Latest Reading: Prague: A Novel by

I am always in for an expatriate novel and Arthur Phillip’s 2002 book, Prague, was an interesting read. It is set in 1990 in Budapest, Hungary, shortly after the fall of communism. The story centers around a group of young American, Australian, and Canadian expats enjoying life in the beautiful, but the decaying city of Budapest. Arthur Phillips lived in Budapest from 1990-1992 and got the zeitgeist right. 

Waiting for Mom in Vorosmarty Ter (Square) in Budapest Hungary – Sunday September 20, 2009

My family and I visited Budapest often between 2008 and 2014 when we lived in Belgrade, Serbia. It was just a three-hour drive north through the flat Vojvodina and Hungarian plains.  I loved walking across the bridges over the Danube with the kids. We stayed in apartments or hotels downtown and always had a nice time. Nadia loved the Christmas markets and I loved the thermal hot baths in the winter. One of the best photos I have is of my daughter Ocean reaching over to kiss my cheek in one of the squares surrounded by 19th-century buildings. It reminded me of Milan Kundera’s idea of being able to live moments infinitely. The early morning light, the honest reach of a daughter to a father, and her soft baby hands on my forearm and her breath on my cheek. A moment of pure love and family. I also remember Nadia and me running the Budapest Half Marathon and the exhilaration of running through the streets with 5000 other people. 

Budapest Marathon – September 5, 2010

My experiences in the city are much different than the characters in the novel. I relate however because I was a young expatriate in my 20s once. The novel is named Prague but set in Budapest. Back then, Prague was the “hot city” for expatriates and the belief of people living in Budapest was that Prague was where it is at. I think there is a Prague for everyone, a place with greener pastures. Usually, this turns out not to be true and you make the best of whatever place you are in. Phillips explores the idea of the romantic expatriate city, like Paris in the 1920s. The scenes in the book where one of the characters starts to fall in love with another expat remind me of seeing Nadia and falling in love with her in the late 1990s in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Instead of Budapest, I spent my young expatriate years on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the port city of Barranquilla (home of Shakira & Sofia Vergara) and my early 30s in Bolivia. Santa Cruz is the most romantic city in the world to me because of our courtship.

Phillips is a beautiful writer and there were some great lines in the book.

“…about to face the disillusionment of boring jobs with glamorous titles…”  Emily is one of the characters in the book, fresh out of the University of Nebraska. She is the US Ambassador’s assistant and the job does sound exotic, but actually, for her it was mundane. Getting coffee, giving advice on how to dress, doing errands, etc. That is one thing young teachers need to know when going overseas, is that teaching is teaching, and Monday through Friday, our lives are similar to what they would be in our home countries. Of course, the students are more worldly and serious, and unusual things do come up from time to time, but overall, you are there to teach, not sightsee. 

Nadia and the kids in the Plaza de Septiembre de 24 – Santa Cruz, Bolivia – July 2016

I grew tired of reading about the mistakes of youth. It pained me to follow the immaturity and foibles of the characters. The 20s are a tough age in my opinion as you are trying to figure out what you like, what you can do for a career, and most importantly, find a partner. I think back to how immature I was and the things I thought were cool and important, were not really cool and important. I did however make some good decisions. I am happy I pursued and stayed with a global nomad lifestyle. It changed who I was and I look back at all of my wonderful experiences through the decades abroad. I believe I had more opportunities and escaped the ordinary life educators live domestically. I also made a great decision to marry Nadia. After all these years, I still find her beautiful and fun to be with. 

I got off track on the book review, but for those of you who lived abroad in your twenties, this book will remind you of that time. 

Ocean’s Team Wins Basketball Tournament

Ocean’s Team Won the Title

We had a busy Saturday with Ocean’s Junior Varsity Girls’ Basketball Team competing in the city championship. They defeated Skola 86 in the finals to win. That completes the double championship combined with the Central Asian Basketball Tournament a couple of weeks ago. I am happy to see Ocean participate in team sports. I hope she continues to play basketball and other sports.

One of the nice things about being an international educator is being able to see your children at school during they day. Last week I came upon Ocean and her friend Eleanor practicing their French language in the hallway.

We are hosting members of the Hamburg, Germany Girls’ Choir this weekend and we took them out to Milly Bog, a recently renovated park here in Tashkent. It is next to the Magic Kingdom Mall, which I describe as Disneyland meets Dubai. There is a big pool/fountain and it definitely has a Dubai Mall vibe. Tashkenters love going to Dubai and so I see what the developers were going for. It is really nice to walk around at night and Milly Bog (National Park) is a huge green space.

