Thursday, June 28, 2012

Five hours left

It's the middle of the night in Minsk as I write this and I am flying across the USA. I chose my seat on the airline's web site thinking I'd enjoy the view from my window seat just behind the wing. Unfortunately the diagram misled me and my view is basically a wing. I am very bored but don't want to sleep again until San Francisco so that I'll be tired enough to sleep the whole night.

We land in five more hours, which will be 26 hours after a taxi picked me up at home in Minsk. I'm grateful that Nika will pick me up at the airport because I don't imagine I'll have much left. I wonder how much more it would have cost to but an itinerary that took me near the north pole.  In hindsight, the shorter trip would have been really attractive.

At the airport

My cousin is getting married on Saturday and I’m en route to the wedding. I came to the airport in plenty of time and reported to the waiting area at my gate, where I found some twenty or more kids lounging around and talking to each other in a language I didn’t recognize. I went off and sat by myself so I could be quiet, but presently one of the kids started playing a three-stringed instrument and singing. Her friend joined the singing and I came over to listen.

I have to digress here. I am carrying a handmade plush-toy rabbit. (Americans would call it a stuffed animal, but that idiom has caused such consternation that I hesitate to say it now.) Elena made the rabbit for me and dressed it in a shirt like one I actually own. She named him Bulbashik, which might possibly mean potato eater… there’s no doubt it’s about potatoes, a staple of the Belarusian diet. Elena asked me to bring him along so I could get a picture of him with the bride and groom.

Back to those two kids singing at the airport. They didn’t appear to mind my attention, and in fact they started another song after the first. Once I felt certain that I wouldn’t interrupt their momentum, I got Bulbashik and my camera out of my bag. I put Bulbashik into the lap of the girl in the middle, who listened attentively but did not sing. As I prepared to take photos, another member of the group came over with a drum and started playing along. Presently a second drummer arrived. With such intense social pressure, the accordionist got out his instrument and the band started playing with fervor. One of the guys went out and performed a little folk dance. Then a couple of girls came out and, well, you know how it goes. Suddenly we had an entire troupe putting on a well-rehearsed performance, the audience clapping along, and the entire gate area transformed into a performance hall.

I got a video of part of their performance, but the sound is weak because the musicians were behind me. (Click on the image to the right.)

It turns out that I was about to fly with a Georgian folk-dance troupe beginning their first-ever European tour. At least some of them had never even been in a plane before they began this trip flying to Minsk. We parted ways in Amsterdam, and already I miss them. We had a very jolly time together.

The dance troupe sat directly behind me as we flew to Amsterdam. I didn’t try to join into the festivities, but I could tell that they enjoyed traveling together. I had a pleasant flight too, seated beside a translator who had spent summers in Virginia until ten years ago, presumably when she turned 18. She came as a participant in the Chernobyl Children’s Project, and she was returning for the first time to see her host family. Kristina surely speaks better English than I do Russian, but we conversed nonetheless in the local language. I really like being able to do that. I learned that her host sisters don’t know that she’s coming, and now I look forward to hearing how the reunion went. I greatly enjoyed this morning’s human connections.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two-dacha weekend

A couple of weeks ago we got to enjoy two distinct interpretations of a strong Slavic tradition. Nearly everybody we know in Belarus has access to a dacha somewhere. I don’t know if this will always be true because it’s usually grandma who owns and maintains the dachas and I don’t know whether or not the younger generation will show the same universal interest.

Dachas were crucial to the older generation, and I suspect that they played a key role in feeding huge sectors of the population during hard times of the past. Modern kids growing up in the cities don’t all remember such hard times and generally don’t like tilling potato fields. As a result, I suspect that at least a few families will give up their dachas when the present generation of grandmothers dies off.

Today’s dachas don’t generally play a role as family farm, but if you have a dacha you almost certainly cultivate something to eat on it. You’ll probably plant flowers too. All these plants require care and maintenance, of course, so the cities empty out during the growing season and people spend lots of time on their dachas. It was our pleasure to join this migration two days in a row.

