A (second) Year in Review

* Note:  I wrote this a long while back, but something happened to the pictures and I just never pushed publish.  I’m publishing it now sans pictures only so I have it for posterity 🙂

Hey friends!  I haven’t forgotten about this little space of mine, though I know it is sadly neglected.  Someday I will visit it more often, but until then I’m giving myself permission to use it as I am able.

I wrote a year in review post last year, and while it may not have meant anything to anyone, it was a good exercise for me to remember back over all the Lord had done in our lives in 2017.  There is something about remembering that helps our present selves sort of re-center in reality.  We always have those moments that crop up and we feel like, “I’ll never manage to get through XYZ!”  Remembering reminds us where we’ve been, and that we’ve managed to get through X, Y, and Z on more than one occasion – perspective is golden.

So without further adieu (ado?), our 2018 in review:


2018 started out COLD and pretty low-key for the Johnstons.  The kids (as well as Dan and I) enjoyed some belated Christmas packages from friends and family back home, and it was a sweet thing to sort of expand the joy of Christmas a bit for us.

We spent a day sledding at a golf course just outside our city with some local friends, and it was such a joy to connect with their family in a new way.  These invitations from local friends are so meaningful, and this one was a particularly sweet memory for our family as our kids and their kids had a blast, despite the language barriers.

Near the end of the month we had a very deep cold snap, during which the city heating system completely quit working.  The kids had a few days off of school, not because of the outdoor temps, but because of the indoor temps!  It was a chilly few days!


The kids enjoyed “Book Week” at school during February, and had lots of fun activities including a dress-up day.

The biggest event was certainly welcoming our new nephew into the world (albeit from way too far away!)!  Roy and Katee (Dan’s sister) had their first baby, Clarke, and we are still eagerly awaiting our first chance to meet the new cousin.  He has made family texts and videos far cuter (no offense to any of the other Johnstons ;-).

The weather remained quite bitter cold, but we tried to enjoy the snow as much as possible.  Dan and I were able to sneak in a morning hiking date, and the beauty of the mountains and fresh air were a memorable gift.


The month of March was a turning point for us in a lot of ways.  Of course as the month started, winter continued, and our spirits dragged a bit.  Winter here is long and gray…and in hindsight I don’t think we realized how much we were all in need of both some literal and figurative sunshine.  Thankfully, the Lord had just that in store for us at the end of the month.

I don’t even have much in the way of highlights from the beginning of the month.  The brightest spot for sure was that we were able to begin meeting with our first home group, and what a joy that was for us!  These people continue to become more and more dear to us all the time, and it was so kind of our Father to give us this gift of friendship and community in the midst of a figurative and literal winter.

Soon we were hit with a nasty virus, and all of the kids went down with a fever over the course of a few days.  Lydia was the last holdout, but she eventually succumbed, right before we were set to fly out for our first big international trip since arriving.  Travel dates are a tough opponent, but we managed to get on our plane, puny baby in tow.

We arrived in Greece on March 17th, all pretty weary and run down.  I remember feeling rather uncertain that we had made the right decision in planning this trip during our first year, but our good Father knew that it would be exactly what we needed.  We enjoyed two weeks of a medical conference (with tons of programs for the whole family as well), then stayed on for an extra week of family vacation.  By the time we reached the end of our 3 weeks, our hearts were forever bound to the beauty of that country, so much so that for a long time after, Wes would tell us how “homesick” he was for Greece.  Me too, buddy.  Me too.


We returned to Central Asia bursting into Spring, and our tanks filled up with the capacity and energy to dive in to the rest of the semester.  Our city almost seemed like a new place, and we happily escaped our apartment to explore all of the fresh flowers, sunshine, and GREEN!

We enjoyed our first truly authentic local dinner with our friends from our small group in April.  Their hospitality is indescribably warm and generous, and we all enjoyed the beauty of their backyard garden, the warmth of the conversations, the delicious plov (fried rice dish), and of course, the unlimited chai (tea).  Days like this truly help this place feel more like home.

