Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Getting to Zurich

Long Rambling Story Alert! (I've had a long rambling day.)

I am writing from Terminal One at London Heathrow Airport. Earlier this morning we passed a pleasant hour at a very nice restaurant in Terminal Five, waiting for our flight. We needed the breakfast in order to restore our strength after the stressful start to our trip.

We thought we started out in really great shape. I never really unpacked the bag I brought from Minsk via Budapest to Boston. I just washed all the dirty clothes and put them back. And I added a pair of boots to wear hiking the Swiss Alps. In Boston we finished our various obligations early, from the alarm company to the City Assessor’s office. Finally, we showered and I shaved prior to our night flight across the ocean. Feeling calm and smugly prepared, we sauntered down to the Blue Line, which goes straight to the airport.

For reasons which weren’t immediately clear, our train kept not leaving the station. They’d close all the doors and then open them back up. Close/open, close/open. Wait/wait. Finally the train did go, and the driver warned us that the train would not take us all the way to the airport because the big overhead electric wire fell down there. Not to worry: They’d put us onto a bus.

When our train reached the last working station, about a zillion people poured out and flowed to three waiting buses. Alla and I edged over to the first one, which filled up just as we reached the door. We really wanted to get on, and Alla begged people to squeeze in. She even got on. I was wearing my suitcase on my back and couldn’t get a foot onto the bus, let alone my wide load. Alla begged some more. Passengers objected that they had nowhere to go. Alla continued begging. I got onto the bottom step, but my backpack still hung outside the bus. The lady beside me asked me not to crush her. I turned slowly sideways. The bag fit. The lady fit, and she even assured me that she was OK.

The bus lurched out into rush-hour traffic and staggered block by block toward the airport. Finally traffic thinned out, and the bus sped up. I watched wistfully as we whizzed past the airport. I thought to check my watch, but I couldn’t move and it wouldn’t matter anyway. I thought about the taxi I would take if the bus driver opened the door, or the taxi I could have taken directly from home. Finally we returned to the airport, a half hour later than we intended but in time for our flight.

I imagined we had solved all of our problems, but British Airways canceled our flight to Zurich. We didn’t know this because I didn’t bother to turn on my phone. By the time I learned, everybody else knew as well and a huge crowd beat me to the customer service desk. The text message waiting on my phone advised me that we’d have an option to catch an earlier flight to Zurich, but by the time we reached the front of the line they were offering us a much later flight. Fortunately I knew that Swiss Air had a not-so-much-later flight. I learned this because the guy behind me in line called his secretary and she bought him a ticket on the Swiss Air flight so he wouldn’t have to wait any longer in line. I got the same Swiss Air tickets for free just by asking. We just had to get to the plane, but that’s a story for another day. We’re here now, and the plane is not terribly late. I think we’ll see Zurich today.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


When rollerblading became popular in the 1990’s I went out and bought a pair of skates. Like any Bostonian, I went down to Eric Flaim’s Skate Sports. Flaim, a native of Massachusetts, won silver medals in the 1988 and 1994 Winter Olympics and lots of other prestigious medals in between. Everybody knew his name, and his store catered to serious skaters on and off the ice. I got some fast skates and a full suit of body armor to wear while skating. With the purchase, I got a one-hour skating lesson under a talented instructor named Lester.

Lester started out by making sure everybody knew how to put on our protective gear. Yes, we really did need a lesson for that, and still I forgot one time that the protective gear goes on before the skates. (And I learned that it’s impossible to stretch kneepads over skate wheels.) Geared up, we learned how to fall; forward onto our kneepads. Next, we learned how to stop by pushing one foot forward and dragging the skate brake. Once we knew how to fall and how to stop, Lester taught us how to go. By the end of the lesson, we all knew enough to go out and play on the Charles River Skate Path, and we also knew that we could improve a lot if we hired Lester for private lessons.

I never took any more lessons, preferring to learn by doing. I took my skates with me sometimes when I traveled for business. One time, for example, I spent a couple of nights in Berkeley, California. The first morning I skated down to the marina and back. I started early enough that the streets were pretty empty and I had a good time in the flat part of town. The next day I launched myself upward, into the Berkeley Hills. I hadn’t really planned to go into the hills, but that’s where I ended up after an hour or so of following my nose. I had a little trouble getting back because the hills were steeper than I had appreciated and I melted off most of my skate brake.

