Saturday, December 14, 2019

Leaving Belarus

I haven't posted to my blog in a very long time. Mostly, the blog had been about my life in Belarus, or at least my life as a traveler. There are other parts of my life that I haven't felt free yet to write about yet, so I've been silent. It's all good, and I may well have something to say about it later. But for now, I have another Belarus story.

I started this post sitting at Beltelekom waiting my turn. I can't discontinue my internet service online or on the phone. I am required show up with my passport to do this in person. I want to discontinue my internet service because a chain of events in the USA has changed my life enough that I've re-thought my lifestyle and am concentrating on life in Texas.

I spent a long time watching agents serve the people ahead of me. Based on her number in line, one lady’s visit took an especially long time, as she signed up for service. When I arrived, the agent was opening a box with a new router to confirm that the serial number matched what it said on the box. There was other discussion. Then she put the router into a plastic bag, along with the mostly-empty box it came from. Finally, after confirming the client's true identity, she printed out multiple copies of several documents, stamped each copy with her official stamp and signed them all. The client signed them all too. I am flabbergasted by the amount of paper they handled.

Not quite done, the agent replaced the staples in her empty stapler and stapled sheaves of documents together. More discussion ensued. Finally, the client left, hopefully ready to set up her internet when she got home.

This is typical.

I waited some more, and finally got called. I told the unsmiling agent what I wanted and the fellow took my documents, studied them, and confirmed that I live in Minsk. Yes I do. Well, he said, this is the wrong office. This is for the Minsk region. Fine, I answered, Minsk is in this region. It was fruitless. He only serves the outskirts, not the city itself.

I begged his indulgence. Nothing doing. I asked again about quitting online or by telephone. Nope. Nopity-nope-nope. I must go downtown and wait in another line. At the rate we are going, the downtown office if going to make me wait two hours. As I write this, I am one hour in.

I'm feeling quite ready, by now, to embrace my new life in Texas with almost zero regrets.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feeling charmed

I feel so blessed just to be alive, and for all the little things that work together to make life delightful. I started the day with SMS messages from friends in Texas, Vermont and southern China. Grateful to be thought of, I furthered the conversations and made breakfast before starting an online meeting with my friend Katya in Poland. Katya and I studied Proverbs 11 together for the second time, because both of us had been a little overwhelmed at the language in it the first time through. She’s improving her English vocabulary and I my Russian vocabulary by these exercises. Besides, the Proverbs are great conversation starters.

After my chat with Katya, I went down to the gym for a good workout. I achieved a couple of new personal bests today, and I listened to a very entertaining audiobook as I exercised. The audiobook is called Wanderlust, by Lauren Blakely, and it’s so funny I found myself rolling on the floor laughing. Well, to tell the truth I wasn’t rolling. And I already started on the floor, since I was doing sit-ups when it happened. But I did laugh a lot.

Next, I went for a massage at the spa where I go regularly. Knowing that I didn’t particularly favor the scent of the spa’s regular oil, my masseuse brought coconut oil from home. I liked it a lot better. And then halfway into the massage, I noticed that we weren’t listening to the same boring music they usually play at that spa, and I asked about it. Lyubov had brought different music for me too. She’s such a sweetheart, I signed up for two more weekly sessions before my departure on 1 May.

Afterwards, of course, I went for lunch at my favorite restaurant, located in the same building. I had with me a little box of chocolates I’d bought in Lithuania, a promised gift to the waitress who served me last week. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed for a special event, but I asked if Marta were there so I could hand off the gift. She was not, but in the course of my finding that out, the administrator came to invite me to eat in the closed restaurant. I ordered the halibut, which my waitress said had just arrived fresh. It was great, of course. This (Oasis CafĂ©) is one of few places I know where I can reliably order fish in Belarus. And it came with fried mushrooms that were simply WOW. After one bite of mushroom, I decided I’d better take a picture.

As I ate, the other of the two administrators I know came to chat. I hadn’t seen Kristina in a couple of visits, and the last time I saw her she was urging me to get the seared tuna salad because she loves it so much, she said, she can barely talk about it without drooling. It’s one of my favorite salads there too, and I told her that if she’d sit down with me next time, I’ll order two of them and she can eat one with me. Surprisingly, she said she’d do that, but then she wasn’t around the last two visits. When she came to greet me today, I was just finishing that very salad, and I told her that if I’d known she were in the building I would have ordered two portions. She said she was too busy today anyway, what with that special event, but that she hadn’t forgotten.

I mentioned to my waitress that I’d already booked my next massage for Monday, so I’d see her then. Apparently she told Kristina, because as she saw me off at the door, Kristina said that she looked forward to seeing me on Monday. She added that it would be an excellent day to come because that would be the first day with the new menu. They’ve been promising me this new menu for weeks, so I expressed skepticism, but she assured me that this time nothing could go wrong, and it would indeed be a new beginning. I reminded her that she would be invited to eat salad with me on that day. She accepted, then realized that it was her day off, then contemplated the first day with the new menu and said she’d come in anyway. I said that if she were coming in specially for the new menu, then I’d like to treat her to an entire lunch, and she accepted. That’ll be fun.

