Thursday, June 30, 2011

Deep in debt

The burden of debt weighs heavily on my conscience. As I write this, I am on a train, rolling through Poland. We stopped for about 45 minutes just outside of Warsaw in order to reconfigure the train, splitting off Amsterdam-bound cars and switching to an electric engine. I got off the train to stretch my legs, hoping to buy a bottle of water at the same time. I did get my walk, but I piled up an inordinate amount of social debt.

First I decided to visit a real restroom. Seeing an attendant, I asked her in Russian if I should pay a fee. She waved me inside and said something in Polish. As I stood there, I played back what she said and finally understood that she wanted money and the number fifty was involved. Sure enough, I saw a sign near the sink advising that the fee was 2.50 Zlotys. I had no idea the value of a Zloty, but I offered her a 5,000 ruble note, which would get me five trips to the toilet in Minsk. She had no use for this strange bank note and gave it back to me. Checking the exchange-rate app on my phone, I learned that 2.50 Zlotys is indeed about 5,000 rubles but I didn’t go back because she didn’t want that money and the incremental cost of my toilet usage couldn’t be much more than zero anyway. (Sorry to all my Belarusian readers. That sentence was hard, wasn’t it? I used to be an economist.)

Instead, I went over to the guy selling bottled water in the tunnel underneath the train platforms. I asked him if he spoke Russian or English, and he teased me in Polish about how I should really learn his language. I understood enough to follow, and we continued to negotiate in our respective languages. He didn’t want any amount of Belarus rubles, but he pointed out the lady on the other side of the tunnel and said that she’s from Ukraine. I didn’t really think a translator was going to be much help since he clearly had no way to get rid of my money. (Actually, it’s really hard for anybody anywhere to get rid of Belarus rubles. You can buy all you want, but heaven help you if you buy too many of them.) Anyway, I went over and spoke to the Ukrainian lady.

She had a little table beside her, displaying underwear and other small items for sale. Like her Polish neighbor, she refused my Belarus rubles, but she fished in her pocket and counted out a stack of coins, which she handed to me. Grateful, I gave the coins to the other merchant, who gave me a bottle of water. At this moment my conscience finally awoke. I could have bought a bottle of water from the conductor for 5,000 rubles, so why had I accepted this charity? I tried to press some money into the lady’s hand, but she refused, pointing out that she can’t do anything with my money and she knows how difficult travel can be.

The really touching thing is that I’m pretty sure she knew I didn’t really need her charity. She just saw an opportunity to help me out and she did it. Actually, maybe I did need her charity. The result of this kind act is that I feel a very urgent compulsion to “pay it forward,” that is to reflect her kindness in other situations I might have overlooked otherwise. OK, Prague, here I come.

Boat trip 2011

From 2011-06 Boat trip
Sergey invited us once again to go paddling with his partner and their employees. This time Alla even came along and shared a boat with me. Since she also shares a couple of languages with me, we had a much easier time working out our rowing technique than I had last year with Irina. Sometimes Irina and I struggled to reconcile what she wanted to what she wanted. I think we could have done better this year, but paddling with Alla proved to be easier and we had no trouble navigating around obstacles or overtaking other boats.

I really enjoyed being a member of this group once again. Since we were all comfortable already with each other, we were free to get directly to the business of enjoying each other’s company. As before, Sergey’s employees welcomed us warmly and treated us well.

This year’s route took us down wider rivers and we seldom encountered obstacles. As a result, sometimes we didn’t bother paddling at all. We’d just get out in front of the group and drift until a few boats passed us. Sometimes we’d grab onto another boat so we could drift and talk, and other times we paddled hard to overtake the boats ahead of us. Always we enjoyed beautiful scenery and we seldom saw evidence of human activity.

From 2011-06 Boat trip
There was, however, one very apparent area of human activity. Our guide’s sense of wilderness camping differs from our own. He brought along shovels, axes and even a chain saw in order to adapt the natural environment to his sense of what constitutes a campground. Alla and I scurried around picking up the litter we were dropping, but there was nothing we could do about the trees. I just hope they were more or less dead already. As for the berries, well, I hope the plants didn’t really need them all because I certainly enjoyed eating the ones I found.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Backyard toys

I often walk through back alleys and yards rather than major streets. The other day I finally noticed that practically EVERY yard has a play area with a unique selection of structures and equipment. I started thinking about it because I noticed a spectacular toy along my way home. It’s a wooden drum mounted with excellent bearings on an axel. Naturally I tried it. This toy is not for wimps. On the first step the drum started turning faster than I wanted, but since I’m tall enough to suspend myself from the tops of the handrails I did that, rather than learn “on the fly” how to control this wheel of terror.

