Sunday, February 27, 2011

We've got the blues

We know of one jazz club in Minsk, and when we visited one time last year we were so disappointed we resolved never to go back. The proprietor told us the next day that there isn’t really jazz in Minsk and that what we got was typical. At least she was honest.

Blues, on the other hand, is another matter. We’ve heard plenty of good blues here, and there’s an obvious market for it with several blues festivals every year. So when the jazz club sent Alla an e-mail about their blues festival, we decided to give it a go.

The organizers assembled an ambitious evening, from 7 p.m. until Midnight. We didn’t expect to last all five hours, and we did go home before the end. The first three acts were garage bands, and we talked about going home at the break after these bands finished. But it seemed too early to give up, so we hung on to see what came next. We did get better musicians, but the soloist was so drunk that we felt pained watching her. We asked for our check, as did about 80% of the audience.

So there we all sat, no drinks on our tables, wallets in our pockets, when out came a group of musicians who actually knew what they were doing. They encouraged us to stand up and dance, which at least I did. There were a couple of people standing to dance elsewhere along the walls, but generally people “danced” in their seats. At least they didn’t go home. Finally, we enjoyed the music fully and unreservedly.

As I looked around the room, I noticed a strong difference between the audience here and the audience I’d expect for a similar show in a well-appointed jazz club around Boston. Most of the audience appeared to be around the ages of our kids. In Boston, most of the audience would have been closer to our age. I have no idea why this should be, but I like it. Blues music clearly holds a future in Belarus.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Men's Day, 2011

A year ago, I discovered that I really like Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland. I still like it.

The excitement started this morning. I got up before dawn to go lift weights as I usually do. I sneaked out of the bathroom to get dressed in the dark so I wouldn't wake Alla. As I felt around in the closet for my super-warm pants, I heard noises that sounded a lot like somebody in the apartment. Fairly sure the noise was coming from the apartment overhead, I went to check. Zounds! It's here! It was Alla, already up. My hair was standing up too. It turns out that Alla had gotten up to put a gift for me on my desk, a jar of delicious buckwheat honey. After my workout, I put some of the honey along with sour cream onto the blini Alla made for me. (The word "blini" is often translated "pancakes," but they are very little like American pancakes and I think I'm better off sticking with the Russian word. If you want to know what they are like, you'll have to ask a Russian to make some for you. They are really good.)

After class, I found myself facing the smiling face of a young woman named Dasha. I didn't know her, and she didn't know me, but she had with her something I knew quite well: a few leftover pieces of one of my favorite cakes. I guess she understood my gaze, and she offered me a slice in the spirit of the day. She had apparently shared most of the cake with her class, and I was the privileged recipient of part of what was left.

Straight away from Dasha's kindness, I went off to our favorite cafe to have lunch with Alla and Irina. Irina gave me a huge linen towel that smells absolutely fantastic and looks great too. Alla had another gift for me as well, a traditional hat for the banya.

I thought that was plenty, but the charms of the day continued into the evening. As I came home from church, Alla called me and told me to come over to Anna Adamovna and Evgenny Ivanovich's house instead of coming home. They had prepared a holiday spread of cold cuts, pickled mushroom and salad. Alla brought a little cake, and we enjoyed a fine evening together with stories, laughter and appreciation. The whole day highlighted what I like best about living here, the spirit of friendship and readiness to celebrate life and the lives of our fellows.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Steve finally takes a bath

Until now, I’d never taken a proper Russian bath, or “banya.” Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Alla never had either. Sergey and Irina set out to correct that deficiency yesterday. When we approached their house, we saw the smoke already coming from the chimney.
I had no idea this would be such a chore, but it takes three hours to heat this banya with its heavy stone stove. The fire box reminded me of the fire box in a steam locomotive. Sergey fed wood through a low cast-iron door at the back of the stove, and gradually the stone fireplace heated up and warmed the principal room. If I understood properly, the top deck could get up near 100 degrees during a steam flash, which is the temperature of the steam itself.

This being a family occasion, we donned our swimwear and hats. Hats? Yes, hats. It turns out that people wear conical felt hats to provide a cushion of air and prevent baked brains. Alla liked the whole experience so much that she went out today and bought herself her very own banya hat. I learned that there are even hats with goggles built in, but we didn’t require goggles. Anyway, properly dressed, we entered the hot chamber.

The hot chamber is tiered in three levels, with two regular benches and a wider deck at the top. Since heat rises and it was really hot in there, Alla and I stayed on the lower benches, which frustrated Sergey. He wanted us to experience the full magnificence of the place, and we were too wimpy to go up to the top deck. I felt completely baked after a while on the lower deck, and finally made a run for the shower and thence to the pool.
After cooling off a bit, we repaired to a side room where we drank some excellent herbal tea.

