Saturday, December 31, 2011

Adjusting to Minsk

Our plane got in late yesterday, and I was surprised to discover that the sun hadn’t set by the time we got home. I knew in the back of my mind that Belarus never went back from daylight-saving time last autumn, but didn’t fully appreciate what that would mean to me until this morning.

I had another surprise, too. It’s been warm here all week and if Minsk ever got any snow thus far, it all melted long ago. After unpacking most of my stuff, I decided to go off to the supermarket and get a few basic supplies. Keeping my jeans on, I threw on a jacket and cap and walked to the store. By the time I got there, I’d unzipped the jacket and had already begun making plans to get my bike on the road right away.

At the store I had to recalibrate my expectations too. I picked up a little bag of rice and saw that it cost 24,000 rubles. Momentarily, my hair stood up. Then I remembered that we’re now getting more than 8,000 rubles to the dollar. OK, the bag of rice was worth about three dollars, not eight dollars. I’ll get the hang of this.

Some things may adjust faster than I do, however. Recent developments suggest, for example, that I may not be riding my bike after all. I couldn’t even see the street when I woke up this morning because it was so dark out. This came as a bit of a surprise, because the streetlight outside our bedroom window bathed the whole back yard in light when I went to bed at 11:00. Apparently they turned it off after midnight and whoever controls this stuff didn’t see any need to turn it on again in the morning. We felt our way to the light switch and lit up the apartment this morning. I kept looking at the clock because I imagined I was confused about the time. Can it really be daytime when it’s so dark out? Dawn finally began breaking around 9:30. By ten or eleven o’clock I could see outside well enough to discover that the weather had changed. As I write this, it’s snowing hard.

I guess I’d better pull on my warm pants and go out to buy Alla a pair of ski poles before they sell out of her size. I don’t think the sporting goods store restocks after the New Year’s rush, so if they don’t have her size today they will never have it. At least, they never got any last winter, when we had snow to ski on. I’m not so sure that today’s snow will change anything fundamental, but I am still committed to those ski poles. I want to be prepared.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Charlie Cards

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority never seems to get public transit exactly right. We were all excited when they started a new system five years ago, with plastic stored-value cards. I keep my card in my wallet and just tap the whole wallet on the gate sensor as I enter the system. I even used to turn around and back up against the sensor without withdrawing the wallet from my pocket, but this got me into trouble with one of the MBTA shortcomings.

We use the same gates to enter and to leave the subway system. This means that an unsuspecting passenger can spend money from his stored-value card to open an entry gate only to be swept away by somebody emerging from the station. We all struggled with this when the Charlie gates first arrived, but now most people have gotten pretty good about joining a stream of traffic going one direction or another at each gate. Notwithstanding this cooperation, I confused a lot of people when I used to back up to the gate so it would read the card I was too lazy to get out of my back pocket. Not surprisingly, I kept getting overrun by people leaving the station when I was trying to enter backwards.

We all started getting new surprises in the last two or three months. Apparently it’s been exactly five years since Charlie Cards came out. We learned this because the cards expire five years from their first use. Lots of disappointed people discovered that their stored-value cards suddenly stopped working, regardless of the amount of money they held the day before.

I got caught with an expired Charlie Card today, and asked the station manager to give me a new one. Instead of a card, he gave me bad news. Everybody has been asking for so many new Charlie Cards recently that the entire MBTA system has run out of them. He didn’t know when they might receive new ones, so everybody is struggling with different forms of payment until the MBTA sorts out its supply problem. What I want to know, then, is why do these cards expire at all? I just can’t imagine how the MBTA gains more from killing old cards than they lose by facing a flood of free-card requests every five years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Transferrable skills / deflated prejudices

While living in Belarus I often wrote with amazement about the way people on the streets and in public transport would meet my gaze and return a smile. It seemed special to me, unique to the place or at least unique to the fact that I’m readily identifiable as a foreigner there. In another post I commented on my delight in discovering that the young women in Belarus didn’t display much doubt or awkwardness about dancing with me in spite of our age and availability differences. I attributed both of these graces to special characteristics of Belarusian people and did not expect to find them back in Boston.

This summer I realized that people treat me much the same way in Boston. I can still catch the eyes of strangers who smile back, and I can still dance with young women who accept willingly. Having noticed that, I stopped to wonder why.

My favorite theory, since it makes me feel good about myself, is that I’ve learned something or changed in some way that makes people feel more comfortable with me. When I first moved to New England I used to embarrass myself by trying to start conversations with strangers in elevators who would invariably act as if I were not even there. Foreigners would acknowledge my glance or join in casual chat, but the “yankees” generally would not. In Belarus, my outgoing nature generally resulted in smiling acknowledgements and heartfelt greetings. I can imagine that I’ve become more comfortable with myself and with strangers, and as a result the strangers act more comfortable with me.

Of course maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe the times have changed, or maybe people are just more comfortable with a guy who looks, shall we say, a little more mature. Realistically, it’s possible that all of these factors contribute to the change. Anyway, I enjoy feeling welcome, at home and accepted in a variety of places, and I wish the same for my readers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Swimming to the ocean

I wanted to do this from the first time we saw Tres Rios three years ago. Today we kayaked up First River to the cenote where it originates, and then I swam all the way back to the ocean. Last time I swam downstream here, I left Alla and some friends at the cenote. After going about half-way downstream, I turned to swim back to the group. Those figures of speech about swimming upstream really mean what they imply. I struggled with the current, and where the river narrowed I had to grab the mangrove roots and crawl hand-over-hand against the flow.

It's not so difficult to paddle upstream in a kayak, and we've done it several times already. Today I brought my swim goggles and left the boat with Alla, who wanted to paddle back down. I enjoyed the scenery as I floated over crazy tangles of mangrove roots, underwater caverns, big schools of fish in a variety of sizes, crabs, stabs of sunlight, and even patches of white river bottom.

I couldn't dive down to see what made those white spots on the river bottom because I wore a life jacket, both for security and to stay a little warmer. I suppose I saw ocean sand that washed upstream during a big storm. Anyway, I was in a big hurry because I had a macho problem. Early in my voyage, I passed a kayak while the paddlers were goofing off. Not wanting to hold them up and certainly not wanting to be passed, I stayed pretty focused on my swimming. I reached the ocean with a comfortable gap between myself and the boat.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bird blessing

Alla reminded me of a scene in a movie where a bird soils a visitor’s head and her Italian companion remarks that this indicates good luck ahead. Alla thought of it yesterday after dragging her sleeve through a huge and gooey dropping on our table at an outdoor café at the Tres Rios resort. We found ourselves eating at the café because we arrived early and our room wasn’t ready yet. Mysteriously, the woman at the desk said that she needed to figure out which room she should assign to us. After dragging her sleeve through the bird droppings, Alla announced that this was an omen that we would receive a great hotel room.

In fact, we received two great hotel rooms, interconnected. I can offer two or three guesses as to why we received this surprising luxury, but we’re not worrying all that much about the details. While we don’t need it, we do find it pleasant. And I did like having someplace to go when Alla started snoring last night and I couldn’t wake her up easily.

Our rooms face the ocean, a manmade lagoon, and the well-landscaped pool area. Tonight as I write this, a mariachi band plays in the courtyard below us. They played really well at first, but they’ve been playing for about three hours now and I think they’re getting a little tired. Still, we enjoy the serenade and trust that they’ll quit by the time we go to bed.

