Monday, April 30, 2012

Pay Tay

Since I started learning Russian, Alla began speaking to me in a mélange of Russian and English. Any given sentence can be in either language, or more commonly in both languages. This presents me with new puzzles in comprehension every day.

Today’s best puzzle came as we walked home from Jazz Fest. We were talking about our favorite acts of the day, and Alla said she really liked that Pay Tay guy. I didn’t know what she meant. She persisted, sure that I knew this guy. “I don’t understand,” I told her. “What do you mean, Pay Tay.”

“I think that’s his name,” she replied.

“Pay Tay.” I couldn’t make much sense of these sounds. Perhaps she was speaking Russian, and she meant “П.Т.” These two letters from the Russian alphabet correspond to P.T. in the Latin alphabet, and that’s how they are pronounced. So I joked with her a little, and asked (in English) if maybe she was thinking of P.T. Barnum. “Yes,” she replied in Russian, “Perhaps.”

I explained to her that P.T. Barnum is long gone, and he wasn’t known for playing jazz.

Finally we stopped under a street lamp so she could read today’s lineup and figure out Pay Tay’s last name. It’s Fountain. She had gone to hear Pete Fountain’s show while I listened elsewhere to Ramsey Lewis and his Electric Band.

Problem solved. Communication complete.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Having fun

I went to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for the first time in 1992 and I still have the T-shirt to prove it. After a year or two my first wife and I established a guideline for choosing which groups to see: If you can’t imagine having more fun than this, don’t move. (Maybe the next group will indeed be lots of fun, but if you’re already enjoying maximal fun then there’s no way you’re going to improve things by moving. Stay put and enjoy yourself!)

Alla and I are back for Jazz Fest now. We came only for the first weekend, and we have one day left. On Friday we had a couple of surprises. Disappointed by the first Cajun group we chose, we walked over to the Lagniappe stage. Lagniappe is Louisiana French for a little something extra, and the stage is traditionally home to groups with local appeal but not a national following. We heard a honkey-tonk group called Kim Carson and the Enablers, which we liked a whole lot. We left looking for something different and we surprised ourselves with a much better show than we expected.

Our next big success was Chuck Leavell & Friends. He’s a very talented guy, and his friends are just as impressive. About halfway into his show I asked Alla if she had any interest in going to hear something different. I was happy to hear her reply “no” because I didn’t want to move either. I couldn’t imagine having a better time.

Today I started leafing through my notes, however, trying to remember when I’d get to hear Irma Thomas singing gospel music as a tribute to Mahalia Jackson. Unable to find it on the program for today or tomorrow, I finally discovered that she competed with Chuck Leavell yesterday. I’m a little disappointed, since Irma Thomas no doubt played a great show. We heard her sing Mahalia Jackson songs last time we were here and liked it so much that we decided to buy an Irma Thomas gospel-music CD. I forgot about that desire until today, but now I’ll go shopping and I’ll get the new Chuck Leavell CD at the same time. We still have no regrets about where we spent our time the last couple of days. My only regret is that we are going home on Tuesday and the festival continues for one more weekend.

We tell our friends about this jazz festival and many of them get excited and promise to come with us next time, but nobody ever does. It’s OK though, because we get to hang out with a few thousand very friendly strangers. How about you?
I like the Cajun food.
Alla likes the music.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Back in New Orleans

I really missed New Orleans Jazz Fest. I came regularly since 1992, but spending the last couple of springs in Belarus Alla and I missed the festival. This year for a number of reasons it made sense to come back to the USA in spring and visit New Orleans. I knew I missed the festival, but honestly I forgot how much I like New Orleans. It’s warm here. And beautiful. And we have great friends here. And there’s music.

The music really distinguishes the city. Doreen reminded us of it today. I didn’t know Doreen and we weren’t looking for her. After we arrived and checked into our hotel we walked into the French Quarter to absorb the culture and do a little shopping. We walked down Royal Street and stopped in at one of the many decorative-arts stores just to admire the merchandise. Giorgio Valobra sells antique furniture and new Venetian art glass. We spent a long time admiring the glass and imagined ourselves owning some of it. Then we continued down the street, passing little jazz groups on every corner until we reached Doreen. We got no farther.
Doreen's Jazz: The little boy on the right played trumpet. The drummer is 9. They all play very well.