Properly refreshed, we returned for another go at the sauna and took another dip in the pool. During all this time, Alla had been looking with interest at the bundle of birch branches Sergey was soaking in a bucket of water. Sergey told Alla that she couldn’t have the birch branches until her third time in the sauna, and Alla thought this represented some rite of initiation and despaired of ever getting the birch branches since this was only her first sauna experience ever. Fortunately, what Sergey meant was the third time in the sauna that day, and he finally flogged her on our third go-round. The birch leaves scented the room as they scrubbed Alla's skin.

Sergey insisted that I go to the top deck for my turn at getting flogged and scrubbed. I made the mistake of putting my face down on the deck and burned myself, even through the towel. The redness disappeared by morning, but the pleasant memories of the banya live on vividly. I really enjoyed my bath.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cultural differences

I chatted yesterday with a friend who spent the summer in New Jersey. She remarked to me that Americans are much friendlier than Belarusians. I found this amusing because I’ve been telling everybody that I think folks here are more friendly than folks where I come from. Truthfully, I suppose, neither of us is in a position to judge. When we are visitors to a new culture, greeting the new culture with curiosity and acceptance, the people we meet are nice to us.

I can go back to Boston and be curious and accepting too. That’s the way I am. But I won’t be perceived as a foreigner, and I have no doubt that my very foreignness here makes people think more about me than they would in Boston. And as for Irina, well, she’s very cute and you can tell as soon as she speaks that she’s well educated but not in an English-speaking country. So we each came away from the other’s country with the impression that the new culture is friendlier than the culture we came from. I have no idea, then, how to decide who gets the “friendly culture” award. But I’m glad to know that folks all over are still nice to strangers.

I have made some adjustments in order to live in the Belarusian culture. Specifically, I have become a very opportunistic grocery shopper. We had the lesson brought home to us last week when Alla bought some especially nice potatoes one morning at the local grocery store. She had no idea just how nice they were until she began cutting them up at dinner time. They were great! We knew, of course, that I’d better go out and buy more that very day. We also called our landlords and offered to pick up some for them. Then I washed the dishes.

After finishing the dishes, I walked down to the store to load up on those red spuds. Ha! Sold out. The produce lady consoled me, saying that she’d sold out well before dinner time. But we remembered the lesson. Today, Alla bought some nice-looking Mineola oranges on her way home from the library. We ate one as soon as she came into the house and realized that she’d found something great. Immediately, I put my coat on and went back to buy more. I arrived at the store just in time, too. I got a good bag of these orange jewels, but there weren’t many left and I would have been sorting through dregs within another half hour. This is one system we’ve definitely learned to work.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More jazz at Philharmony

A couple of years ago I wrote a story about a jazz program I didn't like at Philharmony. Today's show was better than that, but not exactly what I had in mind.

The show started with the usual introduction. Here they don't start right out with the music, but with a little lecture about what you are going to hear. This introduction usually takes the place of the program notes we often read in the U.S. before the musicians come out and it generally lasts a couple of minutes or so. Tonight's lecture lasted nine minutes and included much detail about how great the musicians are.

One fascinating tidbit from the lecture is the fact that the band leader worked in New York for a while. When he came back he said, "If we try to beat these guys at their own music, we'll never do it. But if we play our own music, maybe we'll teach them something." For instance, he is teaching us that not everything done with a musical instrument can readily be identified as music, and not everything identified as music requires a musical instrument. For example, a plastic bag can be heard by all when wrinkled directly in front of a microphone.

The second half of the show may have redeemed the first half, and I guess we got our money's worth overall, but I had severe doubts when the percussionist switched from scratching his cymbals with the blunt end of a drumstick to wrinkling the plastic bag and nobody had yet played anything remotely melodic.

The evening's redemption came in part because I was able to write this entire story on my phone during the show, and even post it. The last couple of numbers were pretty good too. Alla says I would have enjoyed them more if I were not busy playing with my telephone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

International package delivery

My cousin sent us a little Christmas present, which her daughter brought to the U.S. Post Office on 28 December. About a week after sending it, Nants sent us an e-mail telling us to watch for the incoming package. We waited a while, and then Alla asked the lady who delivers the mail if she knew anything about it. No, she said, but don’t worry. As soon as she gets it, she’ll put a note in our mailbox.

Weeks went by, but no package arrived. Finally when we’d just about given up hope, we got a notice in our mailbox that we should go down to Customs to clear an international package. OK. Let me backpedal a bit here. It seemed like WEEKS, but the truth is better expressed in lower-case. Our notice arrived on 28 January, exactly a month after Ila brought the package to the U.S. Post Office. When we finally got the package, we found a fantastic clutter of stickers and markings all over its face. It passed through JFK airport in New York and arrived in Minsk on 11 January, as annotated by hand. Eight days later, Belarusian Customs had entered it into their database, and eight more days after that they sent us the letter we received the next day.

