Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Yakub Kolas

The kind folks at the House of Friendship invited me to reprise last year's performance as master of ceremonies for a presentation on the works of a famous Belarusian poet called Yakub Kolas. The invitation came at a busy time, so I declined. Undeterred, they called back and invited me to be a participant, responsible only to read a poem or two in English. I said yes just to be a good sport, but I didn't have any special expectations for the evening.

In spite of my limited expectations I had a great time choosing and rehearsing the poems. I think I enjoyed that part of the project more this year than last, since I bore small responsibilities and had more time to savor and analyze the poetry. I chose two poems, a very downhearted cry for freedom from before the revolution and a joyous paean of praise to the joys of labor on a collective farm after the revolution. While both poems showed how hard people worked on the farms, the drudgery of working for "the man" before the revolution is supplanted by the joy of working for the collective good afterwards.

It's interesting how much the poet's impression of life changes along with his change of standpoint. It reminds me of something I used to think a lot about years ago. Fascinated by space travel, I wondered when we would look out from the stars instead of looking up at them. After a while I decided that we already began looking out from the stars once we gained a better understanding of our place in the universe. We're still looking, but we're beginning see differently.

Anyway, I had a good time getting ready for the program and didn't really think much about who else might be there or what they might say or read. Well... If I had any idea who would be there, I would have put on better shoes at least, and I would have encouraged Alla to come. The poet's youngest son is still alive and well, and he came to talk about his father and his poetry. There was also a bigwig from something like the Ministry of Culture, though I don't specifically remember her title. Anyway, the poet's son gave an excellent talk and everybody performed beautifully. The first guy was so enthusiastic about his poem that he read it in three languages: The original Belarusian, a professional English translation, and his own translation into his native language, Chinese. I worried for a moment about following such a powerful presentation but felt completely in my element once I took the stage, grateful for my thorough preparation and the audience's warmth.

I'm very grateful even to have been in the room for today's presentation. And being a participant comes as a much more special privilege than I dared imagine. What an opportunity!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vilnius, day 2

Yesterday we planned to go into museums because it was even colder than Friday. But the sun shone brightly and we couldn't miss it.

We started the day with an attempt to walk to a big shopping center called Akropolis because we heard they had a farmers' market on Saturdays. We layered on extra clothes and headed out, slightly overdressed. After walking for about twenty minutes we thought we saw our destination ahead but when we asked a passer-by he said that we had much farther to go and he strongly recommended that we get onto a bus. We took his advice, and discovered that indeed the Akropolis was nowhere near us. We didn't buy much at the farmers' market, but Alla continues to get a good laugh out of the brick of traditional bread I bought. It seems to weigh about as much as a newborn baby. We also found an enormous supermarket in the shopping center and we bought a couple of bags of groceries. We limited ourselves to stuff we couldn't buy at all in Belarus, though we were also tempted to load up on stuff that just costs less here.

If we saved any money by shopping in Vilnius, we spent it all getting home from the Akropolis anyway. We decided to take our load home in a taxi, and taxis aren't so cheap here as in Minsk. I don't think our driver took anything even close to the most direct route back either. It felt like a majestic S, which we converted to a dollar sign by imagining the straight line we would have liked to take top to bottom. $

We ended the day at Philharmony, where we heard Chopin's 2nd piano concerto, unknown to me but very familiar to Alla and Saint-Sains' 3rd symphony; unknown to Alla but very familiar to me. Everybody enjoyed both pieces thoroughly and the performers gave us encores after each. Vilnius has two symphony orchestras, which really impresses us. We tried first to get tickets to performances in a new hall but couldn't find any tickets left for sale. I'm really glad now, because I loved the show in the small and historic hall. The musicians were superb, as were the acoustics in the hall. I'd go back there any time.

Today we really do plan to stay indoors. We will go to church first, and stay for an organ concert in the church right after the service. Then we finally plan to get inside the National Gallery of Art. Or whatever it's really called.