On Saturday we went to visit Anna Adamovna and Evgenny Ivanovich. They’re grandparents and probably fairly typical dacha owners. Evgenny Ivanovich built his dacha himself, with the help of some neighbors. It’s a solid log building made from big timbers. They shaped the logs by hand and then put the biggest ones on the bottom and worked upward, saving the smaller (and easier to lift) logs for the top. Unfortunately, they ran out of timber before the walls reached the desired height, so there are a few heavy logs at the very top.

We didn’t really go inside the building this weekend because the sun was shining and we had work to do. Well, we had a little work to do. Since we came as guests, they didn’t put us to work as seriously as they might have. I received the delightful assignment to tend a fire and cook marinated chicken on it after the coals reached the right state. Honestly, I don’t have much experience at cooking over coals. But I’ve seen enough people cook shashleek that I succeeded.

I learned on Sunday how I could have done it better. Our friend Sasha prides himself on his fire-cooking prowess, and I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone better at it. When I told him that I’d been in charge of the cooking the previous day he took me aside and showed me how it’s really done. After his lesson we all feasted on cooked pork and cold salads. Sasha’s wife Elena made up her own version of potato salad, combining Irish and Belarusian traditions. I hope she remembers what she did because the results were spectacularly delicious.

We ate under their new gazebo, which Sasha and other members of the family built from a kit. We felt very smug as a couple of rain showers passed overhead without affecting us at all. Sasha and Elena’s dacha home is new, made from manufactured materials. They’re still forming the garden, since the land slopes and they want terraces. The huge strawberry patch is already bearing fruit in its first year and the rest of the garden looks very promising, but for them the dacha is not so much a farm but a vacation home. Sasha even installed a platform for a little swimming pool, which I tried out with pleasure.

This dacha is quite close to a ski resort, so we went over there to play a little tennis before we ate. I played in college and for a little while afterwards, but never got good enough to make it a priority. I had a heavy wooden racquet back then, and this was the first time I played with a modern aluminum model. I expected that the modern racquet would make the ball go really fast, but it’s so light that I had to hit the ball pretty hard to make it go. It took a while to get the hang of it, but our hosts were kind about my incompetence so I really enjoyed myself. In any event; the tennis, the pool and the new garden offer a glimpse of how the next generation may approach dacha life. It can be a very pleasant tradition.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Back in Minsk

I can tell that I’m back in Minsk because I was immediately involved in a bureaucratic snafu. I won’t bore my readers with the details, but it involved paying my tuition at the Minsk State Linguistic University, getting my money back and paying again when they were more properly prepared to receive it. The good news is that the exchange rate fluctuated in my favor and I saved enough money to buy a kilogram of strawberries at the market.

The strawberries here are great. I was afraid we’d get here after the peak of the season, but apparently we arrived in good time. Right now we’re eating strawberries from Brest, in the south of the country. I imagine we’ll be getting strawberries from farther north soon, so the season should last for a while. I’m really excited because the local berries are red all the way through, picked ripe, and taste better than the usual California strawberries we buy across the US.

I had one other consideration about our absence from Minsk during the spring. I hoped to miss the annual preventive maintenance of the hot water system. Apparently we get our hot water from some centralized facility and each facility shuts down annually for this work. I remembered that our district shuts down fairly early and I hoped they would have finished before we returned. I discovered on the day of our arrival that we got back too soon for that. After spending 26 hours on a train, schlepping a few extra kilograms of stuff from Swiss grocery stores, we got home a little after midnight. We moved our dairy products into the refrigerator and took care of a few urgent household tasks before heading to bed. Last thing I jumped into the shower, only to discover that we had no hot water. We’ve got a backup heater for the bathroom, but it needs a while to warm up and I really wanted to get to bed so I took a really quick cold shower.

All told, we’re already happy to be back. My excellent teacher still runs the advanced group at the language school, I like my new dance teacher even better than my previous one, our friends want to see us, and the strawberries are red ripe and juicy. Sweet!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

More Alpine adventures

We had to take a couple of days off this week because of rainy weather. Even while it rained, however, we could often see mountains from our hotel room and it seldom rained too hard to go out for a walk. Walti went running and generally proved himself gnarly. He so impressed the guy at the local sport shop that he warned me that I’d have a hard time keeping up on a bike ride with him. Biking, however, is my sport and my rental bike didn’t let me down.

