Friday, December 31, 2010

Briefly a Belarusian multimillionaire

We had a busy day yesterday, our first full day back in Minsk. We had to upgrade Alla’s SIM card, pay the rent, register at the university and yadda-yadda. (For those who don’t speak English as well as I do, think of yadda-yadda as something like “и так дали,” especially if I spelled it right.) Anyway, one of the things I had to do was pay $1,300 in Belarusian rubles to the university for six months of study. Invoice in hand, I went down to the nearest bank to withdraw a cool four million rubles. I got a sizeable stack of hundred-thousand ruble notes and stuffed them into my jacket pocket and walked back to the university acting natural. It’s not often that I get to walk around with a million of anything, and I found it very stimulating.

Unfortunately, the excitement only lasted about five minutes because I had to hand over almost my entire stash to the University cashier. Sigh. Easy come, easy go.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas: More found stuff!

Yesterday was Christmas, and our we enjoyed a small family celebration at home in Boston. We started the day by opening our stockings to see what little things Santa Claus had brought to us, and then we moved on to a waffle breakfast with bacon, berries and maple syrup. After all the waffles, we headed off for our traditional walk through the neighborhood.

Alla and Nika noticed a tree that somebody had put out for the trash collectors without removing two strings of lights. Alla was annoyed that the city would be unable to compost the tree with the lights still attached, so we took off the lights and Alla wound them onto her hand like a high-tech muff. Amused by this, Nika decorated the "muff" with bits of ribbon and decorations she found along the way. Finally, Nika found a big golden star ornament hanging from a red ribbon on a tree in the Public Garden. She appropriated the star for herself. Meanwhile, I was already decorated because Nika didn't want me to go out dressed all in black and she draped me with a garland of white sheep that she took from our home decorations. I think that pretty much explains the photograph above.

When we got home, we unrolled the string of lights and discovered that it was long enough to wind around the banister of the staircase on three floors of our house. Basically, then, the lights illuminate three-quarters of our little house because there's only one room on each level. Here's a picture of Alla showing off her new dress near the staircase.

The rest of the day involved roast chicken and a few presents, but no more found stuff. Well, we're still enjoying the lights, and I am about to "find" more of the roast chicken inside the refrigerator.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Found stuff

This seems to be the Christmas of Found Stuff. We started with a child's bear, which Alla rescued from the curb on trash day and washed in the washing machine. The bear cleaned up pretty well, but since his stuffing had leaked out he couldn't sit up. The other day then, Alla and Nika filled him with lentils and stitched him shut.

Next, coming home from the grocery store today I found a little Christmas tree by the side of the road, waiting for tomorrow's trash pickup. I picked it up instead. We're guessing that somebody went away for the holidays and put their used tree out before leaving. It's shedding needles at an alarming rate, but we gave it water to drink and a few lights. Nika wanted to add just one ornament, but Alla got carried away and brought up a few more ornaments from the basement. I couldn't restrain myself either, and I added some candies. It's still pretty simple, but we all like it; even Nika.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My trip to the mall

I went to the mall today to buy a couple of humidifiers. I passed through wearing a nice leather jacket and carrying a gray uschanka hat. (I replaced my not-really-all-that-Russian-style hat with a new fur hat that almost looks like it came from Russia.) Oh, and I was probably wearing my habitual smile. What I did not have was a woman on my arm, and that apparently made all the difference.

As I walked along, a pretty young woman caught my eye. “May I ask you a question?,” she asked.

“Sure,” I answered.

“Do you know about the Dead Sea?”

This led to a sales pitch for Dead Sea cosmetics. She wanted to show me a nail buffing tool she thought my wife would like to have. Thinking it sounded like a reasonable stocking stuffer, I let her demonstrate on my thumb. She cupped my hand in hers and began to buff my thumbnail. As she continued, I allowed my hand to relax and found my fingers resting in her palm. She looked into my eyes and told me that I was really going to like this. Well yes, so far I was liking it just fine. She drew me toward the light (and the cash register.) I noticed that she was showing a little cleavage. She buffed some more. Finally, she let me see my thumbnail, which was very shiny.

It turns out that I couldn’t buy just the buffer. She wanted me to buy a rather small box of stuff, including some hand cream and cuticle exfoliant. She claimed that it normally cost $89 but today I could have it for just $69. I thanked her and walked on toward the appliance store.

Presently another cute young woman stepped out and inquired whether she could ask me a question. I didn’t think much about it when I answered in the affirmative, but then she asked me if I knew about the Dead Sea. She even petted my fur hat in much the same way the first sales girl had done. I told her that I’d already had the same sales pitch from her colleague at a different kiosk and I showed her my shiny thumbnail. “Oh,” she said, “then I’d like to try to sell you something else. Put your hat and gloves down here and I’ll show you.”

