Saturday, December 29, 2012


I’m amazed by the amount of detail we can create for ourselves as we dream. Last night I was making myself a sandwich at a buffet as the person behind me spoke animatedly. Gesturing, she bumped the handle of the knife in a bowl of mayonnaise and it flipped out of the bowl and smeared mayonnaise all over my pants leg. This was especially troublesome because I was traveling and didn’t have any other pants with me. Somehow I remember the mid-air mayonnaise with special clarity and I ask myself why in the world I was lying there creating visions of such a scene. Was I practicing so I’d remain calm in the event of some real-world affront? That’s hard to imagine, since I’ve already had adequate practice at being spilled on.

I prefer to dream that I’m flying (without an airplane.) I flew all the time when I was a kid, but not so often now. In my dreams it’s not very hard. I just stretch my arms out to the sides, lean forward, and make a little jump from my toes. From then on I simply have to keep my thought relaxed and fluid, and imagine where I want to go. Generally, I skim along the ground at about chest height, but if I need to get over a fence or something I can do so by special effort, arching my back a little bit and willing myself upward.

Later last night I traveled by train with Alla. We didn’t have an ordinary compartment but as I write this the details of our tube-like chamber elude me. I “woke up” as we pulled into a station and I thought, “Did the conductor say we were arriving in Minsk?” I couldn’t see much out the window so I got out of the train and peered down the track. It was definitely Minsk. I didn’t know how much longer the train would remain in the station so I banged on the window to wake Alla. Then I got into the train car and roused her: “Get up, get up! We’re in Minsk!” Not fully awake, Alla managed to get off of the train with me before the train started off.

The train ride seems like a pretty standard dream to me. Alla sleeps soundly, and in any event she isn’t always ready when I think it’s time to go out the door. But an unknown person flipping a glob of mayonnaise onto my only pair of pants? That’s really odd.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Finally, something to write about

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Museum of Modern Renaissance

I’ve been so busy with everyday life that I haven’t written any stories for my blog. After so long, I didn’t want to write about just anything, but we honestly didn’t do anything terribly interesting. Finally, that has changed.

We used to enjoy Russian-American cultural programs at the Museum of Modern Renaissance, but since we spend less time in Boston these days we haven’t managed to get to anything recently. When we got an invitation to their ten-year anniversary party, then, we knew we had to go. Remembering that they don’t have an elevated stage, we paid extra to get seats in the front row. We figured we wanted to support the museum anyway, and we enjoyed our unrestricted view. Occasionally we felt a little bit overwhelmed, however, when a lot of opera singers sang loudly all at once. They can be really loud.

We know the artistic director of last night’s program. In fact, he was the principal musician at our wedding a few years ago. He’s got many talents and a powerful sense of humor. Apparently he’s also got access to a lot of costumes. This all led him to concoct a ridiculous story upon which he stitched together a bunch of operatic arias, sometimes modified to suit his insane script. We’d seen some of these jokes as parts of previous programs, which seemed perfectly reasonable since they came back as part of the anniversary retrospective.

Speaking of insanity, the hall itself is highly idiosyncratic, as you can see in the slideshow above. A couple of artists, Kolya and Katya, bought a former Masonic Hall and converted it into a giant art project. They covered the entire interior with bright new-age imagery loosely after the style of a Russian Orthodox Church. Having decorated nearly every flat surface of the interior, they are now working on the façade. Just entering the space, one is instantly prepared for something special. As I understand it, they wanted to create an environment where the best of Russian and American cultures could combine in search of something altogether new. Just coming inside always fills us with delight. It’s the only place we know of in Boston where we can count on high-quality home-grown entertainment.

After the show, everybody came downstairs for food, drink and conversation. Somebody brought a Kievsky torte from New York, which pleased us both. I had read a story about Kievsky tortes in language class a couple of years ago. The story made me understand that everybody wants to eat these things, and I have not yet been to Kiev. Last night, Kiev came to me, however, and it’s delicious. It fully counter-balanced the mystery-meat bologna which I did not realize was even available in the States.

One of last night’s performers will be a soloist at a major concert in Verdi’s honor in Jordan Hall on January 24. If I still have any readers left, particularly any in Boston, you probably ought to check it out. I hear it’s going to be really good.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

House of Air

Last year Nika asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her I'd like something we could do together. Brilliantly, she gave me an invitation to a place called House of Air. It's a trampoline park, but not exactly what I had in mind.

The last time I remember bouncing on trampolines, I must have been in college. I went somewhere that had a few trampolines lined up side to side and we jumped up and down until we got bored. This time was completely different. These guys are to trampolines what Turkey is to baklava. After our safety briefing, Nika and I bounced into the Matrix, a huge room with a 4x7 matrix of trampolines on the floor and more trampolines angled against the walls all around.

I stepped in and bounced up and down, which worked about the way I remembered. Progressing, I tried to jump from one trampoline to the next, but landed on the padding between them. I succeeded, more or less, the second time but landed poorly and wanted to stop bouncing, which I had forgotten how to do. Failing, I fell down. Nika reminded me that I could stop by bending my knees as I landed, so I felt prepared to do tricks.

My favorite trick in childhood was the seat drop, but I didn't do so well with my first efforts. I should have been doing more stretching, because I had a hard time coming down with my torso sufficiently vertical. Knee drops came more naturally, but by the end of our hour I was doing combinations and even flips.

House of Air offers variety, however, and we migrated onto the dodgeball court, where adolescent kids pummeled us with big foam balls. After a few games we began throwing the balls more accurately and dodging more successfully, but the kids always ended up winning. Not that we cared. We were having lots of fun. Nika even thought to take pictures of the festivities, but I had hidden her phone so well that she couldn't find it. You'll just have to imagine me flying around like Batman. I should really go back, with a camera. Maybe next trip.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Driving to Hana

A couple of days ago we took Peter and Elena on a road trip. I really like to go to Hana, more for the process of getting there than for the destination itself. But it's a long drive on a narrow and winding coastal road, Alla's afraid of heights, and there are parts of the road that freak her out. It's worth it and we keep going back, but this time we decided to make it easier by finding a place to stay overnight in Hana.

On the way down, we took the usual stops at waterfalls, high coastal overlooks, rocky shores, sandy beaches, an arboretum, and a barbecue. The barbecue was special. A Hawaiian fellow set up a big open grill at one of the turnouts where we happened to stop. We had a picnic lunch with us, but the cooking chicken smelled really good. I don't remember what kind of wood the man was cooking over, but it's Hawaiian and he told us that it imparted a mesquite-like flavor. He offered me a plate of a dish called huli-huli chicken. I'd never heard of this, but I trusted the aroma and bought a half chicken. I'm glad it was half of a big chicken, and we all wished we'd bought a whole bird.

We took our hot chicken down the road to a YMCA camp. Unable to find anybody to give us permission, we sat down anyway at a picnic table overlooking taro fields and the ocean and feasted on fruits, a few cold cuts, and huli-huli chicken. We really loved the chicken, and I found a recipe online when I came home. I think it's worth trying on my own. Can we buy frozen concentrated pineapple juice in Boston? I sure hope so.

Come to think of it, my major triumphs on this trip all had something to do with food. Knowing that there aren't many restaurants in Hana, I bought some delicious chili at a roadside restaurant a few miles before town. Nobody else wanted to eat yet, and I felt pretty well off when we discovered that a good dinner would cost more than we wanted to pay. I had eaten enough to skip dinner altogether, but I didn't have to.

I'll skip the details of a long story, but Peter disappeared on the way home from our restaurant reconnaissance trip. Once it became clear to Alla and me that we wouldn't find him soon, we ran off with the money Elena had in her pocket and went looking for a grocery store. There are two stores in Hana, but neither sold anything we'd be willing to call dinner. I explained our predicament to the cashier and asked her if there weren't anyplace in town where we could buy some fish. She sent us down to the baseball field, where she said we could buy grilled ahi. Indeed we could. We introduced ourselves to Captain Brad, who had caught the fish that day and was cooking it over a gas grill. We spent all of Elena's money and came home with five beautiful pieces of fish and some salad. When we finally got to our apartment, we found Peter and Elena reunited and we enjoyed a delicious dinner together.

