Friday, July 29, 2011

Chihuly (Gasp!)

Everybody’s been talking about the Chihuly show at the Museum of Fine Arts. We nearly missed it because we’ve been away, but we got there yesterday. We brought Ibrahim Kanun, a classmate of mine from my very first group at the Minsk State Linguistic University. We really enjoyed seeing him, and we’re grateful that he also wanted to see this exhibit.

I’ve seen Chihuly glass before, but this show surpassed any that I remember. The MFA show included both volume and density, which really brought out some central ideas in Chihuly’s art. Many of his big pieces are amalgamations of a lot of smaller parts, frequently featuring a single color. These pieces often held less appeal for me than other more colorful glass art, but somehow I gained a new understanding at the MFA show. I guess he’s been trying to make a point all along and this time he finally managed to make it forcefully enough that I got his message.

Sorry I was so slow about understanding it. Now I want to go back and see it again, and try to put everything into its new context. We have one more week before it’s gone.

From 2011-07 Boston

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


For a while now I’ve talked about the book I started writing in 2003 as if it were some sort of a work in progress. Honestly, however, I didn’t touch it for about eight years. Meanwhile, kind friends and even strangers have encouraged me to get it done, so I’ve arranged my life in a way that I am sure to write a few hours every day. I don’t do very well about writing at home because I’m too often distracted. To counteract this I re-joined the Boston Athenaeum, the second-largest private library in the world and the largest in the United States. Fortunately for me, it’s about a ten minute walk from home and I really enjoy working there. As a result, I’m making daily headway on my book. In addition, I really enjoy being inside the beautiful building with its views over historic Boston.

We're not supposed to take pictures inside, but I took a couple of clandestine shots with my phone:

Looking left from my table
Looking right from my table

Native costume

Occasionally I participate in events at the university in Minsk where people ask me to arrive in “native costume.” This is a little tough for me. I could take them literally and dress as a real Native American (still Known as Indians in Belarus) but such a costume could cost piles of money and I’d feel a little odd in any event appropriating a tribe. I spent some time, then, noodling over what might seem believable in Belarus as “native” garb for an American.

My first choice was to arrive as a Red Sox fan, but I don't yet own a single piece of the required gear. At a minimum, I'd need to get a proper hat (which I should own anyway) and a replica jersey. But I'm not sure what I'd wear from the waist down unless I add a pair of honest-to-goodness baseball pants and a pair of red stockings. It seems like a whole lot of stuff to buy just to strut around at some event pretending to be a typical American with a sense of humor.

I never really considered coming as a Wall Street mogul, though I do own fancy suspenders and the other required gear. Feeling like I’m done with that stuff, I toyed briefly with grunge culture and thought about dressing as an urban skateboarder. But my skateboard is out of date and I can’t do any tricks on it anyway. It would be a lot more fun to arrive in a zoot suit, but once again I’d be starting from zero and I’d have to buy a whole lot of stuff. I promise: If I ever hit the big time I’ll buy myself a zoot suit and parade around in it for everybody’s amusement. (See advertising photo at right.)

That left me with my beginning cliché. I can dress like a cowboy without much effort. When I started Canyon Technology Group I began wearing a lot of Western apparel, and I can bring an acceptable outfit without even buying anything new. But my Western belts are all far too serious, perhaps even yuppified. I decided I’d look for a more attention-getting belt buckle, and I didn’t even have to look very hard. Today as I walked down Charles Street I noticed that Helen’s Leather had some excellent buckles in their window. I didn’t expect to find anything like this in Massachusetts, let alone in downtown Boston. I chose for myself a buckle that melds the Indian Motorcycle logo with other American symbols. I’m all set now with the buckle alone. I don’t even need to bring my cowboy boots and other stuff, but I will anyway.

My belt buckle

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Enjoying Boston

Last weekend was our first and Nika’s last in Boston, so we went for a picnic at Columbus Park on the harbor. Conditions were perfect: We found a cool spot in the shade of a big tree facing the harbor on a sunny and warm day. Kids played in the fountain and a guitarist played mellow pop tunes for donations all afternoon long. The water taxis came and went, while we just stayed. We ate, blew soap bubbles, and relaxed.

