Friday, July 27, 2012

Why I like it here

Frequently people ask me why I’m here. When I first started hanging out in Minsk I assumed that people who asked me that must imagine I’m a spy. Knowing the culture better now, I no longer flatter myself with that. I think they’re just curious, and possibly a little surprised. People more commonly wish to get out of Belarus than to get in, and the population is shrinking. Here I am, an American, with a passport that enables me to cross a large number of borders without so much as a visa. And what have I done? I’ve completed dozens of forms and filled my passport with stickers in order to get into this place.

My neighbor asked me about this very specifically the other day. He started out directly, asking what I’m doing here, and before I could answer he softened his question by pointing out that "we," meaning Belarusians, have to live here but I’ve made a choice that surprises him. I summarized for him some of the things I’ve written in my blog about what’s fun for me here, and subsequently related the story with some amusement to my friend Sergey.

Sergey’s a clever man and he offered me a better answer for the next time I get such a question. I should tell the questioner that I like the dairy products here. That’s true. Nobody’s ryazhenka compares with Minsk Brand, and I miss it when I’m away. But there’s more about living here that I find unique and wonderful.

Lately I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time getting weather forecasts. It’s not that I care all that much about the weather, but I’ve discovered a weather site that amuses me no end. It’s at Down at the bottom of the page they display a Flash animation of a model dressed for the weather. I discovered this a few days ago, when he was wearing shorts and flip-flops until it should start raining, at which time he put on a lighter shirt and added a transparent rain jacket. A few days ago he stopped wearing any of that stuff and started hanging out in his bathing suit. Then it got really hot and he appeared naked behind a guitar. A little rain doesn’t seem to bother his guitar, but on Monday he’s going to carry an umbrella while parading about naked.
There’s a radio button on the left side that flips the image to night-time. So far I’ve never seen him naked at night, but today I am puzzled by his choices because over the next three days the nighttime temperature forecast steadily increases but in the middle he puts on slightly lighter shoes and a slightly warmer shirt. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve studied this enough to know that his clothing sometimes changes a couple of times within an hour and it’s never warm enough to run around naked in downtown Minsk. Still, it’s entertainment I’d never find in Boston and another good reason to stay in Minsk.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

To have and have not

[Warning added July 29: This post seems a little long to me today, and it's not my favorite. I won't be offended if you skip it. The ones with the pictures seem to be the most popular. -Steve]

I went shopping this afternoon. I fortified myself in advance by eating smoked salmon on crackers with a side dish of Trader Joe’s almond butter and a huge helping of strawberries from the dacha. Finally, I treated myself to the last morsel of Gruyere cheese from our trip through Switzerland. Alla and I have been rationing the Gruyere and I justified myself in taking the last bite by adding it to my shopping list for the giant grocery store at the end of my odyssey. Thus prepared, I roared off to TSUM and bought a pair of linen pants on sale for about $20. I have no idea what these would have cost in the US, but it seemed like a very good deal to me even if the styling varies a bit from what I’d wear in America. I’m not there anyway.

Next I rode the subway a few stops to GUM, where I discovered an even bigger choice of linen pants supposedly in my size. Buying pants in Belarus is a little less certain than buying pants in the US because the manufacturers haven’t made any effort to agree over what a given size means. At GUM I tried on every pair in the size most likely to fit me among all the sizes I tried on at TSUM. Less than 50% of the pants I put on fit, and I chose a favorite. I also chose a couple pairs of shorts that come below my knees, since my other shorts are seriously out of style. After completing a few other purchases at GUM without adventure, I returned to the subway and rode out to the Korona Hypermart.

I know my way around Korona pretty well and I’ve gotten used to finding what I want there, but I came up dry on a couple of key items today. First, of course, was the Gruyere cheese. I just couldn’t find it, so I asked the lady at the fancy-foods counter if she had any. She’d never heard of it. Confident that since we ALWAYS have this stuff in our refrigerator at home and Korona has all kinds of cheeses I don’t buy, I asked her to talk to somebody else. The next clerk didn’t know anything about this strange cheese either and said I wouldn’t find it at the deli counter. I took another look anyway and then went over to the packaged-cheese area. Finding nothing, I asked the stock clerk about Gruyere. “What’s it like?” she asked.

I told her it was a lot like Emmental without the holes and she showed me where she keeps the Emmental. Having no Gruyere, however, she suggested that I go over to have a look at their wide selection of Belarusian cheeses. I didn’t fall for that trick. Belarus produces a wide variety of cheeses, but as far as we can determine, they all taste exactly the same: white and bland.

