Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Persistent calls from India

I’ve been getting a lot of unsolicited phone calls lately, usually to the phone number belonging to my former company. The business has been closed for long enough that I feel free to mess with whomever calls on that number. My favorite opening, after I hear the telltale click of an automatic dialer plugging me into a call center, is to ask before they say anything, “Are you calling about the virus on my computer?”

Since most of the people calling me do, in fact, want to put viruses onto my computer, they usually know they’ve been had and they hang up right away. But today I got a couple of extremely persistent guys. The first one assured me immediately that he wasn’t calling about a virus.

“OK. What would you like to sell me?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said, “I don’t want to sell you anything.”

I interrupted, “So how can you make money if you don’t have anything to sell?”

He replied that he wanted to give me something for free, so I asked how his bosses could possibly pay him if he didn’t have something to sell.

He replied that he wanted me to have solar power and that it wouldn’t cost me anything.

I interrupted again, “OK, you’re not selling anything but you want to sell me free solar power.”

He kept trying to explain his “free” product to me and I kept interrupting with stupid questions and jumping to absurd conclusions. The guy wouldn’t give up. Finally I asked, “Don’t you understand that I’m messing with you? Most people would have hung up by now.” Unimpressed, he pressed on with his sales pitch. I finally thanked him very much and told him I’d have to be the one to hang up.

The other persistent caller really did want to try the “virus on your computer” scam. Undeterred by my sarcastic opening, he assured me that he was calling from Windows Technical Support and that they’d noticed on their servers vast amounts of traffic indicative of a highly-sophisticated morphological virus. Clearly reading from a script he didn’t know very well, he had a hard time spitting out those fancy words.

Ignoring the fact that what he said made no technological sense, I said, “If you’re going to sell me a virus, you’re going to have to practice your script. That didn’t go smoothly at all.”

“Oh no,” he rejoined, “I never said anything about a virus…”

I interrupted, reminding him what he’d just said about that highly-sophisticated morphological virus.

He pressed on, gushing over the urgency of solving this problem. “I know you have a high-quality antivirus program on your computer. This problem can’t be detected by antivirus software. We need to solve it right away.”

“OK,” I said. “Tell me your phone number and I’ll call you back.”

“You don’t have time to call me back,” he urged, “you need to log onto our website right away.”

We circled around those points a couple of times. I said I wouldn’t do anything unless he gave me his phone number so I could call him back and then we’d talk further. I figured that if he gave me a real phone number I could complain to the authorities, but he wasn’t that stupid. He made up a phone number starting with 800 but ending with too many digits. It was painful to hear him making up the sequence, struggling over each digit and then going too far. I told him that couldn’t be a real phone number so he repeated the same number, though smoothly this time.

Next I asked for his name. I couldn’t call him back without knowing his name. He said his name was William, but he couldn’t really pronounce it. Then he elaborated, “William Vincent.” Great. Now he’s a family member. I actually did try dialing the first seven digits of the number he gave me. Sadly, it didn’t get me to William so our little game is over.

I may not bother answering the phone at all tomorrow. Apparently that guy I messed with a few weeks ago really meant it when he said that he definitely would NOT add me to his do-not-call list.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A day in the land of the Maya

We started the day with a visit to the Montejo mansion. Two successive governors Montejo founded the city of Mérida, which until then had been a Mayan city. At the end of our visit, we stepped into a classroom with a huge mural on the wall, showing the Montejo mansion in the midst of a Mayan landscape. Indigenous workmen chipped away the ornamentation from stones that Montejo had removed from Mayan temples. My heart went out to the workers in the mural, destroying important cultural artifacts on behalf of their oppressors, and I said something about it to Alla.

An employee of the mansion overheard my comment and “corrected” my impression. He claimed that the Maya had already abandoned the city when the Spaniards arrived, amplifying and decorating his story with numerous fabrications about the Maya. I looked at his Spanish face and let the matter drop after questioning his claim that Montejo had taken over an empty city. He seemed sure of his facts.

We stopped next at City Hall, where we spent a lot of time studying various murals and paintings depicting the history of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of them included texts explaining the historical events shown, including the 20-year war between the invading Spaniards and the locals who didn’t want to give up their land. The Spaniards had better weapons and ultimately prevailed, though Mayan culture never disappeared and by now dominates the area.

By this time we’d gotten hungry and I asked a volunteer guide where to eat lunch. She wanted us to go to Chaya Maya, a restaurant where we’d had a disappointing lunch yesterday. Her face fell when I told her we didn’t like it. She said that it’s the best Yucatan food in the city and that the locals eat there. She really wanted us to try again. Her earnestness won us over, so we decided to go. This time we went to the restaurant’s original location, and I couldn’t immediately even find any non-Mayan customers in the room. We asked if we could have an English-speaking waiter and described what we wished we’d ordered yesterday. He helped us get a huge and delicious meal accompanied by a stream of fresh handmade tortillas.

We loved our meal. About the time we started talking about how we may have more than we could eat, Alla looked up and saw a man staring in the window with deep pathos. That is to say, he looked very hungry. Alla made him a taco from our serving plate and a waitress brought over a take-out box for it. The guy took his food nearby and ate it with such enthusiasm that we stopped eating altogether. Alla scraped up all the food we had left, begged a couple more hot tortillas from the lady making them, and added them to the man’s take-out plate. The look on his face confirmed that the food was more important to him than to us.

After lunch we visited the Anthropological Museum, which had an excellent contemporary pottery exhibit on the first floor and a Mayan architectural exhibit upstairs. We had a great time on both floors.

Apparently we walked around enough, because on the way back to our inn I noticed that my shoe was falling apart. I wanted to buy some glue, and looked at the shops and businesses we passed. Ultimately we reached a little building-supply store where the owner offered to sell me a Coke-bottle full of glue from a gallon can. While I didn’t object to the price, I didn’t want to waste an entire bottle of glue. Finally he agreed to put a smaller amount onto a piece of cardboard since I intended to use it immediately. I stood on a plastic bag while the glue set, and Alla went out to make change so we could pay our five-peso debt. My shoe is a little better, but not by much. The patch won’t hold for long, but we’re flying back to Boston tomorrow.

We’re glad we came to Merida, with its colonial architecture, great museums and festive streets. I think next time we’ll spend another weekend in the city and then move on to the heart of the archaeological zone nearby. We have a lot to see and a lot to learn.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Discovering Mérida

Various friends recommended that we visit Mérida, so we finally went. It may be the oldest continuously-occupied city in the Americas and it once housed more millionaires than any other city in the world. Today we saw lots of mansions and evidence of that former wealth, but on first glance the city looked pretty worn out. In fact, Alla decided last night that she liked our bed-and-breakfast much better than she liked the city and she resolved to hole up at home for our few days in town. I practically had to drag her a few blocks to the square where our landlord told us we’d find food vendors and music.

Alla complained of narrow sidewalks, empty streets and a general feeling of dread all the way to the square. Her concern increased when we got there before the vendors had finished setting up because things even there looked pretty desolate. Alla wanted to flee, figuring she could live on the avocados she had left from Cancun. I held out for something better to eat. As Alla reached the limit of her patience, a woman started setting out interesting-looking ingredients for tacos and Alla noticed.