Doreen plays the clarinet and sings. Her nine-year-old daughter plays the drums and a couple of other adults play tuba player and guitar. They all play quite well, and Doreen sings just as wonderfully as she plays her clarinet. We decided not to miss this excellent show and stayed to watch until the police reopened the street to cars at 4:00. As the band played, a very little boy stepped into the street and danced the second-line with a big white handkerchief. I tried to get a photo with him strutting his stuff, but he kept dancing right out of the frame before my cell phone pulled itself together to make a picture. Anyway, he danced well enough that we suspected that he must be local. Indeed, he is Doreen’s godson. We learned more about him when he returned with a trumpet in his hands. He’s really young and the trumpet is at least half his size, but he still managed to jam effectively with his godmother. Clearly, he is learning the local traditions. Many kids here play music and they don't give it up when they reach high school. As a result we found bands on many more corners once we finally walked away from this one.

This evening we ate dinner at Brightsen’s, a wonderful restaurant in an old house on the edge of town. It takes a long time to get there, but the food makes the trip completely worthwhile. Especially, we enjoyed having dinner with our good friend Bryant. We couldn’t imagine a better day, but I’m confident that the days ahead will be really good too.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I forgot the protocol

In the Minsk Metro (subway) there’s always room for one more. When the train pulls into the station, people press themselves into the car. Frequently, people on the platform press the people in front of them in order to help get more into the car quickly before the doors close. I’m used to that protocol, and I’ve got no problem with it. I just don’t ride the subway if I’m carrying eggs at rush hour.

Tonight I took my first rush-hour ride on the Boston subway since I’ve been gone. When the train pulled into the station it looked pretty full at first, but enough people got off that I knew those of us on the platform would all fit inside the car. A couple of people in front of me got on, and I could see plenty of space inside the car, but I had a problem: There was a very large woman standing in the doorway. I’m having a little trouble choosing the right words to describe her size. For various reasons, a lot of Americans grow bigger and wider than most Belarusians. But this woman stood twice the width of an ordinary American woman, and she filled about half of the doorway and I wasn’t sure how to get in.

My first inclination was just to give her a push and get in. There was plenty of empty space behind her and this would have been the normal approach on the Minsk Metro. I remembered before reaching the door, however, that we don’t touch each other on public transit in Boston. Still, I really wanted to get onto that car because even at rush hour our trains aren’t so frequent and I wanted to be on time for a meeting. I just had to squeeze between the fat woman and the little cluster of people trying to make room on the other side of the doorway. I touched her gently, guiding her to my left so I’d have room to squeeze behind her. “OW!,” she yelled. “Jesus!”

I thought about how I could possibly have hurt her. I replayed the memory of my hand on her back and affirmed that I had barely touched her. I quickly considered the hypothesis that somebody behind me had injured her in some way, but she reacted too soon for that. I even thought about telling her that Jesus Christ had nothing to do with this incident. But I just continued into the train, leaving space behind me for additional passengers and hoping that the fat woman would not press her attack. She did not.

I watched the people behind me as they got onto the train. They avoided touching and begged to be excused. “Excuse me:” the magic words I had forgotten. And I didn’t really need to hurry because the driver didn’t rush to close the door. He didn’t have to hurry because the trains are spaced at least five minutes apart. While occasionally somebody in Minsk pushes me so hard that I become annoyed, I generally prefer the Slavic tradition of fitting everybody in over the Bostonian no-touching protocol. But that’s there and I’m here, so I’ll try to follow the local rules. And when I go back, I’ll try to bring along Boston’s polite tradition of asking forgiveness before squeezing in.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Introduction to Budapest

We arrived in Budapest on Thursday morning, bought Metro tickets, and rode to the neighborhood where our Minsk landlady lives. Her parents-in-law take care of the place for her when she’s out of town and somehow we’d never been in Minsk at the same time together. We weren’t expecting to be in Budapest at the same time together either, but the family had urgent business in here and they arrived shortly after we had let ourselves into their apartment. Our landlady and her husband are just as nice as his parents, and we were very happy finally to meet them. But anyway, this paragraph started out with a Metro ride and I should surely finish with the Metro ride. The cops nabbed me at the exit, discovering that I hadn’t properly stamped my ticket when I entered the system. I stuck the ticket into the machine and didn’t realize that the machine was supposed to take a bite out of the end of it. I finished the ride with an intact ticket and they wanted a fine worth about US$80. We thought they’d be nice to us when they saw us carrying luggage and two tickets, one of which was properly punched. They did not want to be nice, but finally gave up when we refused to pay the fine until we talked to a supervisor.

