Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Minus 29

This morning I was eager to work out before class at the Hotel Minsk. I got my stuff ready before bed so I could leave the house around 6:30 and get to the hotel when the fitness center opened at 7:00. Ready by 6:15, I went to have a look at the Internet. First thing I discovered was that it was -29 degrees at the Minsk Airport. (a.k.a. -20˚ F) Wow, that’s cold! I’d never experienced anything much below zero (F) before this.

I re-thought my plan. Maybe I’d better take a bus. I also sent a message to “my kids,” a few last words so they’d know I was thinking of them if I froze to death at the bus stop. Then I headed out.

Surprisingly, in dark stillness the air didn’t seem all that cold. Snow fell lightly, and crunched loudly under my feet. My neighbor walked out moments ahead of me, and I saw him turn away from the bus stop, in the direction I would have walked to the hotel. Heck, I thought, if he can do it, I can do it.

He didn’t walk my direction for long, but I did. It was great!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The tailor shop

I brought a couple of pair of pants that were feeling too tight in the waist so I found a tailor shop. This wasn't easy to find. While various people said we'd find a shop "just over here," or "just over there," I never found them. Fortunately, Alla remembered seeing one and knew specifically where it was, near where we lived previously. It's called "Clothing Repair," and I'm pretty sure it's state-run, just like the giant shoe-repair shop I found near the University.

I went over there today with my pants. Walking in the front door, I saw a sign pointing to a salon on the left. Not sure what kind of a salon this might be, I checked to the right and saw a bunch of women at sewing machines. Really. I mean a LOT of women at sewing machines. So I went to the right. Folks were friendly, and one of the women near me said hello, but nobody got up from their work. I waited. Finally somebody asked me what I wanted and directed me to the salon.

When I told the well-dressed woman at the desk in the salon what I wanted, she sent me into one of two changing rooms and called a woman away from the sewing machines. She measured me and marked the intended circumference on the waist band of my pants. This makes ever so much more sense than the American method of marking a V on the back of the pants indicating how much more fabric to let out from the other side.

Anyway, I had my choice of spending $10 and coming back in two days or spending $13 and coming back in an hour. Since this place isn't on any of my regular routes, I opted for the one-hour service and went to the shopping center nearby to buy a pair of speakers. The speakers are great, and so are the pants.

(The speakers are MicroLab Solo 6C. I don't think this brand is available in the US, but they sound really amazing for the money. They sure were heavy to schlep home, but I'm happy to report that it was entirely worthwhile.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Harassment by the coat-check lady

Sometimes I enter the university by the main door, but I stopped after the coat-check lady complained that my shearling coat was too heavy. The other day I came back, however, and she was quite pleasant with me. It turns out that she was once an English teacher, though it was forty years ago and she’s pretty out of practice with the language. In spite of her skills in my language, I generally make her talk to me in Russian.

Today I came back twice, once for class and once in the afternoon with my sport gear so I could lift weights. When I came back the second time, I chose the other window so she wouldn’t have to lift my coat. She chided me and I went over to her window after all. At her stand, there aren’t special hooks for hats so she puts my hat on a shelf under her counter and just remembers that it’s mine.

My hat, the one on the right, is easy to remember, because it’s different. Folks at home always ask me if I got my hat in Russia because it’s fur and it’s similar in style to traditional Russian hats. To folks here, the differences are pronounced. My hat has a rounded top, whereas a real Russian hat would be more cylindrical, perhaps even wider at the top than at the base. It’s obvious that my hat wasn’t made here, nor was it made for this market.

Back to the coat-check lady: When I came back the second time to retrieve my stuff, she asked me where I found my hat. She went on to say something about a dog, but I didn’t fully understand. I supposed she asked me if it were dog fur, but maybe she thought a dog brought it to me. Sorry: it clean got by me. Anyway, I assumed she was teasing me about dog fur and I assured her it was definitely rabbit.

Maybe one of my readers can clarify this for me. This symbol: @ is commonly called “dog,” so maybe it’s also slang for that kind of hat. On the other hand, one of my co-workers years ago told me repeatedly that my hat looked to her like I had a cat on top of my head. I dunno. Maybe it's time for an upgrade.

--- Late-breaking news ---
My friend and neighbor Elena Napier reports, "
Some years ago Russian market was flooded with hats and coats made in China of fur unknown origin and there were rumors that it is a dog fur. Since than people call some unknown furs 'собака'."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The other day I received my “sportivnaya spravka.” This is a document from the health clinic stating that I am allowed to participate in physical education. The document even has a nice official-looking rubber stamp. This isn’t exactly what the guy at the “sportivny zall” (hall of sport) told me to get, but that’s what I’ve got.

