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.

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