Monday, January 31, 2011

Dog-sled racing

Sergey and Irina saw an ad for international dog-sled races at some sort of a camp outside of Minsk. The entry fee of $2.30 got us admission to the races and free tea. Sergey promised us that we could hide out in his car if we got cold, so it was easy for us to accept. Knowing that we’d be standing around outside on a cold day (around 20-22°F), we dressed warmly and went off to meet them at the edge of town.

The events ran in increasing increments from one dog to eight dogs on a team, and the first event was the funniest. The teams started individually and raced against the clock. A one-dog team can’t pull a rider, but a dog does give a cross-country skier extra power, at least in theory.

The team seeded first had a little trouble at the start, as the dog veered to the side of the course before its skier talked it into straightening out and making him stumble in the turn. The third team got the best start. The dog shot straight ahead with complete focus as his mistress skied furiously, yelling “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” The crowd chanted along, yelling the same command to the dog and skier.

At last the announcer told us that the final team was from Belarus. A murmur swept through the crowd: “It’s one of ours!” We clapped and waited in rapt attention.

“Go!” the timer yelled. The dog trotted over to the admiring crowd and asked to be petted. We all yelled “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” The dog trotted ahead and sniffed at some more people. Then he snapped off towards the other side of the track, knocking over the skier, who came out of one ski. The skier got up and jumped back into the binding of his ski, but it was filled with snow and the ski fell off again on the first step. On the third, painfully slow try, the skier got the ski to stay on his boot and tried again to get the dog to pull. The dog wanted to go over and see somebody else over by the gate at the end of the spectators’ area and managed somehow to wring the harness from the skier’s waist. I figured at that point that the skier was just going to ski the race without the dog, because the dog certainly wasn’t helping.

Gamely, however, the skier caught the dog with a little help and reattached the harness. Off they went, into the woods and out of sight. We figured there was nothing more to watch, but suddenly the dog returned, this time completely free of his harness, and the skier came back, harness in hand, to do this race properly. I don’t think they did succeed in finishing the race. The dog didn’t really want to go far from its owner/trainer, who had been in the crowd all along.

I was captivated by whole camp where this race took place. They had a ropes course and a modified bobsled run, with mattresses instead of sleds. I would have loved to stay and play all day, but our friends weren’t as warmly dressed as we were, and it was their car anyway. I just think I need to go back so I can play on the ropes. And slide on a mattress. And ski.

In case it's useful to any of my readers, we were at

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Steve causes yet another international incident

Back in June, I published a story about a boat trip I took with a bunch of folks who don't speak much English. Everything was nice and quiet until recently, when I called Sergey's attention to a picture I'd posted of his family. When he looked around my Picasa web albums, he found my pictures of that trip and showed them to his coworkers who were on the trip.

Unable to read the related blog post in English, they ran it through Google Translate. The robotic translator amplified something that might have been taken as suggestive and offered text that could only be taken as suggestive. Since this amplified translation appeared next to a picture of me with a couple of women in bathing suits who hardly knew me, they felt appropriately scandalized.

Not wishing to exacerbate any tensions between countries already looking warily at each other, I have removed the offending photo and substituted a nice scenic photo which Irina recently gave to me.

Here's a picture of Sergey at the time he told us the story. I think I am safe here, since these people really are my friends and everybody is properly covered.

From 2011-01 Minsk

Thursday, January 27, 2011


This time of the year in Minsk we don’t see the sun very often. Although I believe it rises above the horizon before I start class at 9:45, I’ve never seen it that early in the morning because weather conditions don’t allow it. The sky is almost perpetually blocked with clouds, and the dynamic range of our weather generally starts at “could snow at any time” and ends at “light snow.”

That’s why we were so excited on Thursday when the sun came out. Alla and I decided to spend the afternoon outdoors, though I managed to squander an hour before we got outside and the sun already touched the tree-tops when we went out at 3:30. Still, we enjoyed the bright light for almost the duration of our hour-long ramble along the river near our apartment.

I also enjoyed especially nice weather on Sunday, when I took my skis to the 5 Km groomed track at the edge of the city. The buildings near the track are decorated with Olympic rings, and I have the clear impression that serious skiers work out here. At least that’s my favorite explanation for the fact that a lot of people passed me and I passed only a handful of other skiers during my two laps on the track.

It turns out that I probably didn’t need to bring my own skis either because rental is little more than $2 for skis, poles and boots. And since folks on rental skis kept passing me, I assume (hope) that the rental equipment is reasonably good.

