Thursday, June 25, 2009

Overwhelming generosity

A few days ago on one of my morning bike rides, I discovered a little community of dachas outside of Minsk, near the village of Zatsan. I stopped to take some pictures of the gardens around me, and I introduced myself to a couple of people on their way to one of the nearby dachas. Anna and Vanya invited me into their yard and ended up sending me home with a lot of dill, crisp radishes, and some green onion. Grateful, I returned this morning to give them a little gift.

As I leaned over the fence, debating whether to enter the yard and leave my gift on their porch or to leave my gift hung on the gate, Vanya came out in shirt and underwear to greet me. Excited by my little gift, he pulled me into his yard and asked me if I wouldn't take something else from his garden. I declined, but he really wanted me to take some more dill when I told him how much we had enjoyed the previous dill in borsch soup. So I said "just a little."

Before he harvested any borsch, however, he wanted me to see his garlic plants. He was unsatisfied that they weren't as big as he would have liked, but they were actually quite tall. He pulled one from the ground and asked me to wash it off for Alla. As I did, he asked me if I wanted another. I demurred, but he felt that no less than three would make any sense at all and he gave me two more. Then he harvested a bunch of green onions. Then he went to get the dill that started it all. He harvested a big handfull. I tried to stop him there, but suddenly he became crazed and whacked down almost an entire row.

I managed to get it all home. I don't know what to do next. I think any reciprocation must happen in the dead of night or away from their dacha. Alla is very excited about the variety of garlic he gave us, which is rare anyway and apparently unusually large.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

History lesson

My homework assignment included a little story about the 9 May holiday from our basic textbook. As you remember, this was the end of World War II, and it’s a huge holiday in Belarus. Our little story ended by stating that the holiday isn’t just celebrated in Belarus “because in May of 1945 the Soviet Army freed Europe from fascism.”

As soon as I read this I called Alla, who was in Gomel at the time. I read it to her, confirmed my translation, and expressed my surprise. She was not surprised. She matter-of-factly told me that’s indeed the way it was. I reminded her of the efforts of the Allies, and after a little thought Alla allowed as how it would have been better to mention them.

Still a little worked up, I went to class. On the way I thought “well, maybe they simplified the story for this language textbook because we don’t know the Russian word for ‘ally.’” Since I was the first to arrive, I was able to ask my teacher about it. I read her the offending sentence, and she calmly explained to me that the textbook was right. I tried to ask her for the word “ally,” but it was so far from her thought that she had no idea what I wanted when I asked her for the word for “friends in war.” So I got out my dictionary.

“Oh,” she said. “Well how many Americans were killed during the war?” I waxed eloquent, even with my still-limited vocabulary. I reminded her of all the war materials we sent over, asked her if she were familiar with Normandy, and then went on to tell about how my first father-in-law struggled to the end of his days over the devastation he caused as a bomber pilot who flew a lot of successful missions over Germany. (He never told exactly what he destroyed, but he sure never wanted to go back to Germany to see it.) To her credit, she got my point and added “and its allies” whenever we talked about that last sentence in the story.

Later in the lesson, one of my Spanish classmates commented that he thought the fascists would have won the war without Allied support. Svetlana disagreed, and the rest of us hauled out a few more facts. Seeing that she was heavily outnumbered, she let it drop. But I think I just learned something about the way history was taught in Soviet schools.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Honking and blasting

A while back I went to a jazz concert at Philharmony. That’s the big classical music venue here, and so far it’s been a safe bet that whatever happens there will be more than worthwhile. Reviewing their program, Alla noticed a jazz concert featuring a guy named Mats Gustafsson from Sweden. The picture on the poster showed him with a saxophone, so she figured “what the heck” and bought me a nice ticket just before leaving town.

A few evenings before the jazz concert I went to Philharmony to hear a couple of Tchaikovsky programs, one of which included Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto. Both of these classical programs were really great, my seats were superb, and the tickets cost something like eight dollars.

