Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cycling to Priluki

Sergey and Irina live in a delightful settlement called Priluki. We first met them and their children when we stayed as guests at their bed-and-breakfast, and we’ve never really left. When we go to see them, however, it’s always in motorized transport. This often feels a bit shameful to me, since they live close to Minsk and I find the route captivatingly beautiful once we get outside the city limits.

The first part of the trip, however, holds no appeal to me at all. We typically roll past the train station and alongside the old airport on congested roads with rough pavement and narrow shoulders. I tried really hard last year to find a good bike route in that direction, and actually did find an acceptable course. I poked through the ring road now and again, but never managed to find my way to familiar territory and kept turning back.

The main problem is that they live outside the scope of regular city maps, and the suburban maps I’ve found never show enough detail. Finally this year I spent a lot of time with Google Earth and figured out that I’d broken out at the wrong place, one exit too far north. I stared and stared at Google’s satellite images and decided that I didn’t want to try to reach Priluki from that exit. Instead, I noodled over the problem at odd moments for the next month or two, referring back to Google Earth and buying every available map.

I decided early on that I would like to start toward the necessary ring-road underpass by riding south on the bike path running near our apartment. My problem was figuring how to get across the railroad tracks that run north and south between me and my exit. I finally solved the puzzle yesterday morning. Google has augmented their satellite imagery with sharper aerial photos, and I was able to zoom in low enough to make out a footpath leading to the tracks from a place I knew how to reach by bike path. Eureka!

I tested the route as soon as I found it, and knocked on the Merkulov’s door about 90 minutes after I left home. Sergey was kind enough to drop whatever else he was doing, round up his son, and join me for a bicycle excursion on the dirt roads joining some of the local villages. The bright yellow rape flowers perfumed the air with a fragrance I never noticed from motorized transport, people swam in the ice-cold ponds, and each village demonstrated the serenity of Belarusian country life.

When we got back, Irina invited me in for fresh green soup she had just made from wild herbs she’d harvested nearby and eggs from the family’s chickens. This had to be one of my best bike rides ever in Belarus.

Matvey and Steve
Sergey cools off

Friday, May 27, 2011

(Smart) women and marriage

I’ve enjoyed a very small group in my Russian class this year, and one result of having a very small group is that we’ve gotten quite comfortable with each other and we have some interesting discussions. There’s one topic on which I’m always the odd man out: women and marriage. My most outspoken classmates are Turkish, and they tend to think alike on this topic. The Korean guy sees things a little differently, but he also favors women who stay at home and don’t assert themselves much. Understandably, perhaps, none of them has ever been married.

This has been going on for five months now. Every time we talk about women and marriage, my classmates indicate a strong preference for women who will be dependent on their men, both financially and intellectually. They can’t imagine a happy relationship with a smart woman, and especially not a woman with leadership responsibilities anywhere in her life. Today I realized that it’s even hard for at least some of these guys to imagine even being friends with such a woman.

I keep trying to tell them about my experience. I have always been surrounded by smart women, beginning at birth. I don’t just like them, I love them. Women often have a different perspective from men, and I couldn’t imagine isolating myself from it. My guys are pretty OK with that part of my argument, but fully convinced that smart and successful women would fail them in other important ways. So I tried to tell them that the smart women I know best even know how to cook well. That concept appeared to get right past my audience, as does the idea that they might be tender, caring and thoughtful at the same time.

It makes me really value the successful women in my life. I feel invigorated whenever I am in the same room with them, and their strength and character inform my every interaction with another human being.

I also respect the young Muslim woman who was careful not to be alone with me when we helped each other with our homework. I understand her caution because I know who she expects to marry. Her strength is very different from the type I know best, but she inspires me too. I hope her target audience is similarly inspired, and I hope we can all learn to value good ideas and good people.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The little palace

I have a favorite public restroom, which I call the Piss Palace. It’s a scaled-down manor house with a basement and attic in addition to the public space inside. Last year it cost 600 rubles to stop in here, and I was so fond of the place that I’d visit without any particular need. This year, times are financially tough in Belarus and the price went up at the beginning of the year to 800. As of today, it’s a cool thousand. The price to me is actually unchanged, since at the beginning of the year I was getting 3,000 rubles to the dollar and now I’m getting 5,000. Folks getting paid in Belarusian money probably don’t go here so often, however.

