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.