Monday, April 25, 2011


All winter long, Elena and Sasha tried to talk us into coming with them to the ski area called Raubichy. I had seen this place one time from the window of a bus and thought it was merely "interesting." From the bus I saw a big pile of dirt with a ski jump sticking up from the top like the feather on a Tyrolean hat. Belarus has no mountains so the Soviets built this as an Olympic training facility. Since I don't ski jump and have no burning desire to ski down a pile of dirt, our friends never managed to drag me there in spite of their assurances that we could have fun with our cross-country skis.

Finally they made an offer that I understood. They suggested that we go to Raubichy together on a day trip and cook shashleek (sheesh-kebab) outdoors. Everybody here seems to do things like this, speaking often about eating "in nature," but we'd never been on such an expedition. This time we found the idea instantly appealing. So, on Saturday morning we piled into Elena’s car and drove out. I’d forgotten how close this facility is to Minsk and we arrived in a few minutes, or at least so it felt.

Once again the huge ski jump dominated the landscape, but it turns out that the facility includes much more than I imagined. Indeed, we saw the cross-country ski trail running into the woods and up and down hills. The snow has long since melted away, and now the underlying asphalt ribbon presents a very attractive roller-ski opportunity for those who know how to stop on that apparatus when going downhill. (Do those things have brakes?) I’m eager to return with my regular skis next winter, when any falls will take place on snow.

We didn’t come for the trail, however. We carried our stuff to a little hut at the side of the cross-country ski trail and set up camp. Much to our delight, Sasha is a veritable wizard in the preparation of shashleek. After he built a fire, we all went for a walk. But while Elena, Alla and I were admiring the flowers, Sasha went back to tend his fire. Later, we set out finger food (while Sasha tended the fire) and ate it while the meat cooked over Sasha’s perfect coals. Sasha, our devoted chef, kept wandering back to turn the meat. Ah, what a treat he produced! The meat came out perfectly, tender, juicy and delicious.

After eating way more meat than I imagined possible, we walked around a bit more and played Frisbee before returning home to play more cerebral games.

By tradition we should have been fasting that day, but by breaking tradition we enjoyed a wonderful day in nature without a lot of competition. And we were so inspired by Saturday’s success that we did go out to eat lunch in nature once again after church on Sunday, but this time we went to a big city park and brought food that we didn’t need to cook. We enjoyed that day a great deal as well, and hope to eat outdoors regularly in the coming weeks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ersatz peanut butter

I’m afraid my Belarusian readers are scratching their heads over the title of this post. Ersatz means “artificial” or “substitute,” and we understand that it’s not likely to be as good as the original.

I had some real peanut butter here earlier on this trip. First I managed to buy some Polish peanut butter at the central supermarket, and then I received a jar from Europe as a gift from our friend Elena. When that ran out, I started looking to buy more, but never managed to find anything besides some weird-looking white stuff from China. I didn’t buy the Chinese peanut butter, and as a result I have not had peanut butter of any kind for a couple of months.

Feeling severely starved for a favorite food, I tried to make some of my own. I bought a bag of peanuts and ran some of them our meat grinder several times. The first time was the hardest. The whole peanuts were too hard for the not-so-sharp teeth on our old Soviet meat grinder and I had to keep reversing and pushing forward just a fraction of a turn with each effort. The output resembled fine sand.

I ran my sandy peanut crumbs back through the meat grinder numerous times. Each time it got marginally finer, but the level of improvement with each pass got pretty hard to detect. I finally became bored and ran out of time when I had a cupful of slightly-sticky peanut dust. If I had a food processor, I could have converted this dust to peanut butter in moments, but I gave up and stirred in a tablespoon of honey to hold the crumbs together.

Honestly, the Chinese peanut butter probably would have been better. And cleaning up the meat grinder proved to be a bigger nuisance than I expected. I think I’ll regard this as a learning experience that I don’t need to repeat.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Flash trip to Gomel

On Friday Alla and I went down to the police station where we are registered in order to renew my visa. I got the original in the town of Gomel, but figured I had a pretty good shot at renewing in Minsk after all the bureaucratic hoops I jumped through to get registered there. Ha! All my original files are in Gomel and they aren't fully computerized. Truthfully, I don't really know if they are computerized at all, but I assume so because the level of technical education here its quite high.

