When I reach back into my memory and search the joys and trials of my childhood, one moment stands out, and that is the conversation I had with my father in which we spoke of our move to Kazakhstan.
The memory is hazy, that type of memory where I’m not sure if it really happened or if I dreamt it.
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that my family would leave the United States of America for Elsewhere. It was just a given, like the law of gravity or the fact that my little sister bit when she was mad. I was just old enough to understand that my family’s decision to move was – odd – but I remember feeling intrigued.
My father wanted me to look forward to my new home, and so one day he drew me aside and said that we were going on an adventure. He told me about the people and the culture and the food and the mountains, and it sounded very much like the stories I read in my books.
“Daddy,” I asked, “will it be like Narnia?”
I think he probably laughed at that, but he didn’t dissuade me.
Thus, when my first morning in Kazakhstan dawned and I stared out the window at unknown people going about their foreign lives, I was excited. I didn’t mind the peeling linoleum floors, or the black-tiled bathroom, or the old and ugly television set that couldn’t get proper reception no matter how many times my father fiddled with the antenna – not that it would have mattered: what we could make out through the snow was a man speaking in Russian. I later realized that this man was the president of my new home.
One of my earliest days in Kazakhstan found my mother and I wandering the aisles of the bazaar. It was there that I realized that Kazakhstan wasn’t so much Narnia as it was a Soviet-influenced Calormen.
Memories are not just hazy: they overlap. They bleed into each other and become messy and difficult to decipher. When I remember that moment of asking my father if our adventure would be like Narnia, I also remember a map. A map of Kazakhstan – an unknown nation to the Western world at the time and somewhat ignored today, even though it is the ninth largest country in the world. A nation of steppe and heavenly mountains with a border on the world’s largest lake – the Caspian Sea.
“Daddy,” I asked. “The Caspian Sea? Like Prince Caspian?”
My father laughed again, I’m sure, at his nerdy daughter but agreed there probably was a connection.
Imagine my delight when I later discovered the name “Aslan” was Turkish in origin and was therefore in the Kazakh language as a male name.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where my love for words first took root.
For eight years I lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan. When I left in 2004 for that great adventure known as University, I never thought I would return to Kazakhstan to live again.
But Pevensie children always return.
Fast forward five years, and here’s another memory:
I sit at a table in a friend’s dining room, the flat filled with people, a Monday night in Kazakhstan. Deep in conversation with a young woman named Abby, I reveal that there is one thing I have long wanted to do but have never had the opportunity:
To stand on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
My fellow Pevensie understands me, for which I’m grateful.
In February 2010, I get my chance: I fly an Air Astana domestic flight to the city of Aktau. My mother and father – having arrived some days previous – meet me at the airport. We drive down snow-swept roads, past a camel perfectly content to sleep in the middle of the highway, and into the darkened coastal town. I can’t see the sea in the dark, but I can hear it and smell it and feel it.
The next morning, we trudge through the snow, past monuments and eternal flames and rowdy children. The sea plays peek-a-boo, and had the path been clearer, I would have ran for it. Instead, I slip and stumble and plod my way through the snow drifts.
Marble blue and ice cold, it stretches before m. It’s shore is made of smoothed stones and red algea. Oil tankards are faded spots on the overcast horizon. Somewhere beyond the reach of my vision lies Azerbaijan and Iran.
Swans patrol the waters and heavily-coated Kazakhs leap from rock to rock.
I stand on the rocky shore and smile.
I leave Kazakhstan today. I won’t say that I leave forever – I said that once before, and look how wrong I was. Perhaps I’ll return to this land of contradictions, this world that both infuriates and stimulates me.
I remember what my father said to me in 1996 and know that this too will be an adventure.
And so, dear Kazakhstan, I take my leave.