Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Culture shock

When I got home I experienced a bit of culture shock. About twelve hours after getting home I headed out on the subway to visit a friend who lives out of town. For those who know Boston, I was on the Green Line, which admittedly isn't our fastest. In fact, I found it incredibly slow and I'm convinced that at its top speed it was still slower than a Minsk subway train is running before its last car leaves the station.

Now let's talk about who was on this train with me. I felt that the only colorful clothes I saw didn't fit properly, and the few people wearing tailored clothes wore extremely plain and drab colors. Apparently you can have color or fit here, but it's unusual to find both. I'm going to shape up and stop dressing like a slob when I go to the gym.

Some of my return-home contrasts were much less jarring. My health club, for example, offers a dazzling array of facilities in a clean and modern environment unlike anything I saw in Belarus. And I sure did enjoy riding high-tech bicycle I keep at home. I don't know where I could have bought anything even approximately like it in Belarus.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On the way home

I wasn’t sure I really knew Minsk all that well yet, but as we left the city I realized how much I recognized along the main road leading toward the airport. My subway line runs under this road and I recognized pretty much everything all the way from our apartment as far as the State Library. I watched it all go by with considerable nostalgia and longing to return. Of course I will be back; I’ve already filed my application at the University.

Alla and I are trying to speak Russian to each other now. It’s surprising how much I can talk about, and it’s also pretty painful to struggle many minutes to say something simple.

Now we’re in Frankfurt. During the cold months there’s no afternoon flight to Boston so we booked a hotel here. When we emerged into the main railway station we saw vividly the scope of choices in the western world. We probably wouldn’t have noticed it except by contrast to the place we just left. We were amazed even by the variety of sandwiches laid out at a fast-food takeout restaurant. You don’t get nearly so many choices anywhere in Belarus.

We’re enjoying our little foray into Frankfurt. We found our way to a pleasant restaurant beside a church, and we arrived just as the church bells began ringing. I wonder how many bell-ringers it took to play the change-ringing we heard before entering the restaurant. All I can say for sure is that they got our attention and stopped us in our tracks.

Having gone to bed rather late last night and still awakened at the usual time, we’re feeling pretty tired tonight. This is probably a good thing because we guessed wrong about the room we chose at our hotel. We went for a room on the first floor because the upper room facing the quiet courtyard seemed small to us. Unfortunately, the municipal services people chose tonight as the optimal time to jackhammer the streetcar line outside our window. Imagine my disappointment, then, to discover that the hotel has filled up and it’s too late now to change rooms. The woman at the desk assured me that the city workers promised to stop jackhammering after an hour. I hope they keep that promise. Looking out the window, I’d guess I’ll be wearing earplugs all night.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cars per capita

I saw a news report today on an official government web site bragging that car ownership is growing and that Belarus now has more cars per capita than a few small countries in Western Europe. The article went on to project that at current rates Belarus would catch Germany in the foreseeable future.

This is not good news to me. One of the things I like about Minsk is that the streets aren’t choked with cars and the air isn’t particularly polluted. The city is served by an outstanding public transit system and I like the fact that so many people here seem to live well without cars.

It made me stop and wonder about goals in general. I wonder how often we set goals based on what we see working for other people without stepping back to think about the bigger matter of what works for us. Setting the right goals are key to living a good life.

Maybe I should have taken my friend Marc Wey’s course on goal setting after all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Excursion to Polotsk

The University offered two free excursions yesterday, one busload going to Grodna and the other going to Polotsk. Knowing nothing, I chose Polotsk because one of my classmates had chosen it. We traveled yesterday and I had a great time.

I wouldn’t generally recommend traveling more than three hours to get to Polotsk. It’s a nice town with some excellent churches and an important monastery, but there’s just not enough in the town to justify that much travel time. I enjoyed tremendously an organ concert in a big old church built in the shape of a cube. While the organ wasn’t as big as the one at Philharmony hall in Minsk, it suited the space perfectly and I preferred this concert over the one I’d heard at Philharmony.

Our tour included a bunch of other good stuff, including a tree-by-tree narration during almost the entire trip from Minsk to Polotsk. I didn’t understand most of this narration, but was able to take note of a few specific sights such as the ski area they made by piling up a lot of dirt and the ski jump that reminds me of a high dive because the top two-thirds of it or more is just a ramp in the air.

What I really enjoyed about the trip, however, was touring with students from around the world. We had people from China, Finland, Holland, Iraq, Norway and who-knows-where. I really liked the Iraqis, and found them very warm and outgoing. I was a little apprehensive about them because America has managed to make such a mess of their country, but here we were all just students on a trip together. The guy from Holland challenged me a bit about his impression of Americans and then apologized for challenging me even though I thought he was right in his criticism. In this little microcosm, we were simply colleagues and nothing more nor less.

I wish it were so simple on a global scale.

Pilotka (Пилотка)

In class today I was learning how to use the fifth padej. This is known in English as the “Instrumental case,” and it’s used, among other things, in describing that at which somebody works. There we were with a grade-school teaching aid, a chart with pictures of a bunch of kids playing at various professions. My job was to say what they wanted to do when they grew up, applying the rules of the Tvoritelney padej (Творительный падеж) to the names of the professions.

I did OK until we got to the picture of a little girl sitting inside a toy airplane. I didn’t know if the word “pilot” would be the same for both genders or if a female pilot would be called something like “pilotka.” Elena started to think about it and then announced that the whole thing was pointless because there’s no such thing as a female pilot. Obviously this little girl wanted to work as a stewardess. I told her that we have female pilots in the USA, that I know one and that I want this little girl to be a pilot.

Elena was very amused by the idea and commented that this must be an outcome of living in a free society.

Friday, October 24, 2008


We had a little row in class today. The teacher was correcting almost everybody about our mispronunciations of the letter “O.” The letter is pronounced long in a stressed syllable but it’s generally pronounced as in the word “pot.” I was reading aloud a story about a bunch of foreign students, including a Spanish student named Lolita. I pronounced her name the way that was natural for me, as we hear it both in Spanish and in English. That was wrong, of course, because since the “o” is in an unstressed syllable Russians want to pronounce it more like “ah.”

Wanting to be a little ironic, I said “OK, this is a Spanish girl named Lahlita.” Tatiana insisted that that was the only way to pronounce that name. Frustrated, I reminded everybody that my brother’s name is Roger. I’d already been schooled on that one in another recitation, when I gave a report on my family to the class. It turns out that in spite of what I’ve been calling my brother his entire life, his name is actually Rō’ger. The O is long and first R is rolled though the second is not.

Sympathetic to my frustration, my friend and classmate Çağatay took the opportunity to tell Tatiana that his name is not “Chagatai,” as pronounced in class (sounding a lot like Chug-a-lug), but something like “Chaatai.” I haven’t mastered it myself, but I always try to get as close as I can. Tatiana told him that given the Russian alphabet he had to be “Chagatai.” “That’s not my name,” he objected, now in English and with supporting complaints about an identity crisis.

I thought the English-speaking world was uniquely offensive in mis-pronouncing the names of foreign cities, but now I see that this may be a wider problem. Perhaps folks in Western Europe do fairly well at respecting local pronunciation, but it appears that Russian-speakers, like English-speakers, may tend to convert pronunciations of foreign names. I wonder if Tatiana is right about this. I wonder if I’m even right about my idealized view of those Western Europeans.

Sorry Rog. I tried. I think we should all try to pronounce peoples’ names in the way the owner of the name will find familiar, and I feel the same way about foreign cities. Apparently this is a little odd.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The padej (падеж) breakthrough

I think I may have the key to the mystery right here. I was forced.

One of my classmates has an excellent book in Russian and English that explains lots of Russian grammatical concepts and it includes some lucid stuff about that mysterious padej or “падеж.” I spelled it out this time because I wanted everybody to marvel over that last letter. It's not really named after a beetle, but the zhook's name starts with this six-legged beauty. The handwritten version is even fancier. Anyway, I’ve wanted the book for more than a week but my classmate can’t seem to describe where he bought it and the University bookstore has just the Russian-only version.

