three four weeks in the US. Complete with lots of new babies, a wedding of a dear friend, a major surprise, and minor visa problems! Warning: photo overload!
And before we knew it, we were already touching down in Almaty, where Maki and I would be spending a couple days before heading to the States. Our friend Marysia was kind enough not only to put us up for the 2.5 nights that we were in the city, but also to take our big suitcases so that we’d be packed lightly for our western sojourns. In Almaty, a veritable paradise awaited us, complete with good coffee, fast internet, and friendly people. I think I experienced greater culture shock here in Kazakhstan than I usually experience returning to the US. Of course, I think that should also be taken with a grain of salt: the greatest culture shock is experienced anywhere I land after Tajikistan (see: Kyiv 2011). Anyway, we spent our days collecting the last of our Christmas presents and dealing with a little bureaucracy for my in-process Kazakh visa. And then, we were off! To NYC, via Kyiv, on Ukrainian International Airlines.
And suddenly, we were in New York City. We took the subway into town to Maki’s friend’s place in the East Village to drop off our stuff before heading to a dinner party in Hoboken, hosted by Sara, the girlfriend of Maki’s closest friend. Dinner was followed by a return to the East Village for a Christmas party at a bar. We were total troopers and even managed to stay out until 2 am, including a last night taco and pizza run. Not bad on an 11 hour time shift! The following morning, we enjoyed coffee with Pete, our host, followed by a lovely brunch with Alana, my college roommate, and wandered the area just a bit, before we headed north to Bronxville, to stay with Maki’s cousin for a couple days. One of our favorite babies, Julian, also came with his parents, Maki’s cousin Daria and her husband Roman. Julian was a lot friendlier than when we had met him in June before our departure.
We spent the remainder of our time in NYC meeting up with old friends in the city and catching up with Maki’s cousins, who were both wonderful hosts. On the morning of the 23rd, we headed off to Ohio for the continuation of our adventures. Things got dicey pretty quickly, however. A couple small delays at every stop of our flight from White Plains to Philadelphia had us missing our connection to Columbus by minutes (we literally watched them pull back the jet bridge), and the rest of the flights to Columbus that afternoon were cancelled. But crisis was narrowly avoided when we had them rebook us for Cincinnati, and as luck had it, Kevin was headed to Columbus from the Cincinnati area anyway. Despite bad city traffic leaving the airport, we managed to get to the restaurant ahead of the Whittingtons with 20 minutes to spare. And oh the surprise! Though we had schemed our whole trip with my siblings, my parents had no idea we were out of Central Asia. My mom’s reaction to seeing us was totally priceless. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with everyone, minus Thomas, who is spending the year in Berlin as a high school exchange student. Though the time in Columbus was far too short, we enjoyed our couple days together with quite the full house.
Christmas Eve was filled with last minute gift preparations, a wonderful cocktail hour, fancy dinner, and the family gift exchange, all well documented to share with Thomas. On Christmas morning, we followed tradition to line up in age order along the stairs. Thomas was along in spirit, so we were sure to photoshop him in:
We even squeezed in a quick Skype session with Thomas before Daniel and Lila had to be on their way north to Michigan, to spend Christmas day with Lila’s father. Those of us who remained enjoyed a pleasant hike in Highbanks, a city park a ten-minute drive from our home.
The next morning, on December 26, the surprises continued as we headed north to visit my grandmother to celebrate Christmas with the Detroit-based family. My grandmother was just as surprised to see us as our parents had been. Perhaps most excitingly, got to meet Baby Ava, my cousin’s daughter (the first great-grandchild on my father’s side). We also enjoyed a wonderful dinner, followed by another gift exchange and a night out on the town. The cousins — Lydia, Ruth, Maki, me, Jay (my older cousin), and Kelsey (his wife) — headed out for mead and beer in Ferndale, while our parents and grandmother enjoyed Christmas lights in Greenfield village.
We enjoyed a nice breakfast with my grandmother, which Daniel and Lila joined us for, and stopped in to say hello to Lila’s father and stepmother. There, we got to meet yet another baby celebrity in the family, Daniel and Lila’s nephew, Joshua, who was born last summer and whose adorable face has been gracing the family photostream ever since. He was every bit as cute in person! Maki and I were then dropped off in Ann Arbor to spend a night with our good friends, David and Hanna. We enjoyed good beer and good conversation, despite the fact that we managed to get totally knocked out on allergy medicine, to protect ourselves from their cats. The following evening, Daniel and Lila picked us up en route back to Wisconsin. Our original plan was to have them drop us off in Chicago for a couple days, but once we realized most of our Chicago friends were out of town for the holidays, we decided instead to go all the way up to Madison to spend a couple days. This worked especially well, since Daniel was (f)unemployed at the time (but has since started a new job!). In a trip of many highlights, the day we spent in Madison was definitely up there, though we took almost no pictures…
Early on the morning of the 30th, we caught an early bus to Chicago, and managed to stop in for a lunch visit with Alex (of Nuremberg fame) and take a quick trip up to Evanston to meet Baby Mason, the brand-new baby of Girl Scout friend Stephanie and her husband Dave. He had been born just five days earlier, and I’m not sure I’ve had many chances to meet such a new baby, other than the ones I am related to. Everyone seemed healthy, if exhausted. And Mason was so tiny!