So, after all that I started home. It had already been a perfect day and the sun was shining. I contemplated going to get my bike but decided to enjoy the day at a walking pace and headed up the riverside path. Out of nowhere, a young woman stopped me for advice. She wanted to know where were the most beautiful parts of Minsk. It sounded like a come-on to me, but as I tried to describe where I thought she should go, I realized that I couldn’t really explain it and I was walking that way anyway, so I invited her along. She said yes, but by her pace I realized that she was starting reluctantly. I stopped to assure her that I didn’t want anything from her, but I’m taking a walk anyway and she should feel free to send me off or veer off in her own direction whenever she wanted.

We ended up walking together for a little over an hour. She’s very nice, an actress from Moscow in town with a movie crew. She’s got a leading role in a war movie, and she said that the last couple of days had been very hard, as she had to cry most of the day. Today she seemed cheerful, and we had a nice walk. I doubt I’ll ever see her again, except perhaps on the screen, but our meeting capped off a day with amazing surprises and connections. Life is good, is it not?

Saturday, April 13, 2019

One day in Vilnius

I got an email from the hotel where I usually stay in Vilnius, offering me a room for “up to 40% off.” Clicking through, the deal indeed looked good and I booked a room for one night. It's an easy trip from Minsk to this city I like very much.

I took the early train, and got to the hotel around 10:30. They told me that I’d ordered a “freedom” room, and they didn't have one ready for me yet. Knowing I’d ordered the cheapest possible room, I tried to get an upgrade by offering to take whatever else might already be prepared. They cheerfully declined, but I had anticipated this and asked to be admitted to the fitness center in the meanwhile. This suited us all. I like working out there because it's on a high floor with great views. Even before I finished my workout, the front desk manager came up to tell me my room was ready and I could let myself in whenever I wanted.

Guys, they put me in a corner room in the fancy section at the top of the building. I had four windows, all with spectacular views; a bathrobe; slippers; all that stuff. I don't know how it happened, but it was great.

I wandered off from the hotel looking for lunch, and noticed an Indian place, Sues Indian Raja. This turned out to be a great choice, as my Google review describes. Both my waitress and the restaurant manager took excellent care of me, stopped to chat, and generally made me glad I came. They finished by recommending that I visit the modern art museum, so I headed that way after lunch.

But, along the way I attended to another of my goals for this trip by stopping at Theo Bromine Chocolates. I didn't really need any more sweets after finishing my lunch with ice cream, but I wanted to affirm that I still liked this place so I tried four different chocolates. They were good, but not as thrilling as I remembered. Planning to bring chocolates back to Minsk, I decided to check out some other options before buying more.

I enjoyed the museum, especially a film told from the point of view of Water. Water considered himself not of the earth, but of the cosmos, and commented on his ability to take on any shape. Somehow it all seemed very deep at the time, but I don't remember this sweet character in any great detail because I fell asleep in the beanbag chair from which I attempted to watch.

Upon leaving the museum, I continued my effort to buy some good chocolate.  Setting out with Google maps and no plan, I wandered far and ate a lot of chocolate. Finally, my head spinning, I found my way into Aj Sokoladas. Heroically, I are three more candies and decided this was my place. I'd be back in the morning.

Dinner was uneventful. I ate beaver stew and went back to my room to read and, finally, get to bed early.

Today I went out for a long aimless walk in old town. I thought maybe I'd find a supermarket with something exotic, but that didn't happen. But the sun warmed the streets and I enjoyed a great walk. I didn't have to hurry because the folks at the hotel allowed me a late check-out, and I finally left at two, returning for lunch at the Indian restaurant. This time I liked my meal even better, choosing to order two of my waitress’s favorite dishes. I'll get the prawns again.

As I write this, I am returning home with a lot of chocolate, some Lithuanian yogurt, and a full belly. I had a great outing.

In closing, here are three photos from my wanderings in old town this morning.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Table tennis blindfolded

I got a call a few days ago from a woman named Irina, whom I had helped a couple of years ago when she and her table-tennis team were passing through town. They’re all visually impaired, and they found me through the volunteer organization I helped to organize. I was curious about how they can play with just a noisy ball, and they promised to show me how the game works at their next opportunity.

Irina’s team was in town again last week, training for the national playoffs later this month. The winning team from Belarus will take on teams from all over Europe, and I think there’s even a world event at the culmination. Anyway, Irina invited me to watch a practice, and I brought along a blindfold “just in case.”

