Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sumptuous opera

We went to see Verdi's Nabucco tonight. I was a good boy and didn't take any pictures during the show, but the staging was really impressive. In fact, I'd say this was the second-best-staged opera I've ever seen. (The first was Verdi's Aida, in Vienna complete with live elephants which I missed because I fell asleep.) This production was designed in Moscow, and started with some irreverent tourists clowning around with a camera at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. They got sucked into history and from then on the show was set in the time Verdi intended, but supported with some very modern staging that relied on computer-generated imagery and lots of elevators.

I have to say that I really enjoyed the music too. Sometimes in the past I have complained about the high brass in Belarus. (My brother-in-law, a professional brass player, says that in Eastern Europe the musicians train to sound different from the way they like to sound in the West, and suggested that the differences may be a matter of taste.) For whatever reasons, tonight I had no complaints about anything and I actually thought the high brass did a really great job. Either I am getting used to their style, or they did something special. I suspect it's a little of each.

Tonight's show was the premiere, so maybe we'll have some bragging privileges as a result of having been there. In any event, Alla is at this very minute online ordering tickets to see the show again next month.

Here are some of the players taking bows after the show.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Modern dance in Minsk

I used to enjoy modern dance a lot, but have been disappointed by most of the stuff we saw in Boston in the last couple of years. (I still like the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.) Yesterday we saw some modern dance in Minsk, and I was quite impressed.

I didn't realize I'd be seeing modern dance. We wanted to see Sheherezade performed at the Musical Theater. We had been there for shows that included a little bit of dance and knew that they had creditable dancers on staff, so we figured it was worth a try. I knew that Rimsky-Korsakov's score isn't terribly long, but never bothered to find out if there would be anything else on the program. There was.

After Sheherezade the dancers took an intermission. Having enjoyed the ballet, we figured we'd seen what we came for and we even talked about going home. We stayed, however, and we're glad we did. They did a fine job, especially with the modern stuff.
Alla and Nika at the Musical Theater
Modern dance

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nika came to visit

And she brought us a bunch of stuff from Boston. Alla and I each requested three or four things and agreed not to bug her any further. And then we did. Nika was a good sport about all of it.

I'll post a picture of Nika next, to prove that she's really here. Meanwhile, take a look at why her suitcase was so tightly packed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The mighty Moskvich

I saw a couple of Moskvich automobiles in the neighborhood lately. I especially like the older one, which in addition to being more beautiful seems to be in better condition.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Heating season

Homes here don’t have their own heating systems, but they get their heat from centralized plants. Interestingly, when the plants start running, they seem to provide heat more or less continuously until the day they shut off for the warm season.

As I’ve mentioned, Minsk warmed up rather suddenly in March. Soon after things got really warm, Alla read a newspaper article about this year’s plans to save energy. They intended to shut off the heating plants as soon as we had five days in a row where the average daily temperature was over some number. As far as we could tell, we were in danger of hitting that statistic at any moment, and I was worried that we’d suffer when cold weather blew in later.

Cautious, I left the tape and caulking on most of our windows until mid-April. Also cautious, the city fathers kept the central heating systems running on low until mid-April. So we’d typically have one window open in each room, balancing out the warm radiators. With our sunny weather we didn’t really need the heat at all, except possibly late at night.

Then, about the minute I un-caulked the windows, the city shut down the heating plants; and cold weather blew in about a day later. We're not freezing or anything, but I'm suddenly wearing a lot more clothing at home in the evenings. I guess once the heat pipes under the streets cool off it's economically inefficient to try to provide intermittent heat. I don't really know, but I'm glad we have plenty of blankets.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Religious activity

Last week I went for a long evening walk after dropping Alla at the train station. Once again, I noticed a church in the middle of the block I go behind when walking home from Yakuba Kolosa Square. In no particular hurry, I decided to figure out how to get there. I went almost all the way around the block before I found the opening that gives access to the church yard.