We didn't eat so well on the way home, but we finished with a beautiful sunset over numerous surfers. You can see the last rays of the sunset below:

Monday, November 5, 2012

At the beach

Alla and I took our friends Peter and Elena to Kapalua Beach, our favorite of the ones nearby. I remembered that I liked it, but didn't remember all of it's good points until we got there. We knew it would be pretty, the water would be calm and warm, and the sand soft and wide. I forgot, however, how much is happening under the water there. I spent far too long trying to inflate an air mattress, and when I finally went for a swim I rediscovered a wonderful world of colorful fish swimming around the coral just off shore. I swam back and forth in swim goggles, fascinated by the variety of life underneath me. I don't know much about what I was looking at, beyond broad categories. Fish, of course, in many varieties, and sea urchins and two kinds of sea cucumber. I stayed in shallow water because I haven't got any snorkel gear with me and couldn't dive to investigate the deeper stuff. I'll rent some snorkel gear tomorrow.

As I swam slowly back to my starting point, I lifted my head out of the water to check my bearings. Just ahead of me, I saw a black hump above the surface. At first I thought it was a swimmer in a wetsuit. Then I decided it might be a seal because it didn't move like a human. I put my face under water to see if I guessed right, and discovered that I was looking at a sea turtle. We looked at each other, about an arm's length apart. I didn't want to crowd the guy, or scare him, so I stayed still. The turtle put his head down and swam lazily toward me. As he approached, he submerged to stay just out of reach but he was close enough I could estimate his length. I think he may have been about four feet long, or 2/3 of my height. I watched and watched as the turtle doubled back and settled himself on the sea floor under an outcropping. Once he settled down there, it's unlikely I would have noticed him had I not known where to look.

I returned to shore. We had just settled down in a shady spot with our books, when Alla noticed that a couple of young women near us were speaking Russian. I looked and listened. Presently some others came to join these Russians, and there were four attractive young women and one lucky guy. I came over to ask him how he got so lucky to be the only guy among all those pretty women and learned that these were a few of a group of people from Ekaterinburg who had come to a destination wedding. They had arrrived a day ago after spending about 24 hours en route. I chatted for a while, returned to my book, and came back to chat some more. I particularly enjoyed talking with Svetlana, a Deacon at a major economic university . She wondered if I might be qualified to come as a guest lecturer, but I am not academically qualified. Peter, however, may be, and he's definitely got some interesting insights to share. It's too bad he doesn't speak Russian, but Elena offered to come along as his translator and we are all hoping for the best. At least we're having a great time imagining it.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Actually, I've been pretty relaxed. We had a huge hurricane last week, but where we live there's no chance of a tree falling on our house and we're nestled among a bunch of buildings about the same height so the wind mostly went over our heads. As the storm whipped itself toward its peak fury, I decided I'd better buy a bottle of milk before the store ran out of the stuff. Alla begged me not to leave home, certain that I'd meet my demise on the street. I went anyway, but her concern heightened my awareness of the tall trees twisting and turning overhead as I walked toward the corner store. I wondered if I could really run away from a falling branch if I even noticed it breaking off, and decided that maybe I didn't need to go down to harborside at high tide after all.

I'm grateful to say that we sustained no damage (beyond some already-weathered furniture covers on our roof deck.) Friends weren't so lucky, but all things considered I think Boston made out much better than cities in coastal New Jersey and New York.

I did look forward to relaxing, however, because Alla has been a little wound up. She doesn't like travel nearly as much as she likes being at interesting destinations. Right now we're en route to Maui, in the Hawaiian Islands. Alla packed her suitcase two days ago. Somehow she finds it difficult to decide what not to bring, so she likes to start early in order to have time to reflect on her luggage and add important things she remembers later. This means that she never forgets anything important, but sometimes things get doubled up or lost underneath something that proved to be extra and unused. I tried to stay out of that process as much as possible, but I can never steer completely clear.

Anyway, here we are. We might be the only people on the plane with no affiliation to Microsoft. Everybody else, as far as we can tell, is receiving this vacation as an award from that company. They all seem to have those fancy new Surface tablet computers and/or Windows Phones or at least some sort of computer running Windows 8. One wife of a Microsoft employee confessed that she uses an iPhone. I'm using an Android tablet. There are plenty of Kindles on the plane too. Apparently it's not heretical for a Microsoftie to have a Kindle.

Anyway, everybody is feeling jolly. When we get off the plane, we'll have warm, sunny weather and warm starry nights. And at least most of us won't have to work for a few days. It sounds pretty relaxing indeed.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Getting ready for the storm

The weather forecasters think three different storms are about to converge on us at once. I guess that means the end of our pretty fall colors. We’ll miss them. Autumn has progressed very slowly due to unusually warm days, and we’ve been spending lots of time outside. It’s been great, and we knew it couldn’t last forever.

This morning, as soon as dawn broke, I looked out to see if the storm had arrived yet. I saw a little wind, but nothing worse. I wanted to get Alla out for a bike ride before I left for church, so I launched a strategic plan. Since she likes to sleep later than I do, I shaved and got myself as organized as possible before waking her up. “Do you want to go for a ride?” I finally asked.

Alla answered something sleepy and barely intelligible. I showed her the sky, suggesting that I could still see a little blueness. She saw only gray, but consented that the wind didn’t look too bad. She thought about it. I reminded her how much we’d enjoyed the afternoon walk she dragged me out for yesterday and she decided to be a good sport. Off we went.

While well over half the city’s leaves had already fallen from their trees, the remaining ones seemed even brighter. No doubt our orange bike glasses had something to do with it, as did the gentle morning light and the lateness of the season. We gasped and exclaimed as we rolled down the Emerald Necklace. The city seemed almost abandoned and we decided to take a bigger avenue we’d normally avoid. Historic buildings peeked out at us from behind the less-leafy trees until we made our way to the Arnold Arboretum.
I finally got out my phone at the Arboretum and took a few photos. We understood once we stood still that we were watching the end unroll. Leaves cascaded down on us and the wind speed increased. We rode home in a headwind, and from time to time we couldn’t see pavement at all under the accumulating leaves. By noon, a light rain had started, and I’m pretty confident that the fall-color season has effectively ended.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I am hoarse

Johnny's Freshman boat. He's the one on the right.
Every year I go to watch crew races at the Head of the Charles Regatta. I don’t really care who wins, but I bring a megaphone and yell at lots of boats just because I enjoy it. I generally cheer for the local teams, and for whatever team seems to be doing better than expected. And I always cheer for Princeton. Long ago, my cousin’s son rowed for Princeton and his boats tended to win lots of races. He even got invited to join the U.S. National Team, but he moved on to “real life” after he wasn’t selected for the Olympic team. I still watch rowing, as I have since long before Johnny rowed his first Head of the Charles.

Yesterday Alla and I focused on the social aspects of the regatta. We watched a few races, but spent considerable amounts of time testing free food samples and hob-nobbing with some of the many visitors this event brings to the Boston area every year. Alla was excited to pose with a model Lufthansa plane in her hands, and the stewardess sent her home with a rubber ducky dressed in a Lufthansa uniform. I was excited to dig through the bargain bins at JL Racing, a manufacturer of sport clothing. Rowers tend to be tall and lanky, and this is a pretty good way for me to find athletic clothes that fit (or almost fit.)

Today I came back to the river straightaway after church. I stopped at the Radcliffe boat house and bought a bagel for a dollar, and received a big dollop of cream cheese for free. Then I looked for a free salad from Olivia’s, but they’d already run out so I finished my lunch with some new sports recovery drink and a couple of sample Lara Bars. Fortified, I sat down on the bank of the river and got out my megaphone, binoculars and program. I yelled at lots of boats and made friends with a couple of grandparents waiting for their granddaughter. The grandparents didn’t know anything about crew races, so suddenly I was an “expert.”