I helped the woman string up her lights and she gave me my first taco free. We ended up eating many different kinds of tacos, and we liked every one of them. By the time we finished eating, we noticed musicians setting up on a stage. We stayed for the music, and finally went home with hopes for today.

After breakfast we set out to walk the main streets that had been blocked off for bicycles and pedestrians. We saw lots of mansions, plenty of people on foot and on bikes, and lots of interesting artists and vendors of interesting and delicious things. After our walk, we went to another park for more live music and more tacos. I met several American ex-patriots buying tacos from a vendor who speaks good English. My Spanish is coming back, but I was happy to talk with the taco lady in Englsih. Anyway, we really liked the music at this square and stayed a long time. I even got Alla to dance with me.

By now Alla’s impression of Mérida had improved dramatically and by the end of the day we even started talking about coming back next year. Especially after we discovered a beautiful theater with a free dance performance. We’ll go back for another free performance tomorrow evening. I hope it’s as good as tonight’s, which we both liked a whole lot. Actually, I think we both like Mérida a lot.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

¿Quién es más macho?

We’re in Cancún, on our annual winter break. We keep coming back to the same resort, which plays a lot of the same games year-to-year at the welcome party. I usually manage to volunteer for one thing or another because I enjoy getting up on the stage and acting silly in front of a lot of people. This year I got picked for a game that involves drinking tequila and behaving in other ways like a stereotypical Mexican. Oops. As many of my readers know, I don’t drink. I didn’t know what game we’d be playing when I volunteered, but I figured it out in time discreetly to tell the guy who seated me onstage that I’d like him to bring me a glass of water when he brought everybody else tequila. And I promised to put on a good show.

When the next guy came onstage, I shook his hand. Any time men gather in Belarus they all shake each other’s hands. It would probably happen in Texas, too. But this group of North American tourists didn’t take to that custom, and I had a hard time getting Contestant #2 to notice my hand held out to him. He didn’t extend the courtesy to Contestant #3 and the handshaking stalled. By Belarusian tradition, each newly-arriving man should have shaken the hands of each of the men already present. In this group of Americans, it was every man for himself.

Last time I played this game I lost, in part because the audience picks their favorite and most of them realized that I wasn’t drinking. If they hadn’t seen me negotiating with the staff about my beverage, they certainly noticed that my drink didn’t seem strong to me. This time, when we got to the drinking part of the show, I acted cautious and afraid about drinking (while I sniffed to make sure I really had water) and then I pretended to struggle with swallowing my drink. I also had to ride an imaginary horse, say a few things in Spanish, yodel and dance around a hat. All the while, I remembered to pay attention to the audience.

I still had to encourage the audience when it came to voting by applause. The other contestants just stood there and took however much applause they got. I milked the crowd with gestures of come-on, victory and conspiracy. They may not have wanted to vote for me, but they had to because they couldn’t ignore my encouragement. Since I was the only one asking for their approval, I got plenty. Since that evening, everybody greets me, frequently by my stage name. I am Juanito, the most macho man in Cancún.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hunting and Gathering

They say this is a good year for mushrooms. Our friend Natasha in Braslav has been taunting Alla for days in their frequent Skype conversations, showing ever-more-amazing mushrooms she’s been finding near her summer home. Clearly, we had to go.

We took the bus on Thursday morning. Alla and another passenger started freaking out as we approached Braslav and saw the quantity of mushrooms for sale along the side of the road. I thought one or the other might jump out of the window, but they both lasted until we finally reached our small-town destination. Victor met us while Natasha tidied up after the previous night’s labor of cooking, canning and drying the mushrooms she’d gathered the day before. We’d be needing that space in the kitchen.

As soon as we reached Natasha she whisked us into the woods. Alla and Natasha taught me to identify three mushrooms they considered worthwhile. They disparaged other edible mushrooms, saying they’d only bother with them in a bad year. This year, we’d only harvest “elite” varieties. I especially like the white ones, which they told me are safe even to eat raw though only I actually did it. Nobody here is used to the idea of eating raw mushrooms and most consider it scary. I grew up eating lots of raw mushrooms and don’t think twice about it when I have the right ones.

That first day we gathered less than a bucketful apiece. Natasha wanted to stay up as long as necessary to process them all and then get up to be on the road at six the next morning for a serious day of hunting. Alla negotiated her back to a 7:30 start, hoping to get something more like a normal night’s sleep. Natasha appeared to take the idea well, but she got pretty comical the next morning trying to make up for the late start by egging Victor on to drive faster into the forest. Victor does not drive fast, and the difference probably didn’t matter. Other people beat us to Natasha’s spot and they harvested a lot of mushrooms, but we still got a lot ourselves. I suppose it just took us a little longer, but I enjoyed visiting several different spots, each beautiful in its own way. And by the end of the day we had a WHOLE lot of mushrooms. I don’t know what they weighed, but I was surprised at how heavy were the two boxes we carried in from the car.

We arrayed ourselves in the kitchen to sort the mushrooms, some to freeze, some to dry, some to can and some simply to cook. We also set aside three or four nice white mushrooms for me to eat raw. We swapped stories over the mushrooms, trying to remember where they came from and under what circumstances who found this or that specimen. The cooking and processing tasks stretched into the next day, when we took a break from hunting.

Not that I got a complete break from bending over and picking stuff up from the ground. When I went outside I saw that the neighbor had gathered her extended family to harvest potatoes from a field big enough to warrant the use of a tractor. I knew Grandma as a very nice permanent resident of the village. Her extended family spilled out over the field, with her son-in-law driving the tractor, other men collecting bags of potatoes, and women and children loading potatoes into bags. They worked hard and they worked fast, as if perhaps the Nazis were about to return and steal their harvest. Grandma saw me taking a few pictures and asked me if I didn’t want to help out. What could I say? I went home and put on my work clothes, stole Victor’s Wellington boots and put in a good hour or more. Finally I decided I’d had enough fun and had atoned for taking those pictures of other people working so I went home and cleaned myself up. As I finished putting my shoes back on in front of the banya, one of the daughters brought me a big bucket of nice potatoes as a thank-you gift for my labors. We’ve already been eating them now, and they’re delicious.

Still, we had come to hunt so we went out near the village again the following morning, not too early. Somebody beat us to the woods and we met her staggering out with more mushrooms than she could comfortably carry. Alla asked her to describe where she’d been hunting so we could start somewhere else, but she said she’d been everywhere. Undaunted, we plunged in. I struggled to find much that this local hunter had missed, but Natasha filled her bucket with choice mushrooms which she apparently locates by X-ray vision. She’s amazing. I, meanwhile, sat down under a tree with a book after I got tired of poking around in the undergrowth. I did gather more than half a bucketful, but had to resort to some second-rate mushrooms to achieve that.

Natasha and Victor sent us home with more than our fair share of the harvest, and I think we’re going to have a pretty delicious winter. As a matter of fact, we had a pretty delicious dinner just now.

For other pictures, click here and start in the middle of the album.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

First day of school

Pupils in Belarus start the school year on September first, but somehow I never noticed the fact until this year, when Anna entered first grade. We went to join the festivities.

