Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why is everybody staring at me?

I went out for a bike ride this morning, dressed "normally" for an American cyclist serious about the sport. That is to say that I had on lycra tights, a helmet, and a wind vest. The wind vest covered the jersey with the Disney characters on it. Normally when I see people staring at me, I assume it's because of the Disney characters on my front and back. Today, that clearly was not the reason.

When I came home, I looked in the mirror.
I am completely "wrong" for Belarus. The helmet is bad enough, and the tights are questionable too. Probably the most bizarre is the mirror I wear attached to my clear cycling glasses. Then there's my bike. It has curly handlebars and clearly isn't a mountain bike. Oh, and I'm an adult.

There are plenty of serious cyclists in the suburbs, but I was riding on a new multi-use path in the heart of the city.
From 2010-2&3 Life in Minsk
We have multi-use paths in the Boston area too, for cyclists, roller-bladers, walkers, runners and what-have-you. Sections of this path have an additional use; it's a drinking path. I learned this because of all the broken glass, particularly behind a college athletic field. I think it's been covered for a long time with snow, and I really hope it gets cleaned up. I'll stay off the path for a while to give the clean-up crew a chance. Besides, I'm too much of an oddity on that path.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A day in Gomel

We went to Gomel on Friday so I could file a bunch of papers on Saturday morning. Everything went well with the filings and we had time to play around downtown the rest of the day.

From 2010-03 Gomel
As we approached the big park, we heard a band at the main town square and we went to see what was happening. There was a road race, with representatives of various police municipalities competing against each other. While the cops ran, their comrades fed us buckwheat kasha and showed us some of their favorite toys. I liked the fiber-optic probe for looking inside dark places for bombs. (There's still a fair amount of unexploded armament and mines here from World War II, and the cops are responsible for handling it when it's found.)

After the race, we went inside the palace museum. We've never bothered going in there because the park grounds are so wonderful we've never wanted to take time to go indoors. But since there was snow on the ground, the museum won our attention. Wow! I really liked the building.
More, unfortunately, than I liked most of the art. But I'll be sure to visit the museum again at least for the architecture.

We also stumbled across a Soviet nostalgia restaurant with lots of wonderful memorabilia everywhere. The waitresses dressed up in school uniforms with various "Pioneer" pins attached to their blouses. And we even liked the food, which is a huge deal for us in Gomel where we've had a number of culinary disappointments. Now we can go back.
From 2010-03 Gomel

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Earning a green card

I’ve been busy the past few days, organizing the documents I’ll need to apply for a Belarusian green card. It’s a complicated process, but based on what I’ve heard at home and what I’ve done so far here, it may be easier in Belarus than in the USA. That’s not to say it’s easy.

I’ll tell just one story from today, from which you may reasonably extrapolate. I needed to get a few documents translated, including my passport. I have a signed and certified translation of my passport, but this time I needed a notarized translation so the translator said she’d have to start fresh. (It can be certified or it can be notarized, but it cannot be both.) She had my documents for a couple of days and she sent me a text message to my phone to assure me that I could come and pick stuff up this afternoon.

I really like the translators. They’re friendly and helpful, though today’s helpfulness wasn’t as complete as I’ve come to expect. They didn’t notarize the document themselves, as I had expected. Instead, they tied the translation to the document with plain white thread and they told me to take it to the notary’s office two or three blocks down the street. Given the size of the buildings on the street, I asked if there were some particular office I should look for within the building. No, she said, any office.

OK. I found the building easily enough, but figured I was probably in the wrong place because it was a government building and there was a big bronze plaque on the door announcing the fact. I went inside to find out where I should really be going, and walked up to the first office I saw with an open door. I explained to them that I didn’t know the word for what I wanted in Russian but in English it would be called Notary Public.
The occupants of the office conversed among themselves and somebody said the word “Notarice.” I exclaimed that indeed sounded like what I wanted. They still seemed very uncertain about that, however, and one of them went off to see if she if she could find somebody better able to help me. Since they seemed friendly and helpful, I told them I’d call my wife who could help them help me. Alla was at a bit of a disadvantage when I phoned her because she expected I’d just pick up a notarized document and head directly off to the next task. I told Alla that these people didn’t understand the word “Notary” and I handed the phone to one of them, who was relieved to discover that Alla’s Russian is better than mine.

Alla told the woman about what I was doing and the woman finally asked me if I had a document to be notarized. “Yes!,” I cried, and took it out of my bag.

