Monday, February 27, 2012

Maslenitsa's pagan roots

This is the third year we’ve been invited to Sergey and Irina’s Maslenitsa party. Maslenitsa is a week-long celebration leading up to a fast before Easter. You might think I’m talking about Carnival, but apparently I’d be misleading you if I allowed that impression. As I understand it, Maslenitsa comes out of ancient pagan traditions. As winter drew to its end, the ancient Slavs would throw a big party and forgive Old Man Winter (I don’t know what they called winter, but this will do) for all recent hardships.

This tradition evolved when Christianity arrived, and now on the last day of Maslenitsa we ask forgiveness for whatever offenses we may have committed during the previous year. We also stuff old clothes into a scarecrow and burn it. The scarecrow symbolizes all the hurts we’ve been carrying around from the offenses of others, and on this day we burn up all that bad stuff as we enter a period of prayer and fasting before Easter.

Last year the scarecrow looked a little skinny at the beginning of the party and somebody took a couple of the balloons decorating the room and put them inside the scarecrow’s chest. Suddenly she looked a lot more womanly, and apparently a tradition was born.

This year Irina wore the balloons. Sergey asked me to show him whatever pictures I may want to put onto the internet, and he approved this one.

The really odd thing about this is that after just a few hours I got a message from somebody in Dubai asking how these temporary breast implants are done. Aside from the fact that he apparently didn’t realize he was looking at balloons, I’m really puzzled about how he found the picture in the first place. I am wondering if somebody somewhere has a software engine trolling the Internet looking for pictures of women with big boobs. Somehow I believe this, but I am boggled even by the fact that I find it believable.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Old debt

In the autumn of 2008 I took a room in the foreign student dormitory for my first month of studies at the Minsk State Linguistic University. It didn't cost much and I paid all fees immediately when asked. If I had any receipts from this adventure, I threw them out long ago. Since the authorities chose to let me out of the country, I felt confident that everybody agreed that I had no outstanding debts.

Imagine my surprise then, when the administrator of the foreign-student language program called me out of class today and explained that I have an unpaid balance of over 42,000 rubles for the time I lived in the dormitory. I wondered momentarily if I should be shocked by this news, but then I realized that we were talking about something in the neighborhood of five dollars. OK. I can spare five dollars but I wanted to know what it was about. The administrator showed me the book she received from the accounting office, which had recently completed an audit. The auditors examined all records for the past five years and sent her a listing of all students who ever passed through her department with unspecified outstanding debts. It's now her job to contact each of these students, wherever in the world they may live, and extract money from them. Naturally she came to me first because she knows how to find me.

"OK," I said. "I see the book and I'm sympathetic to your problem. I don't mind spending five bucks to make your life and my life a little bit easier, but I want to know why you think I owe you this money."

"Oh yes," she replied, "this is your right. You should ask the Deacon to tell you the details. I'll let her know you're coming."

After class I went to see the Deacon. Back in the day when I apparently incurred the debt, I would not have wanted to knock on that door because the old Deacon never smiled unless he wanted something and he had a knack for making simple tasks difficult for me and perhaps even for all students. Even more than I disliked seeing the former Deacon, I enjoy my interactions with the new one. She is more than fair and reasonable. She is, rather, a friend and advocate to the student body. So, even though I arrived during her lunch break and she had left her door closed and locked, she opened the door when I knocked so she could speak to me. The Deacon explained that this new invoice reflected services they had failed to add to my account long ago but she didn't know exactly which services they found on my behalf. Maybe it related to electricity or heating or something like that.

"Fine," I said. "Please find out what they are and I'll pay."

She implored me, particularly by the expression on her face, that this exercise would not change the ultimate result and since I have five dollars she really hoped I'd just pay up and let it go. So I paid. The cashier printed my receipt twice, stamped each copy twice and signed each once. Then she tore the top half away from the bottom half and gave my the bottom to present to the administrator in my department.

