How to Go to the Doctor*

Aside from the worst hangovers of my life (my theory is lower quality alcohol + more limited access to drinking water), I have never been sick while living in Astana. My body loves a dry, cool climate. But I knew I’d have to go to a clinic at some point for a tick-borne encephalitis vaccine. This type of tick is not found in North America and so NA travel clinics generally don’t carry the vaccine, though you can have them special order it, with enough notice.

This vaccine is not a requirement for going to Kazakhstan but if you’re going to be traipsing about rural parts of Eastern Europe/Central Asia, as I am, then it’s a good idea.

Today was the day I went to the clinic. It was bright and clean and the staff was friendly.

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So clean!

The doctor told me not to be scared because it was just “a little pain from a big doctor.” He also told me I was beautiful and half muttered/half sang “so beautiful” to himself while preparing the needle.

He said no more on the topic after I had to define what a wart was for him and ask what to do about the one on the bottom of my foot.

But he did write the name of whatever medication I need in Russian to take to a pharmacist.

All of this was a good ratio of delight/horror until I was presented with a $150 bill. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” said the receptionist as she handed me an updated $200 bill.

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A $200 receipt

“I’m pretty sure our medical insurance is just for flu shots and having babies,” my expat co-worker sympathized.

*This post has no real practical value about going to the doctor here. Though if you do ever go to the SOS International Clinic, go to the entrance with the most doors with a view of the turnstiles, and enter the farmost left door, or else you’ll end up in the German Embassy.

Russian Problems (Motion Verbs)

IMG_7317I had always though that Russian was an okay language, in terms of ease. I started dishing a bit of side eye after learning case formation with numbers, (1 of something = nominative singular, 2-4 of something = genitive singular, 5-0 or 11-20 of something = genitive plural, and some things, like potatoes, are “uncountable”). But it’s the motion verbs that had me consider quitting.

You don’t need to know anything about languages to appreciate this clusterfuck*.

There are four verbs used to express motion: Ходить Идти Ездить Ехать

  • Ходить Идти mean to go by foot
  • Ездить Ехать mean to go by transport
  • You generally go “by foot” whenever you refer to going somewhere in the city (without defining a mode of transport), even if you used transport.
  • Regularly scheduled trains and buses go “by foot”
  • Irregularly scheduled transportation goes by the “transportation” verbs
  • Rain and snow go “by foot”
  • Идти and Ехать indicate one direction
  • Ходить and Ездить indicate that going somewhere and coming back
  • The “one direction” verbs are used to state motion at a specific time or duration of time
  • Present tense is used to express a future plan to go somewhere
  • Идти and Ехать are used to express plans to go somewhere
  • Unless they are uncertain plans, then a different (future perfective) form of those verbs is used
  • If someone just left, perfective forms are also used
  • Anything done with frequency uses Ходить and Ездить
  • If you “love” to go somewhere, it implies frequency
  • Even if someone never goes somewhere, the frequency verbs are still used, because “never” is a type of frequency
  • The word for “now” (indication a specific time) can also mean “nowadays” (indicating frequency). The only way to tell the difference is context
  • Swearing at someone to “go to X” requires using Идти

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This snow walked

Asides (aka things I’ve Tweeted)

There is a formal and an informal word for potatoes

There is no word for “gravy” in Russian. Everything is “sauce.” The most successful definition I’ve found for Russian native speakers is “meat juice.” This came up when my Russian teacher asked me to write out a recipe for a Canadian food and of course I chose poutine because what else do we have?

Seven months of lessons and I can talk at people very nicely about the food I’d like to eat.

 

*May very well contain some mistakes.

How to Go to Turkey

As aforementioned, Istanbul is one of the easiest places to get to from Astana. You can get a direct flight (Air Astana or Turkish Airlines), that is not too long (5 hours), and relatively inexpensive ($400-600). And it is an absolutely wonderful city, so that’s all the reason you need to go!

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Morning

When my BSGF (best straight guy friend) told me he was going to Istanbul for a wedding the same week as my birthday, I put it in my calendar right away. I did my library practicum in Istanbul in 2009 and while I could quickly tell it was a city I wouldn’t like to live and work in, as a librarian (a post for another time), I very much liked it as a place to visit.

