Friday, May 29, 2009

Why go home?

My classmates asked me a provocative question today. The teacher was trying to find out how many people would continue to study in our group during the summer months because the university is considering combining two groups. (That would be a bad idea, considering the different abilities of the two groups.) When it came out that I’m planning to go home at the end of June, everybody asked me why.

That’s actually a good question. So I can pay my real estate tax? So I can throw away all that junk mail that our son keeps piling up behind our front door? So far I haven’t thought of any good reasons to be home any sooner than August first, except for our plane reservation. And we could probably even get away with staying until late in August. The longer I stay here, the more I will learn. If I go home, well, I won’t learn so much.

Besides, I have a new business idea to mull over, and this is a good place to do it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I miss my eyebrows

Yesterday I got a haircut. Alla selected the hairdresser, thoughtfully choosing the most ordinary-looking woman in the shop. She stayed long enough to make sure we shared a mutual understanding of what we wanted for a haircut and then she left me alone with Rita.

The first thing Rita did was to prepare me for the work to follow. In Boston I would prepare myself by taking off my shirt and putting on a clean smock. This shop offered me no such luxury, but instead Rita tore off a length of crepe paper and wrapped it around my n
eck above my shirt. The tape stuck to itself and I found myself in a snug but high paper collar. Next, she wrapped a waterproof cape around me and turned the crepe paper collar over the neck of the cape.

Thus prepared, Rita washed my hair. In Boston I would be lying on my back at this point. In Minsk we lean forward in the barber chair and stick our faces in a sink under the mirror. This seemed fine at first, but when the water ran around my cheeks and mounted an assault on my nostrils I adjusted my head angle and tried to breathe out more than I breathed in.

Once she had me dried off, Rita gave me a pretty normal haircut. That is to say, she cut it shorter than I wanted. When it was all over, she asked me if I would like her to trim my eyebrows. Knowing that I have a few wild hairs up there, I said yes and closed my eyes. She combed and trimmed. I didn’t really think about the result until I looked into the mirror to shave the next morning, but now that I’ve noticed, I’m quite aware of the difference. I wonder how long it takes for eyebrows to grow back.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I’m not used to thinking much about water. Sure, I know that clean water is a limited resource and we’re not supposed to waste it, but I’m pretty confident at home that when I turn on the tap water will come out. Every time.

I think the converse is true around here. When I go out for my early-morning bike rides I have to watch out for the water trucks that wash down all the main streets. Clearly there’s plenty of water to splash around. Just not at home. I wrote earlier about an incident in October, but May has been really interesting. The first time the water failed was late one evening when I really should have finished washing the dinner dishes. When I finally did get around to washing them, there was no water. I called our landlady’s representative, who could have understood me in English but who took my call as an educational opportunity so we discussed my problem in Russian. She promised to call the city authorities the next day to find out when I might expect to get my water back. By that time my water was working.

I looked outside the building to see if I’d missed any notices, but there were none.

A couple of days later the water went out again, for a few hours in the daytime. I resolved to fill an empty 5-litre bottle and keep it under the sink, just as soon as I finished drinking the clean water it contained. Well, I finished drinking the water and left the empty bottle in the kitchen until yesterday, when the water failed again. I had more dirty dishes too. Rats!

Fortunately yesterday’s crisis was fairly short and I did get to fill my bottle before going off to class. A couple of my classmates entered the classroom about an hour late, explaining that they had no water at home and were unable to leave any sooner. (If I understood this I would explain it to you.)

Today there was a notice on the front of my building announcing that the gas would be shut off from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. I don’t think I care, as long as I take a warm shower before 8 a.m. Oh, and I want to run a load of laundry. I hope the water is working in the morning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I've used a few different athletic facilities in Belarus, and of course a wide diversity of restrooms. In the course of these activities, I've noticed that Belarusians are a lot less squeamish than North Americans about the possibility that the cleaning lady might intrude on some guy's privacy.

Yes, restrooms and locker rooms are always cleaned by women. I haven't seen a single exception. The public restrooms are generally quite clean because the women dart in to make commando cleanups frequently when they think the room is reasonably unoccupied. You pay them 500-600 rubles for the privilege of using their toilets (about 20 cents) and they make sure the room is in good shape.

In athletic facilities, I don't think I've ever seen a locker room that doesn't open directly onto a public area. There are no anterooms or zig-zag privacy entries. If you're changing your clothes when somebody walks into the locker room, well, somebody in the hall might just catch a glance. And then again, there's always the cleaning lady. If the cleaning ladies think it's time to clean the locker room, they just open the door and look to see if the room is empty. If so, they go in. If not, they close the door again. Generally. Yesterday the cleaning lady apparently did a double-take. I heard the door swing twice, but I was facing away so I don't know what she was looking at. I think she really wanted to replace the mat that was supposed to be under my feet but which she'd removed for cleaning.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Suburban Minsk

I think I know where the president lives.