Somehow I set aside my skates about the time I started dating Alla, and I haven’t used them in a long time. In Minsk we live near an excellent bike path and I started thinking again about my skates. Before committing to bring them, however, I thought I’d better go out for a trial run in Boston and see if I still like it. I finally went skating today.

I remember Lester’s lessons, so I started by putting on my protective gear and then I pulled on the skates. Wow, I forgot how comfortable they are. They fit perfectly and support my ankles well. Dressed, I thought about how best do get down to the Charles River Bike Path. Oh yeah… That’s downhill from here. I thought about taking off my skates and walking down to the river, but decided I’d feel silly unless I took off the protective gear as well. I decided to go ahead and skate, hoping I could remember well enough how to stop. I tottered out and rolled a few meters down the brick sidewalk before deciding that I’d be better off in the street. I stopped against a signpost and waited until I couldn’t see any cars anywhere. Then I rolled down Revere Street and took a right on West Cedar.

Yikes! West Cedar Street is a horrifying mess of patched pavement, which I had not noticed until this moment as gravity hauled me forward faster than I wanted. I made it to the next corner, where I had to get onto the sidewalk. I remembered how to do this: Just step up and keep on going. Right. The very idea terrified me so I came almost to a complete stop before stepping very gingerly onto the sidewalk. Next I had to get up and over a footbridge crossing Storrow Drive. For reasons which escape me now, I went up the stairs instead of taking the ramp. I do remember why I didn’t skate down the ramp on the other side of the bridge: I felt safer on the stairs than trying to control my speed on the down ramp.

After all the drama of starting, the actual skating came as an anticlimax. It was easy. It was fun. It was no problem. I skated across Cambridge and turned around somewhere in Watertown. By the time I returned over the footbridge, I skated up and down the ramps with ease. I think I’m going to enjoy having my skates in Minsk, where we have many kilometers of bike paths. I’m especially excited about getting onto some of the exurban paths, like the one between two ski areas on the outskirts of town. I’ll bet I can even keep up with Sasha on his bike.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Duckling Day

Lots of kids throughout America know the story Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. It’s especially popular in Boston, where the action takes place, and we always seem to have at least a few kids sitting on the bronze duck sculpture commemorating the story in the Public Garden. The Duckling story also led to a traditional spring parade of kids dressed up as ducklings visiting the landmarks depicted in the story.

This year we happened on the parade as we walked home from Sunday brunch. Well, to be truthful, we found a bunch of families having picnics long after the parade had finished. While McCloskey’s story is about mallards, the parade parents almost all dressed their kids in yellow, more like rubber bathtub ducks.

I wanted to write a story about this, but can’t think of anything to say. We thought the kids were cute, we took a few pictures, and then we went off for a bike ride. End of story.

Monday, May 7, 2012

(Not) Dancing in Boston

I took a bunch of salsa dance classes in Minsk and started going out regularly to the local dance club. I’m a morning person, so I’d get there early and leave early. I had a lot of fun and got good enough that I didn’t feel too boring as a partner. Earlier I took some salsa classes in Boston, but didn’t have so much fun. They didn’t turn us loose with partners very often and we spent most of each lesson drilling basic steps so we could do them with the precision of the Bolshoi Ballet. (No women for you until you can dance like Baryshnikov!)

When I got back to Boston this time I e-mailed the owner of the studio where I’d taken lessons and asked if I could try out for a higher level. I don’t think she likes me. She wrote back and said I’d be welcome to return to level two and at the end of the month she’d see if I could advance. I am happy to report that at the end of the month I am heading back to Belarus. No thanks, then, on the dance classes.

I’d heard about Salsa Sundays at a jazz club relatively close to home, so I looked them up on the internet. Ryles offers free dance classes for beginners at 6 p.m., and somehow I got the impression that general festivities started around 7:00. I arrived at 7:45 and found three couples still getting their free dance lessons. They hadn’t reached the point where music seemed necessary, and the instructor was counting out moves and the students struggled with the steps. Uninterested, I went across the street to a coffee house and drank a pot of tea. By the time I had drunk my tea, sent two e-mails and read ten chapters of the Bible on my phone, I decided it should be safe to return to Ryles.