Before attempting anything at the sportivny zall, I went to the administrative office of my language program to ask for a letter from them inviting me to use the facilities. The administrative assistant, who didn’t even work there when I played volleyball some eighteen months ago, asked me if I wanted to play volleyball. Yes, that’s among the things I’d like to do. But how did she know? This level of attention is a little bit eerie for me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


There’s a berry here called klyukva, or “cranberry.” It’s smaller than an American cranberry, juicier, and the skin is tenderer. I suppose they’re related, but I’m not really sure. I became acquainted with this berry originally as the basic ingredient in a Russian drink called “morse.” That’s not how they spell it, but this way you’ll pronounce it correctly.

The other way I got to know klyukva was as an ingredient in my favorite dessert at the restaurant in the woodland park called Belaverskaya Puscha. In that case the klyukva served as an ingredient in a topping for vanilla ice cream.

We ended up with a whole lot of this stuff because Alla knows it as a fine source of vitamin C and she bought the whole remaining supply of a sympathetic babushka at the market. We didn’t have any ice cream, but I figured I could make a fine simple dessert of my own by smashing klyukva and blending it with honey. It was very tasty, but I shouldn’t have tried to eat so much of it at one sitting. It’s very sour, apparently a result of high acidity. After eating a bowl of this stuff, my teeth were sensitive for two or three days following. I have made a note to myself on this point.

Today Alla made some homemade mors. (I know, I called it “morse last time. We’re getting closer now. It’s морс in Russian.) If you want to consume klyukva, this is an excellent way to do it. (Yes, Peter, It’s probably good in vodka too.) Морс is pretty much like American cranberry juice cocktail, except that it’s made with honey and it’s got bits of fruit floating around in it. And the berries are different. I think you just need to try it. If you hurry over here, we may still have some berries in the freezer.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Belarus-American Relations

Alla tried to invite our landlord and landlady out for dinner, but they weren’t quick to accept the dates we offered. The landlord joked to me that he and I would work out various economic issues and U.S. – Belarusian relations while the women sorted out matters of entertainment. His joke about economics made immediate sense because he’s a professor and former director of the major business school here and he knows that I have an MBA. I didn’t think much about his other joke until today.

I have commented many times that folks here seem to go out of their way to be nice to me once they learn that I’m a U.S. citizen. Until Evgeny Ivanovich cracked his little joke, however, I never imagined there were any big ideals at work in their kindness. Now I imagine differently, though perhaps I am projecting. Just as I am doing what little I can in pursuit of better relations between our two countries, I suspect many Belarusian citizens feel the same way. It appears to me that at the local level, people are taking steps to build a special bridge, perhaps knowing that our governments are suspicious of each other but hoping to be understood personally.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Student Polyclinic

Because I’m here for more than three months, I was required to get a physical examination at the infamous student polyclinic. It’s an old building, and most students don’t think things there are up to local standards. Such was the case at the infirmary in my undergraduate days too, but I’m pretty sure that clinical standards here start out at a more basic level than those in California.

My own trip was pretty uneventful. I’d heard stories about long lines, but the day I arrived everything was quite calm. They took my blood pressure and listened to my heart, and then they gave me a list of places I was to go. It was kind of a treasure hunt, except that I was supposed to present my own treasures in various places. They took three different blood samples. Then there was a chest x-ray, a knee-whacking specialist and a few others. I couldn’t believe it when Alla told me to bring a bottle of urine to the clinic the next morning. “Don’t you think they want me to urinate in their presence so they know it’s really my urine?” Nope. Just present a bottle of yellow liquid and you’re good to go. I don’t know what they’re checking for. I think narcotics may be one of the factors, but the dopers probably know enough to have a friend fill the bottle.

On two occasions I was whisked ahead of other people in lines. It appeared to me that I received this courtesy as a result of my citizenship, but I am not sure. I’ll comment on this in my next entry. Anyway, the whole thing was very quick, the only hiccup being my timing at the oculist. She went off for a break just as I arrived at her office, but once she returned we sailed right through the exam. (I read the last line on her eye chart with each eye and we were done.)

Last year one of my fellow-students told about his long and thorough exam, including being told that his glasses prescription should be different. In my case, it appears simply that they are assuring themselves that I won’t be a threat to myself or to my classmates and nothing more. It’s fine with me; that’s really all I wanted too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Getting connected

A couple of days ago I finally got to the telephone company’s central office to order an Internet connection. This had been high on my to-do list since Day One but until Monday there had been even greater priorities. (I know; this is hard for some people to imagine.)

Apparently everybody wants Internet. Maybe they got computers as New Year gifts, or maybe the line is always huge. It was plenty long enough for me. Slightly uncertain about the options on the computer screen at the door, I printed myself two different customer service tags, for two different flavors of Internet service. It probably didn’t matter what I chose, however. It looks like any of the customer service people could have helped me regardless of what I chose at the front door.

I noticed that everybody showed their passports before receiving their modems, but I figured I would be OK with my spravka. That's the document they give you while your passport is in for service. In my case, they were processing my domestic registration, and I understood that the spravka would serve me in any moment of need as long as I didn’t intend to leave Belarus.