I’m not an expert, however, and this year I had been puzzling over why it appeared to be so hard for the coxswains in the long boats (8’s) to steer. Nobody near me knew much more about the sport than I do, so I felt free to leave when I finally got tired of sitting in one spot on the ground. I walked back to my favorite viewing spot, on the Anderson Bridge near Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. Soon I discovered that the tiny woman beside me has had considerable experience as a coxswain, including on the Charles River. She explained to me the ideal route from the Weeks Footbridge to our bridge, optimizing a short course and the fact that you really-really want to be pointed in the right direction when you get between the bridge piers. When some boats got congested between the piers I asked her if she’d slow a boat down in order to avoid contention in a tight spot like that. “Oh yeah,” she replied. “In a race, the rowers are a lot like animals. If you get them spooked it can throw off the rest of the race.” Needless to say, she was a wonderful conversationalist.

Crew people tend to make great company anyway. There’s something about getting up super-early in the morning to sit in a boat with the same people day after day that sorts out folks who can’t get along with others. It makes for a very pleasant spectator environment too. You end up with a lot of gregarious people egging each other on. In the end we scream and yell a lot and we tend to come home hoarse. It’s lots of fun.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Weekend in Maine

Last week Alla noticed an ad for a lecture in Camden, Maine. We’ve never been in Camden and the lecture sounded good, so off we went. According to Google Maps, it’s a 3½-hour drive to get there, but somehow we managed to spend all day at it. The problem involved shopping. Alla and I both hate to shop, so we don’t do it very often. We had a little list of things we’d been meaning to buy, so we stopped at some of the factory outlet stores along the way. One stop proved especially successful: Alla really needed a new pair of casual pants, and she found an excellent pair at Lucky Jeans. She liked them a whole lot more than the pants she had on, so she left the dressing room in her new jeans and told the clerk she wanted to wear them out of the store.

As she rang up the sale, the clerk realized that we had a little problem. Lucky sews anti-theft tags into their clothing and the clerk normally de-activates them at the counter. Alla might have to take off her pants for this. Fortunately, the store manager knew that they could de-activate the tag simply by folding it in half, which the clerk accomplished while Alla sat on the counter. Seeing me staring at my phone, Alla warned the clerk that she was about to become a public figure as I took this photograph for my blog.

After all stops for shopping, lobster sandwiches, walking around and rubbernecking, we got to Camden as the sun began to set. Had I known how much I’d like Camden and the view from our balcony, I would have shopped less and driven more directly. It’s a harbor town on a rocky bay, set at the bottom of colorful hills. The oldest buildings date from the early 1800’s, and the downtown architecture still looks quite historic.

After Saturday’s lecture, which we both enjoyed, we climbed Mount Battie. Alla complained a lot during the climb because we expected open vistas all the way up, but the trail took us through woods until the very top. We could have driven up, and I had to entice her to complete the hike by promising that we could beg a ride down if she didn’t want to walk back. She took me up on my offer, and we ended up riding with a really interesting couple. They had overheard us speaking Russian and the guy told us that he’d not long ago spent two years in Kazakhstan. He was a Peace Corps volunteer, and he spoke pretty good Russian. His poor girlfriend suffered in smiling silence as the conversation suddenly veered clear of her language. I think at least the rest of us felt like we got back to our car too quickly, and would have enjoyed talking more.

We got some rain on Sunday, but mostly while we were at church. We made good use of the rest of the day and didn’t leave the area until nearly sunset. This time we very nearly drove directly home and confirmed that Google Maps hadn’t lied: it really was only 3½ hours of driving. We want to come back, and the Town of Camden hopes we will. They sent us home with a colorful free magazine describing what a wonderful place it can be even during late autumn and winter. Alla is studying said magazine even as I write this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Russian choir

A Russian monastery choir came to town tonight, so of course we went. And not surprisingly, the show was superb. I believe Russians have the best church music in the world, though I may be prejudiced and I certainly don’t know all about everybody else’s church music. Anyway, I knew we’d like it.

Just before the show began, the theater people made an announcement that the choir would omit one song from the first half of the show and another song after the intermission. People hadn’t settled into silence when the announcer started, and I only managed to remember what the choir would omit during the first half. So, at intermission I asked the people around me if they’d caught the rest of the announcement. I addressed everybody in Russian, and soon learned that I was the only person in the entire mezzanine who had understood the announcement, which was given in English.

Frustrated, I went down to the lobby and found a young woman. Surely a well-dressed woman under 30 in America would speak English. I asked her, then, if she spoke it. “A little bit,” she replied. So I asked her in Russian if she’d caught the announcement. She had not. I looked around the crowd to find somebody else who seemed likely to know English. I listened for a conversation in English. No luck. I tried the lounge area in the basement, and finally gave up. I’d just have to figure out on my own whether they were singing the songs in order. Well, actually, Alla helped me.

At one point in the second half they sang a song which the program called “Evening on the Roadstead.” (Вечер на рейде) The choir director turned to the audience and motioned for us to sing. Everybody but I seemed to know the words, and they sang very enthusiastically. The choir applauded the audience and the audience applauded the choir. Following up on this success, the soloist announced in English that their encore would be a song everybody knew and we were all invited to sing along. He sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while the choir sang “Ba-da-doo-wah” and other sounds not requiring linguistic expertise. Amusingly, nobody in the audience seemed to know this number. The choir and soloist did a great job with it by themselves, presenting Russian style and perfectly-accented English.

The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir will perform in several other American cities in the next couple of weeks, and I’d encourage my readers to give it a shot if they come near you. You can see the whole schedule and listen to music samples here.
Our view from the mezzanine of the Majestic Theater

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life in Boston

We’ve been back in Boston for a month now, and we’ve been really busy. A lot of our business has related to home maintenance, including one project I really enjoyed. A couple of years ago I built a new door to our roof deck, topping an aluminum frame with an insulated two-layer Plexiglas window. I was rather pleased with the result, and expected it to last a long time. Unfortunately, however, I made a summertime mistake. To keep the bedroom cool during hot weather, I taped down a sheet of opaque vinyl. Imagine my surprise when I removed the vinyl in the fall and discovered that the Plexiglas had developed a spiderweb of cracks. It turns out that I’m not the first person to make this mistake, and the two materials don’t get along well.

This year I cut up a big Mylar bag to tape over the roof door. It kept the bedroom cooler without worsening the Plexiglas problem, but I really had to replace the crackled window.

I went back to the plastics place and told them I’d messed up by telling them what material I wanted to buy, and this time I asked their advice about what I should get. They told me about polycarbonate, a strong, light and clear material used for fighter-jet canopies among other things. They recommended a heavy-duty sheet capable of supporting a huge snow load, and I ordered it. This stuff is great! I got really worried when I picked it up because it’s so light, but it’s plenty hard enough to cut through. Alla’s all excited because she can finally open the door effortlessly. I’m all excited because it’s got a ten-year guarantee.
Last view of old roof hatch
New hatch in place

On Sunday we headed out for pure entertainment. My college alumni association invited us to take an architectural tour by boat, and we had a great time. The guide worked for the Boston Architectural Center, and she had lots of interesting info to share. I hit it off with the boat captain too. He and I have both lived in Boston for a long time, and we had enough fun sharing stories that he invited me to stay on the boat as his guest for the sightseeing tour he would run next. I took lots of pictures, and put my favorite ones here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about a fellow I worked with long ago. Today I’d like to continue the theme and tell a story about a different co-worker at my next job. I was very happy to escape my job at the department store chain and go to work at a bank holding company with a bunch of people who tended to respect marriages and families. I had a brilliant and slightly eccentric co-worker named Rob Arnott. Rob went on to become a well-known player in the world of investments and investment theory, but for the moment he and I pretended to be peers. I think he and I even had the same titles when I started, but management soon recognized his extraordinary talent and made him a vice president. Rob got all excited about this and went out and bought a lovely house in the suburbs.