We spent much of today in the pool area because it’s sheltered from the wind. While the wind blew down the ocean beach all day today, we didn’t notice it near the pool. A rather tame coati came out of the jungle to steal food from the diners at one of the poolside restaurants. She came back after stealing an entire calzone from the table beside me, and let me pet her even though I didn’t share any of my pizza. The fur at her neck is pretty soft, but the fir down her back was stiff like a brush.

We saw other wildlife yesterday when we walked along the jungle trail through a mangrove swamp and past numerous cenotes. I particularly liked a big yellow bird and I was quite amused by the little crab that crawled onto my foot as I dangled my feet into the biggest cenote. Just as I was about to call Alla’s attention to the cute little guy, he pinched my toe hard enough that I kicked him off of my foot. Unoffended, he came back after a few minutes and tried to crawl onto my foot a second time. I didn’t stay this time for him to climb on.
From 2011-11 Cancun

Friday, December 2, 2011

Such a busy day

This morning we decided to go back to Isla Mujeres for more seafood tacos at Avalon. Originally we intended to do that tomorrow, but the resort folks changed something so we rushed out the door on about five minutes’ notice and caught the 10:00 ferry. Because the sea and air were perfectly calm when we took our early-morning walk on the beach, we expected a fine day at Avalon beach. At least we got the sun, but the calm blew away during the ferry ride.

We keep running into Russians, and we found them at Avalon beach too. A little tour group of eight friends from Nizhny Novgorod spilled into the chairs next to us. We conversed a bit and then left them for fish tacos. Alla and I tried to eat outdoors, but the wind kept blowing our stuff around and we finally gave up and went into the restaurant. As we passed the bar, Alla noticed one of the waiters bringing in an armload of fresh coconuts, so she went to find out what she could drink out of one. I asked her to order a plain coconut for me at the same time. Her beverage was called a coco loco, and it included tequila and a face made of fruits. She liked it a lot.

Because of the wind, we decided to come home on the 3:30 ferry, which proved to be a very good idea. After a soak in the hot tub and a quick sauna, we came back to our room and found a voicemail from some new Russian friends who had an invitation for four people to the horse show at Hacienda Andalucía. We got the message exactly in time that we could still say yes.

Many of the guests at this show, like our friends, had just bought timeshares. The horse show is a regular thank-you gift, and as a result the resort people are pretty generous about the free liquor. Alla, Alexei and Natasha enjoyed lavish amounts of tequila reposado while I consumed an obscene number of virgin piña coladas. No doubt everybody felt really good about their timeshare purchases by the end of the evening, and the show was pretty good too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Little adventures

Today we went out with gifts we wanted to deliver to people who were especially nice to us last year. We tracked down our reservations agent at the Cancun Service Center, which provides reservation and telephone support to multiple unaffiliated hotels. It’s located in an old hacienda at the edge of a golf course, and the building still shows a lot of the charm of old Mexico.

Inside we found a little café, run by an employee of the service center. She built a little wooden stand on the edge of the lobby, serving mainly employees from within the building. She served us too, delicious mango-strawberry smoothies. She probably should have been back at her main job inside, but she stayed out at the stand to chat with us while her employee made our drinks. I really enjoy the friendly atmosphere we encounter throughout Cancun.

Our bigger adventure began after dinner tonight, when Alla noticed a Panamanian passport lying on the ground in the street. The passport was issued seven days ago to a 21-year-old guy, and we expect that he’ll miss it as soon as he thinks about going home to Panama. We tried to find him at the two hotels nearest to where we found the passport, but they didn’t know him. We did learn, however, that there’s a Panamanian Consulate in town, so we’ll call up tomorrow and let them know that we have it. We figure the passport’s owner will call the consulate as soon as he realizes he’s lost it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fashionista once again

Now I know all about that mysterious tent they set up in front of the resort next door. It was for a fashion show called Cancun Moda Nextel 2011. I even found their press release where they talked about a special Russian supermodel whom they would not name and music by Carlos Vives, from Colombia.

It took several days to set up all the staging, which included a temporary floor atop the sand, a huge array of those motorized spotlights which dance around and change colors, and a couple of truly huge jumbotron LED displays. Since all this went up at the hotel next door to us, I wandered by from time to time to get a look at all the fancy gear. Whenever I went by, I spoke to the workmen, or at least waved at them. Yesterday morning, I stopped to talk with a bunch of guys sitting around waiting for their duties to start. I asked about when the show would begin, and they told me 7:30 that evening. I knew from the press release that guests were asked to wear white and orange, so I dressed up in a white guayabera shirt and white pants and walked over. No guests had arrived yet, so I walked around and took pictures of the setup. On my way back home, I saw the same guys from this morning and came over to find out what 7:30 was all about.

It turns out that my guys were part of the security crew, and they referred me to their boss nearby. He asked me if I were a guest, which sounded about right so I said yes. Then he asked me if I were a VIP, and I assured him that I’m just a regular guy. Once we sorted my status, I asked him about when the music would start. He didn’t have a clear timeline for the evening, but told me that he didn’t think it could possibly start before ten o’clock. Meanwhile, feeling pretty exposed standing around I the empty space with nothing to do, I decided to go back to my hotel for a while.

By this time, all the security guys had spread out over the perimeter of the show area. Apparently that’s what happened at 7:30. So I went from the security boss to the security guy closest to my hotel and told him I was stepping out but that I’d be back in about 45 minutes.

The show started much later than that. I could see people assembling at the next-door resort, eating and chatting before they finally filed down to the beach. I thought it would be very un-cool to arrive from the beach while everybody else arrived on the hotel staircase, so I waited. Then the tent filled up almost to capacity and I got engrossed in writing a letter in Russian, which takes me a long time. I missed the whole fashion show, but when that ended folks spread out enough that I felt OK about walking in.

My security guard was still there, and he let me in, teasing me a little bit about my long 45 minutes. Everybody milled about, so I walked around a bit myself and got into line at the bar, where I ordered a mineral water. I was relieved to see that the bartender didn’t ask for money, because I had none.

Later, after the music started and everybody had eaten something, I went and tried out some of the leftover food. I liked the desserts best, and by the time I went home I’d had four of them. I was surprised when I got home to learn that it was 2 a.m. and the band had been playing without any real break since 11 p.m. In fact, I continued to listen to the band through the walls and windows in the room, and I think they didn’t stop playing until 5 a.m. I guess it was a heck of a party, and in any event I didn’t sleep much. Both at the party and in my bed, I really enjoyed the music. The band played various styles, all with a Latin flavor. I particularly enjoyed the Latino rock, and I had a great time watching the beautifully-dressed people who came to the show.

From 2011-11 Cancun

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The sour cream bowl

[Today’s entry is a guest post by Alla’s daughter Nika]

Yesterday my mom and I headed out to La Fiesta Mexican Outlet about half a mile from our hotel. Neither of us really needed anything, and I didn’t even have any pesos in my wallet, for that matter, but I thought I’d keep her company, we’d have a nice walk, and it’d be fun to take another look at the ceramics, sarongs, and tourist knick-knacks we’ve both already seen. Leaving the hotel room, I asked, “So what are you shopping for, anyway?” and she said, “Nothing, I’m just coming to keep you company.” Funny, I thought I was going to keep her company.

We walked over to the Outlet, politely declining all the offers from solicitous vendors at the Mexican Flea Market on the way. We had a destination, and, what’s more, we had a coupon for the Outlet. Plus, the Outlet took US dollars! I had a twenty in my wallet and I was starting to think I might find something I “need” after all.

