Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post Office

Minsk Central Post Office
Alla discovered a convenient trick for sending stuff overseas. She had a kitchen towel that she wanted to send to Nika, and she just stuffed it into a sufficiently-large envelope and mailed it without ceremony. The people at the Post Office warned her that they couldn’t guarantee anything if she mailed it that way, but it worked. It worked once, anyway. We tried the same trick again with more valuable contents and a bubble-lined paper envelope, which arrived empty except for the accompanying letter. Alla called the Post Office to see if she might recover the contents, but they said they don’t confiscate stuff and the guilty party had to be in America.

I imagined no issues at all when sending a little package internally. I ended up with a friend’s audio cable, which I wanted to mail before we left the country. I dropped by the main Post Office and bought a little plastic envelope. Presently I returned to the window to get stamps for my envelope. Oh no, the clerk intoned, you can’t send plastic envelopes from here. You have to go around the building to the package-shipping office. I contemplated buying a paper envelope and trying again, but decided to have a go at this package-shipping office. We’d been there once before and I hadn’t liked it, but maybe it would be different this time.

I approached a line of identical-looking windows, found one without a queue, and waited for the clerk to stop her conversation with a colleague and acknowledge me. I waited some more. Finally her colleague asked what I wanted, so I showed her my envelope. Go to that window, she directed. “That” window had two people ahead of me, so I waited. Another window opened up, so I checked there but the clerk sent me back to “that” window. I waited some more. I shuffled my feet and wondered when I’d get to a bathroom. The woman ahead of me tried out various envelopes and shuffled her shipping forms.

Finally the clerk took my envelope and wrote a word I didn’t know underneath the place where the stamp would go. She passed it back to me and said “Ценность:” I told her this was a word I didn’t know and she gave me a look that I was able to translate. It said “You’d better figure it out buddy, because I’m not going to tell you.” I realized that the root related to value, so I asked her if she wanted to know the value of the contents. Yes. Who knows? It’s a little cable. I wrote 1,000, figuring that any nominal value was OK. Then I thought she might imagine I was talking about dollars or Euros, and that might lead to problems, so I added BYR. The clerk looked at me coldly and asked if this were rubles. Yes, I replied. It turns out this does indeed make a difference. The tax on shipping something worth 1,000 rubles in a plastic envelope is 30 rubles and a lot of waiting. I think I prefer paper envelopes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life in Minsk

I went down to BelExpo today to see a back-to-school trade show. As I left, I noticed the flowers in front of the Opera House and realized I hadn’t been on their property since spring, so I went over and sat on a shady bench in front of the fountain. It was warm enough that a few kids waded in the fountain and a group of three or four girls even walked right into the plumes of water. I relaxed in the bucolic scene of families at rest and kids at play.

Suddenly very young boy with a bold stride and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth waded into the water. He carried the mannerisms and swagger of a high-school hoodlum, but when he spoke his voice confirmed that he had not yet reached maturity. His male companions in the fountain all had high voices, but the girls who hung around them already looked like women. The kid who first drew my attention seemed to be the ringleader even though he was also the smallest of the group. He strode back out of the fountain and snatched one of the girls, throwing her into the water. I watched with a little concern, but the girl didn’t seem frightened and she didn’t try to run away. She gave the impression that she didn’t want to be thrown in but that she accepted it. Soon the other boys followed and they threw the remaining girls into the water. These girls gave the same impression of resignation and acceptance.

I found the whole incident noteworthy because I’d just been talking with a friend whose cousin had chaperoned a Belarusian youth delegation to an international conference. The chaperone reported that the Belarusian kids demonstrated much greater self-control than the kids from other countries and the adults wondered if this were in some way abnormal or undesirable. As I’ve written the Belarusian school kids who invited us to Prague with them were also responsible and cooperative. They really impressed us and we found their behavior admirable. This little group at the fountain contradicted that impression.

I continued to pay attention to the small kid I described as the ringleader. A young adult came and rescued his sunglasses from getting washed away in the fountain. This led me to guess that the group came from some sort of an institution, perhaps an orphanage. Only 4% of kids who grow up in orphanages here go on to live stable adult lives, and these kids didn’t appear to be on a stable track.

When they left the fountain, they joined a group of older kids and I decided I wanted a picture for my blog. I casually walked by and snapped a picture as I walked. Most of the kids had already noticed me and they posed for my photo. I sat down on another bench and took a few pictures I imagined to be candid. Suddenly my ringleader popped up behind me and I nestled my phone into my palm so it would be hard to swipe away from me. He did not threaten me at all, however; he just asked me what I was doing. I told him that I write a blog on life in Belarus.
He thought that was hot stuff and went back to tell his friends, who then consented to pose more formally for a group photo.

I didn’t really learn anything today, except that I don’t know how to take candid photos unnoticed. And that the scary-looking kids weren’t all that scary. And that kids vary here just as, I suppose, anywhere else.

Friday, August 17, 2012


I’m a pretty optimistic guy, and I think this occasionally complicates my life. Peanut butter complicates my life too. When I put the two of them together, I should know I’m headed for a fall.

My readers know that I like peanut butter, and that I go to some lengths to keep a supply of it here in Belarus. I had a pretty good stash built up until recently because I bought a bunch of it when we were in Vilnius and then I supplemented my supply with three jars of Trader Joe’s crunchy almond butter when I last visited the States. I stacked those three jars of almond butter one above the other and rolled them up in a cardboard tube. This apparently caused some concern for the transportation safety people in San Francisco, who took my bag aside and inspected the contents. I got my stuff, but it arrived a day late and I’m not sure whether to blame the inspectors or the French. In any case, my stash looked pretty good as recently as a month ago.