April also brought international day at school:

and a wonderful day trip to the mountains with some dear friends:



I know Ellie’s highlight of this month would most certainly be starting gymnastics!  She had been talking about it since before we even left the states, but in May we finally made it happen.  With classes entirely in Russian and a whole new set of rules and norms to figure out, it hasn’t been easy, but this girl has been dedicated since the day we started.

As the weather warmed up and the school year wound down, we got out into the city as much as possible.  The kids had some fun end-of-the-year activities like field trips and programs, and Mom even had an event of my own as I participated in an international choir that performed at a local festival!  It was fun to dust off some of my old vocal experience, and it stretched me in new ways as we performed songs in German, French, Polish, & Italian!



June brought some summer fun, as well as some new experiences for Dan as he helped facilitate a group of American doctors that came to do some work locally.  He participated in some nearby rural clinics, and even took a few of them to a neighboring country to visit another clinic there doing similar work.

We also celebrated Father’s Day, hosted a birthday party for a dear friend, attended a local birthday party, and generally just enjoyed summer and the freedom that it brought.  We even (*mostly) enjoyed a very rainy hiking day in the mountains.

The month came to a close with Ellie’s first gymnastics “competition” — that’s in quotations because we honestly were never entirely sure that we understood what was actually happening 😉  But she was very brave, and very proud of that medal!



At the beginning of July, we took a little family vacation to a beautiful, mountainous lake about 2 1/2 hours from our city.  It was absolutely beautiful, and we deeply enjoyed the family time together.  We also celebrated our first 4th of July as expats and talked about how truly grateful we are to be Americans, no matter where we find ourselves in the world.

Caroline began a new venture this month as she started swimming at a nearby indoor pool.  Just like Ellie, she too dove right in (pun intended) to lessons entirely in Russian, and worked hard at her new sport three days a week.

Towards the end of the month, Dan made a (crazy fast) trip back to the states to be at his sister Jewel’s wedding in Washington state.  He was gone for a little more than a week, but was actually only there with his family for about 4 days…that’s the reality of travel to and from our neck of the woods.  He was so very happy to be able to be a part of her big day though.  Meanwhile, the kids and I attempted to keep things fun with “Camp No Dads Allowed” for the week…it mostly worked, but in the end, two kids ended up sick and some the of the activities were cancelled due to the camp director being otherwise occupied (i.e.  Mommy had to take care of the sick kids).  All in all, we survived, but we were very happy to have Daddy back.



August was perhaps the longest and most difficult month of our entire 2018.  Of course, it was not without its highlights, as well – and I suppose I’ll start with those.  Ellie celebrated her 7th birthday on August 9th…and we all celebrated our one year anniversary of arriving here in Central Asia!  It truly felt like an accomplishment, and we gave thanks to our Father for all He had seen us through in the previous year.  Onward and Upward!

We celebrated Ellie’s birthday with rainbows and unicorns, a fitting theme for our second born.  A Sunday school teacher back in Tennessee once commented that Ellie was, “sweeter than a bag of sugar!”  I think there is no better sentiment to describe her 🙂  As the party unfolded, I sat back and gave thanks for the dear friends who surrounded our girl that day – we hadn’t known a single person when we landed here the year before, and yet here we were, our kids surrounded with friends literally from all over the world.  At our table were kids from South Korea, Hong Kong, The Netherlands, and America!  There are things about this life that are of course difficult for our kids, but moments like these remind me that there are MANY gifts as well.

A few days later, we hosted a birthday party for our dear friend and teammate, then a few days after that, it was Wesley Paul’s turn for a birthday celebration!  We celebrated with our team and an Incredible’s cake, but took the party to a “water park” just outside of the city.  I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that our little boy is already FIVE!!!  He loved every minute of his big day, and fell fast asleep on the drive home.

