Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Holidaze

From 2013-12 December
I was going to write about Christmas. I wanted to say something about contrasts, about the fact that we started our celebrations in cold/snowy Boston and continued them in warm/sunny San Francisco. I would have talked about the wonderful people whose company we enjoyed in both places and referred to pictures of happy people opening presents.

But Alla got hit by a car. She’s surprisingly OK, considering what happened, but it’s been pretty rough on her. The driver knew that Alla was walking behind the car when she stepped on the gas. She just thought she’d shifted into a forward gear. In reverse, she struck Alla from the back, knocking her to her face on the pavement and then driving over her. Fortunately, Alla was between the wheels and the driver managed to stop before breaking any bones. We ended up in the hospital twice, first treating the superficial wounds and then checking for complications from concussion.

The doctors assured Alla that she could fly and Alla was ready to go home to Belarus, so we continued on our planned journey, though we left San Francisco a day late and Alla wasn’t able to prepare for her next trip in all the usual ways.

We traveled unusually well from Boston, since we had enough miles to book ourselves some “free” travel on British Airways’ lay-flat seats. We did lie down and sleep a couple of hours, but got less sleep than usual because we were distracted by wave after wave of delicious food and we didn’t want to miss anything. So when we got to Prague, we took a nap. I don’t usually nap when I travel because I’m eager to adjust to the new time zone, but since I want to stay up until midnight tonight I figured it might be OK to take a little nap. Just this once.

From 2013-12 December
Alla took a big nap, so I entertained myself alone this afternoon on the streets of Prague. It’s a giant party out there, and I think I’ve only seen the warm-up so far. I think we’ll enjoy a lively evening.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Posada Navideña

From 2013-12 December
Our friends Gabriela and Henry invited us to a Posada Navideña last week. This is a traditional Mexican procession with songs and food. I'm not sure who organizes such things in Mexico, but I think ours arose out of the generosity of a Mexican grocery store and a Mexican restaurant in the little community of Roslindale. When we arrived at the grocery store, they were giving out free tamales, tripe soup and hot chocolate. The crowded store steamed with the heat of the many people milling around with their food and socializing. I would have loved to take off my jacket, but had no place to set it down and my hands were occupied with food and drink.

Presently a mariachi band arrived. They weren't as accomplished as the professional musicians we usually hear in tourist areas of Mexico, but they played with such enthusiasm and abandon that nobody seemed to care. We practiced a few songs together in the grocery store and then set out on our procession, singing for the proprietors of various neighborhood businesses. Some of the businesses responded with treats: The library gave away used books, somebody else gave out churros, and we finally ended up inside a restaurant with lots more food and two piñatas for the kids.

Before getting inside the restaurant, however, we participated in a call-and-response song with the people inside the restaurant playing the part of reluctant hosts and the people on the street playing the part of insistent guests. The mariachis accompanied us during the whole walk and led the singing. We had a great time, and this reinforces my opinion that Mexicans generally know how to have a good time. I'm glad we have so many Latinos in Boston and that we got to participate.

From 2013-12 December

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Fun with English

When I first knew Alla, she claimed that her English improved after she’d had a glass of wine. By now, her English is pretty steady, but I got a good laugh after she had a glass of chardonnay on an empty stomach and then called the hotel operator. We’re still in Cancun, and Alla now knows a little Spanish. The operator answers the phone in Spanish, so Alla responded “Buenos dias… Buenas tardes.” Realizing it was after 6 pm, she added “Buenas noches.”

From there she proceeded to offer the operator a room number ten less than our actual room and breathlessly intoned, “We have a lamp burned down.” English is the hotel operator’s second language too, and I feared she’d get the wrong impression and call the fire department. I figured that the simplest way to correct any misunderstanding would be to make sure the operator knew Alla was talking about a light bulb.

“Light bulb,” I said.

“Oh,” Alla said to the operator. “We have a light bowl burned down.”

I offered more information to Alla: “We have a light bulb burned out.”

Alla improved her report, saying, “We have a light bowl burned out.” Following with a little spate of general confusion, Alla hung up the phone. We hadn’t gotten to the part about our actual room number, but I trusted that the operator had caller ID, so I let it slide as we began to wait in semi-darkness.

We ate bowls of soup, but nobody came. Discussing what had happened, Alla suggested that perhaps people with hoses and water buckets were right now pounding on the door of room 505. I decided it might be best if I were to call the operator myself. I think the operator already understood what we wanted, and she said that the maintenance department would come soon. It all ended very nicely, but as I’ve discovered when making a fool of myself in Russian, the structures and concepts in one language don’t always map directly to another.

Friday, November 29, 2013

¡Hola!

We are in Cancún with my cousin and her family, staying at a timeshare resort. When we first started coming here, most of the guests around us came from the US and Canada, but this time the people around us come mostly from Latin America. I’m happy about that, because I enjoy greater immersion in Latino culture. However much time I spend in Mexico and south, I’m still amazed by how friendly the people are. When most of the guests at the resort came from the north, the locals we saw most often worked here and I probably assumed that their bosses went out of their way to hire friendly people. I re-thought that theory yesterday, when we took an excursion to a nature-adventure park called Xel-Ha.

Many of the people getting onto the bus after us stopped at the top of the stairs to say hello. The first time, I thought they must know somebody in the front row, but soon I realized that at least many of them were greeting the bus passengers in general. How cool is that? This demonstrates friendliness on a whole new level. I really like it here.

We had a good time at Xel-Ha too. When Alla and I have been at this park previously, we came for an afternoon only, after visiting an archaeological site called Tulum. Having seen Tulum twice, I jumped at the opportunity to spend the whole day at Xel-Ha. We saw parts of the park I’d never had time to visit before, riding too-small bicycles up to the spring where the park’s main river begins. Since we had cloudy weather yesterday we rented wetsuits to wear with our snorkel gear and then we swam down the river, looking at an increasing variety of fish as we got closer to the sea. The warm salty water from the sea stayed below the colder fresh water from the cenote and the thermocline between the two layers shimmered in the sun.

We stopped at some towers in the river where we could play on ziplines and a couple of ropes courses. I struggled to cross a wide span by walking on a slack rope, holding onto another rope above me. Seeing that others fell when people on the rope near them lost their balance, I started with a good gap after the guy in front of me. He crossed the span successfully, but his overweight friend behind me caught up with me and then fell off. Her weight had made the rope sag under my feet so I could barely reach the overhead balance rope, and when she fell the rope under my feet snapped up like an archer’s bow and shot me into the air. I held onto the overhead rope, but came down beside the foot rope, which was now at my side. I decided I didn’t really need to get back up, and dropped, laughing, into the water. As I write this, I wonder if I could have finished the course by going hand-over-hand. I think so, and I’ll have to go back and try again.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the friendly culture and the delicious food. I probably can’t bring home much of the food, but I wonder if I can get away with saying hello to the folks on the bus next time I take any kind of an excursion. I’ll give it a try.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Scary

I scared a stranger yesterday, as I walked home from church. Nicely dressed, I walked briskly down Newbury Street thinking about the pros and cons of a new cell phone plan. As I overtook a slower pedestrian, she glanced over her shoulder. All in an instant, she saw me with alarm, her eyes bugging out and her lips rounding into a little knot of fright, and she spun off sideways in a defensive crouch. I laughed and told her that I’m not all that scary.

She responded, “Why would you do that?”

If I had greater presence of mind, I might have asked, “Do what?” but I didn’t. I explained that I was just walking past, and hurried off, stung by guilt and shame for alarming this person. So I ended up playing the event over in my thought. I presume she thought I was sneaking up on her, and maybe she found it scary that I was walking so much faster than she.