Next thing I knew, I was standing with my hands over a basin with a very cute girl scooping oiled salt onto my hands. “Rub it in,” she instructed. “Like you’re washing your hands.” When I finally wiped the stuff back off of my hands they were indeed very clean looking. “See?,” she said, ”you scrubbed off all of your dead skin.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I scrubbed off what was left of my tan.”

She asked me if my wife would like that stuff.

“Yes,” I replied, “she definitely would.”

“Well then,” she challenged, “how much do you think this costs?”

“$69,” I guessed, “on sale today only for $49.”

“Oh no,” she replied. It’s normally $79 but I can sell it to you today only for $59.”

I can’t describe the amount of flirtation that went on during this whole process, but she was definitely teasing me. As we discussed the facts that I didn’t want to pay all that money for a jar of salt, that we already had a similar product in our house, and that she could cut me an even-more-special deal, she drew me by the hand step-by-step toward her cash register. Each step towards the cash register came as she was telling me really special prices that she didn’t want anybody else to hear.

Being a normal guy, I was severely disadvantaged. I was about 50% aware of the fact that I was being led around by a cute girl with warm hands and an earnest manner, and only had about 50% of my normal mental capacity left to decide whether or not to buy her product at an ever-more-stupendous price.

Finally, I told her that she should really get a job selling timeshares in Cancun but that I wasn’t going to buy her product. Her super-duper price was based on the fact that I could have unlimited refills all year long and I told her that I’d be in Belarus for about half the year and I was pretty sure they didn’t have any outlets in Minsk. She thought somehow that Germany would be close enough, but even with my diminished mental capacity I managed to say no.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas season blessings

Harvard University has a hundred-year-old tradition of holding a Christmas Carol service in their chapel just before the students go home for the holidays. Our friends David and Helen have a somewhat shorter-lived tradition of hosting a party at the time of the carol service. We really enjoy these little traditions, and of course we enjoy the Harvard Choir and the organ music at the service.

This year when we entered the Harvard Chapel we ran into a fellow named Armand who we see there every year. He gave us a picture of ourselves from the first time we met him there. Other friends have reached out to us in various other ways in this season of giving. Alla and I feel touched and blessed by it all.

Nika and I tried to reach out a bit in our own way last night. She signed us up as volunteers on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. They provided us with a table at a busy shopping mall, where we had several rolls of wrapping paper, tape, scissors, and a few accessories. We wrapped gifts that shoppers brought us, and they rewarded us by making donations to the Coalition. By the end of the day we had accumulated over $430 in the tip jar, about half of which came in during our shift.

When we started our shift, Nika warned me that she would be bossy. In fact, if she was bossy I didn’t notice it, but she did help me learn quickly how she likes to do this task. We made a good team because we both felt outgoing and we invited people walking by with packages to bring them over for wrapping. We did this whenever we weren’t busy, and as a result we were busy most of the time. (But it did get slow enough later on that I had time to go and buy us a couple of ice cream cones and she had time to go shopping at The Body Shop. She bought some shimmery body butter, inspired by one of the packages we had to wrap.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


We are at Miami airport right now, on our way home from Cancun. I knew it was a big airport, but didn’t really appreciate how many international flights pass through here until today. When we got off of our plane, we walked about ten minutes to a Sky Train terminal. We then rode the Sky Train two stops to passport control. We didn’t mingle with any other passengers except those arriving at Miami from overseas.

Finally, about 25 minutes after landing we reached the passport control area, which had a huge array of booths open and we walked right through. Unfortunately our next stop was baggage claim, as Alla had found it necessary to check her luggage. We arrived at baggage claim 30 minutes after landing, and American Airlines managed to begin delivering luggage from our flight about fifteen minutes after that. These guys are seldom quick about baggage delivery.

We presented our baggage to customs with nothing to declare, and left the area right away. Half way through the process, we simply had to re-check Alla’s suitcase (no problem, after a 3-minute walk), go back up to the Sky Train, ride one stop, return to ground level and walk to our gate. Fortunately, we like to walk and we’re in good physical condition. My heart goes out to people who can’t get around well. To their credit, the airlines offer courtesy shuttle service in little electric carts, but I have no idea how to go about arranging a ride. I also feel sorry for travelers who speak neither English nor Spanish. Airport personnel speak those languages, and there are signs in both languages, but everybody else had better figure out what they’re doing because we certainly didn’t see signs in any other languages.

We did hear several groups speaking Russian. In fact, the final customs officer spent a little extra time with us because he thought I said something to him with a Russian accent. Perhaps he’d overheard Alla and me speaking to each other in Russian, but I think it’s pretty amusing that he didn’t immediately realize my nativity. All I remember saying to him was “Cancun,” so I guess he thought I was speaking Spanish with a Russian accent.