Friday, March 22, 2013

Deep snow

Last Friday a huge snowstorm blew into Minsk, bigger than most people could ever remember. The Belarus Digest has an interesting and complete story about the storm itself, so I won’t go into much detail here except to say that we got well buried.

Alla and I went out the next day on cross-country skis. The sun shined and we got plenty of exercise, but we didn’t go fast because our skinny skis sank too deeply into the fluffy snow. I don’t know where Belarus Digest got the impression that total snowfall amounted to 20 cm. I would have said more like 20 inches on average, and in places the wind piled it much deeper. For example, we didn’t see any park benches on our ski trek because they were all buried, and in some places the wind had piled the snow even above the accompanying trash cans, about waist high.

I walked across a field on Sunday afternoon, optimistically imagining that somehow somebody else’s ski tracks would support my weight. They did not. With each step, my foot plunged down to knee level. In a couple of areas, my steps plunged down to thigh level. My boots were pretty snowy by the time I got to the road and the moisture wicked all the way down to the toes of my socks.

My friend Yulia had a worse go of it. She got stuck at her grandmother’s place in a remote village and spent the storm shoveling out the chicken coop every two hours. It sounds like she got a lot more snow than we did. Then after the storm stopped she spent a couple of boring and lonely days remembering her warm room in the city. Finally her dad figured he could drive out in his Jeep and rescue her, but he ran out of drivable road too far from the village. Intent on getting her home, he called a friend in another village nearby. As I heard the story, the conversation went something like this:

Dad: Do you still have a horse?
Friend: Yes.
Dad: How about a sleigh?
Friend: Yeah, I’ve got a sleigh too.

Dad talked his friend into hitching up the sleigh and going to rescue his daughter in the other village. Apparently it wasn’t terribly far away, and the trip might have taken ten or fifteen minutes in the car. The horse and sleigh required more than a couple of hours, and the horse wasn’t too happy about it. In the end, the horse refused to go any farther and Yulia had to wade through the snow to meet them.

I think it’s a great story. Who else do you know who has access to a horse and sleigh? I wonder if she thought to get a picture.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chocolate Room

I saw an article this morning in the Huffington Post, about a chocolate room in a new shopping center not far away from us. The chocolate room would be there until April 14. Noticing that today was the 14th, I freaked out and invited Alla to go there today. I was a month early, but that’s OK. The chocolate is still nice and fresh. In fact, it smells great. Even the art on the walls is painted in chocolate. The floor is chocolate. It’s all ever so appealing.

Clearly, the shopping center’s advertising campaign worked on us. To lure us further, they posted a girl next to the chocolate room inviting us to sign up for a raffle to win a trip to Switzerland. You can only enter the raffle after you’ve spent 150,000 rubles in the shopping center. (Remember, all you Americans, that’s not so hard. It’s well under $20.) We visited all the stores. Since the mall sells mostly imported stuff, the prices weren’t so great. I saw a Nexus 7 tablet, for example, at about twice the U.S. price.

The only way we could in good conscience spend our 150,000 rubles was in the grocery super-store. It had Italian pasta sauce, which we can’t buy anywhere near our apartment. I bought pretty nearly one of each kind, which probably pushed us over the threshold right there. I really wanted to eat their blini, but I’m not sure the ones on display were even real. It’s Maslenitsa this week, and they had a display table at the grocery store’s main entrance, set for two with a huge stack of blini and a bowl of obviously-fake salmon caviar. The fake caviar didn’t impress me, but I will confess that I felt a twinge of temptation as I approached the blini. I’m looking forward to Sunday, when I won’t have to resist temptation at all. Meanwhile, the display table got our digestive juices going and we bought plenty of real groceries.

The chocolate room did its job, and we did ours.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Women's Day

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day. This is a really important holiday in this part of the world. Businesses close. Schools close. Florists extend their hours. Men cook burnt toast and other tragic dishes for their longsuffering wives. Americans: Think of Mother’s Day on a weekday and apply it to every woman or girl you ever kissed, smelled, looked at or talked to. Now you understand.

I started out by burning the pancakes. I’m really good at making buckwheat pancakes and Alla likes them a lot. Somehow under the pressure of the holiday, however, they weren’t 100% successful. Fortunately, my feeble breakfast didn’t set the tone for the day at all. We had lots of fun with some new friends.

A very sweet couple, Sergey and Snezhana, came from the town of Molodechno to a “Romantic Evening” couples’ program at church last month. They ended up at our table and captured our hearts immediately, though I never expected to see them again. They took initiative, however, and invited us to visit them on Women’s Day. We took the elektrichka commuter train right after breakfast, and they met us at the station.

Not only are our new friends as delightful on their home turf as they were at the Romantic Evening, they reminded us how much of Belarus we have not yet seen. Molodechno is a delightful, colorful and fresh town, big enough to have plenty to offer, but still small enough that I wasn’t surprised when Sergey and Snezhana appeared to know the people coming and going around us. Among other things, we went bowling. I forgot how much fun it can be to roll a heavy ball towards defenseless objects that clatter when they fall. We bowled about as quickly as the machinery could reset the pins, which is to say that we bowled a lot during our hour of reserved time. The men, forgetting all about the holiday, obliterated the women. The women smiled and treated us nicely anyway.

I’d like to go back and see Molodechno again when the gardens are in bloom and the snow is gone. The park looked pretty good even under the snow, but I hear it’s great when it’s green. I’ll be happy to investigate. Actually, we’re inspired to get back out of Minsk and start acting a little more like tourists. Before we decided to live here, we did better at exploring. Now we’ve been a little lazy, knowing that we can go look around tomorrow or next month if we don’t do it now. It’s nice to have some new friends to get us out of our chairs in a new direction.

From 2013-03 Minsk

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Vilnius, Day 1

We came back to Vilnius for Kazukas Fair. It's only about three hours by train from Minsk and we really like to visit here.

Since we've already been to a Kazukas Fair, we didn't feel any need to see a high percentage of the vendors' booths. We just like being in town with lots of other people for a cheerful event. We focused today on the university, since our self-guided tour last year left us with more questions than answers. This year Alla signed us up for an English-speaking tour. Pleasantly, a group of seven friends signed up to join us. Six of the friends live in Vilnius, and they brought along an American guest. They were very sympathetic people, we had a great guide, and everything clicked. The guide appreciated everybody's interest and curiosity so she added spaces not normally included in the tour, and we spent two and a half hours together seeing beautiful rooms and hearing fascinating stories about them. Our guide is a librarian, and she knows a lot about many things. Her tour already made the weekend a success.

We did lots of other fun stuff too, but I have to mention dinner. TripAdvisor recommended a new restaurant called Druskos Namai, and we went to try it out. It's in a part of town (technically, not even in Lithuania, but there's no border control) we hadn't visited before. They're following the local-foods movement and reinterpreting Lithuanian cuisine using traditional ingredients in very non-traditional recipes. The pureed caramalized-onion soup started us out right and everything flowed from that. We can hardly believe how deliciously we ate for a lot less than we'd spend for less-interesting food in Minsk or in Boston. Needless to say, we're going back for lunch tomorrow.