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!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Exploring around Boston

A few months ago, I walked to Harvard Square just to get some exercise. Maybe I even had something to accomplish there, but I don’t remember in detail. I do remember, however, that it was a warm spring day and ice cream sounded like a good idea. As I went into Lizzy’s, I passed a young woman at the little table by their door, clearly enjoying a chocolaty ice cream cone. I asked her what she was eating and if she recommended it. She did, so I got the same thing and joined her at the edge of the sidewalk.

We sat at the table for a couple of hours. Her name is Faith, and she was waiting to learn whether a local TV station would fund her entrepreneurial venture as part of a reality-TV show they were producing. While we waited for the expected answer, we had a long chat about many things: her project, apartment living, and life in general. Neither of us had any reason to rush: Faith had finished work early and was waiting to meet a friend later. I just had time on my hands.

The TV station took another day or two before they finally told Faith that they hadn’t chosen her project. In the meanwhile, she’d had a chance to reflect on our conversation and her visit with her friend Cally. She wanted Cally and me to meet.

I didn’t have time for that at the time, as I was preparing to go off to Belarus, but I held onto Cally’s phone number. She and I finally met yesterday, a couple of subway stops beyond Harvard Square. Unable to schedule Faith and ice cream at a time when Cally was free, she and I decided to go out for a walk on the former Arthur D. Little campus nearby. I already knew my way around their land and a neighboring park, but since we were having a good time walking, we went farther and discovered a pond neither of us had noticed before. Aptly, it’s called Little Pond, and it’s quite cute. We also walked along the shores of Fresh Pond and various other interesting places. While we always had a general idea where we were, it was fun to cross known streets and see how they stitched together in the mosaic of the area.

I’ve done this sort of exploring on a coarser scale on my bicycle, but it’s a different experience to poke around on foot. It turns out that even from my bike I missed plenty of details. After yesterday’s success, I’m curious to walk around more attentively in other parts of the city and environs. Maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"Seeing" Novogrudok

As I’ve said, I want to figure out how to visit interesting places in Belarus that I haven’t seen yet. After a few web searches, I’ve got a little list of places I’d like to reach. I’m not sure whether Novogrudok had gotten onto the list, but Tanya suggested it and it looked pretty good on the internet. It’s about three hours from Minsk, so we resolved to spend the night there. A nice hotel room with two beds costs about thirty dollars, so it seemed like a reasonable idea.

Before booking the room, however, I checked another site, which suggested that we should stay “nearby” at Alpha Radon. My neighbor had told me that Alpha Radon was her favorite place in all of Belarus and Booking.com was telling me that they were offering me their last room, so I jumped on it without thinking much. It’s more than thirty bucks, but it includes three meals for two people and I had wanted to see it anyway. It’s great, but it’s way too far from Novogrudok for a quick excursion. It worked out fine, but we didn’t end up seeing much of Novogrudok.

Long boring bus ride
We passed through Novogrudok the first time on our way to the resort. I figured we were almost there and expected to see it around every turn. There were lots of turns, but we didn’t arrive for another 45 minutes or more. It’s OK. There’s plenty to do at Alpha Radon, at least for a couple of days. We went directly to the dining room for lunch, where I over-ate in my efforts to try everything that looked interesting. Then we headed out for a walk around the grounds.

We found our way into a small wood visible from the dining room and took lots of pictures. Mostly Tanya took the pictures. She’d just bought herself a fancy camera and wanted to make good use of it. As you will remember, she can’t see what she is photographing. Amazingly, she takes a lot of very interesting photos. She has a good intuitive sense of where she might find something interesting and then she shoots lots of frames. Sometimes I help her, but she does quite well on her own. Her friend Kristina helps her sort through the photos and choose which ones to publish. I think her Instagram feed will be extra busy for the next few weeks as they go through the weekend’s work.

After our photo expedition, we repaired to the Alpha Radon aqua zone, where we swam laps in their large pool and visited the sauna and steam room. We met an interesting Israeli lady in the sauna, who said that she and her husband came to spend a week in the woods, since she tired of the seashore where she lives. They’d been out walking for about four hours that morning, and at the time I couldn’t imagine where she’d gone.

We found the big woods on Sunday after we’d checked out. There are trails, a couple of lakes separated by a dam, beaches, docks, and lots of fun things to do. Somehow, we hadn’t learned about this, but the weather hadn’t been so great that we missed anything. But it makes the resort much more appealing. I could imagine spending more than a couple of days there now, especially for cross-country skiing or beach and swimming. When I asked the receptionist about what to do, she only told me about things she wanted to sell, like medical treatments and spa services. It seems kind of funny now.