Nika is gone now, so we celebrated Alla’s birthday with our friend Atef, who may have been born on the same date in spite of what it says on his birth certificate. (The registry was closed on the day of his birth, so his birth certificate cites the day of registration and not necessarily the day of birth.) Atef has a wonderful garden patio, where he grilled steaks and served them beautifully and deliciously.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Moving day, part 1

Nika (my stepdaughter) is moving to California. She’s lived in our house for the past eighteen months or so, and she brought a lot of stuff with her. In order to make space, Alla and I removed clothing from our closets, extra blankets from our cupboards, and other stuff we knew we could live without. We ended up living without that stuff for about a year longer than we expected, which meant that we had a little less variety than usual in our wardrobes. Not surprisingly, we lived just fine without so much clothing and now that I have it back I plan to go through it and give some of it to charity.

Still, it felt a little bit like Christmas to open up the storage locker and find clothing I’d almost forgotten about. Nika and I loaded Alla’s and my things into a rented truck and drove them home. Then we re-loaded the truck with everything Nika’s been using for the past 18 months. She already had a lot of things in storage, including furniture, linens, art and home appliances. Yesterday we added most of her clothing, books, art supplies, and other household items. We had to pack the truck carefully going back to the storage locker in order to transport everything in one trip, but we succeeded. And it all fit in the storage locker.

As I look at the amount of free space in the storage locker, I think I’m going to have an interesting challenge next week when the moving pod arrives. Nika is escaping in advance, and it’ll be my privilege to move everything from her storage locker to her moving pod. The interesting challenge comes because the moving pod is smaller than the storage locker. I’m confident that everything will fit, but I definitely won’t enjoy the luxury of wasting any space. I’ve got a lot of experience with moving, and I actually look forward to the challenge of fitting everything into the pod. I just don’t look forward to the labor involved, and dearly hope that Nika lines up one of her friends to help me with the lifting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

We finally got to the wall

Jubilant Berliners removed most of the Berlin Wall as soon as they could. Just before they finished the job, somebody realized that they should save a little bit as a historical artifact, and we finally got down to see it today. I didn’t realize how thin it is. It’s supported by plenty of steel inside, but now I understand how people broke through it so quickly once they realized they could get away with it.

On our way to the wall memorial, we spent a lot of time reading historical displays mounted along the sidewalks. I was familiar with most of what they presented, but my facts had gotten a little rusty over time. For Alla, the displays presented a lot of new information. The Soviets didn’t really feel the need to teach her much about it in school, or even to publicize it for her parents to discuss at home.

While I found the wall history interesting and entertaining, I found myself completely engrossed in the next historical display. On the site of the old SS headquarters, we spent about an hour walking down a historical timeline of the Nazi movement. I like to imagine that humanity is older and wiser now, and that nobody would fall for the kind of program Hitler conceived. But looking at the historical context and the language he used, I can understand how he won the hearts and minds of his followers. If you don’t stop to think about consequences, his ideas carried enough superficial appeal that a credulous populace could buy into them. He appealed to a group consciousness, offering the prospect of better lives for the segment of the population that considered themselves part of this group, and made it easy for most Germans to identify with the group.

I am familiar with other societies very conscious of a group identity, and I wonder to what extent such appeals might still work if presented in the right way and developed in a non-critical environment. It probably happens more than I like to imagine, and the exhibit makes me want to be very careful about what groups I choose to identify with. Best, I think, to identify with “humanity,” or “God’s creation.” The smaller the group, the bigger the risk of shutting out other people.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bundestag and other surprises

We tried to get into the Bundestag on Friday and learned that we needed to request tickets in advance. So, on Saturday morning I went online and found that it’s not a matter of filling out a form but of writing an e-mail and waiting for a response. I sent my e-mail on Saturday morning, and wasn’t surprised when I didn’t receive a response over the weekend. But I got worried when I still hadn’t received a response by yesterday afternoon, and I sent a follow-up e-mail.