I filmed a couple of the women warming up. Later, I learned that these are not the strongest players in the group, but the video at least shows you how the game works. There are rules and subtleties, but it’s not hard to get started.

After I watched a few different pairs play, somebody finally invited me to give it a shot. “Well, yeah,” I said, and I got out my blindfold. They wouldn’t let me play with just a blindfold. The ball is hard, and sometimes it moves quite fast. They wear heavily-padded gloves and insisted that I find a glove before I could play. Valentina even loaned me her wristband, showing me a red spot on her arm from a ball that missed the wrist band.

I played OK at first, against a woman. They had warned me, however, that men played much more aggressively. Then they brought in Alexander, one of the other guys I’d met a couple of years ago. He annihilated me, but I had a good time trying to keep up. When we finished, he promised to send me details about the national competition in Gomel later this month. I’m thinking I’ll go, at least for one day. I want to see them going at it for real. I’d love to play again too, but I can’t figure out how to make that happen, short of buying a table.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Brunch x2

I went outside of my comfort zone on New Year’s Day this year. I’d been feeling a little lonely and wondered if it would be a good idea to go alone to the holiday brunch at my favorite restaurant in Minsk. I wasn’t sure I’d actually go until the holidays arrived and I went to a New Year’s Eve service at the church I attend here. By New Year’s Eve, I had finally begun living in the present and stopped worrying about whether my life conformed to my expectations. Better, I resolved, to make the best of what is.

So, on New Year’s Day I went over to the Hotel Beijing for brunch, believing it started as usual at noon. It did not. When I arrived, the hostess came to meet me, calling me by name and apologizing that she hadn’t made clear that this event started at two o’clock, not noon. Fortunately, I’d signed up for brunch plus spa access, so she gave me my wrist band early and sent me off to the spa, where I spent a delightful two hours swimming laps, reading my Kindle and generally relaxing. I had a great visit to the spa and then returned to the restaurant.

Christina told me that they still weren’t ready but asked me to sit in the lounge for a couple of minutes while they finished preparing the restaurant. Finally, just a few minutes late, she invited me in. I was still the only client to arrive so early, so when she opened the double doors the band started playing just for me. The restaurant looked absolutely beautiful, and the waitresses and kitchen staff stood attentively at their stations.

I finally met Sergey, the lead chef, whom I had complimented several times via the waitresses. And all my favorite waitresses came by to make sure I had everything I needed. The band even took note of which tunes I particularly liked, and perhaps they played more of it. I had a great time and took it easy over my meal and spent the entire four hours in the restaurant, first eating and finally just listening to the music.

Grateful for the good treatment, I wrote them a letter after I returned home.

I left Belarus shortly after that and returned only recently. A couple of days after arrival, I took Tanya there for lunch on International Women’s Day. The people I knew at the restaurant buzzed all around me, grateful to have read my letter and touched that I managed to write to them in Russian. As we left, they gave me a gift certificate for a Maslenitsa brunch the next day. This gift certificate for two included spa access, so I invited my gym buddy (in the photo) who has told me how much she likes their spa and pool. We had another great day there, eating and swimming. Once again, I saw Sergey the chef and a lot of other people I like very much. We ate very well, from a delicious array of dishes prepared for the occasion. The staff told me I was a member of the restaurant family and urged me to spend more time there. I probably will.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Tanya's secret

I took Tanya shopping a couple of weeks ago because she was getting ready for a trip. She has befriended a Ukrainian pop star who had a big show that weekend in the Moscow Kremlin. A bunch of her groupie friends planned to meet for the show and a night on the town afterwards. Naturally, one doesn't go to Moscow unprepared, so she wanted my help going to a big mall where she could shop for accessories.

I hadn't eaten lunch, and by the time she completed her spree I was eager to eat. We found a restaurant in the mall, a pizza joint. Unfortunately, neither of us wanted pizza so I read her the entire rest of the menu. Steak. There was no doubt in my mind that she wanted the steak, but she wouldn't order it because she knew it must be the most expensive thing on the menu. She doesn't eat much at all, and never anything like this, so I encouraged her by ordering salmon steak for myself, at the same price. (Eleven dollars. I'm not throwing money around here.)

The steak took a long time, probably because they had to thaw it before they could cook it. But it was one of the nicest-looking pieces of meat I've seen in Belarus and they prepared it just right. I enjoyed watching Tanya enjoy it and commented that she was the first person I'd noticed in Belarus who knows how to hold a knife and fork. She guessed that she'd learned from movies before she lost her sight, but maybe she picked it up from family: there's some royalty back in her lineage.

Further, this conversation elicited a secret. Tanya told me that she had not eaten with knife and fork since she lost her vision, and she felt flummoxed eight years later when I took her out to lunch for the first time. Presented with silverware, she thought, "Well, I used to know how to do this. I'd better give it a shot." I did notice that she grew more successful at cleaning her plate during the two-plus years we've known each other, but I'm very amused to learn that this is such a new skill.