At the store, I methodically went up and down the aisles to see what they had – frosted glass margarita glasses, belts, ponchos, blankets, tooled leather of all quality and price ranges, rows of tequila and chocolate products, bathing suits, straw hats, traditional toys, Mexican-style cotton tops and dresses, and, most interesting to me, lots of square footage devoted to many types of colorful ceramics. I found two small lidded boxes with bird and fish motifs on bright backgrounds, glitzed up with a touch of sparkles under the glaze, put them in a shopping basket, and went to find my mother.

She was by one of the cheap souvenir stands, paying her respects on bended knee to a stack of ¼ pint bowls. She was holding a bright one with a picture of a toiling Mexican man in a verdant field, with an extravagant sunset behind him. “What do you think? I want something to take to Belarus to remind us of Mexico.” That was as good a pretext as any to launch into an intent debate on what functional or decorative purpose this tiny receptacle would serve in an apartment that I was pretty sure was already well-endowed with ceramics. I wasn’t sure about the Mexican, though – he was painted with very little detail, the place where his face would have been obscured in the picture by a load-carrying arm, presumably to keep the diagram simple, and the bowl an affordable $3. It seemed like too obvious a symbol of the faceless toilers by whom we’re surrounded here in Cancun, working tirelessly to make a living by making our stays comfortable.

I turned to the rack next to me, and picked up a slightly bigger bowl with a pretty pastel bird pattern on a chocolate background. “What about this one?” “No, that one is $5, and these are only $3.” Ah, so we were dealing with a classic case of “I want to buy something but I don’t need anything, so I should spend as little as possible.” I indulged my mother for a bit by discussing the relative merits of green, burgundy, and orange backgrounds and bird, fruit, or toiling Mexican motifs, and, seeing as the choice was overwhelming for the size of the task, helpfully suggested that perhaps one dish could be for serving sour cream and another might be placed in the bathroom to house rings when my mom takes them off to apply lotion. She liked the expanded shopping license and I waltzed off, thinking settling on two bowls ought to make it easier to decide. I did another turn or two around the outlet, and considered another souvenir for a friend. Fifteen minutes later, my mother was still at her post, the original selection widely expanded, no closer to a decision. “I really like this teal one with the fruit, what do you think? There are also these 3 other ones, with different fruit arrangements.” “If you already like one, why do you need to pull five others off the shelf to make it complicated? Just go with the one you want.” “Because it’s fun to look.” We went back and forth with this current selection, and at least I talked her out of having a faceless Mexican under her sour cream. I went for another lap, reminding her that we had a dinner reservation and should probably head back to the hotel soon.

Five minutes later, she was still crouching by the bowls. “Nika!,” she cried despondently when she saw me, “I have a crisis! I put the teal bowl back and went away for a second, and now it’s gone! Someone else has bought it!” “That’s God telling you not to buy it. But there is no one else shopping for these, I doubt someone else took it.” We looked for a minute among the myriad colors and painted papaya/banana/watermelon combinations for just that one. I was wondering why she had put it down if she had felt so strongly about it, or if she didn’t care that much, why we were still here. We found it after a few minutes, my mother rejoicing at the reunion and decisively heading to the cash register with me, finally. As my boxes were getting wrapped up, she held it up and asked, “Do I need this?” I was already invested in the deliberations and urged her to commit to her choice. The transaction finally complete and the darned bowl in my bag, we headed back to the hotel. “Save the receipt,”  she said as we walked out. “I might want to come back tomorrow and trade it for that pastel bird one.”

Isla Mujeres

Every time we’ve been in Cancun somebody has mentioned Isla Mujeres, always favorably. We always intended to go there, but somehow always got distracted by other activities until yesterday. Wow! Now I want to go back.

We took the 9 a.m. ferry and walked indirectly to the Hotel Avalon. We went there because the last person to recommend Isla Mujeres had worked at that hotel until recently and he told us that they have a nice beach beside a friendly bar, and if we order a drink or two they’ll let us hang out on their beach. And we walked indirectly because we got a little bit lost, but in a good way. We walked around the back side of the island and contrasted beautiful views of the craggy coral-encrusted coastline with the washed-out buildings not yet repaired after a hurricane from a few years ago.

At last we approached the bridge to Avalon by way of a beautiful strait dividing the tiny island of Avalon from Isla Mujeres. Once across the bridge, we found the hotel people just as friendly as promised. We bought some virgin piña coladas and settled in at their very quiet beach. After a while we got hungry, and went back to the hotel bar for lunch. They made us delicious fish tacos, and the waiter served us with food-delivery stunts and plenty of smiles.

After lunch, the waiter confided in us, suggesting that we should go through the hotel to a private tidal pool at the back, called the King’s Bath. He also gave us a few pieces of bread to feed the fish. The fish must have been hungry, because they swarmed us as we scattered crumbs on the water. We swam around in the pool and found a wider variety of fish and coral than we’d seen anywhere else in Cancun, all in microcosm.

We explored the villas near the pools, often remarking on the beautiful gardens and breathtaking views. Finally I went and asked at the front desk what it would cost to stay at this paradise. The villas, this season, sell for $110 (US) per night. Considering the view, the beauty of the place, and the delicious food, it sounds like an amazing bargain. I don’t know what the rooms look like inside, but I don’t care. I’m eager to add a couple of nights to our next trip and stay at the Hotel Avalon villas. And eat more fish tacos.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mystery tent

Last night some members of our party noticed a bit of banging as workers drove giant stakes to support a huge tent. We walked by the tent this morning as we went to swim at a neighboring beach. Workers had apparently worked all night long, and were tightening down the last few guy wires as we walked by. Then they went away and left the tent empty. We saw huge tire tracks in the sand, but did not learn who might use the tent and for what purpose.

This evening another vehicle approached the tent. This time we saw a huge 18-wheeler creep ahead along the sand, assisted by a large crew of workers moving plywood sheets to create a track for the truck. Tomorrow, then, I expect at least to learn what was in the truck. Maybe I’ll even know what it’s for.
From 2011-11 Cancun

Monday, November 21, 2011

Alla wins the contest

At our resort’s welcome party last night, they sought out two men and two women for the last event on the program. As the master of ceremonies scanned the crowd looking for a female volunteer, I pointed at Alla, who cringed and tried to make herself too small to notice. This didn’t hide her, however, and since I wore a bright red shirt and unusually wild white hair, the guy called her to the stage. Then he explained the contest. While he described it as a dance contest, Alla observes that it was really more about seduction. They rounded up a male and female volunteer who sat in a chair, and then the dancers were supposed to dance across the room in an alluring way toward the seated target.

The male and female resort employees leading the show demonstrated first. Since they perform this act for a living, they’ve gotten quite good at it. The male dancer , for example, removed his belt and used it as a prop with lower-body movements borrowed from burlesque shows. Next they invited the guy in the Batman T-shirt to try out his version of the dance. He was great, and I thought he might win. A young female Latino guest danced second, attempting to copy the female performer’s sexy example. She danced hard, but without any particular success. The second man called himself Superman, and he out-did Batman, adding a few personal flourishes to the original choreography.

At last Alla danced. She ignored the choreography, cut the dance tempo in half, and approached her victim very slowly. As soon as the music started, she unclipped her hair, which fell in a lush curly mass. (Her hair gets lots of body in humid conditions.) She maintained hypnotic eye-contact with the poor guy, who was sweating profusely by the time she reached him. The professional and the first volunteer came and touched him. Alla didn’t think that would be appropriate for her, so she just came close and teased him with her hands near his face. Everybody loved Alla’s act, and the disk jockey wouldn’t turn off the music until she’d danced about twice as long as everybody else.