One day Rob came to work late, wearing new glasses. I commented on them, and he told me how he came to buy them. The day before, he’d left the office a little late. He went home by train, and his wife would be waiting for him at the station so he ran all the way from our office to the train station on a hot summer evening. Rob always seemed a little soft to me, and I had a hard time imagining him running so far at all, let alone in a business suit and leather shoes, probably even carrying a briefcase. Miraculously, he got to the station on time as the train waited beside the platform.

Well, he wasn’t exactly on time. As he ran up to the train, it began to move. Rob sprinted toward the still-open door in the last car. The train slowly accelerated, and as Rob neared the door the train began going fast enough that my unfortunate friend realized he could not board. Exhausted and in despair, he fell to his knees, ripping the knees out of both legs of his suit pants and scraping up the palms of his hands. The conductor standing by the door took pity and signaled the engineer to stop the train. Grateful, Rob got on and sat down by a window to rest and cool off.

Sweaty and gasping for breath, he stuck his head outside the window. The train gathered speed and started around a curve. Rob took a deep breath, relaxed and WHOOSH! the wind blew the glasses right off of his face. Glasses were practically a part of Rob’s identity at the time, and I can imagine the horror on his wife’s face as Rob stepped off of the train with empty face, his knees bleeding through the holes in his pant legs, and his hands all skinned up.

This little setback didn’t interfere with Rob’s ultimate success. You can read a recent article about him here.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I haven’t written anything in my blog for the past few days because I’ve been busy doing ordinary chores and don’t have much new to write about. Hoping to entertain my readers at least a little bit, I’ll tell an old story.

When I first finished business school, I went to work as a financial planner for a company that owned a few department stores. Every Thursday I had to interview the vice president of marketing to get his opinion about the potential impact of that week’s advertising. Then I would develop a comprehensive forecast to put onto the president’s desk by the end of the day. I’m not sure what he did with it, and doubt that it made any real difference, but I certainly had no choice but to get the report to the head guy on time every week.

Walter, the vice president of marketing, didn’t always want to give me his numbers. He occasionally tried to talk me into making up my own numbers, but my boss taught me the benefits of CYA and I never failed to get Walter’s official estimates. One Thursday, however, Walter kept putting me off and finally just wouldn’t answer his phone. He had told me that he’d be ready for me by five o’clock, however, so I put on my suit coat at 4:55 and went over to the other building, where he had furnished a large office with inventory from the store. He had a little refrigerator, a big sofa, a little conference table and a big desk. The sofa sat in the center of the room, facing away from the door.

I knocked on the door, certain that Walter was hiding in his office. Receiving no answer I knocked again, more loudly, and this time Walter tried to send me away. I tried the knob, which he had locked, and demanded through the door that he fulfill his promise. Finally, Walter relented. He opened the door and scuttled over to the back of his couch, where he sat casually drinking a soft drink. When I say that he scuttled, I mean that he walked crabbed over so the bulge in his pants might be less noticeable. His efforts gained no effect, and the bulge decreased only slowly as he sat there staring at me, sipping his Seven-Up. On the other side of the couch sat the lovely assistant buyer for small appliances, who looked at me with pink cheeks and magnified innocence as she sipped a Coca Cola.

Walter made up some numbers in a big hurry and threw me out. I went back and wrote up my forecast while he considered the subtleties of blenders and ice breakers. I don’t think that week’s forecast proved to be highly accurate, but for a moment anyway I’d made Walter do his job.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Free Stuff

I’m back in the USA, the land of free stuff. It’s pretty amazing what we throw away or give away, especially in contrast to the thrifty culture I’ve just left. Our friends Malcolm and Judy help with a charity that gathers used furniture and linens from hotels and households and even gathers new furniture from warehouses and distribution centers. They then open their warehouse to families in need, who are allowed to choose a complete set of household goods to take home with them.

Last week I wondered if such a charity existed because I came home just in time to see the annual first-of-September ritual of the return of the students. Many people move in and out of our neighborhood at this time of year, and lots of them leave behind huge piles of household goods on the curbs as trash. Sometimes scavengers come by and rescue some of the best stuff, and sometimes we participate ourselves. For example, a couple of years ago we found a pretty nice wooden drop-leaf table out on the curb. We took it and gave it to Nika, who used it well and finally sold it when she needed something smaller for a new apartment. We’d like to figure out how to help the Household Goods Recycling people cream off the best stuff during moving season in our neighborhood.

We see lots of free stuff at festivals and other public events too. Companies have a tradition of giving away little gifts to attract attention. Common gifts include bags, water bottles, key rings, T-shirts, mugs and food. (The free food is usually samples of processed items like candy bars, ice cream, hummus and beverages, but I’ve even received free salads complete with dressing and a fork.) As I walked through Harvard Square yesterday I passed a bank with a big wheel of fortune. They invited me to spin the wheel and take whatever prize it indicated. I got a key ring with flashlight. I have several of these now, and I keep looking for opportunities to give them away.

My favorite free item arrived last week. I wanted to buy a new mobile phone and T-Mobile wanted me to buy a more expensive data plan to go with it because the new phone uses 4G and my subscription only gave me 3G. Somehow in the course of discussion the representative noticed that I’ve their customer for a long time and we barely use our American phones during the six months of every year when we’re living in Belarus. They decided to reward my loyalty and my annual subscription by giving me a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone for free. I thanked them very much, but told them that it would be hard to accept their gift if I had to pay more money for the data plan. They understood my concern, and upgraded my data plan on very favorable terms. I love T-Mobile. (And the phone works great. My internet service is faster on it than my home DSL service.)

All this free stuff is pretty amazing, but of course it comes with tradeoffs. The reason American businesses can give away samples and discounts is that their basic prices can be much higher than base prices in Belarus. Internet access, for example, costs so little in Belarus that it would seem almost free to an American. Still, I’m feeling pretty dazzled by all the good stuff I’ve seen up for grabs since I’ve been back. Let’s figure out how to get next year’s household goods off the curbs and into the hands of needy people in other neighborhoods.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post Office

Minsk Central Post Office
Alla discovered a convenient trick for sending stuff overseas. She had a kitchen towel that she wanted to send to Nika, and she just stuffed it into a sufficiently-large envelope and mailed it without ceremony. The people at the Post Office warned her that they couldn’t guarantee anything if she mailed it that way, but it worked. It worked once, anyway. We tried the same trick again with more valuable contents and a bubble-lined paper envelope, which arrived empty except for the accompanying letter. Alla called the Post Office to see if she might recover the contents, but they said they don’t confiscate stuff and the guilty party had to be in America.

I imagined no issues at all when sending a little package internally. I ended up with a friend’s audio cable, which I wanted to mail before we left the country. I dropped by the main Post Office and bought a little plastic envelope. Presently I returned to the window to get stamps for my envelope. Oh no, the clerk intoned, you can’t send plastic envelopes from here. You have to go around the building to the package-shipping office. I contemplated buying a paper envelope and trying again, but decided to have a go at this package-shipping office. We’d been there once before and I hadn’t liked it, but maybe it would be different this time.

I approached a line of identical-looking windows, found one without a queue, and waited for the clerk to stop her conversation with a colleague and acknowledge me. I waited some more. Finally her colleague asked what I wanted, so I showed her my envelope. Go to that window, she directed. “That” window had two people ahead of me, so I waited. Another window opened up, so I checked there but the clerk sent me back to “that” window. I waited some more. I shuffled my feet and wondered when I’d get to a bathroom. The woman ahead of me tried out various envelopes and shuffled her shipping forms.

Finally the clerk took my envelope and wrote a word I didn’t know underneath the place where the stamp would go. She passed it back to me and said “Ценность:” I told her this was a word I didn’t know and she gave me a look that I was able to translate. It said “You’d better figure it out buddy, because I’m not going to tell you.” I realized that the root related to value, so I asked her if she wanted to know the value of the contents. Yes. Who knows? It’s a little cable. I wrote 1,000, figuring that any nominal value was OK. Then I thought she might imagine I was talking about dollars or Euros, and that might lead to problems, so I added BYR. The clerk looked at me coldly and asked if this were rubles. Yes, I replied. It turns out this does indeed make a difference. The tax on shipping something worth 1,000 rubles in a plastic envelope is 30 rubles and a lot of waiting. I think I prefer paper envelopes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life in Minsk

I went down to BelExpo today to see a back-to-school trade show. As I left, I noticed the flowers in front of the Opera House and realized I hadn’t been on their property since spring, so I went over and sat on a shady bench in front of the fountain. It was warm enough that a few kids waded in the fountain and a group of three or four girls even walked right into the plumes of water. I relaxed in the bucolic scene of families at rest and kids at play.