Or maybe she was frightened that I looked into her eyes when she turned. I enjoy making eye contact with passers-by and it’s become my pleasant habit. At least it usually seems mutually pleasant, but this time I wondered if I did something unusual or unkind. I don’t think so, but I thought about African-American friends who confided to me how unpleasant it is to have people respond with fear to their approach. This was the first time I remember having such a stark encounter. I did not like being identified as a Scary Person.

Years ago few in New England acknowledged strangers and I was definitely the outlier. When I started working downtown I’d seek out non-whites because I could make eye contact with them, and even say “hi” when appropriate, and they’d respond. The “Yankees” (lifelong New Englanders) would not. To the Yankees, I generally did not exist unless they knew me. Things have changed since then. Boston has become a more cosmopolitan city, and the influx of foreigners and immigrants has softened the populace so people generally seem pretty outgoing and welcoming of strangers.

Yesterday, however, I felt strange. But I’m really not all that scary.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

When the weirdos come out

My step-daughter didn’t like to ride the Red Line through Harvard Square after 10 p.m. because, she insisted, that’s when the weirdos come out. I had my own encounter today long before Nika’s cutoff. A guy wearing an Arabic scarf around his neck got onto the train at Harvard Square and started harassing the young woman seated beside him. I heard him bellow, upon learning that she’s from Saudi Arabia, “Do you realize how f___ed-up your government is? It’s the most f___ed-up government in the whole world,” and carried on from there.

“Hey,” I called out, “why don’t you come over here and pick on somebody your own size?”

He didn’t move, but carried on with his theme. He asked if perhaps I were unaware of how evil things are in Saudi Arabia. I replied that I wasn’t interested in discussing that topic, but that I wished to spare an innocent guest from mistreatment as a result of her country of origin. Once again, I welcomed him to come over and carry on a conversation with me rather than bother the woman beside him.

He warmed to his task. Shocked, he accused me; “You probably support our government don’t you?” and proceeded to expound on his opinion of how I must feel about Obama, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and what a loser I must be.

I smiled and told him he was doing a good job.

“What?” he asked, incredulous.

I said, “I asked you to harass me instead of her, and you’re doing a very good job of it. Come on over and sit here beside me so the rest of the subway car doesn’t have to listen to our conversation.”

He wouldn’t budge. Staying in place, he suggested a few more things I must mistakenly believe. I pointed out that he didn’t know a thing about me, repeating my offer of a seat where he could more comfortably ask my opinions. It became quite a scene, as this fellow worked himself into a little frenzy without the slightest inkling of my political convictions.

I felt good, completely without malice and glad to have distracted this fellow from the foreigner beside him. Altogether it proved to be a rather pleasant ride home, in its own weird way.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Belarus comes to us

Our friend Antonina came to visit, bringing with her three loaves of delicious Belarusian bread. Excited to have her around, we became tourists once again in our own town. Mostly we walked around a lot, though I started her out with a ride on the back of our tandem bike. I think the best way to see a place is slowly, in such a way that one can interact by chance with the locals. That’s what got me, one evening, onto a cement pedestal with Antonina and a Mexican guy neither of us knew. The Mexican guy was out with friends from Colombia and Argentina, posing for pictures, and he wanted to draw us into his photo. We jumped onto the pedestal and I gave my phone to the Argentinian guy so I could get a version of our group picture too.

Antonina drew me out of my usual framework. For example, people in Minsk tend to walk a lot more than people in Boston. We visited a church together in Porter Square, and started home on foot so I could show her Harvard University. I figured we’d get onto the subway at Harvard and ride home, since it would take another hour to walk and we’d already been on our feet for a while. Antonina felt differently, so we walked all the way back. I’m pretty familiar with that route because I do it often on my bike, but still it felt different on foot and I’m glad we did it. I saw stuff I’d failed before then to notice, and the walk didn’t seem all that long anyway.

We also spent a couple of days in Maine. Alla and I went to Camden about a year ago and had a nice weekend, so we took Antonina with us to go see Cundy’s Harbor in the same general area. At this point on the Maine coast, the shoreline runs roughly east-to-west with lots of fingerlets of land projecting southward into the Atlantic. We came nowhere close to exploring this long stretch of coastline, having spent lots of time in Portland on our way up and not having any easy way to get from one fingerlet of land to the next. Still, we thought it was pretty cool to see the sun set over the water and then rise over the water from the same vantage point. Then on our way home we stopped at Bowdoin College because a friend of mine had gone there and Alla wanted to see their art gallery. The school has a beautiful campus, and we spent a lot of time simply gawking.

There’s nothing like having an out-of-town guest to spur discovery of one’s environs. And you know what? We live in a pretty nice place.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Excursion

We went out to the town of Lincoln today. Usually when we’re in Lincoln, we’re on our bike. Today I had a rental car, which is a little bit unusual. But since it was our second rental in as many weeks, the guy at the rental counter got all excited and upgraded us to a Ford Fusion with fancy electronic accessories including multiple LCD display panels. I got all excited too, and synchronized my phone to the audio system, played with the backup camera (which marks a curving trajectory when I turn the wheels) and experimented with all the options on the main display panel.

I also drove the car. We intended to go out to our neighbor’s farm in Western Massachusetts, but Alla wasn’t feeling completely well so we stayed closer to home. We did accomplish our secondary goal for the day, a visit to the Codman Estate to do a little reconnaissance for Nika’s wedding. My readers in Belarus may find this a little peculiar. In Belarus, when you decide you want to get married you go out, make the arrangements and get married. Boom. You can be done in a month if you feel like it. Here it takes a month just to figure out where to get married. Then, because planning everything else takes several more months, all venues are booked way in advance. Most people start planning a year ahead for a wedding.

Nika already attended a wedding at the Codman Estate so she knew what it would look like and feel like, but she wanted us to find out about stuff like catering, drinking, tours and tents. We found out.

We also bought apples as a consolation prize for our failure to go out to Williamsburg and pick apples. I think we saved a lot of effort by buying them, but I suppose we came home with fewer than we might have if we picked our own. Then I tried to figure out where else to drive my whizzy rental car. It was a beautiful day to be out, but we had nowhere to go besides a couple of stores difficult to reach by public transit. Alla didn’t want to stand up too long at a time, but she did rally when we got to the Russian grocery store. I bought ryazhenka.* With the apples and the ryazhenka, I think I’m in pretty good shape.

__________
* For those unfamiliar with ryazhenka, I found you an English language description from a Belarusian dairy.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Town Day

When we moved to New England we discovered a tradition called Town Day. Many small towns set aside one day in the fall fall to throw themselves a party. These parties always involve food and they often include a parade. It creates an opportunity for residents to bump into each other after they’ve had their summer vacations and returned home. After moving from a suburban town into Boston I forgot all about it, though we have our own neighborhood traditions for getting residents together for some sort of party or event.

I stumbled upon several town days this year by accident. Somehow I kept encountering them on bike rides, and always managed to ride around them without experiencing much more than the smell of grilled sausages. Last Saturday, however, we rode into an event we couldn’t avoid.

We didn’t really know where we were going to ride that day. I found some old notes I’d saved about a bike ride to a farm stand somewhere. Since the notes referred to the names of streets but not the names of towns, I had only a general idea where we’d ride. Alla had never been on this ride, so we both experienced a sense of discovery as we followed my notes. At one point we rolled into Weston with intent to turn left on the main street, go through town, and turn right. The main street, however, was lined with spectators and filled with the beginnings of a parade. We talked to a local about the possibility of avoiding the parade by turning right and going around town in another direction, but by the time we’d figured this out, the parade had cut off our alternative.

