Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Today was my day

February 23 is a holiday in Russia and Belarus, the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland. I assumed it didn't apply to me because I was never in the army, but my teacher assured me that I qualified as a potential defender and that anyway it's become a sort of "men's day."

Alla gave me a spectacular card in the morning, with pictures of a military jet, a tank, and a destroyer; and nice wishes of success and well-being in the text. She added her wish that I look out after her in the air, on the land, and on the water, and gave me some exotic herbal tea and a couple of reflective arm-bands to wear when I'm defending her at night.

This afternoon we went to a holiday show at the Minsk Tractor Factory. I think I could best describe it as a talent show, but the performers generally did demonstrate a whole lot of talent and it was a lot of fun.

This evening there were a couple of fireworks salutes. The first was over the park down the street to our left, and we could see the reflected light but not the fireworks themselves. The second just happened, and it was perfect. There was a two-minute salute
entirely of white, visible out our front windows.

Since I don't like to celebrate birthdays, it's not often that I get to enjoy a day of my own. This one was pretty cool!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Smoke generators

Whenever anybody plans any kind of a performance around here, whether it's at the hockey rink, the opera or the circus, the first question they ask themselves is "how many smoke generators will we need?" This is right up there in importance with performers and stage lighting.

I went to see the opera Rigoletto on Saturday, and I thought maybe there wouldn't be any smoke generators for a change. I was premature in thinking this, however, because the second act ended in smoke and the third act ended in a lot of smoke.

I've watched opera singers belting out arias in smoke, and I've seen jazz musicians jamming their hearts out in smoke. I don't think I've ever seen the symphony playing in smoke, but now that I think about it, I'm not even sure of that. Customs vary, I guess. Still, this one surprises me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My first Maslenitsa, part 3

From 2010-02 Maslenitsa
The best part of Maslenitsa was a full-on traditional feast with recitations and games, not to mention the traditional burning of a scarecrow filled with all the stuff that bugged you from the previous year. Our hosts, Sergey and Irina Merkulov, asked us to bring our own scarecrows because there would be a prize for the best one.

Alla, bound by Russian traditions, set out to make her scarecrow out of found materials. I, bound by American traditions, set out to make my scarecrow as beautiful as possible; even if that meant burning something I had just bought. I went out and bought a long strip of fabric woven with a traditional Belarusian pattern. This cost me over two dollars, and it really bothered Alla. How could I burn such a beautiful piece of fabric? It was to her almost as if I were asking an American Boy Scout to burn the American Flag. I heard a lot about this before getting out the scissors, but once I’d started my project she got very enthusiastic about its progress. (And begged me not to burn the finished product.)

Dolls in hand, we took a taxi out to Priluki, where the Merkulovs live. I knew their area was really pretty in the summer, but I had no idea it would be so beautiful in the winter too. The taxi ride pretty much took my breath away.

From 2010-02 Maslenitsa
Sergey and Irina prepared an amazing feast. I won’t try to describe it, but if you click on the link under the picture it will lead you to more pictures and you can get an idea for yourself what I’m talking about.

Irina also prepared lots of good games to play around the table between courses. One of my favorites was a collection of funny little poetical sayings. I knew we had something like that in English that I should know from childhood, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it during dinner. Had I remembered in time, I might have recited a Limerick or two. As it was, I enjoyed the fact that everybody seemed to know these little poems, or at least their style.

We had tickets to Philharmony and had to leave before the party was over. We left at dusk, just after we burned the big Maslenitsa scarecrow. Stealing a tradition from a different Russian holiday, almost everybody jumped over the fire after the scarecrow fell over. Alla and I did not. We are also unique around here in that we wear seat belts in the car. I probably would have jumped over the fire if I did not have such an aversion to smelling like smoke, but since I only have a few sets of clothes here I wasn’t tempted. Nobody offered to burn the dolls Alla and I made, and we didn’t offer. As far as I know, they are still there in Sergey and Irina’s party barn.

My first Maslenitsa, part 2

I wrote earlier about my introduction to Maslenitsa at a local grade school. This weekend I got to field-test my cultural knowledge. We started “easy” on Saturday. I did homework in the morning while Alla went out to explore. She called me to say that she’d found a fabulous book fair on her way to the outdoor festivities, the fair was wonderful, and I should meet her there.

Before heading out, I checked the unreliable thermometer I stuck outside our kitchen window. Plus five (C)! I really liked the idea that it was above freezing because I could wear a light jacket instead of my shearling coat and I’d be a lot more comfortable at the indoor book fair. I was a little troubled when I hit the street, and realized that I was only dressed OK if I kept moving. No problem so far, however: I kept moving.

I certainly did enjoy the book fair. Usually, it’s hard to find particular books to buy here because each book store has a different selection and you may have to visit a lot of stores before you find the book you really want. But the book fare had many vendors and publishers’ representatives, and it really was a fairy land for readers. We read an account in the newspaper about a guy who took his vacation stipend down there, spent it all, and figured he’d have a really great vacation sitting at home with all his books. We bought a few too, but not a vacation’s worth.