Suddenly very young boy with a bold stride and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth waded into the water. He carried the mannerisms and swagger of a high-school hoodlum, but when he spoke his voice confirmed that he had not yet reached maturity. His male companions in the fountain all had high voices, but the girls who hung around them already looked like women. The kid who first drew my attention seemed to be the ringleader even though he was also the smallest of the group. He strode back out of the fountain and snatched one of the girls, throwing her into the water. I watched with a little concern, but the girl didn’t seem frightened and she didn’t try to run away. She gave the impression that she didn’t want to be thrown in but that she accepted it. Soon the other boys followed and they threw the remaining girls into the water. These girls gave the same impression of resignation and acceptance.

I found the whole incident noteworthy because I’d just been talking with a friend whose cousin had chaperoned a Belarusian youth delegation to an international conference. The chaperone reported that the Belarusian kids demonstrated much greater self-control than the kids from other countries and the adults wondered if this were in some way abnormal or undesirable. As I’ve written the Belarusian school kids who invited us to Prague with them were also responsible and cooperative. They really impressed us and we found their behavior admirable. This little group at the fountain contradicted that impression.

I continued to pay attention to the small kid I described as the ringleader. A young adult came and rescued his sunglasses from getting washed away in the fountain. This led me to guess that the group came from some sort of an institution, perhaps an orphanage. Only 4% of kids who grow up in orphanages here go on to live stable adult lives, and these kids didn’t appear to be on a stable track.

When they left the fountain, they joined a group of older kids and I decided I wanted a picture for my blog. I casually walked by and snapped a picture as I walked. Most of the kids had already noticed me and they posed for my photo. I sat down on another bench and took a few pictures I imagined to be candid. Suddenly my ringleader popped up behind me and I nestled my phone into my palm so it would be hard to swipe away from me. He did not threaten me at all, however; he just asked me what I was doing. I told him that I write a blog on life in Belarus.
He thought that was hot stuff and went back to tell his friends, who then consented to pose more formally for a group photo.

I didn’t really learn anything today, except that I don’t know how to take candid photos unnoticed. And that the scary-looking kids weren’t all that scary. And that kids vary here just as, I suppose, anywhere else.

Friday, August 17, 2012


I’m a pretty optimistic guy, and I think this occasionally complicates my life. Peanut butter complicates my life too. When I put the two of them together, I should know I’m headed for a fall.

My readers know that I like peanut butter, and that I go to some lengths to keep a supply of it here in Belarus. I had a pretty good stash built up until recently because I bought a bunch of it when we were in Vilnius and then I supplemented my supply with three jars of Trader Joe’s crunchy almond butter when I last visited the States. I stacked those three jars of almond butter one above the other and rolled them up in a cardboard tube. This apparently caused some concern for the transportation safety people in San Francisco, who took my bag aside and inspected the contents. I got my stuff, but it arrived a day late and I’m not sure whether to blame the inspectors or the French. In any case, my stash looked pretty good as recently as a month ago.

Feeling flush, we even gave away some of the Lithuanian peanut butter. Then somebody noticed that I’d lost a little weight and I decided to go back to my caloric habits and eat nut butters more often. I’m consuming it quickly, and will run out before we leave.

I got pretty excited, then, when I noticed a big store called Preston Maximus over on the other side of town. My Lithuanian peanut butter came from a bigger version of the same store, called MaXXimus. There’s also a 3-X version of the store in Vilnius. The 2-X and 3-X guys sell peanut butter, but the 1-X stores don’t. Still, I had hopes for the local Preston Maximus because it looked so big. I looked them up on the internet to figure out how to get back there.

What-ho! Preston has three stores, and one of them is so important that it’s open 24 hours a day. I figured that this certainly implied exotic things, and I went to that one today. It would have been easy to reach in a taxi, but I took the tramway and then a long walk. I carried an empty backpack and high hopes. Unfortunately, however, all I took back was disappointment. This 24-hour store sells more wine than anything else. I asked the clerk about peanut butter and she said they had it. Unfortunately, the Russian word for butter is the same as the word for oil, and I have no appetite for peanut-oil sandwiches. I walked through the store and photographed everything so you can see it for yourselves. I got the whole store in three photographs, two of which are worth posting below.
Main area in Preston Supermarket

Preston produce section

I can wait. I know where to buy peanut butter in Boston.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Buying services

Whenever I get complacent about living here in Belarus, something new pops up. Today I went to get my teeth cleaned, as I do every six months. The dentist peered around in my mouth, poked and prodded, and declared that everything is grand except for some tartar (it’s called “stone” in Russian) on my lower teeth. He decided in that light that he only needed to clean the bottom half of my mouth. Half an hour later, I got half the usual bill for half the usual job. It’s possible that he was trying to squeeze in another patient for the second half hour, since he chatted with his assistant about a patient whose crown had finally arrived.

The other service I tried to buy today was a repair to my winter coat. I have a very heavy shearling garment that started coming apart at one of the shoulder seams. Alla suggested that I should ask the seamstress if she could handle it before I bothered bringing it down. I’m glad I took this advice because the seamstress said that she doesn’t work on leather. She sent me home to call central services to ask where to get the work done. I started home and then turned back because I’d noticed a luggage repair shop in the same building. Their sign promised repairs on suitcases, handbags and umbrellas. Certainly they’ve got a sewing machine capable of stitching leather! The clerk was horrified by my request. NO. They do not work on clothing. Call central services.

I got Alla to call Central Services, who sent me to a shop with the right equipment and the right union card. My coat is now ready for winter.

Finally, I got a taste of hotel guest services at an economy hotel. A friend of a friend is staying nearby and I tried to return her call. The hotel operator asked me what room this guest occupied, but I didn’t know. Then she asked me the nationality of the guest. American. Oh yeah: she knew where the Americans were, and they weren’t in the hotel. We still get a little extra attention around here.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


I’m not sure I’m even aware of all the health rules I grew up with, but I can see that folks in the Slavic world have grown up with some rules we don’t follow. The bane of summer is the skvoznyak, or draft. Drafts are really bad here, and lots of people are sure that they’ll lead to death or disability. Alla doesn’t follow this particular rule, and it drives her completely nuts to get inside a bus on a hot day and find the passengers ahead of her closing the windows. I watched one of these negotiations yesterday. The elderly babushka two seats ahead of us closed her window. The next window didn’t open at all, so we weren’t getting a whole lot of moving air, though the sunlight warmed us just fine. I don’t know how hot it was in there, but cooler would have been better and Alla really wanted to feel a breeze on her face.

Alla asked Babushka to open her window. Babushka refused on account of the draft. Alla observed that a draft might actually result in increased comfort. Babushka didn’t care. She worried more about dying from the diseases she’d catch from breathing the draft. Alla tried to convince her that a draft in a bus would be no more dangerous than a breeze at the beach, and she tried to loan Babushka a scarf to protect herself in the service of society. Another passenger joined in. He was standing in the aisle, and I suspect the heat seemed even more oppressive with his head closer to the ceiling of the bus. Babushka covered her ears with her arms and hunkered down after batting his hands away from her window.

Most people don’t try so hard to get windows open on public transport. We all know how frightened people feel about drafts and we share a social covenant that the draft-dodger has priority over anybody else’s fear of heat stroke.

Slavs worry about heat stroke once they’re outside the bus. Kids seem to be at the greatest risk for this and few responsible mothers would allow a young child outdoors in hot weather without a hat. I found this interesting enough that I collected a few kid-in-hat photos my first springtime in Minsk, but I don’t even think about it any more.