We figured, then, that our best course would be to walk behind the spectators toward the origin of the parade and dart across when we finally got to the place where we wanted to turn right. A huge marching band passed by, then a smaller marching band, and then various floats representing local businesses and clubs. A bunch of people dressed like carrots accompanied the float from the Community Gardens, and then along came a small-time entrepreneur with an old Coca Cola truck. Inside the truck, instead of beverages, he had a player-organ with pipes, drums and a mechanical band leader. Somehow he’d gotten into the wrong place in the parade and he stopped in front of us, so I walked around and took pictures from all sides. The organ played loudly, like a calliope. The Weston High School Marching Band came up from behind, also playing loudly. The band passed the organ. Neither stopped playing. The organ, being mechanical, had no problem. I’m not sure how the musicians did, because I couldn’t really hear them. But when they finally got ahead of the organ once again, they appeared to be playing together.

J. Melone and Sons came by with their newest and oldest surviving trucks. The oldest truck, a dump truck, cost $10,000 in 1954. The newest truck, a cement truck, cost $200,000 and has never been used. I chatted with the drivers and learned that the guy driving the dump truck was one of the sons mentioned in the name of the business. A grandson drove the new cement truck.

We enjoyed our parade and the jovial atmosphere of Weston’s 300th anniversary Town Day. By the time we got to the farm stand, we were hungry and grateful that they made good sandwiches. I liked the buttercream cupcake they made too. We ended up a little farther from home than we intended, and farther than Alla was ready for, but we did ride home successfully. Alla definitely did not, however, want to get onto the bike the next day. We’d had enough fun for one weekend anyway.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mad-keen cyclists

Apparently “mad-keen” is Australian for very enthusiastic. I learned this on a MassBike supported ride across Massachusetts with my friend Larry Reed and almost a hundred other riders. One rider came from Australia and described her parents as mad-keen cyclists. As a result of their affliction, they had lots of excellent spare parts around home, which they put together on a spiffy carbon frame and gave Courtney a fine bicycle to bring to America.

We also met a fellow named Rashah. Well, that’s not really his name. He got the nickname after a year of backpacking around Europe. When he finally settled down and got a job in England, his boss declared that he was so skinny that he looked like a rasher of bacon. That was my second foreign word of the trip. I’d read of rashers of bacon, and always thought a rasher must be some English unit of measure. However, my Merriam-Webster dictionary says it’s ”a thin slice of bacon or ham broiled or fried; also: a portion (as of bacon) consisting of several slices «eggs with a rasher of bacon».” But our guy is a New Englander, so he threw away the final r and became Rashah. He sports a wide moustache that curls up at the ends and wears stylish one-of-a-kind bicycle pants.

Since I’ve already started singling out characters from our ride, I must conclude with Erika, who went from running a vegan restaurant to opening a meat market. She’s into food, and she’s happy to prepare whatever people want to buy. She’s also a strong cyclist, an avid fund-raiser for charity, and a brilliant conversationalist.

I’m happy to describe all three of those people as mad-keen cyclists. Larry and I are pleased to describe ourselves that way too. We rode hard, ate and slept well, and repeated. We enjoyed the ride and the roads we traveled, and we had a great time chatting with the extremely diverse group of people who came together for this trip. I wasn’t sure, when I saw folks gathering, that I’d have much in common with many of them. It turns out, of course, that we found a great deal in common and the commonality went far, far beyond bicycles. I enjoy meeting new people even more than I enjoy riding my bike, which means that I couldn’t help but have a great time.

Climbing Sugarloaf

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Gun violence

Here in the USA we’ve just had a couple more instances of gun violence. It seems to be a part of our culture now, and I don’t like it. I wonder how foreigners think about it. Well, actually I know how at least some foreigners think about it. My friends think it’s weird and a little scary. I wonder if this will dampen their desire to visit the USA if it keeps up.

I do have a potential solution to the tourism problem. We need to turn the concern into an advantage. Think about how Americans everywhere are “weaponing up,” buying new and better guns before good handguns and assault weapons become less accessible. If everybody here has a gun, folks unable to buy guns in their home countries will feel disadvantaged when they come to visit. What we need is gun rental kiosks at all international airports. Even if we pass new laws requiring background checks for gun owners, visitors can obtain guns without purchase and avoid the slow and inconvenient process of becoming owners.

It could really boost our tourist industry. Not only does easy availability of rental guns remove a deterrent to travel, for some visitors it will be an incentive to come. Unable to enjoy the pleasure of firing a handgun at home, gun tourists would begin traveling to America for the opportunity to carry a gun and fire it at rats, tin cans, and other appropriate targets. Hotels in remote areas would see a surge in business, and could even supplement their income by selling bullets in lobby convenience stores. And imagine the letters our new tourists will send home to their friends, building a virtuous cycle supporting a new field of travel.

I suppose the only reason we don’t have gun rental kiosks already is that nobody has solved the liability problem. If somebody rents a gun to a tourist who uses it inappropriately, perhaps the victims will try to sue him for arming a psychopath. If insurance companies can’t come up with a good way around this problem, then it’s time for new legislation. If every American is required to carry gun liability insurance, then the costs will be sufficiently diluted that it shouldn’t be a concern to gun-rental entrepreneurs. Our gun problem can be solved, and approaching it in this way is much more likely to get legislative approval than those limiting “solutions” that never go anywhere.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tree surgery

As I passed through the Boston Public Garden this morning, I noticed a guy pruning a big tree. He had a gleaming truck with a very long double-articulated hoist which he controlled from inside his bucket. When he saw me taking pictures, he swung his bucket over to me and came down so I’d get a good picture.

The whole situation caught my attention because it differed so greatly from tree surgery in my other home town of Minsk. In Minsk, the tree-pruning teams arrive in old Soviet trucks that leak oil when parked and billow black smoke when running. According to someone in a position to know, nobody on the job, and possibly nobody in the home office, has any special training in tree surgery. And as far as I can tell from the ground, the guy doing the cutting gets positioned by a confederate sitting on the back of the truck, and he can’t position himself. The two guys drive the truck up to the tree however it’s convenient for them and then hack away until they declare themselves finished.

The Boston guy’s truck was parked on wheel mats which protected the lawn from his truck’s tires, and the clean truck proclaimed the presence of a certified arborist. His confederates were far away, grinding up the branches he’d removed from another tree. The Boston guy could go almost anywhere with his double-articulated lift with telescoping extension. The Minsk guys have to jockey around in their trucks to get in a convenient position for the simpler arm (like a human arm with one elbow) that lifts the woodsman.

The arborist in Boston suggests to me a difference in the relative wealth of the two cities, though it may represent simply a difference in priorities. Perhaps I wouldn’t have stopped to marvel at the gleaming truck in the Public Garden if I didn’t have a point of comparison, but today I’m impressed.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

More cousins and a snake

I have a tradition with the cousins on my mom’s side to get together on Labor Day weekend. We meet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the place where we played together as children. In fact, our parents spent lots of time there before us, and my cousins’ children play there too. It started out as a tiny cabin in the woods, but by now the family has spread out a bit and we still have enough space for our bigger family.

It’s a good thing we all get along, however, because we pack ourselves pretty close together. Most of us prefer to sleep outdoors, so we don’t mind the fact that there aren’t enough beds inside for all of us. We take turns in an outdoor shower, trying to save water for the next person. And we take turns in an almost-indoor toilet added onto the back of a bedroom. And, of course, we’re most comfortable eating our meals outdoors. It would be hard to fit all of us indoors at once. I love these people, and I love being with them. We walk, talk, play games, swim, goof around and treasure the opportunity to be together.

Yesterday some of us decided to hike up to “Lake George.” It’s not a real lake, but George is a real person. He was a guest many years ago, and he scrambled up Alder Creek farther than any of us had gone before, finding a beautiful place to go fishing. Unfortunately, he slipped and fell onto some rocks, breaking his ankle. It must have been extremely hard to get him out of there, because it’s plain hard to get in and out of there uninjured.

