Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Now I can write about it

There were a few odd things about Saturday’s bike ride, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to make a story out of it. Now that I know some more details, I’ll tell you what happened.

I started out on my favorite road, towards the Minsk Sea. Thoughtlessly, I turned right toward the Presidential Compound, following my early-morning route rather than going straight to the sea as I intended. I thought I could correct my error if I rode across a field and figured out how to get across the highway that encircles the city.

As I approached the field, I noticed an unusual number of highly-attentive policemen just before I saw a busload of young men in white shirts with walkie-talkies. I figured they really didn’t want me in the neighborhood so I went directly across the field. There was another person in the field with me, in a car, and I was weirded-out enough that I took the road he didn’t take. I ended up riding up to a cop anyway, so I asked him how to get across the highway. I tried to ask him if I could get through the culvert I saw up the road, but didn’t manage to make myself understood. Nevertheless, he wanted me to go that direction anyway so I did.

When I went down to see if the culvert were big enough and dry enough for me to cross under the road, I saw a single figure sitting on the ground at the far end of the ditch. What the heck; I went. When I got closer, I realized that it was a soldier in uniform, which felt a lot safer to me than the derelict I had first imagined.

I explored several beaches along the Minsk Sea before heading back home. I wanted to go back around the Presidential Compound because it’s the quietest way back. I had previously discovered some pathways from the Minsk Sea along an inlet and a river, and I proceeded that way towards the city.

I passed an amazing number of cops and military guys, especially under every bridge and overpass. I figured there was some reason for extra security but couldn’t figure out what it would be. Finally, as I approached the end of the bike path, one of those white-shirt guys stepped out and asked me to get off my bike and take a break for a few minutes. OK.

Other people began accumulating under the tree with me, but the guard on the other side of the road was letting people by. I think my guard was more cautious than the other, but I didn’t argue with him. I figured we’d see a presidential motorcade soon, and maybe that would be exciting somehow.

Things reached a frenzy for me when I heard the roar of a lot of motorcycles. Some of them sounded distinctly like Harley-Davidsons, but not all of them. The volume rose and fell as the motorcycles went by unseen, on the main road perpendicular to the presidential-access road where we were blocked.

We waited some more.

Finally, the presidential motorcade came by: One nice Chrysler lead car, a black Mercedes with a flag on the fender, and another nice Chrysler. That was it? What was the deal about all the motorcycles I heard. And why all the cops? Do they do this every time the President goes out for groceries?

The Secret Service guy let me get back onto my bike. As I approached Drozde, the presidential motorcade returned, the flag removed from the Mercedes. As I rode around the compound, I finally saw a few police motorcycles. The Belarusian cops ride sport bikes with blue lights on the front. I’m sure they are much faster than the Harleys our cops drive, but they’re also a lot quieter than the bikes I heard earlier. No story here.

Then today Alla challenged me to read an article in the newspaper. It was about President Lukashenko’s adventure on Saturday when an international motorcycle festival came to Minsk. At the culmination of the festival, one of the organizers offered President Lukashenko the opportunity to ride on a Harley-Davidson. The president put his young son on the seat in front of him and led everybody down the street where I could hear it.

I’m not sure I fully understand this security system. The President was out there riding around on a huge motorcycle without a helmet on while hundreds of security people protected him from bad guys. I wish one of the cops had handed him a helmet. And I wish I were there to see it.

Here are more pictures for you.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Good chocolate

I like chocolate. Around home, I always have a couple of bars of dark chocolate on hand, and it takes me a few days to nibble through each one. I broke this habit right away when I got settled in Minsk because I just couldn’t find any chocolate I enjoyed well enough to munch on. It wasn’t a big deal, of course, because it’s summer and I’ve been very well entertained snacking on fresh fruit. Still, every time I saw a new brand of dark chocolate I’d buy it, hoping to stock my selves with a few bars I’d enjoy nibbling.

I had pretty much given up on the chocolate project when I discovered the Korona supermarket. (Actually, they don’t even call it a supermarket. It’s a hypermarket. For my American readers, it’s something between a shopping center, Costco, and a gourmet supermarket.) Korona has a bigger variety of products than any store I’d ever seen in Belarus, so much so that Alla was overwhelmed and wanted to flee. I bought real Parmesan cheese, which was the priority that brought us there in the first place, and bought one of every kind of plain dark chocolate they had on their shelves.

I was pretty excited about all the chocolate. I prepared a piece of paper with all the brand names and took notes every time I tried a new one. They were generally a little better than the stuff I’d been buying previously, but not always by much. My favorite of the lot was A. Korkunov 72%, made in Moscow. I found it a little sweeter than I would have liked, and the texture seemed a little soft, but I thought it was good enough to buy again. Actually, that was the only one I thought was good enough to buy, but there aren’t many at home that I buy repetitively either. (Scharffen Berger!)