There’s some folklore going around about President Lukashenko. One person told me that he lives in an apartment just like everybody else. Another person told me that nobody knows where the president lives. Both of these stories seemed implausible to me, but I enjoyed knowing a little about the mystery surrounding the man.

Well, today I may have penetrated the mystery. I started my day with an early bike ride. My delightful route began along a riverside bike path and continued past a monument on the edge of the congested area; past an exposition center with tanks, tractors and heavy equipment on display; and into a suburban area at the edge of a huge park.

I explored the residential area, violated the rules by riding my bike on a fantastic 5-K rollerblade path, and explored peripheral paths in the parkland. Birds were chirping, the sunlight drenched the open areas and blasted into the wooded areas, and the air was perfectly cool and fresh for riding. When I felt that I had seen all I could in the park I found a bridge across the river and I set out to find a way home on the other side of the river.

I really enjoyed all the roads out in this area because they were completely uncongested. Unfortunately, I felt like I was riding perpendicular to the river and I wanted to turn right. Presently, I reached a T intersection. The street sign and the paint on the road indicated that traffic should all turn left, but the street to my right looked perfectly good so I took it. After about a mile, I saw a serious-looking gate ahead of me.

The gate didn’t completely block the street, and I could have ridden my bike through a gap to the right of the gate. I slowed down as I approached this to ascertain whether a cyclist might be allowed even though cars could not. Before I even reached the opening, however, an especially-crisp military guy jumped out to stop me. I asked him if the property were closed and he replied “Nil zya,” which might be translated “No way.” OK. I turned around.

As I turned back I noticed that the concrete fence to my right was topped with unspooled razor wire and that there were TV cameras every 100 meters or so. A black car with heavily-tinted windows exited the compound and passed me. I figured it was best not to try to look into the car, but it looked to me like the same car by which President Lukashenko left the Monument of Victory after speaking to the people on May 9. This time, as at the monument, there was no motorcade. But I think it’s possible that I saw the president’s limo this morning for the second time.
I rode all the way around the perimeter of the compound. It’s beautifully located, a heavenly camp within a beautiful park. At the back of the compound the wall turns away from the road and the road leads to a typically delightful Belarusian village. I’ll be back to explore the village at another time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tall women

I am sitting in study hall right now, and I'm moved to write because I saw a T-shirt across the room. On the front of the shirt it says No Ma’am. On the back the acronym is explained: National Organization Men Against Amazon Mastery. I had planned to do a little more research before attempting this posting on tall women, but the T-shirt drove me over the edge. The post will be better if I don’t do any research that might undermine my flimsy conclusion.

I noticed an unusually tall woman the other day, at least six feet tall. Given that Belarusians tend to be shorter than Americans are, she really stood out. Then I began to notice a surprising number of Belarusian women in the six-foot range. As I stood on public transit this morning and surveyed all the heads I could see I hypothesized that there are roughly as many six-foot-tall women here as men of that height. And this phenomenon isn’t even assisted by high-heeled shoes! I should really attempt to confirm that hypothesis at least over a few more rides on the Metro, but the presence of the T-shirt suggested that at least some of the regular-sized guys around here might feel a little threatened by tall women.

Maybe before I return to the USA I’ll get to talk to some of these tall women and find out whether their height is a nuisance for them. But I think I’d have to know somebody pretty well before attempting to talk about differences. If I do learn anything, I’ll let you know. Maybe I should interview some of the regular-sized guys first.

Alas, after writing this little essay and before posting it I took another ride on the Metro and saw a fair smattering of tall men but no tall women. My demographic theory appears to be failing, but there are a few very tall women around here somewhere.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I'm beginning to understand this stuff!

I really enjoyed class today. We're going over stuff that never made sense to me, and suddenly it makes sense. I can only credit those Pimsleur tapes I borrwed from the library. And, of course, I have a great teacher here.

Actually, all kinds of things are coming together for me right now. I was feeling bored not having a newspaper to read over breakfast so I turned on the TV. I found a talk show on Channel 4 that I could follow reasonably well. That's a first!

Yesterday the librarian loaned me a new book on Russian grammar in English with lots of tables and diagrams. (Once again, I feel privileged. Technically it's too new for circulation yet, but she saw how interested I was in it, coming back to read it in the library. She admitted that she had a second copy and she let me take it home.) The book elucidates topics I had found hard, and I'll continue to work through it at home.

I think that by the time I come home this time I can tell you honestly that I speak Russian. When I said that in the past,I was exaggerating badly.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Children's Railway

 We noticed signs on the Minsk subway announcing that the Children’s Railway is running. I figured it would be like the little trains I rode as a kid in various zoos and amusement parks. I was surprised, then, to see that it’s a fairly large-scale model of a real Belarusian passenger train. We saw the train running along the edge of a city park where we had gone for a walk, and we decided to see about taking a ride.

Following the train, we found our way to a little  station not far from the main park entrance. The architecture reminded us of many Soviet train stations, though in this case it was scaled down in keeping with the Children’s Railway idea. Whereas in a real railway station they play tinny patriotic music when a train arrives, here they played tinny children’s music continuously. There was also an actor or actress who kept reappearing in various animal suits reminiscent of cartoon characters. My favorite character was the wolf, and the person inside the costume let me pose with my head inside the wolf’s huge mouth.

