Sunday, June 23, 2013


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


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