Things got a little dicier for me after the book fair. We walked over to the Palace of Sport where folks really did gather outdoors to hang out and eat blini. Wanting to “do” the holiday properly, we ate too. Alla and our friend Irina bought blini from a well-run stand while I went off to a more casual operation that offered shashleek (barbeque) in addition to blini. Alla and Irina ate and began to wonder whatever happened to me. Finally they found me, still waiting in line, while the jolly woman making blini cooked one pancake at a time and we in line thoroughly froze ourselves. I did get my food, but the shashleek was fatty and definitely not worth the long wait. I was completely frozen by this time, so we retreated home for hot soup.

Real Russians would have been properly dressed, and certainly wouldn’t have been fooled by a flakey thermometer. As you can see, I am not a real Russian.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mandarin oranges

I've been buying a lot of citrus since I've been here, and occasionally stumbled across some really good Mandarin oranges. Most recently, I bought a half a kilogram of Mandarins from the little store on the corner near our apartment. They only looked so-so, but we had no fruit in the house. Ha! They were so good we ate about half the bag in a couple of hours before and after dinner. So, of course, I ran back down to the store and bought another kilogram while I knew where to get such good stuff.

Photo by Elena Razgulina
A day or two later, we were headed off to visit a school class taught by a new friend. (That would be today, actually.) Alla knew that the students were working hard on a presentation for us, and that they would present us with a gift of blini, so she really wanted to bring something for the students. Off she went, and bought another big bag of Mandarins from our little store, who somehow still had not run out.

The students did an amazing job. They're in fifth grade, and most of them speak English really well. They told us about the traditional maslinitsa festival, which is functionally equivalent to Mardi Gras but completely different, and about some other details of Belarusian culture. At the end of the program, the teacher gave everybody candy and we gave them all Mandarins.

I don't think they'd all eaten citrus fruits before, because we saw at least one kid eating his like an apple, skin and all. I tried a piece of skin on mine to learn if he knew something that I didn't, but I can assure you that you generally don't want to eat the skin on your citrus fruit. Anyway, I hope he figured it out by the time he went for his second bite!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Perfect" verbs

I want to offer a bit of a feeble explanation for why I am not yet fluent in Russian. I learned something today about the verb “to eat.” There are actually multiple ways to say “to eat,” but the one Alla uses most often is kushit, pronounced koo-shit. (If you speak Russian, don't freak out. I'll try to make amends at the bottom.)

A month or two into my Russian studies, the teacher commented that so far we’d only been learning imperfect verbs, and now we would advance to perfect verbs. For almost every imperfect verb, we learned, there is at least one perfect verb. For example, kushit transforms to pokushit. Pokushit means “to eat completely.” So, before you start speaking, you have to consider whether you are talking about finishing a meal or talking about having some bites. Fine. We’ve all learned to deal with this.

Now, life is beginning to present alternative versions of perfection. Today Alla asked me if I wanted to “dokushit” the leftovers from last night. Before I could answer, I needed to learn the difference between pokushit, which I already understood, and dokushit. It turns out that the latter means “to finish.” Subtle.

I’m off to dokushit some kutletey.

A correction prior to posting: It turns out that the verb in question is kushat, not kushit. In case you cared. But I’m not changing it because I think the incorrect version will be funnier for some readers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Going native

From 2010-01 Classmates in Minsk
One of my classmates, Barış, had long beautiful hair. Actually, he's got beautiful eyes and a beautiful soul too, but today I'm talking about his hair. When I first met him, he generally wore it pinned back so it would cascade to his shoulders but it didn't hide his face. Attempting a gradual transition toward his required service in the Turkish Army, he cut it to above his shoulders, but since he arrived with his hair unpinned, nobody noticed that it was shorter. Barış was disappointed that nobody noticed his haircut.

After a week or two, he went totally Belarusian. This time we noticed. It was fun to watch people's faces one-by-one as they came into the classroom. I don't think I was the only one who had to look twice to realize that he wasn't a new student.

I saw the same thing happen to the Americans on the staff at Copper Canyon Lodge in Mexico. They all grew moustaches after the local style. My own stylistic shifts have all been sartorial (Linen!) so I'm enjoying the boldness of Barış' shift.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Snow removal

Folks around here do an amazing job of snow removal. One evening soon after we arrived, we were out for a walk and saw a convoy of eight vehicles plowing the snow from a four-lane street. Each vehicle was offset a meter or two from the one ahead of it and working in combination they were able efficiently to move two lanes of snow to the center of the street. Some of the vehicles looked like the plows we see in Boston, with sand spreaders in the back. There were also water trucks fitted with plow blades and graders (with blades mounted between the front and rear wheels.)

I was initially puzzled about why they put the snow on the double yellow line in the center of the street, since in Boston they put the snow into the gutter and then move it later if it’s not melting quickly enough. Since Minsk doesn’t expect a thaw, however, they are conscientious about picking up all the snow they move. They have a really great machine with a scoop at the bottom with two arms that pull the snow up to a conveyor belt, over the top of the machine, and into a truck following backwards. They can haul off a whole lot of snow in a hurry this way.

For smaller jobs, the most common piece of snow-moving equipment is tractors fitted with a plow blade in the front and a rotary brush in the back. Here’s a picture of a medium-sized version with the brush lifted. These babies are amazing. The plow blades have a brush at the bottom, and they don’t scrape the pavement. Then the rotary brush moves the last inch of snow out of the way.

Folks in Belarus really take good care of their stuff. The non-scraping snowplows are one example, and another would be the way the plow drivers are attentive to stay on the paths when they plow out the parks. Let’s just say that this is different from Boston!