Since we arrived just after a train left, we had a 20-minute wait for the next train. I toured the exhibits inside the station, which included a fine electric-train diorama operated by kids in railway uniforms. At the back of the station I found a huge classroom filled with kids in railway uniforms, including giant hats like the ones police and military officers wear here. If I spoke more Russian, and/or had paid attention, I might have realized that these kids were in training. As it was, I just figured they were on a school outing, took a couple of pictures, and went back outside to wait for our train.

When our train arrived we realized that there are two of these trains and that they take a surprisingly long excursion. My real surprise, however, was to discover that the train was operated almost entirely by  children in uniform. Each car had at least two conductors, and the engine carried one adult engineer and two or three apprentice engineers. I think there may have been a second adult on the train somewhere, but as far as the public is concerned the operators are all children.

The train cars even have little cabins for the conductors. I believe each car has a separate P.A. system. In our car we saw a conductor in his office talking into the microphone to announce our trip.

When the train pulled out of the station, all the conductors stood in their doorways holding yellow flags straight out. As each door passed the end of the platform, the conductor would lower his or her flag with an authoritative snap. (Later I paid attention when a real train left Minsk station. In real life, most of the conductors take their arms inside the train long before their cars clear the platform. Only the last conductor shows the flag until the last car passes the end of the platform.)

The children’s train runs about three kilometers through woodlands and stops at a secluded picnic area. We debarked there and waited for the next train back, giving us a chance to understand more of the children’s duties operating the railroad. They are very serious and I suppose many of them will end up working in railroad as adults.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I always feel special here. Today I started my classes. After my class, I wanted to use a computer but the computer lab in my building closed for a «technical break» as I walked up. I went to the study hall in the next building and asked to sign in. Somebody stepped up to the last free computer just as I was asking for permission to use it, but the supervisor told me I could still use one immediately if I went to the something-or-other hall "down that way." Well... That's as much as I understood anyway. I couldn't even get my head around the words that preceeded the Russian word for hall, so I just walked around in the direction she sent me, looking around for the word "zall" on one of the door signs.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood her gesture and only looked on the right side of the hallway, and found no room claiming to be any kind of "zall." So I went back and confessed that I hadn't understood. This time, the other supervisor took me personally to the hall of computers she had in mind, but we found that they were all occupied.

No problem, I said. I have homework to do and I will just work in the main study hall until a computer becomes available. Or something like that. My Russian is highly imperfect. Anyway, I didn't have to wait. I had barely seated myself when the first supervisor came back and told me that she had a computer for me right now. She led me into a back room I had been curious about from my last visit here. It leads to a hidden hallway that I had surmised from looking at the outside of the building but had never entered. There is a VERY nice computer lab off the hallway, complete with printers (wow!) and even a scanner. I am in heaven.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May Day

There is a pun in the title of this blog. First we had a “mayday” experience of the sinking-ship kind, upon our arrival at our apartment on April 30. While I was getting registered at the university, Alla was working out the final details with our landlord. She called me in the midst of my official business to let me know that I might like to return home as soon as practical.

When I came into the apartment, she and the landlord were struggling over matters of my official registration as a resident. The landlord said that he couldn’t register me at the place we were renting because somebody else was registered there already. Based on previous experience, I really didn’t want to mess around with my registration. We got nowhere, and decided to go with registration at another address as the landlord proposed. But then he said that he’d only register me for one month and he’d extend my registration only upon receipt of the second rent payment. Alla made a call and found that if he did that, the University would be unable to register me for the second month and worst case I’d have to leave the country.

We discussed and discussed the issues, trying to propose protections for the landlord that would make him comfortable about registering us. The longer we discussed things the more we realized that he was doing everything to protect himself all along the way and that he’d never offered anything to protect us. We had struggled from the beginning to get our covenants onto paper. We understood during this process that we couldn’t place our trust in this guy and we wouldn’t commit to living in his place even for a month. Two nights seemed about right.

Alla called a realtor she had met earlier and got an introduction to a rental agent. The rental agent had a few immediate ideas and took us yesterday morning to see the low-priced option. For $800 per month we got a beautiful two-room apartment that we like a whole lot better than the more-expensive place we started in. We will move in today.

Yesterday was International Labor Day, a holiday here. We joined the celebrations at the local park. The city brought various amateur singing and dancing groups onto a rickety wooden stage. We particularly liked the dancers, who presented well-choreographed performances beautifully. Their lavish costumes matched their dances. The only disappointments for us were a couple of hip-hop performances, which weren’t up to American street-performance standards. One of the songs they chose included “motherf___er” in the lyrics, which seemed odd in a public performance in a children’s park. But I guess the censors didn’t understand the charge that expression brings to English speakers. We saw the same word scrawled in the elevator of the apartment building we are leaving. Is this really the best stuff we can export from America?