Last night I started doing my homework and realized that I had a big problem. Whereas all previous homework assignments were focused on a single padej at a time, this one required me to choose the right padej for the context. Oops. I still didn’t have more than a clue about that.

Let me digress to tell you something about padejs. When you want one, you want it right freakin’ now.* There you are, halfway into a sentence and suddenly you need to transform a noun into an adjective. This is a very big deal, and you don’t want to be flipping back and forth between page 136 and page 264 and then some other book trying to figure out which conjugation you want to attempt. You really need a unified chart with a few cogent examples and maybe a couple of footnotes.

Tatiana, my main teacher, attempted to give me such a chart, but it misses so many subtleties that I’d turn in a miserable homework assignment and I hate to do that on a Monday. So I went to what Tatiana says is the biggest bookstore in Minsk. It may be, but it didn’t have a single one of the books I had on my list, let alone the book with the tables I’ve been lusting after. I attempted to buy the little Падеж book they had. It was in Russian only, and would have taken a long time to read, but at least it had everything in one place. Unfortunately, I managed to come home with a different little book and was unwilling to go back today.

Instead I did another web search, this time using one word in Russian and one word in English (“падеж table”). This achieved the desired result: articles in Russian and English with tables in them. In fact, one of my hits led me to an online grammar course that I like so well I downloaded all six padej pages. If you want to see it, go to and then click through “next topic” five times to see the rest of them.

I’ve been studying up. Now I get to attempt my homework.

* For the benefit of any readers who may not be native to the English language, I would translate that phrase as прямо же сейчас. Unfortunately, this particular construction causes my overly-Russified step daughter’s brain to backfire, blasting strange sounds out of her nose and mouth. If you are Russian, I hope you were not drinking a glass of milk when you read it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Peanut butter

I eat a lot of nut butter at home, generally in sandwiches at lunch. I was missing it, so I set out to find some at the supermarket. Unfortunately I didn’t know the name for it in Russian. My dictionary has three unpronounceable words for “peanut” and I have no idea which of them might be associated with “butter” or if the concept even makes any sense in Russian. Hoping to get a leg up on the situation, I called one of my middle-school friends who speaks reasonable English over the phone. She tried hard, but couldn’t make any sense of what I was asking her. I’m afraid she doesn’t know the word “peanut” in English any better than I know it in Russian, and nut butter is probably an unfamiliar concept to her.

So I went into the store to look around. Spotting a clerk, I had a flash of insight and asked her in my best Russian if she knew where I could find Nutella. Bingo! They had peanut butter in small overpriced jars beside the even-more-overpriced Nutella. I bought a jar of crunchy PB anyway. I also bought a jar of the stuff located between the two products. It’s called Shokoladnoye Lukoshko. I recognized the first word as an adjective made from the word chocolate, and since the jar had a picture of a very enthusiastic puppy in a T-shirt (you had to see it) I bought it. I still don’t know what Lukoshko means, but this stuff is really good. It’s kind of like thick bittersweet Nutella. Since I’m checking my luggage, I hope I can get a jar of this stuff home with me. I really like it.

Customer service

I wrote during my last visit to Belarus about how government employees are excruciatingly careful not to make any mistakes, and I want to comment today on another way I’ve seen that. When you buy an electrical product at GUM or TSUM, they test it before they sell it. This applies even to light bulbs. They have a multi-socket tester and they unpack each light bulb, test it, and re-package it before completing the sale. I even saw them rev up a food processor before sending it home with a customer.

In some respects, then, this is a land of customer service. I’m well aware of that every time I buy something, because you can actually count on any Belarusian to know how to make change.

Making change is a big and impressive deal to me because I am a bit overwhelmed by the currency. Since it’s all paper, there’s no dividing line between the small stuff and the big stuff as most countries have with coins and paper currency. Here’s a rundown on the denominations I typically find in my wallet and their approximate value in US dollars:

10 rubles: ½ cent
20 rubles: 1 cent
50 rubles: 2½ cents
100 rubles: 5 cents
1,000 rubles: 50 cents
5,000 rubles: $2.50
10,000 rubles: $5.00
20,000 rubles: $10.00 (This is the most common bill.)
50,000 rubles: $25.00 (Alla wants me to hide these.)
100,000 rubles: $50.00 (These can be hard to break.)

I found one ATM that gave me 200,000 ruble notes when I needed a lot of money to pay for the fence around Alla’s mom’s grave, but I haven’t seen such a big note since.

Compare this variety of notes to the ones, fives, tens and twenties I typically have in my wallet at home. Belarusians like to limit the amount of paper in any given transaction and the shopkeepers will generally try to solicit some combination of small notes from a buyer so he or she won’t have to give back a pile of small notes. All this is almost always done without the aid of a calculating cash register, quickly and accurately. I’d like to see pretty much any American clerk pull that off!

Speaking of customer service, I think I may get an inordinate number of breaks because of my lousy Russian. Last night I went to a fancy cafeteria-style restaurant across the street from the Philharmony (Symphony Hall.) I wanted potatoes with my dinner, and asked for quartered potatoes instead of French fries. I understand more Russian than I can speak, so I can tell you what happened. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to get that kind of potatoes with my main dish so the server asked his boss what he should do. He explained that I was a foreigner and that I only speak English. The boss said that he should give me the potatoes I wanted, and he told me it was his gift. Actually, the cashier ended up charging me something for them, but I enjoyed the goodwill.

Customer service in a table-waiter situation can be an entirely different matter, and I did have one woman decide to close her shop the moment I told her that I didn’t speak much Russian, but I really appreciate the general hospitality of Belarusian people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

From the ridiculous to the sublime (and back)

Young men here drink a prodigious amount of beer. At least that’s the way it appears to me as I walk the streets in the evenings. It would apparently be inappropriate for a young man to be out without a large bottle in his hand. A liter is certainly acceptable, though most guys settle for half a liter at a time. I haven’t seen a large number of stumble-drunks, but there’s clearly an outflow issue as a result of all this consumption. I can’t count the number of guys I’ve seen urinating in the courtyard outside my window, and I know enough not to walk through there after dark.

Tonight I did pass through the courtyard around dusk on my way to the Palace of the Republic to see another ballet. I’d already seen a few guys whizzing on the back wall, but figured it was early enough I wouldn’t be grossed out. Wrong. There’s struggling little cluster of bushes at the end of the courtyard leading to the Palace of the Republic, and as I passed the bushes they were completely enclosed by a ring of guys whizzing into them. There would be no question about taking the long way home after the show. I don’t think I want to pass through the back of the courtyard ever again, regardless of how much I like the view as I exit the archway.

Anyway, the ballet far more than compensated. I saw Le Corsaire, and I just don’t know the right adjectives to describe it. My first phrase as I walked out of the theater was mind-bogglingly head-explodingly great. It’s the first time I’ve seen this particular ballet, and I found the story compelling and easy to follow, the staging superlative, the costumes amazing, and the music and dancing completely beautiful. I might have to go see it again. It was the best $8.25 I’ve spent in a very long time. Wow. My hair still stands up when I think about it.

Stepping out, I was right back to the ridiculous. Belarus is playing England here tonight (soccer) and the stadium obviously won’t hold everybody who wants to be there. A huge crowd filled the plaza in front of the Palace of the Republic, watching the jumbotron TV usually showing President Lukashenko in meetings and other inspiring and patriotic news. There was a lot of beer too, and not a single port-a-potty or WC in the area. I didn’t go home through the courtyard.

Since I walked out during a commercial break and I don’t know the Russian word for “score,” I couldn’t learn the score right away. The subdued crowd led me to believe that Belarus was behind. I was right. The whole city erupted in a cheer a while later, when Belarus scored its first goal and tied the game 1-1. It’s half-time as I write this, and I suspect I’ll know later if Belarus won without turning on a TV.

