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.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Another amazing day

We've had a couple of amazing days. Yesterday, Oznur and I took a bus to Uzungöl and "just" walked around. First we walked around the perimeter of the lake, stopping to eat a picnic lunch at the far side. A kind waiter let us use a table with a superb view for the price of cups of tea, and then moved us inside when rain came.

It rained off and on all day, but we never got wet. Generally, we simply found ourselves at the right places at the right times. Once it rained a little as we walked down from high above the lake, completely engaged by the amazing view, and my umbrella protected us during those few minutes. At the bottom of the hill, we stopped to savor the sweet scent of a damp field full of wildflowers and then stopped at a covered outdoor cafe for soup and snacks. It rained some more while we ate, but stopped again when we wanted to go out.

We walked downstream below the lake and found another huge field of wildflowers, amazing views and singing birds.

That evening, after returning to Trabzon, we had a traditional Turkish dinner of black liver and enjoyed the attentions of a very kind staff. We enjoyed our next meal at least as much, this time in a little coastal town called Rize. Somebody sent us to a popular place with a variety of fresh-cooked dishes. We ordered well and ate with pleasure.

After lunch in Rize, we went up to a formal tea garden with a small arboretum and excellent views. The taxi driver who took us there offered to pick us up later and bring us to the castle we wanted to see, but we nearly didn't call him because we saw a taxi in the parking lot. I wanted to take the car at hand, but after much conversation with the driver, Öznur decided to call our original guy. This happened because of a misunderstanding, but worked out to be the right thing.

As Öznur and the driver chatted, he suggested that we might prefer to see a mosque at the top of a hill. It would be far away, but we'd go past his house in the village where president Erdogan was born. Later, we met the driver's family, including President Erdogan's cousin. But first, the mosque. I had no idea we'd get so high into the mountains, but we drove far away, gaining a commanding view in spite of the day's mist. The driver and I stepped into the mosque for a while, and after I stopped to pray (in my own way), he decided to invite us home for tea.

We sat down in an overheated room with a fire burning in the fireplace and sipped delicious tea. More and more family members appeared and the room began to fill up. Öznur was the only woman to stay in the group, though I meet some other women from the family as they went about. Öznur stayed busy translating the important stuff and participating in the conversation. We both felt loved by this wonderful group, and delighted to be among them.

By and by, the conversation turned to Trump, as it always does. I'm used to it. Even in Belarus, where people generally supported him during the elections, they are now worried. You can imagine how much he scares Turkish Muslims. As we wrapped up that part of the conversation, Ahmed asked me to tell outsiders that the real Islam is good and that Muslims themselves are generally good. That's certainly been my experience.

The last couple of days have been absolutely extraordinary. I think that Öznur and I open doors for each other, and we're having a very rich experience that neither of us could have had alone.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Pictures from Trabzon

So here I am in Trabzon, Turkey. I've had another great day, but it's too late to write a blog post about going up to Uzungöl. I hope you'll have a look, then, at some of my favorite pictures. I've added captions to each of them, so click on whichever ones aren't obvious to you and the caption may help.

Click here for the album.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Minsk to Turkey

Yesterday was a big holiday in Belarus, and almost all businesses were closed. As a result, I had the unusual pleasure of seeing some very busy friends together. My friend Katya moved off to the Philippines and married a guy named Paul, whom I had yet to meet. But Paul came to Belarus for the first time on May 8, and on the 9th Katya brought him to Gorky Park along with her best friend and others close to them. We had a great time wandering around the park and generally just being together.

I had to leave before I wanted to because I had to catch a flight. Once aboard the plane I intended to read my book, but I ended up with such an interesting travelling companion that I didn’t even think of it again. I had a musician turned scientist, who is presently pursuing a hobby in photography with the same scientific zeal that got her to where she is professionally. She’s absolutely fascinating. She was on her way to Boston, and reports that during her layover Turkish Airways put her in a beautiful four-star hotel at Taksim. I should have let Turkish Airlines find me a hotel when I flew that route. I had no idea they’d be so generous.

Meanwhile, I flew on to Trabzon; where I expected to meet a new friend from my last visit to Turkey. Öznur is a graduate student about to defend her dissertation, but she took time off to show me her home region. Unfortunately, she got overwhelmed by professional responsibilities at the last minute and couldn’t get free when she expected to, so I started out to see Trabzon on my own.