“OK, fine,” she said, “you need to pay 17,500 rubles.” No problem. I was ready for this and I offered her my money. As usual, she couldn’t handle my money herself. Unfortunately, however, in this case there was no cashier in the building so she sent me to the nearest bank to make a deposit to their account and bring back the receipt.

I left my document and found the bank. At the bank, they gave me a tiny scrap of paper and asked me to write down my name, address, and home phone number. I did that, and then they took my money, entered all the info into their computer, and gave me a receipt. All this for a transaction equivalent to about six US dollars!

When I returned to the big building with my receipt I stopped to read the bronze plaque on the door. It said “Notarice.” Apparently the whole building is devoted to notary functions, though the public is sent to a particular room number, apparently the one I stumbled onto the first time.

When I brought my receipt into the room, they handed me my translated passport. The plain white thread had been replaced with a fancy red one, sealed at the back with the Notary’s emblem. Done! Picking up my notarized translation took just over an hour.

Doing stuff around here, it’s always good to assume that it’ll take a long time. If it’s quick, that’s wonderful. But the American “time is money” culture certainly is not the norm here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It turns out I'm not crazy

I had to get a couple more medical certificates today because I am applying for a Belarusian "green card." Most of the medical tests I had to take for the university already apply toward this, but I still needed to get certifications that I don't have any chemical dependencies and that I am sane.

We started in the narco center. I arrived with a full bladder and asked Alla if they would want a urine sample or a blood sample. She promised me that it would be much simpler than I imagined. The process worked like this: First we paid them a fee. Then I got to see the doctor. Alla came into the room too, in case I needed a translator. We all talked a bit, the doctor announced that I don't look like a narkoman (this is a real Russian word), and she filled out my certificate. Next, of course, she stamped the certificate with a couple of rubber stamps and I was good to go.

Alla's version of this interview was that the doctor asked if I have any complaints. "Yes," Alla replied, "he doesn't drink beer on a hot day and he doesn't drink champagne on New Year's Eve. I have no company."

Interestingly, this doctor commented that I was only the fourth American in her memory to apply for a Belarusian green card in the city of Minsk. Was I crazy to want this?

Next, we went over to the psychiatric hospital. It's located in a serene woodland setting not far from a major subway station. I remembered "Catch 22" and wondered if I needed to be certified crazy to get the green card. It turns out that I am sane, whatever that means. The procedure for determining my sanity was extremely similar to the procedure for determining my freedom from drug dependencies. First we paid money, then the doctor looked at me and immediately certified my sanity. Done.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Taken to the cleaners

I’ve never been to a dry cleaner here, but I finally got embarrassed by the wrinkles in the wool slacks I often wear when we go out so I took them to the neighborhood dry cleaner. Like many home services, this place is state-run. Unlike the clothing-repair place I wrote about earlier, however, this was not a bargain.

I handed the lady my pants and she inspected them carefully. Then she got out a four-part form and filled it in, except for my name. I don’t think she has other customers named Vincent, so I wrote that. When I got home I entertained myself with a dictionary sussing out the rest of the form. First, there’s a bar chart where she indicated the amount of wear on the garment. The four boxes indicate 20%, 40%, 60% and 80%. She put a mark in the left side of the 20% box. Good start.

Below that, there were a bunch of check boxes with words completely outside of my vocabulary. When I couldn’t find one of them in my Russian dictionary I went online and learned that it was a Belarusian word. That’s a little puzzling because the alphabet they use is Russian and the parts I can read are definitely in Russian. Anyway, the boxes she checked are wrinkles, “lasy,” deformations and sweat something-or-other.

I put “lasy” in quotes; because that’s the translation I got back from Google Translate for ласы. An all-out web search revealed that this is a Belarusian word meaning tender, luscious or nice. Great. I think they’re nice pants too. I couldn’t even get that close to figuring out the word after sweat, but I assume they’re claiming sweat marks. I was never aware of any sweat marks on my pants, but it’s true that there are deep wrinkles at the crotch so maybe they figure these were sweated in.

I’m curious whether the price would have been any different if I’d talked her into checking a smaller number of boxes. Nine dollars seems pretty steep, given the cost of labor over here. I could have my pants cleaned for less back home. But here I had the pleasure of signing my name three times on the form with all the boxes, so what the heck. I got lots of attention for my money already.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Signs of spring

Today was the first day I got to wear regular shoes since we arrived. Normally, I've been wearing boots; if not for warmth, then because the sidewalks and streets were occasionally slushy. Today the streets and sidewalks are close to spotless, though there is still plenty of snow elsewhere. Wearing shoes makes me feel very optimistic, and in fact we will go to pick up my bicycle in Gomel on Saturday.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

International Women's Day

March 8 is International Women's Day. Conceived in the USA, this is a huge holiday in Russia and Belarus. Businesses will close, and even the never-stopping Russian-Language program at the Minsk State Linguistic University will take the day off.