I’m glad I have lots of bottled water because they’re working on my water line and I have none at the tap. I imagine those mysterious notices by the door said something about this, but I didn’t bother to try to read them so shame on me. Anyway, the workmen have a huge hole dug now and I figure it’ll be filled in again by morning.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The mystery of the "padej"

When I moved up to the advanced class, the teacher started talking some object conjugation or another. I’d heard about these things, but knew nothing. She explained that the thing we were talking about was the Raditilny Padej. This didn’t do any more for me than it probably does for you. In fact, if you know Russian you could still be confused because the word I’m talking about probably can’t even be written with the Latin alphabet. It involves a letter named after a beetle, a letter with six legs and requiring an inordinate amount of ink.

As soon as she said “Raditilny Padej” everybody else nodded knowingly and prepared to move ahead. Not me. Seeing my confusion, the teacher handed me a chart that said something about each of the six padej’s discovered so far. I’ve been carrying that chart around for almost two weeks now, and it’s almost as opaque to me today as it was then. We refer to it in class, and I can occasionally pick something useful from it.

I’ve been through my textbooks, hoping to find something involving an orderly layout and enough English to let me get a grasp on this concept or set of concepts. Ha! Fat chance!

Today I came to class and asked my Finnish classmate who speaks decent Russian and excellent English if he could explain the concept. He showed me a book he’d bought in a local bookstore that actually explained it. I think I have to buy one.

Fortunately, both my teacher and my tutor have decided to backfill on the concept, so maybe I’ll make some progress before my month is up. I still have high hopes. And I have a huge mountain of homework about mastering one little part of this tricky chart.

"Standpoint" essay

In my entry dated October 5 I alluded to spiritual lessons about the choice of a standpoint for looking at things. A reader was kind enough to ask me to elaborate, so I’ll give it a shot.

I was fascinated as a child in Sunday school to hear my teacher say that in the coming age “the astronomer will no longer look up to the stars, — he will look out from them upon the universe.”* I was sure at the time that she was talking about space travel, but as an adult I have concluded that this is all about how we perceive things. If we stop seeing ourselves as puny earthlings “down here,” it’s not too hard to realize that we’re already looking out from the stars. It’s a simple shift in point of view.

Here in Belarus, I see regularly how point of view colors things. The Belarusian people I’ve met are generally very proud of their nation and their culture. This pride is generally expressed in a gentle way, not as in-your-face nationalism, but as a matter of fact. It’s just the way people tend to see things. Except for those who see things differently! I’ve also met a small number of people who are deeply dissatisfied with the flawed electoral process in place here. To most of those in this second group, everything sucks; especially everything about the government. But yet the members of both groups are generally experiencing the same lives, the same sets of opportunities and restrictions.

On a metaphysical level, I am trying to elevate my standpoint in order to look through God’s eyes. My concept of God is as a loving Creator, satisfied in every respect by His flawless creation. I believe that when God looks at me he doesn’t see a struggling student limited by a certain I.Q. and a certain background. I believe He sees His own expression. In other words, if I can look at myself through God’s eyes I free myself from limitation.

This process takes a very practical turn when I survey the circumstances around me. If I look around and expect to see the beautiful and harmonious creation of a loving God, then I am not horrified if the bus driver is feeling testy today. It’s easier to respond to his testiness with love and calm because I know that I’m looking at the child of God, whom I know to be completely serene.

I can’t “look through the eyes of God” if my standpoint is that of a frustrated player in a confusing game. I can only do this if I recognize myself first as the same sort of loving and harmonious brother I wish to see in each of the people I encounter. We stop being players in a game or in a theater and start being ourselves as the expressions of a loving, powerful and knowing Creator.

*She was quoting from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Some things never change

So there I was this morning, walking to school with every book I might possibly need, barely able to carry my canvas sack with the books and my lunch. Suddenly I realized that this is exactly the way I was in high school. I’m too busy to wait in line to buy lunch at school, I’m taking extra units so I have extra books, and I’m way too anal to leave any of my books at home. Nope, some things just don’t change. Well, today I wore a Pocket PC on my belt instead of a slide rule, but that hardly counts as a difference.

Amazingly enough, I think I used all but one of the books today too. I think I may be gaining on the average, but the best students in my group are still way ahead of me. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be in the chase, and I really like both of my teachers.

My classroom teacher is Tatiana. She just started a night-school English program but for all practical purposes her only language is Russian. She illustrates new words by pantomime and she’s really good at it. At first I couldn’t read her handwriting at all, having never learned Russian cursive. I conveyed my frustration to my tutor, who told Tatiana and now Tatiana writes more clearly and I can read it. My tutor’s name is Elena. She’s fluent in French, which is useless to me, and she knows a little English but won’t generally try to use it. She insists that I convey all ideas to her in Russian or at least in pantomime. I’m sure it’s good for me.

My night at the Sportivny Zall

I’ve adopted a routine for eating. I pack myself a lunch while eating breakfast at home and then I go back to school before the cafeteria closes at 7:00 to eat dinner. I only get about 20 minutes to eat lunch, so I don’t go far with my sandwich and apple. Dinner is my favorite meal because it’s reasonably nutritious and often quite tasty. And I’ve never managed to spend more than about $8.50 regardless of how much stuff I pile onto my tray.

Last night I brought my workout clothes when I returned for dinner. I was hoping to lift weights afterwards, and I did manage to find the Sportivny Zall (Hall of Sport) but I was unable to find the weight room. Finally I found a faculty member who spoke some English and learned that we were just outside the weight room but that nobody was allowed to use it without training and supervision. We talked for a long time, and I assured him that I’m healthy enough to use his weight room in spite of my supposedly advanced age and that I do so three times a week at home. He finally decided that my story held up and so he told me the times when the bodybuilding coach would be in the room. Let’s just say that the windows of opportunity were limited and inconvenient.

As we talked the janitor came to clean the weight room, and it certainly is the nicest I’ve seen in Belarus. I’d love to use it, but it’s just not to be on this trip.

Still, I fell upon an excellent Plan B. I asked about volleyball, and the coach told me that there are volleyball classes three evenings each week and that I could possibly play. As we were discussing this, the volleyball coach happened by and he gave me an official invitation to go upstairs an hour and a half later to play. Hot dawg!

So, I took my homework to a quiet place and puzzled over verb conjugations until time to suit up for Volleyball. I walked into the gym and found the soccer group cleaning up and the volleyball group stretching out. I stretched too. Nobody said a word to me at first, but then a guy named Alex came over and took me in. He’s been in the USA twice and he speaks flawless English. That made things a whole lot easier.

First we warmed up the way I’d read about but had never really convinced my volleyball-playing friends to do quite so rigorously. Having played no volleyball since 1994, this time proved crucial for me and I got the ball under control before entering a game. Fear #1 allayed. I wasn’t smart enough to realize the proper scale for Fear #2, about whether these guys would be a lot better than me. Honestly, I’ve never seen a volleyball go so fast, and certainly not on a routine basis. Especially the one that hit me in the face when I went up to block a spike. Ouch! I’m just glad it hit me in the eye and not on the nose.

The coach didn’t offer any intervention this evening, but these guys obviously know a lot more theory than I do. Mostly they were nice about having me slow down their game, and I had a great time and a great workout. I asked if I could come back and Alex said yes before his friends had a chance to think about it. I will.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Getting better

I’ve been too busy to update my blog, but I can report lot of good stuff. The first and biggest news is that I moved from the dormitory to an apartment that I like very much. It’s described as a one-room apartment, but that’s because they don’t count rooms with water. I’ve got a very large kitchen with a divan I could open into a double bed for guests (come on over!) and a little table with four chairs. I’ve also got a bright and odor-free toilet room and an amazing bathroom. The shower cabinet looks like the Orgasmatron in the movie “Sleeper,” and it includes a radio, numerous shower heads, a steam generator and a seat. So far I’ve figured out how to work the radio and two of the shower heads.