I chatted with a friend about this last night. The conversation started when I invited her to sit on the lawn with me and have our English class outdoors. When she declined, I realized that I’d just asked her to violate another health rule. Girls and women should NEVER sit on the ground. Apparently sitting on the ground leads to infertility and possibly additional maladies. It’s hard for me to argue about this stuff because we all know that Americans spend vast amounts of money on fertility treatments but few of us know what’s behind it. I honestly don’t imagine it’s because the girls sat on the dirt in the playground, but I can’t prove it.

Generally I stay out of any battles over traditional beliefs, but I’m careful to follow one of them. I don’t think it relates to health, but for some reason people don’t want to give or receive a gift across the threshold of a door. In America, when I welcome guests I start the greeting the moment I see them. Open door, see guest, shake hand. Bring guest into house. I think most of us do it that way, but I don’t do it here. The handshake is a gift, and it loses its value when given over a threshold. I think I’m supposed to wait until the guest comes into the house to offer any greeting, but in our apartment building I step outside the door and wait for them after I buzz them in. That way I can greet them as soon as I see them but I’m not looking across a threshold.

No doubt I grew up with rules that seem just as strange to people from outside my culture. It's hard for me to say, because I probably don't even think about them.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why I like it here

Frequently people ask me why I’m here. When I first started hanging out in Minsk I assumed that people who asked me that must imagine I’m a spy. Knowing the culture better now, I no longer flatter myself with that. I think they’re just curious, and possibly a little surprised. People more commonly wish to get out of Belarus than to get in, and the population is shrinking. Here I am, an American, with a passport that enables me to cross a large number of borders without so much as a visa. And what have I done? I’ve completed dozens of forms and filled my passport with stickers in order to get into this place.

My neighbor asked me about this very specifically the other day. He started out directly, asking what I’m doing here, and before I could answer he softened his question by pointing out that "we," meaning Belarusians, have to live here but I’ve made a choice that surprises him. I summarized for him some of the things I’ve written in my blog about what’s fun for me here, and subsequently related the story with some amusement to my friend Sergey.

Sergey’s a clever man and he offered me a better answer for the next time I get such a question. I should tell the questioner that I like the dairy products here. That’s true. Nobody’s ryazhenka compares with Minsk Brand, and I miss it when I’m away. But there’s more about living here that I find unique and wonderful.

Lately I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time getting weather forecasts. It’s not that I care all that much about the weather, but I’ve discovered a weather site that amuses me no end. It’s at Down at the bottom of the page they display a Flash animation of a model dressed for the weather. I discovered this a few days ago, when he was wearing shorts and flip-flops until it should start raining, at which time he put on a lighter shirt and added a transparent rain jacket. A few days ago he stopped wearing any of that stuff and started hanging out in his bathing suit. Then it got really hot and he appeared naked behind a guitar. A little rain doesn’t seem to bother his guitar, but on Monday he’s going to carry an umbrella while parading about naked.
There’s a radio button on the left side that flips the image to night-time. So far I’ve never seen him naked at night, but today I am puzzled by his choices because over the next three days the nighttime temperature forecast steadily increases but in the middle he puts on slightly lighter shoes and a slightly warmer shirt. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve studied this enough to know that his clothing sometimes changes a couple of times within an hour and it’s never warm enough to run around naked in downtown Minsk. Still, it’s entertainment I’d never find in Boston and another good reason to stay in Minsk.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

To have and have not

[Warning added July 29: This post seems a little long to me today, and it's not my favorite. I won't be offended if you skip it. The ones with the pictures seem to be the most popular. -Steve]

I went shopping this afternoon. I fortified myself in advance by eating smoked salmon on crackers with a side dish of Trader Joe’s almond butter and a huge helping of strawberries from the dacha. Finally, I treated myself to the last morsel of Gruyere cheese from our trip through Switzerland. Alla and I have been rationing the Gruyere and I justified myself in taking the last bite by adding it to my shopping list for the giant grocery store at the end of my odyssey. Thus prepared, I roared off to TSUM and bought a pair of linen pants on sale for about $20. I have no idea what these would have cost in the US, but it seemed like a very good deal to me even if the styling varies a bit from what I’d wear in America. I’m not there anyway.

Next I rode the subway a few stops to GUM, where I discovered an even bigger choice of linen pants supposedly in my size. Buying pants in Belarus is a little less certain than buying pants in the US because the manufacturers haven’t made any effort to agree over what a given size means. At GUM I tried on every pair in the size most likely to fit me among all the sizes I tried on at TSUM. Less than 50% of the pants I put on fit, and I chose a favorite. I also chose a couple pairs of shorts that come below my knees, since my other shorts are seriously out of style. After completing a few other purchases at GUM without adventure, I returned to the subway and rode out to the Korona Hypermart.

I know my way around Korona pretty well and I’ve gotten used to finding what I want there, but I came up dry on a couple of key items today. First, of course, was the Gruyere cheese. I just couldn’t find it, so I asked the lady at the fancy-foods counter if she had any. She’d never heard of it. Confident that since we ALWAYS have this stuff in our refrigerator at home and Korona has all kinds of cheeses I don’t buy, I asked her to talk to somebody else. The next clerk didn’t know anything about this strange cheese either and said I wouldn’t find it at the deli counter. I took another look anyway and then went over to the packaged-cheese area. Finding nothing, I asked the stock clerk about Gruyere. “What’s it like?” she asked.

I told her it was a lot like Emmental without the holes and she showed me where she keeps the Emmental. Having no Gruyere, however, she suggested that I go over to have a look at their wide selection of Belarusian cheeses. I didn’t fall for that trick. Belarus produces a wide variety of cheeses, but as far as we can determine, they all taste exactly the same: white and bland.

Disappointed, I gave up and went off to get some Zip Lock freezer bags. Alla has harvested a huge volume of berries and we’ve been freezing a lot of them to save for winter. We started with bags we brought from Boston, but needed a lot more. In the housewares department I found aluminum foil, plastic wrap and parchment paper, but didn’t see the bags I wanted. Interestingly, you don’t have to buy these roll items inside a box if you don’t want. You have the option of buying just the roll of stuff, which is wonderfully sound environmentally but prevents you from stacking them on a shelf at home. Truthfully, I didn’t find that so interesting at the time because I wanted heavy freezer bags with a zipper top. Ha! No freaking way! The best I could do was to buy some Polish freezer bags about half the thickness of the bags from Boston. I bought them. At home I learned that I should have bought string at the same time because the bags didn’t come with anything to close the ends. We’ll make do. That’s the Belarusian way.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Slavianski Bazaar

In Chekhov’s time there was a hotel in Moscow called Slavianski Bazaar. Now it’s an annual music and arts festival in Vitebsk, Belarus. Whenever people talk about it they get very enthusiastic, but we’ve never been there because we kept going home in early July before the festival started. Our landlady got all excited for us and sent a friend of hers to buy some tickets to a couple of shows before we even got back from our spring travels. When we got here she informed us that we already had tickets to shows on Friday.

Alla and I didn’t get serious about the festival in time to book a hotel room, so we also had to take this friend’s offer to stay as her houseguests. The hot weather broke just in time, and we enjoyed a very comfortable ride to Vitebsk in a new Mercedes minibus. The air conditioning never gets to the back of those minibuses, so we count ourselves lucky. We enjoyed watching forests and meadows roll by, and finally passed the famous Vitebsk linen fields; pulling into town just as the interior of the bus began to warm up in the noonday sun.
I enjoyed the city itself more than the two shows we attended. I think we could have chosen better if we had done our own planning, but I did enjoy seeing the Igor Moiseev Ballet again. Vitebsk is an extraordinarily beautiful city, anchored by gorgeous churches and broad pedestrian areas built on the banks of a clean-looking river. We walked kilometer after kilometer, exploring the festival vendors’ stalls and the city itself. Remembering the nearby linen mills, we bought lightweight linen shirts for summer. If the weather gets hot again, we’ll be ready. If not, well, we like the shirts anyway.