We rode from Murren along the Mountain View Trail. Walti noticed a potential viewpoint up a hill and across a meadow so we left our route and tried to find it. Finally we got stuck when the trail got too steep for us, so we abandoned our bikes and hiked across a pasture with grazing cows. We had plenty of room to get through without disturbing the cattle, but we had to leap from stone to stone in one area to stay out of the “cow pies” filling the field. Finally we reached the top of the pasture and discovered that we’d been climbing to a false crest and the upward trail continued much farther than we were prepared to walk that day. Later we found a better map which showed how we could have reached the desired viewpoint. Unfortunately, we found this improved map at the bottom of the hill and we decided not to go back up.

Near the map, Charlene noticed a farmhouse advertising homemade cheese and other dairy products. We stopped and bought ourselves some cheese. Sadly, they forgot to bring their cheese with them when they went back home today; so Alla and I inherited an extra block to bring with us to Belarus.

We ended our ride with a tour of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Walti saw something called Trummelbach Falls and led us up to it. He’s a good leader, but nevertheless he led us astray this time. We climbed up a steep trail to the right of the falls and kept seeing tourists on a paved pathway across the water from us. Walti imagined we’d find a bridge, but alas we could not cross the stream. Finally we decided we’d seen enough, so we climbed back down our steep slope and rode back home.

This morning Charlene and Walti left for home. We rode the lift down with them to the parking lot in the valley where they’d left their car. They intended to drop us back at Trummelbach Falls, but we all got off to an earlier-than-expected start and they had time to join us on the correct side of the river. We’re all glad they did, because Trummelbach Falls ranks with me as one of the top wonders of the world. It’s a curly confluence of streams twisting through a towering wall of rock, splashing off of basins and blasting around shiny rock coves. In the early 1900’s somebody dug a tunnel into the rock so people can get up high and see the falls from numerous vantage points. We had a blast.

Alla and I ate lunch in the valley and then rode the tram up to Winteregg. Winteregg is too small to call a village. Primarily, it’s a restaurant with one of the most spectacular views on the planet. We walked from there back to Murren and sat for a long time on a bench overlooking the valley and its backdrop of high peaks.

Between the bike ride and today’s quieter adventures, we took our second rest day yesterday as it rained off and on most of the day. We did get a break in the late afternoon, and we walked down to Gimmelwald and to the forest below. Between Murren and Gimmelwald we saw some of the densest wildflowers we’ve found on the whole trip. I think we’ve been pretty lucky about our timing. The innkeepers and restaurateurs generally plan to begin their season tomorrow. We got here ahead of the spring crowds but after most of the snow melted from the mountain pathways. And I’ve finally fulfilled a lifetime goal of seeing Swiss Alpine wildflowers in spring.

We’re ready to move on. We’ll visit Bern tomorrow and leave for Minsk on Saturday. We’ll make sure to bring Swiss cheese, chocolate, bread, and hazelnuts. Switzerland has so much to offer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Swiss Alps

We left Zurich on Friday morning, heading for Mürren. We chose to go by way of Lucerne because we had heard that the route would be scenic. “Scenic” doesn’t even begin to describe our train ride: I’d prefer to say “spectacular.” And the city of Lucerne came as an added benefit. We stayed there for a few hours before changing trains, giving ourselves a walking tour guided by a map we got at the train station. The map included a suggested route, which we followed down the river, up onto the wall, back down into the old town center, and finally back across a long old covered bridge.
When we’d seen enough we got onto a panoramic train car and headed for Interlaken. We had lots of food with us, and we started by spreading out a picnic for ourselves on our table. We enjoyed our meal especially because of the scenery that seasoned it. We started out on the shores of a beautiful blue lake surrounded by meadows and villages and backed by snow-capped mountains. The farther we traveled, the nearer came the mountains. Finally we climbed right into the mountains and crept into the town of Meiringen, where the crew detached the engine from the front of our train and attached it at the other end. We pulled out of town by the same route we entered, arcing off presently toward Lauterbrunnen.

