Friday, December 31, 2010

Briefly a Belarusian multimillionaire

We had a busy day yesterday, our first full day back in Minsk. We had to upgrade Alla’s SIM card, pay the rent, register at the university and yadda-yadda. (For those who don’t speak English as well as I do, think of yadda-yadda as something like “и так дали,” especially if I spelled it right.) Anyway, one of the things I had to do was pay $1,300 in Belarusian rubles to the university for six months of study. Invoice in hand, I went down to the nearest bank to withdraw a cool four million rubles. I got a sizeable stack of hundred-thousand ruble notes and stuffed them into my jacket pocket and walked back to the university acting natural. It’s not often that I get to walk around with a million of anything, and I found it very stimulating.

Unfortunately, the excitement only lasted about five minutes because I had to hand over almost my entire stash to the University cashier. Sigh. Easy come, easy go.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas: More found stuff!

Yesterday was Christmas, and our we enjoyed a small family celebration at home in Boston. We started the day by opening our stockings to see what little things Santa Claus had brought to us, and then we moved on to a waffle breakfast with bacon, berries and maple syrup. After all the waffles, we headed off for our traditional walk through the neighborhood.

Alla and Nika noticed a tree that somebody had put out for the trash collectors without removing two strings of lights. Alla was annoyed that the city would be unable to compost the tree with the lights still attached, so we took off the lights and Alla wound them onto her hand like a high-tech muff. Amused by this, Nika decorated the "muff" with bits of ribbon and decorations she found along the way. Finally, Nika found a big golden star ornament hanging from a red ribbon on a tree in the Public Garden. She appropriated the star for herself. Meanwhile, I was already decorated because Nika didn't want me to go out dressed all in black and she draped me with a garland of white sheep that she took from our home decorations. I think that pretty much explains the photograph above.

When we got home, we unrolled the string of lights and discovered that it was long enough to wind around the banister of the staircase on three floors of our house. Basically, then, the lights illuminate three-quarters of our little house because there's only one room on each level. Here's a picture of Alla showing off her new dress near the staircase.

The rest of the day involved roast chicken and a few presents, but no more found stuff. Well, we're still enjoying the lights, and I am about to "find" more of the roast chicken inside the refrigerator.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Found stuff

This seems to be the Christmas of Found Stuff. We started with a child's bear, which Alla rescued from the curb on trash day and washed in the washing machine. The bear cleaned up pretty well, but since his stuffing had leaked out he couldn't sit up. The other day then, Alla and Nika filled him with lentils and stitched him shut.

Next, coming home from the grocery store today I found a little Christmas tree by the side of the road, waiting for tomorrow's trash pickup. I picked it up instead. We're guessing that somebody went away for the holidays and put their used tree out before leaving. It's shedding needles at an alarming rate, but we gave it water to drink and a few lights. Nika wanted to add just one ornament, but Alla got carried away and brought up a few more ornaments from the basement. I couldn't restrain myself either, and I added some candies. It's still pretty simple, but we all like it; even Nika.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My trip to the mall

I went to the mall today to buy a couple of humidifiers. I passed through wearing a nice leather jacket and carrying a gray uschanka hat. (I replaced my not-really-all-that-Russian-style hat with a new fur hat that almost looks like it came from Russia.) Oh, and I was probably wearing my habitual smile. What I did not have was a woman on my arm, and that apparently made all the difference.

As I walked along, a pretty young woman caught my eye. “May I ask you a question?,” she asked.

“Sure,” I answered.

“Do you know about the Dead Sea?”

This led to a sales pitch for Dead Sea cosmetics. She wanted to show me a nail buffing tool she thought my wife would like to have. Thinking it sounded like a reasonable stocking stuffer, I let her demonstrate on my thumb. She cupped my hand in hers and began to buff my thumbnail. As she continued, I allowed my hand to relax and found my fingers resting in her palm. She looked into my eyes and told me that I was really going to like this. Well yes, so far I was liking it just fine. She drew me toward the light (and the cash register.) I noticed that she was showing a little cleavage. She buffed some more. Finally, she let me see my thumbnail, which was very shiny.

It turns out that I couldn’t buy just the buffer. She wanted me to buy a rather small box of stuff, including some hand cream and cuticle exfoliant. She claimed that it normally cost $89 but today I could have it for just $69. I thanked her and walked on toward the appliance store.

Presently another cute young woman stepped out and inquired whether she could ask me a question. I didn’t think much about it when I answered in the affirmative, but then she asked me if I knew about the Dead Sea. She even petted my fur hat in much the same way the first sales girl had done. I told her that I’d already had the same sales pitch from her colleague at a different kiosk and I showed her my shiny thumbnail. “Oh,” she said, “then I’d like to try to sell you something else. Put your hat and gloves down here and I’ll show you.”

Next thing I knew, I was standing with my hands over a basin with a very cute girl scooping oiled salt onto my hands. “Rub it in,” she instructed. “Like you’re washing your hands.” When I finally wiped the stuff back off of my hands they were indeed very clean looking. “See?,” she said, ”you scrubbed off all of your dead skin.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I scrubbed off what was left of my tan.”

She asked me if my wife would like that stuff.

“Yes,” I replied, “she definitely would.”

“Well then,” she challenged, “how much do you think this costs?”

“$69,” I guessed, “on sale today only for $49.”

“Oh no,” she replied. It’s normally $79 but I can sell it to you today only for $59.”

I can’t describe the amount of flirtation that went on during this whole process, but she was definitely teasing me. As we discussed the facts that I didn’t want to pay all that money for a jar of salt, that we already had a similar product in our house, and that she could cut me an even-more-special deal, she drew me by the hand step-by-step toward her cash register. Each step towards the cash register came as she was telling me really special prices that she didn’t want anybody else to hear.

Being a normal guy, I was severely disadvantaged. I was about 50% aware of the fact that I was being led around by a cute girl with warm hands and an earnest manner, and only had about 50% of my normal mental capacity left to decide whether or not to buy her product at an ever-more-stupendous price.

Finally, I told her that she should really get a job selling timeshares in Cancun but that I wasn’t going to buy her product. Her super-duper price was based on the fact that I could have unlimited refills all year long and I told her that I’d be in Belarus for about half the year and I was pretty sure they didn’t have any outlets in Minsk. She thought somehow that Germany would be close enough, but even with my diminished mental capacity I managed to say no.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas season blessings

Harvard University has a hundred-year-old tradition of holding a Christmas Carol service in their chapel just before the students go home for the holidays. Our friends David and Helen have a somewhat shorter-lived tradition of hosting a party at the time of the carol service. We really enjoy these little traditions, and of course we enjoy the Harvard Choir and the organ music at the service.

This year when we entered the Harvard Chapel we ran into a fellow named Armand who we see there every year. He gave us a picture of ourselves from the first time we met him there. Other friends have reached out to us in various other ways in this season of giving. Alla and I feel touched and blessed by it all.

Nika and I tried to reach out a bit in our own way last night. She signed us up as volunteers on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. They provided us with a table at a busy shopping mall, where we had several rolls of wrapping paper, tape, scissors, and a few accessories. We wrapped gifts that shoppers brought us, and they rewarded us by making donations to the Coalition. By the end of the day we had accumulated over $430 in the tip jar, about half of which came in during our shift.