This was my second trip to Lake George, though I know the first part of the trip quite well. First we walk out the top of a big water pipe alongside the creek until we get to a remote dam. We’ve all been frequently to the dam, but it’s so hard to get above the pool enclosed by the dam that I never tried it until the previous cousins’ weekend. This time would be the first trip for little Keira. I don’t know how old she is, but somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. She may be small, but she’s fearless and capable so she’s a great companion. We let her pick the route over the rocks and boulders much of the way up, and she did an amazing job.

On the way back, Keira’s cousin Reed and I were in front, hustling down the pipe and thinking about the food waiting for us at the cabin. All of a sudden we heard a loud buzzing sound and Reed stopped immediately. I stopped behind him and followed his eyes down to a huge rattlesnake in the grass almost beside us. We backed up. The snake rattled his tail and watched us intently. We didn’t feel so much threatened as warned, and we gave him a very respectable distance. Only Janet had any kind of a camera with her, an iPhone. She took some pictures from afar and then we all walked around the snake on the other side of the pipe. I thought it was interesting that nobody spoke of hurting the snake, because that would have been the standard response when I was a kid. He wasn’t, in our minds, threatening anybody and we had ventured into his territory. So we didn’t threaten him either.

Altogether, we enjoyed a very non-threatening weekend, but here's a video of our final adventure.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Leaving Colorado

We had a really great weekend in Breckenridge, Colorado, at a family reunion with my first wife's cousins. We stayed at an inn with a big common room. Because we got some rainy weather we had to use the common room a couple of times instead of picnicking at a lake-side park. This worked out quite well, so I think we learned something for future family gatherings. The key thing was being together, and staying here made that really easy.

We also had time for exploring, shopping and riding some mountainside amusements, depending on individual tastes.

Now we are on our way to San Francisco, where we'll see more relatives. Getting to San Francisco, we chose Frontier Airlines. Apparently we got a real deal on the seats, because they won't even pour us a glass of orange juice unless we give them more money. I saw how much Frontier wanted more money when I printed out our boarding passes at the hotel this morning. I already knew that if we wanted to check any luggage it would cost us an extra $20 per bag, but I discovered that if I had not done the online check-in then they would have charged us money at the airport for our carry-on bags.

They also threatened to charge a fee if either of our bags exceeded their strict size limit. I suspect that Alla's bag may have failed, but nobody noticed.

We watched with amusement as the stewardess decided who got free drinks and who didn't. I could have a glass of water for free if I didn't want any ice. Ice costs extra. Somehow I decided to splurge on a Kind bar for a little more than it would have cost in a fancy grocery store. At first it looked like I couldn't have one after all because they had already sold the last one somewhere in the five rows ahead of us. Then, miraculously, they found one more at the back of the plane somewhere.

This whole revenue-scrounging plan bugs me enough that I don't expect to fly this airline ever again. I'm glad we have choices.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Iceland

We did Iceland all wrong, but we had a really great time. I know it's a good idea to have a plan, to know something about where you're going and how to do it. We didn't exactly pull that off. I just went online and booked a room at a hotel near downtown Reykjavik, choosing it because the room looked pretty nice and one of the reviewers on TripAdvisor said that the guy at the desk gave him good ideas of things to do in the area.

We got in a little after eleven p.m., having failed to talk SAS into letting us ride in empty seats on an earlier flight. Since we didn't even know for sure when we'd get in, I felt especially justified in having no advance plans. The guy at the desk would bail us out anyway. And the passenger next to us in the plane told us about the buses from the airport to downtown so we bought tickets and got onto the bus leaving on about half an hour. The bus had Wi-Fi, so I started researching our options as we rode.

Based on my research, the only way to see the stuff I wanted to see in the time available would be in a rental car, and I suspected that said rental car would not have cost much more than we had just paid for our two round-trip bus tickets. I had failed, but we were on the bus and I was too exhausted to think about alternatives. Anyway, I could look forward to getting advice at the hotel. Well, that didn't work out either. The desk clerk that night had very little to suggest, though he gestured vaguely at a lousy map and talked about taking a walk. He also confessed that breakfast at out hotel would be pretty meager and that we could eat better at another hotel around the corner. We went straight to bed.

After the recommended breakfast, I asked the clerk at the hotel around the corner what she thought we should do today. She wanted us to walk around too, but she gave us a better map, marked out a route, and told us about what she thought we should see and do. We had an outstanding time.

It wasn't raining when we set out. Apparently that's pretty special, to have dry weather in Iceland. We took an umbrella anyway, and launched ourselves to the shore, down a major commercial street, and over to the opera house. Along the way we marveled at the fact that we got into the country so easily last night, with no attention from any customs officer and no evidence that there had ever been such a thing as passport control or visas. We think they're happy to have anybody who thinks he can afford to buy food in the country.

We loved the opera house, and spent a long time there. It was raining by the time we went back outdoors, but we continued our tour, with an extended indoor break at city hall. Almost everything we wanted to do was free. The sandwiches we bought for lunch were not so close to free, but they were so delicious that we went back to buy more to eat on our way to Denver. Everything worked out great and we had an excellent time. Now we want to come back, probably rent a car, play in the hot springs and see the landscape. I'm glad we took the stopover.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Plenty of time

Leaving Belarus this time, we wanted to fly directly to Denver for a family reunion. Most of the itineraries I found online were overwhelmingly expensive, but I found a fabulously inconvenient alternative. In the name of economy, I convinced Alla that we could break up a long trip by spending a day in Reykjavik and we'd be happy about our convoluted itinerary, which even involved taking a train from Minsk to Vilnius.

Things started to fall apart immediately, as the cheap seats on the early flight to Reykjavik sold out while we discussed our plans. Momentum carried us to buy the late flight anyway, promising ourselves to stand by for the early one. Then the situation deteriorated further when Lithuanian customs changed their procedures in Vilnius and we weren't sure we could get out of the train station in time to catch our first flight.

We decided the bus might not be so bad after all, and left home at 5:15 this morning to get onto the first one of the day. Ouch, those bus seats were cramped. But we did get to the airport on time and flew comfortably to Copenhagen. Then we tried hard to stand by for empty seats on the early flight to Reykjavik, but the airline wouldn't let us play games with our super-cheap tickets. They'd rather fly with empty seats than encourage opportunists like us.

So... I hoped to be in Iceland by now but we are entertaining ourselves during an extended stopover at the Copenhagen airport. I wonder what our next-best itinerary would have looked like. It might have been better.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Big-hat architecture

Let’s start with the hats. It’s a cultural thing. American cops like to look like aviators whose hats got warped after hundreds of hours under big headphones. Their hats peak at the front but the rest of the crown droops to the sides. On the other hand, there’s no way to imagine that a Belarusian cop ever wore headphones over his hat. These guys wear enormous hats which swoop to a high peak and flare out at the sides, making the officer look very tall and sometimes a little bit scary. At least it scared me until I got used to the look. Here are a couple of examples I found online, one from the head cop in Massachusetts and the other from the top guy in Belarus. I think the second guy looks much more formidable.

As I said, I have always imagined that these Belarusian hats are intended to instill fear, or at least respect. We can’t help but notice them. But lately I’ve started noticing them in new places. I first thought about it last winter, as I walked toward the little arena where I lift weights. The whole building looks like a giant officer’s hat. Thinking further, I realized that I’m surrounded by big-hat architecture. Is this intended to warn us about something?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Meeting our neighbors

Sometime last winter we saw a notice by our door inviting us to a neighborhood meeting about a proposed parking garage to be built behind our house, cutting into our yard. We thought we ought to attend, but we already had travel plans and we forgot about it until this week. On Tuesday people started walking around in our yard with architectural drawings, directing other people to put up a temporary fence showing our new boundary line. Suddenly everybody in our building became alarmed at once.

The one guy who had attended the first meeting drafted a petition for us all to sign. While it wasn’t exactly what we would have said if we had more time to think it over, it made the point that the project appeared to be proceeding without normal governmental approvals or authority and it discussed the ecological ramifications of cutting down a big stand of healthy trees in the center of the city. Many of us got together in the yard that evening to sign it.