For the Swede, of course, the tickets were priced higher. I’m sure his cost of living is much higher than the Belarusian musicians I generally hear at Philharmony. I had a middle-priced seat at the front of the first balcony for $20, and found myself beside an outgoing woman willing to talk slowly enough that we could converse. Like me, she had no idea what Mats Gustaffson would sound like, but she was curious and there we were.

Presently, the introducer came out and told us about what we would be hearing. I couldn’t follow him very well, but did understand the phrase “free jazz.” This worried me. And it turns out I was right.

Mats came out alone and stood before the microphone. He rocked back and forth soundlessly, demonstrating intense focus as he prepared to play. He clicked up and down on the keys and holes of his saxophone, which the microphone picked up. I think the mic was turned up pretty loud because we could also hear him breathing and sucking on the mouthpiece. Finally he took a huge breath as he rocked back, and he swung forward blasting a huge barking sound of no particular pitch. Thus began the concert. Here’s a sample of his music.

A couple of people downstairs left after about a minute, but I lasted for the entire first piece. I’m not really sure what would define this as a piece, since for me it had no structure at all, but I left as soon as the guy stopped playing. I really expected the hall to drain at this moment, but I was the only refugee.

The usher tried to talk me into staying; assuring me that it would get better. I asked her if she were familiar with his music. No, she was not. I asked her if she had heard what he just played. Not really. We chatted a bit and I returned to a sunny evening too nice to waste on Mats.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting lost on my bike

I thought about entitling this entry "Katatsa na velocipedye," but most of my readers wouldn't know what that meant. For me, it means getting lost on my bike. I had a great time doing that on Saturday morning. I saw rivers, woodlands, fancy neighborhoods and simple neighborhoods.

As usual, I got a little confused about the best way home and found myself on a road I wouldn't have chosen on purpose. The best thing about that was finding my way to the Minsk Tractor Works, a huge operation with a fabulous Soviet-era facade. I took a few pictures for you. Here are two pictures of the factory, the first tractor they made and the last tractor of the 20th century. The old tractor has new tires and new paint, and it's easy to imagine starting the engine.

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

Friday, June 5, 2009

Crazy Weather

The weather around here is driving my classmates and me out of our minds. Every day we get numerous intervals of sun, but they’re seldom long enough to go out and do anything serious outdoors. In between we get gray and cloudy with outbursts of heavy rain.

I’ve stopped carrying an umbrella because I know it won’t rain for a long time. Instead, I watch the sky, choose opportune moments to step out, and seldom stay outside more than half an hour.

I’m hoping to take a bike ride tomorrow morning. The hourly forecast from Accuweather says I can get away with it. The hourly forecast from Weather Underground says I might get wet. The long-range forecast says never to expect anything different, and my professor says June is often like this.

No wonder Belarus has so many bodies of water. Why is it such a problem to deliver some of this water to my apartment (and heat it along the way)?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Family lore

I remember my mom's stories about her grandmother who would test the temperature in her oven by putting her arm in. If it was hot enough to singe the hair on her arm, it was hot enough for her to begin baking.

Our range is not that basic, but it's pretty basic. Neither the cooktop nor the oven has a pilot light, so you just light a match before turning on the gas. The oven also has no thermostat, but unlike my great-grandmother's oven this one has a thermometer on the door. You adjust the height of the flame to maintain whatever temperature you want inside the oven. Since the temperatures are in centigrade, I really have no idea what I want anyway and don't use the oven much.

Tonight, however, I wanted to bake some chicken thighs. I lit a match and held it over the lighting hole in the oven before turning on the gas. I heard the familiar "whump" as the gas ignited (so I thought) and blew out the match. Presently I noticed a stale smell in the kitchen and opened the window a crack, thinking the oven's jets must not be properly adjusted.