It's not over yet. Alla suggested that I withhold evidence of payment until they give me a statement that I have paid and settled all debts up to the present time. I think this is excellent advice, though I don't imagine they're really going to want to give me such a document. I'll press the point, but cannot guarantee results. As we say in English, "You can't fight City Hall."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tell Renate I shoveled out the path

Our neighbor made an unfortunate mistake when we announced that we would once again spend the winter in Belarus: She didn’t appear to be interested in much more than knowing who would shovel our share of the snow in the courtyard we own jointly. (We had already arranged for help, but we did hope that she might have some additional interests.) I thought of her today as I shoveled out a footpath beside our driveway.

Our main entrance is on the side of our building facing the yard, not the street. Most commonly then, we walk up a wide driveway to reach our door. During the winter, however, the driveway gets narrow. There is one crew responsible for plowing out space for cars to drive on, and there’s another crew responsible for clearing off our sidewalk. Unfortunately, there’s an awkward area where the sidewalk ends and the pedestrian gate stands on the inside edge of the driveway. Since cars can’t drive there but it’s not a sidewalk, neither crew considers it a part of their job to clear from snow.

When we got our first snowfall, I went out with a dustpan to open a clear footpath. The snow kept falling and after a few days I fell so far behind I gave up on the dustpan and smoothed out a narrower path with my shoe. As the snow accumulated more the footpath got farther from the pavement, but sandy footprints suggested that our neighbors also used my path.

I wanted to get it dug out properly and tried to sweet-talk the sidewalk crew into doing it for me with their shovels. They smiled pleasantly, did a very nice job on the sidewalk, and left the path for somebody else. I kept meaning to buy a shovel if I could not borrow one from one of the crews, but did not manage either until today.

Somebody left an old-school plywood shovel in front of our house this morning. Maybe its user finally got upgraded to an aluminum shovel, or maybe somebody finally discerned my plight and just left me a tool. In any event, I used it as soon as I came back from the university. I’m surprised at how light it is. And it worked a lot better than an aluminum shovel for hacking out the frozen crust at the bottom, but I’m afraid the wooden blade may be even shorter now than it was when I found it. Anyway, I’m proud to have a fine footpath cleared.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Budget bachata

A series of economic setbacks drastically reduced most people’s real wages here in Belarus. That is to say, the amount of groceries you can buy on a typical paycheck is getting pretty meager. I always enjoyed lunch at the National Library as a way to stretch my own budget. I could never figure out how they sold food so inexpensively there and often wondered if it were subsidized. Today’s lunch probably did not benefit from any subsidy, however. I ordered a chicken cutlet. I had to order that because the people in front of me got the last pork cutlet, which looked meatier. Mine sported an encrustation of little croutons but I thought that was still a safer bet than the mystery meat with cheese on top.

I don’t know how my chicken compared to the mystery meat, but I’ve got to say how impressed I am at the chef’s ability to glue together a crouton encrustation around an airy meat meringue. I can’t guess the total calories from meat in today’s lunch, but I suspect I could count them on my fingers and toes.

Perhaps the financial crisis played a role in tonight’s festivities as well. This weekend there’s an international bachata dance festival in town and I went to the opening party. I figured I’d arrive early and leave early, wanting to leave before people got too drunk. There was nothing to worry about on that account. The bartender had very little to do, and it appeared to me that he sold considerably more water than any other beverage. I stayed until a little after midnight, when I noticed that most of the other non-expert dancers had already gone home. Having already danced at least once with most of the women who appeared willing to dance with me, I decided I’d better go home before I became a public nuisance.

One of the women I had not asked to dance saw me at the coat check and asked why I was leaving so early. I think she was just being nice, because I know she’s a really good dancer and I also know that I am not. Yet. But it doesn’t cost much (more than pride) to go out and practice, so I’ll keep at it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Trying to give away a flag

I made my flag out of paper
Last year the folks at the university asked me to impersonate an Englishman. They asked for this because they wanted to assemble a diverse selection of students from various lands to represent Minsk State Linguistic University at some sort of an educational fair. As I've already written, they had a British flag but not American, and somebody thought that people at the show wouldn't notice that I have an American accent. They also had a string of flags decorating the top of their booth, once again without an American flag.

