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 ├ęclair and my favorite bakery sells out early. Coming from the hairdresser, I arrived too late. I tried somebody else’s product but the ├ęclair 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?