So, you can guess whom the audience chose as the winner. There never was a question. Alla took home a nice Mexican blanket as her prize.

No camera today

I didn’t take my camera with me today because I didn’t expect to see anything I hadn’t already photographed many times before. I guess I forgot that every day is different. I certainly could have taken some interesting photographs.

I don’t regret at all leaving the camera behind when we went out for our morning walk. We went to the northern end of our beach, where a man-made breakwater creates a pool of placid sea. We set our hats and sunglasses down on the sand and went out to float around in water Alla describes as being warm as fresh milk. Never having been that close to a cow, I’ll take her word for it. I don’t float well in fresh water, but I always enjoy floating around in a warm sea.

I did have a little trouble floating at one moment, which Alla found quite amusing. I had noticed a particularly alluring bathing suit. Or, to be more accurate, I noticed the owner of the bathing suit. Anyway, I was a little distracted until she got into the water.

On our way to lunch we met a guy who grew up around here and he gave us some useful advice about things to do. One of his suggestions related to a nearby restaurant, which we found soon after. It’s located beside a little public beach we’d never seen before because it’s on the other side of the breakwater. This beach attracted a different class of people than we see on the more private hotel beaches, and we enjoyed the colorful crowd.

We didn’t eat there, however, because I had in mind a less expensive restaurant our driver told me about on the way in from the airport. I’m not sure I found the place he told me about, but we liked it very well. It was a tiny place, without indoor seating. The owner and his cook took really good care of us, feeding us delicious Mexican food for not much money. I’m eager to go back.

We spent some time after our late lunch riding the bus downtown and buying groceries. Most tourists don’t go downtown, and it feels different there. I’m not sure I would have liked to take a lot of pictures, but we certainly enjoyed the vibrant and colorful atmosphere.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two or more mistakes

I got sucked into the first mistake by an e-mail from Borders inviting me to buy a $25 restaurant coupon for $3. It sounded like a good deal at the time, so I bought a coupon while we were still in Belarus last June. All summer long, I was thinking, “I don’t want to forget to use that valuable restaurant coupon while I’m still in the USA.” (This may have been another mistake, but who’s counting?)

We made the next mistake a few nights ago when we decided to find a local restaurant where we could use our coupon. We knew some of the restaurants on the list, but decided to try a new one in the Italian part of town. When I opened the page where I could customize my $25 coupon to the restaurant we chose, I was a little concerned to read several paragraphs of fine print about when and how we could use the coupon. Unfortunately, it was late at night and I didn’t want to waste any more time re-thinking our choice of restaurants. That decision didn’t work out so well this time.

When we got to the restaurant, we had a wide choice of tables. That is to say, there was just one other couple in the entire place. We thought hard enough to recognize that this is generally a bad sign, but we had our stupid $25 coupon in our hands and decided to eat there anyway because the reviews said the food was better than the service, and we felt pretty confident we wouldn’t have any trouble getting the waitress’ attention when we wanted her.

I won’t count any more mistakes, but I’ve got to say that the food wasn’t all that great and the coupon didn’t make it any kind of a bargain. After applying the coupon, our bill came to $61 for simple bland food based on less than $20 worth of ingredients. Let’s just say that we learned a few things this evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Islamic art at the Met

Alla and I were eager to see the new Islamic art wing recently installed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We tried to book a room but couldn’t find any good enough deals, so we decided to go down just for a day. This turned out to be a pretty good idea.

We started on the 6:30 a.m. Lucky Star bus, from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown New York. We caught up on our sleep during the first part of the ride, and then we enjoyed the fall colors as we rolled through Connecticut. It’s a beautiful time of year to pass through Connecticut, since the lawns still look juicy and green while the trees sport their red and yellow autumn leaves. Encountering no serious traffic, we reached New York in four hours and got to the Museum at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/2011.

Off to an excellent start, we showed our MFA membership cards (from Boston's Museum of Fine Art) when we went to buy our tickets to the Met. I’m not sure if they were supposed to give us a 100% discount, but that’s what we got. Grateful, we splurged on a delicious lunch at one of the Met's fancier restaurants when we finally took a break. First, however, we hurried straight to the new wing.

The Islamic Art wing includes two special installations, a Moroccan courtyard and a sitting room after the Ottoman style from Damascus, Syria. I especially liked these two installations, and went back to them a couple of times after I’d seen everything else.

Alla and I also enjoyed seeing lots of other installations at the Met. While she isn’t terribly fond of modern art, I am. So we gave ourselves a block of time to explore independently, and then we came back to discover that we’d each seen great stuff, much of which did not overlap.

When we finally decided that we’d both seen enough, we went back to Chinatown. Conveniently, we got there just before the 7:00 bus left for Boston and we still had food with us that we had originally intended to eat as a picnic lunch. Instead we had a picnic dinner on the bus and got home at a very comfortable hour. The whole trip flowed so well that we’re eager to do it again and see other parts of that museum or visit other museums.

To see more of our pictures, click here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Free money from Boston Gas

The State government has decided that gas meters in Boston are too dangerous to keep for a long time. As a result, every few years the gas company comes out and installs a replacement meter. As I understand it, they take the old meters back to their warehouse, wave their hands over them and declare them safe, then re-install them in somebody else’s house.

I’m not too excited about any of this stuff, but since they are excited, I accepted their proposal last week that they come over. They wouldn’t tell me exactly when they intended to come, but it would be sometime between noon and 6 p.m. and they’d call to confirm before coming over. Alla and I dutifully waited all afternoon on the appointed day but nothing happened.

At first we thought that since we don’t really care about the new meter, we’d just ignore their failure and go out of town. But then we thought about our poor house-sitter dealing with their annoying calls and I decided to see if I could make the gas company feel guilty enough to give us a specific appointment they would actually honor.

The gas company found itself unable to promise a more specific time, but they offered us a $50 credit for the inconvenience. OK. I’ll take it. Heck, at this rate they can stand me up as often as they want. I have plenty to do at home anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Today one of the vendors at Haymarket had a big pile of red fuzzy-looking things a little smaller than a tennis ball. "What's that?" I asked.

He had a mouthful of something or another, so he simply pointed at his mouth and said something like "Mmurff." His assistant noted that the sign said "rambutan."

I'd heard of rambutan, but if I've ever eaten it I don't remember it, and at least I've never seen it fresh inside its husk. So I asked if it were good. The assistant didn't answer, possibly because he speaks limited English. The boss chewed. And chewed. He didn't hurry to swallow whatever filled his mouth, but finally found his voice and told me that they're good and that they're something like lychee. I stood around, hoping he'd offer me a sample, but he offered me nothing.

Meanwhile, couple from Southeast Asia came by, got very excited, and bought a big bag of them. They advised me to do the same, so I finally bought a pound. Peeling off the husk, I found a shiny white sphere inside. (It looked to me like an eyeball, a fact which I decided to ignore.) I gave Alla a bite and then I took the second half. It was delicious. I opened another one for Alla and another for myself. And another.

I turned around and returned to the stand, telling the head guy that I'd made a mistake. He looked suspicious. I elaborated that I'd only bought one pound of rambutan and should have bought two. He said, "I tried to tell you you'd like it." His assistant filled my bag generously. Alla and I munched rambutan most of the way back home. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Some of my foreign friends are curious about this peculiar American holiday, Halloween. Others, it seems, know quite a bit about it. I’ve seen photographs of Halloween parties in Belarus, and at least some folks have got the costume part down pretty well. But I think the Americans really excel at candy distribution.