Speaking of what things are called, there's a great drink here called rugpeinis. I was really afraid to pronounce it when I found it on the menu. Turns out it's pronounced about like I thought. The menu described it as curdled milk, and indeed it has a slightly globular texture. I like it, though I still cannot order it with an entirely straight face.

I get the peanut butter and the alcohol-free beer, Alla gets the wine and real beer, and we'll share everything else.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Intro to Vilnius

I got thirty minutes' free access to the internet in our hotel's business center so I'm writing about our extraordinary day yesterday. I'll go back once we get home and add some pictures.

As I explained in my last post, Alla launched us on a cold-weather excursion to Vilnius, Lithuania. Our expedition started out with a pleasant ride in a somewhat-chilly train car from Minsk. I was glad the train car heating system couldn't keep up with air leaks in the front of the car because I was wearing warm ski pants and a thick fleece jacket. Alla also dressed warmly, so we decided to walk from the train station to the hotel. I had already mapped out a route on Google Maps and knew some of the landmarks we could pass on the way. Not surprisingly, we didn't encounter a lot of other pedestrians. We ourselves enjoyed the privilege of being out on the beautiful streets of Vilnius and walking along a bike path without too much snow and ice under our feet.

The hotel we chose turned out to be a little simpler than we expected, but we like the location and the very attentive staff. We intended to make short commando raids on the town, retreating to our hotel when we needed to warm up. It turned out that we didn't need to return to the hotel except to set a few things down. As long as we kept moving, we felt warm enough. This is especially true for Alla, who bought a pretty and very warm wool sweater at an outdoor market. She amused both the vendor and me by disrobing enough in the bitter cold to try on unique and beautiful wool sweaters and dresses at her stand. I think Alla was actually warmer than the vendor and I, since she was quite active undressing and dressing at top speed.

Vilnius is filled with beautiful churches, a fantastic and very historic university, and many architectural treasures. We started off with a planned route but got lost when we exited the university by a different door than we entered. From that moment forward, we never quite knew where we were. We knew we hadn't left the old town area, however, and anticipated that we could find our way home on the map whenever we wanted. But we really didn't want to find our way home because we kept finding wonderful pastry shops, enticing restaurants, cozy bookstores, amazing crafts galleries and gorgeous buildings. We finally decided we really could not eat anything more when we left the last restaurant at about 8:00 after an early dinner. Intending to go home, we decided to meander down our favorite street one more time before settling into our room. Finally we did succed in getting home, but it took a lot longer than we expected because we kept finding more things to investigate and photograph.

Today we will start with a trip to an indoor farmers market at a big shopping mall. We expect that this will give us opportunities to buy stuff we can't get easily in Minsk. In particular, I plan to buy some peanut butter and Alla plans to find some unfamiliar kinds of cheese.

So far we haven't eaten any pigs' ears. We did see them on the menu yesterday, but the waiter recommended against them. Maybe later!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Traveling like a Russian

Alla really wanted to take me to Vilnius in the winter. She said it would be beautiful. She went on to explain that in Soviet times, only foreigners could get to desirable vacation spots like that in the warm season and she wanted to relive her happy Soviet youth. I pointed out that she now has an American passport, which sounds reasonably foreign to me, so she could try out a different lifestyle. Unfortunately I was too late with this observation and we are leaving tomorrow morning.

I got a weather forecast and it’s going to be unseasonably cold. Since it’s usually cold around here anyway, that’s really bad news. Tomorrow’s high should be -12. That already impresses me, but the wind chill brings it down to -23. Thoroughly impressed, I’m bringing the heavy equipment: shearling coat, fur hat, ski pants and a pair of tights to wear underneath when Alla takes me out for the inevitable walking tour. (Note to my American readers: The temperatures aren’t as impressive as you may think because we’re talking Centigrade, but I want you to imagine that I’m very heroic.)

We’ll take the train, of course. The other way to travel like a Russian would involve Aeroflot, but that makes no sense because Vilnius is right next door and the train trip takes just over three hours. Train tickets are about ten dollars apiece each way, which sounds like a heck of a deal to me. Before we settled for the cheap tickets, Alla asked if there would be a TV in our train car. Last time I rode in the armchair section of a Belarusian train we had some sort of a “deluxe” car with a TV set playing American movies at ear-splitting volume. I would have upgraded to a compartment if this trip included entertainment, but apparently we get to entertain ourselves. I’ll bring earplugs just in case.