I had a little trouble launching my tour of the city. In the first place, very few people here speak any English. In the second place, I hadn’t put any serious effort into my contingency plan, figuring that somebody at the hotel could give me a few pointers if necessary. Expecting Öznur at any minute, I didn’t want to do anything she might want to show me later, and I went down to walk along the seashore. It smells like sewage down there, and there are lots of foul pipes dumping into the sea. I saw fishermen, but I’m not so sure about those fish. I wasn’t tempted to order any today.

Returning from my seaside walk, I passed an abandoned construction site and took pictures of the pile of dirt, suspecting that my Trabzon city album would come to tell a dark tale. Fortunately, my next destination changed the mood. I took a shuttle bus (like a Russian marshrutka) to Boztepe, where there’s a beautiful tea garden with a spectacular view over Trabzon and the sea. Then when I went back down I ate dinner at Maidan, the main city square with a beautiful park. By the time I finished, Öznur arrived and took me off to see a different view of the city.

Öznur is great, filled with kindness and practicing an open-minded curiosity. We visited some tour agencies and talked about what we should see in the coming days. Then she took me off to look for a wedding gift for a couple of my friends, to explore some very cute and hidden corners of the city, to eat baklava and to visit a mosque. I asked for the visit to the mosque, which somehow meant more to me than the other mosques I’d visited. I think the difference was in part Öznur’s reverence, and her translation as we approached of what the Imams were singing. We have three interesting days ahead of us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Everything is grand (Belarus)

I returned to Belarus today, and aside from the crazy-expensive breakfast in Frankfurt it’s been great. I had an interesting companion on the plane from Boston, a doctor from Kazakhstan who’d come to the USA to study English. He’s a nice guy and I enjoyed talking to him in Russian, but I think he needs to return for more lessons before he’s ready to teach medicine in English, which he’s supposed to do in 2020. But I didn’t chat as long as I might have because I wanted to sleep. It was already 1:00 a.m. in Minsk, so I put on my eye-shades and thought ahead to my new time zone. It worked out pretty well, and I didn’t even mind missing the meals.

By the time I got to Frankfurt, however, I was hungry. By tradition, I have breakfast at the Goethe Café near the departure gate for Belarus, and I did it again without much thought. After eating quiche with salad, I decided that I still needed something, so I ordered a different breakfast at the same place. The first breakfast was OK but small. The second wasn’t even OK. Hoping to avoid a repeat, I went walking around after I finished, hoping to find another interesting restaurant in that area for next time. There it was, Deli Bros. They serve only breakfasts, for a lower price, and everything looks nice. I wish I’d found it sooner. (It’s between gates B59 and B60.)

That was all just preparation. When I got to Minsk, things really got great. I found leaves on all the trees (a contrast to Boston), warm weather and sunny skies. After unpacking, I walked over to the Hotel Beijing for a massage and dinner. Knowing that I had the massage ahead made my time on the economy-class flights much more bearable, and I had a good time catching up with my masseuse, who had a lot to tell me about.

And then dinner. Oh, dinner. I’ve only eaten at the Hotel Beijing a few times, and always liked it. Today's delightful extravaganza cost a lot less than breakfast and delivered several times the pleasure. I had a couple of extraordinary dishes, starting with a Greek Salad that looked like a new moon. The chef didn’t use typical Greek spices but presented a very creditable variation on the idea with dried powdered beets decorating the plate and perhaps flavoring the salad. I spent a lot of time sampling the powder from the edge of the plate before I figured out what it was. It’s delicious! I raved to the waitress about how much I liked it, so the chef sent me a little jar of the stuff. He'd made it himself, though I found a freeze-dried variant at Amazon. I’ll enjoy experimenting with both.

My tasty-but-tough duck main course doesn’t deserve its own paragraph. Let me close, however, by describing dessert. I ordered a berry mousse, which arrived looking as good as my salad. Unfortunately, I ate most of it before I thought to take a picture, but it started out a shiny purple dome with white chocolate shavings and dark chocolate leaves on the top. Inside, I found a white mousse and cooked berries, layer by layer. It tasted just as good as it looked.

When I walked home, it was still light out and I enjoyed my route under trees alongside the river. I stopped at the grocery store to load up on basic supplies and got a whole bag of meat, dairy, fruit and staples; about as heavy as I could comfortably carry in one hand; for a little over ten bucks. This city is great!