It wasn’t always this way. My dad describes the Halloween of his boyhood as being mostly tricks. Kids would make noisemakers and try to scare their neighbors. The “trick or treat” business really lived up to the slogan. The tricksters engaged in petty extortion, hoping to get bribed out of pulling pranks.

By the time I came along, the adults had mostly given up and bought plenty of candy to give away. I remember when the Mars Company started marketing those tiny candy bars. It meant that I got a lot more Three Musketeers bars, my favorite, but they kept getting smaller and smaller.

When I moved to the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston I discovered adults in the neighborhood having as much fun with the holiday as the kids. Some folks dressed up in scary costumes and sat outdoors to greet the kids. Luci and I joined the trend, but we discovered that sometimes a costume can be too scary and the smallest kids are afraid to approach the candy dish. Still, having gotten all dressed up we’d take turns walking around the neighborhoods to see how everybody else got dressed up.

Because houses are very close to each other in our neighborhood and lots of people like to participate in the holiday, kids from other neighborhoods started coming over here to go trick-or-treating. Ultimately the crowds got so big that the Civic Association and the police department agreed to block off a few streets to protect the kids from moving vehicles. Our house is outside of the blocked-off area so we don’t get any kids here, but that means that we are completely free to dress up and walk around in the crowds. We love to do that.

This year we finally thought to mention to our friends Henry and Gabriela that their daughter and son might enjoy trick-or-treating here instead of close to their more suburban home. And we felt pretty confident that Henry and Gaby would arrive in style. Indeed, they all arrived in style, and we had a great time patrolling the streets. Amazingly, the kids didn’t eat a single piece of candy until after they had come back inside the house and eaten dinner. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I had three, and I wasn’t even collecting treats.

For more, see 2011-10 Halloween

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I probably shouldn’t be writing about this

Today Alla and I had lunch at the restaurant run by a local cooking school. They serve a three-course lunch from a very interesting menu for $10 per person. They also serve dinners for $12 per person, but we couldn’t get any reservations until December so we settled for lunch. They warned us not to expect perfection, because it’s a school. Sure enough, the waiter dropped my dessert on his way to the table. No problem: He brought me another one right away.

They certainly didn’t make any serious mistakes with the food. Wow, we really loved it. In fact, we made lunch reservations once a week for every week when we’re in town and they have students. We got a dinner reservation too, for their last week before Christmas break. Apparently some people who live near the school eat there three times a week and they’ve already booked most of the slots.

That’s why I’m not sure I should be mentioning this in my blog. I don’t want anybody else in Boston to know about it, but since I think most of my readers live elsewhere I’ll let you see a few pictures of our food.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Silent Sunday

I thought it would be fun to do something sufficiently interesting to write about every day this week. But on Sunday I didn't.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Super Saturday

I liked yesterday even better than Friday. I started out at church, working on projects I’d prepared for over several days. I’m co-chair of the Maintenance and Property committee, and my partner and I gathered the troops to think about our five-year plan. The two years previous I didn’t manage to get everybody’s input on the long-term plan and I kept turning in documents I’d prepared with very little help and, honestly, insufficient information.

This year everybody managed to stay focused on the main project with only a little pressure from me. I think it’s the best five-year plan we’ve ever produced, and I’m proud of us all for our success. Following that initial success, we set in on a list of projects we’d agreed on for a church work day. A bunch of other church members came to join us, and together we produced obvious results. One group polished all the pews while another group polished up the Sunday School tables and undertook other deep-cleaning projects in the Sunday School. Meanwhile, I cleaned out the accumulated clutter from our coat room and from the Sunday School balcony. It’s impossible not to notice how much better things look.

After lunch I went out for my first bike ride in several days. I’d been prevented from riding by general business with guests from out of town and later by rain. Yesterday, however, I rode like a locomotive. I noticed in the middle of my ride that I was hitting the hills harder than usual and feeling great. I decided to see how fast I could go all the way home, and held my pace all the way.

Finally, we had a delightful evening with our friends John and Rebecca. Rebecca grew up in a family of Mexican immigrants, and she cooked us a traditional Mexican dinner with homemade corn tortillas. I love fresh corn tortillas, almost as much as I love Rebecca and John. (When I’m hungry, maybe I love the corn tortillas even more.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fun Friday

Yesterday we went to see Kings of Salsa at a nearby theater. I hadn’t been sure I even wanted to go, but when we found a way to buy some half-price tickets we figured we’d give it a shot. The last time we went to a salsa-music concert we became bored by repetitious music and were afraid it would happen again. It didn’t. We definitely were not bored.

For starters, our seats turned out to be quite good. Our half-price entry got us into the center of the mezzanine, far enough away that the music wouldn’t be painfully loud but still close enough that we could see well. This was our first experience buying half-price tickets from Goldstar, and we’re impressed that we got decent seats. With other agencies, our half-price tickets generally led to the worst seats in the house.

We both loved the show. The group played a variety of salsa styles, and accompanied nearly all of the music with fabulously-beautiful dancing. These folks didn’t count out standard eight step patterns, but performed far more complex pieces reminiscent of modern dance based on classical fundamentals. Alla liked the show so much that she tried to get a ticket to see the show again today, though she didn’t succeed.

We did see a little standard eight-step salsa after the intermission. They invited the audience onto the stage, and a cast of brave dancers took them up on it. The master of ceremonies asked some of the best dancers about themselves. The first guy said that his name was Andrew and he came from Belarus. We had noticed a few people speaking Russian in the lobby and knew anyway that the audience would include Russians because we see them at every cultural event in Boston. So the Russians began to applaud. I probably made more noise than the rest of them, however. I found myself yelling at the top of my lungs, “BELARUUUUUS!” People turned to look.

After the audience members cleared from the stage, the band invited a local musician to sit in with them. A Cuban professor of piano at Berklee College of Music came up and offered us a completely different interpretation of salsa style. The party never really ended. The troupe performed the planned second half of the show, said goodbye, and then apologized to the theater management and kept right on playing. We stayed until they decided they’d really better quit, perhaps before the big shots decided to shut off the lights. We loved it so much that Alla decided it was her favorite show of the whole year.

From 2011-10 Boston

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tourists in our own city

We’ve had friends in town, which motivated us to get out and see some stuff we ordinarily take for granted. It turns out we live in a pretty great city.

My favorite of our tourist adventures was the day we rented a car and drove out to the Berkshires. Alla and I haven’t been there in two or three years, and we really enjoyed coming back. It’s the most mountainous part of Massachusetts, and the hills are peppered with small towns that haven’t changed much in a hundred years. OK, they’ve changed some. But they’re incredibly quaint.

We went out there on Friday, just before Columbus Day Weekend. We chose Friday in order to avoid the crowds, and we generally succeeded. We saw lots of tour buses in Stockbridge, but that’s the only place we overlapped the leaf peepers. (“Leaf peepers” is New England slang for the tourists who arrive every autumn to see the fall colors. I suppose we use the term just a bit sharply because they’re the ones who clog up the roads for the rest of us.)

We strolled through several small towns and crisscrossed the grounds of Tanglewood where the Boston Symphony takes up summer residence. Bryant and Sam don’t generally walk as much as we do, and were pleased to discover the joys of travel by foot. We’re happy that they took our preferences in stride.