It’s a great toy, and I would have spent hours on it as a kid but nobody thought to build one anywhere I ever went. At least we had teeter-totters. Somehow over the years teeter-totters were deemed too dangerous for American kids (I wondered briefly if American kids were considered too stupid for the teeter-totters, but then I remembered how many times my friends and I nearly crushed each other’s spines by jumping off of the downhill end and I decided I’d better not mention anything about the intelligence of American kids.) Anyway, kids here still get to play with teeter-totters too.

Then there are the climbing structures. My favorite one looks like the Eiffel Tower, but I’m pretty fond of the one with the circular horizontal ladder too. The amazing thing is how different they are from each other. I imagine each structure was custom made by an imaginative welder with plenty of steel tubing. While a few pieces of playground equipment have plastic parts, most of them look like they could have been made long ago. In spite of their age, these toys certainly don’t look abandoned. The metal parts wear jackets of colorful paint, in some cases reapplied as often as if aboard a Navy ship.

I started a little photo album of these backyard toys here. I could have showed many more interesting toys if I added stuff from any number of public parks, but parks feel like a different topic. I am impressed to find many different styles of backyard playground, and without even walking far from home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Salsa Minsk

I’ve been taking salsa dance classes for a few months now and I know enough steps to go out onto the dance floor but not enough steps or style to be entertaining. I feel, however, like I’m finally looking at the next level. I got a big lift the last couple of days from a different instructor. There’s an American guy in town on business, and he somehow agreed to teach a few classes at my school.

He taught my regular group last night, and I had a really good time. I particularly enjoyed the fact that he taught in English and (surprise-surprise) I understood 100% of what he said. Typically I understand enough to learn the steps, but it’s possible that some of my stylistic problems were due to missing nuances in the instructions. Or it’s possible that this guy gives better instructions. Whatever the difference, I had such a great time last night that I decided to barge into his class tonight as well even though it’s intended for more advanced students.

It turns out that I know enough basics that I had no problem learning with these advanced students. I’m just not as fluent as they are at putting together a string of fancy moves without coaching. Once again, I had a great time. More importantly, however, tonight’s class really lifted my confidence. I’m excited, now, to continue my dance education when I get back home. If American instructors are the key for me, I want to take advantage of the upcoming opportunity.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fortunate roadblock

Last year I regularly used the weight training room and the aerobics equipment at the university. They didn’t want to let me use it but I managed to get privileges, at least when a couple of particularly generous trainers were on duty. This year didn’t work out so well. I got all the necessary documents and health clearances and presented myself to my guy, who sent me to the head trainer, who sent me to the deacon of my department at the university.

The deacon told me that she could indeed write me a letter of recommendation and that she’d do it for me if I insisted. She objected, however, that she already knew that her application would be rejected. She had taken the matter to the highest levels on behalf of another student she liked, and learned that the head guy is unwilling to have foreign students in his training facility because he was too traumatized when one of them dropped dead lifting weights a couple of years ago.

The deacon encouraged me to go to a private health club, but I didn’t bother following up. I’d already been using the training facilities at the Hotel Minsk for about two dollars a session and I liked it well enough. About this time, I came to like it a whole lot better because it suddenly got more social. There was a woman there every time I went, but we never spoke because she was always plugged into her MP3 player. Finally, about the time I was rejected from the university facilities, this woman unplugged her earphones before she left the room. I exclaimed, “At last!” and came over and introduced myself. Her name is Katya.

From 2011-06 Minsk
The great thing about Katya is that she speaks slowly and clearly, and she’s patient about the fact that I speak even more slowly and often imperfectly. She even turns out to be a pretty good cyclist, and we managed to take a couple of rides together this spring. Meanwhile, the Hotel Minsk has gotten even friendlier. Now another woman, Irina, also comes in regularly. She’s an entertaining conversationalist in her own right, and if we get stuck on something she can usually bail me out in English, which she speaks quite well. Good thing the university didn’t want me this year, because I’m having a really good time with the alternative.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rainy-day fun

Last weekend the weather turned against us but we went swimming anyway. Elena and Sasha wanted to take us to a restaurant next to a water ski area, where we could have a private poolside cabana and eat vast amounts of shashleek (sheesh-kebab) and other Belarusian traditional foods. She apparently called them several times trying to reserve a cabana, and finally achieved success when she mentioned that she had an American guest and she wanted him (me) to see the best of the place. It might have helped that the weather suddenly changed from hot to cloudy with occasional rain, but we got our cabana.