One other dazzling benefit of my new apartment is its proximity to the Hotel Europe and its WiFi access point. I can buy blocks of time on their internet connection three hours at a time, and I can hook up by putting my laptop on the window sill. The connection is very weak, but at least it’s still faster than the connection in the computer lab at the University. My other neighbor is a music academy and when it’s warm out I can hear the students practicing. I love it, though both are a little distracting.

As for my school, I can at least say that I have high hopes. I’m way behind my class, but understand enough to gain every day. And I really like my private lessons. My teacher always arrives well prepared and she brings lessons amazingly appropriate to my level of understanding. So… I end up with homework from two teachers, and the homework from my main class is over my head. It makes for limited free time, to say the least.

Last night I did sneak out to the opera. I saw the first two acts of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “The Tsar’s Bride.” I would have loved to stay for the whole thing, but I still had uncompleted homework and the show was pretty long. I left at the second of three intermissions. The music, costumes, singing and acting were all superb. Since my ticket was only $4, I may buy another and go back to see the second half later.

I can’t say enough good things about the academic program here. Although they didn’t have a class exactly suited to my abilities, they’ve adjusted well and they’ve made me feel extraordinarily welcome. I’ll probably be back, because I’ll certainly have a whole lot still to learn when I leave this time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Change of standpoint

Before I came here, my friends and I speculated on how long I’d last in the dorm. My favorite guess was by John Cranston, who thought I’d last either five minutes or 30 days. We were wrong, however. Something shifted during my third night.

On night #2 I couldn’t get to bed until late because Paolo was consoling/counseling/schmoozing a struggling student of Italian. Perhaps I should have offered some adjectives. She is a young, luscious and bewitching student. I went upstairs to the gym and lifted weights until 11:00, when I came down and prepared for bed, driving out poor Vittoria.

On night #3 I came home from the ballet soaked by a drenching rain, thinking that living near the center of town would have certain advantages but still imagining that those advantages wouldn’t outweigh the advantages of living in the dorm. When I came into the room, Vittoria was there, looking ever more luscious and radiant. Paolo was preparing them a spaghetti dinner. Though I just wanted to dry off and go to bed, I went next door and invited myself to tea with my Turkish neighbors. They are delightful, and I enjoyed their homegrown tea as much as I enjoyed their hospitality.

Still, I couldn’t spend the night with them so I came back after a while and prepared for bed. I figured if Vittoria wasn’t leaving then I’d just put on my eyeshades and pretend she had gone. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to call it a night and head home before I finished brushing my teeth. Unfortunately, neither the Turks nor I felt ready to sleep after our Turkish tea. I lay in bed and listened to Paolo fiddle with his TV and MP3 player, regularly overshadowed by laughter and discussion from the Turks next door. I thought about leaving the dorm, and felt sad to give up its camaraderie. I also worried about offending the University folks who worked hard to accommodate me. And I hoped the Brazilian guy really did leave voluntarily.

Somehow I made my decision overnight, though I wasn’t immediately aware of the fact. But when I went to take a shower, I realized that I was eager to leave that bathroom behind. In fact, suddenly I saw a lot of things I’d be happy to leave behind. Click! The decision felt complete.

Surprised to find myself suddenly bothered by things that seemed OK the day before, I remembered a couple of religious lessons about the importance of operating from the right spiritual standpoint. My dormitory experience illustrated how something that looks great from one standpoint can look quite different from another standpoint. I could go on about learning to look through God’s eyes, but that’s really a topic for another essay at another time. I’m still learning.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cusp of a decision

Poor Alla. She spent the greater part of her two days in Minsk trying to find an apartment for me to rent. The cheap ones were not enough better than the dorm to be interesting, the nicest ones were out of sight, and the moderate ones were all rented. She made a LOT of phone calls and left me with an arrangement intended to begin on Monday.

I can rent a Euro-style one-room apartment in a nice building adjacent to the new ultra-fancy Hotel Europe, which has WiFi that may even spill out as far as the apartment. This place is close to the subway leading to the University and it’s almost next door to the Palace of the Republic and other central concert venues. It comes with cleaning service and it has a washing machine. The price is affordable and I like the landlord.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? The only problem is that I really like the dormitory too. My roommate is a cheerful and outgoing guy who knows enough Russian to help me, the location is reasonably convenient, and it’s filled with fellow students who have time for each other. A group of Turks shares our bathroom, though I’ve only seen one of them so far. He invited me in for tea on the evening when I arrived, but I declined because Paolo was already asleep. Last night he stopped me in the hall and assured me that I was always welcome in their little enclave. The Koreans are just as open. As for facilities, we have a pretty decent weight room right here in the building, a library on each floor, and maid service in the common areas.

The Turks were a bit noisy night before last. Perhaps it was they who had taken Paolo out for the drinks that led him to an early bedtime. Last night, however, the dorm was nearly silent, at least as far as I’m concerned. We’ll see what Saturday night brings. I’ll be the one coming home late, as I’m off to the ballet.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Drinking through a firehose

My first class was on Wednesday. They put me in a nice group of beginning students who generally didn't even know the Cyrillic alphabet. I like the teacher and enjoyed the other students, but felt that this was not the best use of my one month at the University. So I went to the registrar and asked to be bumped up to the next class. She warned me that the next group was already two months into the program and that I'd be a little over my head. We agreed, however, that it could make sense given that I already intend to have a private tutor.

Well, yesterday was quite a change. I was pretty overwhelmed for the whole class and felt at the end something like I would have felt if I'd been on a hard bike ride for the same amount of time. In other words, I enjoyed it. I don't think I've been so intellectually focused in rather a long time, and I'm really glad to have this experience.

Yesterday's other big news was that I moved into the dormitory and Alla left for Moscow. For reasons unrelated to me, the Brazilian guy is gone and they put me into the double room with Paolo, the Italian guy they first promised me. Paolo wasn't there when we brought over my stuff, so I put it away and went to buy necessities like my own toilet paper and some notebooks.

I didn't want to arrive at the dorm really late because I didn't know when Paolo went to bed, but I did want to take Alla to the train station for her 10:00 (aka 22:00) train to Moscow, so I dropped her off early and got back to the dorm at 10:00. Paolo was already in bed. Oops. I tiptoed around, but it didn't really matter because the floor is so creaky. Paolo at least pretended to be undisturbed, so I made my bed and got in with my booklight and read until my own lights-out time at 11:00.

I was up before 6:30 and started to worry about Paolo when he was still asleep at 7:30. Finally he roused and told me that he isn't used to drinking but he went out with some of the other students last night and got a little under the weather. He woke up perfectly perky, however, and proceeded to tell me zillions of stories in Russian and occasionally a little English. I barely made it to class on time after I got distracted by all this. Paolo apparently doesn't have any morning classes. My only gripe about him as a roommate is that he snores sometimes.

In other news, somebody from another department tracked me down and asked me if I would lead a weekly English-language discussion group. Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Here we are in Minsk

The trip was a little harder than usual today. First, Lufthansa changed around their schedule and we left Boston earlier than before and we arrived in Frankfurt at 5:30 a.m. with rather a lot of time to kill before our flight for Minsk at 10:30 a.m. And then the flight out was delayed an extra hour because our plane had a broken window. I’m guessing they hit a bird on the way in. Anyway, we arrived in Minsk at 2:30 instead of 1:30 local time, and we had to get to the University before 4:00 so we took a taxi. Phew! We made it.

Or so we thought. That wasn’t really the half of it. I had no idea what a big task it would be to register for something I was theoretically registered for already. We talked it over afterwards and can’t really explain why we spent an hour in our private meeting with the registrar. And I’m really glad Alla was with me. The folks in the office spoke some English, but not nearly enough.