To the extent that the locals have money to spend, they’re pretty busy spending it. I don’t know the official rate of inflation, but prices climb continuously and people find it attractive to buy anything they plan to use in the coming months because they imagine the price will be higher later. The deputy prime minister is talking about raising stipends for pensioners, but it’s hard to imagine how that can be done without fueling added inflation. Better to buy now.

Alla and I went down to the biggest downtown mall today to buy linen shirts. Last year I waited to do this until the weather got really warm, and the current production had almost completely sold out. Yesterday we thought we’d started early enough, but apparently the other buyers started even earlier and the fancy linen store had very little to chose from. But then I got the brainy idea to visit a different store with less tourist appeal. Today we found shirts, including a hefty percentage of older stock on which prices had not yet risen. I felt so virtuous about the savings that I stopped at the palace on the way home.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Back to basics

I wanted to learn whether we ever had a formal “you” and a familiar “you” in old English. We did. “Thee” is for family and other intimates, and “ye” is for everybody else. But the more interesting part of the Wikipedia article explaining it is the fact that the English language has cases too, but I didn’t know what they were called. In Russian they are called Падеж, which I long ago improperly transliterated to padej. I had a really hard time figuring them out, so I am very amused to know that I’d actually seen them in grade school.

Here’s a table cribbed from Wikipedia.

Russian also has the first three of these cases, but I never imagined that we ever did too. I’m still not sure whether this stuff counts because the Russians have so many (MANY) more uses for them. But it takes a little of the wind out of my self-righteous sails to know that we’ve actually been using these things successfully in English for a long time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blue jeans (again)

My dad read my post about blue jeans and decided to do something about it. He is sending me a pair from my home town in California. He had about as much trouble sending the jeans to me as I've ever had with any of my projects on this side of the ocean, so I couldn't resist posting his letter to me. He says:

Your Jeans left the East Sacramento Post Office yeserday afternoon (5/17/11).

The postal clerk was very anxious to be helpful, and I only hope the postal people in Minsk can read your address. The process is first to fill in a 3-page address and info form, which for some reason is not meant to be attached to the package. I then wrote on the sealed and taped package although my writing is not very legible. The clerk then sold me the second largest bubble envelope, and crammed the pants in. (I would have bought the larger one for about 50 cents more if he had not insisted in helping me and saving 50 cents). Then he requested I write your name and address on the package using a ball point pen that punched through the distended envelope. Upon again returning to the counter he gave me a Sharpie pen which was awkward for me, so he took over the job, and I do not think his writing was much better. In desperation I asked him to tape the note I had copied from your e-mail. He did and concluded it would work just fine and sends his greetings. This was a historic moment in East Sacramento since the clerk had never heard of Belarus, and apparently this is the first package sent from Sacramento.

I am sure it will all work out, and for the sake of the people waiting in line behind me, I am sure they do not want me to come back. So, let me know when you receive it. In spite of the writing struggle, I am sure that they can decipher it at your end.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Another day, another adventure

Very little happens automatically around here. On the plus side, this results in a lot of pleasant experiences involving helpful strangers, but on the minus side it results in a lot of work. I have mentioned earlier bureaucratic challenges, but I still can’t resist posting another story because this one is so completely crazy. As this story unfolded, I thought about how I much fun it would be to write up all the details about sending a pair of broken sunglasses to France for factory service. That only made sense until today, when I finally realized that the story is so confounding, so complex, that you wouldn’t want to read the whole thing.

I have a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses, and they broke at the bridge of my nose. This is not the first time this has happened, and I’m an old hand with the Maui Jim warranty service folks in the USA. This time, however, I thought it would be convenient to order service from Belarus. I was wrong.

Getting the glasses out of here proved to be a problem in the first place because the glasses were expensive and I couldn’t insure them for their full value unless I sent them international express mail. We tore up most of the forms I filled out trying to order priority mail and started anew, in triplicate. Triplicate here doesn’t mean a three-part form that you fill out once. It means a one-part form that you fill out three times. Alla helped me, and it “only” took about half an hour.

I should mention at this point that the mail service hadn’t been my first choice. Originally I called DHL and was prepared to compare their price with UPS and FedEx, but the lady at DHL talked me out of it. She said that if I used a private service I’d have to go to the airport two times to escort my package through customs, once on the way out and once on the way back. The postal service had no such requirement, so it still seems like the right choice.

Unfortunately, Maui Jim France had a different idea, and they used a private service called ChronoPost to return my repaired sunglasses. I learned this on Wednesday evening, when the postal service left a note on our door telling me to come to the main post office for my package. When I went to the post office early on Thursday morning they gave me a different piece of paper and told me to take it to the airport so I could escort my package through customs.

