Saturday, March 24, 2012

A fine day

This morning I went out for my second bike ride of the season, accompanied by my friend Katya from the gym. We hoped for a warm morning like I enjoyed last weekend, but we got a cold breeze and weak sunlight that failed to warm us. Still, we had a good time because by now the snow has completely disappeared from the bike path and the cleaning people have swept up most of the winter debris. Imagine our surprise, then, to discover people skiing on the cross-country track I declared snow-free last weekend. As we approached the track we saw people striding along the horizon and decided that roller-ski season has already started. But when we got closer we discovered that they wore ordinary skis and that most of the track has groomed snow. The outlying loops are dry now, but somehow the main training area has snow and plenty of skiers and coaches. I have to guess that the snow arrives overnight in trucks, but I don’t really know.

Mostly we stayed warm enough for a reasonably long bike ride, but by the time I got home my feet felt so numb that I didn’t want to make them ache in a hot shower. Instead, I cooked an omelet to eat before my shower. This month I finally (after HOW many omelets?) started flipping my eggs in a whole mass by whipping the pan over the stove. The first time I had five eggs in the pan and it was really easy. This time, with three eggs, the omelet didn’t hold together perfectly and I lost a little portion onto the floor. The floor being clean, I ate it anyway. (Guests don’t worry: I never serve others off the floor, honest!)

Post-ride omelet
After I got cleaned up, Alla and I went back out for a walk. We saw the first crocus of the spring right in front of our door; and we saw hordes of others out enjoying the city’s beautiful parks, squares and pathways. Following a brilliantly-laid plan, we concluded our walk at Café La Crete d'Or, where we bought a couple of pastries to enjoy at home.

We have an enclosed balcony overlooking our serene, grassy, finally snow-free yard. The afternoon sun warms the balcony and we’re enjoying the fact that we can already eat lunch out there. Today we sat down at our balcony table for late-afternoon tea, but we decided to behave responsibly and save our tortes for after dinner. Alla brought home a honey torte and I got Sachertorte, which I don’t remember seeing on the menu previously. I generally like Sachertortes alright but I don’t always congratulate myself for ordering them. This one, however, tasted as good as any I’ve ever had, including at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Alla really wanted me to take a picture of it for my blog, but by the time she suggested it I’d already eaten almost the whole thing. I guess I’ll have to go out and buy another slice.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On the road

Most of the snow and ice in downtown Minsk has melted now and I’ve been eager to get my bike onto the road. Finally, this morning I took that opportunity. When I first thought of this the outdoor temperature had climbed to plus 1, just above freezing. I wanted to allow the sidewalks a bit more time to thaw out from last night so I started by switching my tires front to back.

Cyclists sometimes rotate their tires because the back ones wear out faster than the front ones. Since I can’t buy matching tires, I wanted to move my old front tire to the back and get both tires reasonably worn before installing two new ones. This endeavor took longer than usual because my tires have steel beads and they fit very tightly on the rims. First I tried removing the tires the “right” way by hand, but I just couldn’t force the bead over the rim enough to get it off. I tried a magical combination of swear words which, the first time I saw it used, appeared to give super-human strength. I still failed. Finally I resorted to tire levers. Real cyclists don’t use tire levers because they tend to damage tires. I used to be a real cyclist too, but this time I needed the tire levers and the magical combination of swear words in order to get the tire off. Normally I don’t swear and I really don’t like tire levers, but I had no choice in order to ride today.

Next I put on a pair of bib shorts, tights, and two thermal undershirts. I don’t have a winter bike jacket here so I had to layer up. Finally I tried to put on a long-sleeve bike shirt I shrank a couple of years ago by washing it in hot water. I had a hard time getting it on and Alla advised me in Russian that the shirt was too narrow, using the English word for narrow. I corrected her with a little Russian poem rhyming the words Russian and narrow, which amused her no end. At this point I had to rush out of the house because all those clothes began to overheat me even before I put on my skull cap and windbreaker.