When we started our shift, Nika warned me that she would be bossy. In fact, if she was bossy I didn’t notice it, but she did help me learn quickly how she likes to do this task. We made a good team because we both felt outgoing and we invited people walking by with packages to bring them over for wrapping. We did this whenever we weren’t busy, and as a result we were busy most of the time. (But it did get slow enough later on that I had time to go and buy us a couple of ice cream cones and she had time to go shopping at The Body Shop. She bought some shimmery body butter, inspired by one of the packages we had to wrap.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


We are at Miami airport right now, on our way home from Cancun. I knew it was a big airport, but didn’t really appreciate how many international flights pass through here until today. When we got off of our plane, we walked about ten minutes to a Sky Train terminal. We then rode the Sky Train two stops to passport control. We didn’t mingle with any other passengers except those arriving at Miami from overseas.

Finally, about 25 minutes after landing we reached the passport control area, which had a huge array of booths open and we walked right through. Unfortunately our next stop was baggage claim, as Alla had found it necessary to check her luggage. We arrived at baggage claim 30 minutes after landing, and American Airlines managed to begin delivering luggage from our flight about fifteen minutes after that. These guys are seldom quick about baggage delivery.

We presented our baggage to customs with nothing to declare, and left the area right away. Half way through the process, we simply had to re-check Alla’s suitcase (no problem, after a 3-minute walk), go back up to the Sky Train, ride one stop, return to ground level and walk to our gate. Fortunately, we like to walk and we’re in good physical condition. My heart goes out to people who can’t get around well. To their credit, the airlines offer courtesy shuttle service in little electric carts, but I have no idea how to go about arranging a ride. I also feel sorry for travelers who speak neither English nor Spanish. Airport personnel speak those languages, and there are signs in both languages, but everybody else had better figure out what they’re doing because we certainly didn’t see signs in any other languages.

We did hear several groups speaking Russian. In fact, the final customs officer spent a little extra time with us because he thought I said something to him with a Russian accent. Perhaps he’d overheard Alla and me speaking to each other in Russian, but I think it’s pretty amusing that he didn’t immediately realize my nativity. All I remember saying to him was “Cancun,” so I guess he thought I was speaking Spanish with a Russian accent.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cops, soldiers and guns

I don’t like to take pictures of people with guns. I guess I’m always worried that they might shoot back, but as a result I don’t have any pictures to go with today’s blog entry. Take it from me, however, there are lots of guns around here. Today, for example, we saw two naval warships right off the coast, a busload of cops across the street from our hotel and numerous cop cars whizzing up and down the avenue. All of these entities were heavily armed and armored. I don’t know who holds the bullet-proof-vest contract for the Cancun district, but I suspect they are making a lot of money keeping the cops safe.

Yesterday we saw military helicopters touring up and down the coast. Apparently Cancun would be a bad place to dabble in crime, since there would be lots of people trying to catch you. The other night, for example, we were in a taxi that got pulled over by the cops for a random inspection. As the inspector waved us through without looking anywhere, the driver asked me, “Are you carrying?”

No, I was not carrying and I don’t do drugs. But I guess one reason for all the police presence is to keep some sort of a lid on drug trade. The other reason is the big climate summit going on right now in Cancun. Apparently the area is full of world leaders and the authorities want to make sure they all get home safely.

The most interesting cop sighting was in the mall across the street from our hotel. There’s a fancy department store inside, and the store has guards at all of the doors. I assume that these guys are not real cops, and as a result they have only small side arms rather than automatic weapons. They do have nice white uniforms, right down to special all-white nightsticks. If you’re going to get beaten up by a guard with a nightstick, I think the white stick would be a good choice since it probably shows blood more quickly than a black nightstick. But once again, I really don’t want to get whacked and I imagine you don’t either.

Fortunately the cops around here tend to be friendly. Last Thursday we walked out of our way as we headed to dinner in order to avoid walking among cops milling about with machine guns. By today we were used to them and we walked up to one of the guys stationed in the street in front of our hotel. I’m happy to report that he was open to our approach and knew where we’d find a bus stop and how to get to our restaurant. Still, it’s really hard for me to get used to all the automatic weapons kicking around here. If all the guns are intended to make me feel safe, then they are not working!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Utopian community

Today we took an excursion to Tulum and Xel-Ha. Tulum is a small Mayan archaeological park, and I would describe Xel-Ha as a Mayan natural-aquatic theme park. The two are near each other and combine to make a well-balanced day. In the morning you get a small dose of ancient Mayan culture, some great photo opportunities, and even time to go swimming at a nice little beach behind a spectacular temple where Maya once performed human sacrifices and threw the bodies down toward the sea. (There’s more to this story, but it’s too disturbing for this particular piece.)

Today’s Tulum trip follows yesterday’s trip to Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World as redefined recently by some accredited standards body. Frankly, I don’t remember who comprised this standards body, but Chichen Itza certainly is big and impressive. Alla and I had been on both of these trips previously, but Nika wanted to see Chichen Itza and we felt that we’d enjoy the trips ourselves so we went with her on both of them. It was Alla and my third trip to Chichen Itza, and our first after visiting another archaeological site with a real archaeologist. We noticed yesterday that our guide was grossly less informed than the archaeologist, but of course we enjoyed being at the site anyway.

Today’s guide didn’t appear to be any more thoroughly educated than yesterday’s, but to his credit he did offer us some very interesting tidbits. We didn’t mind any lack of depth anyway because we weren’t in the archaeological area long enough to learn a whole lot anyway, and the place was just plain beautiful. And we got to go swimming even before moving on to the Mayan natural-aquatic theme park.

The latter offers a wide range of services, including snorkeling gear, rafts, life jackets, towels, beach chairs, zip-lines, bicycles, unlimited food and drink, showers, hammocks, and what-have-you. This is the place that struck Nika as utopian after we’d been there a while and hopped from one set of beach chairs to another to take advantage of the changing position of the sun. It’s utopian in a very modern way: The institution shares all manner of good stuff with the clients, but the clients aren’t obligated to give anything to anybody. Except money, of course.

I thought it was sort of utopian traveling with Nika anyway, because she likes to challenge herself physically, as do I. I got to swim longer and harder than I would have without her encouragement. (Or was it instigation?) And even though she’s a faster swimmer than I am, she hung back as necessary so we could swim the length of the park more or less together. And of course I’m grateful to Alla for her willingness to entertain herself with other activities while Nika and I introduced ourselves to as many fish as possible. Everybody reports having enjoyed the day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moving day

Today was our last day at the new Tres Rios resort and our first day at the newly-somewhat-renovated Royal Sunset. We stayed at the Royal Sunset last year and had a really great time. Today, however, the place is, umm…, imperfect. They didn’t finish their renovation on time, and in fact the most seriously-renovated rooms aren’t generally open yet. Our room is in good shape, though the post-construction dust hasn’t all settled and it needs another thorough cleaning. The staff is looking pretty exhausted, and we’re grateful that they were able to set us up reasonably well, especially considering the stories we’ve heard from other guests.

It was hard to leave Tres Rios, but at least we went out with a wonderful flourish.

We woke up to early sunlight, followed by smoothies delivered punctually at 7:15. Alla had already packed her bags yesterday, but I spent the first hour or so gathering and packing my stuff. Then we ate a delicious breakfast and checked out, leaving our bags with the staff. They welcomed us to stay and use the facilities all day if we wanted, and we managed to go snorkeling in a cenote, paddle a kayak down the river and back, swim some more, lift weights, shower, eat grilled chicken and shrimp sheesh-kebabs, and look at the photos the staff made of us when we were in the cenote.

I tried to buy the photographs from them. Their price list, as I mentioned previously, started at US $15 for a single file. I thought I had a clever idea, and I combined all the photos they took all week long into a single zip file and told them I’d like to buy that one file. They were not amused. Unable to come to terms on any price accommodation, we left without buying photos.