The weather was so nice this week with temperatures reaching 70F. I have had enough of winter and don’t want to see cold or rain for a while. I also went for a run in the afternoon. I am trying to get back into shape after the long, cold winter… One of my favorite places to exercise in Tashkent is along the Ankhor Canal.

Sunset along the Ankhor Canal

Latest Reading: Graham Greene “The End of the Affair”

Graham Greene and Catherine Watson

I’ve read several Graham Greene expatriate novels and he is one of my favorite authors. He traveled widely and for a time, worked for MI6. I love stories about expatriates and their adventures abroad and I recommend his books, The Quiet American and The Heart of the Matter. Recently I checked out one of his more famous novels, the 1951 The End of the Affair. It is set in 1940s London and is a fictional account of a real-life affair he had. The book is also one of his four novels in that he incorporates the Catholic Church. The main character is an author, Maurice Bendrix, who falls in love with Sarah, the wife of a friend and government employee, Henry Miles.

My biggest takeaway from the story was the inner dialogue our minds have about our relationships. As the title indicates, Bendrix has an affair with Sarah that ends because of his jealousy and obsessions which Greene describes in the first part of the novel. Several years after the affair is over, he hires a private detective to trail Sarah because he is still obsessed with her. The detective manages to find one of her diaries from the period and the reader gets her side of why they broke up. Upon finding out Sarah’s feelings from the diary, he contacts her again, but tragically, she dies from pneumonia before they can restart their relationship. Bendrix had the love of his life and he messed it up due to a lack of communication with her and in his mind, thinking she was not in love with him as much as he was with her.

The other takeaway is the loveless marriage. Henry and Sarah are friends and partners, but there is no passion and love in their marriage. I think she stays with him because he has a good income, is comfortable, and is away a lot from the home and not becoming enraged with her affairs, Sarah stays with Henry. I wonder what percentage of marriages are of convenience and not love after so many years. I am lucky I met my wife Nadia and we are still in love with each other after more than 25 years together and three children. I think part of it is we laugh together often and she is younger than me. It keeps me younger, too.

I didn’t like the philosophical parts of the novel about the existence of God or the role of the Catholic Church. I think the importance of religion and the church has faded in the 70+ years since the book was published. The next time I am in London, I would like to check out the Clapham Common, a park in the city where this story takes place. In my mind, while reading the book, I envisioned “The Common” to be a smaller plaza, but looking on Google Maps, it is more like New York’s Central Park. There is a plaque there dedicated to Greene as he lived there from 1935 to 1940.

The book was made into a movie twice and I see why. Some of the scenes take place during German bombing raids and it would be quite visually striking for the screen. Ralph Fiennes is a good casting choice for Bendrix. It sounds similar to the English Patient.

Latest Reading: “Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography”

I read Northern Michigan University Professor James H. McCommon’s biography of George Shiras III (1859-1942) with great interest because of his ties to Marquette, Michigan. Shiras was from a wealthy law family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a Supreme Court Justice. The family had a vacation home in Marquette, the largest town in the Upper Peninsula. The city has several areas and a planetarium named after him, so I was interested in learning more about his life.

With air travel today, I don’t see a family like the Shiras family choosing to vacation regularly in the UP. Today, wealthy families travel all over the world. In the late 19th century, it took a long time to get anywhere and so people went on holidays closer to home. Shiras married the daughter of another famous Marquette pioneer, Peter White, so he is kind of UP royalty.

The best part of the book was Shiras’s descriptions of the Upper Peninsula wildlife and topography from 1870 to the turn of the century. Long gone are the massive clouds of Passenger Pigeons migrating to the UP in the spring or five-foot-wide deer trails leading from Lake Superior south so deer and moose can find winter areas with less snow. Before logging, mining, and settlements, the Upper Peninsula was a much different place for the Shiras family than what I experienced 100 years later growing up in Iron County in the 1970s and 1980s. The mature forests mixed hardwoods were better for moose and woodland caribou than what you find today, white-tailed deer. It it tragic the effect of “market hunters” who killed thousands of wildlife game and sold them to towns and cities to the south. Much of the wildlife was wiped out and the mature forests were clear-cut.

The second half of the book describes his love of wildlife photography. Cameras were new back then and he set up rudimentary camera traps and flashes to capture some of the first photos of nocturnal wildlife.