We finally left the Berkshires at just before 5:30 p.m. and estimated that we’d be home for dinner by 7:30. Unfortunately, others apparently shared our desire. Cars choked the turnpike and we drove long stretches at pathetically low speeds. Oddly, occasionally we’d hit a patch where we could drive at normal highway speeds but never for very long. I don’t understand how those fast areas open up in a road that’s generally choked, but I’m grateful that we had them. Still, I felt pretty exhausted by the time we got home, and we scaled back our dinner plans dramatically as a result.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Oktoberfest, Cambridge style

As in Germany so in Cambridge, folks gather for Oktoberfest — a chance to hang out together, eat and listen to music. I understand the German version may involve a little more beer than the Cambridge version, but I’m pretty confident that nobody beats our musical scene.

I volunteered to work at my church’s bookstore / reading room after church this afternoon, so Alla came to Cambridge with some sandwiches for us to eat together before I opened for business. Since the reading room is right in the middle of Oktoberfest, she didn’t manage to leave the area until well after I finished my three-hour shift. I got to spend a couple of hours there too, and had a very good time. Alla kept coming back to the reading room to tell me about arts and crafts she liked. I liked them too, but I didn’t get any pictures of them.

I did get quite a few pictures of bands and band members. Some of the band uniforms bore some similarity to conventional school band uniforms, but most of them were unified only by color schemes and general freakiness. I’m not sure the music would have sounded so good without the ridiculous uniforms, but we found them generally quite listenable and certainly very amusing.

I also enjoyed a participatory art project by an organization trying to solicit good ideas for the betterment of society. I visited this organization’s web site and found it pretty empty, but today’s project worked out well. They passed out blank sticky notes and marking pens, asking people to write down what makes them happy. I wrote down “eye contact” and put my note as high as I could reach. (Mine is the highest blue one, but not the highest note of all. In fact, somebody beat me by about a meter.)
There are more pictures in my album

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Early Mahler

We live near some great music schools here in Boston. We like to visit two of them, and yesterday we went to New England Conservatory to hear the first in a series of programs they are offering celebrating the life and work of Gustav Mahler.

Tickets to this event were free, but they came with a catch. In order to get a good seat, you had to arrive in time to hear an academic presentation at 5:30, and then you could keep your seat for the 7:30 concert. Truthfully, I wasn't too interested in the lecture, but Alla wanted to go and I figured that sitting through a potentially-boring lecture would be an OK price of admission for a concert in the Conservatory's gorgeous concert hall.

Well, the lecture was not boring. Gilbert Kaplan, the lecturer, really knows his stuff. He's a world-renowned conductor of Mahler's music and he speaks very entertainingly. He illustrated his talk with sheet music, comics, recorded music, and lively stories. I'm really glad we came to the lecture, which fully prepared us to listen to the program and helped us understand important aspects of Mahler's life.

After the lecture we ate a picnic dinner and returned to our seats for the concert. They played the original version of Mahler's First Symphony. This version did not please the audience when Mahler was young, and he reworked it over the course of twenty years to the version we know today. One of the Conservatory students spent the entire summer transcribing the original manuscripts for the use of the musicians and director at our concert, and we really enjoyed the results of his work.

Actually, the whole audience really enjoyed it. Perhaps the audience included more than a few students who knew the folks on the stage, but I think we all felt like we'd been treated to something extraordinary. Most of us probably like the final version better, but the original version still works really well and I don't think I've ever seen an audience show so much enthusiasm over a classical performance. Last night's audience went practically berserk with ecstasy. I'm super-glad that we went. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Busy weekend

Our friends Larry and Sarah came down from Vermont to visit us this weekend, and our friend Kai was already in town. We had lots to do.

Larry and Sarah came because we invited them to yesterday’s Beantown Jazz Festival, an annual event on a section of street in Boston’s South End. Berklee College of Music organizes the music, which they do extremely well. Berklee is the pre-eminent institution in the world for jazz musicians and students of other modern styles. They assembled a really fine lineup for this weekend, the weather cooperated, and everybody had a great time. In fact, I especially enjoyed watching the smiles on the faces of the many people in the audience at the last performance of the day. I think we all had a good time.

Kai came to Boston for a number of reasons, and we already got to see him earlier in the week. We were happy, then, that he was free to come join us for a while at the jazz fest. I sent him a text message again after lunch today to tell him that we’d be going to a bike race later in the afternoon. Kai replied that he was tied up at the Museum of Fine Arts. What do you know? That’s where we’d just finished lunch, and we were on our way to the very place where he was enjoying the art with another friend.

Before going to the art museum, Larry and I got up early in the morning for a bike ride around Spot Pond and the nearby reservoirs while our wives took a long walk along the Charles River. We got to the art museum right after church, just in time for lunch. Although we enjoyed our time there very much, none of us felt satisfied. We will go back soon to carry on where we left off. I love looking at art.

We “had” to leave, however, to go see the last bike race. There had been a public bike event earlier today, and lots of celebrations leading up to the races. By the time we got there, some of the sponsors realized that they had extra goodies which they had not given away, so we came home with lots of energy bar samples and other fun stuff. We liked the race too. Cyclists raced around City Hall in a short course called a criterium. This meant that the racers shot past us almost once every minute, providing a very energetic and entertaining show. We even got grandstand seats.

We like Boston a lot, but it’s true that we exaggerated when we told Larry and Sarah that every weekend is something like this. Still, it’s pretty special here. 
Don't forget to check out our other pictures.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freedom Rally

Yesterday was Boston’s 22nd annual Freedom Rally. I’ve missed all 22 of them, but I’ve heard plenty about them as the years went by. It was originally called Mass Grass, and has been commonly known as Hemp Fest. It’s all about smoking dope. The organizers figured that if a bunch of people got together and smoked their marijuana at once, there would be too many to arrest at once. There were arrests every year, but relatively few.

Alla and I got out-voted in November of 2008, when the people passed a statewide ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. I’m not completely sure what this means, but in practice it means that the Boston Common was a very smoky place on Saturday. I assume everybody who brought dope carried a small amount.

On the positive side, Alla finally knows what marijuana smells like. We walked across town yesterday to the South End Open Studios, an annual art event, and our walk took us across the Boston Common. Whoo-ee, what a crowd. What a strong aroma! Wishing to avoid any potential misunderstandings, I dragged Alla through the crowd pretty quickly.

It turns out she was familiar with the aroma anyway. “Smells like hemp,” she allowed. “We used to burn that stuff sometimes in Ukraine.”

Что такое «LUNCH»?

Мы с Аллой обычно говорим по-русски. К сожалению, мне кажется, что она забыла свой родной язык. Например, она может спросить «Что ты хочешь готовить для lunch-a.»

«ЧТО???» я отвечаю. Я никогда не отвечаю на этот вопрос. Я хочу говорить об обеде, не о lunch, lunch-e или другой падеж. Мы говорим по-русски. Всё!

Алла говорит, что можно сказать «ланч» по-русски, но я не уверен. Если это правильно, почему мой словарь не показывает это слово? Надо поговорить с другими людьми, людьми которые говорят каждый день по-русски.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I just got through the security inspection at San Francisco International Airport. In the words of Arlo Guthrie, “I was inspected, detected, neglected and selected.” It all started out so nicely. As Alla and I stood in the regular line, the lady at the super-fast line ran out of people to process and she invited us even though we are flying economy class and aren’t members of any Federal jump-to-the-head-of-the-line program. She sent us on to the standard inspection stations, but ahead of all the folks in the regular line. So far, so good.

Of course I know the drill. I took out my laptop, removed my shoes and emptied my pockets. I didn’t remove my belt because, as usual, I wore my nylon belt with the plastic buckle. Ordinarily, airport inspectors recognize that it’s not a threat and they let me keep it on. Today’s inspector, at the backscatter x-ray machine, felt that my little strip of cloth would ruin his detailed anatomical picture and he made me remove it. When I emerged from the far side of the x-ray machine the inspector drew my attention to the video screen and told me I could see my results. Curious, I waited. All I got to see, however, was that the screen turned green and said “OK.”