We got off to a bad start at the Royal Sunset, but Alla finally succeeded in talking them into giving us a room we liked, and at this time we even have toilet paper, shampoo, napkins, and all the essentials we’ve thought of. Most importantly, Alla’s daughter Nika is also with us, arriving conveniently at the moment we had finally gotten moved into the room we liked. Tomorrow’s biggest adventure: Taking the bus to town and buying groceries. I really like the grocery stores in Cancun, and I’ll be sure to take pictures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sensory Adventure

One of the offerings here at Tres Rios Resort is called a sensory adventure. We were too busy to try it for the first few days, but decided to give it a go yesterday. This turned out for us to be one of the best things we’ve done here.

The tour started right outside the front door, on an unnoticed trail at the edge of the jungle. Our guide took us into the jungle and gave us eyeshades to remind us to keep our eyes closed. He encouraged us not to try to figure out what is going on around us, but just to experience it wordlessly. Promising our safety, he said that we needed only to trust him and his two assistants.

I won’t try to describe this adventure in detail because I’d rather not dilute the discovery should any of my readers have an opportunity to take the tour. I’ll just say that it involved herbs, spices, rocks, shells, music, a tiny planetarium where we were invited to lift our eyeshades, music, dancing, scented candles, water, and lots of lentils. Some of the water was not scripted, as we experienced a passing rain shower, but I think they would have gotten us wet anyway. I suspect that they wouldn’t have gotten every guest wet but since we were already wet and obviously didn’t mind, after pouring water onto my hands they ran the stream right up my arms.

My favorite part was the lentils. I saw the lentil area as we left, and there were enough seeds there to fill a child-size sandbox. They seated us on the floor and poured them onto our hands, arms, torsos, over our heads, everywhere. By the time they guided me to stand up, I was sitting in several inches of the stuff, still puzzled about what it was but confident I’d be able to find out because I had them in my hair and underwear.

At the conclusion they seated us once again and told us that we were facing a mirror and that we should look at ourselves with new eyes. Then we removed our eyeshades and discovered that we were looking at a little pool of water (or cenote) with jungle behind. We found it completely delightful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free vs. not free

I went for a bike ride today, on one of the options our resort offers in their “all-inclusive” program. They have a fleet of poorly-maintained mountain bikes in sizes ranging from really-small to medium. I need a really-big one and the bike they gave me kept my buns far closer to my heels than might have been advisable. Fortunately, they made up for this by giving me a huge helmet that bobbled about on my head like a spaghetti pan.

On the ride I got a real-life demonstration about the way Mexican chivalry works. Our guide was an attractive young woman. I am putty in the hands of attractive young women, so I wasn’t even slightly suspicious when she told me that she’d like to switch bicycles with me at the next stop. I figured she thought her bike might fit me better or something. In fact, however, she had a different reason for proposing this trade. Noticing that I am a strong cyclist and that my bike’s gear shifters worked, she wanted to ride my bike and give me the bike stuck in high gear. This was fine anyway because it still didn’t make the ride in any way challenging, but I found the enforced chivalry certainly amusing.

During this free bike ride, a photographer kept passing us at the rest stops and then taking pictures as we rode past him. He really did get some good photos of me, and I wanted to put one or two of them up on my web site or in this story. Unfortunately, that proved to be out of reach. When I went to the studio to see the photos I learned that the price of putting all photos onto a CD was US$ 220 and the price of buying a single photo would be $15. Apparently some people actually pay these prices, but I’m not one of them.

The other place I ran into not-free this morning was in the little store at our resort. This resort is in the jungle and it’s really difficult to get off of the property. The nearest town is about 15 minutes away by car, and we don’t have one of those. Rather than spend half a day taking a shuttle bus to Playa del Carmen and back, I went to the resort’s store and bought a little tube of sunscreen without bothering to understand how the price converted from pesos to dollars. I was in big trouble when I returned to the room, however, and Alla calculated that I had just paid US$ 23 for it. She took it away from me and exchanged it for another brand that cost a little less. Free is good. Not-free here, however, is really scary.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our timeshare in Cancun

A couple of years ago we got talked into buying a timeshare in Mexico. What this means in our case is that we are members of a club that gives us cut-rate access to fancy vacations we wouldn’t otherwise take. We had buyers’ remorse soon after purchasing our membership, but our remorse was based more on fear than on any real factor. In truth, the resort people have been extremely nice to us.

This year they sent us an e-mail inviting us to take an extra week at one of their resorts for “free.” I put the word free in quotes, because it certainly is not free. We are paying an all-inclusive fee for our food, drink, bicycle rentals, kayak usage and so-on. The fee is quite reasonable considering the quality of the food here, but I’m sure there’s enough left over for the resort operators to feel OK about having us as their guests.

We traveled today and arrived this afternoon. The resort staff occupied us for an hour or so after we arrived, telling us about the various restaurants on the property, taking some key meal reservations, and introducing us to their diverse menu of services. Finally we had time to take pictures of our room, have a snack or two, and walk around the pool and on the beach. On the beach we met a really nice couple from Oklahoma and we decided to have dinner together.

After dinner a group of musicians came into the restaurant to sing songs at each table. The jovial musicians offered hugs all around the table for a group of six or eight women who turned 40 this year. Our male dinner companion and I also joined the hugging festivities before tucking into our desserts. I ordered the most amazing dessert, a sweet stuffed pepper. I have no idea what kind of pepper this was, but it was so delicious I took a picture of the last two bites.

Click on the picture for more pictures from Mexico. And come back to the photo album again in a day or two, because I will probably upload more photos before I have anything more to write about.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We already ordered Christmas cards

We'll be sending these out by the first of December so people will know where to write to us. You can see it first, with a little tweak for our own privacy.

There is a typographical error below. We spent the first half of 2010 in Belarus, not last year!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Desert of Forbidden Art

About three weeks ago Alla and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see a movie called Desert of Forbidden Art. It’s about an amazing collection assembled during the Soviet era by a fearless curator in the far reaches of Uzbekistan. This fellow built the museum with party funds, though certainly without much party scrutiny. The art he collected includes styles not approved or accepted by the party, and sometimes imagery not in keeping with Soviet ideals.

Yes, of course we enjoyed the story of the museum’s creation. We were inspired by the courage and independence of the curator and the many artists whose work he collected. Even more, however, we enjoyed the art itself. The movie took us through a museum we would love to see, but which I’m not sure we’ll be able to visit.

I visited the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory web site and looked up Uzbekistan. They offered many warnings about travel in that country, but of course they also caution American citizens about travel in Mexico, and we go there anyway. In the case of Mexico, however, I feel that we’re going to a specific area we know reasonably well, and we do not plan to go far beyond areas we feel to be reasonably secure. By contrast, getting to the museum we saw in the movie can easily involve about a day of travel through Uzbekistan. The probably-safer alternative is a flight on a TU-154 jet from Tashkent straight to Nukus, but I still want to know more before I begin planning any trips.

I’ll continue to gather information. I might continue to share information too, since I think I’d feel safer with a few companions. Is anybody out there up for joining us?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

High-tech ATM

I have checking accounts at two banks. There’s the big institutional bank that ate the bank that ate the bank where I had an account long ago, and then there’s the little local bank where I know everybody and they know me. The little local bank gets all the business because they take really good care of me, but I kept the account open at the big bank in case of some sort of emergency like losing an ATM card overseas.

Noticing that I haven’t been doing any business with them, the big bank sent me a letter. They promised me $75 if I deposit $750 or more in three consecutive months. That sounded like an easy $75, so I went down to our local big-bank ATM a couple of days ago to deposit a check.