I was all ready to go down to Customs, but Alla slowed me down enough to get the supervisor on the phone. The supervisor asked Alla if she were expecting a package from overseas. Yeah, Alla said, our relatives sent us a little New Year’s present. (That’s when everybody exchanges gifts here.) “OK,” the Customs lady continued, “but what is ‘The Vincents?’” Once Alla explained that this is our family name and not the name of a business, she offered to send the package straight to our house.

So, on the following business day we received our gift. It was a set of Navajo churro felted wool dryer balls. They feel really great in my hand and promise to work wonders on clothes in our dryer. It’s too bad that the only dryer we own is in Boston.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The French are coming

We had lunch on Sunday at our favorite French cafe, La Crete d'or. This place is always quiet and cozy, but we really go for the desserts. They have a new dessert now, and while I could point it out in the display case, I absolutely can't remember what it's called. I'd describe it as a French version of a pecan pie, with a wonderfully flaky crust and an interior of not-too-sweet nutty goodness. I'll go back for more so that I can refine my description.

After lunch, we decided to divide and conquer. My part of the division was to take the Metro out to our favorite marketplace and buy fruits and vegetables. Much to my delight and amazement, there was a guy offering samples of real French bread.

I took a sample or two or three and bought a loaf. He knew just enough Russian to do business. That is to say, he knows how to tell me the price of his bread. I couldn't learn much more because we didn't really have a language in common.

I came back later, however, and found his assistant or girlfriend or daughter... I found a second person there, and she speaks Russian. I learned that they've reserved their spot in the marketplace six days a week and they plan to be around permanently. I think this is really great. While I prefer the local dark breads, it's really fun to have this tasty new choice, at less than a dollar a loaf. Bostonians, eat your hearts out. I'll eat the bread.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Alla and I spent the afternoon at the Belarus National Library today. We both like this place, and not just for the books. They have an excellent and inexpensive cafeteria, great views, comfortable reading tables, and even couches in some of the reading areas. We spent a lot of time there last year, but the first time we came back this year Alla forgot where to put her library card to release the entry gate and a new guard asked her if this were her first visit to the library. Oh no, said the other guard, she’s been here lots of times.

Today we started with lunch, and then Alla took me up to the new-books display room. Before people are allowed to check out a new book, it stays in this room for two weeks on open shelves. Everybody can read the books here, but we cannot check them out. This is great advertising, because curious people habitually come in to see what’s new. Alla had been in a few days earlier and wanted me to see some beautiful new picture books about historical places of Belarus.

When we came downstairs, Alla went to pick up the books she had checked out and I went to a different librarian to get the books I’d checked out. I was surprised to see a history book I hadn’t asked for. It turns out that Alla had requested that book previously, but had gone home before the book was delivered from the closed stacks. Alla didn’t have any books checked out at that moment, so the librarian didn’t have a place to put her unclaimed book. Knowing that Alla was my wife, she found my books and put Alla’s history book with my language books.

So, there we were, reading our books. After a while Alla remembered her scarf, which she’d worn into the cafeteria but had not seen since. Oops! She rushed back to the cafeteria and breathlessly asked about her scarf. "Oh," said the administrator, "it’s safe in my office."

As Alla returned past the security guard on her way back from the cafeteria, the guy said, “See, everything is alright. You had nothing to worry about.” Alla explained that she had worried because the scarf was from Scotland and would have been difficult to replace. “Oh,” the guard replied, “your North American blood is beginning to show through.”

Alla came back downstairs contemplating the database these guys must have, that he knew she lived in North America. I think it didn’t actually require anything so fancy. I’m pretty sure he noticed that we were married, and he surely knows that I’m an American. The minute I say a full sentence everybody seems to know that. But it’s really nice to be noticed. From the coat check room to the administration, we feel like we’re dealing with acquaintances who recognize us as individuals. It’s a great experience.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The return of the students

Most of the students in regular programs at my university had an exam period in early January, followed by a winter break. As a result, Tuesday was the first day of regular classes for any of the students in degree programs. For some reason the Belarusian students have another week off, but the foreign students are generally back and I’m happy to see them. Tuesday felt like a big reunion, as I ran into people I’d gotten to know and enjoy previously.

On Wednesday a couple of my Italian friends had an English conversation class in the auditorium adjacent to mine. Upon learning that this class was small enough to interrupt without looking like a jerk, I knocked on the door and indicated Nicola and Luciano while advised the teacher in very sober English, “If these guys give you any trouble at all, just knock on the wall and I’ll be right over.” Fortunately, she didn’t have to knock. My own class has been interesting and productive, and I really enjoy being there.

When my class closed, I walked through the university toward the coat room and ran into another old friend and a new friend, both just returned to programs they are excited about. While the program at MSLU isn’t accredited in a lot of countries outside of Belarus, it’s certainly a step up for many students and they’re happy to be here. I find the excitement infectious.

I’m looking forward to the return of the Belarusian students too. They’re also a lot of fun, and the only major downside of their return is that the line will get long (and sometimes wide) in the cafeteria. I can deal with that. Generally.