After all of the celebrating, our month took a somber turn as we changed gears and said goodbye to three of our dear teammates and friends who ended their time here and headed back to the states.  We hosted a going-away party for them, and then had one last hoorah with a slumber party the night before they left.  I’ll never forget the feeling as I watched Dan load them all up and drive away in the early-morning darkness…good-byes will always be a part of this life that we’ve chosen, but I don’t think that means that they will ever be easy.

Two days later, we packed up and headed about 8 hours east – to a small city on our far eastern border.  The drive was long, and there aren’t exactly any rest-stops or McDonald’s along the way to break up the time, but the kids did great and we were glad to join some of our teammates and a small group of visiting American doctors for a rural medical caravan in a local village.  We stayed in a guest house in the city, then drove out to the village for the couple of days we were there.  We were glad to join Dan in some of his work for the first time as a family, and we really enjoyed getting to explore new parts of this beautiful country.

Unfortunately, Lydia got sick before our time came to an end there, so she spent the last day in the village with a high fever, and the poor girl threw-up most of the drive home.  We were really grateful to break up the drive with a short overnight stay at the lake again (the one we visited in July – but in a different area), but boy were we ever glad to get back to our apartment.  We’ve never been more grateful for western toilets and AC!

We did end the month with a very big finale, however, and welcomed our second nephew of the year – Sloan Lee Irwin!  My sister gave birth to her fourth child and first son on August 26th, and I may have stayed up all night waiting for the updates to come in 🙂

You would think August would be over at this point…but it just.kept.going.  School finally started near the end of the month, language studies continued for Dan and I, and life returned to a somewhat normal pace, though in all honesty, I think it took us some time to recover from August!



September helped return us to some semblance of normal as we settled back in to the routine of school and language classes, but there were plenty of “extras” sprinkled in.  Near the beginning of the month, on an unusually chilly day, Dan took the kids and our dear friend Diedre to meet some local friends for a picnic in the mountains (I had to bow out at the last minute due to some stomach problems…oh the joys of living overseas!).

Wes got his turn to try a new activity and enjoyed some Saturday soccer!  It may not be the “American football” his daddy played, but he was ALL in and loved every minute of it.

We enjoyed cooling temps, a visit from our fearless leader, and we checked out the local amusement park.

Then, of course, birthday season continued for the Johnston kids as we celebrated Caroline Harper’s 9th and Lydia Mae’s 2nd birthdays!  We had lots more friends over for Caroline’s Hatchimal party (if you don’t know what hatchimals are…you probably don’t have a 9-year-old girl right now!), and I was again struck with the beauty of that collection of little souls from all over the world.  I have specifically asked for dear friends for this oldest daughter of mine, and what a picture of the Father’s kindness to see them all  gathered around our table.

I made a fun “drip” cake for Lydia and we had a little party with some local friends.  It was so fun to celebrate our little sunshine girl – she is such a joy to all who meet her!



The seasons shifted again, and we saw the pace of life slow a bit again in October.  We welcomed pumpkins that started popping up in our local markets, made some applesauce, and bought some vitamin D 😉

The kids enjoyed learning about local history and participated in a day at school celebrating our local culture.  It’s really fun to see them learning and enjoying more and more about this beautiful place we get to call home.

Possibly the most important event in October…Wesley moved up to kindergarten!  Though he started the year in preschool again, most of his friends from last year moved up to kindergarten, and the new friends in his class were all much younger than him, and none of them had English as their first language.  He struggled through his first month, and every school morning was met with lots and lots of tears.  After much prayer and consideration, we decided to give kindergarten a try – and it has turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made this year.  Our boy has thrived from day one, and we are so thankful.

We also attended our first wedding here this month, and I was even asked to do the bride’s hair for her big day!

Without contest, my favorite event of October was an overnight (fancy) yurt-stay in the mountains, just Dan and me!  Our friend Diedre was brave enough to watch all four kids for the night, and we could not have been more grateful for the gift.  What an amazing experience!