I was disappointed to discover that there were no deposit envelopes in the little automated ATM office. I thought I’d have to go and get an envelope somewhere else, but another customer pointed out the sign saying that the ATM’s work without envelopes. So here’s what happened:

  • I put my card into the ATM and entered my PIN.
  • The machine asked if I wanted to make a deposit or withdrawal.
  • I pressed the “deposit” button and the machine asked me to insert my check in the slot with the flashing light.
  • I inserted the check. It never asked me to enter the amount; it just read the check.
  • The machine asked me to confirm a deposit of $750.
  • I pressed “yes.”

That’s it. We were finished. Here’s the receipt with a picture of the scanned check:

Monday, October 25, 2010


I’ve written often about how much I enjoy living in Minsk, and I’ve written occasionally about how I enjoy life in Boston. I find that I experience a little sorrow when I think about leaving either place, even though I’m headed to the other.

Apparently I’m not the first to experience this angst. I had lunch last week with a friend whose mother divides her time among three homes and feels sorrow at leaving each of them. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone, but I really didn’t expect this. I figured that anticipating the joys of the next place would more than overcome any concern about flying away from the pleasures of the present. My life is indeed rich, with very dear people in both places (and elsewhere), interesting things to plan and do, and even some responsibilities. Analytically, I expect an emotional balance as I plan to leave a place I enjoy and go to a place I also enjoy. Life, however, doesn’t always follow expectations.

I think my nephew identified the problem. Not a member of what he calls “the leisure class,” I must plan my trips economically and cross the ocean infrequently. If I felt free jet back to Boston for an important event, then I imagine I would feel less concern about closing a door behind me.

The hardest thing about traveling in either direction is leaving behind people important to me. I really enjoy communication, and there is no perfect substitute for proximity. While nearly everybody remains accessible by telephone or Skype, time-zone differences and differences in personal schedule render communications difficult and at times even unlikely. In Minsk, we can easily look out the window, notice a beautiful day, and find somebody free to go out and share it with us. In Boston, we can do the same, though perhaps with a smaller circle of people likely to be free. But when it’s a beautiful day in Minsk, the best we can do with our kids is call them and tell them that we are about to enjoy a nice day, information they don’t necessarily even want at that moment.

I wonder if there is a low-cost way to mitigate this angst. I honestly don’t think the answer is social networking. While Facebook allows me to know that my cousin’s dog is in surgery and that she made wreaths with friends yesterday, it doesn’t really assure me that she is enjoying inner peace or let me know if she needs a pat on the back. Sure, social networking can be one tool in our kits, but I don’t think it’s sufficiently personal.

There’s probably some limit to the number of relationships we can maintain in a status of “really important,” and living in multiple places tempts us to extend the number of relationships we wish to maintain at that level. Perhaps that can be a good thing, but it suggests an implied responsibility. If those relationships really are important, I need to be doing a better job of writing letters and making time for phone calls. Hmm… Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First day on a new job

I went to bed with a fire in my belly last night, brightly aware of the 9:00-5:00 appointment in my calendar. I slept fitfully, awakened by each of Alla’s little snorts and groans. I wasn’t conscious of anything weighing heavily on my mind, but sure didn’t enjoy my usual peaceful sleep. Then, next thing I knew, I’d overslept, waking up at 7:20. I dearly wanted to be at my desk at 9:00, and this didn’t allow me much time for distractions.

I didn’t quite make it. I arrived a few minutes late with a pile of little chores in my hand. Thinking my boss could cut me a little slack, I tried to knock off one or two of the little chores, but the first one proved to be harder than I thought. (It involved converting an Excel macro to a new version of Excel.) I looked on the internet for the solution to my little problem and tried a few things before checking the clock again. Aargh! It was already 9:45 and my boss was going to be really disappointed.

Now I am “working.” I am supposed to be writing a little bit each day, and publishing some of it to my blog. Unfortunately, I haven’t written much since leaving my organized world as a student at the Minsk State Linguistic University.

This “first day on a new job” business came up as a result of eating lunch with my step daughter yesterday. Nika opined that I wasn’t very good with time, which came as a bit of a surprise since I used to consider myself highly conscious of it. But recent experience suggests that she is right. Like this morning, I had significant blocks of time disappear on the previous two mornings. *Poof!*, the hours just vanish.

Today’s calendar entry says “Work hard in Nika’s honor.” Let’s see how it goes.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Amusement park

My neighbor used to work for Gillette, and they invited him to a free day at a nearby amusement park. Unable to attend, the neighbor gave his tickets to me. I gave them to Nika and mentioned that I’d go with her if she invited me. And so it was.

I brought my trusty hedgehog and we went to the Gillette World Shaving Headquarters to catch a bus.
Since a lot of folks probably chose to travel in their own cars, our bus companions included primarily retirees and the families of non-salaried laborers. Our driver treated us to an especially-scenic look at rural New Hampshire after taking the wrong exit from the highway. He thought he knew where he was going, but after we got bored with his tour he started his GPS and took us to the intended destination. Fortunately we enjoyed most of the detour.

The park didn’t really warrant an entire day for us anyway, and we had plenty of time to ride all the attractions we found even remotely interesting. I particularly liked the old wooden roller coaster, and we particularly avoided most of the rides intended to make you barf. We did ride the Zero Gravity. That’s a big drum that spins so fast that riders are pinned to the outside wall. The drum then tilts and riders whirl around looking alternately at the ground and the sky. I couldn’t walk straight when I got off.

We took a break after the Zero Gravity, managing even to eat lunch on the shore of the lake.

Vacation frame of mind

Years ago my first wife and I started paying attention to the things we enjoyed most about travel. One thing we identified was something we called a “vacation frame of mind.” This was the sense of peace and well-being we generally took home from our trips, and which we tried to preserve as long as possible in the face of the more demanding lifestyle we led at home.

We began to cultivate this frame of mind when we started traveling to Caribbean islands where schedules are only rough guidelines and nothing happens in any particular hurry. We had to learn to get onto “island time,” and learn to enjoy our moments and stop fretting over things we couldn’t control anyway. Then we would come home and try to gauge how long we maintained that frame of mind until it became necessary to take another trip and start over.

Of course we also identified lots of other things we liked about vacations, like eating out and seeing new things, but our favorite take-away from each vacation was that ethereal vacation state of mind, which I’ve been cultivating with greater or lesser success ever since.

I found myself thinking more about what this frame of mind means during a recent six-week sojourn in California. We noticed that we were slow this time to get into that relaxed zone. The lengthy trip left us feeling a bit unmotivated at the beginning. I believe this reveals another component of a proper vacation, fundamental to the desired state of mind. Seize the moment! The typical vacation is short enough that we want to capture opportunities quickly, and I believe the sense of abundant opportunity truly underpins a vacation state of mind.

This insight leads to another generalization. On vacation we look for new or interesting things to do, and the newness or fulfillment of our interest make the time special. Can’t we do the same thing at home? Can’t we learn to look at each situation with a beginner’s mind, seeing each thing freshly, wondering about it a little and maybe even finding something to learn? I think we can.

So, in summary, I think that the “vacation frame of mind” rests on at least three things:
1)    Learning not to fret over what we can’t control and finding pleasant things to do regardless of any failures in our plans or expectations.
2)    A sense of urgency or commitment to do things that interest us.
3)    Maintaining a beginner’s mind even in familiar circumstances.

What else do you think might support a vacation frame of mind in our daily lives? Please leave a comment below.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hopping rocks

When I was a kid, I was Rock Jumping Champion of Alder Creek. That was true until college, anyway, when Charlene Corin jumped across a huge chasm and I fell into the creek. After the Charlene debacle, I cut back on my rock jumping to the point that I can't even remember the last time I did it.