On the way we walked past another school and I noticed the kids all decked out in their school uniforms, many of them carrying flowers to present to their teachers. Parents posed them for photographs under trees and in other pretty places nearby. Today was called Day of Knowledge, and the kids looked quite earnest.

Anna's family got to school at the last minute, so I didn't see anybody until the kids made their grand entrance. Disregarding instructions about standing with parents behind the youngest kids, I got myself a prime location behind a bunch of high school kids. Somehow I missed the fact that they would be part of an upcoming performance, but I melted into the crowd of parents before my group made its grand entrance into the school for the first time in the new year. It's possible that somebody noticed a white-haired guy amidst the students, but nobody called me out on it.

The performance mainly focused on welcoming the littlest kids. Unlike everybody else, they started inside the school and they all received balloons. All the other students lined up to form a perimeter around the staging area and then the newest scholars marched into the midst and stood facing the school. We all listened politely to speeches, some of which I judged overly long, and then the little kids released their balloons; to applause and cheers.

As the ceremony drew to a close, the principal admonished the parents on the day's importance and urged them to do whatever they could to be sure their kids ended the day with happy memories of it all. We took our friends out for tea and cakes, and I certainly ended the day with happy memories

Monday, August 25, 2014

Buying a TV

The title of today’s post is misleading. I did not buy a TV. At the time, I was trying to buy a new lock for our mailbox because the Belarusian lock we put on there a couple of years ago gave us endless problems and finally failed altogether. So I went to the biggest locksmith I know of and asked whether he had something better, but he didn’t have anything at all. He sent me to TSUM, the big government-owned department store where Alla bought the previous lock. TSUM didn’t even have any flimsy Belarusian locks today, but the sales guy thought he might have some more in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, I walked past the TV department. Alla’s been watching a lot of TV lately because she likes to get the official Russian point of view on what’s happening in Ukraine. Our old TV has a lousy sound system, unintelligible at low volumes and intolerable at high volume. And there’s no place to plug in headphones so everybody in the building knows when she’s got the TV turned on. I figured it might be worthwhile to buy a new TV if I got a good enough deal. Alla could watch her Russian programs without speakers blaring and I could hook my laptop up to the newer TV and we could watch movies in the living room instead of crowding around my desk.

At TSUM I saw a Belarusian 32” LCD TV for 300 bucks. “Hmm,” I thought, “this might be OK.” But I had a nagging concern in the back of my mind because somebody some time advised me never to buy Horizont (the Belarusian brand). I asked the sales guy about it and he reacted with surprise. “What do you mean,” he asked, “that Horizont TVs are bad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Tell me about your experience. Are they good TVs?” “We don’t have any trouble with them,” he assured me. He went on a bit, explaining that they’re fine TVs. I asked him if he had anything else he’d like me to consider at the same time, and he showed me a Samsung for $100 more. I asked why I’d pay more for a Samsung when the Horizont is such an excellent product. He explained that 78% of the parts in the Samsung are manufactured in Korea and that the TV itself is assembled in Russia. “It’s better. The parts are better. I recommend that you buy Samsung.”

I came home really confused. Horizont is really great but he thinks I shouldn’t buy one. So I cast about online looking for reviews. Mostly I found praise for old Soviet tube-style Horizont TVs and horror stories about unreliability and the inconvenience of repairing newer LED TVs with the same brand. Alla called some friends, who said they bought a Horizont and liked it fine. It failed after two years, was deemed unrepairable, and they received a certificate for a new TV which still works. Except that they dropped the remote control and it’s impossible to replace. They’re happy with theirs, but I’m not feeling so confused any more. As much as I’d like to support the local brand, I’ve been scared away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

1001st place

Years ago, a friend gave us a book called “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” The book doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Eastern Europe and leaves out Belarus altogether. Now that I’ve seen Braslav Lakes, I can only say that they’re wrong. This is an undiscovered paradise, and while I worry about what will happen as it’s discovered I think my readers would like to know a little more about our visit.

I wrote in my previous post about where we stayed, near Nedrava Lake and the village of Slabodka. We stayed longer than we planned and we’re already looking forward to returning. But today I want to say a little about the surrounding area. I have no idea how many lakes make up “the Braslav Lakes Area,” but Wikipedia calls it 30 and I suppose that’s about right. In between, there are hills, forests and bogs. I get special pleasure out of the hills because the area around Minsk is so flat that the rivers meander in crazy loops and the water barely seems to flow. While the river near us in Braslav didn’t offer a strong current either, at least it flows fast enough that the water looks fresh, and we could enjoy lots of panoramic views from the tops of various hills as we toured around the region.

Victor and Natasha drove us to see lots of interesting places, from the historic town of Braslav to the quaking bog near a Presidential retreat. Natasha took Alla out for a very successful day hunting egg mushrooms, which fetch a couple of bucks apiece in Minsk. They brought back a lot of them, most of which they peeled and put into a three-liter jar of vodka. This concoction is said to have some sort of medicinal benefit, though I have a really hard time imagining Alla doing anything with three liters of vodka. (I use vodka to wash windows, but that’s another story.)

We went swimming at the deepest of the lakes, whose name escapes me now. We started by walking out onto a peninsula. On one side, the shore plunged downward steeply and a few meters out it was already deeper that I was willing to free-dive. On the other side, the shore sloped very gradually over a shelf of blue clay. We lost track of Alla and Natasha, so I finally went over to the clay side of the peninsula to look for them. I found them wearing only their bikini bottoms, slathered in clay. Really, all I could see was their eyes and hair. After the clay dried, they came to visit us before disappearing to rinse off and come back to tell about how wonderful their skin felt after the mud bath. You won’t find any pictures of this online.

Back at the homestead, I really enjoyed village life, the inter-connectedness of the people and the way their lives differ so strongly from anything familiar to me. Sometimes the next-door neighbor brought over fresh goat milk, still warm. I had no idea it would be so delicious. Another neighbor raises chickens and tomatoes. A third raises ducks, and makes fresh dairy products from their cow’s milk. We ate lots of farmer cheese one morning for breakfast, with fresh applesauce and fruit preserves on top. I peeled a big pot of apples so Alla could make more applesauce. They have a delicious variety of apple from the Gomel region of Belarus, where both Alla and Victor grew up, just a few years apart. This is agro-tourism. This is living. This is Belarus.

More pictures here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Braslav Lakes Region

We kept hearing about how beautiful it is near Braslav, but never got ambitious about visiting until this week. After a week of hot weather and facing another overheated week, I found a website summarizing resorts around the Braslav Lakes and urged Alla to look for somebody who had a cancellation or any little gap in occupancy. On her first call she lucked onto Natasha.

Natasha owns or manages several properties, but couldn't offer any vacancies in the near future. Fortunately for us, however, they hit it off somehow in the course of conversation and Natasha offered us a bedroom in her own house. We took her up on it, and booked a ride in a minibus leaving the next day at noon. That morning Alla began to panic. She had booked us a stay with we-don't-know-whom in unknown circumstances in a remote village. Would we be bored to death? Starved to death? Wasting away scorched in the sun? Grossly disappointed? I tried to reassure her. Surely somebody in the village would have some kind of food to sell us. And if we hate it, we can always go back to Minsk.