Today we have more typical weather, so we will compensate by going to Philharmony to hear Brahms’ German Requiem. And tomorrow Alla is going early evening to receive a “prize” which she “won” from some German company that sells kitchen equipment here. They promised her that they would not try to sell her anything, but I have grave doubts about that claim. They also promised that they’d only keep her about 40 minutes, but I don’t believe that either. If they try to sell her a sunlamp, however, I think she will be a pushover.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


When we were kids, my brother became dissatisfied with his name and asked our parents why they couldn't have given him a good name. Our dad took the bait and asked him what would be a good name. Roger, apparently thinking ANY name would be an improvement, said "I dunno. How about Rips?"

Even though he grew nicely into his name, he never lived down the Rips business. The problem was that he hadn't thought through his answer in advance and the first thing to come into his mind happened to seem pretty funny to the adults. As his devoted brother, I have been considering this problem for more than a few years now.

I am very happy to report that I have finally found a better answer. I called tech support for Quicken the other day and was connected to a fellow in India. The connection wasn't the best, so it's possible I misunderstood, but I think he said his name was "Eye Socket." I couldn't be sure of this, so I asked him to repeat it to me. It still sounded like "Eye Socket," so I went with it.

What a breakthrough! I had never thought of the potential treasure-trove of names to be found in the human body. Roger is a writer, so he can't just pick any part of the body. He needs something that conveys his nose for news and attentiveness to nuance. My suggestion for him, then, would be "Olfactory Epithelium." True, it's a little bit hard to spell, but people who read his stuff are smart and I'm sure they can handle it. And "Olfactory Epithelium" is so powerful that he would no longer need a last name at all. He would instantly catapult himself to celebrity status.

I can't wait to tell him.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I wrote earlier about our leaky toilet. The plumber had told us to buy a part and he would come back to install it. Unfortunately, every time we called the municipal plumbers, we would learn that all plumbers were chopping icicles from rooftops or, later, in training.

Exasperated, I finally decided to install the part myself. I am not put off by the idea of installing toilet parts because I’ve done it numerous times and have a good idea how everything in an American toilet works. The plastic assembly we bought, however, came from Russia and didn’t look familiar at all. It has an amazing number of moving parts and fragile-looking appendages. Inconveniently, the multi-page instruction manual was written in Russian. I never seriously considered reading the directions because I figured that learning a whole new vocabulary including words like “float valve” and “adjustment armature” would be way more trouble than benefit.

Installing a flush valve in this toilet involves removing the tank from the bowl and disconnecting the old drain. The mechanisms are too complicated and non-standard to allow customers to buy a generic mechanism to mount on a generic drain as an American handyman might do. I took the toilet apart and installed the new mechanism without much trouble. Next I fiddled with the various things that appeared to be adjustable until I got it to fit and function in our toilet. After less than an hour, I enjoyed the illusion of success.

Unfortunately, I very soon realized that the new flush valve leaked, though not as much as the old one. I fiddled and experimented, and finally decided that our Russian flush valve was the piece of trash one of the sales guys had warned us about when he tried to sell us a more complex valve from Poland.

Exasperated, I planned to buy a new valve, and was pleased to discover another plumbing supply store next door to the office where I was continuing my bureaucratic battle to be registered in Minsk. We stepped in to buy whatever flush valve they had with real rubber at the bottom. I was dissuaded, however, by a private plumber who overheard us and swore that our Russian valve really would work with enough fiddling. I had already done all the fiddling he described, but was gullible enough to take the toilet apart two more times today and I actually did reduce the dripping, probably by accident.

I didn’t really intend to do today’s repairs myself, but decided I had little other choice once I learned that no plumber in Belarus drives around in a vehicle with spare parts and that any effort to call a plumber was likely to result in another consultation fee and a new shopping list for me to fill. Brilliantly, then, I spent time fiddling around with a lousy valve that I still ended up ready to replace.

I am remembering wistfully the simple Czech valve we saw a week ago before I knew what I was doing. I wonder if I can still get one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Short shrift

I will give several topics short shrift in this entry because I’ve been too busy to write and I have a lot to talk about.

First we’ll start with the Holiday Pops concert at Philharmony. I was going to write about how much more serious (in general) the music was than at the Boston Pops, and about how much flashier the stage was in Minsk. Short on space, I’ll just post a picture and tell you that the curtain of lights around the stage presented moving images. Each sphere held multi-colored lights, and the lights switched on and off like pixels on a computer screen. The lights would change color and create patterns in time with the music.

After the pops concert and before the hockey game found ourselves very busy with health-care matters because Alla slipped on the ice. Fearing that she’d dislocated something in her arm, she phoned around trying to find a clinic with both an X-ray machine and a traumatologist. Among the fancier clinics, she found one or the other, but never both. Nobody except the State was licensed to offer both, so she opted for their clinic.