Today I read an article suggesting that aging can be reversed by acting like a kid. "Cool!," I thought. "I'm going rock jumping." I put on a pair of Crocks shoes and hopped rocks all the way up the creek to John's Lake. In the beginning I took little steps, examined my route carefully, and never had both feet in the air at once. As I regained confidence I started moving continuously and leaving the ground completely as necessary. After reaching the lake I walked back down the trail and rounded up my cousin and my uncle.
From 2010-09 Cabin
Cousin Nick, Uncle Art and I ate lunch and walked back up to John's Lake by the trail. Then we went down to the rocks and hopped our way all the way up to the dam, perhaps three times as far as the initial trip to John's Lake. Art took a few photos, but only when we weren't moving. I didn't take any photos at all because I was too timid to bring any electronic devices on this walk. Indeed, there was one moment (or two) when I was clearly on the verge of taking an accidental swim.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun and I'd like to do it again tomorrow.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lyon Street Steps

Behind Mary’s house there is a “street” that’s actually a staircase. Lyon Street starts down by the bay, crosses Pacific Heights, and goes way beyond the neighborhoods we know; but for a few blocks it’s too steep for cars and even too steep for a paved path. It’s really a little steep, even, for a staircase. That’s the beauty of it.

At any time during daylight hours, people are walking up and down these stairs for exercise. And then, since they’re working out anyway, they also bring along their yoga mats, elastic bands, free weights, exercise balls and whatever other accessories will enhance their workouts. People exercise here singly, in casual groups and even in organized groups.

At the middle of this long staircase, a civic group has built a beautiful formal garden, and those not exercising stop to enjoy it. Serious people don’t stop here of course, and may not even stop at the top or bottom. I saw one guy counting laps by moving acorns at the bottom of the stairway. Checking his acorns, I think he intended to do six laps before he took a break. That could be a lot of laps, depending on how fast he was going.

I was out on a bike ride with my cousin Harold and joked that I would ride my bike up the steps. Then I decided to try something almost realistic, so I promised to ride up the Baker Street sidewalk, one block over from the steps. Ha! When I got to the bottom of Baker Street, I realized that the sidewalk was too narrow for a slow bike ride so I decided to shift one block farther, where the sidewalk is a little wider. Um,… well, no. I barely made it up the first street on which cars are allowed. Those San Francisco hills are really steep.
At the middle of the staircase

Friday, August 27, 2010


I have lots of stories to tell, and I hope to fill some of them in over the next few days. Today, however, I want to talk about my hedgehog.

The hedgehog was really Nika's idea. Nika is Alla's daughter, who came to San Francisco for a week while we were there. She arrived with a cute little brown and white hedgehog toy, and proceeded to take pictures of him in various places wherever she went. Sadly, Nika's hedgehog ran away at the DeYoung Museum. He was in her purse, and apparently escaped when Nika took out a scarf to wear inside the air-conditioned exhibit hall. Since this was the beginning of an entertaining week-long project, we were all disappointed and I set out to find another hedgehog.

We visited a few toy stores near where we were when we discovered Nika's loss, but none of them had these hedgehogs. Next, we did a web search from my phone and discovered that they are available by mail order from many places. Encouraged to know that this was a common item, I phoned some more toy stores the next day and found a store near us that had them.

I wanted to buy a matching hedgehog for myself, but Nika objected that this infringed on her copyright. She did, however, allow me to buy a chocolate-and-white hedgehog, and she even paid for it. We named him Tiburon, after the city we visited together the day before. I have uploaded a few pictures of both hedgehogs in my growing California album.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Kind people

Alla prepares for a warm weekend. From 2010-08 California
The picture at the right has very little to do with today's story, but I've found that bare midriffs generate attention among some potential readers.

This has been an extraordinary weekend. We went to a place we’ve never been in California, close to the national forest where my family often summered but surprisingly different. We’ve been at a small ski resort called Bear Valley and at nearby Alpine Lake. We came to attend a reunion of my “former” family, but they’ve been kind enough not to forget me after the passing of my first wife, who was cousins with this gang. We enjoyed hikes, bike rides, meals and music together.

Today was the last day for this family gathering, and everybody gathered at a picnic area beside Alpine Lake to relax together. At the end of the day, we ate together at Alpine Lodge. The folks at the lodge asked us to look at a menu this afternoon and place our orders early because they’d be serving a wedding party inside and us on the deck. They worried that two large groups might be hard to handle without preparation.

As we got started on our dinner, a young man in a tuxedo came to us with a bottle of wine. He explained that he is the groom of the wedding party, the wine was special, and he wanted to share it. The waitress brought out a load of small glasses and everybody who wanted to try the groom’s wine got to have some. Later, after the bride and groom cut their wedding cake, their party invited us to share it. After a certain amount of encouragement, we did. Then they invited us all onto the dance floor, and we capped off our beautiful day with a delightful evening of dancing and appreciation for the kindness of so many people around us.

We also enjoyed a little chat in Russian with two members of the resort staff, here for the summer from Ukraine.

This has been a fantastic weekend, with a unified spirit of easy-going inclusiveness. It’s not just something about the Daley family, but something special about Bear Valley too. We both want to come back.

Cousin Kate wishes everybody well.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Life in San Francisco

People don't speak English around us. Well, that's not entirely true. The shopkeepers and bus drivers all use English, but we're completely surrounded by foreign tourists speaking a variety of languages. We first noticed this riding a bus two days ago. Alla observed that we were the only people on the bus speaking English. Oops. We switched to Russian.

I'm waiting to overhear somebody else speaking Russian, but the Russians aren't here. Today we heard at least two groups speaking Italian, folks speaking Spanish and Portuguese, as well as numerous languages I couldn't identify. Yesterday we identified several groups speaking French. But the only folks speaking Russian were shopkeepers in the Russian grocery stores we visited on purpose.

Aside from our disappointment about Russian, we're really amused by the cacaphony of languages we are hearing here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jetting out of Boston

We lived at home in Boston for just three weeks, and now we are already on a plane and headed for California. Three weeks wasn’t really long enough. We had dinners with our favorite neighbors and another friend or two, we had the fence painted around our roof deck, I was briefly re-integrated with my duties as an active member of a local church congregation, and we saw a lot of Nika.

We really HAD to see a lot of Nika because she was living in our house when we arrived and had no easy means of escape for the first week. We all slept on airbeds on our roof deck until rains swept in and Nika swept out, to share an apartment with a good friend nearby. Pleasantly, the momentum stayed with us and Nika continued to live out of the same closets she first occupied seven months ago when Alla and I left for Belarus.

It’s been a real pleasure to have her around. Just as I enjoy the perspectives of the twenty-something college students I know at the Minsk State Linguistic University, I really enjoy sharing my life with a quasi daughter. She asks questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask, offers opinions I wouldn’t have expected, and reveals a humanity I wouldn’t otherwise know. She’s a good cook, too. We’ve shared numerous meals, some better planned than others, all warm and friendly.

So, why did we rush off to California? We ask ourselves the same question. It seemed like a good idea at the time we planned it, not realizing we’d have this nearly-perfect ready-made slice of family life in Boston. We were rushing toward family, not understanding that we’d have such a sweet opportunity right where we were. I have long advocated the importance of framing any life changes on a move toward something positive rather than a simple escape from something negative, and this illustrates the point. It’s a good thing we’re headed towards people we are eager to see, because we find ourselves heading away from people we are eager to see at the same time.

May life ever be so. May our homes be centers for affections that radiate outward to the larger world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

From long ago

I don’t seem to have changed much, except perhaps by clarification of intentions.