This morning, still having received no response, I printed out my e-mails and we resolved to show our requests to the guards and try to talk our way in. The first guard said that we’d asked at the wrong post but that we’d probably get in simply by showing our e-mail, and that it’s possible we’re on the list anyway. Indeed, the guard who mattered found us on his list, and we’d apparently arrived at precisely the time they’d allocated for us. Things were looking pretty good until they asked for our identification. I had my driver’s license in my wallet, but Alla had nothing. Briefly I thought about how long it would take to go home and return with proper identification, when Alla and I simultaneously came up with alternatives.

Alla proffered a credit card with her name on it and I offered one of our business cards that have our pictures and our names on them. The guard grumbled that we’re supposed to have proper ID with us at all times, Alla promised to start carrying her driver’s license, and he waved us in.

We didn’t get to go to the very top of the glass dome because cleaning crews had just started their ascents, but we got excellent views from the roof and took about a thousand pictures.

Many other things worked out smoothly for us today, and I intended to write about how well Alla has acclimated to travel in Western Europe. (This is her first real trip.) But then there was the subway incident this evening. We had booked dinner reservations at a café just outside the Opera House so we could listen to an open-air concert. The restaurant lady had stressed the importance of arriving on time to keep this reservation, and we ran into a problem when the S-Bahn shut down temporarily due to a suicide on the track. I led her onto a U-Bahn which could get us the same station with a few changes of train. Let’s just say that Alla finds the transport system here a bit tricky anyway and she grumbled the whole way about giving up and returning to the hotel.

In fact, we got to dinner pretty nearly on time, though the show itself didn’t live up to the drama of getting there.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


There are strawberry stands all over Berlin. They’re shaped and painted like a strawberry and most of them sell only strawberries. I don’t know what happens when strawberry season is over. Do they import berries from somewhere in the south? Perhaps they sell other fruits: at least one stand we saw today displayed a few blueberries and a very few raspberries.

We bought our first box of strawberries a couple of days ago, and finished the entire half-kilogram in a few hours. Yesterday the local stand sold out before we got home, so we stopped on our way out this morning to see how long the operator planned to work today. She answered that she’d go home as soon as she sold out, and that yesterday she closed at 5:00. The customer ahead of us in line added that this stand tended to have the best strawberries and we should really buy immediately.

We bought elsewhere, late afternoon, and we are quite satisfied with what we bought. We learned that the stands feature strawberries from the Baltic coast and we took home some free strawberry cookbooks. The Baltic farmers are definitely encouraging German consumption, and they command a distinct price premium over the strawberries we’d been buying in Belarus. But it works: We see lots of people carrying Karl’s clear-plastic bags with beautiful strawberries inside.

From 2011-07 Berlin

Monday, July 11, 2011

Berlin begins to make sense

Alla and I gave ourselves a fairly thorough introductory tour of Berlin yesterday. We started the process on foot, walking from the main train station to a bunch of the places our books recommended. We couldn’t get inside of the Reichstag or the old Soviet television tower without reservations or an inordinate wait, so we kept moving until we could sit down on a boat and get another look at the city from the Spree River. We haven’t absorbed as much as we’ve seen, but we’ve gained a sense of context.

Having checked off so many must-do items in one day, we took today at a much easier pace. After church we gathered a picnic lunch and took it to the grounds behind the Charlottenburg Palace. I’m sure we’d love to see the inside of the palace too, but we found the grounds quite satisfactory and didn’t manage to get inside. The only building we entered was a little out-building now serving as a quite interesting (and manageably small) museum of porcelain.

As we approached the palace, I withered in the sun and cursed my decision not to bring shorts. Fortunately, we found a shady bench on the quite-cool bank of the river behind the palace and we settled there for our picnic. After lunch Alla let me read a Pushkin story, “The Blizzard,” aloud to her in Russian. I really like this story, which I read for the first time on the train coming to Berlin. Pushkin wrote well enough that Alla even enjoyed the story as it unfolded at my slower-than-ideal reading pace.

By the time I finished reading, the air had cooled off so we enjoyed a very pleasant walk through the formal areas of the palace garden, emerging at the far end of the property. We were glad to discover a Metro station nearby, and we managed to get to the big Berlin Dom cathedral in time for the evening service. The beautiful cathedral includes an excellent organ. Since we couldn’t understand the service in German, we particularly focused on the music and the architecture.