At the big gathering, I suddenly learned names to go with the faces we passed month-by-month going and coming. The guy who never smiled at me cracked a smile. People from other staircases introduced themselves. And everybody who knew something about ecology, bureaucratic processes, law and publicity shared what they knew. I also learned that a former Prime Minister of Belarus lives in our building. He didn’t come to the meeting, and somebody suggested that somebody else should go and knock on his door. Alla volunteered, running home first to get a copy of a book he’d written. The Prime Minister read the document carefully, and asked for some changes before he would sign it. Unfortunately, this came late in the process so everybody else signed a different version.

Some neighbors began to inform the media about the story, and by the next day photographers and TV crews came to see us. Alla met another famous neighbor, a wrestler who won gold medals in three successive Olympics and numerous world championships, and she talked to a reporter who turned out to represent a Polish station. Next thing we knew, she featured prominently in a news story cast as a battle between two elite factions, the residents of our building and the Committee on Investigations. (The Committee on Investigations took over a museum-building project and converted it into a palatial office for themselves next door. The parking lot is for them, and they’ve managed so far to skirt the city’s generally-strict environmental regulations because they consider themselves exempt.)

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the trees. To us it’s a large quality-of-life issue because the trees at stake are enormous and they’re a bit of an oasis in a city growing more and more dense every year. In addition, we see it as an opportunity to support the rule of law and the city’s well-intended environmental regulations. Unfortunately, however, we arrived at this point late in a powerful process. It’s going to be interesting.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Longer rides

I had opportunities to go on two organized bike rides this weekend. My friend Sergey organized the first one, a trip from one part of the old Chapski estate to another about 30 km away. The remote part is called Stan'kau, and the last time we were there the ancient church looked about ready to dissolve into the earth. Now it’s under restoration, and Sergey arranged a tour of the church as a key feature of our arrival at Stan'kau. Sergey and Irina are great hosts, so they started us off with hot drinks, a huge stack of hot homemade blini, and fresh berries to eat with the blini.

We worked off our blini and berries long before we reached Stan'kau, but everybody performed well and even the little kids riding sitting in kiddie seats on their dads’ bikes arrived in good spirits. Still, the overly-detailed church tour before lunch taxed my own patience and I made a quiet escape after an hour so I could lie in the sun on the grass in front of the church.

The littlest kids didn’t ride their dads’ bikes the entire way back, but Matvey managed to ride 100% of the distance, setting a new personal endurance record. We got back late and the group was small enough that our kind host and hostess served us all dinner in their yard. (Photo at right.) We had a full day of pleasure.

Today I set out for another ride after church, with a local English Club. Their goals included socializing and speaking English, so we didn’t ride so consistently. After a very pleasant hour with these people, when they showed me some interesting back roads and the far side of a lake I’d forgotten about, I split off so I could do some more serious training. I rode out a long bike road to a local ski resort and then came back on quiet trails near some of Minsk’s many waterways. The beautiful flowers at the end of the ride made up for the traffic noise along most of the path to the ski area. In any event, I enjoyed the day and the fact that I’m increasing my daily mileages. And I saw an amazing open-air market on my way to today’s bike trail. I should have taken pictures: it had a wonderfully home-grown feel about it that reminded me of Mayan markets in Mexico’s Yucutan Peninsula.
Last views coming home

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cheap fun

It’s amazing how much fun I can have in Minsk for not much money. My readers already know about it, but I’m enjoying things so much I wanted to summarize a few of my recent pleasures.

At the top of my value-for-the-money scale still stands the main market. Considering that I need to buy groceries anyway, my pleasure comes at no additional cost. On Tuesday I started at the indoor market because I wanted an éclair and my favorite bakery sells out early. Coming from the hairdresser, I arrived too late. I tried somebody else’s product but the éclair I bought was too sweet, too hard and made my hands sticky. I decided I needed a drink of kefir to counteract the sweet crud I had just ingested, and I went looking around in the dairy section.

All of the dairy people with kefir sold the stuff in plastic bags or in huge bottles, neither of which I wanted to drink while walking around. I kept looking, and finally found on the periphery, at stall number 30, one vendor selling kefir in little plastic bottles. I bought one. The vendor, hearing my American accent, spoke to me in English. I asked her, in English, if she speaks my language well. “No!” she laughed, but she persisted in trying. She struggled, but clearly enjoyed the struggle. And I enjoyed the kefir. “Wow!” I said in Russian, “this is really good. Please sell me two more bottles.” Delighted, she gave me a discount and urged me to return.

When I went outside, I decided I’d better go see the lady from Dogestan because I hadn’t visited her in two or three weeks. I found her stand, loaded with salad and vegetables, but couldn’t find the lady. Her neighbor told me that she’d stepped away and wouldn’t be right back, so I returned to Arminya. Arminya brightened as I approached, excited to see me in a Belarus hockey jersey. (Our weather’s been like that: I needed a second layer.) She imagined I might be sufficiently important, somehow, that somebody gave me the jersey, but it pleased her just as much to know that I liked her country’s emblem enough to pay money for the privilege of wearing it. As usual, she discounted nearly everything and sprinkled the whole transaction with unrestrained smiles.

The other cheap fun I’m thinking about right now is dance classes and dancing. There are a few special activists among the Lindy Hoppers who put together events and activities for everybody. I should have written a separate post about the picnic Nadya Klementenok organized for our dance class and the group right behind us. It included barbecue, getting-to-know-you games and a dance lesson. I had a great time. Now she’s talked a friend of hers from Norway into coming to teach us how to dance to rock-n-roll music. This fulfills a shared dream quite a few students chatted about on our group’s Facebook page, but Nadya didn’t even stop there. She, presumably with help from other activists, just announced her intention to hire a live band to play for a party after we’ve all learned the basics of the style. We’ll all pitch in for the cost of the band, of course, but it’ll be reasonable.

Everywhere I turn I see people and opportunities like this. Belarusian people welcome strangers and know how to make their own entertainment. It makes a very sweet situation for me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Boss for a day

We are in Prague with Nika, her boyfriend Tim, and Nika's dad. We realized right away that we couldn't make quick decisions by consensus so we agreed to appoint leaders one day at a time. Yesterday I got to be boss, and I included in our itinerary a walk in Stromovka Park. Apparently the locals like this place, but tourists don't get there so much. That appealed to Viktor, who had already gotten his fill of streets crowded with tourists.

We had a little trouble finding the place, probably because I hadn't been sufficiently careful in the planning stage. One we got there, we walked over to the exhibition grounds, where our tour started. 350 Crowns to get in. That seemed to high for what we could see, so we decided to skip ahead to the green area. It turns out, however, that all other doors to the exhibition area were open and free, so either the fee applied only to gullible tourists or paid for something more than we wanted anyway.

Inside, I found the Lapidarium, a museum full of (mostly stone) sculptures removed from old buildings. Wow, I loved it. I don't know what happened to all those old buildings, but the decorations live on delightfully.

We liked the rest of the park too, and the walk that finally took us to the zoo. We didn't expect to reach the zoo and hasn't allowed time for it, but didn't really need it for a delightful and entertaining day.

Today we stayed more in the center of things and saw more regular tourist attractions. We liked that too. It would be hard not to like Prague.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting to Prague

We flew to Prague yesterday to meet Alla's daughter Nika, her boyfriend and her father. We chose Prague because it's roughly in the middle of where we all live, and we like it here.

Previously, Alla and I got to Prague by train. We like the trip, but it takes over a day. This time we discovered flying Czech Air. It cost about 2/3 what the train would have cost, takes a lot less time, and it's really nice. We flew in a very new and beautiful airplane with LOTS of legroom, a friendly crew and delicious hot food. It makes me want to come back to Prague again soon.