When we started talking about the dormitory, Alla mentioned that we planned to spend tonight at the Oktyabrskaya hotel. The registrar freaked out and handed her a phone and some phone numbers in the process of pouring out a torrent of words. I didn’t catch most of the words, but understood “very expensive” and realized that she really thought we should stay at a cheaper hotel close to the school. Alla called and found that we could stay there for $14 per night, which would have been a very significant discount from our $130/night room. We stuck to our original plan, however, because we had given our word to folks we knew at he Oktyabrskaya and didn’t want to break our promise.

When we learned that I had to be in the dorm by 5:00 if I wanted to see my room today, we divided and conquered. Alla went to pick up the dormitory pass, and she was gone a long time. I won’t tell you her story, but the most interesting part was the conversation she heard about somebody who was late filing her statement of financial need. Her whole family together was earning about $130/month, which would have qualified her for a dorm room had she filed her application in time. I qualify strictly on the basis of being foreign.

So anyway, we went to see the room. Unable to find a taxi, we jumped onto a tram and got there at 4:55. Well… we weren’t actually there. I took Alla’s rolling suitcase and she ran ahead because her bag was wobbly on the cobblestone sidewalk and we’d never get the bag to the door by 5:00. When I got to the door, Alla was out of sight. The guard at the desk stopped me and I managed to tell him that he’d just seen my wife. He motioned for me to sit down, and I enjoyed a pleasant ten or fifteen minutes watching TV and attempting to chat with the guards. Students came and went, and the guards knew them all. I had a strong feeling of family.

Alla shot by, huffing and puffing, and tossed another bag into my lap. She said “I’m still working on it” and disappeared into the other side of the building. Later one of the guards tested me with a dialog from my first Russian tape and asked me my family name. Vincent. He sputtered something that sounded like it might have meant “Oh, I forgot I had this,” and he charged after Alla.

After a while longer, Alla emerged with a woman named Tatiana. Alla explained to me that my intended room was not available after all. I’d been pretty excited about what they’d promised me; a double room with an Italian guy my age who had married a Russian woman. He speaks some English and I speak some Italian. Unfortunately, there was a Brazilian guy in there and he wasn’t scheduled to leave any time soon. Instead, we saw a tiny triple room fairly well occupied by one Korean guy. He’s pretty tidy, but he managed to do OK at filling the non-bed spaces in the room with his stuff.

Alla was much more horrified by the room than I. Her outlook had been colored by her frustration in trying to get me something that would leave me favorably inclined towards Belarus and mine by my pleasant experience with the guards in the lobby. The room probably hadn’t been painted in thirty years or so, the closet doors were hanging off their hinges, and the place could only be described as crummy. Still, I liked the view from the window and figured I could do it for a month. Alla wouldn’t have it. She’s looking for alternative lodgings even as I write this.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bound for Belarus

I'm off to Minsk tomorrow. I'll be spending the month of October learning Russian at the Minsk State Linguistic University. I'm very excited about all this, and I have just one reservation. How nice can the dormitory be if I'm paying US$ 20 for a month of lodgings? Most of my friends are guessing that I'll be alarmed when I see the place and that I'll end up staying somewhere else. That's probably a good idea, but it's really hard to forgo the opportunity to stay in a place that costs $20/month. The next step up has got to be far more expensive, and I probably wouldn't want to stay in the next step up anyway.

Alla's identified a little apartment I can rent, and she's already been in contact with the landlord. I'm not saying how much it would cost. Let's just say that it's more than I'm willing to carry in my pocket.

I'll let you know soon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Photos from Belarus

For photos taken during this trip to Belarus, visit

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Palace of the Republic

Just down the street from our hotel is a huge gray box of a building on a vast open square. It's called the Palace of the Republic, and it's so severe Alla just knew it had to be great. It turns out that we were in the right place at the right time, because there would be a ballet there last night. Sorry: I already forgot the name of the ballet.

As the afternoon closed we realized that we were free to attend the ballet and we went to the box office and got a pair of excellent seats for $20. I went home and did my best to dress up and reported back for entry. Wow, what a spectacular interior! The place sparkles with light, air and exuberance. The lobby has sweeping staircases with imposing views of the spacious interior and the city. There are cozy seating areas sprinkled throughout the lobby and stairway areas, and also a temporary display of heavy equipment. I enjoyed the heavy equipment models, particularly the giant earth-moving trucks designed for open-pit mining. I have no idea how they can get a ten-meter-wide truck TO the mine, but understand that it can move a heck of a lot of dirt once it's on site.

We were just as impressed by the inside of the palace as we were by the lobby. The seats are large and comfortable with plenty of knee room. The floor slopes steeply enough that I think everybody had a pretty good view regardless of what tall people sat in front of them.

The ballet dancers didn't live up to the costumes and the music, but in any event the performance was plenty beautiful. We could hardly believe the gorgeous costumes and the fantastic set, testaments once again to the Belarusian tradition of craftsmanship. I thought the pit orchestra surpassed almost any pit orchestra I've heard in Boston, generally by a wide margin.

Among the announcements at intermission they invited us to check out the restaurant in the basement of this palace. Since it was our last night in town, we figured we'd splurge and go for it. The prices on the menu shocked us a bit, but the shock was pleasant. Our dinner cost less than the lunch we had down the street, though it included far more food, more courses, much better flavor and an extremely serene environment. Alla was particularly excited to drink a glass of Georgian wine for $4. The wine she chose was Stalin's favorite, and she hadn't tasted it in about 24 years because Russia has an embargo on Georgian products.

The waitress warned us that we'd find different music if we came on a Friday or Saturday evening, but we'd certainly come back on a weeknight.

We're hading home in another hour. I look forward to greeting my bicycle and numerous people, but I'm definitely looking forward to coming back here too.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Touring the Puscha

This morning Alla set out to make a final appeal to the director of the museum, the only authority she had been unable to reach yesterday. We stormed her office shortly after her 9 a.m. arrival. She was ready for us. She offered us a free excursion, leaving immediately. Accepting, we ran to our room to grab our camera. Alla also changed her clothes to be as dressed up as the guide.

When we came out, we discovered that a whole busload of people was waiting for us. The guide shooed the folks from the front row, installed us there, and set out for a tour.

At first I feared that we'd never be allowed outside the bus as we careened past several scenic stops with only a slight tap on the brakes. Finally we understood, when we got to Grandfather Frost's village. All the other passengers were employees and the bus driver was getting them to work late because of us.

After we dropped off the workers we enjoyed a much more leisurely tour all the way to the Polish border. On the way back, we stopped to visit Ded Moroz, a.k.a. Grandfather Frost, a.k.a. Santa Claus. [Aside to the curious: I checked my spelling of Ded Moroz by doing a Google search, which turns up a number of amusing results. Try it!]

The Ded Moroz village encapsulates a number of wonderful Belarusian traditions including architecture, wood carving, straw weaving, medieval costumes, and kitsch. Grandfather Frost himself wore a lavish costume and demonstrated a quick wit and a good heart. His village includes a wide enough variety of hand-made fairy-tale attractions to make this an increasingly popular destination. In the four years since it's been opened, they've had visitors from at least 70 different countries. A Japanese guy offered to buy Grandfather Frost's hat for $1,000 (or was it $10,000?) Grandather Frost quipped to his American visitors that if it had been Euros he might have been tempted.

The most striking thing to me about meeting this man is how clean he keeps his hands. No detail about this place distracted from the pleasure of a childish fantasy.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Stuff I forgot

I spent my last day in Gomel "out on the town." This was a pretty fun adventure for a guy with close to zero Russian language skills. My favorite thing was a private tour of the city's main library. The front desk staff managed to find me a semi-English-speaking guide from the foreign books department, and she showed me pretty nearly everything. As far as I can tell, all she held back were the book stacks, which are closed to the public.

During my explorations of Gomel I also noted a number of cultural differences largely attributable to the low price of labor here. One way it shows up is in home-made or custom-made equipment, such as the floor mop I saw in the restaurant where I ate lunch. The octagonal handle looked like it had been made from a board by pushing it several times lengthwise through a table saw. The cross piece at the end was a flat stick of wood about eighteen inches wide. The cleaning lady draped a rag over the cross piece and dragged it over the already-clean-looking floor.