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Addition to my tiny bowl lifestyle

Some lasting impressions from the first time around:

  • The food!
  • Beautiful views
  • Ferry rides
  • Figs and almonds
  • Being constantly stared at (not always in a lustful way, but in a – you are so tall and so blonde – way)
  • Friendly folks
  • Turkish delight! And being offered a sampling in a strange man’s apartment (too friendly)
  • Being stalked from KFC in a mall all the way to Taksim Square (way too friendly)
  • Bambi Doner
  • An intense May 1 demonstration
  • Smoking because I felt awkward about having so much alone time and having a waiter tell me, “Please, don’t smoke. I think you only started a week or two ago, because I look at you, and I can see that smoking is not your life. So don’t smoke.”
  • Being informed by my flatmate a week after arriving that I wasn’t actually supposed to put toilet paper in the toilet

All good impressions held up and all of the weird things were just as specific, though different, from the first time around.

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Another morning

And now here is some informative content derived from both visits:

Airports

There are two airports, Ataturk on the European side and Sabiha on the Asian side. The sides are split by the mighty Bosphorus Strait. Prior to moving to Astana, I’d only been to Asia by technicality of crossing the Bos’.

Ataturk, on the European side, is closer to where you’re likely to stay. This site has a guide on airport travel options and current taxi prices.

Where to Stay

I’ve only ever stayed in Cihangir and I really like that area. It’s close to major centres/sites without being too touristy. AirBnB places are so cheap! The two places we stayed at were great (especially the second one).

Where to Eat

Basically, anywhere. But some specific places that are good in Cihangir include: Hayat (for fish), Kasabim (for steak), Miss Pizza (for, you know), Kahve 6 (for breakfast), and Smyrna (for drinks).

What to Eat

  • All things street-side meat
  • Bread with kaymak (clotted cream) and honey
  • Pide (pizza-type flatbread thing)
  • Kumpir (stuffed potatoes)
  • Turkish breakfast (bread, cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, etc.)
  • Menemen (scrambled egg dish)
  • Kofte (meatball-esque)
  • Baklava
  • Turkish delight (lokum)
  • Turkish tea and Turkish coffee
  • Ayran (like kefir but better)
  • Iskender kebap (I haven’t tried this but definitely will next time: kebap with tomato sauce and hot foamy butter)

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And get that fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with your doners

What to Do

  • Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

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  • Basilica Cistern (for all the James Bond fans)
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque
  • Walk along the Galata Bridge

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Blue gingham not mandatory

  • Eat a lot
  • Sit outside and chill
  • Take a ferry ride to the Asian side and order some tea

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    This would’ve gotten so many likes had Instagram existed in 2009

Where to Go Outside of Istanbul

Overnight Trip (Izmir/Ephesos)

This was my first time venturing outside the big city and we took a round trip flight to Izmir to go to the ancient city of Ephesos (Ephesos like Efes like the beer).

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The prettiest graveyard

We booked directly through Pegasus and our flights were just shy of $100 each. You can get them for as low as $50 if you book well in advance. It’s only an hour long flight – just keep in mind that most of the flights to Izmir go out of the Istanbul airport that is on the Asian side (ie. further away). You can filter flights that only arrive at the major, generally closer airport, Ataturk. AtlasJet and OnurAir are two others to check out.

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The library

Once in Izmir you can take a train, bus, or rent a car, which we did through this site that searches all car rental sites at once (like Summon searches on a library website!). We stayed at a small hotel in Selcuk (totally loved it), close to the site and went early the next morning after arriving.

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Dusty, the stoic hotel dog

Longer Trips

Turquoise Coast

If I had more time, I would’ve extended my Izmir trip further south to hit up the Turquoise Coast. Beaches and mountains forever. And the Lycian Way.

Cappadocia

You may recognize Capadoccia as the land of hot air balloons and phallic-esque land formations. Totally sold now, right? I’ll be going there this July. Between the expense of going up in a hot air balloon, believing the best view to be of the balloons from the ground, and having a moderate fear of flying, I’ll be sitting that excursion out. If you’re keen, apparently Royal Hot Air Balloon is the place to use. And I will most definitely be staying in this cave, despite my claustrophobia. If this region had some association with needles, it would be a perfect triumvirate of all my fears.

