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.