We haven’t needed the Metro much since then because we’re staying pretty close to the center of the city and we like to walk. On Thursday we walked the length of Margaret Island and then took a self-guided walking tour of the Pest town center. In both Buda and Pest (two sides of the river) we saw LOTS of beautiful buildings, though Pest has more parks and a greater variety of things to see and do. I was about one step behind for most of the afternoon because I hadn’t been thorough about reading the guidebook before we left, but I did a much better job on yesterday’s tour, which included the truly-spectacular Parliament building. I won’t write about what we saw because I’ve posted plenty of pictures here. I’ll just say that we really like this city.

It’s not clear that everybody here likes Russians, however. The parks department had to build a barrier around the Soviet Army memorial because vandals kept stealing the star and the Soviet crest from the monument. We understand why folks objected to the Russian domination after the war, but we don’t understand why they would want to desecrate a memorial to people who put their lives on the line in order to liberate the country from fascists. It’s possible we ran into some more anti-Russian sentiment today. We found an outstanding strudel restaurant yesterday and went back for lunch today. This time we walked in speaking Russian to each other and our waiter brought us Russian menus. When he finally came to take our orders, we realized that his English was better than his Russian and we tried to order in English. He walked away before I finished my first sentence, ultimately returning with our mineral water. I asked to order and he said he’d be right back but he stayed away even longer. The story goes on and on, but it’s just a lot more of the same. Everybody else in the restaurant got more attention than we did, and even our soup took half an hour. In general, however, people here treat us kindly enough and we all talk to each other in English.

Today we took a more casual tour of Buda. I left my guidebook in my pocket and we explored Castle Hill without guidance. The air was heavy with moisture and we dodged a few raindrops but stayed dry. The heavy humidity dimmed the view across the river, but we could see well enough to enjoy being up high and Alla really enjoyed being inside a walled city for the first time in her life. In addition to the fortifications and historical treasures on Castle Hill, we saw windows into a fair number of unpretentious-looking apartments. We had not expected to see regular people living inside a walled city.

We finished today’s tour with a long visit to Szechenyi Baths, where we soaked in waters of various temperatures and sulfur levels. We concluded our spa trip with hour-long massages because the price seemed reasonable. Alla apparently got the best masseur and insists that her massage was worth the price of two. Mine was OK but, as we say, nothing to write home about.

We lost track of time here and we were surprised to discover that we fly home on Monday. Tomorrow is our last day in Budapest and I think we’d both prefer to have yet another day. I’m not sure how we’ll optimize our time, but I think we’ll have to anticipate a return trip. That’s OK: this is a beautiful city.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


We are riding in tired Soviet opulence, in a first-class compartment of a train car built so long ago that nobody remembers. We rode much better earlier today, starting out in a Belarusian car hitched onto the daily Moscow-Prague train. I should have photographed the fresh upholstery and the gleaming fixtures. I should have even photographed our very pretty conductor. But I didn’t, because I expected that the next train, the Chopin, would be even better.

The Chopin is picturesque, but not in a good way. Our compartment is furnished in wood-grain Formica on flimsy particle board. The bunks look like little sand boxes with padding where the sand belongs. My feet will hang off the end of the bed, and possibly out the window. I’m not using the pillow they offered me either. It’s filled with cubes of worn-out foam rubber. Or maybe it’s filled with wrinkled-up plastic bags. I can’t be sure, though I certainly wouldn’t like to investigate. I’ll just sleep on my jacket. Fortunately Alla’s pillow is fairly normal, though a little small.

The conductor reminded us three times to lock our door while we sleep, emphasizing that it’s really important. I would have locked it anyway, but his concern adds to the quaint ambiance.

We enjoyed ourselves more easily during the rest of the day. Our friend Irina saw us off at the station in Minsk with fresh, warm, homemade cabbage pirogi. We thought we’d save them for lunch but couldn’t wait that long. We wanted to taste them while they were still warm, and couldn’t stop after the first bites. We consumed all three right away, and then we read while we rode and passed pleasant hours getting to Eastern Warsaw. At that station the railroad disassembles the train and sends the various cars off to various locations. The process takes a long time, so we slipped onto a local train going immediately to Central Warsaw. I think we saved about 45 minutes with that trick, and we ended up with three hours to walk around downtown and explore.

Last time we stopped in Warsaw we headed in the wrong direction and didn’t get a very good impression of the city. This time we started off much more successfully and we thoroughly enjoyed our little tour. I’d be happy to do that again, but perhaps not at the expense of riding in another tired and crummy train car. The Minsk airport is a little far from town, but now I remember why people fly.

[As I post this from Budapest, I have to say that we both slept well and we don't have any lingering complaints about our night in the old train car. Still, new ones are better!]

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


More pictures in this album.
Matvey is nine years old, or so I'm told. I'm not so big on counting years and our friend defies the count anyway. He plays hard like a kid, but he thinks of others in a way many so-called adults have never mastered.