Feeling flush, we even gave away some of the Lithuanian peanut butter. Then somebody noticed that I’d lost a little weight and I decided to go back to my caloric habits and eat nut butters more often. I’m consuming it quickly, and will run out before we leave.

I got pretty excited, then, when I noticed a big store called Preston Maximus over on the other side of town. My Lithuanian peanut butter came from a bigger version of the same store, called MaXXimus. There’s also a 3-X version of the store in Vilnius. The 2-X and 3-X guys sell peanut butter, but the 1-X stores don’t. Still, I had hopes for the local Preston Maximus because it looked so big. I looked them up on the internet to figure out how to get back there.

What-ho! Preston has three stores, and one of them is so important that it’s open 24 hours a day. I figured that this certainly implied exotic things, and I went to that one today. It would have been easy to reach in a taxi, but I took the tramway and then a long walk. I carried an empty backpack and high hopes. Unfortunately, however, all I took back was disappointment. This 24-hour store sells more wine than anything else. I asked the clerk about peanut butter and she said they had it. Unfortunately, the Russian word for butter is the same as the word for oil, and I have no appetite for peanut-oil sandwiches. I walked through the store and photographed everything so you can see it for yourselves. I got the whole store in three photographs, two of which are worth posting below.
Main area in Preston Supermarket

Preston produce section

I can wait. I know where to buy peanut butter in Boston.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Buying services

Whenever I get complacent about living here in Belarus, something new pops up. Today I went to get my teeth cleaned, as I do every six months. The dentist peered around in my mouth, poked and prodded, and declared that everything is grand except for some tartar (it’s called “stone” in Russian) on my lower teeth. He decided in that light that he only needed to clean the bottom half of my mouth. Half an hour later, I got half the usual bill for half the usual job. It’s possible that he was trying to squeeze in another patient for the second half hour, since he chatted with his assistant about a patient whose crown had finally arrived.

The other service I tried to buy today was a repair to my winter coat. I have a very heavy shearling garment that started coming apart at one of the shoulder seams. Alla suggested that I should ask the seamstress if she could handle it before I bothered bringing it down. I’m glad I took this advice because the seamstress said that she doesn’t work on leather. She sent me home to call central services to ask where to get the work done. I started home and then turned back because I’d noticed a luggage repair shop in the same building. Their sign promised repairs on suitcases, handbags and umbrellas. Certainly they’ve got a sewing machine capable of stitching leather! The clerk was horrified by my request. NO. They do not work on clothing. Call central services.

I got Alla to call Central Services, who sent me to a shop with the right equipment and the right union card. My coat is now ready for winter.

Finally, I got a taste of hotel guest services at an economy hotel. A friend of a friend is staying nearby and I tried to return her call. The hotel operator asked me what room this guest occupied, but I didn’t know. Then she asked me the nationality of the guest. American. Oh yeah: she knew where the Americans were, and they weren’t in the hotel. We still get a little extra attention around here.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


I’m not sure I’m even aware of all the health rules I grew up with, but I can see that folks in the Slavic world have grown up with some rules we don’t follow. The bane of summer is the skvoznyak, or draft. Drafts are really bad here, and lots of people are sure that they’ll lead to death or disability. Alla doesn’t follow this particular rule, and it drives her completely nuts to get inside a bus on a hot day and find the passengers ahead of her closing the windows. I watched one of these negotiations yesterday. The elderly babushka two seats ahead of us closed her window. The next window didn’t open at all, so we weren’t getting a whole lot of moving air, though the sunlight warmed us just fine. I don’t know how hot it was in there, but cooler would have been better and Alla really wanted to feel a breeze on her face.

Alla asked Babushka to open her window. Babushka refused on account of the draft. Alla observed that a draft might actually result in increased comfort. Babushka didn’t care. She worried more about dying from the diseases she’d catch from breathing the draft. Alla tried to convince her that a draft in a bus would be no more dangerous than a breeze at the beach, and she tried to loan Babushka a scarf to protect herself in the service of society. Another passenger joined in. He was standing in the aisle, and I suspect the heat seemed even more oppressive with his head closer to the ceiling of the bus. Babushka covered her ears with her arms and hunkered down after batting his hands away from her window.

Most people don’t try so hard to get windows open on public transport. We all know how frightened people feel about drafts and we share a social covenant that the draft-dodger has priority over anybody else’s fear of heat stroke.

Slavs worry about heat stroke once they’re outside the bus. Kids seem to be at the greatest risk for this and few responsible mothers would allow a young child outdoors in hot weather without a hat. I found this interesting enough that I collected a few kid-in-hat photos my first springtime in Minsk, but I don’t even think about it any more.

I chatted with a friend about this last night. The conversation started when I invited her to sit on the lawn with me and have our English class outdoors. When she declined, I realized that I’d just asked her to violate another health rule. Girls and women should NEVER sit on the ground. Apparently sitting on the ground leads to infertility and possibly additional maladies. It’s hard for me to argue about this stuff because we all know that Americans spend vast amounts of money on fertility treatments but few of us know what’s behind it. I honestly don’t imagine it’s because the girls sat on the dirt in the playground, but I can’t prove it.

Generally I stay out of any battles over traditional beliefs, but I’m careful to follow one of them. I don’t think it relates to health, but for some reason people don’t want to give or receive a gift across the threshold of a door. In America, when I welcome guests I start the greeting the moment I see them. Open door, see guest, shake hand. Bring guest into house. I think most of us do it that way, but I don’t do it here. The handshake is a gift, and it loses its value when given over a threshold. I think I’m supposed to wait until the guest comes into the house to offer any greeting, but in our apartment building I step outside the door and wait for them after I buzz them in. That way I can greet them as soon as I see them but I’m not looking across a threshold.

No doubt I grew up with rules that seem just as strange to people from outside my culture. It's hard for me to say, because I probably don't even think about them.