As it turns out, the worst thing about this adventure will be the fact that we must at some point leave. Natasha and Viktor are generous, gregarious and interesting hosts. Their place is simply heavenly. And I can only describe the region as idyllic. (Though the grocery selection is, in fact, limited and it helps to have local connections.)

This morning I went out to the garden for my customary quiet time before starting the day. I sat in a comfortable hanging chair surrounded by flowers and fresh air. A flock of little birds chirped in the tree overhead and the family cat curled up at my feet. Bugs buzzed, cows mooed and a warm breeze trickled over my body. I thought of the swimming hole in the river behind me and the watermelon in the kitchen. I already didn't want to go home.

Today we aren't going too far, content to read, converse, swim and explore locally. Tomorrow our kind hosts promise to show is around in their car. We're definitely not going back when we said we would. We're got way too much swimming and sightseeing to accomplish.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Playing in Lithuania

Alla and I came to Lithuania for a long weekend, starting with a day in Kaunas. Kaunas is the second-largest city in the country, and to be honest I booked it by mistake. I knew there was another place we wanted to see (Trakai) and I got all excited when I got an email about a special deal for a good hotel in Kaunas. Alla straightened me out long ago, but we decided to spend a day in Kaunas anyway just to see the city.

Our travel connections worked perfectly and we got there on the earliest-possible train so we had plenty of time to explore the old town. Our bargain hotel was closer to the train station than to the main tourist area, so we had an interesting walk. Our first impressions of Kaunas were fairly dismal, but the farther we walked the fancier things got. By the time we got to the center of the old town, we were in the midst of expensive designer stores, chic outdoor bistros and lots of brides. Friday, it turns out, is a big day for weddings and bridal parties strolled around the city looking great and posing for pictures. We did a pretty thorough job of covering the main tourist sites listed in our book, though we would have dropped in on a couple of museums if they opened earlier on Saturday. But since they wouldn't open until 11, we jumped onto an express bus and checked into our favorite hotel in Vilnius.

We know Vilnius pretty well, but we've only been here in the winter. It feels a lot different in the summer. Suddenly, for example, there are outdoor bistros everywhere. And the girls are even prettier than I realized. As always, we found plenty to do. There's a music festival going on, and we chose a Chinese choir giving a free concert in a church we like. We chose the choir because we saw them (or another Chinese choir) rehearsing in a Swiss church last year and they pretty much knocked our socks off. The group we saw in Vilnius, the Peiyang Chorus from Tianjin University surpassed even those high expectations. If you ever get a chance to hear them, you certainly should. After the concert, I went to thank some of the choir members and one of them gave me a brochure about the group. I asked if I could buy a CD and she took me off to see the choirmaster, who indeed had CDs but not for sale. They gave it to me as a gift.

On Sunday we took a tour to Trakai, the place I wanted to see when I booked a night in Kaunas. Trakai is an island with a big restored historic fortress. Our guide had lots to say, though we couldn't verify the accuracy of her spiel. As they say, history is written by the victors, and she presented strong Lithuanian pride. Her truth may have been polished a bit by that pride, but she certainly had no lack of things to say and she gave a very interesting tour. As usual for a tour, she skipped over some things we might have liked to see longer and I'd like to come back to Trakai under my own power some other time. There are some little hotels there, and I think it might be fun to spend a summer day swimming in the lake and seeing the castle fortress in more detail.

In between things, we discovered a couple of excellent parks in Vilnius. We've walked past Bernardine Park numerous times in the winter without really noticing it, but when we finally found it this weekend we spent lots of time there with great pleasure. We found the other park because I hadn't looked at a map recently enough to know that it would be overly ambitious to walk all the way to the television tower. Ultimately we got waylaid by Vinigio Park, which we'd thought about seeing but figured it was too far away to bother with. It's huge, and we walked all the way across it by the most direct road. Finally, at the far end, we asked a couple of locals how to get back to our hotel and they gave us a surprisingly-long ride back in their car.

I published a few more pictures from the weekend in this album:

2014-07 Lithuania

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hacking through

In March I got interviewed for an article about things that can be tricky for certain groups of people in Minsk. As best I could, I represented all foreigners. Another interviewee, Zarina, spoke for blind people. Naturally, her story was much more touching than my own, and I got inspired to organize a group of volunteers to serve the city’s blind people who might have difficulty with everyday tasks like getting to the store and picking out a pair of shoes. I didn’t have a lot of trouble lining up an initial group of volunteers, but I haven’t been so successful yet in giving the volunteers anything to do.

I started with Zarina. I told her about the volunteer organization I imagined building and asked her if such a service would be useful and if she could help me get in touch with people in need. She invited me over for a conversation, and later I took her out two or three times to walk around Minsk. Unfortunately, however, she’s never wanted to talk about building an organization or introducing me to others in her dormitory or in the factory with all the blind workers. Finally I admitted to myself that I’ll never convert her from client to collaborator and I needed a fresh start.

Zarina lives in a dormitory with lots of visually handicapped people and they all work in one factory. I decided to go over her head, then, and introduce myself to the doorkeepers at the dormitory and maybe to somebody at the factory. In this endeavor, I ran some risk that I’d get into a situation where my Russian might prove inadequate. For backup, I invited along a 15-year-old girl I met at church a few days ago. She doesn’t speak any English, but I figured she’d make up in enthusiasm whatever she lacked in skills.

Iulya is definitely enthusiastic. I called her this morning and asked if she were free. It turns out that she lives outside the city limits and it would take her almost two hours to get to me. Once we joined forces, it would be almost another hour to the dormitory. She agreed immediately, and I explained my plan as we walked from the subway toward the dormitory. When we got there, I asked if she’d like to do the talking. No, she’d prefer that I do the talking. I introduced myself to the doorkeepers, who said that we should go talk to the people at the factory. Iulya tugged at my sleeve, but I wouldn’t go. I wanted to inoculate myself against a run-around so I tried to warm up the dormitory folks. I told them how well they must know their residents and they beamed in caring satisfaction. I asked if they had any advice for me and they referred me to the factory. Iulya tugged harder on my sleeve. At this moment a resident walked by and the doorman asked him to take us across the street to the factory administration.

Off we went, and introduced ourselves to the guard on duty. She asked if we had an appointment, and Iulya explained that we’d only just been sent to them. OK, the guard said, then come back in ten minutes after everybody finishes their lunch. We went out and admired the electrical outlets and plugs manufactured within. I even bought a couple of plugs before we returned to the guard, who started phoning various offices upstairs. Nobody wanted to talk to us, and finally she sent us off to the Central Administration, whatever that may be. She and her colleagues described to us how to get there without giving us an actual address. I hoped Iulya understood better than I did, but still I begged them to help us make an appointment before we left. They handed me the phone and I talked to a receptionist, leaving with her phone number.

We got pretty close to this Central Administration before our directions petered out. As we discussed our predicament a couple of girls came by and asked if they could help us find our way. Unfortunately, we didn’t know so much as the proper name of the place we wanted to reach, but I produced the phone number, one of the girls called it, and then she explained to us how to get there. It worked!