I wrote a draft of the paragraphs above before Tanya’s trip, but didn’t publish it right away because I wanted to get her permission. She agreed, and she told me that there’s a sequel. In Moscow her gang of groupies got together for a big meal. Some of them only knew each other from the internet, and many of them were unaware of Tanya’s disability. But the friend at her side knew, of course, and offered to help Tanya with her steak. Feeling confident after her joyous meal at the mall, she declined help. Those who knew watched with some interest and ended up commenting on how beautifully she handled her meal.

In telling the story, Tanya said how much she appreciates that I’ve taken her out to cafes so she could have this experience, how it has enriched her life. I could say the same, of course. Having her for a foster daughter has enriched my life in many ways, by at least as much.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Shopping the American Way (in Belarus)

I needed to buy a rug. Actually, I needed two rugs, because Alla decided she wanted as part of her divorce settlement both of the rugs we bought jointly in Minsk. I’ve been buying a lot of stuff lately because Alla cleaned out the apartment twice. I thought I was done when she cleared out the first time and (theoretically) turned the place over to me. She said she wanted to keep her key, however, so she could come back and clear out her desk. I was surprised to discover how empty the apartment felt after she cleaned out her desk. It turns out that her desk included a lot of other cabinets as well.

I called Alla to assure myself that she was done taking stuff from the Minsk apartment. She said yes, more or less, but that she still wanted those two carpets. Feeling expansive, however, she allowed me to borrow them until such time as I could replace them in the next few months.

The big government-owned department store near me had a sale, so I went shopping. I found a super-cheap reasonable-looking carpet for the spare bedroom and brought it home. I also saw a couple of carpets I could live with if I had to buy something immediately for the living room, but since I still have a couple of months I decided to check some other stores. Finally, I found a rug I liked in the window at another government-owned store called “Nemiga;” so I asked the sales guy if he could find me a rug like the one in the window. He didn’t want to talk to me, and the way he spoke to me made me confident that I didn’t want to talk to him either.

Undaunted, I reviewed their entire inventory and then returned to the window. Wow! I found another carpet in the window, better even than the first one. I chose the other sales guy, who was just as adamant that he couldn’t sell something from the window. At least the second guy was nice about it. In any event, I persisted: “The window is your advertising, right?” He agreed. “And I’m responding to your advertising,” I continued. “I’d like to buy the product you are presenting right there in your advertising.”

“I can’t do that,” he insisted.

I insisted too. I don’t know what the rules are here in Belarus, but where I come from you can get into lots of trouble for false advertising. It seemed like the kind of rule we’d have in Belarus too, though perhaps nobody has insisted until now. Belarusians don’t like to insist unless they are bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats use up the country’s entire “insisting” budget. Fortunately, I arrived with an imported supply. I wouldn’t leave until the guy gave me instructions on how to reach his boss, who was already gone for the evening.

I came back today to look for the boss. The crew I’d met during my evening visit wasn’t there, but there were a couple of women just as sour as the first guy I’d met. I don’t get the impression it’s a great place to work, because it’s not bringing out the best in anybody. I told the sales lady that I’d like to meet Tatiana Viktorovna.

“Why do you want to meet her?” she asked.

“I’d like to buy that carpet,” I said.

“You can’t buy it,” the clerk sneered.

I performed my song and dance, roughly the same routine I’d performed for the evening sales guy. She became increasingly agitated and told me in a louder voice that I could not buy the carpet. I remained calm and told her that I wanted to meet her boss. She thought that would be a waste of time, but I wanted to meet her boss. She said that Tatiana Viktorovna is not here, and I said fine, I’d like to meet whatever boss is here. Exasperated, she made a phone call and told me that Tatiana Viktorovna would be there in about five minutes.

Tatiana Viktorovna started out the same way, telling me that it’s impossible to sell something from the window. They don’t have an inventory number for it and they don’t know its price. I performed my response-to-advertising routine for her and she began to relent. She said she could order one for me, but that I couldn’t take home that window sample.

“At last,” I smiled and exclaimed. “Finally, I’ve found somebody able to solve the problem. All of your employees have told me to go away. Only you have had the insight to reach a solution.” I figure flattery is usually a good thing. The employee who had been trying so hard to prevent me from talking to Tatiana Viktorovna objected that of course she always could have ordered a carpet for me. In fact, she filled out my request in her order book without any help. She knew how, but somehow, she had not been interested in doing that until I had gotten the boss in the room.

Later today, I went over to the Department Store Belarus. These government-owned department stores tend to get their stuff from the same factories and I found there the very carpet I’d been trying to buy at Nemiga. I even bought it on sale. Keeping my costs down, I carried it home on public transit. It was big and heavy, but here it is:
100% genuine polypropylene. Nothing but the best!