Disappointed, I gave up and went off to get some Zip Lock freezer bags. Alla has harvested a huge volume of berries and we’ve been freezing a lot of them to save for winter. We started with bags we brought from Boston, but needed a lot more. In the housewares department I found aluminum foil, plastic wrap and parchment paper, but didn’t see the bags I wanted. Interestingly, you don’t have to buy these roll items inside a box if you don’t want. You have the option of buying just the roll of stuff, which is wonderfully sound environmentally but prevents you from stacking them on a shelf at home. Truthfully, I didn’t find that so interesting at the time because I wanted heavy freezer bags with a zipper top. Ha! No freaking way! The best I could do was to buy some Polish freezer bags about half the thickness of the bags from Boston. I bought them. At home I learned that I should have bought string at the same time because the bags didn’t come with anything to close the ends. We’ll make do. That’s the Belarusian way.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Slavianski Bazaar

In Chekhov’s time there was a hotel in Moscow called Slavianski Bazaar. Now it’s an annual music and arts festival in Vitebsk, Belarus. Whenever people talk about it they get very enthusiastic, but we’ve never been there because we kept going home in early July before the festival started. Our landlady got all excited for us and sent a friend of hers to buy some tickets to a couple of shows before we even got back from our spring travels. When we got here she informed us that we already had tickets to shows on Friday.

Alla and I didn’t get serious about the festival in time to book a hotel room, so we also had to take this friend’s offer to stay as her houseguests. The hot weather broke just in time, and we enjoyed a very comfortable ride to Vitebsk in a new Mercedes minibus. The air conditioning never gets to the back of those minibuses, so we count ourselves lucky. We enjoyed watching forests and meadows roll by, and finally passed the famous Vitebsk linen fields; pulling into town just as the interior of the bus began to warm up in the noonday sun.
I enjoyed the city itself more than the two shows we attended. I think we could have chosen better if we had done our own planning, but I did enjoy seeing the Igor Moiseev Ballet again. Vitebsk is an extraordinarily beautiful city, anchored by gorgeous churches and broad pedestrian areas built on the banks of a clean-looking river. We walked kilometer after kilometer, exploring the festival vendors’ stalls and the city itself. Remembering the nearby linen mills, we bought lightweight linen shirts for summer. If the weather gets hot again, we’ll be ready. If not, well, we like the shirts anyway.

We came home on the train and enjoyed different scenery. Most spectacularly, the sun set very slowly in a reddened sky over rye fields, streams and golden church domes. I had a hard time getting my homework finished because I kept having to look out the window, but I managed to finish the last paragraph of my Chekhov story just as we arrived in Minsk. I’m chagrined that we didn’t get to know Vitebsk sooner, and glad we finally made a trip. I’d send tourists there for sure, even without the Slavianski Bazaar.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

At the lager

I’ve been attending a Baptist church here because there are no congregations of my own denomination. Last Sunday the pastor complained that he was having trouble contacting the congregation and offered us the opportunity to join an improved contact list. I filled in the form they offered and Presto!, I got a text message on my phone a few days later. It turns out that they recently purchased land on which to build a “lager,” or camp, and they wanted men from the congregation to come for a work day. They caught me at an opportune moment, because I’d just been thinking that I wanted to be more generous about charitable activities.

The kids will arrive in one week, and we had plenty to do. Collectively we brought electricity to a former barn and put a huge new roof in front of it so the kids would have a place to congregate outdoors in rainy weather. We also installed a sidewalk and patio, took down a fence and mowed a field. Among other things, I helped to hang a door in the kitchen building so the cook would have a bedroom close to the work area, and then I worked on filling in the wiring trench and schlepping water for the crew making the concrete for the sidewalk. I had a little trouble getting started because everybody was reluctant to assign tasks to me, but when I paid a little attention I noticed plenty of ways to fit in.

They’ve dug a swimming hole. I think they have plans to build a regular pool in the next few days, but I’m not really sure about it. Right now it’s filling in with groundwater and collecting rain, but the water is brown from silt and I didn’t get in even though I needed a rinse. I got my rinse anyway: The pastor poured well water over most of us to cool us off, and even added a blessing when he baptized me.

I really enjoyed being in the company of a bunch of very kind men working on a project for people we may not even know. I hear that such behavior is less common in Belarus than in America, so I count it a special privilege.