When we left the church we discovered with pleasure that we finally recognized a few areas on the map as we planned our trip to dinner. Unfortunately, a budding sense of context does not make the public transportation system easy to use. We still find the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, Deutsche Bahn system problematic all by itself, let alone the fact that we are nearly hopeless at finding any given station on a surface map of the city. While we can navigate between any two stations once we find them on the map, we can still find only a small fraction of the stations without wanting to refer to Google Maps. But at least the city feels a bit familiar now, and we’re excited about seeing some other sites with the level of detail we enjoyed at the palace garden today.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Suddenly I was a fashionista

I wanted to go to a museum of manufactured things today because I didn’t think Alla would want to go there and she’s joining me tonight. But when I got to the station near the museum, I encountered some sort of chaos and couldn’t figure out how to reach the museum. A participant in the chaos told me that the museum was on the other side of “Premium,” and he pointed me in the only direction I could go to get around all the extra stuff clogging the area.

Most of the extra stuff related to Fashion Week. In my efforts to get to the other side of “Premium,” I walked into the high-end area for a city-wide fashion extravaganza. Everybody else had wrist bands and often even tags hanging around their necks, but somehow I got in without any of that stuff. As soon as I understood my good fortune, I postponed my museum plans and took in the fashion as an art show. Not only did I enjoy the clothing, I enjoyed watching the well-dressed people who bought and sold this stuff.

Unlike the computer trade shows I know so well, this trade show didn’t attract a dense crowd. As I learned later, nobody is allowed except those who buy clothing in wholesale quantities and others specially invited by the manufacturers. I didn’t have any trouble seeing the garments, and I even got to meet some of the principals. My favorite was Luca Maestrami, of the Italian firm that bears his family name. I’m sorry my photo didn’t come out well, because the morning suits they’re making now look even better than the ceremonial stuff I saw online later at

I am happy to report that I saw a lot of really colorful stuff, some of which may even reach the American market. And I did ultimately reach the museum as well.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trying to make sense of Berlin

I’ve written about the importance of having some sort of a plan when one travels, and our friend Elena even tried to help by loaning us a book about Berlin in English. Unfortunately, I was too busy with last-minute details to read in Minsk, and I couldn’t find a book in English anywhere in Prague for less than $40 and that book wouldn’t have fit in my pocket so I skipped it.

As a result, I arrived in Berlin with nothing more than a hotel reservation. After showering and unpacking, I went out to buy a book and look for dinner. The staff was closing up the bookstore as I arrived, but a clerk let me in on the promise that I’d buy the first item I picked up. Then she actually helped me pick the best pocket-sized book about Berlin. When I said that I'd be here for a whole week, she encouraged me to buy the bigger book I saw in Prague, but realistically I won’t sit around in my hotel to read and I won’t read a book that I’d have to fish out of a backpack. The little one I bought looks to be good enough, based on the part I read over dinner.

I met a couple of Hungarians at the restaurant. They’d also just arrived, armed with three books. They promised to give me more information tomorrow, which is a really good thing.
My first impressions of Berlin are that it’s much too big and too busy to figure out without some kind of help. I like the fact that there are a whole lot of bicycles here, and I feel sort of out-of-it without a bicycle of my own. I also saw a lot of people in lawn chairs looking at the river. Unable to imagine why people would crowd so closely on a small patch of lawn, I went and asked if something were about to happen on the water. Nope. They’d just finished watching the sun go down. In summary, then, I have no cohesive idea of what Berlin is about. I’ll go work on it, and report back later.

Meanwhile, I discovered on Facebook that some old friends are coming to town tomorrow to start a bike trip from Berlin to Prague. I’ll go see them tomorrow evening, and then I’ll finally be able to tell Alla that Facebook can have redeeming social value.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The mistake budget

When I was in the investment management business, my firm modeled itself after a very successful firm run by a fellow named Dean LeBaron, the primary differences being that Dean had better mathematical models and a hotter wife than any of us. One day Dean offered to share some secrets of his success at a Boston Security Analysts Society meeting, and my boss and I decided to go. While he did not reveal any secrets to building better portfolios, he did elaborate on a very interesting idea. He stressed the importance of trying things, and suggested that all of us should plan to fail more often and build a mistake budget into our fiscal plan.