The final detail of traveling like a Russian would involve some sort of a picnic lunch on the train, but I’m side-stepping that one. I’m pretty confident that if I eat breakfast at home I can survive three hours without sausage, bread and cucumbers. I want to be hungry when I get to Vilnius because it’s apparently the eating capital of Eastern Europe. We have received advice from a couple of trustworthy sources, for example, that we should eat pigs’ ears. While Alla swore that she’d never try pigs’ ears again after opening a jar of gooey glop that we bought at an import store in Boston, I think we’re both up for another experiment in international cuisine now that we’ll be close to the kitchen. But we can probably split a single order, at least the first time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh boy!

English is a fairly universal language, so advertisers here sometimes use English words as a way to increase the "coolness" of their image. I always wondered if that might not explain the signs I see around Minsk advertising stores called Oh Boy. Generally the signs don't announce much more than the fact that you can find Oh Boy stores in several countries and that they consider themselves deluxe. I imagined that everybody knew what they sold, much like everybody seems to know what to expect at Ikea even though we don't all go there.

The other day, however, I realized that "Oh Boy" (Обои) means wallpaper.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I love circus in general, and I definitely love the newly-rebuilt circus building downtown Minsk. As far as I know, they only opened for one show last year because they were still working on some details of the renovation. This year’s holiday show featured a new self-illuminated floor during the first half. We came back during intermission and discovered a big hole where the floor had been. It returned from the depths with a new covering for the horses. Nothing like this happened last year, that’s for sure.
When I was a kid I used to enjoy watching Russian circus programs on TV. One detail that always fascinated me was the way the audience would clap in unison when they really liked something. Here in Belarus we don’t always clap in unison, but we did it at the circus. This made me feel like I was living an old fantasy and certainly added to my pleasure.

This year’s show didn’t include any performances by frightened or tormented animals. Since I don’t like tormented-animal acts, almost nothing detracted from my pleasure. The only unfavorable detail was the tired little kid in the next row that kept whacking me on the head with her program and kicking the back of my chair. I didn’t even mind that much because circuses are intended, after all, for kids. Finally Alla gave her a mandarin to eat and miraculously she calmed down.

I think we were lucky to get the tickets. I didn’t go down to buy them until a few days ago, and all they had to offer were tickets for the VIP box up at the very back of the viewing area. (These would be called nosebleed seats in the USA, or God seats in England.) The VIP seats cost two-and-a-half times the price of front-row seats, and I declined the opportunity. Wanting to make sure Alla felt OK about missing the circus when at least some tickets were available, I called her. While I was still on the phone, the agent came back to the window and motioned me over. “You only want two?” she asked. “I just found a pair.” We ended up in the fifth row of the section below the VIP seats.

A Cuban circus is coming to town next month. I don’t know anything about Cuban circus traditions, but I’m confident at least that we’ll like the music. I think we’ll try to buy a pair of tickets on our way to the theater tonight.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Paper money

We only use paper money here in Belarus; no coins. I was surprised after the recent inflationary runup to discover that we still use ten-ruble notes. They sure don’t buy anything, but the same way we keep using pennies in the USA, we keep using ten-ruble notes here. The best thing I can say for them is that they fatten our wallets and perhaps we can feel a bit richer for that.

I try to avoid the little money, but I’m afraid to leave it lying on the counter for fear of appearing to be a foreign snob. So I just make sure to spend it as quickly as possible after I receive it. This doesn’t always work, because the people who deal most often with little bills also prefer to get rid of them. Sometimes I give small bills to cashiers hoping to round up to the point where I can get back a big bill only to get back the same small bills and more in my change. For example, when I paid for lunch today at the university cafeteria, I offered a few small bills. If I had another 100-ruble note to reach the point where she could give me 500 rubles change, she would have played along. As it was, she refused my trashy little banknotes and gave me some more.