When we finally arrived, the receptionist took us in to meet her boss, who is completely blind. Iulya warmed up to him right away and told our story with enthusiasm and conviction. He immediately understood what we wanted to accomplish and told us whom he’d like us to meet. He wanted us to meet somebody back at the factory, but she’s out of town right now so he called her cell phone and told her to expect our call next week. He then asked us if we came from some sort of a church group. We told him we were Protestants, which can occasionally raise eyebrows here but he didn’t flinch. His daughter is Protestant.

I don’t know if any of this will lead to the formation of a program, but I’m excited to see possibilities ahead.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Out on the town

Yesterday morning Alla and I walked to the train station to buy tickets for next weekend. We took the long way in order to enjoy pleasant weather and parts of town we hadn’t visited recently. We wandered past the main football (soccer) stadium and gawked at the reconstruction project underway, making friends with a security guard in the process. We meet the nicest people here!

After buying our tickets, we wandered toward the marketplace by a route that kept us off of the streets we know best. In the process, we walked past an exhibit I’d been meaning to visit, “Back in the BSSR.” (The BSSR is a lot like the USSR, only more local.) It looked like it would be interesting enough that we decided to go out for lunch before beginning, so we wouldn’t rush through the exhibit. I’m glad we did it that way, because I did enjoy lingering. The exhibit presented lots of Belarusian Soviet art and a wide-ranging collection of household artifacts and details from everyday life in Soviet times. I spent the most time puzzling over a Lucite fighter-plane desk ornament, inscribed to a lieutenant-general Kravtsov from the Top Gun pilots below him, apparently at his retirement in 1976. I studied the ornament at length because I’d never seen a five-engine aircraft or lifting body resembling the model. After an intensive web search, I still haven’t. I think the desk ornament represented the future, but that future has not yet arrived.

Alla went home from the museum, and I continued on to the market. I’d walked pretty far by then, and felt like a chocolate truffle might serve me well so I went back to visit the “Old-school Masters of Chocolate.”* On the way in I noticed a mom with a couple of kids in a stroller waiting at the foot of the stairs. I asked her if she knew Alexei, which confused her greatly because I was talking about one of the partners in the business, whom she did not know, but one of the kids in the stroller was called Alexei. We sorted this out as I returned eating my chocolate truffle. She had been eager to visit this store for a couple of months but could not get inside because she couldn’t get her twin stroller up the stairs.

I told her I could help her get inside but allowed as how she’d still have a problem because she wouldn’t be able to get back out. Then I offered to babysit while she went in, and she took me up on it. Her boys don’t talk yet, but they know their names and they behaved admirably while I waited. Mom (now known as Alyona) brought me a truffle on a stick when she came back to collect her sons.

It all made for a very pleasant day.

*Not the proper translation, but if you read my previous post you know that.

For more pictures, see this album.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Chocolate in Minsk

I don’t generally like the chocolate here, and regularly bring a few bars of dark chocolate with me when I enter the country. I prefer chocolates made in Europe and according to French traditions. Russian and Belarusian chocolates contain less (or no) cocoa butter and the beans probably aren’t fermented at all and the chocolate not conched in the way I prefer. OK, you get it. I’m a chocolate snob.

I tried all the local stuff and gave up on it. Until now. The other day I noticed a new store between our apartment and the dance school. The name of the store is in Belarusian, and it translates to something like Old-school Masters of Chocolate. Not really, but I like that translation and I’m sticking with it. They have a cocoa pod in their logo. Since most people around here probably have no idea that chocolate comes from cocoa pods, I thought this might be special.

The next time I walked past the shop it was late, nearly 11 p.m. A light shone in the window, so I approached the door. Yes! They were open, and two employees lingered inside. One left as I came in and began to interrogate the other about his ingredients. I don’t know where he got those ingredients, because he uses the good stuff; chocolates that I don’t know how to obtain in Belarus. It turns out I was talking to the owner, and we presently switched to English. He’d been an exchange student in Ohio at one time, and he speaks English like an American. It turns out in addition that he makes chocolate like a Frenchman.

I bought four of his darkest truffles, one with two kinds of dark chocolate, one with cognac, one with ginger, and one with some kind of booze I never heard of. I tried the one I never heard of first. It was good. Really good. I moved on to the others. When I got to the ginger, my head nearly exploded from intense pleasure. I rushed back in to buy a couple more, squeaking in under the wire as he closed the register. These truffles aren’t cheap by local standards, but they’re priced fairly considering what’s in them and how good they are. In fact, I think they’d be a bargain in some American cities. Anyway, I’ll keep telling myself that as I go back.

Стараменская Майстэрня Шакаладу
Киселёва, 4, Minsk 220029

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Easy trip

I swing by San Francisco on my way to Minsk. It gave me a chance to see Johnny and Meredith, Nika and Tim, and then attend a meeting yesterday. I shot through like a skyrocket, basically seeing one couple on Thursday and the other on Friday. The meeting lasted all day on Saturday, and I worried about arriving at the airport on time to catch my flight.

I shouldn't have worried. Getting to the airport took about half as long as I imagined, so I stopped at a Japanese restaurant when I got there and ate a bowl of delicious noodle soup.

I got a break when I got onto the airplane too. Facing a ten-hour flight in a window seat, I became alarmed when I saw how little legroom United gave me in a three-seat row. I hoped that my seatmates would be skinny midgets, but I got a strapping guy with long legs. At least he was friendly. Very friendly. He spoke English with a hint of an accent, reminding me of a friend in Minsk, so I asked him where he was from. He said Israel, so I figured he had a Hebrew accent and I'd been mistaken.

I told him that I'm Steve. He replied that his name was very difficult and hard to pronounce. I urged him on. "I'm Dima," he said.

"Дима," I replied. "Я тоже говорю по-русски. (I also speak Russian.)"

Dima looked incredulous. "Steve?" He asked. I nodded yes. "Are you American?" And off we went. He was a great companion, and we both enjoyed the fact that we had nobody in the middle seat between us.

We got to Frankfurt early and I discovered that I'd shared the plane as well with a Lindy hopper from Minsk, Vanya, who had been in San Francisco on business. We're waiting together right now for our plane to Minsk, and he thinks he might have space in his company's car to give me a ride from the airport. It's been an extraordinarily easy trip. Maybe I'll even get home in time to buy some groceries before the store closes.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pictures worth a thousand words

We got our chimney rebuilt. I really liked the Brazilian guys who came to build it.

We keep going to the Arboretum because it's so pretty.

This time we stopped at the Kelleher Rose Garden on our way to the Arboretum.

We still made time to stop for lunch at Kamado Restaurant in Jamaica Plain. We love that place.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Excursion to Salem

Alla and I decided to go up to Salem to spend an afternoon at the Peabody Essex Museum and generally act like tourists. We took the train up there, lingered over lunch, and then discovered that the museum closed earlier than we thought, so we had 90 minutes to stay. We made the most of it. In that short interval, we visited three exhibits and felt like we’d already made our trip worthwhile. Since we didn’t know anywhere in particular to eat dinner nearby, we decided to take an early train back home and eat in Boston’s North End neighborhood.