I dipped into my mistake budget this evening. Remembering the good fortune of the chamber concert I walked into a couple of nights ago, I bought a ticket to the “Liszt & Dvorak International Piano Festival,” which featured an orchestra called the Prague Dvorak Symphony Orchestra. I wasn’t particularly skeptical when I bought the ticket because I figured the city government would have the good sense only to allow a serious orchestra to play at their serious new hall in the Municipal House. I’m not sure why I had such an optimistic idea of what the City Fathers would allow or not allow, and in fact the orchestra was decidedly mediocre in spite of the high ticket price.

I mistakenly assumed that an expensive ticket would lead to a good concert, but in this case the ticket led to a nearly-empty hall. The empty hall freed the orchestra from any concerns over developing a bad reputation and they took good advantage of that freedom. Honestly, I think the attorneys in the Boston Bar Association Orchestra played at least as well the last time I heard them, and their concert was free.

Fortunately, the day began so well that the closing concert did not damage it. I started out in the Museum of Applied Arts, where I gasped over and over again at exhibits that delighted me. The exhibits included glass, textiles, woodwork, clocks, porcelain, and other crafts presented in an extraordinary building. And at the museum I met a very interesting couple from Boston, with whom I enjoyed an equally-delightful lunch. Finally, I got lost and found myself rescued by a gentleman about my dad's age who walked me over to the Mucha Museum and then toured the exhibits with me. After all that, the closing mistake bothered me very little.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Great day

I had an excellent day today. I selected this day for my trip to Český Krumlov because the weather forecasters only promised only this one dry day all week and I knew I'd want to be on my feet outdoors in Český Krumlov. Later the foresters teased me by saying it might rain after all, and it sure looked like rain this morning. However, the clouds parted about the minute our bus pulled into town and by lunch time I forgot about rain altogether.

I did discover one little problem arising from my weather-forecast-based travel planning. The castle is closed on Mondays and the big museum in Prague is closed on Tuesdays. Had I known that, I might have cursed the weather and reversed my plans for today and tomorrow, but so far I don't mind. I got inside enough museums today that the castle museum seems like a small sacrifice. And, late in the afternoon I noticed people in the turret at the top of the castle tower. That area interested me more than the rest off the castle, and it turned out to be open.

I even met a few people today, most importantly a very gregarious group from China. They invited me to eat lunch with them, and I nearly did. Ultimately, however, I ate alone because the Chinese contingent never quite pulled itself together all at once to go to the restaurant. I chose a different restaurant, also on the river, where the staff spent lots of time chatting with me.

The first time I came to Cesky Krumlov, about 15 years ago, my wife and I rode in by bicycle on a day trip from somewhere in Germany. We added this as an optional excursion from an organized bike tour. I remember that we rode hard in the rain and pulled into town at about 2:00, wet and hungry. Most of the rest of our group had arrived earlier, by bus. All I really remember about the town was sitting on the plaza enjoying a miraculous interval of sunshine and eating lunch.

Today I did not have to hurry at all, at least not after I caught the 7 a.m. bus from Prague. Leisurely, I walked and explored museums, gardens, serpentine cobbled streets, shops and exhibits. I even had time to sit down a few times to look around or write post cards.

I am very grateful for such a fine day.

Click here to see the album.

Small change

In the USA, the government spends more than the face value of the coin for every penny it mints. Then these coins go out into circulation, where they are distributed to consumers as change in the course of business. At the end of the day, a significant number of people lighten their pockets by dumping their pennies into a jar and the merchants go to their banks to get more new pennies to give away.

Much the same thing happens in Belarus, where people commonly resort to ten- and twenty-ruble notes if there isn't toilet paper on hand. The ten-ruble note, worth two tenths of a cent, probably also costs more than its face value to produce even though it's just nice printed paper.

