Friday, January 25, 2013

REALLY in Minsk now

Our first week in town we started catching up with friends and took care of necessary but uninteresting details inside our apartment. As I wrote in my prior post, I still felt a little bit strange here, noticing things that will become commonplace after another week or two. Then, finally, I went out dancing.

I wasn’t really sure about the dancing part, because I haven’t danced swing or Lindy in a long time and I know that folks here use fancier footwork than I learned back in the States. But there was to be live music, and by golly I wanted to hear it in any event. Alla, unfortunately, ran out of steam that day about the time we should leave home; so I went on my own.

I sort of knew a bunch of the dancers because I took about a month’s worth of swing classes here a couple of years ago and a lot of the people from my class are still dancing. They’re really good at it, too. I’m not, but that didn’t matter a whole lot. I got a big lift just from walking into a room with a bunch of known, friendly faces. Some of my salsa friends were there too, and I took a few of them out onto the dance floor. I was too shy to invite any real Lindy hoppers, but the salsa dancers picked up my basic steps quickly enough that we had a good time.

Connections are key. Going out dancing revived a bunch of wonderful old connections, and now I feel properly re-established in Minsk. [Getting registered once again and extending our lease are other crucial parts of getting re-established, and we have hacked our way through most of the bureaucratic thicket. It’s hard every time, but I no longer consider it newsworthy.]

Here is the YouTube video that led me to get invited to the dance party.

And here are some pictures from the party itself.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Here I am in Minsk

Things are different here in Minsk. We arrived about a week ago, and the first thing I did was go out the next morning for a haircut. I walked because it’s not all that far and I was really glad to be on my feet. I enjoyed looking at the people coming and going around me, struck by how they suddenly looked so foreign to me. I don’t remember noticing this before, but most likely I just forgot noticing. I get used to my surroundings and then I’m surprised to see how different things are in the other place. Sometimes when I return to the USA I’m excited to see the variety of faces we enjoy in Boston. Here in Minsk I was surprised to notice how generally everybody appears to belong to one big family.

On my way back from the hair salon I asked a woman’s permission to pet her dog. She told me that I speak with an accent and she wanted to know where I was from. As we chatted a little further, she told me that she’d noticed me right away because my face is different. So there you have it: As I was noticing the familiar similarities of faces here, she was noticing that mine stands out.

We had dinner with our friends Elena and Sasha and I told a story from childhood involving a two-dollar bill. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen one, so Elena opened up her wallet and produced one. She has it with her wherever she goes. I imagine a huge percentage of Americans has never even seen one, but Elena's friends in Belarus can see one just by asking.

Today I walked to the big marketplace to buy some fruits, nuts and vegetables. It’s really cold out, so hardly anybody bothered opening stalls in the outdoor area, but I did get help from a hardy dried-fruit and nut vendor. The lady who keeps the salads in the heated box didn’t show up at the market today, but her box stood at her station so I imagine I’ll see here next time. Indoors, people working near the doors kept their hats on. I found the croissant people and the olive oil lady, who was glad to see me, and I looked all over for somebody selling fruits and vegetables. I did not find many at all. The meat, poultry and dairy people are still in business, but the produce people have mostly disappeared. I’d say there are half as many of them this winter as last, so I didn’t do much comparison shopping. That’s OK. The most beautiful of all vendors, the one favored by every male produce-buyer in Minsk, had relocated indoors along with her big smile. Naturally I bought vast amounts of lettuce, herbs, mandarins and tomatoes.

On the way home I found a fence where the snow is slumping out of masonry latticework. It has formed into rows of little cornices, like hands reaching out of the fence. Cool!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Amsterdam Airport

Traveling to Minsk, we had to spend a few hours at the airport in Amsterdam between planes. What a great place! We could have spent a whole day there, as I think it’s the most peaceful and interesting airport I’ve ever visited.

We started at a juice bar, where we ordered a couple of fresh-fruit smoothies. Fresh. We can buy smoothies at Logan Airport in Boston, but I’m pretty sure they’re made from frozen fruit. Our fresh fruit smoothies tasted delicious and improved greatly on the uninspired breakfast we’d eaten on the plane. Fueled up, we went shopping. Our friend Irina would be picking us up in Minsk, and we wanted to bring her a block of Vermeer cheese. We discovered this cheese in Amsterdam on our way to Boston a few months ago, and it’s pretty amazing. I bought a couple of chunks at a gourmet store while Alla played with perfume samples elsewhere.

Satisfied by the comfort of having fruit in my belly and cheese in my suitcase, I wanted to follow the signs to the Meditation Center, and Alla came along. It turns out that this is a quiet oasis on the second floor, behind a series of hotels and conference rooms. As we walked, we marveled at how quietly our suitcases rolled on the bamboo flooring in the hallway. The Meditation Center’s anteroom has the same bamboo flooring and shelves for shoes. I looked in at the carpeted room beyond and saw that nobody wore shoes in there so I removed mine too.