We didn’t make it home right away, however, because I found a nice new iPhone on the sidewalk. I got the impression it might belong to the car parked beside it with a significant amount of cash spilling out of the ash tray. I figured anybody casual enough to leave a bunch of money in plain view might be scatterbrained enough to get out of the car with a phone in his or her lap. Conveniently, the screen wasn’t locked on the phone so I started calling the most-recently-dialed numbers in the call log. I learned the phone owner’s name and that she had come to Massachusetts with her boyfriend. I also learned the boyfriend’s name and phone number, so I tried a few times to call him. Most of the numbers I called, including the boyfriend, went unanswered. Perhaps everybody was in one place, maybe even at the wedding in the hotel across the street.

We went into the hotel to look for a scatter-brained phone dropper. Could it have been the couple making out on the sofa in the lobby? I didn’t want to interrupt them in order to find out, so I called the boyfriend’s phone again and left him a message explaining that I’d leave the phone at the front desk of the hotel.

The whole procedure took long enough that we missed our train, so we went out and found a nice-looking Indian restaurant for dinner. That worked out VERY well, since we loved our dinner and managed to coordinate our timing so that we could catch the last ferry from Salem back to Boston. We liked the boat a lot more than the train, though we do like the train too. Anyway, we had a really good time in Salem and we heard from the boyfriend as we sailed home: they got the phone and we got the improved evening.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Frankie 100

I just came back from an extraordinary event, and I wish I better knew how to describe it. Words like awesome, joyful, awe-inspiring, brilliant, energetic, lovely, warm, swingin’, thoughtful and stellar combine to suggest something of what I experienced, but to be thorough I’d need to use more adjectives than you want to read. Honestly, Frankie 100 ranks as one of the most amazing events I can remember ever. The amazingness rests on meticulous and inspired organization, the reverent memory of a man who seemed to love everybody and elicited great love in return, and over 2,000 gregarious and talented dancers from around the world. The event, Frankie 100, celebrated the hundredth birthday of a man named Frankie Manning, who played a big role in the beginnings of the dance called Lindy hop and went on to play an even bigger role in its resurgence.

The organizers did a superb job. Most importantly, they nailed a few key points. First, they never let us forget the best aspects of Frankie’s character and encouraged us to treat each other by those same standards. Second, they gave us great dance music and an adequate dance floor. Third, they arranged lots of social and cultural activities for smaller groups outside of the main evening events. Beyond this, they filled in a host of administrative and logistical details so that attendees, even those with poor English skills, could focus on having a good time without fretting over how to do it.

In turn, the attendees came prepared to have a good time and to help their fellow dancers have an equally good time. I danced with quite a few extraordinary dancers, people with exceptional skills and expertise. Naturally, I learned from many of them. And in spite of any skill imbalance when I danced with teachers and performers, they shared the joy of dance and the pleasure of partnership. Sometimes I danced with beginners too, and took pleasure in the opportunity to experience the music and the dance in ways that they could follow. But I felt pretty fortunate there, that everybody in the room knew something about Lindy hop and I only met one or two complete beginners. It was a big event, and it drew a committed crowd.

Since I returned home, I’ve enjoyed seeing some of the chatter on the Frankie 100 Facebook page. Lots of others share my sense that we participated in something extraordinary, something never to be repeated in the same way. We will do other things to remember Frankie Manning and his legacy in the coming years, but I expect that future events will be more local. This year, however, we formed a global community of love and we’re going to remember it for the rest of our lives.

Photo by Tim Gee, used by permission

Friday, May 23, 2014

Frankie 100, first impressions

I took the Lucky Star bus from Boston to New York early this morning so I could spend the long weekend at a dance festival called Frankie 100. The bus ride took longer than I expected, since the cops investigated the company and made them begin driving at or near the speed limit. Checking in took a long time too, so I had a chance while waiting in line to chat with people from Australia, Russia and even Belarus. I spent all morning and early afternoon waiting for something or another, and finally had my registration materials and hotel room squared away in time to go down to the Alvin Ailey Theater for some dance lessons.

The dance teachers lined us up and paired us off, and then we rotated partners as we practiced. Most of my partners had names I'd never heard of, so I asked each where she was from. Almost every answer was unique, though I had more than one partner from France, Australia and America. But the internationality, really impresses me. I danced with people from almost all corners of the globe.

This evening's show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was quite joyful too, and I ran into friends from Lithuania and got to know a delightful group of Swedes. I'm supposed to be dancing right now, but it's raining out so here I am. I have an errand at the Russian Embassy in the morning so I can't stay out late tonight anyway. Tomorrow will be another story.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Happy anniversary

Alla got an offer from Travel Zoo, offering a fancy lunch for two for $33 at the restaurant in a new hotel on the waterfront. She accepted the offer, and told them when she made the reservation that we’d be celebrating our anniversary. That worked out really well.

The restaurant, Aragosta, faces the Boston Harbor. They gave us a table by the window and offered us complimentary glasses of Champagne in celebration of our anniversary. Alla was very pleased by her drink, and was disappointed that I asked for a glass of sparkling water instead, since it turns out she was hoping I’d accept the Champagne and then let her drink it. Anyway, I enjoyed my water.

The menu didn’t strictly match the Travel Zoo coupon, so the waiter gave us a very liberal interpretation of the coupon’s value. We started with a huge platter of Italian meats and cheeses, moved on to seafood/pasta main dishes and ended with tiramisu and tea. The waiter included it all in the value of the coupon, even though we’d managed to order about a hundred bucks’ worth of food. It took us a long time to eat, and we ended up taking home a pretty big bag of leftovers after having a really good time.

We didn’t go directly home, however. We took a meandering walk along the shoreline, exploring hidden residential areas (where we’d love to live), various parks and the Boston Garden. The Boston Garden isn’t really a garden. It’s a big sports arena, home to the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. The Bruins were getting ready for a Stanley Cup playoff game that night, so a festival atmosphere surrounded the building. We got carried away with the craziness and bought some small things in the souvenir store.

Boston is a great city for walking and touring. I’ve been making regular excursions in various directions on my bicycle, enjoying the spring flowers and all the other people enjoying the city. A couple of weeks ago I saw some musicians posing with their instruments for a picture. I stopped and asked them if they had any gigs coming up, which they did. They would play this evening at the French Cultural Center, so I got the information and promised to go. We came back from the concert a couple of hours ago, happy that we went. We enjoy an abundance of great music because we’re near several great musical schools. Since I like jazz and other types of popular music, I’m particularly happy about being near Berklee College of Music. Come to think of it, I’m pleased about most of what surrounds us.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wedding week

We’ve been pretty busy because Nika and Tim got married on Saturday. We escaped much of the planning and early preparation by virtue of being many time zones away, so the final week gave us, perhaps, a little taste of what Nika has been feeling during months of preparation. We tasted intensity, but we sure did enjoy it.

The bride and groom came to town a week ahead of their wedding. Nika had various to-do lists and lots of ideas of where we’d fit in. The biggest task she entrusted to me involved unfolding and ruffling a couple cubic meters of paper pom-poms while she and Alla did tasks requiring skills I don’t have. We spent most of a day together doing our various assigned tasks and then rocketed ahead to Nika’s spreadsheet/calendar of projects and events.