The restaurant, prepared for changeable weather, provided us not only with blankets but also with a heater. That was good enough for Sasha and me, so we went swimming right away, trying to splash the water out of the little above-ground pool by jumping into it. (We failed.) After swimming, we ate and ate, and then Sasha swam some more while the rest of us photographed ourselves under fake palm trees.

We’ve had the same changeable weather all week. Alla and I tried to go out for a walk this evening but got distracted by a field hockey game in the park. I’ve never seen field hockey before, and it looks at least as physically demanding as soccer. (I’d say “football,” but my American readers would be completely confused.) I intended to stay until the end, wanting to see the home team beat the guys from Brest, but we chickened out when it started raining. So we went home, stopping for ice cream along the way.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Green stuff

Alla used to work in a commercial greenhouse, and she is really efficient at planting seeds. Where a typical gardener will scatter seeds and then thin out the crop, Alla distributes the seeds such that every plant will survive. And she’s really quick about it. She put these skills to work this spring when she went to help out our landlords when they planted early crops at their dacha. Now everybody is suffering.

The seeds belonged to Anna Adamovna, who brought them home from Germany. She bought them based on the pictures because the labels were written in Chinese. Now she has a lot of bok choy, which she is afraid to cook or eat, huge amounts of lettuce, and an abundance of green onions and garlic, dill, parsley and other very green stuff. Her soil seems to be extremely fertile because the plants shot up like Jack’s beanstalk. Now she is overwhelmed with produce which she delivers to us in bulk every time she comes home from the dacha.

Alla and I demurred. “Gee,” we said, “you’re awfully generous but you shouldn’t give us your whole garden.”

“I’m not giving you my whole garden,” she replied. “I don’t even like green vegetables as much as Evgenny Ivanovich and we just can’t eat this stuff as quickly as it’s growing.” Fortunately, it turns out that Alla and I can, and we’re enjoying it very much. All winter long I was dying to eat more vegetables, especially fresh ones. Now I am making up for my period of starvation, and it tastes really great. I can hardly believe the sense of wealth and abundance we are enjoying through our landlords’ generosity.

It’s a real shame that we can’t stay through the month of July as we originally intended, because I think we’d eat pretty well. And just as that garden thrives, the same green splendor fills the city. Yesterday I rode my bike across a recently-mowed field and reveled in the scent of the cut green stalks of who-knows-what and chatted with the birds that flitted around like characters in a Disney movie. It sure is green here right now.
Not the same field, but you get the idea

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Raw milk!

When I was a kid my mom always held her breath when she drank milk. She explained that this had been her habit since the time in her youth when the California legislature banned the sale of raw milk. She loved the flavor of raw milk and though she wanted the nutrients of the pasteurized version, she wasn’t able to bring herself to notice the smell (or lack thereof) as she drank it.

I grew up used to the flavor of pasteurized milk, but still read with serious interest when people wrote in praise of raw milk. In the State of Massachusetts, I think it’s possible to buy raw milk somewhere, but I don’t know where and I hear that it’s very expensive.

Here, on the other hand, anybody with a cow is free to sell raw milk and anybody with the guts to drink it may buy it. Anna Adamovna and Evgenny Ivanovich have a summer place (dacha) near a man with a cow, and they loaded up on dairy products just before Alla and I came to visit on Saturday. To buy milk, you simply turn in last week’s three-liter jar and buy a clean jar full. You can also buy smaller jars of sour cream as thick as cookie dough and a couple of kinds of cheese. They bought samples of all of this stuff, and brought it out over lunch.

I can’t describe the flavor of raw milk, except to say that it’s amazingly great. It tastes familiar. I can tell it’s from the same family as milk in the store, but it’s more like the beautiful sister you never met because she wasn’t in your class. Suddenly I forgot my first love and I found myself swooning over the unknown sister.

I found the sour cream pretty impressive too. Interestingly, I’m told that it thickens further after a day, reaching the consistency of butter. Alla would like to use it as a butter substitute, though I’m not sure the shelf life would be convenient. Still, the flavor of these dairy products certainly does attract me out of the city.

First impressions

This morning at the gym I met a translator from Los Angeles who flew in to translate “some meetings.” She evaded my conversational questions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the IMF is in town. Anyway, she seemed almost shocked to learn that I chose to come to Minsk in order to learn Russian. The more we talked, the clearer it became that she isn’t impressed by this city.