Anyway, we got to Novogrudok on Sunday afternoon and had about three hours there before the last bus left for Minsk. That was enough time to walk around the old city center, enjoy the views over farmland and valley below, stroll through the park, eat a quick meal and come to understand that we’d have to come back and see the town properly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Day trip to Zaslavl

On my way back from Vilnius, the train took me alongside a cute little town. I whipped out my phone and asked Google Maps to tell me where I was: Zaslavl. I’d been there once before in my student days but didn’t remember it very well. Since it looked cute and I wanted to see more of Belarus, I decided to come back, and I invited my Belarusian daughter, Tanya. I planned far enough ahead to learn that the trains run so often that one can basically show up at the station whenever he wants to go there, and we agreed to go on the following Monday. Fortunately, however, Tanya did a little research and learned that the museum would be closed on Monday, so we postponed the trip until Saturday.

We had a great time. Once we figured out how to get the tickets and where to catch the train (the ticket lady was none too helpful), we got to Zaslavl in about half an hour. We decided to start with the museum, which we found easily despite the crazy V-shaped route Google Maps thought we should take. Our direct route took us to the back entrance, which proved convenient because there was only one docent running the whole museum and she was out with a group. She invited us to join her group and we started the tour from the middle. We made our first stop at a grain mill, the central feature of the museum. The other people on the tour were sisters whose grandmother had owned such a mill. They explained to us in detail how everything worked and took pictures of us near the grinding wheels.

From the museum, we found our way along a delightful stream to the entrance of the city’s other main historical attraction, one of two very old churches. It’s a beautiful building with a fine garden, protected by a tall earthwork covered with wildflowers. We explored all viewpoints before picking our way to the other church, which needs maintenance and is not open to visitors. We didn’t mind, however, because we had a nice walk on a nice day and the birds overhead made us feel as cheerful as they sounded.

Finally, we set out to find lunch. Or dinner. We debated about asking our phones where to eat, but then I spotted an actual human being, who told us how to find the nearest (and possibly only) options. There was a wedding going on at the restaurant where she sent us, and the waitress admitted as we left that she felt a little frazzled running the bar and serving the wedding as well as the restaurant guests all at once. We hadn’t noticed that she was frazzled, however. We were sitting in a nice room with a pleasant view out the window and occasional sightings of the wedding party dancing and making merry. Everybody seemed happy and we enjoyed our meal at the same time.

I was ready to go home after the late lunch. We’d had such a wonderful day that I figured we were more likely to wreck it by plunging into the new part of town than to extend our pleasure. Tanya felt optimistic, however, so we went. I picked out a route parallel to the main street, and it felt positively rural. I could see traffic parallel to us, but we walked alongside beautiful yards in a modernized Belarusian village. We had a great walk, saw nothing in particular, and walked back by a slightly different route. The birds continued to chirp, the sun continued to shine, and we continued to enjoy this fine little town.

I look forward to finding more of these little gems. It’s easier to have fun outside of Minsk than I imagined.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Harlem (Lithuania)

Last year I went to several dance events and ranked Harlem among my favorites. It’s held right across the border from Minsk, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Naturally, I came back this year.

I always enjoy going to Vilnius. It’s a small city with lots of charm, always fun to walk in and filled with interesting shops and restaurants. I asked the receptionist at my hotel to recommend a place to eat right after I arrived. I’d missed lunch and ended up eating my main meal around 3:00 p.m. This worked out very well, because she sent me to a place called Lokys, which can fill up in the evenings. In my case, I had a charming waiter pretty much to myself. And great food. It’s the oldest (or second oldest?) restaurant in the city, and it’s been around since the early ‘70s when Communist big shots used to eat there. I tried a sampler platter of various kinds of wild game and enjoyed my meal thoroughly.

Of course, I also enjoyed the dance classes and the parties I’d come for. In class I met a French woman named Rachel and a German guy named Stefan, and we agreed to have lunch together. Another fellow, Thorsten, came to join us and we had a great time together, so we posed for pictures at the photo booth that evening.

Rachel hadn’t been to Vilnius before, so I took her for a walk around Old Town and Uzupis. Later, walking on my own, I explored some back streets I hadn’t seen before and found a very interesting chocolate shop. Too bad I’d just had a big breakfast when I found that one, so I can’t review the taste of their beautiful hand-painted confections. I also found the Belarus Embassy (extremely fancy) and a place to buy the Italian tuna I like to bring back with me from Lithuania.