Since March 8 falls on Monday, folks started celebrating the holiday early. We went to see the Military Band
lead a program of traditional music and dance at the Minsk Tractor Factory on Thursday, and then we went to a classical extravaganza at the Opera House last night. Here are a couple of pictures I took with my phone at the Tractor Factory.

I was interested to discover that the show at the Opera House included only male performers. They put the orchestra up on the stage and soloists came out in front of the orchestra and sang arias about love to the women in the audience. The female opera stars got the night off, and maybe they hauled their husbands and boyfriends to the hall because the audience was a lot more gender-balanced than usual for shows here.

The performers pretty well brought down the house at the end of the show when first three, and then four tenors came out to sing together. The audience nearly went berserk with pleasure, and we managed to get them to sing more than they were prepared for. Even the unrehearsed stuff came off really well.

I am posting this entry on March 7. Readers outside the Russian-speaking world take note: If you are friendly with any Russian women, call them and wish them well in the spirit of Eighth of March. You'll be glad you did.
(Cakes, flowers, cards, candies and all manner of attention are appropriate.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Title Nine, Belarusian style

There is a famous law in the United States, commonly known as Title Nine, which promotes equal opportunity in sports between men and women, boys and girls. I thought about that law today because I ran into a little surprise at the Hall of Sport.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered an aerobics class that I liked on Friday afternoons. While most aerobics classes are scheduled and administered as academic subjects, the Friday afternoon class is just a bunch of teachers who gather to work out together. Since the exercise bikes at my university are all too small for me and the treadmills and elliptical trainers bore me, I got pretty excited about aerobics.

The first time I joined the group, I got off the treadmill and gestured to the teacher to see if she'd mind if I joined her students. She assented and I had a great workout. Today I asked the teacher before the class if it was OK for me to work out without socks on. (Nobody wears shoes, and I'd rather be barefoot than sock-foot.) She said OK, but directed me to the back corner. I figured that she sent me far away because I would have bare feet.

As I turned away, however, she pointed out that this was a women's group. I assured her that I really didn't mind and that their workout was certainly difficult enough to satisfy me. She added that there were also classes for men and that I would be welcome in them. I thought about taking her brush-off and looking for one of these manly classes, but since I had no idea where to find them I stayed for the class that was about to begin.

Twenty minutes later, back in my far corner, I saw the teacher look pointedly at me and then up at the balcony over my head. I looked over my shoulder and saw the head of the athletic department looking at me with a puzzled expression on his face. Later, the teacher left the front of the room while we all worked out to the video she had running. I saw that she was talking to that head guy, but nobody said anything to me so I didn't do anything right away.

After class, I thanked the teacher and asked her if it was any kind of a problem to have me in the class. She said that some of the women were (or, I presume, might be) uncomfortable about having a man in the room. I asked her, then, where I could find any of those classes for men. Well, she admitted, there really aren't any.

In the end, I was de-invited from that particular aerobics group and even from using the treadmills in the room while that group is in session. She originally began to discourage me from using the aerobic equipment while there was any group in session, but since there is almost always a group in session she was kind enough to allow me in the room when students are present.

I think the guys busy themselves with soccer and other games, but mostly they seem to like bench presses. I'll write about that at another time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Student life

I've been making good use of the university's physical training facilities. Today I got there a little later than usual and it brought a cascade of pleasant surprises. After my workout on the elliptical trainer and in the weight room, I realized that I was pretty late to get home before Alla went to her Spanish class. Since we had leftovers for one person at home, I volunteered to go have dinner at the cafeteria.

The food at the cafeteria is never surprising, and it's a little boring if I eat there too often, but today's dinner was definitely OK. In addition, I had the pleasure of a steady stream of visitors since my classmates from last year are in an afternoon program that got out about the time I headed off for dinner. In addition to those cheerful fellows, I enjoyed the company of a few people I didn't know since all the tables were occupied and if people wanted to sit down they had to sit with strangers.

From 2010-02 Life in Minsk
This is the last group to sit down at my table, students of English and German. One of them knows French, too, and of course they all know Russian. I didn't ask if they also know Belarusian. I just know they speak a lot more languages than I do. I'm really enjoying having this second opportunity for student life.