Almost everything is clean around here. There are street sweepers, bathroom attendants and all manner of other wiper-uppers. I'm amazed, in this culture of cleanliness, that people still litter. Alla thinks it's because the cleanup campaign is only a few years old and it's hard to break old habits. Still, the cleanup staff is well able to keep things looking great almost everywhere.


I woke up this morning to the sound of our train's wheels clattering over the joints in the tracks. The wheels said "Holodilnik, holodilnik, holodilnik..." In English, that would be "Refrigerator, refrigerator, refrigerator..." I was freezing. Belarusian trains are not heated after May 3, and the car took in too much of last night's frost for my single blanket to compensate. Alla told me in the morning that we probably could have requested extra blankets, but I got through the night by wrapping my head in a T-shirt.

I liked our train accommodations for the most part. Alla selected a second-class car in order to get two lower berths for us, and I really liked the openness of the car. I could see well out the windows on both sides of the train.

We rode from Gomel to Brest, where we caught a bus to an incredible forest called Belaverskaya Puscha. Our deluxe room has a huge bed, lots of light and a comfortable sitting room. All this is costing us about $50/night. The birds ourside our window are always chirping, chattering and singing; probably thrilled by spring's abundance of mosquitoes.

Aside from the mosquitoes, I have only praise for the environment here. I've had a few quibbles about service issues, but I'd definitely come back for another short visit, perhaps during cross-country ski season. I'd be happy to eat the food here any time.

My service quibbles started with the bikes. We intended to take a couple of their bikes and tour the forest roads, which are generally closed to cars. Unfortunately, while the resort owns a couple of bikes big enough for me, there were no bikes small enough for Alla to stand over the top tube. Failing to find bikes, we tried to arrange a bus tour or even a private motor tour. No dice. We ended up setting out on foot, which was beautiful and fun but we couldn't reach places we wanted to see in the time we had.

Alla tried relentlessly to arrange something for tomorrow, but received steadfast rebuffs to each of her efforts. The only way to guarantee an excursion here is to arrive as a member of a group.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Still in Gomel

I'm finally managing to find a few ways to entertain myself while Alla deals with her mom's stuff. A couple of days ago I set out for Vetka, a village not far from Gomel. Alla was very reluctant to let me go alone, and finally decided that since it was so important to me she'd take me there. It was easy to do, and I now have permission to take buses to other villages if I want to while she's tied up.

The trip to Vetka was interesting because it was listed as a yellow zone after Chernobyl and folks have the option of relocation from there if they are worried. I was cautious and kept my geiger counter on my lap all the way there. Amazingly enough, I got the lowest readings I've ever gotten, lower than at home, during much of the ride. Background radiation in Vetka was about what I'd experience in Boston. So far I haven't really found anything at all troubling with my geiger counter. The soil in the park near Alla's mom's place registered a tad higher than the air, but well below what folks in Denver experience all the time.

The main attraction in Vetka is a museum of handcraft, though I found the ride there sufficiently beautiful that I wouldn't have minded even if the museum were closed. We worried for a moment when we approached the museum because the biggest doors were locked, but once we found the public entrance we were in for a huge treat. They have icon art, wood carving, beautiful linen weavings in traditional patterns that have distinct meanings, beadwork, tools, all manner of samovars, a wonderful staff, and a useful bookstore. I loved it.

Today I got in a workout at a local gym. A one-entry membership cost just under $4.00. I was pleased to find a well equipped gym, and enjoyed the company of an aerobics class with nine very attractive women nearby. (For the statistically inclined, that was nine out of nine.) I hadn't brought a towel and the gym doesn't normally provide them. After I got really sweaty they took pity on me and gave me a clean sheet that must have been intended for their massage table and I used that to dry off after my shower.

I am always noticed around here. I don't look Russian, I wear the wrong clothes, and I speak the wrong language. Occasionally people make a point of telling me that they don't consider me an enemy, but at times "methinks thou dost protest too much." While I was waiting in line here at the Internet place I got another of those threatening protestations that I'm not an enemy. Fortunately, the guy's English was pretty good so I shook his hand and started a conversation. After half an hour of waiting together, he told me that he really does think I'm an OK guy and he's glad he met me.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Victory Day

Yesterday was Victory Day, also known as "May 9" in the same way folks in the USA know Independence day as "Fourth of July." We started the day watching the Russian parade in Moscow's Red Square, televised live in Belarus. It was a pretty moving demonstration of appreciation for the people who saved the land from the Nazis. The statistics are staggering. The USSR lost 23 MILLION people. The USA, by contrast, lost just over 400,000. It's not surprising then that the former USSR is much more acutely aware of May 9 than other folks are.

Here in Gomel, Belarus, there was a parade that I missed and a bunch of concerts. Since Alla was tied up with her chores plowing through family artifacts and can't really share these chores, I went downtown on my own to hear the music in Lenin Square. I didn't try to get very far from the square because I don't really know where the other venues were and I don't do very well in Russian. The shows in the main square were plenty interesting enough.

They started with a series of choirs from various labor unions and work groups. My Russian is very limited so maybe I missed something, but I'm pretty sure there were no corporations represented or other groups not organized by the State. For all I know, there's no such thing as a corporation here, but I don't claim any clear knowledge of the political or economic arrangements.

One thing I am sure of is that folks are very careful not to make any mistakes. We've seen it demonstrated in the work of transit personnel, the folks who build fences and memorials for grave sites and other places. I finally learned that there is a directive from the very top that bureaucrats at the lower levels are charged with resolving all disputes and complaints within 72 hours. The guy who told me this went so far as to say that failure to resolve a complaint within the allotted time results in loss of job. Watch an employee of the State make commitments of any kind or even count change, and you'll see extreme caution to get it right the first time. As far as I can tell, the result is extreme reliability but at the cost of efficiency.

Anyway, back to the patriotic May 9 music. After the choirs they brought on a series of individual and duet performers who sang popular music, generally with a recorded instrumental track. I especially enjoyed this part of the program as the singers were more uniformly good and I found the music more accessible.

Alla came to join me when the show ended and we went to the circus. We saw an excellent troupe from Moscow. We were a little overwhelmed by their smoke generator, but we loved the show itself. They needed smoke in order to draw patterns in the air with laser light (which kept shining in our eyes so we kept our sunglasses at the ready.)

Finally, we had an interesting experience with a brand-new restaurant. They had been open only two hours when we went in, so they had a good excuse for their confusion. Still, we were reminded once again that expectations about customer service vary from place to place and this meal was better for generating a story than for quelling an appetite. It demonstrated why some folks prefer package tours over self-travel. I think it would be very hard to get a good meal in Gomel without a guide or interpreter. We now know two or three ways to do it, and one way definitely not to do it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


OK, we're in Gomel. Yesterday was a big holiday called Radonitsa. This is a religious holiday, but since everybody seems to celebrate it, it's a State holiday too. I'm a little fuzzy on the theological underpinnings of this holiday, and since Alla's family didn't discuss religion (her dad was a Soviet military officer) she didn't really learn anything about Russian Orthodox traditions growing up. As Alla described it to me, it's Easter for everybody else. I asked her if it were some sort of resurrection day and she said yes. So there you have it, at least until I or one of my readers should go out and Google it.

Anyway, the way it's celebrated around here is that everybody visits the cemetaries and leaves flowers and food. Getting to the cemetary was not easy at all. We couldn't get a taxi so we took a bus, which was full when it arrived. The other folks at the bus stop were much more aggressive than we and managed to get on. Wanting to demonstrate our own cultural understanding, we got on too. At least we got our feet onto the bottom step of the back door of our bus. Then the driver tried to close the doors and I realized that the only way our door was going to close was if I pressed into the crowd. The crowd absorbed me, the door dragged shut over my backpack and off we went.