A little later I remembered that Alla had left me some nice packets of herbs and I decided to deploy some of them atop my chicken. I opened the oven and took out the pan with potholders. I decorated the meat and returned it to the oven. Then I finally noticed that the oven was cold.

Readers in North America may be a little puzzled at this point. Why didn't I notice the smell of the gas? Well, it turns out that natural gas doesn't have much of a smell. To most people, in fact, it's odorless. But gas companies in our part of the world add a stinky chemical to the gas so it's really obvious if it's escaping in the wrong place. Apparently gas companies over here don't do that.

A stupid thought passed through my mind. I wanted to eat. I'd better light that thing. Fortunately, another bit of family lore came immediately to thought. My grandfather made that very mistake and had a large explosion as a result. It burned his face badly and, the part I liked hearing about as a little kid, it burned off his eyebrows. Remembering that I already missed my eyebrows, I opened the windows wide and went out to dinner. After turning off the gas, of course.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Water (again)

I've been without hot water since last Thursday. The sign on the building promises that it'll be back after a two-week outage. Apparently this is normal. Every building gets cut off for two or three weeks each summer for "prophylaxis." I don't know what kind of prophylactic treatment requires a two week outage, but I hear it involves cigarettes and beer.

I am bathing at the health club or else I'm pouring water over myself from a pan I've heated up in the kitchen. Everything takes longer in Belarus, sometimes even bathing at home.

Nesvizh & Mir

--- Warning --- I think this post is too long. You can skip it because I can't figure out how to shorten it and it's my own dang fault. -S

We had plans last weekend to take a packaged tour to the town of Lida, where we expected to see a reenactment of a historic wedding at a medieval castle. The tour didn’t fill up, however, and the operator canceled. When we learned this, Alla looked around to figure out how best to get to Lida on our own. In the process she discovered that the historic reenactment might be a little hokey and we decided to take a different trip, to a couple of historic towns easier to reach.

It seemed most convenient to travel on our own rather than on a packaged tour, but we did run into a couple of wrinkles at the beginning of our trip. Alla learned that the buses to Nesvizh start at a secondary bus station a few miles from our apartment, and she learned that the #30 and #20 trolleybus lines would get us from the train station to this bus station. So, we started nice and early in the morning so we would have time to get to the train station and reach our bus. First we got onto a #30 trolleybus and passed within a block of our apartment on our way to the bus station. (First note to selves: Catch #30 trolleybus closer to home.) We nearly missed the bus to Nesvizh because the sign on the bus named the final destination and we were waiting for a bus with the word Nesvish on the placard. Anyway, once on the bus we rode back to the train station where we started our day and then proceeded to Nesvizh. (Second note to selves: ...)

We really loved Nesvizh. It’s a cute little town on a river, with just enough restaurants to support a few tourists and several interesting things to see and do. We started in the old town hall, which dates back to the 1500’s, visited a church, and headed on to the main attraction: a beautiful palace on the banks of the river with many hectares of parkland surrounding it. We hired a horse and buggy for an introduction to the parkland and decided that Nesvizh is worthy of a return trip simply to go to the park and swim in the river.

We wanted to take a bus from Nesvizh to Mir, but were mistaken about the schedule and got to the station too early. Rather than wait, we hired a taxi. Far down the road we passed a solo cyclist we’d seen a couple times earlier that day in Nesvizh. She was making good progress and reminded me how much I enjoy bicycle tourism.

Mir’s biggest attraction is a beautiful castle, also on a river. We explored the castle in some detail before walking toward the bus station. It was at the moment we approached the bus station that I realized we did well by coming to Mir on our own. We stepped into a little church and saw a chamber orchestra set up at the front. It turns out that we’d stumbled upon the Belarus National Chamber Orchestra, 22 extremely talented musicians playing in an acoustically wonderful location. We took the last two seats and enjoyed a phenomenal concert. This was the first concert in the church in 130 years and there were certainly no tour buses anywhere in sight.