We came home on the train and enjoyed different scenery. Most spectacularly, the sun set very slowly in a reddened sky over rye fields, streams and golden church domes. I had a hard time getting my homework finished because I kept having to look out the window, but I managed to finish the last paragraph of my Chekhov story just as we arrived in Minsk. I’m chagrined that we didn’t get to know Vitebsk sooner, and glad we finally made a trip. I’d send tourists there for sure, even without the Slavianski Bazaar.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

At the lager

I’ve been attending a Baptist church here because there are no congregations of my own denomination. Last Sunday the pastor complained that he was having trouble contacting the congregation and offered us the opportunity to join an improved contact list. I filled in the form they offered and Presto!, I got a text message on my phone a few days later. It turns out that they recently purchased land on which to build a “lager,” or camp, and they wanted men from the congregation to come for a work day. They caught me at an opportune moment, because I’d just been thinking that I wanted to be more generous about charitable activities.

The kids will arrive in one week, and we had plenty to do. Collectively we brought electricity to a former barn and put a huge new roof in front of it so the kids would have a place to congregate outdoors in rainy weather. We also installed a sidewalk and patio, took down a fence and mowed a field. Among other things, I helped to hang a door in the kitchen building so the cook would have a bedroom close to the work area, and then I worked on filling in the wiring trench and schlepping water for the crew making the concrete for the sidewalk. I had a little trouble getting started because everybody was reluctant to assign tasks to me, but when I paid a little attention I noticed plenty of ways to fit in.

They’ve dug a swimming hole. I think they have plans to build a regular pool in the next few days, but I’m not really sure about it. Right now it’s filling in with groundwater and collecting rain, but the water is brown from silt and I didn’t get in even though I needed a rinse. I got my rinse anyway: The pastor poured well water over most of us to cool us off, and even added a blessing when he baptized me.

I really enjoyed being in the company of a bunch of very kind men working on a project for people we may not even know. I hear that such behavior is less common in Belarus than in America, so I count it a special privilege.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Five hours left

It's the middle of the night in Minsk as I write this and I am flying across the USA. I chose my seat on the airline's web site thinking I'd enjoy the view from my window seat just behind the wing. Unfortunately the diagram misled me and my view is basically a wing. I am very bored but don't want to sleep again until San Francisco so that I'll be tired enough to sleep the whole night.

We land in five more hours, which will be 26 hours after a taxi picked me up at home in Minsk. I'm grateful that Nika will pick me up at the airport because I don't imagine I'll have much left. I wonder how much more it would have cost to but an itinerary that took me near the north pole.  In hindsight, the shorter trip would have been really attractive.

At the airport

My cousin is getting married on Saturday and I’m en route to the wedding. I came to the airport in plenty of time and reported to the waiting area at my gate, where I found some twenty or more kids lounging around and talking to each other in a language I didn’t recognize. I went off and sat by myself so I could be quiet, but presently one of the kids started playing a three-stringed instrument and singing. Her friend joined the singing and I came over to listen.

I have to digress here. I am carrying a handmade plush-toy rabbit. (Americans would call it a stuffed animal, but that idiom has caused such consternation that I hesitate to say it now.) Elena made the rabbit for me and dressed it in a shirt like one I actually own. She named him Bulbashik, which might possibly mean potato eater… there’s no doubt it’s about potatoes, a staple of the Belarusian diet. Elena asked me to bring him along so I could get a picture of him with the bride and groom.

Back to those two kids singing at the airport. They didn’t appear to mind my attention, and in fact they started another song after the first. Once I felt certain that I wouldn’t interrupt their momentum, I got Bulbashik and my camera out of my bag. I put Bulbashik into the lap of the girl in the middle, who listened attentively but did not sing. As I prepared to take photos, another member of the group came over with a drum and started playing along. Presently a second drummer arrived. With such intense social pressure, the accordionist got out his instrument and the band started playing with fervor. One of the guys went out and performed a little folk dance. Then a couple of girls came out and, well, you know how it goes. Suddenly we had an entire troupe putting on a well-rehearsed performance, the audience clapping along, and the entire gate area transformed into a performance hall.

I got a video of part of their performance, but the sound is weak because the musicians were behind me. (Click on the image to the right.)

It turns out that I was about to fly with a Georgian folk-dance troupe beginning their first-ever European tour. At least some of them had never even been in a plane before they began this trip flying to Minsk. We parted ways in Amsterdam, and already I miss them. We had a very jolly time together.

The dance troupe sat directly behind me as we flew to Amsterdam. I didn’t try to join into the festivities, but I could tell that they enjoyed traveling together. I had a pleasant flight too, seated beside a translator who had spent summers in Virginia until ten years ago, presumably when she turned 18. She came as a participant in the Chernobyl Children’s Project, and she was returning for the first time to see her host family. Kristina surely speaks better English than I do Russian, but we conversed nonetheless in the local language. I really like being able to do that. I learned that her host sisters don’t know that she’s coming, and now I look forward to hearing how the reunion went. I greatly enjoyed this morning’s human connections.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two-dacha weekend

A couple of weeks ago we got to enjoy two distinct interpretations of a strong Slavic tradition. Nearly everybody we know in Belarus has access to a dacha somewhere. I don’t know if this will always be true because it’s usually grandma who owns and maintains the dachas and I don’t know whether or not the younger generation will show the same universal interest.

Dachas were crucial to the older generation, and I suspect that they played a key role in feeding huge sectors of the population during hard times of the past. Modern kids growing up in the cities don’t all remember such hard times and generally don’t like tilling potato fields. As a result, I suspect that at least a few families will give up their dachas when the present generation of grandmothers dies off.

Today’s dachas don’t generally play a role as family farm, but if you have a dacha you almost certainly cultivate something to eat on it. You’ll probably plant flowers too. All these plants require care and maintenance, of course, so the cities empty out during the growing season and people spend lots of time on their dachas. It was our pleasure to join this migration two days in a row.

On Saturday we went to visit Anna Adamovna and Evgenny Ivanovich. They’re grandparents and probably fairly typical dacha owners. Evgenny Ivanovich built his dacha himself, with the help of some neighbors. It’s a solid log building made from big timbers. They shaped the logs by hand and then put the biggest ones on the bottom and worked upward, saving the smaller (and easier to lift) logs for the top. Unfortunately, they ran out of timber before the walls reached the desired height, so there are a few heavy logs at the very top.

We didn’t really go inside the building this weekend because the sun was shining and we had work to do. Well, we had a little work to do. Since we came as guests, they didn’t put us to work as seriously as they might have. I received the delightful assignment to tend a fire and cook marinated chicken on it after the coals reached the right state. Honestly, I don’t have much experience at cooking over coals. But I’ve seen enough people cook shashleek that I succeeded.

I learned on Sunday how I could have done it better. Our friend Sasha prides himself on his fire-cooking prowess, and I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone better at it. When I told him that I’d been in charge of the cooking the previous day he took me aside and showed me how it’s really done. After his lesson we all feasted on cooked pork and cold salads. Sasha’s wife Elena made up her own version of potato salad, combining Irish and Belarusian traditions. I hope she remembers what she did because the results were spectacularly delicious.

We ate under their new gazebo, which Sasha and other members of the family built from a kit. We felt very smug as a couple of rain showers passed overhead without affecting us at all. Sasha and Elena’s dacha home is new, made from manufactured materials. They’re still forming the garden, since the land slopes and they want terraces. The huge strawberry patch is already bearing fruit in its first year and the rest of the garden looks very promising, but for them the dacha is not so much a farm but a vacation home. Sasha even installed a platform for a little swimming pool, which I tried out with pleasure.