Rachel and I went back for dinner once at Lokys. This time we ordered quail and beaver. The waiter had to warn us, by company policy, that the beaver was a “particular” taste, and that not everybody likes it. We both thought it was great, so we took a chance on the Lithuanian dessert the waiter had warned me away from on my first visit. We liked that too. I’ll definitely return for another meal next time I’m in Vilnius.

As I said earlier, the dance festival was great. I want to leave you with a dance contest from the final night. Pay particular attention to Ana and Tadas, a couple of Lithuanians I’ve known for a while. They’re extremely nice, and Ana’s a lot of fun to dance with. You can see why, when you watch them cement their victory in the eight bars beginning at 4:25.

Monday, May 14, 2018

A delightful day of failure

The key elements of yesterday’s plans failed utterly, but I couldn’t have been happier with the day. Öznur and I signed up for a tour featuring a huge cave and spectacular views of valleys above Trabzon. I met the tour near my hotel and introduced myself to other passengers as they boarded the minibus. All of them spoke English, lucky for me, and none spoke Turkish. We started with a couple from Sudan, a family from Yemen, a couple from Palestine and an American; me. Since our route would take us right through Öznur’s town, she got on the bus last and immediately became our translator.

I had a bag full of Trabzon dates and passed it around. Then, at our first rest stop, Yusuf noticed a guy with a pot boiling on on an outdoor stove and offered tea. I declined at first, but in the end we all went over, and Yusuf treated. The group began to coalesce, but I’m not sure we knew that yet.

We hit our first setback when we arrived at the cave. The driver said something with a disappointed tone of voice. Öznur translated that the recent rains had engorged the river and we wouldn’t be allowed into the cave. Yusuf and I didn’t feel deterred by walking under a waterfall and tried to talk our way in, but the lady at the booth was adamant. Nobody gets in, regardless of courage or foolishness. We went upstairs to a little café in a minor cavern above the cave’s entrance and took pictures of the cataract and each other instead.

Still acting optimistic, our driver took us up to visit a manmade lake higher in the valley. As we approached the lake, we rose into the clouds, and by the time we reached the lake, we couldn’t see much. Nevertheless, Yusuf and I followed the lakeside pathway and found a dam not far away. Yusuf took my camera, ran around the dam, and took pictures of me in the fog near the spillway. We had a good time there, and ultimately enticed the rest of the group to follow us back. First, however, we all found our way into a warming house where somebody bought tea. Öznur produced cookies. We chatted and warmed up. We were a team.

We drove back out of the clouds and up into a spectacular valley. I savored the views all the way up, in case there would be no view at our destination. It was clear enough to be pretty most of the way, though we never saw across the valley. When we finally reached the high viewing point, however, the clouds were so thick that we could barely see the road. The driver said that he ordinarily stops there for lunch because the view is spectacular. Not today, however, so the group readily agreed to delay lunch by another hour and eat at a lakeside café close to town. I bought local strawberries to tide us over.


Over lunch, Öznur made an excellent proposal. She suggested that we eat lightly so everybody could come to her town for fish dinner at the end of the tour. Those sitting closest to Öznur understood immediately, but those farther away ate full lunches. They regretted that when we got to the fish place. Anyway, we had a lot of fun sharing a family-style lunch, and after lunch most of us went out to ride pedal-power boats around the lake.

Only the couple with a small child was unable to join us for dinner. Their daughter had done very well, but it was time for her to go home. Replacing them, Öznur’s friend who had come to the restaurant to prepare a table for us joined the group. He insisted that we order a dish that didn’t appeal to most of us, but since his English isn’t very good he may not have known that he was forcing something. It didn’t matter because we all liked it. It tasted far better than it looked.

Reluctant to part, we took a public shared taxi with Yusuf and Reham to the Aya Sofya mosque, formerly a very early Christian church. The ceilings inside the mosque are covered up right now, under restoration, but we were able to see a lot of early Christian motifs on the ceilings of the porticos that served as entryways to the old church. Then we crossed the street to Yusuf and Reham’s favorite dessert place. The owners greeted Yusuf with big hugs and called him brother. Everybody likes Yusuf. Then they gave me big hugs and knocked heads with all the men. We chatted into the night, probably keeping the owners from closing their café. I had to say goodbye to Öznur there, since we lived in opposite directions. She tried to pay the check, but the owners wouldn’t take money from anybody. Everybody is so NICE here.

Speaking of nice people, I feel compelled to mention politics. At least once a day, somebody asks me nicely about Donald Trump. Yesterday’s driver pretty much summed it up. It’s the only English I heard him use. He told me, “America very good. Donald Trump, problem.” Everybody seems to agree, but I’m glad that international political problems have not changed the underlying dynamic of human relations. Wherever you go, people are generally nice and want to get along. It makes for a pretty sweet life.