Unfortunately, it didn’t bring the desired result. The agent called her boss, who came and looked it over thoughtfully. Somebody else came over to have a look. They asked me if I could supply in addition a rental contract from my landlord. I don’t have that yet, so I could not. Their final conclusion was that I could have Internet service but would have to buy my own modem elsewhere. They would give me a modem only with an actual passport.

I love Internet, but I’m not so addicted as to buy a modem when somebody will give me one in a few more days. They were pretty nice about it all, and when I mentioned my disappointment about waiting in line needlessly my agent said that when I return I could come directly to her without waiting in line. Cool!

Even better, my passport came back today. Now I understand why the passport is better than the spravka: The passport includes a migration card showing my registered address. Now they know that I actually live at the address where I want to buy Internet service. I guess that’s why they would have cut me some slack if I had a rental contract.

So, I’ve got the service on order and I’ve already configured the equipment. I think. The directions were all in Russian, and they included a lot of vocabulary I’ve not learned. Fortunately, I have a pretty good idea how to set up a router anyway and the router’s menu was in English. It was an entertaining exercise to guess what the directions said without resorting to a dictionary. I’ll find out how well I did when they start up the service on Monday morning.

Monday, January 4, 2010

It is what it is

I complained in a recent post that it wasn’t cold enough here. If I offended anybody, I want to apologize right now. Honestly, I meant it as a joke. Today’s weather is no longer funny, and I want my old weather back. It’s been about -15 all day. Fortunately we’re talking Celsius, but it’s still awfully cold.

I don’t really mind the outside temperature, but it turns out that this has an impact on indoor temperatures too. Apparently heating systems just steam along at whatever output they do, and when it’s not terribly cold outside it’s toasty warm inside; but when it’s miserably cold outside it’s not all that toasty inside either.

Today was my first day back at the university, and my classmate walked in and opened the window the minute he came into the classroom. Then he sat down wearing a heavy down jacket. As soon as he turned his back, I closed the window. But the damage was done and we didn’t have enough warm bodies in the room to catch up ever again. I warmed up by doing pushups during the break. Lesson learned. Wear a heavier sweater in the classroom when it’s freakn’ cold out.

The only warm place I found at the university was in the main building, where they added an extra four inches of foam insulation while I was here during the summer. They also put new chairs into the library and a bunch of new stuff in the lobby, so I’m liking that building a whole lot.

It seemed warm at home when I first walked in this evening, but it’s not really all that toasty. After dinner I went and got out a heavy wool dickie my dad wore during WW-II, added a fleece stocking cap, and brewed up some of the tea Nika gave me for Christmas. Now I’m catching up, but I really should put on an extra pair of socks too.

Meanwhile, Alla is in Gomel where it’s -25, but she says her apartment is toasty and the city is beautifully dressed in new snow. She makes it sound so good I’m sorry I’m not there. Without Alla, I’m going to be really grateful for the thick down comforter we have on our bed in Minsk.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

This city is magical

I love Minsk. Last night we managed to get tickets to the Opera House for a New Year’s Eve gala. The show included snippets from various ballets and operas on this year’s schedule, presented in full costume, with sets and full orchestra. I enjoyed the show, but Alla probably enjoyed more of it since she took a little nap before we went out and I was running on guts alone.

From Drop Box
Alla was really excited to have a little bottle of Sovietsky champagne, which she thought was quite good. (I toasted the new year with grape juice, which wasn’t so exciting,.) I think the former USSR may be the only place left where the French haven’t succeeded in protecting the name Champagne, and for me this whole business is a bit of a joke.

We slept in this morning, which wasn’t hard because the sun didn’t really begin to shine until… well, I don’t really know because I was still asleep. By mid afternoon we were pretty well unpacked and feeling more at home, and I wanted to go out for a walk before the sun set. Suddenly I realized that it was getting dark around 3:00 and I managed to get out of the house by 3:30, when there was still enough light to take some photos of kids sledding in the park two doors away from us.

From Drop Box
I walked all around the park and explored a familiar place dressed in its white winter coat. I enjoyed the music playing quietly from the speakers near the “attractions.” (Ferris wheel, roller coaster and other rides.) I had imagined that the outdoor music would be only for warm weather, but I was wrong and indeed there were lots of people out to enjoy the park with me.

One other surprise is that the public restroom was even open in the next park over, and manned by a very sweet maintenance lady who let me pee for half price because I didn’t have small bills and she didn’t have change.

About this time, it was really dark and I decided to go home. But I didn’t get far before I got really excited to notice that buildings on either side of the river were lit by colored lights and that I could also see the colored lights over the city’s main boulevard. That’s when I decided that the city was magical, and I called Alla to ask her to but her boots on because I really wanted to take her out for a walk.

We repeated together the best parts of my earlier walk, and then we went over to October Square, where they had made a giant ice rink by outlining most of the plaza with a berm of snow and then filling the enclosure with water. A huge Christmas tree anchors the rink in the middle and I enjoyed the Belarusian sense of community I had feared might have been limited to warm weather.

I’m really glad to be here.