Anyway, we took an evening train to Gomel yesterday so I could file my application first thing this morning. We really lucked out on the train. The one we chose included a couple of brand-new cars, and we paid the extra seventy-five cents apiece to ride in one. Ooh... It was great. The seats are a few centimeters wider than usual, and they would be really comfortable for me to sleep on. Alla couldn't stop photographing our super-spacious compartment, but she couldn't really capture its grandeur with her phone's camera. Anyway, we'll look for these cars a we schedule future trips. Here's a picture of Alla in the new train car.

You'll have to click through if you want to see her wearing bananas on her head.

As for this trip, it's not really clear that it was strictly necessary. We had to write a letter to the head guy, which he dictated to us, and pay a fee at the bank. If the banks are interconnected it seems like I should have been able to mail the letter and pay at the bank's main office in Minsk. I'll pursue this idea in a couple of years, next time I'm up for a simple renewal. Meanwhile, I have to go back in a week or two to receive the visa in my passport, something I absolutely must do in person. We asked whether I could leave them with a release allowing Alla to pick it up, but they have strict anti-slavery policies and never under any circumstance return a passport to anybody other than the passport holder. I understand, but it's a nuisance.

Anyway, I had a chance to help Alla clean and decorate her parents' graves and do a couple of household chores. Next time I think we'll take a side-trip to the handicraft museum in the nearby town of Vetka. This time I'll buy a photography permit because it's a spectacular museum. I'll let you know when we go there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Октябрская Metro Station

Today I went down to the main entrance to the subway station that got bombed on Monday. It still smells like fire, and nobody is allowed to go downstairs yet. But near the doors, both inside and outside the vestibule, people have laid thousands of flowers and hundreds of candles. I could have shed a few tears, but I'm a tough guy so I held them back. Nevertheless, my heart aches not just for the lives lost, but for the lives affected in so many unkind ways.

The perpetrators have been caught, and they deny any political motivation. According to The Moscow Times, it was simply the work of psychopaths. Not everybody accepts this explanation, of course, but I am inclined to go along with it. It reminds me of recent American tragedies like Columbine High School and the Beltway snipers, the work of disturbed individuals with no particular goal.

I hope that the people of Belarus are able to close the book on this in some way and find the strength and compassion to begin rebuilding lives and community together. It would be an even greater tragedy if a couple of lunatics form a basis for damaging the fabric of a society that tends to use the word "our" with real pride.

Monday, April 11, 2011

This is nuts!

I wanted to write a humorous post today entitled “Training a swarm of bees,” but nothing seems very funny at this moment. While I was in a rehearsal with a bunch of students preparing a program for the University, there was a tragic explosion in the main Metro station, where our two subway lines intersect. The explosion happened at rush hour: several people lost their lives and many more were injured, some very seriously. I haven’t seen any news about what caused the blast, but the timing and location makes me guess that this was not a simple accident.

As far as I know right now none of our friends was hurt, but my heart goes out to all the people affected by this tragedy.

As for the swarm of bees, I may write about it later. It appears that all the male students from a certain country (not Belarus) suffer from some sort of Attention Deficit Disorder. With a nod to Garry Trudeau, let’s call the country Berzerkistan, because at least in this case it seems to fit. I will just note that it’s really hard to teach a dance number to a bunch of guys who can’t stand in a line and pay attention to instructions that involve counting from one to eight while moving one’s feet in rhythm.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The way the heat works around here

Most, if not all, buildings are heated from central plants that send steam to large numbers of residents. I suppose we're getting waste heat from power plants, but I'm not really sure. I just know that our radiators get hotter when the outdoor temperatures drop, and the system usually works pretty well.

Unfortunately, Alla had a hot flash yesterday and called ЖЕС (the people in control of the heat) to complain that they were wasting energy and she was too hot. Now today everybody in our district is probably wearing hats and two sweaters at home because of this. Somebody please call and tell ЖЕС that we're all freezing!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

You want WHAT?

Everybody’s been talking during the past few weeks about a potential devaluation of the Belarus ruble. Acting on their concerns, many people have been trying to convert assets to dollars or euros, and we had a little trouble getting the dollars we needed at the end of March to pay our rent. This just means that we had to visit a few banks until we found somebody able to process our international transfer, but we spent more time walking around than waiting in line.

It was a little harder to get the euros we needed for our recent trip to the E.U., but that’s only because we started looking on the day we needed the money. There certainly weren’t long lines anywhere.