I can understand where she’s coming from. When Alla and I arrived the first time, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. Our guide brought us from the airport to the Minsk Hotel, a rather austere building on a four-lane street without many trees. I was puzzled by her apparent pride as she told us how to walk toward various sites she thought would be interesting to us. It took us a day or two to understand that our place in Minsk is not in front of that hotel but in the parks and the quiet streets as near a block away. I still avoid that big avenue, but I love to walk throughout the city and I could easily rattle off a long list of things I like about Minsk, things I experience practically every day.

Unfortunately, starting at the train station or even at the Minsk Hotel tourists don’t immediately see the best parts of the city. Given a little help they probably find their way into the big underground mall and perhaps to the linen stores and the crystal factory showroom. It takes a little more time and effort to locate the nearest parks and discover how far they extend. And only after all this might the tourist begin to appreciate the kindness of strangers here, and to notice the talent of Belarusian artists.

We probably made the same mistake recently in Warsaw. We had some free time waiting to change trains on our way back from Prague, so we set out without a map to explore the area near the train station. We found our way to a commercial area without parks and with little architectural interest for us, and decided that Warsaw was almost a waste of time. After returning home I looked online and discovered that we could have seen many more interesting things if we’d bothered to do some research before setting out from the train station.

I think I’d better start reading more guide books before traveling, starting with our upcoming trip to Berlin. We like to say that “knowledge is power,” but when traveling, knowledge is pleasure.

Hotel Minsk
A more restful corner

Friday, June 3, 2011


In class today one of my classmates asked our teacher how to say “wastebasket” in Russian. I joked about how he should be recycling, not throwing away, and asked how to say “recycle bin.” The teacher didn’t understand my question, so I explained that I was asking about those big yellow municipal bins for bottles, cans and paper. Oh, she said, we call those “trash containers.”

I followed up, then, and asked what they call the blue containers intended for garbage. Patiently, she explained that those are called trash containers.

“The same word?” I asked. “No wonder there’s always so much garbage in the yellow bins and so many bottles and cans in the blue bins.”

A fruitless discussion ensued. As far as I could tell at the beginning, she was completely unfamiliar with the concept of recycling. My classmate Ramazan pressed the issue and explained what recycling is all about. Oh yes, the teacher said brightly, “We have a word for recycling. It’s…” [They use a phrase which translates to “second use.”]

“So,” I asked, “how would you ask your husband to take a bag of trash to the dumpster and a second bag of cans and bottles to the recycling bin?”

Unfortunately, my question effectively killed the discussion. Apparently it was completely nonsensical, so we moved straight back to our grammar lesson.

Recyclable stuff in the trash bin
Trash in the recycle bin

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shoppiing for shoes

I’m a lousy shopper. I can be pretty effective ordering things on the Internet, but send me off to shops and I give up way too soon or buy something I wasn’t looking for.

Notwithstanding my shortcomings, I went shopping for shoes today. The weather has gotten hot, and I regret the fact that I left my lightweight athletic shoes at home. I’ve been wearing my Crocks at the gym and my black walking shoes most of the time, but I really wanted something to wear with shorts now that it’s hot out. I also wanted something light to wear at my dance classes, but that wasn’t my priority.

So, I went off to the Mirror Mall. This is not like any American shopping center at all. It houses an innumerable array of tiny-tiny stores, each one typically big enough for a shopkeeper and a couple of customers. Many of the stores on the second floor sell shoes, and I wandered the hallways and visited several featuring casual or athletic shoes. I didn’t visit any other floors, and I don’t even know what’s overhead. Nor did I stay in any store without marked prices because I quickly learned that if the price was not marked, we’d be talking about more than I had in my pocket. I learned further that nobody has much stock and finding an attractive floor sample didn’t guarantee that the store stocked my size.

I did find a very comfortable pair of Ecco water shoes, and the price worked out to about $130. That’s not much different from Amazon’s price, and I was tempted. But since I’d have to find an ATM before I could buy them, I kept walking. Do I really want water shoes?

Next, I came across another store where the shopkeeper played to two of my key weaknesses. First, I have a soft spot for pretty women, and she had me going from the moment I walked into her store. Second, she appealed to my vanity and told me how wonderfully I speak Russian. The upshot of all this is that I came home with a fifty-dollar pair of wing-tip sneakers
that have no arch support at all but they look quite snazzy to me. I think they’ll be fine for dancing, but probably not so great if I want to walk more than a kilometer or two. Now do I have to go back and try to find athletic shoes? I hope not.

This is why I don’t go shopping very often.