Thursday, February 28, 2013

Free electricity

Something was weird about our electricity when we returned to Minsk last month. We’d be sitting around minding our own business and suddenly the lights would get much brighter or much dimmer. It happened so frequently that we began joking that the lights would react if any neighbor plugged in an electric shaver. We also began to worry. Something must be heavily overloaded if our lights reacted to every action in other apartments.

Finally we called the building services department and a knowledgeable and experienced guy came over within a few hours. When Alla answered the door, he asked her if she were the landlady. Alla answered affirmatively, noticed the concern on the guy’s face, and added that we’re renting. The guy brightened up over her care with the facts and set about investigating our problem.

It turns out that some of our building’s circuits had gotten reconnected to the old wiring. The new wiring leads to individual electric meters, but I have my doubts about the old wiring. I’ll bet it was originally communal, since it was installed by genuine Communists. It might explain our mysteriously-low electric bill from the last few months. We thought our Belarusian refrigerator must be amazingly efficient, but maybe we are about to learn differently.

Before the repair guy disconnected the main building circuit, he had to call the Militsia (police) because otherwise they’d be freaking out about everybody’s burglar alarms. The Militsia sent over a couple of officers who guarded the front door very attentively during the outage. I know this because I came downstairs to wait for a guest whom I wouldn’t be able to buzz in and they watched me closely until they understood why I was standing there.

Soon after the power came back, our landlady’s mother-in-law called. She’d gotten a call from the service guy, telling her about his work in our apartment. What with the Militsia and the conscientious service guy, I’m feeling really safe here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bike race

Minsk is hosting the 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships this year, and I’d never seen a track cycling race anywhere. Naturally, I wanted to go. When I tried to figure out the schedule of events, however, I only managed to find very generalized advertising on the web. I knew the dates of the competition, but not the times of any events. Finally Alla plunged in yesterday and found a very nice page in both Russian and English explaining everything. I don’t know how I failed to find it two weeks ago.

Anyway, I went on down to the Velodrome after an early dinner and bought myself an excellent seat right over the finish line. That was the last time I actually needed to know any Russian. When I entered the building the guards had an interpreter to make sure I understood the procedure of metal detection and bag inspection. Once past the security force, I met another smiling (and very pretty) delegate who told me in English where I could hang my coat and how to find my seat. I laughed about how she immediately recognized me as a foreigner and she reminded me that it’s completely obvious.

Inside the spectator area I saw lots of promotional tables operated by hosts and sponsors. Most of them wanted to speak English with me, though I generally continued to answer in Russian. I found one exception to this linguistic rule when I decided to buy a program. I found an official chatting with two uniformed underlings and came over to interrupt them. The official turned to me as soon as he noticed my approach, and I told him I wanted to know where I could buy a program. He replied in Russian, “These girls can answer you in your native language.” “Oh,” I replied in Russian. “You can speak English?” The girls giggled with a trace of awkward caution and looked at each other. I teased them, “Can you speak English better than I can speak Russian?” Neither wanted to try, telling me in Russian where to buy a program.

I had a great time watching the races and an OK time watching the awards ceremonies. I really came to see bike races, and the Ice Girls don’t float my boat. The Ice Girls perform at hockey games and other sporting events. They’re cheerleaders, and I think they’re supposed to be sexy and tame at the same time. It’s an impossible task. I found myself wondering why these no-doubt well-paid entertainers would come on stage with dye jobs grown out weeks ago. (Actually, I think I know the answer. I think it’s a look here. It’s just another cultural difference, but it still surprises me on stage.)

The big awards kept going to Great Britain. I cheered hardest for the Mexican girl who won a silver medal in the scratch race, pleased to see somebody from my continent do well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Weight Room

I used to lift weights three mornings a week at Hotel Minsk's little fitness club. Membership didn't cost much and the hall had an adequate suite of equipment given the price, clean showers, friendly fellow members and a pleasant staff. I liked it.