I tried at the time to buy an American flag around here, but failed. So over the summer I ordered some small flags on sticks and a bigger one to hang from the string at the top of the next booth. That part was easy, since I found a fine choice of flags on the internet. But I had a devil of a time giving them away.

First I took them to the Belarusian Student Union, looking for the people who originally recruited me. Unfortunately, the head woman had been promoted to a new position and nobody in the office had any idea where to put my flags. I gave them two small flags on sticks because I had extras anyway and if these got lost I could offer more when needed. I asked next about the bunting, which was tricky because I still don't know how to say "bunting" in Russian. (OK, it's флажки.) The new people in the office had no idea that they'd ever had such bunting so I decided to take my special flag to the top, the pro-rector. I got as far as her secretary, who recognized me, and I offered her my flag.

I could see the skepticism on her face as she asked me, "So, you want us to fly an American flag?" I explained again about the bunting and she consented to take the flag. Possibly by now they have figured out who controls the flag bunting and whether my flag fits on the rope. Or perhaps they are now using it as a covering for their tea service. I don't really know.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Speed skating

On Sunday afternoon I set out to meet some friends to go skating at the Minsk Arena. It turns out you don’t just show up at the rink when you want to skate: You need to choose a time and buy your ticket before that particular session sells out. Each session lasts 45 minutes, after which they clean the ice. They do this because of very high demand, especially in light of the fact that most public skating areas are outdoors and very cold right now.

I started nice and early so I could get there in time to buy tickets for the 3:00 session. As I approached the bus stop, I saw a bus approach. “What luck!” I thought. Believing that most buses on that street continue straight as far as the arena, I got on intending to ask questions later. But seeing passengers carrying skis, I didn’t even ask any questions. The city’s best ski area faces the arena, and I assumed the skiers planned to go there.

I should have asked questions at least once the skiers got off the bus earlier than I expected, but by this time I was warm and happy so I didn’t move. I finally did decide to move, however, when the bus turned left onto an unknown street. I got off at the first stop, and discovered that I could not walk back to the big street safely because snow covered whatever sidewalk or trail I might have otherwise followed and the bridge I wanted to cross had no sidewalk at all.

So I crossed the street and got onto the first bus to arrive, figuring any bus that got me across the bridge was a good bus. Not only did it cross the bridge, it followed a cloverleaf back to Victory Boulevard toward the arena. You can imagine my satisfaction, then, settling into my seat still in good time to buy tickets for our group. I must have been satisfied for almost a whole minute before the bus moved into the left-turn lane. I got up and stood by the door, ready to jump out at the next stop. But the bus did not stop. I told the driver I’d made a mistake and asked him how far to the next stop. He did not take pity on me, but finally let me out at the regular stop facing an empty field a full kilometer from Victory Boulevard.

This time I asked how to get to the arena, and a passerby told me to walk back up the road and wait at the bus stop around the bend. Along the way I found a taxi driver snoozing in his car. He agreed to get me to my destination for about US$ 2.50, which I paid with gratitude.

I have a problem about publishing this story because my wife already thinks I’m not always as attentive to navigational details as I should be. I have not told her these details about my adventure and she doesn’t read 100% of my blog posts. If you know her, I’d prefer that you keep this particular incident to yourselves at least until I’ve put a little distance on it.

By the way, the 3:00 session included only the speed-skating track that goes all the way around the hockey practice arena. None of us had ever worn speed skates before, and they are VERY different from hockey skates. For one thing, they don’t steer. For another thing, the long blades catch easily on the ice and threaten to catch on each other if you cross your feet in the turns. Malcolm did cross his feet successfully, but I don’t think the rest of us tried. We had a great time, though, the only four people on fresh-fresh ice as smooth as glass. I’d definitely like to go back.