It turns out that it’s a Catholic church in bad repair. I am guessing that it was unused for some years following the end of the Soviet Union. (Catholics haven’t gotten their buildings back as quickly as the Orthodox.) In any event, there wasn’t much going on in this church when I got there at around 8:15 in the evening. Theoretically there had been a 7 p.m. service, but if it happened there weren’t many people left by the time I got there.

More interestingly to me, I noticed a congregation singing a hymn in a building next door, where a wall of glass windows looked onto the same church yard. At first I thought it must be the Catholic congregation using a newer building, but then I realized that it seemed unlikely because there was no access to the newer building from the church yard.

Further investigation brought me to understand that the congregation I saw singing occupied a conference room in the back of an old expo center. By the time I approached the building, people were streaming out so I asked a lady if this were a church.

“Oh no,” she replied. “It’s just a meeting. We learn about the Bible.”

So I asked her if this were Catholic or Orthodox. (I’m not sure I know the word for “Protestant,” and since they were studying the Bible I figured this group had to fall into one of those groups.)

Once again, the lady deflected my question a bit. She told me that since they simply study the Bible, it’s interesting to everybody, regardless of their religion. She went on to invite me to come at 11:00 on any Sunday. I checked my watch and concluded that I must have misunderstood her.

“Eleven o’clock?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “It only lasts about 45 minutes and then there are other meetings during the day. Bring your Bible.”

OK, so I went yesterday. I got there just as people were sitting down, and I sat near the door. I also happened to be near a nice young couple who made me feel very welcome. They loaned me their hymnal and borrowed another, and then when the preacher (or should I say speaker?) started calling out Bible citations for us to find, she helped me find them. It turns out that she knows the names of most books of the Bible in English, and I definitely don’t know most of them in Russian. The preacher would say something like, “Turn to Isaiah 43, verse 9,” and he would have lost me at the word “Isaiah.”

It was an interesting experience. I can’t say that I’m in full agreement with their theological views, but then I can’t claim that I fully understood everything the guy said, either. At least it felt a lot like church, I got to sit down, and I got some practice listening to Russian language spoken at a normal pace. And I’m beginning to recognize the names of a few books of the Bible. I’ll go back.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pinsk (and tour guides)

From 2010-04 Pinsk
Yesterday we had an excursion to Pinsk. The university offered us a chance to gang up and buy a one-day trip, and I scurried around and enrolled a bunch of people I knew to be good companions. Amazingly, everybody but one succeeded in reaching the starting point at 6:45 a.m. as planned. (Unfortunately, Miriam awoke feeling ill. But she really did wake up in time.)

On the way to Pinsk, we had a professional guide who told us about everything we passed along the way. At first it was interesting, but since most of the students couldn’t follow her they started conversing. I actually followed her pretty easily, but finally reached information overload and joined in quiet conversations. It turns out, however, that she was a relatively good guide. We got a whole lot more detail from a local expert who joined us at the city limits.

Our local guide knew absolutely everything about Pinsk, each building in Pinsk, and what happens or ever happened inside of each building in Pinsk. My friend Alex observed that old stuff is probably a really big deal in Belarus, where pretty much everything got destroyed in World War II. (And what the war didn’t destroy, perhaps Stalin did.) For us, to be truthful, it wasn’t really important to know that this hotel was one of twenty-seven (or was it twenty-eight?) hotels in the city and that it had direct-dial telephone service from the rooms. OK, it’s interesting all by itself. But following a torrent of such excruciating detail about every building in the city, I was approaching my wits’ end.

We could have used a little more consultation about the nature of our tour. We saw a children’s park, for example, with little brick castles. Most of us wanted to get out of the bus for a few minutes while we were there and play in the castles. We begged, but were refused. They promised us that we would have time to go back later. Instead, they looped back past stuff we’d already seen and took us out of town to see the swamps. By “out of town,” I don’t just mean that we popped across some borderline. We crept down a bouncy dirt road for uncounted kilometers watching endlessly-similar scenes unroll out the windows. The windows got dirtier. Finally we stopped at a low spot that was under water as a result of the spring thaw, and they let us out.