A couple of days ago, however, I went into a little supermarket Alla discovered really close to our house. It’s closer to us than the place where I did most of my shopping, but I didn’t realize it was even there because it’s in an underground mall I didn’t bother to explore. These guys had more brands of chocolate even than Korona, and I splurged on a couple more bars that looked promising. Wow! My new local favorite is Favarger Noir Plain, from Geneva. I like it well enough that I no longer wonder about schlepping a supply of chocolate on my next trip over here. Hooray!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

K tests library security

I am not at liberty to divulge the name of a fellow student who came with us today to the National Library for lunch and a quiet place to do homework. Let's just call him K. Pretend you're Australian while you pronounce his initial.

When we had finished our homework, we went together to the wardrobe to pick up our bags. K opened his locker and found it empty. We foreigners were alarmed, but the library staff was simply helpful. First they took us to the lost-and-found locker, where they had one item that was left overnight. We explained that K's bag had only been there a few hours, and they summoned the Militsia. The attendants assured us again that everything would be alright.

We described K's bag to them. Worst case, we understood, they'd review the security tapes and see who took it out of the library.

K admitted that he had been a little distracted when he loaded the locker. Maybe he had put his bag in one locker and locked another. We joined forces to check all the unlocked lockers in the area, but they were all empty. So the head of the attendants asked the Militsia guy if she could open the neighboring lockers. OK.

On about the third try, she found K's bag. He withdrew his passport from the bag to prove that it was his. We were satisfied and prepared to leave, but the attendant wouldn't let us. "Where's the key?," she asked. Nobody knew. But to be good sports, we all checked our pockets. K dug deep. What do you know? He found another key down there, the key to the locker in question.

I think our stuff was all quite safe, under the watchful eyes of this attentive staff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Eating at the Library

Arif and I talked last week about eating lunch at the National Library, but we were afraid all we could buy might be cakes and sweets. Then last weekend I took a tour with our house guest and learned that they have a restaurant. I had to try it, so Arif and I rounded up three classmates and took our library cards for an adventure.

From 2009-07 PhonePix
First we stopped at the foot of the statue in honor of Francisco Scorina, the first person to print a book in the Belarusian language. Then we found our way to the cafeteria.

My goodness, this is a wonderful cafeteria. In the first place, we get to eat with beautiful metal knives and forks; not the flimsy plastic stuff we get at the university. Next, we realized that the food is presented beautifully in substantial portions on full-sized china. Finally, we discovered that not only is this food priced similarly to the food in the University cafeteria, it's also delicious.

I made one mistake. I didn't realize that the plate of fish in the warming oven comprised three servings. I opened the door on my side of the warming oven and put this huge plate of fish onto my tray. I shared it, and I made a heroic effort to eat the rest. Oops. But it sure did taste good.

Luis helped us figure out how to check out a couple of copies of the textbook we use in our classes, and we took them into the reading area near the language dictionaries and we worked on our homework together. What fun!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


One of our young friends told me about a tradition among kids in Minsk to undertake some sort of performance art. Maybe they’ll all wear pajamas and take their pillows onto the Metro. Or pass out balloons. I think we saw the tail-end of a balloon-passing-out event a couple of trips back. At the time we couldn’t figure out where everybody got the balloons. Today I finally saw one of these events unfold. I was coming home from the renok (market) and saw a few kids with signs that said in English and Spanish “Free hugs.” I wasn’t interested in hugging any of those kids at that time and I continued ahead. Next I saw some kids with signs in Russian, but I didn’t know what the signs said. Maybe it was “Free kicks in the groin.” How would I know? I kept walking. Wave after wave of these “Free kicks in the groin” kids came by. Finally one of them came and gave me a hug. Then a bunch more of them came by and gave me hugs. This wasn’t just twenty or thirty kids, it was a very seriously organized project. I wonder how it was communicated and organized.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Language in life

As I walked into the subway this afternoon I heard a very little boy asking his mom “Из или в?,” which might be translated “From or in?” My first thought was that he was trying to learn Russian grammar just as I was.

Hold that thought. I need to digress. That Russian letter that looks like a Latin B is actually a V. It’s a one-letter word, and it’s not a vowel. This concept is a real stretch for most of us who grew up speaking English. What? “V” is a word? My classmates have a devil of a time pronouncing it. They want to say “vee.” It’s not “vee. “ It’s “v.” Just put your lower lip against your upper teeth and make a little sound. Don’t move anything while you are making that little sound. Good. That’s one way to pronounce it. Depending on context it may sound more like “f” but in neither case is there any need to add an “ee,” however short, at the end of this word.

That’s the most common of the one-consonant words in the Russian language, but there are more. I know of k and s. Perhaps that completes the list, or perhaps I will get another surprise later. I think the language often avoids stringing three consonants together without a vowel, but pretty much any two consonants are compatible together. It's a heck of a task just learning to say hello. “Zdravstvuite. “ Try it. Don’t forget to roll the r. You can drop the v if you like. Isn’t that nice?