A curious lynx photographed in 1902 by Shiras in Ontario

It is my wish that the UP returns to the same state as Shiras experienced in his youth. 98% of the region is covered with forests and it is recovering slowly. Species such as wolves, bald eagles, and moose are reintroduced. Too many people still build homes in the urban/wilderness interface, but it pales in comparison to the ravages of the early 20th century. I am glad the UP has a low profile and is still isolated today. I would like to try to visit the Dead River, the Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve and the George Shiras trail this summer. Some other points I took from the book are below:

  • My birthplace, Sault Ste. Marie is the third oldest city in the United States. It was founded by French fur trappers and Native Americans taking advantage of the fishing on the St. Mary’s River, which carries water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
  • The “root beer” or “copper-brown” colors of rivers in the UP are from decayed organic matter leached from cedar swamps and the great forests.
  • Earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) were brought to the UP from the Shiras family. Natural colonization of terrestrial earthworms after the glaciers melted had not reached the Northwoods region of the Great Lakes.
  • Northern Michigan and western Ontario were the last great stands of the Passenger Pigeon. In 1896, market hunters and residents killed the final flock of 250,000 near Petoskey. Shiras wrote, “It was doomed because it was a migrant. The rule in each state was to have an open season when these migrants were present and a closed season, if any, after they had gone.”
  • Shiras predicted in the 1930s that the “UP was destined to a long future as a recreational wilderness area.” The US forest service bought up denuded lands and abandoned farms in lieu of back taxes. These formed the Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests of today.
  • Barnegut boat – a flat boat designed for marshes with shallow water, first used in Barnegut, New Jersey.
  • potamodromous – fish that spend their entire life cycle in freshwater. The speckled trout of Lake Superior were huge and abundant but now have been replaced by European brown and rainbow trout.

USA Advances in the Davis Cup Tennis

The USA fan section with the Davis Cup Team (Oliver is back center behind the flag)

It was awesome to have the USA Davis Cup Team play at my home courts here in Tashkent! The Davis Cup Qualifier Draws found Team USA matched up against Uzbekistan. The USA is seeing a resurgence as a tennis power in men’s tennis with 10 players ranked in the Top 50 ATP Rankings. Uzbekistan had a young team and talking to officials with the Uzbek Tennis Federation, they wanted to put up a good fight and not get embarrassed. They accomplished their goal with well-played, close games throughout the four ties. They can also be proud of the organization and cordial reception they gave us as the hosts.

My big takeaways from seeing the professionals up close? All of them have consistent ground strokes and that should be expected considering how much of their lives have been devoted to tennis. I was amazed at how much of their body goes into their serve. All of them bend and coil and then unleash the power behind their swing. I noticed the ball toss is high and quite further in front of them than I thought it would be. It was also cool to see how seriously the US Tennis Association takes the Davis Cup. They have an entire support team behind the five players including a stringer, practice player, coach, logistics, masseuse, etc. Megan Rose, one of the USTA directors, was so helpful in giving us access to the team.

Oliver and I bond over tennis and that was the best part of the whole experience. We attended the second game on Friday and the two matches on Saturday. Owen, Oliver, Nadia, and I play tennis whenever we are together. The USA has a good chance to go all the way. Their doubles team is ranked in the top 10 and with many singles players to choose from, they will be able to adjust to surfaces and match ups in the next rounds.

Family Journal: February 9, 2023

The past two weeks have flown by and we are already in the middle of February. On Monday I enjoyed chaperoning the grade 8 students during the TIS Ski Season. We are taking grades 5 and up for a day of skiing and winter sports at the Amirsoy Resort. I see the value of introducing students to outdoor pursuits to establish a lifetime of physical activity. I was surprised at how many students have never tried skiing or snowboarding. I think skiing and skating should be one of the essential life skills people should learn like riding a bicycle, swimming, etc. I felt like “Super Dad” assisting students in putting on their ski boots, guiding them through the rental process, giving advice on safer stopping, etc. It was a thoroughly rewarding day and being outdoors just lifts my spirits. The mountains of Uzbekistan are breathtaking and it is good to get out of the city and breathe in the fresh winter air.

Morning Sunrise

All the snow and ice melted earlier this week, but it snowed again two days ago. Temperatures are not as cold as the historic cold spell we experienced in January, with the thermometer at -4C (25F) as I write this on Saturday morning. There is a light dusting of snow on the ground and it was uncomfortably cold last night walking the dog. The rest of the month shows lows around freezing and highs in the 40s and low 50s. I am turning into my father, tracking the weather closely in my later years. 🙂 The rain and snow do clear the air pollution but leave the school grounds. a muddy mess.