The panoramic train ended in Lauterbrunnen, where we switched to a smaller train which took us to a gondola which took us to a little mountain tram which finally took us to Mürren. It’s unfair to compare the scenery in one part of the trip to another, but I can comfortably say that we’re really happy about staying in Mürren.

Our friends Charlene and Walti arrived later that day and we had a long and delightful dinner together. We decided to go ahead and plunge to Jungfraujoch the next day because we expected poor weather for the rest of the week and we wanted to enjoy the views from very high on the Jungfrau. The elevation at the station is 3454 meters above sea level. We enjoyed clear skies and fantastic views from the moment we emerged from the train tunnel. We walked (slowly because of the snow and the elevation) up to a mountain hut at the top of the saddle, looking down into the other side of the mountain range. The hut includes a kitchen, and we had vegetable soup and sausage for lunch before walking back down.

We didn’t ride the train all the way down to Lauterbrunnen, stopping to walk partway down through florid Alpine meadows. We felt both tired and exhilarated when we returned to Mürren, and ate dinner with enthusiasm and hearty appetites.

Today we took a gondola up to Schilthorn, also called Piz Gloria since it was featured in the film version of the James Bond story On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The weather stayed beautifully clear and we enjoyed spectacular views both outdoors and indoors over coffee in the rotating restaurant. When we came back down, Alla decided to take a rest while Charlene, Walti and I went for a hike from Allmendhubel, a little settlement above Mürren, connected by a cog railway. We walked through woods and meadows, under a waterfall, and finally back down to Mürren. If we had skipped lunch or the waterfall detour we might have gotten back before the rain started, but instead we came home just a little wet. Nobody minded the water, and we’re quite happy about everything we saw and did.

We took at least 500 photos over the last three days, but I respect my readers too much to foist most of them on you. Still, you can find some of my favorites here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Zurich today

We didn’t really have time to do much in Zurich yesterday so we had to make the most of the city today. And I think we did a pretty good job of it.

We started out with a huge and leisurely breakfast, courtesy of our hotel. I think we both especially enjoyed the Swiss specialties; dried meats and fresh cheeses. The delicious fresh fruit impressed us too, especially the vine-ripened cantaloupe. Hoping to repeat the pleasure, we bought ourselves another cantaloupe at the grocery store across the street for tomorrow.

We spent the next ten hours out and about. We started by taking advantage of our all-day transit pass and took a little city tour on the tramway. Whenever we encountered something especially interesting, we got out and walked around. The trams run quite frequently and our improvised tour worked out well. We took in hilltop views of the city (with the Alps behind), a lakeside stroll, shopping and eating.

Eating, like almost everything else around here, is breathtakingly expensive. A Big Mac goes for $12, but we didn't really want one anyway. I found a nice modest eight-dollar take-out sandwich at a restaurant near the lake, but undermined my own modesty by picking up a little bottle of iced rooibos tea at the register. The tea added five dollars to my bill, but Alla consoled me that it really was delicious and she would assuage my discomfort by helping me drink it. We didn’t investigate the price level at the Rolex store, Cartier or any of the other fancy shops down by Paradeplatz, but we noticed a very nice looking pair of men’s shoes in a shop window, marked at about $700. We decided instead to have cappuccino and cakes at the Sprungli Tea Room. They were delicious and much easier to bring home.

Mostly, we explored. When we went inside one of the big churches we saw the Korean National Choir coming in for a rehearsal. They sounded really great, and we decided to return for the evening concert. Unfortunately, by the time evening arrived we realized that we had over-planned and had to let that one go, preferring to eat dinner before falling asleep. We ate in our room, having found a beautiful head of lettuce, a box of fantastic cherry tomatoes, dazzlingly-delicious Gruyere cheese and delightful smoked meat. We even have leftovers for tomorrow’s train ride to Mürren via Lucerne.