It was worth it. The bike path is largely free from snow and ice in the direction I rode, and I didn’t even have to dodge a whole lot of broken glass. I got as far as the cross-country ski track at Drozde, which is also almost completely free of snow. I guess they didn’t add any man-made snow this year. I was hoping to discover that they had magically preserved enough snow to ski on, but it looks like roller-ski season will arrive early this year. Unfortunately the bike path had more snow than the ski track at this point, or at least I encountered a low area with too much snow to ride through. Nevertheless, I got far enough to feel that I’ve officially opened my cycling season and I’m looking forward to more.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Monastery visit

There’s a convent on the outskirts of Minsk. We pass it occasionally, and our friend Malcolm passes it often. He’s a tour guide, and he’s trying to figure out how to entertain his clients when they stop for two nights in Minsk. This is the first year he’s talked his company into planning more than a stopover in Minsk as groups roll westward from Russia and he’s toiled at some length over the details. What seemed simple at first, entertaining guests in a city we both love, turns out to be harder than I guessed. Malcom is challenged by context, since he’s adding Minsk into a tour which already includes examples of things he’d otherwise show here. Today he invited us along as he tested an idea which looks quite promising.

Saint Elizabeth’s Convent only opened thirteen years ago, and it’s still growing. It serves a nearby mental hospital where people are treated for problems ranging from alcoholism to anorexia. Feeling that too many patients are released before they’re 100% ready to return to regular life, the church founded this adjacent women’s monastery. Novitiates learned stone carving, mosaic work and fresco techniques in order to decorate their buildings, and then they took in “graduates” from the mental hospital as apprentices. Although some of these craftsmen are still at work on monastery property, they also serve other churches by preparing mosaics and other details for installation at new churches elsewhere.

We greatly enjoyed our tour, particularly thanks to a very kind guide. Sister Yoanna spoke slowly and clearly for us, knowing that we’re fairly new at speaking Russian. She beamed sincerity, devotion and love for humanity. Naturally we all stayed on our best behavior for her. This paid off halfway through the tour, when she got special permission for us to enter the workshops. I particularly enjoyed the mosaic workshop for its display of craftsmanship and for the detailed demonstration of how they assemble the stones on palates first and then transfer them to a vertical surface. And I was very touched by the icon workshop. The nuns paint the icons in a tower turret, apart from everybody else. If they come to work in a bad mood, they don’t paint anything, but rather go down to the chapel and pray for forgiveness. Once their hearts are at peace they return, intending to convey that peace in the icons they paint. I’m still thinking with considerable appreciation about our time in the turret.
So, I think Malcolm is satisfied that he’s got an interesting tour to offer his clients. And, I’m confident that Alla and I will include the convent in any future tours we give to friends and family who come to visit us here. He found something pretty special.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How big is "big?"

We went online to figure out if there were any events coming up in Vilnius since we wanted an excuse to return. We found an event called Kaziukus Fair, a 400-year-old market weekend. We were able to figure out that it's largely a craft fair, but we learned little more. This gave Alla all the reason she needed to choose this weekend for our trip, though I had a hard time imagining that the craft market could be any more impressive than the ones we have two or three times a summer in Minsk. I didn't hold high hopes for the fair, but figured that this would be as good a time as any to see some of the architectural sites we failed to see last time. Besides, I wanted to buy more peanut butter.

When we arrived at our hotel we discovered that the crafts fair stretched as far as we could see in either direction on the street in front of our door. Somewhat excited, we went out to see what the vendors had to offer. Indeed we found lots of handcrafts, and of course we bought three of the festive flower sticks everybody seems to want during Kaziukus Fair. We also ate a lot. Especially I ate a lot, because I came a little under-dressed and eating helped me stay warm. I started with a pig's knee on sauerkraut, washed down with acorn "coffee." I kept coming back for more of that acorn stuff. It's really good. Later I bought a huge plate of stew. The meat tasted like lamb, but I suspect it was pork. It came in a delicious sauce with LOTS of some sort of legume; beans I guess.

We also consumed a certain amount of sample foods from various vendors and a big slice of a flaky filo-type pastry around an amazing volume of poppy seed filling. While this all-day feast killed our desire to eat dinner at a fancy restaurant, it didn't quite warm me up. Alla took me in hand then, and we bought a nice warm Lithuanian-style wool sweater. You may remember that Alla had to buy herself a sweater last time. The Lithuanian wool merchants are probably happy that we like their capital. Come to think of it, they must like our capital too. (This only makes sense if you know English well. In case Google Translate can't make the joke work, the first time I meant столица and the second time I meant капитал.)

Anyway, the street-long fair we saw from our hotel included as much as half of the entire market, assuming that we have in fact even noticed it all. The line of booths curves around into old town and spills out onto quite a few other streets. When I imagined "Big," I had no idea just how big I should think. I should have tried to imagine "Enormous." In any event, it's possible that tomorrow we will get beyond the market fair. Well, we will certainly get to a supermarket. Whether I finally get to the top of castle hill is, however, in serious doubt.
For more photos, click here.