OK, back to my little boy and his mom. If my first impression was right, it’s heart warming to know that a little boy who can walk to the subway under his own power is still struggling to know which of several little prepositions to use when you’re trying to identify where something is, where it came from or where it’s going. Subtle changes in the way you construct a sentence may change the necessary preposition. If he’s been speaking Russian all his life and hasn’t mastered it then I’m doing OK. I’m afraid, however, he was just clarifying a point in conversation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

What an amazing weekend! Our weekend started on Thursday evening, with a party hosted by a fellow student. At his party we met a couple of kids who apparently work for some sort of pro-democracy movement. I had a hard time getting one girl to tell me about her job and she finally told me enough that I understood why she didn’t want to say much to a stranger. Nor did I feel comfortable asking anything more.

On Saturday at the Independence Day parade we got a taste of “opposition.” (I use quotes because I have no idea whether they represent any kind of an organized movement.) The kids around us at the parade felt free to ridicule the patriotic demonstrations and pretty much everything else about the parade. Unfortunately, all these kids expressed was negativity. One of the government’s complaints about the opposition groups they suppress is that said groups only want to tear down and that they don’t have any positive ideas. I didn’t believe those official views, but I think they accurately described what we overheard at the parade.

I can understand how folks pretty much anywhere would like to make adjustments or improvements in their government. Any government is likely to do things inconvenient for various segments of their population at certain times, and any government is likely to be imperfect. I can also understand that governing a country-sized group of people is hard work, takes a lot of training and cooperation among people smart in different ways, and is not something everybody is qualified to do. I really hope that anybody wishing to change a working status-quo has a really good plan in mind before they start messing around, and I fervently hope that changes should be evolutionary and by consensus rather than forced down by a group of new elites without a solid foundation of public support and rational thought.

Perhaps I’ll say more about this at another time. I happen to find a lot of appealing aspects of life here and I am saddened to imagine that negative thinkers like I overheard at the parade might destroy these appealing things. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and could write many more paragraphs, but I really want to tell you about the rest of the weekend.

I really liked the look of the light utility vehicles that led the parade. These reminded me of American Studebaker automobiles, and I didn’t know if they were historic or current vehicles. It turns out that they’re current. I saw another one at the air show we visited yesterday and the car’s occupant told me that his was two or three years old. I’ll post some pictures soon.

At both the parade and the air show, the Belarusian Air Force showed off their fighter aircraft with performances reminiscent of The Blue Angels and other elite flying groups I’ve seen at home. My favorite part was when four or five planes with huge engines came in low, lit the afterburners, and shot straight into the sky. The engines made a HUGE noise.

Today I went with a couple of friends to see a historic reenactment of battles between Soviet and German forces over a Belarusian village. This took place at a camp called “The Stalin Line,” and the camp itself is a marvelous museum of World War II history.
(Pictures) My favorite thing there was going into a bunker at the forward edge of the camp. The guns and communication gear are all still in place and well maintained. It was nothing like the “imagine what this looked like before it deteriorated” stuff I’ve seen around home. Everything was real, quarters were tight, and you could just imagine the chaos of trying to fight a war in such a cramped and dangerous place.

After the historic reenactment, which involved a lot of explosions and explained the war much better than many movies, we went back to catch the bus we’d taken to get there. This trip was really the inspiration of my friends Kari and Irina, so I deferred to their preference of waiting for a bus rather than ask anybody for a ride. Cars poured out of the parking lots. We waited. The parking lots began to look rather empty. Irina assured me things would be OK. I wanted to go do homework. The bus came. People were standing in the bus and there was no way for even one of us to jam into the doorway to stand for the 40-minute ride to the train station.

I said goodbye to Kari and Irina and walked back to the parking lot. I flagged down the second car to emerge and made two new friends, who drove me all the way to my door and wouldn’t even accept money for gas. They like Minsk and they like Belarus. So do I.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is the firewall in place?

Tomorrow is Belarusian independence day, and there have been MANY rehearsals. We've seen and heard jets flying overhead in formation, my friends have seen tanks rolling down the parade route four abreast, and we've seen students in the grandstands beside the parade route practicing with color-cards. We're pretty excited about joining the festivities.

Security will be tight. Last year somebody brought a bomb into a crowd of people dancing at the festivities following the parade, and this year we expect significant precautions. One example is control of the parade route. When they had the rehearsal for the parade, apparently the president rode along. My friends in the dormitory above the route were not allowed to open their windows at the time of the rehearsal. It got pretty hot in their rooms while they waited and watched.

The other security appears to be technical. Suddenly we are unable to log into our e-mail accounts at Yahoo and Google. I can't imagine we're the only people with this problem. I tried all night to send an e-mail and never succeeded until I routed it through a proxy.

I'll update this post or post again once mail starts operating normally again.

[My classmates also expreienced the outage, but mail started working again a few hours after I first completed this post.]