When the Frey family left Pleasanton for two years of teaching and attending school in Kazakhstan, they didn't know they would have to factor in a coronavirus.
"Once the pandemic started and all the international schools went online, a bunch of us reached out to each other," said mom Julie Frey, a counselor at Almaty International School. "We found that every place in the world was experiencing the exact same things. All the students were feeling anxiety, and everyone was scrambling to figure out online learning."
Julie, husband Andy and daughters Annika, 15, and Lydia, 12, were staying with her mother Charlotte Severin this summer in Pleasanton as a break after their first year abroad.
Julie had always wanted to live overseas, and she majored in international studies at Pepperdine University and spent a year at its campus in Heidelberg, Germany.
"That ignited my desire to live abroad, but the timing never worked out," she said.
Julie joined the Pleasanton Unified School District in 1996 while Andy worked at Apple for 15 years before starting his own business, and they stayed busy rearing their two children.
"Then we had friends who taught abroad, and that perked my family's interest," Julie said. "We visited them in Colombia and got an idea of what it would be like."
They attended international school job fairs and found Almaty International School in Kazakhstan to be a good fit. With grades preschool through high school, it is one of several international schools in a city of 2-3 million people.
"The girls were exiting elementary and middle school, and Andy was exiting his business -- the timing came together," Julie recalled.
In Almaty, Julie counsels preschool through middle school, while Andy taught technology in the elementary school and next year will teach physical education.
"We live in a nice four-bedroom, three-bath townhouse that is one year old, and we feel well taken care of," Julie said. "The campus is right there; we walk to work and the girls walk to and from school. It is a great introduction to living abroad."
The girls were immediately welcomed by their classmates.
"International kids connect easily, and people are welcoming," Julie said. "They have an understanding of what it is to feel new, and they reach out to each other."
Soon after arrival, the family was invited to join a camping trip in the four-wheel-drive vehicle they had bought from a departing faculty member.
"We drove off the road and into the mountains and onto the steppe," Julie recalled. "We camped out in the middle of nowhere, with yurts in the distance, shepherds living in the outback, on the Assy plateau."
The mountains continue to be a draw.
"We are very outdoorsy, and we go hiking in the Tian Shan mountain range," Julie said. "They are gorgeous mountains, looming peaks with glaciers on top of them, and it's a 15-minute drive to the base of the hiking trails."
Almaty, which is in the southeast of the country near China, has four distinct seasons, with sledding a favorite recess activity in the winter. The family also enjoys nearby ski resorts.
Both girls play on soccer teams -- varsity and junior varsity -- which compete against local schools as well as teams from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and northern Kazakhstan. Andy, a runner, took part in the Almaty Marathon with the high school cross country team.
The city is cosmopolitan, with strong Asian and Turkish influences, Julie said, and not far from the campus is a Uighur neighborhood.
"It's post-USSR and reclaiming its Kazakh heritage," she noted. "Everybody speaks Russian but it's part of the educational requirement that all children born in Kazakhstan must take Kazakh language and history."
"Religiously, it a real combination. Down the street is a huge mosque, the other way is a big Russian Orthodox church," she added. "The population is very secular, and people are respectful of one another."
Every neighborhood has a marketplace with indoor stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables and animals butchered on the spot.
"Pork is not very common but it is possible to find pork," Julie said. "There are grocery stores similar to western stores that cater to everyone."
One thing they can't find is peanut butter so they will pack some for their return.
A national rice and meat dish called "plov" is cooked in oil rather than water, which makes it quite rich. The girls love a fried pastry called "boortsog" that is sold at stands.
"They are like donuts, fried dough, but not sweet," Julie said.
The school has between 450 and 500 students from families with the American Embassy as well as Chevron and Samsung.
"Lots of local families send their kids to our school so they can go to English universities," Julie said. "Students are a mix from other places -- Germany, Italy, Switzerland, from Eastern Europe and the other Stans."
"Class sizes are really small, 10-13 students per class," she added.
Lydia's Spanish class, with a teacher from Venezuela, only has one other student.
COVID-19 has hit the country with a spread similar to the United States, Julie said.
"When it first started, they really put everyone in a quarantine lockdown," she remembered. "People could only go to grocery stores or pharmacies within one kilometer or two of their home, and you had to use a mask."
The campus is surrounded by a one-kilometer (0.62 miles) loop.
"We had our own bubble and were able to get outside and exercise, within the confines of the school campus," Julie said.
To return to Kazakhstan next week, they must test negative for COVID-19 within five days of their arrival. For now, Almaty International School fourth-graders and older will do online learning.
The family discussed different options, Julie said, and both girls want to return.
"We want to finish our overseas experience and don't want to cut it short," she said.
They look forward to reuniting with Joey and Rudy, the family dogs, both whippet-terrier mixes adopted from Tri-Valley Animal Rescue.
"I was pleasantly surprised how well my family adapted to the experience," Julie said. "We have definitely had our ups and downs -- and culture shock -- and driving there is really kind of stressful. But we have managed to adapt."