While we were away, unfortunately, the hotel sold the sports facility to an outside investor who apparently didn't make enough money from people like me. The new owner jacked up prices to a whopping four dollars per visit and cleared out most of the big equipment. I kept coming back anyway because I could get by with the remaining dumbbells and barbells and I didn't really know where else to go. I missed the former members, however. Nobody seemed willing to put up with the scaled-back hall, and with only one bench the hall wouldn't really support more than one person at a time anyway.

I finally went out for a walk and investigated other facilities near home. Happily, I discovered that the professional hockey compound in the park near our apartment includes an excellent weight room. I bought my membership from Violetta who usually works at the front window, occasionally leads aerobics classes and always radiates sunlight. When I went in for my first workout I met Dima, one of two trainers. I told Dima that I had some idea what I was doing but asked him to stop me if he saw me doing anything improperly. He's been very helpful already, and I suspect he has lots more to show me in the coming weeks.

Then there's the hockey team. They work out before the hall opens to the public, and they occasionally pass through again while I'm there. Generally they seem almost as sunny as Violetta, though incredibly disciplined. Sometimes they spread themselves out all over the floor to stretch out before they disappear somewhere into the facility. Now I know why I'm not very flexible: They hold each stretch several times longer than I hold any of mine. I may have to ask Dima to help me with that, but since it looks painful maybe I'll wait until next week. Or the week after.

Every time I go to work out there it puts a big smile on my face, and all this pleasure costs about three dollars a visit. I'm so excited I'm going to give them a wall clock as a gift. It's about the only thing they're missing.

I don't feel like I know the members and staff well enough yet to take pictures, so I've attached a couple of professional photos from the Web. You don't get to see the staff, but at least you can see the facility. Hotel Minsk never held a candle to this place.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Now we're clean

I really love Russian baths. I’m such an expert, now that I’ve had my second one. But there are lots of rules and I broke at least one of them by returning to the banya for more than three sessions. I think I got most of the rest of the rules about right: Stay hydrated, wear funny hat, flog self with birch boughs, remove birch leaves before swimming, repeat…

Sergey and Irina have a wonderful traditional wood-fired banya. It’s a whole lot of work. It starts in spring, when somebody harvests birch juice. I don’t know if Sergey harvests his own, but in any event he stocks up when it’s available. Later in the spring, he gathers up birch boughs and ties them into bundles. Also in the warm weather, he chops up a prodigious amount of wood. Finally, about three hours before bath time, he builds a fire and keeps it going until the room gets good and hot. The family lays out a table with snacks, birch juice and tea. Finally, guests arrive.

We missed our transport and people were already warming themselves when we arrived. I put on my hammer-and-sickle hat and plunged in. Irina suggested that I put my flip-flops outside: She didn’t want them melted onto the floor. Alla told me that my silly hat would keep my brains from baking. Over birch juice, Stёpan told me that the hats were to trick our brains into allowing us to stay in the heat longer. I like his explanation better, but I tried not to be crazy about how long I stayed in the heat. The room-temperature pool felt so excellent anyway.

I really wanted to get a picture of the banya after we were all finished. Birch leaves littered all horizontal surfaces evenly, and it presented a wonderful picture of the way I felt. Unfortunately, my camera lens fogged over the instant I brought it into the banya so I’ll just have to give you a couple pictures of steamy people. We had a lot of fun.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What's that?

I’ve twice mentioned here my favorite public restroom in Minsk, which I called the Piss Palace. Unfortunately, it was so grand that the authorities have decided to convert it to a souvenir store. That restroom was at one end of a continuum, and not all are so nice.

I thought to write a little story about restrooms at the other end of the spectrum, but I’m not sure anybody wants to read about it. What’s interesting, however, is that I’ve gotten so used to the whole spectrum that I found myself walking into a particularly “charming” stall at my dance school and thinking “I love this place (Belarus.)” I do, but not necessarily because I find those stalls cute. I guess I find it cute that nobody freaks out over them. There’s soap and a somewhat-effective warm-air hand dryer. We wash our hands and return to each other. No big deal.

==> Click here if you really must see a picture of it.