This dacha is quite close to a ski resort, so we went over there to play a little tennis before we ate. I played in college and for a little while afterwards, but never got good enough to make it a priority. I had a heavy wooden racquet back then, and this was the first time I played with a modern aluminum model. I expected that the modern racquet would make the ball go really fast, but it’s so light that I had to hit the ball pretty hard to make it go. It took a while to get the hang of it, but our hosts were kind about my incompetence so I really enjoyed myself. In any event; the tennis, the pool and the new garden offer a glimpse of how the next generation may approach dacha life. It can be a very pleasant tradition.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Back in Minsk

I can tell that I’m back in Minsk because I was immediately involved in a bureaucratic snafu. I won’t bore my readers with the details, but it involved paying my tuition at the Minsk State Linguistic University, getting my money back and paying again when they were more properly prepared to receive it. The good news is that the exchange rate fluctuated in my favor and I saved enough money to buy a kilogram of strawberries at the market.

The strawberries here are great. I was afraid we’d get here after the peak of the season, but apparently we arrived in good time. Right now we’re eating strawberries from Brest, in the south of the country. I imagine we’ll be getting strawberries from farther north soon, so the season should last for a while. I’m really excited because the local berries are red all the way through, picked ripe, and taste better than the usual California strawberries we buy across the US.

I had one other consideration about our absence from Minsk during the spring. I hoped to miss the annual preventive maintenance of the hot water system. Apparently we get our hot water from some centralized facility and each facility shuts down annually for this work. I remembered that our district shuts down fairly early and I hoped they would have finished before we returned. I discovered on the day of our arrival that we got back too soon for that. After spending 26 hours on a train, schlepping a few extra kilograms of stuff from Swiss grocery stores, we got home a little after midnight. We moved our dairy products into the refrigerator and took care of a few urgent household tasks before heading to bed. Last thing I jumped into the shower, only to discover that we had no hot water. We’ve got a backup heater for the bathroom, but it needs a while to warm up and I really wanted to get to bed so I took a really quick cold shower.

All told, we’re already happy to be back. My excellent teacher still runs the advanced group at the language school, I like my new dance teacher even better than my previous one, our friends want to see us, and the strawberries are red ripe and juicy. Sweet!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

More Alpine adventures

We had to take a couple of days off this week because of rainy weather. Even while it rained, however, we could often see mountains from our hotel room and it seldom rained too hard to go out for a walk. Walti went running and generally proved himself gnarly. He so impressed the guy at the local sport shop that he warned me that I’d have a hard time keeping up on a bike ride with him. Biking, however, is my sport and my rental bike didn’t let me down.

We rode from Murren along the Mountain View Trail. Walti noticed a potential viewpoint up a hill and across a meadow so we left our route and tried to find it. Finally we got stuck when the trail got too steep for us, so we abandoned our bikes and hiked across a pasture with grazing cows. We had plenty of room to get through without disturbing the cattle, but we had to leap from stone to stone in one area to stay out of the “cow pies” filling the field. Finally we reached the top of the pasture and discovered that we’d been climbing to a false crest and the upward trail continued much farther than we were prepared to walk that day. Later we found a better map which showed how we could have reached the desired viewpoint. Unfortunately, we found this improved map at the bottom of the hill and we decided not to go back up.

Near the map, Charlene noticed a farmhouse advertising homemade cheese and other dairy products. We stopped and bought ourselves some cheese. Sadly, they forgot to bring their cheese with them when they went back home today; so Alla and I inherited an extra block to bring with us to Belarus.

We ended our ride with a tour of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Walti saw something called Trummelbach Falls and led us up to it. He’s a good leader, but nevertheless he led us astray this time. We climbed up a steep trail to the right of the falls and kept seeing tourists on a paved pathway across the water from us. Walti imagined we’d find a bridge, but alas we could not cross the stream. Finally we decided we’d seen enough, so we climbed back down our steep slope and rode back home.

This morning Charlene and Walti left for home. We rode the lift down with them to the parking lot in the valley where they’d left their car. They intended to drop us back at Trummelbach Falls, but we all got off to an earlier-than-expected start and they had time to join us on the correct side of the river. We’re all glad they did, because Trummelbach Falls ranks with me as one of the top wonders of the world. It’s a curly confluence of streams twisting through a towering wall of rock, splashing off of basins and blasting around shiny rock coves. In the early 1900’s somebody dug a tunnel into the rock so people can get up high and see the falls from numerous vantage points. We had a blast.

Alla and I ate lunch in the valley and then rode the tram up to Winteregg. Winteregg is too small to call a village. Primarily, it’s a restaurant with one of the most spectacular views on the planet. We walked from there back to Murren and sat for a long time on a bench overlooking the valley and its backdrop of high peaks.

Between the bike ride and today’s quieter adventures, we took our second rest day yesterday as it rained off and on most of the day. We did get a break in the late afternoon, and we walked down to Gimmelwald and to the forest below. Between Murren and Gimmelwald we saw some of the densest wildflowers we’ve found on the whole trip. I think we’ve been pretty lucky about our timing. The innkeepers and restaurateurs generally plan to begin their season tomorrow. We got here ahead of the spring crowds but after most of the snow melted from the mountain pathways. And I’ve finally fulfilled a lifetime goal of seeing Swiss Alpine wildflowers in spring.

We’re ready to move on. We’ll visit Bern tomorrow and leave for Minsk on Saturday. We’ll make sure to bring Swiss cheese, chocolate, bread, and hazelnuts. Switzerland has so much to offer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Swiss Alps

We left Zurich on Friday morning, heading for Mürren. We chose to go by way of Lucerne because we had heard that the route would be scenic. “Scenic” doesn’t even begin to describe our train ride: I’d prefer to say “spectacular.” And the city of Lucerne came as an added benefit. We stayed there for a few hours before changing trains, giving ourselves a walking tour guided by a map we got at the train station. The map included a suggested route, which we followed down the river, up onto the wall, back down into the old town center, and finally back across a long old covered bridge.
When we’d seen enough we got onto a panoramic train car and headed for Interlaken. We had lots of food with us, and we started by spreading out a picnic for ourselves on our table. We enjoyed our meal especially because of the scenery that seasoned it. We started out on the shores of a beautiful blue lake surrounded by meadows and villages and backed by snow-capped mountains. The farther we traveled, the nearer came the mountains. Finally we climbed right into the mountains and crept into the town of Meiringen, where the crew detached the engine from the front of our train and attached it at the other end. We pulled out of town by the same route we entered, arcing off presently toward Lauterbrunnen.

The panoramic train ended in Lauterbrunnen, where we switched to a smaller train which took us to a gondola which took us to a little mountain tram which finally took us to Mürren. It’s unfair to compare the scenery in one part of the trip to another, but I can comfortably say that we’re really happy about staying in Mürren.

Our friends Charlene and Walti arrived later that day and we had a long and delightful dinner together. We decided to go ahead and plunge to Jungfraujoch the next day because we expected poor weather for the rest of the week and we wanted to enjoy the views from very high on the Jungfrau. The elevation at the station is 3454 meters above sea level. We enjoyed clear skies and fantastic views from the moment we emerged from the train tunnel. We walked (slowly because of the snow and the elevation) up to a mountain hut at the top of the saddle, looking down into the other side of the mountain range. The hut includes a kitchen, and we had vegetable soup and sausage for lunch before walking back down.

We didn’t ride the train all the way down to Lauterbrunnen, stopping to walk partway down through florid Alpine meadows. We felt both tired and exhilarated when we returned to Mürren, and ate dinner with enthusiasm and hearty appetites.

Today we took a gondola up to Schilthorn, also called Piz Gloria since it was featured in the film version of the James Bond story On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The weather stayed beautifully clear and we enjoyed spectacular views both outdoors and indoors over coffee in the rotating restaurant. When we came back down, Alla decided to take a rest while Charlene, Walti and I went for a hike from Allmendhubel, a little settlement above Mürren, connected by a cog railway. We walked through woods and meadows, under a waterfall, and finally back down to Mürren. If we had skipped lunch or the waterfall detour we might have gotten back before the rain started, but instead we came home just a little wet. Nobody minded the water, and we’re quite happy about everything we saw and did.

We took at least 500 photos over the last three days, but I respect my readers too much to foist most of them on you. Still, you can find some of my favorites here.