At the first stop, a couple of people got off and we stepped all the way inside the bus to allow newcomers the same door-pressing enclosure I enjoyed. Presently, amazingly enough, the conductor parted the crowd and forced her way through so we could all pay. It reminded me of the progress of a sturdy Russian icebreaker during a harsh arctic winter. I don't know how either of them got through, but like the ships, our conductor moved successfully.

As I stood there imagining the stories I'd tell Alla about supposed invasions of personal space by the people pressing me from all sides, I actually felt somebody jostling the little camera case I was wearing on my belt. I looked down to see some poor little woman adjusting the foolish thing so it would fit into a more comfortable place between her ribs.

Presently we did reach the cemetary. The trip took longer than I expected because of all the other traffic, but in any event we had no problem getting out of the bus because everybody else wanted to get out too.

Our next problem was buying flowers. The store had none that morning, but they told us that any flowers that might be available were to be had at the cemetary. They also admonished us to arrive early because they would sell out. We hoped we were early enough, as it was already 11 a.m. and we still had to walk all the way around to the main gate on the far side to find the vendors, who had plenty of stuff yet to sell.

Alla chose floral arrangements but did not buy any eggs or bread to make food offerings. I discovered when we reached her father's grave, however, that she had brought him some bread and vodka, which she left on a plate and glass still there from her previous visit.

The cemetary was pretty well packed with people, many of whom had installed picnic tables at their grave sites. Although we had a picnic of our own, neither of her parents have tables at this time so we ended up going home hungry after paying our respects to each.

Most of the rest of our time here in Gomel has been devoted to apartment cleanup and other family business. Alla succeeded in collecting her mom's last pension payment and as I write this she's changing over the telephone service to her name. We've also done a pretty good job of preparing the back bedroom for the arrival of a tenant. We have more to do there, and plenty of work to do on the front bedroom and the kitchen.

My next guaranteed outing will be going to the circus. There's some big foreign circus in town and we got (for the first time in my life) ringside seats. Right at the main aisle no less! And this extraordinary privilege is costing about $8 apiece. Belarus is more generous than Russia in extending subsidized pricing to everybody and not just to citizens. This probably won't last if they get a greater flow of tourists, but I'll try to make the best of it now.

That's it, then. I doubt that you'll hear more from me until we finish our apartment cleanup project. Oh, and I seem to have volunteered to paint the fence around her dad's grave site. Do v'strecher ("until later," but I've probably mangled the spelling.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

On our way to Gomel

We stopped for a few minutes at an Internet cafe on our way from Minsk to Gomel, so here I am.

I started this morning's bike ride as a review of the territory Alla and I hiked yesterday. This was my first experience riding a mountain bike in the woods, which I enjoyed a great deal. I also rode around the periphery of some plowed fields and generally favored off-road opportunities. I learned that tractors can go straight up pretty much anything, while it's not always possible on a bike. I had to get off near the top of my first mondo hill, and I also elected not to ride down through the trees on the far side of the same hill. While I probably would have gotten down safely, I felt that the consequences of failure were too great to try it, especially since I couldn't see the bottom.

The only thing I won't miss about our inn will be the fats and oils in most of the food. And we got the low-fat diet! Or, in any case, that's what we asked for.

My favorite surprise about the food is still with me. I really enjoyed a drink made from brewed birch sap. Sergey warned that it might have a hint of alcohol like a glass of orange juice, but I couldn't detect it. It's got a pretty amazing flavor, and Sergey decanted a big bottle of it for me to take away today. I feel very well cared for.

Not according to plan

Our plan for today was that I'd go alone for a morning bike ride and then we'd go together to the Dudutky historical park. I did get in the ride and I did not get lost. Everything else turned out different.

After breakfast we learned that Svetlana the cook reaqlly wanted to make green borsch soup for us. Since we managed to disappoint her on some earlier occasions, we decided to start the day on our innkeepers' schedule, going together to a local park.

The park wasn't as nearby as we imagined, but we enjoyed a long walk through the old estate of the former lord of the territory and came to feel that our relationship to Sergey and Irena had passed beyond business and toward friendship.

The green borsch probably deserves its own essay, or even an ode. Let me just say for the sake of brevity that I REALLY enjoyed lunch.

After lunch we decided to explore the local woods once again. We walked through the woods into a huge lush meadow, where we plotzed out and took an accidental nap.

When we got up to continue our walk, we found ourselves passing through the village of Kohana, a spectacularly quaint place. Unlike some of the other old villages we've seen, this one had families with children. We also saw here very colorfully-dressed people in peasant-style outfits, a man plowing a field behind his horse, and numerous other elements of classic culture. It's a place I'd enjoy bringing other tourists to experience fo themselves.

We finally turned around when we reached a small lake, and amazingly enough we found our way home pretty easily.

Sometimes the best days come out completely different from the original plan.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Outside the city

We're enjoying our first taste of Belarusian "Eco Tourism," staying at a B&B called Priluchki.

We weren't sure what to think when we first arrived yesterday and found things a little different from what their web site led us to expect. Our concern was compounded by the fact that they hosted a wedding reception in the hall below our room although they promised to forgo other events during our stay. (This was their explanation for charging us a rate higher than posted on their web site.)

Our frustration softened when they invited us down for the entertainment they'd arranged. We enjoyed a first-rate quartet singing Belarusian songs while looking very stunning in what I might describe as updated traditional garb.

Today we met Sergey the innkeeper at 7 a.m. to go for a ride on his mountain bikes. He has a garage full of bikes in different sizes, including one big enough for me. The three of us set out together, but realized soon enough that Alla needed a smaller bike. Ideally my bike should have had significant mechanical attention, but I kept it because it fit.

Alla tried her smaller bike and decided she still didn't feel comfortable so Sergey and I headed out alone for a speedy one-hour ride.

After breakfast, Sergey dropped us off at the Belarusian State Open Air Museum. We had intended to go to a place called "Dudutki," which is a re-creation of a medieval town. This, on the other hand, is a museum. They've taken antique buildings and furniture from around the country and moved them to a single estate.

The ticket vendor told us not to bother with a tour because the English-speaking guide was sick and the Russian tour was supposedly rather limited. In fact, however, we stumbled into a Russian tour group and found the guide quite informative. She only showed us the central set of buildings, but we found all the other docents eager to show us as much as we wanted to see and tell us volumes about the structures and implements under their care.

Tonight at dinner Sergey brought out a huge old-fashioned bottle of home-made vodka with a red pepper and some ginseng drifting inside. First he poured some onto my hands so I could sterilize myself before eating. It smelled like bread. Then he poured a little onto a plate and lit it so we could get an idea of the alcohol content. There wasn't much water left when it burned out! Sergey encouraged me to take a little drink but I knew my limits so I left Alla and Sergey's wife Irena to do the drinking. It turns out that Sergey doesn't drink either.

My hands still smell a little like bread, and I am now filled with a fantastic assortment of Belarusian foods. Perhaps even a bit overloaded!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Educational institutions

Yesterday afternoon we visited the National Library of Belarus, though not for its intended purpose. We went for a music festival, which also turned out to be a bit of a food festival. We didn't reach the stage right away because we were distracted by the gauntlet of food stands between the subway and the stage. I went down without a fight. We saw a guy cooking beautiful big shashliki (sheesh kabobs) and asked him how to buy one. He pointed to the booth he served and we joined the queue. I guess it took fifteen minutes or so to get served, but boy were we glad we waited!

After our shashlik lunch, we went over to the stage and watched a few musical groups. Most of the music was popular stuff from the Soviet era, with a strong Belarusian tilt. My favorite group reminded me of Western supergroups such as Chicago or maybe the Electric Light Orchestra.

Standing at the stage, I had lots of time to study the library, which looks a bit like a giant glass globe. The entry has a quote from the Bible about being perfect in knowledge and prepared for all good works. (My rough paraphrase.) It was translated into MANY different languages in a sculptural presentation. I look forward to getting inside to see how that ideal is addressed, but the library was closed for yesterday's holiday. We did walk around the grounds, which include a river, lots of grass, and huge benches. It's a natural and obvious gathering place, which seems to be a theme of public spaces in Belarus. And, of course, we went back for a second shashlik lunch. We really couldn't help ourselves.