I asked my oldest son Owen to take some pictures of him snowboarding at Marquette Mountain. Northern Michigan University students get a season discount and like me, the outdoor exercise is good for him between classes.

Owen in the chair lift

I end this post with a photo of the Intercontinental Hotel. The building will be opening in April and it is amazing to me the growth of Tashkent. I see in the news that the President has put a halt on further building projects because of the increased demand on the gas and electrical infrastructure. The aging system needs investment to meet with increased demand from population and economic growth.

Intercontinental Hotel

Davis Cup Tennis Qualifiers 2023

Davis Cup USA Team 2023 and TIS – Training Session

The Davis Cup is the largest international team sport competition. It is the premier team competition in men’s professional tennis and has a long history, dating back to 1900. It is run by the ITF (International Tennis Federation) not the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) Tour so there has been tension through the years between the two organizations and players about the format and the role of Davis Cup in the extremely busy, modern men’s professional tennis calendar. Because it is not an event on the ATP Tour, no rankings points are awarded and there is not the big prize money of a Grand Slam or Master’s 1000 event. This has caused some of the top players to skip the event and they would prefer to save their energy and focus on improving their ranking points and increasing their prize money.

Oliver and Papa

On the other hand, it gives players the opportunity to be part of a team in a solitary sport. Camaraderie is not usually a part of tennis and watching one of the training sessions this week, I see that they do enjoy each other’s company and being a team. The Davis Cup also brings the sport all over the world, with 155 nations entering teams this year. For many years, every round was formatted as a head-to-head, best-of-five series with one country hosting the series. I loved attending the Davis Cup ties (Davis Cup calls the 5-match series a “tie”) in Belgrade, Serbia while we were living there. Novak Djokovic of course was the main driver of Serbia’s success and I remember watching the team in their run to the 2010 Davis Cup title. Davis Cup ties are also usually louder than regular tennis matches as players and fans alike are more patriotic and enthusiastic during the matches. Nadia and I also attended the Serbia vs. USA tie in March, 2010 in Belgrade. In looking at my blog from our time living in Serbia, we also attended the Federation Cup tie between Russia and Serbia. The Federation Cup is the women’s professional tennis equivalent of the Davis Cup.

USA Doubles Team Talking Strategy in Preparation for Saturday’s Game

The format of the Davis Cup changed in 2019. The idea was to make it into the tennis equivalent of soccer’s World Cup and to get all of the best players to commit to the event. They brought together the top 16 teams and played a round-robin and then knockout format over two weeks at one site. It has not generated the attention of the world like the World Cup. I think the problem is the ATP and WTA also hold team competitions. There is the United Cup in January in Australia, which is a co-ed preparatory tournament for the Australian Open similar to the old Hopman Cup. The Laver Cup is another team event that pits Europe vs. the rest of the world in September in Vancouver. It is also hard to break the Grand Slam Tournament’s hold on the public. When people think tennis, the US Open, Wimbledon, Roland Garros and Aussie Open come to mind, not the Davis Cup.

The Davis Cup did maintain a qualifying round in the old format. It is shortened from 3 days to 2 days and the matches are reduced from best-of-five sets to best-of-three sets. I was delighted to learn that Team USA drew Uzbekistan and the tie is taking place at my home club, the Olympic Tennis School here in Tashkent! Wow! Tommy Paul goes from playing Novak Djokovic in the Aussie Open semifinals on ESPN to playing on Uzbekistan television on a court with a seating capacity of around 500 people and an opponent ranked #491.

The United States Tennis Association has been great! USTA director Megan Rose arranged for our students to visit one of the training sessions and found tickets for our community to attend the Saturday matches. Oliver and I have been so pumped to watch the event! This is the appeal of Davis Cup; it brings professional tennis to places that usually don’t host events. It spreads interest in the sport and I think this will benefit the game more than trying to make a World Cup out of it. I hope they go back to the old format.

Family Journal: January 29, 2023

Today, January 31, 2023, marks the first morning since January 10 that temperatures will be above freezing the entire day. The month of January this year was historically cold, with temperatures not observed in Tashkent since the winter of 1968-1969. The secondary roads are finally starting to melt! There has been a thick, patchy layer of ice and snow on many of the smaller roads in Tashkent for weeks. The main roads are clear due to heavy traffic. I am looking forward to having clear pavement to drive and walk on. However, with the melting ice and snow and rain, it will be a mess.