We had a little trouble, however, getting to our hotel. Alla and I are staying at our favorite hotel. Nika, Tim and Viktor have an apartment about three blocks away. When I booked the apartment, I asked the owners to send a car to pick us up at the airport. Then I got an offer from the hotel people to take us both ways for just a little more money, so I canceled the first car. The apartment guy wrote back "no worries," but didn't explain what I shouldn't worry about. This made me worry a little, but I forgot about it by the time we arrived.

Nika and Tim found Alla and me in the airport arrival hall where the driver promised to meet us. Soon, a fellow showed up and unfolded a sign that said "Steve Vincent." We followed him out to his car, discovering that he speaks Russian better than he speaks English. In fact, I think that's his native language. We enjoyed the ride, chatting amicably and occasionally telling Tim what we were talking about.

I realized that the route our driver chose would take us right by the apartment and I asked him if he would mind stopping to let Nika and Tim out. It was only then, slowly, that we realized that he worked for the apartment rental agency and that they had not canceled our car request after all. I called our hotel and asked them retrieve their driver from the airport. Alla joked with the apartment-rental driver that she felt like a character in the Russian classic movie "Diamond hand." (The bad guys trick the fellow with the diamonds into getting into a taxi but the taxi takes him where he doesn't want to go.) Our driver got the joke right away and said that we wouldn't have to pay for the ride. He understood that we'd be obligated to pay the guy who went to the airport and found nobody.

So far, so good. Then it only took us about 15 minutes to get from the apartment to our hotel, because our friendly happy-go-lucky Russian driver misunderstood the name of our street. I kept trying to tell him to go back, turn here, and so-on, but he didn't believe me until we got to the street he thought we wanted. Finally we burst into our hotel with laughter and relief. The whole office staff came out to celebrate our arrival. It's good to be back.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Retail therapy

I’ve read that people sometimes go shopping to lift their moods. I don’t remember that I’ve ever tried it because I don’t really like shopping anyway. Except that I really like to go to Komarovski Market, a big produce and grocery market whose name translates to something like “Mosquito-infested.” (This historical name relates to swampland drained in the 1920’s.) I love this place because I can buy just about anything at better prices than anywhere else in the city. Hundreds of vendors rent stalls, and many of them compete with each other. As at Boston’s Haymarket, quality varies a lot. I’ve solved the quality problem by picking out two or three favorite vendors, to whom I always return. Knowing that they’ll see me again, they take good care of me and won’t sell me bad stuff.

For different reasons, I’ve given little gifts to two of them. Last winter Arminya saw me eating a croissant and teased me about it, telling me it looked pretty good to her. Actually, it was good; so I went back to the French baker and bought another one, which I brought to her. She responded by giving me a free pepper the next time I came back and big smiles every time.

During the spring transition period, after she gave up her indoor stall but before she took possession of her outdoor stall, I introduced myself to another vendor. She saw me looking for Arminya and suggested that I should buy from her instead. I told her I’d do that, but that I wanted her to take good care of me from the beginning and she could count on my loyalty. She does take good care of me, and keeps giving me discounts on the stuff I buy. Once, after a little misunderstanding, I brought her a very small house plant. Oops. The discounts suddenly got bigger and I think she gave back the value of the house plant in my very next visit.

Anyway, today I saw Arminya at the market and she gave me a free pepper for no reason at all, or perhaps because I remembered her name. I also bought some beautiful strawberries from another friendly vendor and had a good time buying apricots at yet a fourth stall. I asked the apricot lady if I could touch her fruit and she gave me a big smile and told me that I (and only I) could choose my own apricots. Is it any wonder, then, that a shopping expedition really did lift my mood?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Trapped

Sometimes I worry about getting trapped here. Not detained, just plain trapped. For example, at Philharmony, the Opera House and the Circus, they only ever unlock one of many front doors. This limits inflow for the convenience of the ticket takers, but it also means a pretty slow exit. I like to pretend that there’s a crack team of highly-trained ushers ready to unlock the rest of the doors at the first indication of trouble, but I don’t really believe it.

I have been trapped for real two times. The first time, I got trapped in the bedroom with Alla. You might imagine that it’s pleasant to be trapped in the bedroom with one’s wife, but I didn’t really like it at the moment. I just wanted to go to church, and somehow a puff of wind blew the bedroom door shut and the worn-out door handle wouldn’t turn far enough to disengage the latch from the strike plate. We had no tools in the bedroom, no telephone, nor even a spare key to throw down to a passer-by. Fortunately I had a little Swiss Army knife and I managed to dismantle the handle with the nail-file blade, thus allowing me to turn the door handle past its intended stop point. The latch got permanently stuck inside the door, which suits me just fine. To be really sure we’d never get trapped again, I also filled the strike plate with paper and covered the hole with tape.

This evening I had my second entrapment. I came home from dancing at around 10:45. We’re far enough north that the night sky hadn’t gone dark yet and I decided to walk home across Gorky Park. Before entering the park I thought about whether I felt safe alone there at that hour, and decided it seemed fine. I saw two or three couples strolling the other way and the walk seemed entirely normal until I reached the gate near our apartment. The gate was locked, for the first time in my experience.

Not too happy, I walked along the fence to the next gate, which I’ve seen closed before. Sure enough, it was closed again. This gate has a flat top and it’s only about as tall as I am, so I thought about scaling it. But remembering the strong police presence on that street and the multiple video cameras, I decided against it and walked down to the main gate. Now I became concerned because the main gate was also locked. Another guy in the park pointed out that we could get out by going through the tunnel under the avenue on the edge of the park, but that would be so far from home that it feels like (and may actually be) the next district. I decided to go over the low stone wall on the edge of the park facing the avenue, which I could do without getting my pants dirty.

On my way home I saw another couple at the gate I’d considered scaling. I warned them that they wouldn’t be able to get out the main gate either, so the woman proceeded to climb over the gate. She did it pretty easily, taking advantage of decorative ironwork forming good footholds. Her husband had been drinking enough that he had a little more trouble with it, but he succeeded too.

I saw other people as I continued home, and warned all of them through the fence. Apparently this evening’s lockdown came as a surprise to a lot of people. I’m wondering what happened to the crack team of ushers, or at least why some cop didn’t come to complain about all the people climbing over fences.

I guess I’ll take the subway home next time.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Still figuring things out

Since I've spent a lot of time here and my Russian is OK, I've started trying things I would not have taken on at first. Sometimes that brings new surprises.

Today, for example, I was offered a free ticket to a jazz festival next weekend in Grodno. Alla and I like jazz, we like Grodno, and we've been planning to get around more in Belarus this year anyway. Alla is out of town, but I figured it was a no-brainer and accepted the ticket. We can buy her a ticket at the door, but I knew I'd better reserve train tickets right away. I've seen Alla do this both online and on the phone, so I decided I could do it too and I plunged right in.

First I went online. Third-party sites referred to the train I wanted, but try as I might, the Belarus Rail site claimed that they had no such route. I know that's wrong, so I called the phone number at the bottom of the web page. The nice lady on the phone said that the train was almost sold out, but I could still get second-class tickets on upper berths. Alla hates upper berths, but I figured I'd still go for it. Unfortunately, however, the information lady doesn't make reservations at all. I had to call a different number.

Right. The special line was perpetually busy, though I hit redial as frequently as I wanted for a long time. I tried other numbers, but when I got a human being they insisted that I must dial that number and only that number.

I gave up after a while and went down to the train station. Actually, I went down to the shiny new ticket office across the street from the train station, hoping the lines might be shorter. Unfortunately, every window said "international" in Belarusian above it. It's almost the same in Russian so I understood that I had a problem. After confirming with the administrator, I went across the street to the very-crowded train station. Don't buy tickets on a Friday afternoon if you can avoid it.

