I want to go to your car outside.”

10) Two favorite Jack moments from the Missouri trip = (1) when he insisted on sleeping with a package of Lance peanut butter crackers; and (2) when he protested and/or cried for most of the way home from the Dixie Stampede, because Scott wouldn’t buy him a green lawn chair that he saw at Wal-Mart.

Scott: “He’s such a WEIRD kid.”

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