When I got back at 9:00 I really hoped the salsa party had moved upstairs because all I could see downstairs was one couple dancing and three women sitting at a table chatting. Nope. The staircase was blocked. I was looking at the whole party, and I then realized that the lone male dancer was also the disk jockey, dance teacher and cashier. To be fair, I had heard from one person that she usually arrived at Ryles around ten o’clock. Apparently she gets there at the beginning. I should have realized this, because I know that the Tuesday evening dance party doesn’t start at all until that time. But as I said, I’m a morning person and I wanted it to be like Minsk, where enough people show up early that I can go home at 10:00 satisfied that I’ve already had plenty of fun.

In this case, I’d already been away from my slightly-frustrated wife most of my allotted time. And even if I got permission to stay out later, I wouldn’t stay out terribly late because I’ve got stuff to do in the morning. I couldn’t bring myself to spend the ten-dollar cover charge in order to find out if those three women actually knew how to dance, nor could I commit to staying out late on a Sunday night.

I miss my friends in Minsk.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jury Duty

I had to go to court on Wednesday. The courts in Massachusetts choose their jurors at random from people who live nearby, and I guess there are plenty of criminals in the Boston area because I’ve been chosen several times. Mostly it’s pretty boring. I go down and wait around for a day and then they tell me to go home because that day’s business was settled outside of court or somebody wasn’t ready. Then they leave me alone for three years or so, after which I have to do it again.

The first time I got invited from the waiting room into the courtroom I was to hear a case about a woman accused of killing her daughter. They said that evidence would include a bullet-riddled door frame removed from her house and that we might even have to go see the house itself. It sounded interesting to me and I looked forward to hearing the stories, for and against. The defense lawyer asked that I be removed from the jury, however. I learned later that he made the request because I looked too long at the defendant while they were making their initial evaluations. Both the prosecutor and defense attorney had options of throwing out two jurors for any reasons they wanted, and off I went.

The second invitation came about three years ago. The case wasn’t nearly as interesting, but I got to be on the jury for the duration of the court trial, about three hours. I felt sorry for the defendant because her unpaid public defender didn’t do much to defend her. She seemed guilty as hell. Unfortunately I didn’t get to sit in on the deliberations because I was the thirteenth juror and none of the first twelve got sick or went home during the case and they didn’t need me in there. I had to wait in somebody’s office while the other twelve decided that they thought she was guilty. We all came back into the courtroom and the jury foreman informed the judge of their decision. Afterwards one of the twelve main jurors asked me what I thought. I said I thought she was guilty and the juror told me she was relieved to know that I agreed.

I went to the same courthouse on Wednesday. I know the routine, and arrived late. They ask us to show up at 8:30 because they really want us there at 9:00. I came at 9:00, the next-to-last person to arrive. We sat around for a while and then a judge came in to tell us how important we are and how we performed an important function just being there and don’t be disappointed if we go home without doing anything. At around 10:30 they let us out for a little break and the bailiff mentioned that we’d find a catering truck parked outside.

I didn’t want to eat a stale egg sandwich from the back of a truck so I walked around and found a little restaurant inside of a neighborhood grocery store. The restaurant, called International Gourmet, had opened nine days earlier. The owner told me that her name is Sandra and she told me what she would be serving for lunch. The food sounded good and I liked Sandra, so I bought a piece of cornbread and promised to come back. The cornbread was delicious. At around noon the bailiff came back and told us that they wouldn’t be needing any jurors today and we could all go home. Somebody else would have to deal with their issues on Thursday. I went straight back to Sandra’s restaurant. Sandra told me about her first week as a restaurant owner. She was excited to say that she’d broken even. I got all excited for her too, until she admitted that she had achieved this by working for free; working really hard.

I liked my lunch so I went home and wrote a favorable review on I’m sorry I didn’t go back and take a picture of the restaurant when I thought of it, part-way home. But I promised myself that I’d go back soon, with Alla and take a picture to add to my review. And I definitely won’t wait until I’m called back for jury duty to do it.