 

And that summarizes the very small portion of Turkey that I know. Happy travels!

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“For woman, that is not baggage. Impressive.”

– Kazakh flight attendant

 

How to Go for a Meal By Yourself

Eating out alone in Astana requires a big DGAF attitude. Mine is moderate.

I used to go for a drink/dinner on my own all the time in Vancouver. But it just doesn’t seem to be done here, among expats and locals, alike. The exception is going to a restaurant that seems more like a coffee shop (Shokoladnitsa, Maronne Rosso, etc.) and bringing a laptop with you to do work.

Even when I first arrived here, it was clear that going to the cafeteria at lunch was a group activity. Despite really liking my co-workers at my last job, 4/5 times I ate lunch alone and I had a hard time adjusting to the norm in my new workplace. But now I make a point of going at a different time at least a couple times a week to clear my head and read over whatever variation of a Greek salad I’ve made for that day. I am an extrovert but need a lot of alone time to function.

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But finally, after 8 months, I decided enough was enough and went for a meal on my own.

Sundays are my long run days and I’m getting a bit bored of my two routes (leave campus and turn right or left, then turnaround and come back once you’ve reached your halfway mark). I’ve been experimenting with going for a run and ending it at the grocery store or at a restaurant to meet friends. This is only possible in cold weather so I’m taking advantage of it, while I can. I tried it once when on vacation in Kelowna during the summer and melted on the pleather seats, while everyone looked with grave concern at my bright red face.

So yesterday I ran from campus to Highvill and ended my run at Kakao Dak for Korean fried chicken and beer. I’ve written about this place before. It’s a small, dark restaurant and seemed suited to the weird foreign girl who just wants to read and gorge. I was a little scared about how much I would eat when left to my own devices here. There are times I’ve been to Kakao Dak and everyone else says they’re full and I keep silent though I could eat another basket.

You have to be really strong to be true to yourself, even in the smallest of ways, I’ve learned.

Anyways, the answer is this much:

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Basket of remaining fries not pictured. Basket of chicken not fully pictured.

The waitress was so unconvinced that I sincerely wanted a whole litre of water. But then she tried to convince me to get a 16-piece combo.

Conclusion

Kakao Dak is a good low-key place to go to by yourself if you’re feeling self-conscious about eating alone (even though you normally don’t in your home city) and you’re tired of pasta salads from Maronne Rosso. But don’t go there if you’re feeling depressed because it’s dark and strange to go there during daylight hours (no windows!).

You don’t have to run there, of course, but it would’ve felt excessive to me to take a taxi by myself both ways and it would take so long to get to Highvill by public bus. Running there also helped me not hate myself post-meal for eating so unhealthily (this has never actually happened to me, run or no run, but I hear it is a thing).

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Post-run Japanese beauty mask

How to Go on Vacation

Astana is far away from everything and so for any vacation, you’ll likely be looking at a long travel day with one or more layovers. If you’re wanting to cut down on travel time as much as possible, some direct flight destinations, via Air Astana and other known routes, include:

  • Tbilisi
  • Istanbul
  • Vienna
  • Frankfurt
  • London
  • Paris
  • Moscow
  • St. Petersburg
  • Bishkek
  • Beijing
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Dubai

Careful that some of these cities require visas so a direct flight may not be as convenient as you would imagine.

Other airlines to look at are Austrian and Turkish Airlines. Usually I look at Kayak and then book directly on Austrian or Air Astana’s site because both airlines let you pay in tenge, the Kazakh currency I’m paid in. There are some cheap Soviet-style airlines as well, such as the hilariously named, SCAT Airlines. But I’m already a nervous flyer and as much as I appreciate a poo joke, I’m not willing to take my chances on one of the “world’s least safe” airlines.

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Though direct flights are best, when a friend told me he was going to Tokyo in March, I decided to tagalong. I actually booked it while I was in Sweden in December to help me get through the remainder of winter. It’s expensive to get to Tokyo from Astana, and often requires three flights but LYL or YOLO or whatever, right?

