Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Leaving Colorado

We had a really great weekend in Breckenridge, Colorado, at a family reunion with my first wife's cousins. We stayed at an inn with a big common room. Because we got some rainy weather we had to use the common room a couple of times instead of picnicking at a lake-side park. This worked out quite well, so I think we learned something for future family gatherings. The key thing was being together, and staying here made that really easy.

We also had time for exploring, shopping and riding some mountainside amusements, depending on individual tastes.

Now we are on our way to San Francisco, where we'll see more relatives. Getting to San Francisco, we chose Frontier Airlines. Apparently we got a real deal on the seats, because they won't even pour us a glass of orange juice unless we give them more money. I saw how much Frontier wanted more money when I printed out our boarding passes at the hotel this morning. I already knew that if we wanted to check any luggage it would cost us an extra $20 per bag, but I discovered that if I had not done the online check-in then they would have charged us money at the airport for our carry-on bags.

They also threatened to charge a fee if either of our bags exceeded their strict size limit. I suspect that Alla's bag may have failed, but nobody noticed.

We watched with amusement as the stewardess decided who got free drinks and who didn't. I could have a glass of water for free if I didn't want any ice. Ice costs extra. Somehow I decided to splurge on a Kind bar for a little more than it would have cost in a fancy grocery store. At first it looked like I couldn't have one after all because they had already sold the last one somewhere in the five rows ahead of us. Then, miraculously, they found one more at the back of the plane somewhere.

This whole revenue-scrounging plan bugs me enough that I don't expect to fly this airline ever again. I'm glad we have choices.

Friday, August 23, 2013


We did Iceland all wrong, but we had a really great time. I know it's a good idea to have a plan, to know something about where you're going and how to do it. We didn't exactly pull that off. I just went online and booked a room at a hotel near downtown Reykjavik, choosing it because the room looked pretty nice and one of the reviewers on TripAdvisor said that the guy at the desk gave him good ideas of things to do in the area.

We got in a little after eleven p.m., having failed to talk SAS into letting us ride in empty seats on an earlier flight. Since we didn't even know for sure when we'd get in, I felt especially justified in having no advance plans. The guy at the desk would bail us out anyway. And the passenger next to us in the plane told us about the buses from the airport to downtown so we bought tickets and got onto the bus leaving on about half an hour. The bus had Wi-Fi, so I started researching our options as we rode.

Based on my research, the only way to see the stuff I wanted to see in the time available would be in a rental car, and I suspected that said rental car would not have cost much more than we had just paid for our two round-trip bus tickets. I had failed, but we were on the bus and I was too exhausted to think about alternatives. Anyway, I could look forward to getting advice at the hotel. Well, that didn't work out either. The desk clerk that night had very little to suggest, though he gestured vaguely at a lousy map and talked about taking a walk. He also confessed that breakfast at out hotel would be pretty meager and that we could eat better at another hotel around the corner. We went straight to bed.

After the recommended breakfast, I asked the clerk at the hotel around the corner what she thought we should do today. She wanted us to walk around too, but she gave us a better map, marked out a route, and told us about what she thought we should see and do. We had an outstanding time.

It wasn't raining when we set out. Apparently that's pretty special, to have dry weather in Iceland. We took an umbrella anyway, and launched ourselves to the shore, down a major commercial street, and over to the opera house. Along the way we marveled at the fact that we got into the country so easily last night, with no attention from any customs officer and no evidence that there had ever been such a thing as passport control or visas. We think they're happy to have anybody who thinks he can afford to buy food in the country.

We loved the opera house, and spent a long time there. It was raining by the time we went back outdoors, but we continued our tour, with an extended indoor break at city hall. Almost everything we wanted to do was free. The sandwiches we bought for lunch were not so close to free, but they were so delicious that we went back to buy more to eat on our way to Denver. Everything worked out great and we had an excellent time. Now we want to come back, probably rent a car, play in the hot springs and see the landscape. I'm glad we took the stopover.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Plenty of time

Leaving Belarus this time, we wanted to fly directly to Denver for a family reunion. Most of the itineraries I found online were overwhelmingly expensive, but I found a fabulously inconvenient alternative. In the name of economy, I convinced Alla that we could break up a long trip by spending a day in Reykjavik and we'd be happy about our convoluted itinerary, which even involved taking a train from Minsk to Vilnius.