This recent experience contrasts sharply with a story I read in the Western press this morning about people in Belarus waiting in line all day to exchange their rubles for dollars. I scratched my head as I read the story and wondered where in the heck these long lines might be. By the end of the article I realized that the reporter had built this impression on the fact that he or she had found one woman who claimed to have waited ten hours to get some euros. Sure. Now I believe it. If she came to a bank that didn’t have any euros in inventory, perhaps she chose to stay there and wait for somebody to do a euro-denominated transaction leaving the bank with some euros. I suspect she could have walked around and asked at some other banks, but maybe it was payday or maybe that particular woman didn’t have much imagination.

I, on the other hand, wanted to go in a different direction. We came back from Poland with a few leftover zlotys, and I wanted to convert them to Belarus rubles. I walked into the nearest bank and discovered, for the first time in my life, a line of more than two people. That is to say, there may have been five or six people ahead of me, and two tellers to take care of us. I don’t know what most people were doing, but I did overhear one guy who wanted to convert some rubles to dollars. The bank was out of dollars but offered him euros, which he accepted. In this context, the teller was surprised when I asked her to convert my zlotys to rubles. “You actually want rubles?” she asked.

Yep. That’s what we use here, and they’re really easy to get.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Finding Francisco Skorina

In Belarus everybody knows the name “Francisco Skorina” the way everybody in America knows the name “Benjamin Franklin.” Like Franklin, Skorina was a self-published writer. I always thought he was the first to publish a book in the Belarusian language, but according to the sign near the statue he was the first publisher of any printed book in any Slavic language. I learned about him in the course of numerous lessons at the Minsk State Linguistic University, and I have several pictures of myself and my friends at the Skorina statue near the National Library of Belarus. He has become one of my heroes.

Having learned that there was a statue in his honor somewhere in Prague, I set out to find it. First I did a Google search in English, which resulted in a lot of useless hits. So I tried the same search in Russian, with the same result. Somehow during this process I discovered how to spell his name in Czech, which allowed me to find a photo of the statue on the Czech Wikimedia Commons page. Soon I knew where to look for the statue and we began planning our trip to a somewhat obscure park.

We really enjoyed our trip to this park. We took a long and beautiful walk not far from yesterday’s route but completely different in feeling and details. Mozart remarked that he could walk home from symphony hall in Prague by the same route every day and still discover something new each time. I understand why he felt that way.

We got lucky and entered the park right below the statue. We celebrated like any explorers might, with whoops, hollers and photographs. Not only did we enjoy a great walk, but we even felt a little surge of nationalistic pride as we admired the statue and read the nearby plaque.

Nothing else about the day proved to be quite so exciting or quite so challenging, but I think we were in the right place. Today’s temperatures in Minsk ranged from 5 to 10 degrees C. In Prague, however, temperatures ranged from 10 to 20. I think this means that Prague was twice as good as Minsk today. That’s pretty exciting in and of itself.

A full day in Prague

We set out this morning for an efficient day of sightseeing, but some of our favorite things weren't on the original plan. We started out by walking to the “Eiffel” tower, a metal contraption on the hill above our hotel. I didn’t fully appreciate how large and how steep the hill would be, but we really enjoyed the walk. There are various paths criss-crossing each other all the way up the mountain, but as long as we kept going uphill we couldn’t get lost. The morning sun warmed us, and near the top we found several sheltered areas filled with early spring bulbs. We felt very fortunate to be there, especially since today’s weather forecast indicated snow in Minsk.

After exploring and playing at the top of the hill, we went across a valley and up another hill so Alla could see the inside of Saint Vitus’ cathedral. We walked through a meadow, traipsed down a lonely cobblestone road with walls on either side, took a false start across a monastery yard, and finally found our way up a spectacularly quaint little street leading up from the German embassy

After enjoying the inside of the church, we scurried back down the hill for lunch and on to the old Jewish district. Following our highbrow entertainment we moved ahead to shopping, the Museum of Chocolate and finally toward dinner. As we crossed the Charles Bridge we discovered a huge snarl of people carrying a wide variety of musical instruments, including drums, violins, bagpipe, various wind instruments, tubas and even an electric keyboard hung on a cord around the musician’s neck. We had found some sort of anarchic parade, with various groups of people playing together or taking turns, or competing with one another. The participants wore colorful clothes and reminded me a whole lot of the hippies I used to hang out with in college. Even though the music was really lousy, I loved the parade and we followed it all the way down to the island at the foot of the bridge, where we found them still playing as we walked home from dinner.

I read that Prague has historically tolerated nonconformity. Apparently it’s still true, and I love this city for that.