As I walked through the echoing vastness of the sanatorium, I wondered what the breakfast awaiting me would be like. I thought about oatmeal with bananas, cold cereal with milk topped with blueberries, and scrambled eggs and bacon – and finally decided breakfast would probably be more like it is in Poland – small sandwiches with ham and cheese or a white cheese paste, accompanied by boiled sausages and a cup of tea.
But, not for the first time on that business trip, I was in for a disappointment.
There wasn’t any breakfast.
The door to the dining hall (calling it a ‘dining area’ would be severely underemphasizing the dimensions of the room, which was the size of 3 bastketball courts) was locked, and although I can’t read Cyrillic script, a quick glance at the hours told me I was too late for “second breakfast” and decidedly too early for “dinner”.
A group of disconsolate marauders whom I quickly identified as fellow training participants waved me over from the other side of the entrance hall and whispered in solemn tones that breakfast (consisting of sausages in tomato sauce, and a mixture of some kinds of grains, served piping hot) was over but if I waited patiently, they could save me if not from hunger, at least from caffeine withdrawal.
We soon broke into the locked dining hall, no doubt illegally poured ourselves hot water from a dispenser, and drank coffee with no sugar because I feared the wrath of the kitchen staff, who scurried around shooting us poisonous looks and muttering curse words in Kazakh under their breath. In that decidedly unfriendly setting, I discovered the blessing of Canadian friendliness via the Starbucks Via brew that a well-travelled and forward-thinking instructor had brought from Canada.
How different this morning meal was compared to that which I had sampled at a similar event I had organized in Warsaw just a month earlier, where I had been greeted with a smile at 10.30 AM (a mere 30 minutes before the kitchen closed), ushered to my seat and given a choice between 3 kinds of eggs, 10 kinds of cold cuts, a vast variety of cereals, freshly-pressed fruit juices and coffee and tea to my heart’s content. Granted, it might have had to do with the fact that the event venue had been 5-star hotel from a luxury chain and not a 3-star sanatorium….
Still, it was about then that I started realizing that I had been very wrong in my imaginings about Kazakhstan. Prior to my trip, when I thought about going to Kazakhstan at all (which I really didn’t, being too wrapped up in preparing the event itself) I had thought I would feel comfortable in Kazakhstan, given that Poland and Kazakhstan share a somewhat similar recent history.
Nothing of the sort. The cultural shock only deepened as the days dragged on.