Sometime at the very end of the 20th century I moved from Geneva, Switzerland to Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was my first leap into the “far abroad”, as they call it in Russian.
Kazakhstan, however, was not the “far abroad” to Russia. A former Central Asian Soviet republic, then just a few years into its independence, it was very much the “near abroad” to its shaken but still powerful northern neighbor. It belonged, still belongs, to the area where Russia’s geopolitical clout is at its most relentless.
Even so, foreign investors hungry for Kazakhstan’s huge natural resources were already rushing from the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. My then employer, a Dutch bank, was part of the move, there to serve the joint-ventures created to exploit and develop oil fields, mines, refineries and metallurgical plants. My role was to manage some of these corporate accounts.
The bank operated in the country’s largest city, Almaty, located in the foothills of the beautiful Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range in the south of Kazakhstan, a country as large as all of Western Europe but with a population barely reaching 15 million.
The majority of the people of Kazakhstan were ethnic Kazakhs, the descendants of the nomadic tribes that had roamed Central Asian steppes for nearly a millennium, but there was also a large Russian minority, as most of Central Asia had been under Russian then Soviet rule for 150 years.
The modern Kazakhs I got to meet and interact with had high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, and dark full hair, but their facial features were distinctly different from those of Far East Asians, like Han Chinese for example. To my curious, inexperienced eyes, they looked in between. I soon came to understand they were simply Central Asian.
They had beautiful names I had never heard before: Aigul, Askar, Erlan, Magzhan, Serik… The young generation of urban Kazakhs, and probably their parents before them, had grown up speaking Russian at home and at school and very few of them were fluent in Kazakh. I later heard the term “Asphalt Kazakhs” to describe them. I remember attending the wedding of my young colleague Erlan, whose grandmother addressed him and his bride in Kazakh to give them her traditional blessings. After the ceremony Erlan told me he was not able to understand what she said then.
The bank’s personnel had a striking demographic makeup. The head of the branch and his deputy were Dutch. Most of the junior staff were young Kazakhs from the middle and upper middle class. Quite a few of them had studied abroad. They all spoke excellent English and flawless Russian – our two common languages. Middle management positions, on the other hand, were mostly held by Russians and, interestingly, Indian and Pakistani expats. I was the odd French woman thrown into the mix.
My Kazakh colleagues were smart and ambitious. I could see their grasp of local social and business dynamics was far exceeding mine (in part because they had much more skin in the game) and they would move up fast. They were also warm and fun to be around. Their priceless sense of humor sounded familiar and appealing to me because of my Russian background: they had inherited that uncanny ability, grown over decades of Soviet regime, to spot and mock absurd details and fake speech.
Perhaps the brightest, though not the most socially savvy, of them was Kozhakhan. Nerdy and hungry for intellectual challenges he was also friendly and game for stimulating conversations. His face was open and handsome in spite of many acne bumps. He was the only blue-eyed Kazakh I ever met. He was also of noble descent, which I did not learn from him. Kozhakhan’s bright mind was not lost on corporate investors coming to Kazakhstan and he later joined one of them in a senior role. It was clear though that he was not much interested in tactical power plays. His brainpower was such that he didn’t need to be involved at that level. We stayed in touch for a while after I left Kazakhstan. I later learned he had died from a rare incurable disease. One more way he stands out in my memory.
Ethnical and cultural diversity was an everyday reality both at work and beyond. Almaty’s expat community, where I made some good friends, was mostly American and European. My main customer was Ispat Karmet, a giant Soviet steel mill, taken over by the Indian-owned Mittal group. The mill and its coal mines were now run by some 30 men from all over India relocated to the Kazakh steppe and working six days a week. Most had left their families back home. Some of them had never experienced a negative temperature before moving to Kazakhstan, where a temperature of minus 35º Celsius (that’s about the same in Fahrenheit) in winter time is nothing to write home about — well unless home is in India, that is.
Then there was food and the blessing of having a robust Russian meal served by Galina and her kitchen team everyday in the staff lunch room at work. Pelmeni, blini, potatoes, mushrooms, sour cream, and lots of dill… I loved it so much. I also enjoyed the perk of rich Indian food whenever I travelled to Ispat Karmet. The company’s management knew better than not to comfort its uprooted expats with wholesome Indian cuisine prepared by a first class Indian cook and I was fortunate to benefit from that.
Kazakhstan is also where I first felt the longing for French food and the rush of pleasure when you unexpectedly come across some favorite so far away from home. Two experiences very much at the origin of my starting Simply Gourmand about a decade later…
The couple of years I spent in Kazakhstan now feel very distant. Well, it did happen in another century… But it remains a cornerstone of my multicultural makeup because it was my first, arguably my only, immersion in a completely different world. A world both fascinating and hard to map out, where I learned that my life would not always be on firm ground if I wanted to go that far from home.