I just came across a tattered yellow scroll I’ve kept with me since the summer after my first or second year of college. It’s a poem of sorts, written by a girl my age whom I met in the park near my grandmother’s house. We started to get to know each other over two or three afternoons, sitting and talking in the park. I don’t remember her name, nor do I remember much about what we discussed. I’m pretty sure we shared some common frustrations about restrictive parents, because I remember telling her parents that she loved them and that they’d all be happier if they trusted her more. I told them this about two or three days after we met, as they picked her up to leave together on a family vacation.

The girl gave me the scroll just before they left. I don’t think we ever knew each other’s addresses nor expected to see each other again. I’m not sure I even knew she liked me in any particular way. We were both idealists, and we just talked a lot, about the way we’d like to live our lives. This was during a time of national idealism, particularly among the youth, and we were reading mystical books and talking freely about what ought to be.

I can't recommend this poem as literature, but I am still touched to read about the impact I apparently had on a person’s life. I’ve been trying ever since to have that sort of impact someplace else.

Lying naked in the dewy grass
alone – with the whole world
everything shimmering
    with sprouts of spring growth
smiling trees and smiling me
flowers and foolishness
bees, birds, butterflies and being –
    Being is beautiful;
leaves and limbs, lonely woods
    and lazy love
¼ and ¼ are only ½
    and nothing at all!
½ and ½ are 1
    and 1 is everything.
But 1 and 1 are 2
    and 2 is forever,
because 2 is sharing
and life demands sharing.
So Spring is where it all begins.
The wind whispers – life, thru the
trees and the grass and me!
and the sun rolls across the sky.
Life is green and yellow, and blue
and all the colors in a rainbow,
it’s a pot of gold.

But living in other days
    is grey
like walking around with a fog bank
    always 1 step ahead and ½ step behind.
And no light comes from above
where only plastic flowers grow.
¼ and ¼ are only ½, and nothing at all…
½ and ½ are 1
    and 1 is everything
but 1 and 1 are 2
    and 2 is a forever
because 2 is sharing
and you have shared – yourself with me.
A touch and a warm glance
    needed ever so much
    and you don’t even know me.
Spring is where all begins
    life is sharing
Thank you for your warmth.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

First impressions of Boston

We returned a week ago, but I've been so busy reading six months' worth of mail, catching up with friends and family, riding my bike and putting stuff away that I haven't managed to write a word all week long.

My first bike ride here proved to be a bit of an eye-opener. As I rode through Boston and Cambridge, I saw people of all colors and styles; Asian, Indian, African, Russian and who-knows-whatian. In Belarus the great preponderance of faces all look pretty similar to each other. Here, variety is pretty much the norm, and I really enjoy that.

I rushed off to the local gourmet grocery store to load up on vegetables I hadn't seen in a few months. In particular, I wanted to eat asparagus and artichokes. I also enjoyed chard, Hass avocados, peas in the pod, lots of fresh corn, shallots, and numerous sights and smells. Yes, we can buy everything here; but it's breathtakingly expensive unless we go downtown on the weekend to buy poor-quality stuff at the open-air market.

I reflected on my willingness to buy expensive produce here in Boston. If you want vegetables, high prices are pretty much just the way it is. In Minsk, as I've already complained, almost everybody sells the same small selection of vegetables, at prices far below the norm for Boston. I am aware of at least one stand at the central market place that features exotic imported produce, and I've never shopped there because I considered their prices outrageous in comparison to "normal" Belarusian prices. Then I complained about my inability to find the variety I wanted. I guess I'd better check out the folks at the fancy stall next time I'm there. I know they have exotic fruits, and if they have exotic vegetables as well I think I'm finally willing to consider paying their prices.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What I really miss

Asparagus. I dreamed about asparagus the other night, and I can't even remember when I last ate it. I can taste it in my memory; pungent, slightly crisp, juicy, aromatic, flamboyantly green, and just-plain delicious. Thinking about it makes me salivate.

It's not just asparagus that I miss. I miss artichokes too. A lot. At home, I would buy artichokes about once a week. Here, they don't exist even though Italy isn't all that far away and I'm quite sure they would spare us some artichokes if we were to ask nicely. And avocados. I have seen avocados at the market, but they're the smooth-skin variety so I haven't bothered. I want nice Hass avocadoes with their creamy-tasty flesh. Lots of them.

The fact that we don't have avocados is probably my own damn fault. I should have bought those shiny avocados when I saw them in the market so the vendors would have known to order more. The only green vegetables we can buy here are salad fixings and one variety of summer squash. We can buy frozen broccoli in the winter, so I assume it will show up fresh in the market later in the summer. But where in the world is the asparagus? It grows in Massachusetts, so certainly it could grow here. Apparently, however, it just isn't done

If we ever get a dacha of our own, I will definitely try to raise some asparagus. Meanwhile, I am getting ready to fly home to Boston on Monday and start buying all the weird green stuff I can find. No more pork for a month, and no meal without a huge helping of green vegetables not available in Belarus. Count on it!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Suddenly I have a lot of readers

About a month ago, I installed a stat counter on my blog because I wanted to know if anybody beside my dad, my aunt, and my neighbors read it. I saw that I do have more than three unique readers, and congratulated myself on some small measure of success.

Today I discovered that the stat counter people can generate a map of where my readers live. I do indeed have a reader in Carmichael, California, another reader in The Dalles, Oregon, and a reader or two in Boston. (Thank you Dad, Sis, and Peter.) Surprisingly, however, I have numerous readers scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East. Looking deeper, I found out that a lot of them arrived as a result of Google searches, usually on "Russian padej." Amazingly I come up first on that particular search, and I really hope the article these folks find helps them in some way because the padej is a really murky business with which I am still grappling.

Unfortunately, I know that the article isn't so gripping that they read any more of my stuff. Uniformly, their exit point is the same as their entry point and they don't appear to be staying long.

Nevertheless, I am not entirely anonymous. I am assured of that by the fact that I have just posted my most popular picture ever. It's the picture of me between two women in bathing suits from my last article. Already 52 people have looked at that picture long enough for Picasa to count it as a view, and I didn't even link to it from Facebook. Apparently one route to success includes scantily-clad women.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Boat trip

Every year, Sergey takes his employees on a boat trip. This year, he and Irina invited us to come along. Unfortunately, Alla was unable to come because her shoulder was bothering her, but I really enjoyed the chance to paddle a boat down a really beautiful river. Maybe I'll be able to show you some pictures of the river later, but I didn't get out my camera while I was in the boat because everything was wet. Irina had an underwater camera and she took photos yesterday, so I hope to get copies of them later.

We got off to an inauspicious start, as the bus got stuck in the mud at the launch point. We tried to free it ourselves with the troop transporter that brought the boats, but we were not successful. Instead we ate lunch.

After lunch, the guide told us that there would be no more drinking for the rest of the day because being on the river is serious stuff. Five minutes later, he poured a giant goblet of champagne and invited everybody to have a drink or to load extra bottles into their boats. This pretty much indicated the sobriety level of the day.

We had a great time floating and paddling down the Islich river. The territory is beautifully comprised of forests, florid meadows, and some dramatic cliffs.

After dinner, I had my first Russian banya. Even more unusual, the banya was outdoors in a tent. They built a bonfire in a pile of rocks, smothered the fire, and set up a big tent over the pile of hot rocks. Throwing water on the rocks created a very effective steam room. Then we flogged ourselves and each other with bundles of aromatic boughs and jumped into the river.

The boating and the scenery couldn't have been better. I'd love to do more trips like this, though if I organized my own it would be somewhat more sober. At least everybody was good-natured about my unwillingness to drink. They worried the first day about how they'd relate to me, but after a few toasts, campfire chats, and dancing into the night nobody seemed concerned about what I was or wasn't drinking. It was a special privilege for me to be at leisure with people doing and sharing what they like to do.