Now I have in the front of my wallet three 10-ruble notes, a 20 and some 50’s. I would have preferred at least to have a single 100-ruble note, but this is what I have. Curious, I calculated the value of 100 rubles. It’s just over a penny. Somebody warned me that it’s illegal to deface or destroy Belarusian currency, so I can’t even throw it away. Instead, I am alert like a cat on the hunt, ready to pounce the moment anybody opens a cash-box in front of me. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Orthodox Christmas

The Merkulov family had two ducks, one black and one white. Unfortunately, their neighbors had a hungry dog, which got into the yard and killed the black one. The white duck, then, got all of the best grass and herbs, scraps of Belarusian bread, and other delicious delicacies. It grew up to be a fine big bird, which they brought over here to share as a Christmas gift. Today is Orthodox Christmas eve, and we celebrated with Merkulovy duck, American wild rice, and Sergey’s signature birch-juice sparkler.

Preparing for these festivities, I went off to the market to buy salad ingredients. Approaching, I heard a little choir singing to recorded background music, so I stopped to listen. This is one of the special pleasures of Belarusian life. People gather outside to listen to performers playing for free. Kids clapped rhythm, everybody smiled, and the performers did a great job.

Inside, I found a vendor with wonderful lettuce loaded with chlorophyll. Last year I was often frustrated by the hothouse lettuce, which generally looked anemic. This time, in addition to beautiful lettuce, I got green onions, parsley and dill. These green delicacies haven’t always been easy to find around here when they aren’t growing outdoors, and it really enhanced my holiday to find them. Matvey liked it too. He’s just as enthusiastic as Alla about Dill.

There are more pictures here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Buying deodorant

I've been using a Ukrainian deodorant that I like except that it goes bad when we return to the USA. The roll-on version dries up and the gel version melts in the container and dribbles out. Last time it dribbled out the bottom of the container and I replaced it with another of the same kind, which still looked OK when we returned to Minsk. I threw it into my gym bag a few days ago when I went down to lift weights. By the time I arrived at the gym, however, my toiletries were swimming in a gooey mass of deodorant which had leaked out the top of the bottle as I walked.

On the way home, I stopped at GUM and bought their last bottle of Dove Invisible Dry. Pleased to discover that I like the product, I decided to buy another bottle to use at home. In the USA, that would be easy. Pretty much any drug store in the country would offer the same array of product choices and if I didn't find what I wanted on the first try, I'd be pretty sure of success at the next store. Unfortunately, things work differently in Belarus. On my way to the central market I stopped in at a trade center with a huge array of little stores under one roof. I looked half-heartedly for my deodorant, but gave up half-way through the first floor because I imagined I'd find my product easily enough at the market.

I got to know the second floor of the marketplace really well, since I visited every stand as I looked for Dove products. Each stand featured a different product line, and the ones including Dove did not offer the version I wanted. Somewhere during this survey I remembered a lesson from a couple of years ago: If you find something you really like, buy extra because you may not find it again.

I decided to solve the problem by going downtown to the big stores. GUM still had not re-stocked after selling me their last bottle. The big toiletries outlet down the street offered other Dove products too, but not mine. I took the bus back home, hoping to get lucky at the big Euro pharmacy down the street from us. Unfortunately, luck eluded me there too.

The only real fortune in today's adventure came en route to the Euro pharmacy. As the bus rolled toward the circus, I phoned Alla to see if she'd gotten us any tickets yet to the winter show, which closes in another week. Since she had not, I jumped off the bus and asked what they had to offer. At first, my only choice was "VIP" seats in a loge far from the ring for three times the price of regular tickets. That location didn't sound so VIP to me, but I called Alla to see if she really-really wanted to see the show anyway. While I was on the phone, the ticket lady went to the back of the room. As I hung up, she motioned me back towards the window. "You just want two?" she asked. When I affirmed, she said that she'd just found me a pair. I got excellent seats in the fifth row at the regular price. I hope I can smell good by the time of the show.