We left Evanston with just enough time to take public transit to Midway, to catch our flight to Kansas City for yet another leg of our trip: four days and change in Kansas City to celebrate Rachel’s wedding on January 2. We arrived early enough to enjoy a little time with Rachel before the big day (and also, to help with the wedding favors!). Her parents were so kind to host us for our time there, even though they were clearly busy with wedding prep and wedding-related events. Our New Year’s Eve started out slowly, first with putting together wedding favors, and slowly got more exciting, with a screening of the Imitation Game, and hanging out at a dive bar with some of my high school friends.
And things really heated up with a late night trip to my friend Julia’s house, for what was perhaps the most Soviet New Year’s party I’ve ever experienced… Complete with Ded’ Moroz, karaoke, lots of dancing, and plenty of champagne, wine, and cognac. Happy 2015, indeed!
We were out until 4:30 in the morning, which had us starting very slowly the next morning. We did a little shopping in the afternoon, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Sue (my Girl Scout leader, Stephanie’s mother, and Mason’s grandmother) and her family. The next morning, as wedding prep went into high gear, we bid our farewell to Rachel, her sisters, and her parents, and took off to get out of their hair. We spent the day on a quick trip to the Truman Library in Independence (still the best presidential library I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a lot!), and a late lunch at Joe’s Kansas City BBQ (previously Oklahoma Joe’s), which has been recently receiving all the fame as one of the greatest BBQ joints in the country.
After a long wait, we enjoyed our lunch fairly quickly, and had just enough time to clean up before Rachel’s beautiful wedding. The reception was swanky, and in all the right ways. Most especially in the excellent cheese and alcohol selection, which I took full advantage of.
We stayed downtown that night, which was nice, since we went out after the reception ended. We were pretty ready to crash by the end. The next morning, our last day in Kansas City, we crossed off the last item on my mother’s Kansas City bucket list: the Steamboat Arabia Museum, which I hadn’t visited in years. Maki seemed to enjoy himself.
We then returned to mingle with Rachel’s family in the post-wedding lunch at her parents’ house, and to enjoy a lovely dinner with my high school friends, since another had just arrived back into town from vacation in Florida. And early the next morning, we took off again, this time for our last stop in the DC area. I was expecting to stay just a week, but a week merged into ten days, and finally, at two weeks. But I get ahead of myself! One of our earlier activities in DC was an expedition for some duckpin bowling. I discovered it’s a hell of a lot harder. We got use of the lanes while we were waiting for the last members of our party to arrive. It took eight tries before I knocked down a single pin (and the only one), but by the time our game was into full gear, I did pretty fine, bowling 9 per frame fairly consistently and averaging almost 7 pins per frame.
Also in DC, Maki’s parents hosted a lovely dinner for his aunt, uncle, and grandmother. I was most especially excited to have an audience for a pear tart that I had been wanting to make again. And we also were able to share our gifts with the family, which was also nice.
Thanks to dueling calendars, the Ukrainian Christmas is also nicely extended, so we spent our Saturdays (both the first one, on January 10, and the second, on January 17) at caroling parties and fundraisers. More Christmas parties!
We caught up with countless friends, too, including a lovely brunch with friends, which was followed by an excursion to Home Goods. We found some serious treasures.
An unexpected pleasure of my delay, too, was that it meant I had real overlap with Marina, my college roommate, who was in town visiting a friend. According to my planned schedule, we were only going to overlap by a few hours on my final day in DC, but with my extended stay, we managed to get together a couple times, including to enjoy a visit to the Academy of the Sciences, which was a stunning building, and also a current exhibition on time, which is mostly pretty cool, but had this fabulous dinosaur painting that just made my day.
It was so wonderful to catch up with Marina, who seemed to be doing well! We hadn’t really had a good chance to catch up like that since she was briefly in Michigan in 2012 (goodness knows I hardly saw anyone at the wedding!).
And pretty soon, it was time to bid farewell to Maki, while I continued to wait for my visa…
So Maki headed back to Kazakhstan, en route by bus to New York, and then from JFK to Almaty, again via Kyiv. He arrived with enough time to settle an apartment before I even arrived. Which was, I admit, highly convenient for me. Meanwhile, I continued to bum around DC for most of a week with Maki’s parents. This gave me plenty of time with free reign of the house — and kitchen — while his parents worked. Mmm, cookies!
On one of my last nights, before we all went to another Christmas party, Maki’s mother and I also made homemade doughnuts with rose-filling. My education in Ukrainian housewifery continues.
I don’t normally love donuts, but they were so, so, so good. Mmmmm.
On the final working day before my now twice-rescheduled flight to Kazakhstan, I was finally summoned to the Kazakh Embassy for a brief interview to clarify a few things for my visa. After I had answered a couple questions, my passport was returned, visa in hand, and I was finally ready to take off. A big sigh of relief, all around.
And with that, my bags were packed to the brim (including with limes, avocados, and tequila for our anticipated housewarming party on the other side of the Atlantic), and it was off to the races. Goodbye, USA! Hello, Kazakhstan!
(And how do we number 14? By counting all our layovers and transit points. Like this: New York, New Jersey (for dinner), Pennsylvania (layover), Kentucky (arrived at the Cincinnati airport, which is in KY), Ohio, Michigan, Indiana (driving), Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware (transit for Maki). Also, DC! So, practically 15, just like the song).