Alla told him she wanted to learn how to make pirogi. Matvey's grandmother taught him how to make the little sweet variety called piroshki, so he volunteered to come over and teach her. During spring break he bought a package of dough and spent a morning here showing Alla how to use it. He also brought along a beautiful apron his grandmother made and a rolling pin. By the time I got home from school he had prepared a whole tray of beautiful pastries, which he allowed me to load into the oven.

Since I didn't do any of the other work, Matvey and Alla let me wash whatever dishes they hadn't already cleaned up as they worked. Mostly I just ate.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Coat-check service

I really like the coat-check people I see here in Minsk, pretty much all of them. I did have to pay thirty thousand rubles (US$3.50) to get my stuff back when I lost a coat check tag taking my wallet out of my pocket, but I have to say that the lady was very nice about it.

I first noticed super-duper coat service at Tovarish Café, where we have lunch sometimes. The guy always sees us returning from the restaurant and gets our coats ready for us before we even walk up. He returns them not just dust-free, but warm on the inside. Where else have you seen a coat heater?

Tonight I slipped out of symphony a little early so I could get to my dance class. We always give our coats to the same attendant because we found one who is extremely quick and efficient. Even if we get downstairs at the back of the line we don’t have to wait long to receive our coats. But this time, of course, I came downstairs alone. The lights were dim and some of the ladies were chatting among themselves. Not ours, however. She had most of the wet umbrellas opened up on the counter and on the floor behind her. Before I even presented my coat tags, she got my coat off the hook and brought it to the counter. My umbrella no longer hung with the coat, but she knew right where it was and she returned it to me along with my dance shoes, which she also retrieved without looking at my tag.

I’m also compelled to mention the coat check ladies at Minsk State Linguistic University. One of them invited me to check my coat in the teachers’ section so I wouldn’t have to wait in any long lines. The ladies take turns working the different windows so I see all of them at different times. All of them are friendly, and of course they are very attentive. I wish they had a coat heater because the lobby gets really cold in the dead of winter when students are flooding in and out of the main doors. They probably wish they had coat heaters too, but nothing ever chills their warm and caring outlook.

Restaurant service varies from place to place, but coat check service impresses me everywhere.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The bureaucracy of a purchase

I wanted to extend my time at the university by an extra week because I have an excellent teacher, I enjoy my classmates, and I wanted to get as much as possible out of my remaining time in Belarus. With some effort over a few days, I got agreement from the university to extend my contract on a pro-rata basis. A few days later I finally received my invoice in triplicate, just hours before I had to leave for Gomel to renew my residency permit. They wanted US$47.

I took the invoices and a hundred-dollar bill down to the university’s cashier and waited in line. When I finally reached the window, they pointed out to me that my invoice instructed me to go to a certain bank across town. I went to Gomel instead.

Saturday morning I got up early after returning from Gomel with my snazzy new forty-year residency permit. I went straight to the bank to pay for my extra week of studies, and then I came straight back home. Nothing happened at the bank because that branch doesn’t offer weekend service.

Undaunted, I returned to the bank after class on Monday, yesterday. Once again I presented my triplicate invoice, residency permit and hundred-dollar bill. The cashier scrutinized the money and decided it looked real. Then she scrutinized my invoices and my residency permit. Repeatedly. Then she told me that my passport number didn’t match. I didn’t figure out the problem right away and I offered her my American passport. This did not impress her either. I finally realized that she wanted to confirm the number on my residency permit, which I’d just finished replacing. I explained the reason for her confusion and she explained that I’d have to go get new invoices and bring them back to her.

Wait a minute, I objected. I’m standing here with an invoice and money to pay it. Surely my registration number cannot enhance this purchase in any way. The same bank would convert my US dollars to Belarus rubles with no documentation whatsoever. I have no idea why documentation is so important when instead they get to keep the money and don’t have to give me anything in return. My arguments notwithstanding, they have their rules and they’re sticking to them. Go home!

I decided to drop out of the university and stop wasting time trying to spend money. Friends offered to try to keep me up to speed on a week’s worth of studies anyway. But the long arm of the university administration reached me in spite of my intentions. There’s a presidential mandate for all state businesses to increase revenue, and by golly these guys want to get those forty-seven dollars from me. I insisted that I won’t pay. They responded by offering that I could pay in Belarus rubles at the university cashier. Mollified by this compromise, I have paid. I have done my part in supporting the presidential revenue-enhancement mandate, and everybody else has done their own parts in reminding the foreigner that Belarus has some of the finest bureaucrats in the world. Caveat emptor!