When I arrived in the quiet room I saw a cluster of eight or nine Muslims facing Mecca, kneeling on little prayer rugs. The bookcase on the wall held a very wide variety of religious books. I didn’t look hard at them, but noticed Bibles in many languages. And at the end of the wall near Mecca I saw many more prayer rugs tucked into the shelves. As far as I could tell, I was the only Christian there during my hour’s visit, because Alla elected to go next door to the sleeping lounge so she could stretch out on a big padded recliner. I prayed for a while and then made some more progress on my project to read the New Testament in Russian during the first half of the year. An Indian woman came in with her yoga mat and began her own morning routine. As I left, the chaplain told me that his most common visitors are Muslims and Jews. I think it’s great to have a place where people of all faiths can worship together in peace.

Alla was certainly at peace when I found her. I couldn’t find her right away because she had pulled the hood of her jacket over her head. I scanned a sea of people and couldn’t recognize her. A beautiful stewardess not really reading a book watched me looking around. I tried not to make her uncomfortable, but she really was beautiful and it was hard not to look into her eyes as she watched me. Finally I came over and explained that I’d lost my wife. She just smiled, but finally from her vantage point I noticed Alla’s nose poking out of her hood. I came over and rubbed her head to wake her up. She slept so soundly that I wondered for a moment if she were OK.

Once Alla revived, we went downstairs to visit the art museum, a branch of a bigger museum downtown. At the airport branch, all the paintings were behind glass but it was still fun to stop and contemplate a few Dutch Masters in the middle of our trip. We stopped next at the massage studio, where a couple of travelers giggled as an aquarium full of little fish nibbled at their toes, another traveler got an aqua massage and a third leaned on a roller-massager. Finally we stopped at the library and browsed through a small collection of books in a huge variety of languages. We didn’t have any time to read one of them, but lots of people took advantage of the library’s iPads, where they could watch movies and listen to music.

I won’t bother describing the restaurants, florists and other wonders of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. I’ll just say that we could have stayed longer.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Winter riding

I don’t ride my bike when there’s snow or ice around, which means that I don’t get to ride at all during the winters in Minsk. Sometimes in Boston I get all bundled up and ride when it’s cold, and sometimes we get lucky and I don’t even have to wear my warmest jackets. Saturday was one of those days. Although we had plenty of snow a few days before, temperatures jumped and I felt pretty good about the roads after a couple days’ thaw.

I told Alla that I’d go out for an hour or so just to stretch my legs, but I couldn’t do it. After an hour, I was still riding away from home, having a great time. The sun warmed my face and body, reflected off of the abundant snow still coating yards and parks. I felt fully alive, and connected with the world. Stopping alongside the Stony Brook Reservation I got out my phone to take this picture for my blog. As I stood there, phone in hand, a nice lady stopped her car to make sure I was OK.

Finally the road dipped out of the sun as I approached the Blue Hills Reservation and I decided I’d better turn back. I raced the early sunset and got home well enough before dark, invigorated and happy.

Wanting to share the experience, I talked Alla into taking a couple of tandem-bike rides with me in the next days. The snow has been melting away quickly, but the riding has been really great.

Yesterday I decided to reprise my Saturday ride, but this time I rode my fixie. A fixie is a fixed-gear bike. This means that if the wheels are turning, my legs are turning. And I can’t change gears. The hills are harder to get up, and harder to get down. It’s a very simple bike, and I like to ride it in winter because it’s a lot of work and it keeps me warm. Also, there’s not much to break, and the first rule of winter riding is to make sure your equipment won’t fail you.

Knowing the rule doesn’t mean I inspected my bike. I just rode it, almost as far as I went on Saturday. It would have been really inconvenient if anything had gone wrong so far from home, but I got my blowout about two or three miles from here. BANG! Suddenly I felt bare rim rumbling on hard asphalt. I got off my bike and thought about how cold I would get changing my tire in the chilly breeze. In preference to a taxi, I brought my bike into the center of an apartment complex where the wind couldn’t reach me. My overdue inspection revealed severe problems with the rear tire. Rubber peeled away from the casing in a couple of places, one of which opened into a significant hole matching a big hole in the tube within.

Normally I could not have gotten home on such a badly-damaged tire, but I was happy to discover a large supply of slime-green speed patches in a pocket of my tool kit. I stuck a mosaic of those dots onto the inside of the tire and layered in a dollar bill to give the tube some extra protection. Then I put everything back around a new tube and rode slowly home. Miraculously, I got all the way back without a second blowout.

I feel very good about the whole thing, especially because I was listening to this as I wrote the last part of this story. I'll say something about jazz in general and Duke Ellington in particular some other time.