The guide told us that we couldn’t get to the house that we saw over there because of the water, so we walked around a bit and took pictures of ourselves.

I began planning my revolt during the outbound portion of the swamp trip. The story gets too long if I tell you about all that, but let’s just say it provided me a good opportunity to think about how I would run things if I were a tour guide.

We did have some free time later on, but really the best part of the trip for me was the ride home. The guide was finally silent, so we took the microphone and entertained ourselves with song and dance. Did you know that Arabic men sometimes belly-dance for the women? Pascal was really good at it. Enough people had diverse and interesting music on their phones that we were able to enjoy a great program. Thank God for good companionship!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Maybe Alla wasn't misleading me after all

When I started learning Russian at home, I noticed that Alla taught me a lot of words with diminutive endings. I became concerned that I would find myself talking like a six-year-old, and started reviewing all the nouns I knew to make sure I knew the "normal" version of any words I suspected to be diminutive.

I talked this over with a friend who embarrassed himself in a Russian grocery store in Boston when he asked for something by a diminutive name and got a guffaw from the clerk. His wife explained, "Oh yeah, that's just our word for it."

Yesterday I was really surprised, then, when the guy in front of me asked for a plastic a bag. (They charge for plastic bags here, and we all try to remember to bring bags with us so we won't have to buy more of them.) The guy said "I'd like a bag," using the word "paketik," which is diminutive and means "little bag." This is a common usage.

Not sure if the guy was being cute or specific, the clerk asked him, "Malenky?" The -inky ending is also diminutive, but it's required here because this is the word for "small," and she had two or three styles of bag to sell.

The guy answered with one word, "belinky." This is the diminutive version of "white," and I might have translated it "cute, little and white."

Yes, I was surprised.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I've got a part in a movie

Actually, I'm just participating in a student project. The basic idea is to build teams of Belarusian and foreign students to do something together that broadens our horizons, and then make something as a result. I got placed into an enthusiastic group with several old friends, and it looks like we're going to have a good time. We were matched with some high-achiever Belarusian girls who don't delegate very well. What this means is that they figured out a movie scenario and wrote a script, and then we just show up and do what they tell us to do. Since this involves travel that our highly-organized chiefs are planning, we think it's just fine.

Today we went to a former capital of Belarus, founded in 985 AD. Our script involved digging a big hole with little shovels. Incidentally I am supposed to be a KGB agent, but a real KGB agent would surely speak better Russian. I think the girls enjoyed getting some of my flubs on camera, and I'm sure they will be enjoyed by others soon enough. Oh well. I may have learned a few new words today, and at least one of them promises to be useful.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Belarusian Shoes

When we went to the ballet with our friends Sergey and Irina, I realized that my shoes were entirely inappropriate. Sergey had on a beautiful pair of black suede shoes with pointy toes. The leading edge of men’s shoes here tends to extend a bit in front of the toes, and the upper part of the shoe slopes down to the sole like the square end of a railroad pick axe. Realizing my sartorial failure, I resolved to find my own Belarusian shoes.

From 2010-04 Easter in Minsk
Fate intervened in the days before Easter, when we walked into the local trade center and saw an exposition of the latest products from various Belarusian clothing companies. I saw some shoes that I really liked and I asked the sales guy where I could buy some. He sent me to a store near the railway station.

It just so happened that on the Saturday of Easter weekend we went to visit Sergey and Irina, a trip that starts at the railway station. I didn’t find exactly the shoes I had in mind, but I like these even better. They aren’t as pointy as some people’s shoes, but they're clearly Belarusian. Comfortable, too. And Alla was pleased that it happened on Easter weekend because it turns out to be traditional here to have new shoes for Easter.

Today I bought some other Belarusian clothes. I can now go out dressed almost entirely in local gear, though I still haven’t bought any Belarusian underwear and don’t feel that I need any.