**Quick PSA:  If you come visit us, I promise to take you here 😉



We almost made it!!  November began with the return of winter and a snowy team retreat in the mountains.  Though it was COLD, we enjoyed the beauty of the snowy mountains, filled our bellies with some delicious local food, and renewed our vision with coworkers from all over our region.  The girls even joined in on the banya time (which is truly a cultural experience!), of which Caroline was a BIG fan.  (Basically the banya consists of sitting in a type of sauna room that is BLAZING hot, and they occasionally throw some water on the hot stones in the middle to create even more steam.  After you can’t take the heat any longer, you go outside (literally in this case) and jump in a “plunge pool” of freezing-cold water.  Then you run back into the hot room and repeat until you absolutely can’t take it anymore.  Then you go have tea 🙂  For the men, they also beat them with dry Oak branches at various points…just for good measure!)

After our retreat, we took a short, 3-day trip across the border to enjoy some family time over the kids’ fall break.  We didn’t do much exploring, but thoroughly enjoyed our time at the mega-mall, complete with McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, Hardee’s, H&M, and a trampoline park.  What more could 6 Americans possibly ask for??

Ellie switched to a new gymnastics, changing over from rhythmic to “sport” (i.e. the type of gymnastics most Americans are accustomed to with the beam and bars, etc.).  As much as she loved her first experience here, she’s loving this one even more.  So fun to see her thrive!

About midway through November, we got hit with what I shall refer to as “the plague”.  One by one, they all dropped like flies…everyone except me.  The fever lasted for almost a week, and needless to say we were ALL wiped out after that.  But time marches on, and Thanksgiving was already upon us!

We had a blast hosting a bunch of our local friends for Thanksgiving this year!  Diedre and I planned it together, and I was thankful for another cook to help prepare the feast.  We somehow managed to put nearly all of the important “fixin’s” on the table, including a turkey!  For most of our friends, it was their first time to try turkey and pumpkin pie and cranberry Jell-O salad.  It was a really special evening and a fun way to share both about our culture and our faith with some of our friends here.


We made it!  I kicked off December with a day at my favorite bazaar (the one with all of the local textiles) with my favorite boy (the one with the cute grin).  A day spent at the fabric bazaar is a day well spent 😉

Okay, but really most of December was spent celebrating Advent, enjoying all of our favorite traditions leading up to the celebration of the birth of our Savior.  And, of course, shopping like any good American.  We gathered with some very dear friends and shared delicious food and sang Christmas carols and laughed and watched Christmas movies, again ever so grateful for the depth of friendships and community the Father has provided for us this year.

We decorated the house and baked a million goodies, then hosted our second annual Christmas cookie party!  This year we branched out and invited local and expat friends, kids and grownups, and we loved  the loud, crazy, bursting-at-the-seems party that ensued.  We ended the evening with sticky floors and full hearts.

Here are a few other highlights from our advent season:

Of course, Christmas day was packed full of JOY and presents and wrapping paper and candy and lots of sweet time together as a family.  In fact, for the kids’ Christmas break, we opted to keep it really low key and not go anywhere.  We did spend one BEAUTIFUL day in the mountains, and did a few fun things around the city, but for the most part we stayed in our pj’s and watched movies and ate snacks and played games and read books and took naps…it was just the kind of break we all needed.


I realize we are now already into the second month of 2019, but I’m still grateful for the chance to look back on all that happened in 2018.  There were highlights, and there were lows, there were fun days and there was a lot of work that happened in between (though not much of that is captured here!).  But throughout these pictures and daily happenings, I see the divine thread of so much grace running through it all, faithfully seeing us from one month to the next, day in and day out.  His mercies are new every morning – Great is His faithfulness!

If you read all the way through to the end, you are either a true friend or my mother!  Sorry this got so long!  I’ll do my best to be back soon with a normal sized blog post.  Love you all!

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