I particularly enjoyed spending a couple of days at Tim’s family place on Cape Cod, along with Tim’s mom, Nika’s dad and the betrothed. Until this point, we’d never really gotten to know Tim’s mom at anything deeper than a social level and Alla and I especially enjoyed coming to know her as a generous hostess, deep thinker, joyful bon vivant and caring mom. In between wedding-prep tasks, Tim took some of us to visit the Woods Hole Aquarium where he once worked and for a couple of beautiful walks, including Spohr Gardens.

All week it seemed we were either guests or hosts. I dropped the ball on one of my hosting duties, having promised Nika that I’d make potato waffles with smoked trout for a brunch with her bridesmaids. Somehow the day sneaked up on me before I’d done adequate preparation and Alla helped me prepare a simpler alternative, scones with fresh fruit, mango lassi and other goodies. It worked out well, and we certainly enjoyed having the bridesmaids in the house making floral arrangements for the wedding. We’ve known all the bridesmaids for a long time, and I always enjoy seeing them.

Nika gave me a big break on her wedding day, releasing me from further duties until late afternoon. That freed me up to spend a few hours with family members who flew in from California, which we spent touring historic Salem before going to the park-like wedding venue nearby. I changed my clothes in the car while Viktor and the women changed their clothes in the building. Somehow the women got to crash the bridal chamber and dressed along with Nika. Meanwhile, some of Tim’s cousins drove up and parked beside me. The women in the next car applied their makeup as I tied my necktie, and then we got out to greet each other in our wedding finery.

The ceremony could not have been better. Tim’s aunt got permission from the State to officiate in place of a regular minister, and she did a fantastic job. She spent many hours getting ready for it, and she projected just the right balance of familiarity and gravity, humor and sincerity. And then we liked the party that followed just as much. Guests delivered tender and well-thought-out toasts, the disk jockey managed to keep practically everybody on the dance floor, and the food was delicious.

I thought the busy-ness would end after the wedding, as my cousins flew back to California and the newlyweds disappeared for a couple of days alone. In fact, it didn’t quite work out that way. One of my best buddies had come down from Vermont for the wedding, so we invited him and his wife to spend the day with us on Sunday. We didn’t attempt anything terribly strenuous, but we did enjoy a nice walk ending in the Boston Common where a band played in the Parkman Bandstand. We listened to music and I took turns dancing with each of the women present until we finally had to come home to see Nika and Tim, who brought us a big chunk of wedding cake and some leftover beverages.

It’s really all over now. Nika and Tim reappeared on their way to the airport this afternoon and we had one last meal together, up on our roof deck. After lunch, we finished off our part of the wedding cake, took a very short walk, and said a fond goodbye to the bride and groom. During the whole week, everybody radiated so much love (particularly Nika and Tim) that it reflected and reverberated all over the place. We feel really good, but we already miss the company. It was a great week, and we’re still enjoying a fountain of bouquets and cut flowers on every level of our house.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Can this really be New England?

I used to embarrass myself here all the time by talking to strangers who pretended they couldn’t hear me. New Englanders weren’t as friendly as the Californians I’d grown up with, and they frequently preferred to ignore me rather than speak with a stranger. It’s gotten much better, and I don’t think about that much now. But still, I experienced so much friendliness in a few hours this morning that I’m having a hard time believing it.

I started out at the post office, mailing a letter. A few years ago, postal workers considered the Beacon Hill post office the worst place to work in the Boston area. Everybody wanted to transfer out, and they didn’t try very hard to hide their displeasure from their customers. That’s changed too. The disgruntled employees got their transfers, Mary the Clown (really! She works children’s parties) started working there and everybody else seems pretty cheerful most of the time. This morning they acted outright jolly.

I went from the post office to the athletic club where I work out. Fay sat down next to me at the Life Fitness machines and started to chat. We love Fay. She’s a garrulous Irish lady who practically lives at the gym. She does yoga, aerobics, Zumba, weight lifting; pretty much everything.

When Fay and I parted ways, I walked over to the water cooler to refill my bottle. Four people sat nearby, cooling off after a couple hours of group workout classes. One of them looked over at me and remarked, “You look like you’re ready to take on the day.” I answered affirmatively and she introduced herself and her friends. Everybody appeared happy to be meeting a stranger.

The last detail, that made me want to write all of this down, happened in the elevator as I left, carrying a recovery smoothie. Another passenger in the elevator had a smoothie too, and she raised her glass to mine. We toasted and the third passenger joined our conversation with animation as we rode four floors to the lobby. Everybody is so outgoing! It amazes me how much my surroundings appear to have changed over the course of a few years. It’s wonderful, and I hope it’s like this for everybody.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reinserted in Boston

We’re back, and I’m getting the hang of life in Boston. We took our first rush-hour subway ride yesterday evening and I remembered to move slowly and touch no one. The Red Line ran at its usual stately pace, with a ten-minute pause between Central and Harvard Squares because a train ahead of us had mechanical difficulties. This did not bother us, because we left in time knowing what could happen.

We took that ride because we wanted to go to a free seminar on the Ten Commandments by some hot-shot professor at the Harvard Divinity School. We really love this about Boston, that we’re surrounded by universities with interesting programs for free or not much money. This free seminar ran about an hour, followed by a reception at the Harvard Semitic Museum. I’d never heard about the museum, which proved to be another great find. Admission is always free, and the room where they held the reception included a very interesting mock-up of an ancient Semitic home. We read all the display materials while enjoying delicious food and drink. I should pay better attention to what’s going on at Harvard.

The day before yesterday we met another professor, a linguist friend of our neighbors. He teaches at MIT and does research on the origins of language. He thinks that language is innate in humans and he told fascinating stories about his research and findings. We know interesting people in Belarus too, people who know things about which we’d like to learn. I like learning, and having the opportunity to do so makes me feel well-located.

Meanwhile we’ve unpacked and gotten back into our physical-training routines. I’m riding my bike a lot, which I enjoy more here than in Belarus because bikes are welcome on the city streets, drivers are nice to us, and I have a variety of pretty places to ride. I also prefer our indoor exercise facilities here since they are bigger, open longer hours, and better maintained.

So, nearly everything has come together. We are at home in Boston and life here is just as interesting as life in Minsk. Today I only wish that I could pop back and forth between the two cities at will, especially if I could do it at science-fiction speeds.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prague Easter

We're on our way back to Boston, traveling through Prague because we got a good deal from British Airways. We wanted to see the Christmas markets here on our way to Minsk, but had no idea we'd enjoy a parallel experience of Easter markets in Prague now.

We discovered the party on our way to the Charles Bridge. Walking into Old Town Square, we recognized the stage and stalls from Christmas. The pine tree had disappeared, however, replaced by a big birch with eggs and ribbons hanging from it. As before, lots of revelers hung out eating and drinking, but now they drank beer instead of hot wine. We got pretty excited about bookending our trip with these pseudo-Christian celebrations.

Alla found a magazine article explaining that under communist suppression of religion, a spring celebration arose to take the place of Easter. Now that people are free to celebrate everything, the combined holiday looks pretty unique. Men flog their women with decorated birch whips to ensure their fertility and happiness for the coming year. Women respond the next day by pouring buckets of water over their men, perhaps to symbolize that they are all wet. Women, we are told, actually buy these whips for their husbands. Alla omitted this opportunity, but we did see a woman on a tramway bringing one home.