If you're curious about other details of this trip, I've posted more pictures here.

Alla asked me to add this picture of myself with Irina, the captain of our boat.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Foreigners in the city

For illustrative purposes only. These are last month's tomatoes.
I had fun at the market today. I was asking about some really-nice-looking tomatoes. I wanted to know if they were grown in the ground or in a greenhouse, but I didn't know the word for greenhouse. (Apparently the word is парниковых, which also happens to be the name of a street I know with greenhouses on it. Isn't that handy?) 

Anyway, not knowing the word I wanted, I tried to talk around it. The woman I spoke with didn't really know what I was getting at, but she assured me that the tomatoes were from Uzbekistan and that they were really good. As we had this little conversation, a lady from another stall came out to my side of the stand and announced that she wanted to know who in the world I am and what I'm doing here. When I told her that I was learning Russian, she started asking me questions and complimenting me on my ability to answer intelligibly. We attracted a little crowd before the interview was over.

As usual, one of the questions was about which city is a better place to live, Boston or Minsk. Unable to answer directly, I replied that Minsk feels like home and I enjoy my life here. 

On the way home, I stopped at the big TSUM department store to buy a fresh filter for our water pitcher. Entering, I noticed a little cluster of Americans standing outside the front door. Since they were still there when I exited, I stopped to forward the favor to them. Were they tourists? Yes, after a fashion. They are trustees of a new Baptist retirement home in the southern part of the country, and they are on their way to dedicate the building. They stayed for a little tour of Minsk before going on to see the facility. I thanked them for taking good care of Belarusians and expressed my hope that the Belarusians were taking good care of them. Oh yeah, they replied, beaming. They were very touched by the level of kindness they received from the people they met everywhere. I was pretty sure of their answer before I even asked the question.

Monday, June 21, 2010


We went to Ukraine over the weekend, for a family reunion with Alla's cousins. They live in the town of Romny, which is on the main rail line towards Crimea. The town has changed little in recent years, though there is definitely wear and tear.
The asphalt sidewalks, for example, are deteriorating and you can see the old brick and stone sidewalks below. We speculated on how much fun it would be to see the original sidewalks restored, but of course there is no money for that right now.

It was a real joy to be with Allas cousins and other relatives, and they took really good care of us. We were met with spectacular food and a delicious lunch, and enjoyed several great meals together and a couple of great walks around the town.

Romny is a quiet place with big trees and shady avenues. The people who live there clearly love it, but it's small enough that it doesn't draw me the way Minsk does. Family, however, is a big draw.

Family members in Romny live simply, carrying on some aspects of traditional life. While they have indoor plumbing, they do still have a summer toilet and a summer shower. In the spirit of the season, I used both of them. The summer toilet is actually just an outhouse, but it's made of stone and it's cool enough that it doesn't smell. The summer shower is a magnificent wooden cabinet with a black tank on the roof, where water is heated by sunlight.

I can describe Romny much better with photographs than with words, so I hope you will click here so see my album.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Iranian music

I am sitting in one of the city's smaller exposition centers, right close to home. One of my classmates told me about an Iranian Expo taking place there right now, and I dropped in to see what it was all about. (Nuclear power? Nahh...) I still don't really know much because I was drawn upstairs by music.

Right now I'm looking at a row of people with drums of various kinds, a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a dulcimer, a fiddle, a bass fiddle, and a singer. The music is unfamiliar but compelling, the way any large group of drummers tends to be compelling. 

Wait! While I was typing, the musicians stopped and they announced a puppet theater and cuisine sampling downstairs. And now they've brought out a new musical group, this time a trio with tambourine, drum, and a four-stringed instrument played with a bow. Oh, I see, the trio is supporting the puppet theater. Wow, this is really cool!

Don't you wish you were here?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brief trip to Vilnus

I didn't actually get to Vilnus, nor have I even left the city. But I had a nice evening at a local restaurant. Alla's in Saint Petersburg for a couple of days and I didn't want to dine alone. Unable to round up any of my classmates for dinner, I set out to the local high-end cafeteria for a dinner I at least wouldn't have to wait for.

The restaurant was fairly full, and the only table I spotted had four chairs. I figured if I was lucky, somebody would get desperate enough to sit down. Sure enough, a really nice lumberman sat down with me halfway through my meal. He lives in Vilnus and has an office in Minsk. He used to have a third office somewhere in Russia, but had to scale back for challenging economic times. He spends one week out of three in his office here. He buys Belarusian lumber and sells it worldwide. Before the economic crisis, he was shipping some thirty cubic meters of lumber every week, but it's less now.

Anyway, he's a really nice guy and made a fantastic dinner companion. I even enjoyed the fact that he didn't hassle me about my age. He asked, and I answered that I don't count years. He replied, "Better to count friends than years, right?"


Friday, June 11, 2010

Na dacha (on the dacha)

We served dinner last night to our landlords, Anna Adamnova and Evgenny Ivanovich. They're super-nice people, and we always enjoy seeing them. Last night they were feeling especially expansive and invited us out to their dacha today. Having never been a guest at anybody's dacha, I was pretty excited about this.

While they would ordinarily have gone early this morning, they waited until I finished my class today and then they picked us up. Our plan included a swim, a walk, and shashleek. (Shashleek is Russian for sheesh-ke-bab, and the meats are generally marinated for a day and then cooked over smokey coals from a wood fire. Today's fire was from cherry branches.) It turns out that our plan also included lunch, but I didn't realize that and I ate before we left. Oops. I enjoyed both lunches.

For more, see 2010-06 June
We stopped to swim in a beautiful river whose name I have already forgotten, but it was really great. This made us decide to go swimming again tomorrow, perhaps in the Minsk Sea.

The dacha itself is a very-well-constructed log home surrounded by an extremely ambitious garden with two greenhouses and edible plants practically everywhere. The house has a deep and chilly root cellar, and the nearest running water is at a sink in the yard. I enjoyed washing off fresh radishes in the sink and cutting them into our salad.

At the very back of the property, our hosts have added a second building, a traditional Russian bath-house that smelled really great inside. This little building even has running water and a shower.

I could write a whole entry about the chicken shashleek, but I won't. Let me just say that I was really happy that they managed to send me home with the leftovers in spite of Alla's polite refusal.

If you want to see more pictures of this dacha excursion, I posted some here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Belarusian humor

One day President Lukashenko was feeling particularly peeved over President Bush's policy toward his country and launched a bombing raid on the USA. His advisors were horrified about the likely outcome and mobilized all resources to prepare a defense. Frantically, Belarusian computer hackers worked their way into the White House security system, and within two two days they had a live video feed from the Situation Room. There was George Bush, spinning the globe and muttering, "Where's Belarus? Where's Belarus?..."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Car rental

We wanted to go to Mir and Nezvish today, outlying towns a little tricky to reach by public transit. We figured it was time to drive a car here anyway, so I reserved a car last night over the Internet. Hertz had nothing to offer, but Avis presented a wide choice of cars, so I booked one and went to bed.

This morning we went over to the Hotel Belarus, where we were supposed to pick up our car. I went in and spoke to the woman in the lobby behind the window with the Avis sticker on it. She said that Avis was on the second floor, so we went over to the elevator. On the way, Alla checked with the security guard, who said that Avis was on the third floor. Getting into the elevator first, Alla pressed 3. There was NOBODY anywhere on the third floor, so we went back down to the second floor.

The second floor was nearly deserted too, but Alla did find a cleaning lady who told her that Avis wasn’t there. I can’t remember who it finally was who sent us to the 21st floor, but we did find a bigger Avis sign in the elevator lobby. Alla asked the nearby coat-check lady where to find the office. She told us which rooms Avis occupied but opined that there was nobody there. We checked both doors, and the coat-check lady had been right.