The Czech Republic seems to have solved this problem. Their unit of money is called the crown, worth six cents. Interestingly, the smallest banknote is 100 crowns and they use a lot of coins. In the big stores prices are quoted in crowns and tenths of crowns (coronets?), but they round off the total bill to the nearest crown and nobody worries about the small change.

The U.S. Treasury has been trying for years to phase out the penny but they have never succeeded. I'd love to see us take a lesson from the Czechs. The merchants can still try to trick is into believing that their product is inexpensive because it's $14.99 and not $15. Then, let's allow them to charge us $15 anyway because we have stopped worrying about pennies. If you really care about the extra penny, pay with a credit card.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pictures worth a thousand words?

I went to Karlovy Vary today. I took an early bus, walked all day, and returned on an evening bus. I liked the town a lot, but I'm not sure what to say about it that I haven't already said in the titles of my photos. Besides, it's already late and I really want to get some sleep for a change. Maybe later I'll manage to write something about the film festival, the smell of sulfur, the Serbian tourists who turned back minutes before reaching the summit they couldn't see, or my quest to buy stamps.

I should really write about the stamps. In the age of internet, it's amazing how few hotels keep stamps for their guests, or at least how few admitted it. One lady offered me a free city map instead. I finally got stamps from a Russian hotelier who cracked when I told her I wanted to send postcards to Russia. (They really went to Belarus, but I thought she'd be more sympathetic to Russia.) 
But I won't tell that story because as I said it's way past my bed time.

I hope you will write your own stories from the pictures. (Click below and start at the 25th photo.)

From 2011-07 Prague

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I still like Prague

I got off to a poor start in Prague and spent an inordinate amount of time finding the bus station. (I wanted tickets for a couple of side trips.) The funniest part was when I got close enough to see the buses and saw a window that said tickets, with a huge line leading to it. I stood in the line for a while and it didn’t move, so I asked the guy in front of me if this were really the line to buy bus tickets. It turns out I’d been standing in line to buy tickets to some kind of concert.

Things didn’t immediately improve after that. I tried out a café the author of my guide book listed as one of the top ten things to see in Prague. He liked it because authors hung out there. I didn’t like it because authors apparently all smoke. The waiter put me in the non-smoking section, which had practically no view at all, while the smokers looked out at the river. Frustrated by the discrimination, I went out and bought a gyro sandwich from a hole-in-the-wall place and then walked down to a much more pleasant art deco café where I got a good tuna salad Nicoise. It was a variant on the salad I know and love, but still good.

My better salad came later. I had been snacking and didn’t want a heavy dinner, so I stopped in at an unknown restaurant advertising salads. My Caprese salad would have been at home in Italy, and I couldn’t have been happier. I got lots of great tomatoes under lots of superb sheep’s-milk mozzarella cheese, served with homemade Serbian bread. The owner moved here from Serbia, and we had a devil of a time communicating, but he remained cheerful in spite of our confusions. (The restaurant is called Gitanes and it has live music. I’d go back, but I’d ask them not to salt my food in the kitchen. They like salt more than I do.)

In between meals I took a long walk and a few photos. I found lots of interesting back alleys, weird art, the American embassy, and numerous details I’d overlooked last time. At the end, I arrived at St. Vitus’ cathedral exactly at closing time. The guard asked me if I’d like to go to the church service, and I accepted. As I entered, I saw a bunch of tourists (I thought) being escorted up a very exciting-looking winding staircase. I walked up with them and found myself in the organ loft with the whole choir. Oops. I went back and took a seat near the choir and organ. I found one empty space in a section near the front with a bunch of school kids all wearing ID badges. Once again, I think I found myself in a place where I hadn’t been invited. I learned this when the Cardinal came out and greeted one of the guys a few rows ahead of me.

It turns out that the Poland has just begun a stint as President of the European Union and the Polish Ambassador asked for the blessing of the church. Other EU ambassadors also came and the Cardinal led the service. The choir and organ carried their end of the program quite well, and in spite of the fact that I understood only a very tiny fraction of the Czech-language service I didn’t feel bored. Oh, and I sat right beside the famous Royal Mausoleum and enjoyed fantastic stained-glass windows and lots of beautiful sculptures around me. I took pictures after the service.

From 2011-07 Prague