I picked a line that may have been marginally shorter than some of the others and stood there. The agent was scheduled to come back from break in four minutes and I figured that was pretty good. I did not notice, however, that my window had some extra text on it, in Belarusian. In this case I could not guess what it said, but empirical evidence suggests that it said, "Anybody with any kind of special issues gets to go directly to the front of this line." There were lots of them.

Anyway, I got my tickets and it only took a few hours and a little less than eight dollars. I even got Alla a lower berth in the side section.

Flush with my success, I went to the big department store TSUM to get a spare patch kit for my bike tires. I really only wanted glue, but figured I'd buy what I could get. That turned out to be a patch kit for an auto repair shop with a huge tube of glue and a giant pile of big patches. I almost refused this before realizing that it cost about a buck and a quarter. That's less than I expected to pay for a little tube of glue. I don't know what to do with the patches. I hope they're biodegradable.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Annual water essay

Perhaps you know the song about how you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry. Every year here in Belarus our well runs dry at least once. This time it happened the day after we arrived. We sure didn’t expect it. We carefully read all the notices on our door as we came home, noticing when we should help with community projects and so-on, but seeing nothing about any upcoming maintenance projects. “Looking good,” we thought. Maybe we missed the cold-water-only weeks while we were away.

I didn’t take a shower right away after my bike ride the next morning, and when I finally turned it on I only got a trickle. We’ve handled this situation often enough that we knew exactly what to do. Alla started draining the water from the pipes above us into saucepans in the kitchen while I did the same thing in the bathroom with an empty six-liter bottle we keep on hand for such emergencies. After filling my bottle I filled a wash tub and started bathing with the cold water still dribbling from the tap. Once we had our water and Alla helped to rinse me off, she called City Services to find out when we could expect our water back. Five o’clock.

Feeling smug with all our extra water, we lived fairly normally all day, though we didn’t wash any dishes or flush the toilet but once. Still, when we started preparing dinner without water we began to worry. Alla called the City Services people back and asked what happened to their five o’clock plan. They said it wasn’t their fault. Somebody from another department got to the site late but we’d have water in a couple more hours. We did not. I figured I could shower at the sports facility in the park if we still didn’t have water in the morning, but it finally came back just as we went to bed.

I tend to take running water for granted, and I don’t really know how many people are involved on a daily basis in making it happen. I just wish the folks around here could make it happen closer to 100% of the time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Swiss wrap-up

After another day in the mountains, we went back to Charlene and Walti's house in Chur. Technically, we never really left the mountains. Chur is a biggish city farther from the snow but I certainly could not describe it as flat or anywhere near sea level. This year, as we discovered, that city played host to a battle of the Swiss marching bands. We thought we saw some sort of a parade and stopped our trip across town in order to watch the end of it. Groups from all around Switzerland competed by turns, and they marched along a city block closed for the afternoon from traffic. Since a judge followed each band and then returned to follow the next, we had to do a lot of waiting between shows but the bands we saw all did a good job.

Walti had been busy at least all day preparing the house and cooking a spectacular and delicious send-off dinner. We really enjoyed dining in their yard and reviewing the week. Yesterday morning we extended the review as Charlene and I exchanged photos. She didn't take as many photos as we did, but her compositions impressed me and I'm very glad to have them.

Yesterday we returned for another day in Basel, where we received a warm welcome back at the Hotel Basel. They had already gotten out the big bag of stuff we'd left behind to bring to Minsk and put a tea kettle into or room. Amusingly, they call the tea kettle a "water cooker," and since Alla had asked for one last time they assumed correctly that we'd want one this time too, along with big cups and a selection of teas. We really like that hotel.

Apparently it rained all day in Chur, but we enjoyed beautiful sunny weather in Basel. We took a tram to the Foundation Beyeler, where we saw some contemporary art in a beautiful building. We weren't convinced about the value received given their unusually high admission fee, but I guess it demonstrates the value the Swiss place on art.

I wrote this post on the plane while returning to Minsk. We won’t see any more mountains for a while.

Friday, June 7, 2013

In the mountains

The weather suddenly turned warm and we're taking advantage of it. After our adventures in the Heidi Village, we headed off with Charlene to the Engadine Valley. I've wanted to come here for many years, and feared that I'd be thwarted once again by bad weather. In fact, the bad weather just made the mountains extra pretty, capped in fresh snow. We came to a place called Diavolezza, at the top of a cable car ride up a steep mountain. Last time we rode a cable car, we looked with our binoculars at the chamois below us. This time, we saw ski tracks instead, the result of a few intrepid skiers.

At the top, we didn't have to put on all the clothes we brought because the sun shined brightly and kept us warm. After admiring the great views in all directions, we sat down at an outdoor patio to eat a delicious lunch. And after lunch I figured out why I had a greasy spot on my pants: I'd absentmindedly put a couple of little chocolate bars into my pocket and the melted chocolate had coated my leg and the inside of my pants. I'm sure it was delicious, but I didn't get to try it.

We did see our chamois, but not so far away as last year. Today, for example, we surprised a couple of them as we walked near a nice clear mountain stream as we hiked above S-charl. I heard an animal in the bushes and turned to see a chamois about two meters away. I remarked to Alla and Charlene, "Well, look who's here!" The chamois didn't want to stay around for introductions, and bolted across the trail into the woods along with its partner.

We're staying in Guarda, at a wonderful inn called Hotel Meisser. Somehow Charlene found a deal on the Internet at about half the usual rate, and we jumped on it. Alla and I have a wonderful room with a balcony and a view. After checking in yesterday, we hiked to the next village, which involved lots of smelling the flowers and photographing the changing views. Spring has arrived in force around here, and wildflowers fill most of the meadows. Today we saw more big meadows, leading to steep snow-capped mountains.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tourists

Switzerland got snow in the mountains last week so we couldn’t start with our planned itinerary. A couple of days ago, then, Charlene took us to Stein am Rhein because it’s cute and not so high. While we were wandering around the town she found a fish restaurant with one big pike still unreserved. She booked it. Wow, we concluded our day with a delicious dinner. Too bad we didn’t think to take a picture of our fish before we ate it. It looked just as delicious as it tasted, but we didn’t look at it for very long before the waiter dismantled it and laid the meat onto our plates with butter-herb sauce.

The next day we took a boat to Schaffhausen, intending to ride back on rental bikes. When Alla got onto her bike, however, she decided she didn’t remember how to ride a bike. She’s used to riding on the back of our tandem, where she sits with both feet on the pedals until I push off and we get underway. Somehow she couldn’t work up the courage to push off before putting her feet onto the pedals, so she returned her bike to go home on the boat. Charlene and I, meanwhile, rode down to see the Rhein Falls, which took a little longer than we expected.

We worried about whether we’d have enough time to ride back to Stein am Rhein before returning our bikes at 6 p.m., so we pushed ourselves a little bit on the way back to Schaffhausen, where we stopped to check the boat schedule. The last boat was about to leave, and we found Alla on it. We said hello and goodbye to her and rolled ahead onto the bike path meandering near the riverbank. Still worried about our late start, we rode hard until we recognized we didn’t have much farther to go before we’d reach Stein am Rhein. We stopped on the riverbank and ate apples and avocado, looking at our destination not too far ahead. We still had over an hour and a half, so we soaked our feet in the cold water and enjoyed the view of an old church across the river from us.

Finally, by 5:00, we decided to ride down to the bridge and get a close look at the scene we’d been enjoying across the water. As I set up my camera on a self-timer to take a picture of ourselves, Alla’s boat came up the river toward us. We waved at each other, returned our bikes, and swapped stories of the day.