Things started to fall apart immediately, as the cheap seats on the early flight to Reykjavik sold out while we discussed our plans. Momentum carried us to buy the late flight anyway, promising ourselves to stand by for the early one. Then the situation deteriorated further when Lithuanian customs changed their procedures in Vilnius and we weren't sure we could get out of the train station in time to catch our first flight.

We decided the bus might not be so bad after all, and left home at 5:15 this morning to get onto the first one of the day. Ouch, those bus seats were cramped. But we did get to the airport on time and flew comfortably to Copenhagen. Then we tried hard to stand by for empty seats on the early flight to Reykjavik, but the airline wouldn't let us play games with our super-cheap tickets. They'd rather fly with empty seats than encourage opportunists like us.

So... I hoped to be in Iceland by now but we are entertaining ourselves during an extended stopover at the Copenhagen airport. I wonder what our next-best itinerary would have looked like. It might have been better.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Big-hat architecture

Let’s start with the hats. It’s a cultural thing. American cops like to look like aviators whose hats got warped after hundreds of hours under big headphones. Their hats peak at the front but the rest of the crown droops to the sides. On the other hand, there’s no way to imagine that a Belarusian cop ever wore headphones over his hat. These guys wear enormous hats which swoop to a high peak and flare out at the sides, making the officer look very tall and sometimes a little bit scary. At least it scared me until I got used to the look. Here are a couple of examples I found online, one from the head cop in Massachusetts and the other from the top guy in Belarus. I think the second guy looks much more formidable.

As I said, I have always imagined that these Belarusian hats are intended to instill fear, or at least respect. We can’t help but notice them. But lately I’ve started noticing them in new places. I first thought about it last winter, as I walked toward the little arena where I lift weights. The whole building looks like a giant officer’s hat. Thinking further, I realized that I’m surrounded by big-hat architecture. Is this intended to warn us about something?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Meeting our neighbors

Sometime last winter we saw a notice by our door inviting us to a neighborhood meeting about a proposed parking garage to be built behind our house, cutting into our yard. We thought we ought to attend, but we already had travel plans and we forgot about it until this week. On Tuesday people started walking around in our yard with architectural drawings, directing other people to put up a temporary fence showing our new boundary line. Suddenly everybody in our building became alarmed at once.

The one guy who had attended the first meeting drafted a petition for us all to sign. While it wasn’t exactly what we would have said if we had more time to think it over, it made the point that the project appeared to be proceeding without normal governmental approvals or authority and it discussed the ecological ramifications of cutting down a big stand of healthy trees in the center of the city. Many of us got together in the yard that evening to sign it.

At the big gathering, I suddenly learned names to go with the faces we passed month-by-month going and coming. The guy who never smiled at me cracked a smile. People from other staircases introduced themselves. And everybody who knew something about ecology, bureaucratic processes, law and publicity shared what they knew. I also learned that a former Prime Minister of Belarus lives in our building. He didn’t come to the meeting, and somebody suggested that somebody else should go and knock on his door. Alla volunteered, running home first to get a copy of a book he’d written. The Prime Minister read the document carefully, and asked for some changes before he would sign it. Unfortunately, this came late in the process so everybody else signed a different version.

Some neighbors began to inform the media about the story, and by the next day photographers and TV crews came to see us. Alla met another famous neighbor, a wrestler who won gold medals in three successive Olympics and numerous world championships, and she talked to a reporter who turned out to represent a Polish station. Next thing we knew, she featured prominently in a news story cast as a battle between two elite factions, the residents of our building and the Committee on Investigations. (The Committee on Investigations took over a museum-building project and converted it into a palatial office for themselves next door. The parking lot is for them, and they’ve managed so far to skirt the city’s generally-strict environmental regulations because they consider themselves exempt.)

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the trees. To us it’s a large quality-of-life issue because the trees at stake are enormous and they’re a bit of an oasis in a city growing more and more dense every year. In addition, we see it as an opportunity to support the rule of law and the city’s well-intended environmental regulations. Unfortunately, however, we arrived at this point late in a powerful process. It’s going to be interesting.