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.