Unfortunately, however, “OK” did not mean I was free to go. The moment I turned away from the monitor another fellow held my suitcase aloft and asked me if he could look inside. Maybe he didn’t even ask. We both knew that he could do whatever he wanted. And then, just to add to the farce, a third inspector came along and asked if she could look inside my rucksack. Yes, fine. Look at everything. At least they didn’t want to look a second time at my computer or my shoes.

The suitcase guy turned out to be a trainee, and his teacher stood beside him as he ran through his program. First he told me not to touch any of my stuff until he had finished, and then he inspected my suitcase from all sides. I thought he couldn’t find the zipper and I finally pointed out that the main zipper was facing him. He said he knew that, but he had to start with a visual inspection.

Next he asked me if I had anything sharp or dangerous inside. This question scared me a little bit because the last time one of these guys asked me I said no and then they found a huge knife I’d forgotten in a side pocket on my previous (non-flying) vacation. In that case, the inspector told me that I’d committed the offense of lying to a Federal agent, but his boss decided not to press charges. I felt sure that I’d put my pocket knife into my checked baggage, but still didn’t feel altogether comfortable answering no this time.

Once the trainee deemed my suitcase safe enough to open, he unzipped the cover and started taking things out, dumping them into a little plastic tray. I didn’t care much about the stuff in the top layers, because the nicely-folded things lay closer to the bottom. He filled the tray, loosely, with underwear, swim suits, FiveFingers shoes (“Oh,” the boss said. “I want to get a pair of these. Very nice!”), water bottles and other little stuff. They spent extra time inspecting a package of three CR2032 batteries I had bought for a dollar each. Seeing the price tag, they told me I’d found a fantastic bargain.

Finally the tray was full but the inspector was not satisfied. “What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Metal,” he answered.

I allowed as how I had an umbrella on the bottom, but that didn’t impress him. Meanwhile, the other inspector rooted through my rucksack and produced the little zipper bag I fill with chargers and cables for my electronic stuff. She ran the rucksack and chargers back through the x-ray separately and decided they were safe. By this time the trainee had dug almost to the bottom of my suitcase, piling my nicely-folded slacks in the ever-growing heap in his little plastic bin. He found my military-style belt with the metal buckle. “Oh,” he mused, “maybe that was it.” He decided to run everything through the x-ray again. I objected that my teetering pile of clothes would surely collapse as it entered or exited the x-ray machine’s heavy door flaps, so he scooped up the top layer and dumped it unceremoniously into a second tray.

Not surprisingly, everything checked out OK once they knew that they were worrying about an ordinary belt buckle. He gave me back all of my stuff in a state of high disarray and asked me if I needed any additional help. I declined with a smile. “No, thank you,” I said. “You’ve helped me enough already.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Visiting Turkmenistan

I’ve never been in Turkmenistan, and I’m not sure I’ll ever end up visiting there, though I know quite a few Turkmen from the Minsk State Linguistic University. I got to thinking about Turkmenistan today, however, as a result of spending a few hours at San Francisco’s Museum of Asian Art. The museum opened my consciousness in the way that art so often does. I felt a vague buzzing down my spine as I marveled at the beauty of the individual works and the context of many works of Asian art in a cascade of presentations.

I don’t think I even saw anything from Turkmenistan, and from what I know Turkmen traditions differ from the styles featured in today’s exhibits. Nevertheless, being in the museum reminded me of how wide the world really is and how much of the world’s riches I have yet to enjoy. I toured Asia once, long ago, and haven’t given it much thought in recent years. It’s expensive to get there and I’ve been enjoying places I can reach fairly easily and where the cultures are familiar.

Then today, I got re-introduced to Asian art. It speaks of cultures I don’t know, histories I barely know and people I know mainly as immigrants. I want to know it better, and I don’t mind experiencing some inconvenience in order to do so. I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat, for example, and now I understand the richness of cultures around this iconic site. I wouldn’t go halfway around the world to see just one thing, but I’m curious to know more about the people, customs, sights, smells and flavors practically filling a hemisphere I’ve barely seen.

Heck, I might even go to Turkmenistan. But I should probably visit Turkey first.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Francisco

Fog engulfed the city last night, as practically every night during summer in San Francisco. I hoped it would burn off by nine or ten o’clock in the morning, but when I stepped out onto Mary’s back balcony the cold wet wind drove me back indoors. I decided to get my morning workout once again on the Lyon Street Steps. I hustled up and down the long staircase for an hour, seeing very little of the view and very much of the steps.

By the time I returned and showered, we saw signs of sunlight in the air. After lunch, we were able to head out without jackets and ride the bus to Chinatown. Alla had been looking forward to tea tasting for several months, and I came with her. We like to visit a company called Vital Leaf, where they stock an incredible variety of teas in big shiny metal canisters. Alla and I sampled a small variety of about fifteen teas and chose a few favorites to bring home. It’s amazing how two ounces here and four ounces there add up to a lot of tea. If you come to visit, don’t forget to ask Alla to brew a cup for you.

After tea we intended to cook dinner for ourselves at Mary’s apartment, but we got hungry before we reached home. So we walked from Chinatown only as far as Hayes and Kebab, a Middle-Eastern restaurant we discovered last week. The owner welcomed us back with a big smile and let his younger brother take care of us. Said brother ran back and forth in the restaurant with a big smile on his face, tending to each customer’s needs with a spirit of genuine welcome. We started with a meze plate including delicious baba ganoush and other tasty treats, and then we moved on to a wonderful vegetarian moussaka.

By the time we finished, we felt fortified to walk all the way home, where I still managed to eat another slice of sharlyn melon, a summer favorite difficult to buy in New England. Despite the foggy start, we enjoyed our day tremendously.

Monday, August 29, 2011


We came to spend the weekend with relatives John and Meredith. They have just bought a home in Woodside, in the southern part of Silicone Valley. Yesterday, in deference to Alla, we took a hike in the woods rather than ride our bikes. We enjoyed a long walk through a redwood forest up to the top of a ridge known as Skyline Drive. Alla saw her first banana slugs, including a particularly large and juicy specimen. Meredith invited me to join an elite club she joined as a child, but the initiation required me to kiss a banana slug and she wasn’t really able to tell me any compelling benefits of membership. Today I learned that John is a member too, but I still feel OK about the fact that I have not joined.

As we drove to and from the park, we passed dozens of cyclists. Traffic slowed to a crawl at a major crossroads, as cyclists whizzed hither and yon through the intersection and stopped at the local very fancy, very organic, natural foods store cum delicatessen. I remarked that perhaps one should not move to Woodside without first purchasing at least one bicycle. Fortunately, we have bikes. So this morning John, Meredith and I rode through that intersection and up to the top of Skyline Drive. The entire Los Gatos Racing Club rode past us when we stopped at the base of the hill. Naturally John and Meredith charged off to chase them and pass quite a few. Unfortunately, I’m not in that kind of condition right now and I managed to pass just a single straggler.