Once again, space constraints prevent me from saying much about this clinic. Let’s just say that they appeared to have a single wheelchair, and we saw a lot of people hopping around because they’d hurt a foot or leg in the same way Alla hurt her arm. My heart also went out to the patients there, who typically wouldn’t be there if they could afford a private clinic. One guy went home with no pants on, and I wondered if it was because he was unwilling to cut the leg off of his pants after the doctors put a cast on his leg. Or maybe it was just because the clinic was in such a hurry. And the lady in front of Alla had broken her shoulder and worried about the fact that the doctors may have to cut her sweaters and undershirt off of her. The sweater on the outside looked quite old and worn, and we doubt that she had many other options at home.

They told Alla that nothing was broken, and we certainly hope that this proves to be accurate. Her first 24 hours were very difficult, but now she seems to be on the mend. She did make herself an appointment with a traumatologist at a private clinic on Sunday morning, just to be sure.

Last night I went with friends to a hockey game at Minsk Arena. I really enjoyed it, along with the energy of the fans. We were seated not far from the “Fan Sector,” which felt a whole lot like the part of Fenway Park commonly called “Red Sox Nation.” As at home, the fans were roudier than the general populace and they got more police attention as a result. I wanted to post a picture of the police and fans together, but a cop came and told me it’s not appropriate to photograph Militsia on duty. One of my friends chided me for my silly American belief that I was free to photograph anything. So it goes. While reveling in cultural similarities, I was introduced to a new cultural difference. Just wait ‘til I tell you about my Turkish classmates’ attitude toward marriage.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Toilet repairs

The toilet in our guest bathroom has always leaked a little bit, but until recently the leakage was so slow that it didn't turn the dial on our water meter and we didn't worry about it. Recently it's gotten worse, however, and I fiddled with it and determined that fiddling wasn't going to fix it. So we told our landlady and she called the master.

The master's fee was supposed to be BYR 3,320, which Alla had ready when he arrived. He spent a while in the bathroom and finally announced that no amount of fiddling would fix this problem and we'd have to buy a new part, which he or I-don't-know-who would install subsequently. The fee for consultation was BYR 3,950.

"Wait a minute," Alla said. "You mean it costs more to fiddle and give up than to fiddle and fix?" Yep. It takes longer to fiddle and give up, and the new price includes a consultation.

To put this into context, the difference in price was about 20 cents, or the price of one trip to my favorite public restroom. And speaking of my favorite public restroom, I still need to write a story about the Piss Palace. I like that place so well I go there sometimes even when I don't need to urinate. At times 20 cents can provide a lot of entertainment here. (Assuming one is easily entertained.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dental experiments

Last summer I lost a filling in Belarus and I wanted to get it replaced right away. I had heard about a razzle-dazzle dental clinic called Roden, and believing it was the best in town I tried to get an appointment there. Unfortunately, they were booked three weeks out, so I settled for an appointment at their less-fancy affiliate called Dentco. My Dentco dentist proved to be kind, attentive and effective.

Alla was so impressed by my new filling that she made an appointment with the same dentist to get her teeth cleaned. He did an amazingly great job and her teeth shined as never before. Impressed, I went back and had my own teeth cleaned and canceled the appointment I had for cleaning the week after we were to return to Boston. Everybody was happy. We saved money and we felt like we got fine care. The only thing that bothered me about this process at all was that he didn’t seem quite as thorough as the guy at home about looking for incipient problems.

Feeling somewhat rushed at Christmas time and confident of the care we received here, we decided to schedule our next tooth cleanings after our return to Belarus. This time, planning ahead, we secured appointments at the top-snob clinic that was too busy for me in the summer. Alla booked two appointments back-to-back, first me and then her.

The fancy Roden clinic is beautifully decorated. And to preserve the d├ęcor, they give their patients plastic overshoes like in a museum so we won’t track snowy slop into the office. Unfortunately, that’s about where the good experience ends. I arrived early in case they wanted me to fill out any forms, but the receptionist told me not to worry because the dentist’s assistant would fill out my forms when I entered his cabinet. So, precisely at three o’clock, I went into the cabinet with a very stern-looking dentist. Truthfully, “stern-looking” doesn’t adequately describe my impression. He looked like a gangster about to do business with somebody whom he doesn’t trust.

He brought me wordlessly into his cabinet. Hoping to break the ice a little bit and assure him that we can converse in Russian, I introduced myself. He told me his first name and offered me his limp hand. As I shook his hand, I said “Pleased to meet you,” which everybody says here. Apparently he was not pleased to meet me however, so he said nothing. He told me to sit down and wait.

I sat in the chair and found that the headrest hit me on my upper back. I pushed it up to a point that it was less miserable and waited. Uncomfortable, I turned sideways in the chair so I could sit up straight. In came the dentist and his assistant, who was wearing the same determined expression as her boss. Sit back, he ordered. They asked my name and address, which completed the pre-care interview except for a little unpleasantness over my choice of alphabets.