Today we finally got into the "school for deep study of English." I think it runs from first grade all the way through high school, and the layout reminded Alla of her own grammar school. We arrived early and started to give ourselves a tour of the building. The head English teacher, Lyudmila Vasilyevnova, spotted us and gathered us for a more official tour. The place felt quiet and scholarly until the break between classes, when the halls turned into a bit of a bedlam. I don't know where the littlest kids were, because they weren't in the crowd, but we found ourselves in the middle of a running rush of kids calling to each other and noticing us as they poured past.

Lyudmila Vasilyevnova combined two classes for our benefit and we were privileged to answer the students' many questions, mostly about ourselves. Then the students put on a little play for us and we all posed for pictures. Everybody was all smiles, and I think we finally got even the officials interested in the idea of meeting a sister classroom in Massachusetts so they could share knowledge and studies together.

Lyudmila Vasilyevnova was honest with us, beginning with a phone call last night, about her initial caution before inviting us in. Apparently she had a bad experience previously with a group who turned out to be missionaries and drifted from cultural exchange to proselytizing. I think she's more comfortable about our intentions now, and I look forward to broader cultural exchange.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Arrival in Minsk

Alla and I are in Minsk. I was originally going to entitle this post "kakaya gadost," but yesterday's breakfast is long enough ago that I've forgiven and forgotten. That phrase means something like "how disgusting," which was applied to a meal in a movie we saw and I applied it to our breakfast. Otherwise, we had a great day.

I was a little jetlagged and made it about half way through the big museum here before I became a zombie. They had a lot of great stuff, apparently given to them by the Soviet authorities because I'm sure whatever they had before the war was bombed out or stolen. My favorite piece was called "The optimist and the pessimist," by Makovsky. The optimist was poor, with a straw bag and a little stub of a cigarette. He looked perfectly contented. The pessimist had a stack of books and a foul expression on his face. I think he looked financially better off. I remarked to Alla that it was like us. The pessimist had read more thorougly the documentation on the timeshare.

There was a big symphony concert last night, largely sold out, but Alla got us a couple of tickets while I was working out in the gym at our affiliated health club. We really enjoyed the show, especially Berlioz Fantasy. The most amazing thing about it was the price: about $2.50 per ticket. The woman seated beside us comes to Minsk for the music festival every year and stays for a month. Obviously, she's not going broke buying her tickets. We'll make a point of attending some more shows ourselves.

Yesterday's biggest waste of time was our visit to the American Embassy's consular office. They invited us down to learn about the situation between our governments. (It's not so cordial right now.) They went on at great length about stuff I'd mostly read about already on Google news. When Alla and I were sure they were done and we could finally go, they opened the floor to questions. The American expatriots living in Minsk had lots of personal questions about their individual situations, complete with follow-up questions. We waited as long as we could stand because we were sitting in the front row of a small room, but finally found our frustration uncontainable and we bolted for the door. We had much more fun walking around the green area and visiting a memorial to soldiers lost in Afghanistan, and don't feel that we really learned anything useful in our meeting.

In spite of the governments' disagreements and warnings of poor treatment of some Americans in Minsk, we found the people as cordial and open as ever. We really like the folks at our hotel, we've been met by lots of smiles on the streets and stores, and we're having an excellent time. The only wrinkle in the trip was of my own making: I forgot to bring the charger to my Pocket PC so I can't take advantage of the free WiFi in our hotel lobby.

Today is May Day and we're off to a big public music festival at the beautiful State Library. I'll tell you about it later.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Pocket PC drives me nuts

I'm trying to manage my blog from my Pocket PC and it's just barely possible. One more trip with this painful thing and I'll be ready to buy a new EEE PC 900 about the minute they hit the market.

The Pocket PC is generally OK and so is Blogspot. They just don't play nicely together.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Listening wholeheartedly

One of the things I really like about travel is that it forces me to live on somebody else's terms for a while. I started to get the hang of this when my late wife Luci and I started visiting Caribbean islands. I distinctly remember my first lesson on our first trip. We left the airport and made our way to the dock where we would take a boat to our island. It had already been a little difficult for me, and I became impatient as we sat on the commuter boat and waited to get under way. There may have been a schedule, but it was obviously unimportant to the crew. A fellow passenger, hearing my complaints, remarked that things there happened on "island time" and I might as well relax and get used to it.

I did manage to relax, however briefly, whenever we went to the Virgin Islands. And I learned to accept "island time" as one part of a very pleasant experience.

There are lots of ways that travel helps us to live on somebody else's terms. We eat different foods, we encounter different customs, we have an imperfect idea of what's going on, and sometimes even our hotel rooms have surprising features. Things are different, and if we're going to enjoy our trip we have to learn to enjoy what we have then and there. And you know what? The pleasures can be really intense.

This all tends to help me when I meet a foreigner, either at home or abroad. By now I expect difference, and I even expect that I'll find many of the differences to be enjoyable. Travel has helped me to listen in a new way since I realize that I probably don't know as much about this person as I might be tempted to imagine.

My friend Atef Aziz articulated what this is all about. He said that if we're really going to hear somebody, we have to set aside any idea of knowing anything in advance. If we think we know what the other guy is going to say, we're unlikely to hear what he actually says. Surely Atef is right.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cancún, part 1

I think we've finally figured out how to have my kind of fun in Cancún. We got here just over a week ago, joining our neighbors at their timeshare condos on the beach. They told us that that the first week's condo was so much nicer than the second that we decided to try the "resort" life diring week 1 and travel further abroad this week.

We enjoyed salsa dance lessons, lap swimming, body surfing, attentive service, books and food all week long, but I was pretty much completely bored by the end of the week. I think Alla was less bored and happier about last week's schedule. As Nika observed, I don't generally idle well.

"What's the difference between Miami and Cancún?" "In Cancún everybody speaks English." I did realize early on, however, that if I asked to speak in Spanish the folks here would be kind enough to let me do it. The pactice is helping, and I'd love to continue working on it. I can talk about a lot of things, but not everything.

Actually, yesterday we made our first foray into a place where some folks didn't speak English. We jumped on a bus in the afternoon and went to a mall where one of the hotel staff told us that the locals liked to shop. While I don't normally enjoy shopping as a vacation activity, I actually enjoyed this mall. For one thing, a large percentage of the shop keepers spoke no English. Best of all, however, the visit climaxed at a local competitor to WalMart (who is indeed here) where we found clothes, appliances, tires, motor bikes and a huge grocery department.

We loaded up on groceries. The hardest thing was staring at the fresh corn tortillas in our cart. The store included a huge bakery where we saw people making all kinds of breads and, more importantly, those tortillas. The first thing I put into my shopping cart was a paper packet of steaming-hot tortillas right off the grill. Unfortunately, they were sold by weight and they had not been weighed yet. I had to look at them wistfully for a long time until we finally got to the cashier with that all-important scale.

We loaded up mostly on fruit and white cheeses. Fruit can be very heavy, and it was a long walk back to the bus, but highly worthwhile. We made dinner with our tortillas, cheeses, avocadoes, tomatoes and salsa when we came back and shared it with our friends.

We enjoyed today even more. We took a bus tour to Chichén Itzá, a particularly large Mayan archaeological site. We liked pretty much everything about this day, from the guide's commentary on the ride down, the other guide's commenary about the site, the site itself, the weather, the limestone sinkhole where we went swimming on the way home, the late lunch we ate with limitless hand-made corn tortillas, and even the Mayan artisans trying to sell us stuff we didn't need.

So, my thoughts so far on resort life: It can provide a great place to come home, but I wouldn't want to be restricted to it. We've made up a reasonably ambitious plan for the next few days and look forward to more adventures worth talking about.