We tried really hard to get ChronoPost’s Belarusian partner to escort my package through customs, but it proved to be a waste of time. I e-mailed to them copies of my passport and several other documents including a Limited Power of Attorney and waited for my glasses to arrive yesterday. As 5:00 approached, Alla called the local ChronoPost rep and asked what was up. Either the call failed at that moment or the guy hung up on her. When she called back moments later, he was out of the office.

Skipping ahead a few steps, we decided to go to the airport ourselves this afternoon. As a matter of principal, I didn’t want to take a taxi because Alla was already alarmed at the mounting cost of this repair, and I had a fresh magazine to read on the bus anyway.

The customs office isn’t “at the airport” in the way you might imagine. It’s about a kilometer’s walk around the back. Getting inside involves passports and tickets, and then more tickets to get into the inner sanctum. In the inner sanctum we had to fill out more forms and negotiate with a customs officer who thought we should pay duty on the incoming glasses. Finally he relented and agreed that if the glasses were indeed repaired and not new, then he’d allow them without duty. My heart sank when they opened the box and the glasses looked awfully-damn-new to me. By this time, however, the customs officer had decided to be a good sport and he filled out the paperwork confirming that my glasses had been repaired. This part of the adventure took about an hour, not including the bus trip and the walk around the airport.

The return trip included its own adventure, since the bus didn’t show up. (We ended up sharing a seven-passenger van with a veritable United Nations of passengers.) I didn’t care, however, because I had my glasses.

Vetka Museum of Handicraft

A couple of years ago we went to an out-of-the-way museum in the town of Vetka. They feature handicrafts of all sorts, and I always regretted that I didn’t buy a photo pass when we went in. Since I had to go to Gomel last week after my visa anyway, we allowed time to continue on to Vetka and see the museum again. I still like it a lot. Even the building includes a lot of beautiful hand-made elements, and it’s a lot easier to photograph than the exhibits behind glass.

Click on the photo to reach our album and get a taste of what we saw.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blue jeans

When in December I packed for my return to Belarus, I tried to remember what pants I wore home because whatever they were, I knew I’d want them back. Somehow I decided that the pants in question were some high-tech travel pants which virtually scream, “The person wearing these pants is an American tourist.” In point of fact, I do not like to identify myself that way here, and I have not once put on those pants. The pants I should have brought were an ordinary pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans.

I did manage to bring myself a second pair of 501 jeans, but both pairs I have here are black. This certainly makes it easy for me to have a pair of clean black jeans at the ready, but I’m getting really tired of them and almost desperate to wear something else. So I went out a couple of weeks ago to do something about it. We have a Levi’s store not far from our apartment, and I walked in there to see if I might be lucky enough to find my size in stock.

Buying jeans in the USA is difficult for me because I am unusually tall for my waist size. Or perhaps I am skinny for my height. Whatever the problem, this means I usually have to look at more than one store to find somebody who has my size in stock. Here in Belarus, where my height is even more unusual than in the USA, I found a choice of about eight pairs in my size, in various color gradations. “Wow!,” I thought, “I’m in luck.” I chose the shade of blue I wanted and asked how much these jeans would cost. The price worked out to about $120.

A hundred twenty bucks? Don’t I usually pay somewhere around forty or fifty bucks for these things back in the USA? I couldn’t do it. Instead, I went home and logged onto and found the same jeans for $40. I figured there was no way that shipping could be anywhere close to the remaining $80 and I set out to order a pair for myself. I was delighted to find Belarus in the drop-down list of countries on Amazon’s shipping-info page, and figured I was home free.

Nope. After I filled in the page, Amazon’s server came back with an error message saying that they couldn’t ship this particular order to my address. I clicked through for more details and learned that manufacturers won’t allow certain items to be shipped to certain countries, and that if I reduced the contents of my shopping cart I might be able to get the order to work. Unfortunately, those jeans were the only contents of my shopping cart and the Levi’s company had obviously felt that Amazon was inappropriate competition for their store in Minsk.

I may have to buy a pair of Belarusian-style jeans. They will probably be highly decorated, and I’ll probably have to spend a day visiting numerous small stores until I find something that fits well and looks the way I’d like to look. Then again, it’ll soon be warm enough to wear linen pants and I can put my jeans aside altogether. Then next time I should make a better packing list.