So, we called the 24-hour service number posted on the office door. After two tries, we got somebody on the phone who had no idea that we’d reserved a car. It turns out that they only come to work if they know a day in advance about an upcoming reservation, and I had reserved too late.

Fine. We just had to get the heck out of that crazy hotel and find a taxi. We got into the elevator and pressed 1. The elevator went down to 14 and the door opened. Nobody was there, and the elevator showed no enthusiasm about continuing our decent. I pressed the first floor button a few more times and the elevator renewed its descent, briefly. It opened next on floor 13, where a guy got on and the arrow inside the car indicated that it was about to go up. We fled, and got better results with the next elevator.

Fortunately, our luck changed once we escaped the building. Outside the hotel we found a nice little minivan with a very kind driver who took us on our planned excursion for approximately the same price we expected to spend on the rental car. I don’t think I’ll bother renting a car ever, as long as I can ride with Vadim. We ended up having a great day.

For a few more pictures, click 2010-06 Mary's visit


My cousin Mary Cranston is in town, and we went to a soccer game together. This was a friendship match between Belarus and Sweden, but the stadium had a healthy crowd even though the game wouldn't affect either team's standings.

Our friend Sergey Merkulov got the tickets for us, and we met him on the street in front of the stadium. Getting there, we swam through crowds much like getting to a Red Sox game in Boston. The biggest difference was the lack of scalpers here. There's no scalping on hard-to-get ballet tickets either, so I guess it's a general rule.

The stadium was built at the time of the 1966 Moscow Olympics, and there's a big torch at one side for the Olympic flame. (Not lit today.) The seats may also date back to 1966. They are colorful plastic, but over the years they've developed a patina of white dust that comes off on one's clothes. Sergey was prepared for this, and brought a newspaper. We each sat on a sheet from the Minsky Courier, which may be the highest and best use for that particular newspaper.

We encountered security forces everywhere, mostly dressed in army uniforms. They checked our bags and pockets twice, both times with metal detectors and pat-downs. Then when we sat down, we noticed a row of guards along the edge of each section, sitting one above the other two or three rows apart. And then there was the section of the stadium dedicated exclusively to army guys. It felt pretty safe in there.

Sweden won the game 1-0. Belarus took a lot of shots, but they were generally high and the Swedish goalie didn't appear to be under a whole lot of stress. Still, we had high hopes and screamed and yelled now and again. Especially Sergey. He can yell really loudly, and it was a relief when he moved to the row in front of us instead of yelling beside us. His son took care of the from-the-side yelling.

I played a little soccer myself a couple of days before the match, one-on-one with Sergey's young son Matvey. Matvey was nice to me, and when the score got too lopsided he let me get ahead a little. Then he dropped the hammer and won the game handily. He's invited me back for a rematch now that I've had a refresher on how the game looks when played properly. I'm ready.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

International Incident

I nearly precipitated an international incident yesterday. We were looking for an apartment to buy, and our agent brought us to a beautifully-finished place on the top floor of a new building near the river. The landlady arrived in a rush and blathered about nothing and everything. She reminded me of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

I asked her about a sliding door that closed either a closet or a pantry. Since she was in such a rush to hide her laundry and whatever it was that she’d left in the bathroom, I didn’t want to open anything without her permission. She replied using a word I’d never heard and which didn’t sound Russian. I figured she’d used some sort of a cute family word and I teased her a little, asking if that were a real Russian word.

Apparently I touched a sensitive spot with that question, and she railed on about the importance of the Belarusian language and what was I doing here anyway? I told her that I was learning Russian, but not Belarusian. That really sent her flying, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t gone to Moscow to learn Russian. She supported this suggestion with a little more information and I decided I was better off not trying to defend myself. I just went to put on my shoes so we could leave.

Once my shoes were tied, I told her that she may find me a bit strange but I love Belarus and I’m learning Russian here because it’s pleasant for me. Alla added that we were standing there speaking Russian together and that Belarus is a perfectly good place to learn the language.

Only after we got outside did I figure out that her private word for “storage area” was probably a common Belarusian word and that I had offended her by what she may have considered a taunt. Is this how wars get started?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adventure in Brest

We went to Brest on Saturday with our friend Elena Razgulina. We took a slow overnight train down by a circuitous route overnight on Friday night and arrived at a civilized hour on Saturday morning. Elena's friend Misha came to meet us at the train station. Misha is a really nice guy. He's actually a friend of a friend, and he volunteered to spend most of the day introducing us to his city. I keep thinking I've seen the best of Belarusian hospitality, and then somebody goes and does something like this. There's just no way to describe how nice people generally are here, and they set a very high standard for paying social debts forward.

We spent most of our day at the fortress, which is a moving tribute to the bravery and patriotism of its defenders on the first days of World War II. Poorly armed and expecting reinforcements that never came, the defenders held off the German invaders for a long time, retreating deeper and deeper into the fort and firing on their attackers with weapons they recovered from the dead. After this, Hitler decided it may be more efficient to leave forts as isolated autonomous zones as he pushed eastward into Russia.

We spent the whole morning at the fort, and then Misha took us to his favorite Italian restaurant for lunch. Having eaten well, we toured the city together before Misha finally took his leave and dropped us back at the fort so we could visit the museum.

Finishing our day, we walked back to the Italian restaurant and ordered dinner. Over salads, Alla asked me to show her our train tickets. She had an uneasy feeling, which a quick look at the tickets confirmed. I had misread them, and our train was about to leave. Alla gulped, "We missed our train!" Nobody understood, so she said "Our train leaves in ten minutes." This time I understood, and Alla got up and ran to the front desk. Elena still hadn't absorbed this information, and looked a little puzzled. I reviewed for her what I had finally come to understand, and she realized that we were not joking.

We gathered our stuff and went to the front desk, where Alla was paying, the head waiter was calling a taxi, and the waitress was loading our main dishes into take-out containers. Reassembled, we rushed out to the street. Not knowing how long it would take for our taxi, Alla flagged down the first car to come our way. I'm not talking about a friendly little wave: She got into the street and wouldn't let the guy drive by without talking to her.

The driver immediately understood the gravity of our situation and snapped his cell phone shut, telling his friend simply, "I'm busy." We piled into our car and shot out of the parking lot as the taxi arrived. Our man violated several rules of the road in his dedication to his mission. Cleverly, he asked us which direction we were going and he navigated us to a hole in the fence right beside our train, still in the station. We handed him a fistful of rubles and ran onto the train, past a very bemused conductor.

Here we are, about to enjoy dinner on the train. For more pictures, click here.
From 2010-05 Brest

Friday, May 21, 2010

Heart-breakingly beautiful ballet

We are at the ballet. It's intermission after the premiere of Chopiniana. I am speechless and at the point of tears, it is so beautiful. I wish all my readers could have been here to see it too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Now everybody seems to know me

We had a little performance last week, which included the results of some projects by four teams of Belarusian and foreign students broadening their horizons in some way. Since my role was that of a Belarusian KGB agent, I dressed up in a traditional outfit that I ordinarily reserve for very special occasions. When folks saw me dressed that way at the university, it created a little buzz of conversation. The administrator went into all the classrooms and invited students to the performance, saying that they'd be able to see Steve, the guy who wore the beautiful traditional garment today.

The attention was intensified by my rambunctious friends in the front row, who gave me a standing ovation when I was introduced, the first of our teammates onto the stage. 

Suddenly people I don't remember meeting have been greeting me by name as I wander the halls of the university. I wonder how long this will last.