When they’ve put away their bikes, Woodside residents seem to spend lots of time at their backyard swimming pools. At least, that’s the way it appears to us as we listen to the quiet splashing sounds wafting through the bushes. As I write this, in fact, Alla is making quiet splashing sounds in John and Meredith’s pool, heated by roof-mounted solar panels. It’s quite a contrast to the Saturday morning cacophony of leaf blowers, and I’m quite happy to see that the leaf blower folks seem to have agreed on a fixed time for their endeavors.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Best day in a long time

I went for a bike ride today with my cousin Hal Cranston. We’re visiting him at his cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and he took me today for one of his favorite rides. We drove to Sierraville, a tiny town almost a mile above sea level. We left our car there and rode up over Yuba Pass under a clear blue sky. The shadows of huge pine trees sheltered us during the first part of the ride, and as we got higher we began to pass fragrant meadows filled with Indian corn lily and other plants I could have identified when I got Nature merit badge at Boy Scout camp.

Though I cannot name the rest of the meadow plants, I can say that they looked as good as they smelled. We passed huge fields of little white flowers, commented on little thickets of bright purple, and admired the ever-changing backdrop of the Sierra Buttes, high alpine valleys, and mountain streams.

After cresting Yuba Pass we descended into a little settlement called Bassetts, where we stopped at a combined general store and restaurant and bought a few fig Newtons to propel us up the next climb. At the top of this one we found a forested mesa with numerous small lakes sparkling behind the trees. By the time we stopped at Gold Lake I could hardly believe what I’d seen and experienced. I’d forgotten the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, its aromas and vistas. Staring across the pristine surface of Gold Lake, completely alone but for my close friend and relative, I could only whisper a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be there.

We returned by the same route, stopping again at Bassetts to refill our water bottles. Since I’d only drunk two bottles to that time, I decided to go light and fill only one bottle for the last leg of our journey. Unfortunately, I drank much faster under the afternoon sun, and my bottle ran dry a couple of miles before we crested Yuba Pass. Thinking to reach the pass before I got absolutely parched, I rode a little harder and pulled out ahead of Harold. Presently a couple of people in a yellow pickup truck slowed down beside me and rolled down the window to talk. They said that they’d seen Harold go off the road behind me and fall in the dirt at the side of the road. They added that they’d go back and check on him themselves had they not seen me.

I doubled back and learned that Harold hadn’t taken a serious fall, but had just bogged down in soft dirt when he drifted off the pavement. As we rode together again, the couple in the yellow truck returned to assure themselves that we were OK. They said they were prepared to load his bike into the back of the truck if he needed help, and we replied with gratitude and sent them on their way.

Then I begged Harold for a drink of his water. As soon as I returned his bottle, the yellow truck was back, and the passenger asked me if I’d like an extra bottle of water. Yes! With plenty of water, we powered over the pass in fine style and coasted downhill at a wonderfully high speed to our starting point.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy alpine scenery and situations. Now I want to get out my backpacking gear again and see more of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lobster bake

A member of my college alumni association, Joe Ayers, now works as a professor and researcher at an oceanographic facility on the shore near Boston. He invited our alumni club to a traditional New England lobster feast. I’ve heard of these things, but I’ve never before seen lobsters cooked this way.

We had to arrive early in order to dig a pit on the beach. (But somebody else got there even earlier so Alla and I escaped that task.) Then we piled alternating layers of wood with kindling and big rocks into the pit, and ended with as much material above ground as in the pit. Joe took a shortcut here and added barbecue fire-starting liquid to the wood before throwing in a ball of burning newspaper. The pile burned all afternoon while we swam in the ocean and ate hamburgers cooked on an ordinary gas grill. In addition, we spent a lot of time gathering wet seaweed, which we began even before the tide got low enough to expose it.

Finally the fire burned down enough that the hot rocks settled to ground level and we prepared the food. Joe taught us how safely to remove the bands from the lobsters’ claws, and we put the live lobsters and clams into huge steamer frames along with sacks filled with potatoes, onions and hot dogs. (Lobsters are only safe to eat if cooked alive. It’s apparently something like staying too long in the sauna.) We also laid out lots of corn with the silk removed and the leaves wrapped back around the kernels.

We stacked the two steamer frames on top of the hot seaweed and put two wet tarps on top. A little over an hour later, we removed the covers and took the food up to the lawn so everybody could fill their plates. Dinner tasted excellent, and we had a really great time preparing it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rainy day fun

We had big plans for Sunday, but then the rains began. Even though I carried a huge umbrella, my pants were dripping onto my feet when I got home from church. Our friends called and apologized that they could not come over for lunch as we had planned. They couldn’t imagine coming through the downpour and bringing their dripping children into our house.

Alla re-set the table for the two of us and we feasted on a meal originally intended to feed six. (Yes, we had leftovers.) We talked about going back to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Chihuly exhibit one more time before it closed, but decided against fighting the rain and the crowds. Instead, Alla curled up with a book and I got out the slide projector.

About two years ago my dad sent me thousands of slides that he had collected until sometime in the 1970’s when his lifestyle began to change. Overwhelmed, I put the boxes into a far corner and waited for an auspicious time to sort through them and decide which to keep. Finally, I decided after lunch to choose a few from these thousands to salvage.

The first box I opened contained the most recent stuff, from 1973-1974. My parents went to Japan a couple of times then, and my dad joined some mountaineering expeditions with the Mazama club in Oregon. I stormed through the slides, loading a roll at a time into my projector and picking out one or two photos from each roll. While I enjoyed some of the scenic photographs, I didn’t spend long with most of them. I developed a rhythm, click-click-clicking through a roll and stopping only for the really great photos.

After getting through half of the slides, I got tired, bored and hungry. I stopped for dinner and planned to put away the projector and save the remaining slides for later. I didn’t particularly enjoy looking through so many pictures of places I’d never seen and people I didn’t know. But after my break I decided to finish the project for the sake of efficiency. This time I found myself digging into the older stuff (where I appeared more often!) I found pictures depicting the Christmas when Santa brought my brother a toy saxophone and left me a toy trumpet. Roger hadn’t gotten up yet, so I rushed into my parents’ bedroom and told them I really wanted the saxophone. They allowed me to switch the instruments before Roger saw anything. I saw the saxophone again on Sunday, and it brought back far more than a memory of two little boys.

I also found pictures of our bikes decorated for Play Day at school. Play Day! I’d forgotten that too. Once a year we set aside all academic considerations and played. The festivities included a bicycle rodeo, for which we always decorated our bikes with colored crepe paper. A policeman would come to spend the morning with us and judge our cycling abilities. He would also run a little demonstration to show us how much time it takes to stop a car from the moment one of the teachers fired a piece of chalk into the pavement from a gun mounted on his bumper. Then he’d measure the distance from the chalk mark to the bumper and tell us all to be careful around cars.

All the slides are gone now. I selected about 800 favorites and sent them off to a slide-scanning service, where they promise to start work on my shipment sometime next month. The thousands of rejects have already left the city, sent wherever Boston buries its trash.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Something has got to change

Today I wrote a grossly over-simplified blog post about Proposition 13, the consequent failures of education, and the dumb things our Federal government has done lately. I worried that a poorly-educated electorate may be leading toward poor decisions in government (leading to more school cutbacks and... it got kind of black.) I decided not to publish it because it offered no constructive solution, but I am very concerned. The only good news I have in mind right now is that at least I felt free to write and potentially publish my concerns about the direction of the American government. In my other life, I never talk about politics at all.

Rather than publish a finger-pointing piece about people with bad ideas, I'd like to take steps to change the environment and encourage us all to talk together and even think together. But this has to happen mutually, and it can only happen with inspired leadership. Which we must, somehow, elect. (There I go again.)

I think we all need to set aside time to talk together. We may not agree, but if we don't make time to work toward a solution on the local level we will never figure out how to make a solution on the national level. I guess I'll start at my local church. Where will you start?