Beware that on the way to Seoul/Tokyo, the Almaty airport requires you to pick up your bag, exit the airport entirely to get to the other terminal and check in all over again. This wasn’t a requirement on the way to Kuala Lumpur but I’ve given up trying to understand. And the Incheon Airport in Seoul requires international transfers to pick up a boarding pass at one of the transfer counters scattered throughout the building. For some counters, such as the one I needed to visit on the way back to Astana, you must go through security, sans boarding pass, take a shuttle, be told that you are too late to get a boarding pass and that you must sprint to your gate. Then the flight attendants will be upset that you don’t have a boarding pass and will forget to check your visa. After you board the plane, one of them will run on to ensure that you’re allowed to enter Kazakhstan. You will be super sweaty from your run and when you try to switch seats because your tv isn’t working, the lady already sitting in that row will give you an up-down and tell you that the seat is taken, even though it totally isn’t.

Despite all the flight hullabaloo, the actual trip itself was amazing and I highly recommend going to Japan, from wherever you are located! I liked it so much more than I anticipated.

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Some specific highlights:

Vending Machines

There are vending machines everywhere, even in entirely residential areas. They sell both alcohol and more importantly, hot drinks! You can buy hot tea, at the perfect temperature, from a vending machine! I can’t believe we have this technology and it’s not used western-worldwide.

Heated Toilet Seats

As a friend on the trip said, “Every time I sit on a toilet seat that isn’t heated now I think, ‘what kind of janky place is this?’” Even 7-11 has heated toilet seats.

The toilets had a lot of other features, most of which I never ventured to use. But I decided to give the bidet a try one day, inexplicably in a Family Mart (7-11 equivalent) instead of my apartment. At first I thought, “ooh!” but then all of a sudden the water started going up my back, soaking my dress, and I jumped up, and then the water went all over the bathroom until I found the stop button. Then I had to mop up as best I could with toilet paper and sheepishly run out past the line that had formed during my lengthy time in the bathroom.

I eventually figured out that you have to scoot your butt fully back against the seat in order for the bidet to properly work (it’s worth a try ;)).

7-11

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There was no way to take a nice photo of this.

Japan is not a breakfast place and so on our first morning we went to 7-11. We got hot green tea from the hot fridge and “salmon bowls,” which had rice, salmon, eggs, spinach, and a big hunk of butter. The cashier microwaved the bowls and the end result was something so delicious we ate it every morning for the rest of the trip.

Chill Ambience

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Part of why it’s taken me so long to go to Japan is because I anticipated that it would be really overwhelming. Though the crowds are big, there’s an orderliness to how everything works. Once you slip into the stream, everything is chill.

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I was also surprised that we rarely had moments of walking around trying to find a place for coffee/snacks/food/drinks. If one place was busy, we just went next door. And we only had one subpar meal the entire two weeks.

Nature

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We took a weekend trip to Nikko, just a few hours away from Tokyo,  and it was so nice to get in touch with variated nature again, after living in the dusty/snowy steppe for a while.

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Everything Is Cute

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Even the most innocuous sign.

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And every single dog we saw.

$$$

For a big city, Tokyo is much more inexpensive than I had anticipated. Our trip could’ve been even cheaper if we’d really tried.

Sweet Potato Everything

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I first had sweet potato ice cream when I was in Kuala Lumpur in December. Japan caters very nicely to this new obsession.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant was everything. This place is what westerners typically think of when they think of Japan but locals wouldn’t ever really go, unless they are going with their visiting friends, as in our case.

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This is my #1 recommendation for anyone going to Tokyo. Think lasers, opera, lots of intense eye contact, weird pop culture references, and basically weird everything. It is magical.

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And of course, the best thing about going to Tokyo (even better than salmon bowls) was seeing two of my favourite people and becoming friends with their wonderful friends, who either lived in Tokyo or came on the trip too. Real talk: not one person knew everyone going beforehand and I was amazed that in such a big group, there was not a single dud. Everyone was awesome.

We went to the Robot Restaurant on our last day and I was feeling so emotional about leaving my friends and the show was so intense and overwhelming that I had to stop myself from bursting out crying for the entire 90 minutes. At one point they picked an audience member at random to box a robot and I’m so thankful they didn’t choose me because I would’ve just started ugly crying.