I see more severe weather events coming to Central Asia over the coming years. The region is one of the hardest hit areas by climate change with almost a 2 degrees Celcius rise in the annual average temperature. I got this from a study that I can’t find right now, the researchers saw a 0.28 degrees Celcius rise every decade since 1950. The higher temperatures mean more fluctuations in precipitations with droughts and deluges. We’ve had some strange weather since I’ve been here, including a historic rainy/snowy March 2022 and a massive dust storm in November of 2021.

Uzbekistan is suffering from a natural gas shortage with long lines of cars waiting to refill the tanks that propel their vehicles. I am also starting to notice longer lines for gasoline as well. However, I was saved on Sunday when our local gas station, Mustang, ran out of the lower octane grade fuels. As you can see on the sign below, the Octane-80 and Octane-92 were not available and they only had Octane-95 fuel for sale. The lines disappeared as the vast majority of Uzbeks fill their cars with less expensive gasoline. I was able to pull right up to the pump! At 11,000 UZS per liter, that equates to $3.68 USD per gallon. That is slightly above the $3.50 national average price of gasoline per gallon in the USA this week.

$3.68 per gallon drives customers away – Mirabad District, Tashkent

It was a quiet weekend after our Lunar New Year holiday in the mountains on Monday and Tuesday. Nadia joined a gymnasium so we went there to swim in the outdoor heated pool and get a workout. I shared a sauna with an Uzbek Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter and his posse. I wouldn’t want to mess with those guys. It was nice to see Nadia exercising! We also enjoyed watching Novak Djoković win Major Tournament #22, tieing Raphael Nadal.

Family Journal: Happy Birthday Nadia!

Ocean is helping mom put on the necklace

It was a short work week of three days after the Lunar New Year holiday. It was a special week because of Nadia’s birthday which takes place on Australia Day, January 26. Because we have been living in the northern hemisphere, and temperate climates for the past 15 years, her special day takes place in mid-winter, which is much different than her childhood birthdays in Melbourne and Santa Cruz, Bolivia. We always try to make the birthday person in our family feel like it is their day. It is nice that our birthdays are spread throughout the year, starting with Nadia’s in late January, Oliver’s at the end of April, mine at the end of May, Ocean’s in late September, and Owen’s in mid-December.

Ocean helped me find a necklace

Ocean was a big help in selecting flowers. We went with Nadia’s favorite, tulips from the Tashkent Gullari shop. We then found a beautiful necklace and some mochi treats at a high-end convenience store. She looked beautiful with her necklace! The best part of the day was our traditional restaurant meal. This year we chose Macom Bar. It is Nadia’s favorite and has delicious food and a lively atmosphere of live music. My big takeaway from the night was our children are quickly becoming adults and we have adult-like conversations. I love these family dinners and we always put a priority on humor and laughter which brightens everyone’s spirits.

Oliver and Nicole

Family Journal: Lunar New Year Ski Trip (Jan 23-24, 2023)

Dad and Ocean at the Top

We headed up to our favorite place in Uzbekistan, the Amirsoy Ski Resort to get away for a couple of days. It was the ideal time due to our school having the Lunar New Year off, and the rest of Uzbekistan was working. We stayed in the chalets at the resort and spent Monday and Tuesday skiing (Bill, Oliver, Ocean) and Nadia and Obi hung out at the chalets. It was the perfect break from the city and school and I feel refreshed and ready to go until the Navruz Break in March.

Oliver and Davron after the Russian Banya

I love spending time with the kids outdoors and Nadia enjoys the atmosphere in and around the chalets. There were blue skies and plenty of snow and fresh temperatures. There was hardly anyone on the slopes so it was great skiing with no wait times for the chairlift or gondola. Oliver has surpassed me and spent much of the time with his much faster friends. Ocean is still skiing at my speed and so we did spend the second day together.

A highlight was going to the Red Rock Hammam and Spa. I feel like a new man after the heat of a Russian sauna and ice bath. Oliver was a bit tentative, but he ended up having a relaxing time and is now a fan. It was the perfect end to a cold, hard day of skiing. Thanks to my friend Phillip for inviting us and to the spa master, Davron, for his treatments and patience. I highly recommend doing the spa!

Nadia cooked some delicious meals and the Uzbek “kasha” (porridge) in the mornings set us up for good days of skiing.

Oliver Looking Cool