Today we stayed closer to Chur because the weather is suddenly warm and sunny. We visited the village from the children’s story Heidi at the suggestion of Charlene’s daughter Nina. We came there with Nina and her infant son, who fussed very little and entertained us all while we waited for lunch. I’m glad he took the wait so well, because we didn’t receive our meal until over an hour after we placed our order. At least we enjoyed a fine view while we waited and the food was great. I ordered asparagus again since it’s in season here and delicious. I also know that I’ve never seen such good asparagus in Belarus and that it’s hard to find any asparagus at all.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Old friends

I've known Charlene pretty much all my life, but we didn't know each other well until high school, when we became classmates under an especially-gifted Sunday School teacher. We talked about EVERYthing, and became good friends. Unfortunately for me, though quite fortunately for her, she fell in love with a Swiss guy and emigrated to Switzerland right after college. I haven't seen Charlene and Walti nearly much as I'd like since then, and so it's been a special pleasure to vacation in Switzerland last year and this.

Last year we all had the same week free and we spent it together in a mountain town called Murren. I really enjoyed reconnecting with my old friend, especially because at the same time I rediscovered how much I like her husband Walti. She could have justified emigrating to Walti's country regardless of where he lived, but still we're all glad he was born in such a beautiful and progressive place.

This year Walti's at work while we're in Switzerland, so they invited us to be their guests in Chur. We got a special bonus because their daughter Nina, along with her husband and their infant son, are living with them while transitioning from one home to the next. I remember Nina best as a little girl, though I've watched her grow up through pictures in the family's Christmas cards. Nina also married brilliantly, and their son is the outcome and expression of radiant love. I feel blessed that we're this family's guests.

Chur is great too. I'll try to write something about it later. But friends are the greatest

Friday, May 31, 2013

Welcome to Basel

We didn’t sleep as much as we should have slept on the plane last night, but we managed to stay on our feet all day long. We took a self-guided walking tour leading us on both sides of the Rhine River. I wish I’d thought to take a picture of the ferry we rode. It’s powered by water flow. The boatman points it towards the other sore and the river’s current pushes it across, dragging along a strong cable stretched across the river.

We thought we’d be inside of museums today because of bad weather, but the rain was very light all day and we really felt like walking. We’re pretty excited to be back in Switzerland.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Back from San Francisco

Last time I posted, I wrote of my frustrations during a day-long trip from Boston to San Francisco. The trip should have taken just a few hours, but several different problems stretched the trip. Here’s the good news: I arrived in San Francisco exactly in time to get to the ballet as it opened, and I arrived in a peaceful state of mind. I’m very pleased about the peaceful state of mind. I’ve traveled enough to know that life goes on, often quite well, in spite of setbacks along the way. I still aspire to export that more of calm to the non-traveling parts of my life, but these laboratory experiences help me to do that.

We only spared ourselves a few days in San Francisco, but enjoyed ourselves richly. If you get a chance to see the new San Francisco Ballet production of Cinderella, you should do it. We loved it. We also enjoyed numerous walks with relatives in various parks, especially the Presidio, and we luxuriated in a couple of fine museum visits. We see the Museum of Asian art often because Nika works there, but this time we saw some of the 2000-year-old Terracotta Warriors from China, which we considered extra-special. Maybe even extra-extra special. I had to see their faces in order to appreciate their artistry and individuality. We had a great time with Dutch Masters at the De Young Museum too.

We wanted to see relatives from several different households, and during this trip everybody’s schedules meshed almost perfectly. We got to spend time with almost everyone, and really enjoyed renewing our connections with so many wonderful people. Nika even proposed that we should move to the area. I welcomed the idea, but Alla is not yet ready even to consider it. She thinks it’s too far from Belarus, where we also enjoy spending time. And of course we value our connections in Boston.

We haven’t come so close to seeing “everybody” in Boston, because our “everybody” here is so big. But we’ve had great times with quite a few good friends and we’re happy about that. Unfortunately, being “home” means that we have to devote lots of time to things we can’t avoid, including bookkeeping and administrative matters as well as those pesky home-maintenance projects. We hoped to sit down for a meal with all of our neighbors, but people are so busy that we’ve had to settle for piecemeal visits. But we’re happy to see everybody well and doing well. That’s always pleasant.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lessons learned while traveling

I am presently stuck in Philadelphia. I would prefer to be on my way to San Francisco. Failing thus far, I will try to learn from the many things that went wrong.

My first mistake was that I don't like to get to the airport early before my flights. Usually I get away with it, but today would have been different if I'd started earlier. US Airways has lots of flights from Boston to Philadelphia, and I'm confident that the one 30 minutes before mine left with empty seats. I wish I could have asked to board that one, but they closed the gate as I got there. Leave home a little earlier.

I never did like US Airways and still don't. I took this free trip to use up my frequent flyer miles, but I'll try not to fly with them again. When they learned that our takeoff would be delayed due to weather, they quickly locked the door on the plane and moved away from the gate so we couldn't get off. Don't fly US Airways.

We arrived in Philly five minutes before my onward flight to SFO. I ran to the gate, but got there two minutes late. They sent me to an overcrowded customer service desk. I should have opened the Kayak app on my phone and asked for a list of options getting to my destination. Instead, I talked to a not-so-helpful agent on the phone while waiting to reach a more-helpful agent at the counter.

The agent at the counter found me a way to San Francisco that gets me there almost in time for the ballet, but if I had known to ask, I would have pressed her to send me sooner via Las Vegas. She didn't offer that, I think, because it would have put me onto a partner airline and may have cost them some sort of a fee. But I didn't even ask. It was only after this that I discovered the Kayak app.

By the time I went to ask, the agent on the Las Vegas flight wanted to close the doors and she wouldn't let me in without properly-printed tickets. Once again, I needed that app on my phone. Next time and ever after, it's going to be there.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Istanbul Police

We met the tourist cops today, and enjoyed their Turkish hospitality. We didn’t really want to meet them, and I’m sure they didn’t really want to meet us, but they made the experience amazingly pleasant.

It all started with my phone. I put it into a cargo pocket in my pants, imagining that it would be safe there under its Velcro flap. I noticed the phone in my pocket when I got my wallet from a lower part of the same cargo pocket as we bought our entry tickets to a big underground cistern. From then on, I lost myself in the sights and sounds of a huge chamber made long, long ago from recycled columns and stones. In ancient times, people collected water in such cisterns for use of city residents. This one held plenty of water then, but now it’s nearly empty and tourists wait in long lines to get inside.

Crowds down there bumped and jostled each other as we toured on catwalks above the water. And when we stopped to take photos, other would-be photographers pressed in from behind waiting to get their turns at the railing.

I next touched my pocket as we waited in another line, at the Galata Tower. I had no phone. While I may have lost it on the tramway, we guessed that the cistern might have presented the best opportunity since I got pretty distracted when I queued up to take photos. I went back to the hotel and started changing passwords and doing some damage control while the hotel receptionist tried to call my phone. No luck on calling my phone: The SIM card had already been removed, probably as a precaution against the phone-finder software I had installed.

Once I finished my damage control, Alla suggested that we tell the tourist police about the incident just so they’ll have another data point when they think about the security of various sites. I expected them to fill out some sort of a form and send me away with a vague promise to call me if by some incredible miracle they recover my phone. In fact, they spent a lot of time with us, took us back into the cistern to see where I stopped to take pictures, and practically promised to find the phone. I don’t know how they’ll do that, but I enjoyed their sunny optimism, which peaked when a local family brought somebody else's Samsung phone into the police station. The police got pretty excited that the case had solved itself, but it wasn't my phone.

When we went back into the cavern to talk about where we'd stopped, I met several of the undercover cops working the area. Not wanting to give away any secrets, I won’t say where they hung out. Let me just say that I saw at least one of them earlier and imagined him to be just another hustler ingratiating himself to tourists for personal gain. A second looked like a tourist with an audioguide. Security is tighter than I imagined, and I actually enjoyed my interaction with the cops.