Next, the assistant took away my glasses and replaced them with a pair of foggy amber safety glasses. Wanting to be treated with some small level of humanity, I asked them to clean the safety glasses. “They are clean,” snapped the assistant. “Well, I can’t see through them,” I replied. I wanted to ask her to wipe them off but I don’t know the Russian word for wipe. It didn’t matter. She knew what I meant, and she said that this was as clean as they were going to get because she had sterilized them. (I saw her do this after she finished with me. She sterilizes them by rinsing them in the sink.)

Next, the dentist put his mouth up to my ear and told me that this was going to take 40 minutes and it would cost me about $100. Since this isn’t all that different from the price of a dentist I like quite well in Boston, I double-checked the price. Yep, I’d understood correctly. OK. Let’s see what this buys me.

The procedure involved some kind of micro sand blasting, which left my face an alarming chalky white. The guy worked like a demon to treat all of my teeth within the allotted time. I felt the whole 40 minutes like I was the object of some sort of dental-derby race. He never said another word to me, except for “open” and “close half way.” If he cared about me in any way, he certainly did not show it. All I cared about was getting the heck out of there.

At 3:37 it was all over. I knew this because they walked away from me. I asked the assistant, “Are we finished?”

“Yes,” she replied, “you can wash your face in the bathroom. We have napkins.” I tried to wipe my face with the tissue she had given me when I rinsed my mouth, but she redoubled her efforts to send me to the bathroom right away because they had napkins there. I don’t know what she meant because all they had in their bathroom was toilet paper.

I suggested to Alla that she should not avail herself of her appointment. Seeing my face, which appeared to be white with terror, she quickly canceled. When we got home she managed to make an appointment with the guy from last summer, who can receive her in two days. Suddenly his not-too-fancy office sounds extremely welcoming.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Impedance mismatch

We got invited to a ‘90s nostalgia party yesterday. The last nostalgia parties I remember attending were focused on the ‘50s and ‘60s; in other words focused on the time when I was in school. As you might guess, everybody else at the party was in school in the ‘90s. In the Soviet Union, no less. We were supposed to arrive dressed as we would have been in that decade, which was really easy for Alla and me because we just put on business clothes and we were done. I did have an old and dated-looking pair of shoes with me, and since my suits are also old and dated I did just fine.

I keep forgetting when invited to parties here that I really need to rehearse something before I go. Everybody was performing, reciting and otherwise acting brilliant. Trying to salvage my dignity, I sang “Catalina Magdalena” while Alla attempted a simultaneous translation. I’ll be ready with something in Russian next time!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Eve, 2011

Our landlord and landlady invited us over for New Year’s Eve. We arrived around 10:40 and got settled in for the Russian president’s address on TV. When he finished, we toasted Russia and the year ahead for all its residents. Then we began dinner, stopping before midnight to watch the Belarusian president’s address. We raised toasts to Belarus, to friendship, to learning, and to several other things. Alla was drinking “Sovietsky Champagne,” Anna Adamovna was drinking home-made Hungarian wine, Evgeny Ivanovich was drinking whiskey and I was drinking a cocktail which I will describe later.

At some point in the evening we moved onto dessert. I also remember that we toasted Germany and German engineering when 1:00 rolled around in Minsk. And we watched a whole lot of TV. Our hosts surfed the channels to keep a steady stream going of popular (and generally old) Russian musicians lip-synching their songs, dancing, and showing us their possibly-augmented profiles. We heard a lot of fireworks outside, but our hosts’ apartment is situated such that we couldn’t see anything. Come to think of it, I still hear a lot of fireworks, and the new year is nearly 24 hours old. Celebrations run strong here.

At 2:00 a.m. we toasted England and I sent my best friend there a congratulatory text message. (Apparently Rich was asleep, however, because he didn’t reply until today.) By this time Evgeny was pouring himself really small glasses of whiskey and Alla was maintaining that her champagne was a non-alcoholic sham. I was enjoying my cocktails greatly, and would love to have the recipe. Unfortunately, I think I’ll never know its subtleties. It included equal parts birch juice tapped and harvested by Anna Adamovna, and two fruit compotes which she also made. Each of the beverages was good on its own, and the plum compote tasted a lot like the preserved plums she served so I’m pretty comfortable about how to go about making that compote. On the other hand, the apple compote (which they called apple juice) was redder than any apple juice I’ve ever seen. Generally, I believe compotes are simply fruit boiled with water and sugar, but I don’t know what kind of apples have that much red pigment. Anyway, it was good, and we now know that I was the only one actually drinking non-alcoholic beverages.

Our hosts really wanted us to go to the National Library to see the shows and hear the music, but I didn’t want to stay up any later and jeopardize my adjustment to the new time zone. Besides, they only wanted us to go there. They were apparently more or less ready for bed too. Not knowing anybody in the next few time zones, then, we went home and went to bed.

I, for one, felt fine in the morning.