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Memories!

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How to Get a Makeover

When a friend alerted me that Jane Marie was looking for expats to do mall makeovers for Jezebel, I jumped at the chance. Not only am I a big fan of Jezebel and Jane Marie (the editor, not the adult movie star), I also love makeup. And I was curious about what a Kazakh makeover would look like.

The end result was that commenters on Jezebel are the kindest people on the internet.

Oh and this is what my face looked like:

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I wrote a bit more about my experience on the site and the other makeovers are definitely worth checking out too!

How to Get Through January-March

My friend, Alicia, is so deceptively skillful at encapsulating the loneliness, beauty, and absurdity of life. This sentiment in particular is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever read and how I’ve been feeling since returning from winter holidays.

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I’ve hesitated to put this into words because when you’re so far away, the broad strokes of negative feelings are latched onto by loving friends who are concerned about your well-being. A delicate balance is required in trying to be a positive person who also acknowledges that life is hard, and sometimes particularly so in specific locations/situations.

So I’ve been feeling kind of bad but not that bad because otherwise I would’ve moved by now. I’m not one to weigh quality of life over determination. My greatest challenge was to get through January-March and now it is only 1 week until I meet friends for a vacation in warmer, delicious lands. I’ll return to spring on the steppe and a lightening of mood.

Here is how I got through the slog.

Knitting

Excessive TV-watching is a sign of loneliness. Knitting is constructive. They balance out, right?

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I call this “The Good Wife” sweater.

Cut Down on Drinking

Despite science, this was counter-intuitive to me. I actually haven’t felt like drinking very much during this time and I think it was for the best.

Eating

I generally eat healthily (albeit a lot). I also generally follow Alicia’s 80/20% guideline (in addition to being a great comedian, she is also a nutritionist!) but the last couple months I just DGAF. Give me all the chips and Twix.

Exercise

I started exercising a few years ago. Moving here made me realize how insanely good exercise is for my mental health and I am now a devotee for life. Also, see above. My metabolism will only get me so far in life.

Get Outside During the Day

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No matter how cold it is. Even if it’s just to walk to another building for lunch because it is generally still very sunny during the days here!

‘Tude

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Victory!

A lot of people have a downer air about them at this time, whether because they’re away from home or feeling like the winter is long. I used to be more of a negative person and any time I went down this road, my best friend would yell, “POSITIVE DAY!” and I always wanted to slap him in the face. Then a few years ago I realized how valuable this little phrase is and while I don’t shout it at people here, I maintain that spirit.

Julianne Moore Movies

At the same time, sometimes a girl just needs a good cry.

How to Go to a Kazakh Wedding

To get invited to a Kazakh wedding, you should move here and become friends with a co-worker who’s fallen in love with a Kazakh woman.

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They are absolutely adorable and she looked amazing.

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I was disappointed that she didn’t wear a traditional fun hat (user uploaded Pinterest photo).

It’s okay, some fun hats came into play later.

Here is what you can expect if you go to a Kazakh wedding.

Opulence

“Kazakhs’ favourite colour is gold,” laughed Madina when we entered the venue. This was by far the fanciest wedding I have ever attended. Every surface was grand, shiny, and $$$.

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You will not feel out of place wearing red-carpet attire but it’s okay to wear standard fancy dress.

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I decided to match our apartment rental.

Punctuality

If you show up two hours late, you will be right on time.

Program

A hired emcee takes everyone through the evening. I mostly remember him often proclaiming, “SHABA-DOE!” which means “applause” in Kazakh.

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There are traditional dances.

And all the young men were asked to participate in games. One consisted of each man wearing a pair of baggy pants over top their regular clothes, and playing musical chairs with training potties, and before sitting down, each man had to pull down their baggy pants, as if to use the potty. For another game, each man had to wear an oversized velvet jumpsuit with balloons stuffed inside. They had to slow dance with women and then bump against each other to pop as many balloons as possible.

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This guy won the velvet jumpsuit/balloon game. He was sassy.

Gifts & Toasts

It is a truth universal that everyone loves money. I just put some money in a Chinese envelope that I picked up while in Malaysia.

