My Bubble Bath



Survey results are in and most respondents want more deleted scenes from my book, At Home On the Kazakh Steppe. Many also want more substantive information on Kazakhstan. A few mentioned photos, and one suggested I post more regularly.

Thanks for your  feedback. Deleted scenes are easy and I’ll try to add some Kazakh information here too, as well as on my website under the LEARN MORE tab. I shall also try harder to use photos.I’ve been posting on Wednesdays for awhile and will stay with that. Maybe some day I’ll bump it up to three a week, but certainly not this year.

My Bubble Bath, this week’s deleted scene, features our first host mom, Hadija, a Turkish woman seven years younger than me. Woody and I lived with Hadija and her family during our ten-week training period outside Almaty. Her youngest daughter Soniya was studying English in school and was an enormous help to me in those early months when I spoke no Russian. Of course, in hindsight, I might have learned more Russian had I not relied on her so much. But that’s hindsight for you: never there when you need it.

A bit of background: there are over 100 different ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs are now the majority once again and, as their name indicates, the original settlers of the land. About the others:

  • Some came via the famous Silk Road.
  • Others came during Russia’s homesteading drive into Kazakhstan in the mid to late 1800s.
  • Most came during Stalin’s grand “game of chess” — moving entire populations from one country of his empire to another as though they were pawns on a chess board — in the years before World War II.

Hadija’s family lived in a small Turkish enclave outside Almaty. Both her and her husband’s parents had arrived as children on cattle cars in the mid 1930s from Georgia. The paternal grandmother (now in her 80s) tells a great story … oh, that’s not a deleted scene. Sorry.


Here’s this week’s deleted scene, My Bubble Bath.


Thanks to Flickr Creative Commons
Thanks to Flickr Creative Commons


Even with my head telling me, lighten up, I walked home one afternoon with my gut screaming, Run! Hide!  I was so very tired.

I ate supper in silence that night, relying on my husband Woody to carry the conversation for both of us. But my silent tears gave me away. Soniya noticed them immediately.

Mama”! She cried out to Hadija, and suddenly their eyes were on me, followed by much chatter in Russian, which I didn’t follow, of course. Hadija spoke sharply to Soniya, usually so shy about her English, who translated, “What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine, really.” I tried to explain they had done nothing wrong. No one had done anything wrong. How to explain culture shock to these good people? How to tell them how strange their country was to me? How to explain I only wanted the newness to stop, for a while.

I tried, “I’m overwhelmed. Everything is so new,” but Soniya couldn’t translate.

I didn’t feel “homesick,” per se. I didn’t want to go home. I just wanted to cry. I wanted them to let me cry. Grandchildren were a universal and I used mine. “I’m homesick for Bella, Mikah, and Elijah,” I said. That worked.

Soniya translated and I saw recognition in Hadija’s face. She said something to Soniya who again translated. “If you don’t stop crying, I will start to cry, too.”

Dead end.

Then it occurred to me that I needed something viscerally familiar: a bubble  bath.

Hadija loves her garden
Hadija loves her garden


I hadn’t had a real bath since my late night arrival at the sanatorium two weeks before, a luxurious affair in a tub long and deep enough to lie fully immersed. If only the plastic bag I’d had to use for a plug had worked better at holding the hot water in, it would have been perfect.

There was a bathtub in Hadija’s house, newer than the one at the sanatorium, and equally long; it even had its own stopper. But I hadn’t yet sat in it. Baths had consisted of quick sponge baths Saturday nights in the steamy banya down the hall.

When Soniya added, “What can we do?” I knew what to say.

“May I have a bubble bath?” She stared at me with wide eyes. I grabbed Woody’s pocket dictionary ever at his elbow.

Engaged in conversation with Murcel, Woody hadn’t seen my little drama unfolding. Too lacking in energy to interrupt him to explain, I leafed through his small dictionary and dredged up enough Russian nouns to ask, “Moj a buit. Ya hachoo vanna.

I’d asked for a bathtub rather than a soak in one, but it didn’t matter; they understood.

Hadija in winter
Hadija in winter


Hadija and her three daughters
jumped up from the table, conferred briefly among themselves, and left
the room.  Soniya called back, “Get ready for your bath,” and smiled a conspiratorial smile.





In the bedroom, I collected my portable CD player, Nina Simone’s A Single Woman, a clean shift, and the magic potions I never leave home without, and walked to the vanna, just beyond the banya, at the end of one wing of the house.


Soniya with her paternal babushka
Soniya (at left) and Fatima (on the right) with their paternal babushka. An unnamed cousin looks on at right.

In Russian, banya is the sauna room; vanna, the more traditional bathroom is also a bathtub. Back then, I couldn’t hear the difference.



The vanna had a window that looked out to the front courtyard, a sink, a washing machine, a hot water heater on the wall, and a bathtub long enough for a stretched-out soak. The toilet, of course, was in the backyard. I’d coveted that tub for two weeks. But I’d had no idea what was involved.



When I walked in, I found Soniya and her older sister Takhmina tacking sheets over the door-less entry and the curtain-less window to give me privacy. Hadija and her oldest daughter Fatima hauled heavy pots of hot water from the kitchen sink to the tub.




I hadn’t known the tub’s faucet didn’t work. But they seemed genuinely, eagerly invested in this new project. Their compassion was tangible.



I hadn’t felt so cared for since this whole “Let’s go in the Peace Corps” idea first rose.




I soaked low in the tub, unusually low given that they’d hauled in about six inches of water before the water heater had emptied. But the CD player worked its magic and I let out my gut-heaving sobs, safely concealed behind Nina Simone’s powerful voice.




The old adage “crying clears away the sadness and creates a space for joy” never felt so right.

And my good cry, while simple, was priceless, as was my good bubble bath. In fact, I decided then there’s no such thing as a bad bubble bath, no matter how shallow or tepid the water.


Hadija and me on a short visit in 2009
My “host mom” Hadija and me on a short visit in 2009


How about you?  How easy is it for you to have a good cry when you need one? How do you know you need one?


Those travelers among us, how have you met the inevitable downs that culture shock brings?


2 Responses

  1. Diana Beebe
    | Reply

    What a lovely story, Janet. If this one didn’t make the cut, I can’t wait for the stories that did! What a wonderful family. I love the way they took care of you!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      They were a wonderful family and it was a great way for us to start out our PC years. I write more of them in the book when we went back for visits. All volunteers had to live with a local family for the first nine months, so we had Hadija and her family for three months during training, then another when we got to our permanent site for the next six months. Lots of volunteers chaffed at that rule, but we loved it. Really was an excellent way to learn how to fit in better. So glad you dropped by, Diana. Now I’m off to read about the Need for Speed. Cheers.

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