There is no gift table because gifts are only presented once you’ve given a toast. The emcee calls up groups, based on how you know the bride or groom. For example, all of us who worked with the groom were a group. Then you each give a toast into the microphone, you all dance for a song (we got “Blue” by Eiffel 65) and then you go up to the couple’s table to hug them and present your gift.

I was totally horrified but it was actually okay.

Food

Endless alcohol! Too much food! We only had to scoop one spoonful out of a salad (and by salad, I mean meat with mayonnaise) and it was promptly replaced with a fresh bowl. At the end of the night, each guest received a handful of plastic bags to take home the leftovers.

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This was how much was left AFTER the ten people at our table had all they could eat.

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Procession of meat. Serious business.

How to Go to the Pharmacy

The other week, someone asked me what is the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in Kazakhstan. I replied by retelling the story of how an overly amorous graduate student found out where I lived and showed up at my apartment one day when I was dyeing my hair and eyebrows. This was an impressive feat considering that my building has security (okay, okay, they are pretty inconsistent and asleep half the time).

But what actually sticks in my mind as the weirdest thing, likely because of its longevity, is that I never get my period here. When I first moved to KZ, I had my period twice, in regular fashion and I have not had it since then. I was so panicky that in one of my lower points of life, I texted the gentleman whom I’d had a casual encounter with (I was once so lucky as to meet someone not affiliated with my workplace who was in town for business) to confirm that it was logistically impossible for me to be pregnant.

Think for a moment about the wording of the question that I had to ask this man. Then you will know how far the effort of going to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test surpassed the embarrassment of posing this question.

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Low points

It was all moot in the end because though he answered in the affirmative I still felt uneasy and off I went to the аптека. I held up Google Translate on my phone with “pregnancy test” written on it, the pharmacist chuckled to herself, tossed one my way and yes, indeed, I was not pregnant. It was one of the most straightforward transactions I’ve had in KZ.

In my defense, it is really easy to blow things out of proportion when you live in an isolated place.

I still haven’t gotten my period here. But what really blew me away, was getting my period while on holiday in Denmark. Bodies are strange and amazing and I guess mine doesn’t like being here. Let’s see if it likes Japan when I go there next month.

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This somehow seems appropriate, okay?

Now here are some useful аптека/pharmacy tips:

  • There are pharmacies in every mall and they are separate stores, not attached to grocery stores. My favourite pharmacy is the one in Asia Park.
  • Things at the pharmacy are cheap!
  • This is where you’ll have to buy contact lens solution and dental floss.
  • This is also where you can buy herbal tea. For example, mint tea is sold at the pharmacy because it is considered a kind of aphrodisiac here. Once I bought two boxes of mint tea and the staff could hardly handle it.
  • You don’t often need a prescription for things. For example, you can buy birth control one month at a time for about $6. You can even buy antibiotics without a prescription! But you have to know the specific name of items like this that you want to buy.
  • You can order pharmaceutical items delivered to your house from this site. Though I find it too overwhelming to make any attempts.
  • Some things are universal, like Strepsils and Vitamin C. Other things you can type into Google Translate and show the pharmacist. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, like when I tried to buy cortisone. But I don’t really care enough to ask any local friends what the Russian equivalent is. This is one place you never have to be self-conscious of dry skin.

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Everything is going to be okay (when you’re in another country)

Update: How Healthcare Works When You Leave Canada

A happy update to this post! Thanks to a lovely friend, I found an insurance service that will allow me to buy travel insurance as a non-resident Canadian citizen.

It’s a bit less than the amount I would’ve paid MSP/month and then I would’ve had to pay for travel insurance on top of that – so overall, it looks as though my poorly researched decision turned out to be a good one.

To recap:

If you are a Canadian resident moving from Canada, you have two options (specific to BC but I imagine similar to other provinces):

1) Contact MSP to arrange to continue paying the $69.25/month Medical Services Plan premium for up to 24 months. Acquire travel/medical insurance on top of that, whether paid for by yourself or through your new foreign workplace.

You should definitely keep MSP if you are eligible for any of these three options for MSP assistance:

2) Register yourself as permanently leaving British Columbia. Rely on whatever insurance your new foreign workplace provides or purchase insurance from this insurance service.

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Celebratory balloons