We plan to attend vespers at Saint Vitus' Cathedral this evening. I'll let you know in the comments below if they feature any birch boughs for Palm Sunday.

Most of our time here we've done more conventional stuff, like walking around and visiting churches, museums and other touristy places. We often talked about taking a tour of the fabulously-art-nouveau Municipal House, but only did it yesterday. Wow, that was worthwhile. Every room blew our minds. It would be hard not to have a good time in Prague, and I'm happy to be here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Busted for jaywalking

Some years ago, out for a walk in Minsk with our friend Tamara, I suggested that we cross the street at a spot convenient to us but not marked by a crosswalk. Uncomfortable, Tamara commented that a militsionier might not like that. Militsioniers, members of the Militia, wear big hats and enforce the laws of the land. They used to look pretty scary to me, and I think we crossed the street where Tamara preferred, though I later led her astray when she and her fiancée Alexey came to visit us in Boston.

This morning I found myself on an inconvenient side of the street about twenty meters from the corner. It was a quiet street at a quiet time of day, and I didn’t think much of crossing in the middle of the block. Oops! A militsionier popped out of an unmarked car, called me over and asked to see my passport. I had a pretty good idea what he wanted, and treated him with the deference he deserved. Unfortunately, however, I don’t carry my passport.

I used to carry official documentation with me at all times, but finally decided that nobody ever wants to see it except in predictable places like the bank. Since my passport was getting tattered from being sat on, I scanned the main page and put the image onto my phone. Later, when I got my residency permit I added that image to my phone.

So, I told the officer I didn’t have my documents with me, but I’d be glad to show him the copies on my phone. At first he insisted on the actual documents, pointing out how easy it is to change things with Photoshop. I invited him home with me, and he relented. The scanned image would be OK this time, so I got out my phone. This did not help, because I got the phone a year or so after getting the residency permit and apparently did not copy over those pictures. Now I had a real problem, but I also had a really kind militsionier.

The cop and I stood around for about twenty minutes more sorting things out. I started by writing down enough personal information for him to call headquarters so they could look up my residency permit on their database. Somehow, however, that didn’t work out. I think the person on the other end of the call couldn’t quite get a handle on spelling my name correctly. Whatever the problem, they couldn’t find me. Finally I called Alla and asked her to read my ID number to the officer and confirm how my name is spelled in Russian on the document. My hands got so cold that when I finally had to sign all the confessions of guilt and agreements to the fine that I could barely write my name. But the City of Minsk got it’s $15 and I learned an important lesson. Tamara was right.

As I prepared to leave, I shook the militsionier’s hand and told him it had been a pleasure for me to get to know him. I meant it. He smiled back and said it had been a pleasure for him too.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Four cheeses

My hairdresser insists on talking to me in English, though we’d probably communicate better in Russian. The other night she was telling me about her prior life in Germany. She said, “I make four cheeses.” Interested, I thought about the farmhouses I’d seen in Switzerland, where farm families cured cheeses in their basements. Usually they’d only make one or two kinds of cheese, and I imagined that Alesya’s business in Germany must have been pretty impressive.

As she continued her story, however, I realized that she hadn’t said cheeses, but Jesus. “I make for Jesus.” OK. I had to re-think. The Russian language includes a common verb that translates variously in English around the concepts of doing and making. No doubt she thinks in Russian and translated her thoughts into English. So she was doing for Jesus. Once again it made sense, but the meaning changed greatly.

Do I still get into similar predicaments in Russian? Probably, but people are generally too polite to tell me.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


I have from time to time thought about what it is that I like about travel and tried to define what constitutes for me a “vacation frame of mind.” The last time I wrote anything down on the subject, I posted it to my blog in September, 2010.

I had an epiphany on the topic a few days ago. I don’t generally let myself get angry when I’m traveling. Can this be a key? I didn’t imagine I might have any kind of problems with anger until after Luci died and a close friend saw me reacting to some problem or another. She said, “I think you may be acting the way you described your father acting when he reacts too strongly to things.” She was right. By simple good fortune, most of my adult life I’ve been free generally from situations that would make me mad, especially at home.

In recent years, however, I found myself angry more often than I’d like; and I’ve had to face and address the problem. My cousin suggested that I read an annoyingly-sweet but very helpful book called “The Anatomy of Peace.” It offers some very practical guidance to getting along in stressful situations, and I began to put it into practice. As an unexpected result of that and a few other factors following, I almost never get mad any more.

I’ve long understood that happiness is a choice, and occasionally I have to remind myself that it’s the choice I wish to take. I’ve learned better to give other people the benefit of the doubt and to find positive elements and opportunities in difficult situations. It turns out that I’ve taken a new point of view, a fact that came out in a recent conversation with my wife. She was remembering a series of bad results in certain circumstances where my own impression was that the results were generally OK or even pretty good. We both remember that there were such circumstances, but our world views led to different summarizations. Maybe my recollections are overly rosy; I don’t know. I’d assert that her recollections are overly dire, and I suppose another observer might even say that we’re both wrong, that the results are somewhere in the middle. Who knows? I can just say that I’m grateful to be living with happy memories, regardless of what anybody else saw during those circumstances.

Anyway, thinking that way makes it pretty hard to aggravate me. And I think that’s one of the things I liked about all those vacations. I had no bosses, no difficult co-workers and no repeatedly-annoying business relationships. If a shopkeeper behaved badly, I’d figure it was just a little bump in the road but I felt pretty confident that I’d have a great day nonetheless. I could let it go. And lately, right here at home in Minsk, I find that I feel roughly the same way.

By way of summary, then, I think I know what I really sought when I thought about that elusive vacation frame of mind. I think I wanted to learn better to love. Not just to love nice people, but to love in general, even to love the day’s opportunities for improvement. It feels pretty good.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Boston Charlie

It's still happening to me. I talk to people in Russian every day, but sometimes I still have problems with it. Today, riding the subway, I stood up as my stop approached. It's polite and important here in Minsk to get near the door before it opens at your stop. Everybody flows out quickly, the next group flows in and WHAM! the doors close and the train starts rolling. Bostonians can't even get off the trains as quickly as residents of Minsk can complete the whole exchange. To make this work, we always ask the nearest person between us and the door if they're getting off. If not, we trade positions and ask again until the person ahead of us also plans to get off. Everybody knows the drill.

I was surprised, then, when the lady in front of me didn't understand me when I asked if she were getting off. She should have known what I wanted even if I just grunted, but she replied to me "Я не поняла" (I didn't understand.)

I repeated my question directly into her ear, "Вы выходите?" (Are you getting off?)

She repeated her answer, "Я не поняла" (I didn't understand.)

I imagined a little more context would help her, so I asked a longer form of the usual question: "Вы здесь выходите?" (Are you getting off here?)

She still didn't understand, but a fellow passenger repeated the same words to her and this time she understood and replied that she'd be getting off.

I decided I needed to lose my American accent, at the very least for this particular phrase. Upon leaving the station, I called Alla and asked her to critique my pronunciation. She claims that I've got nothing to improve. I made her say the phrase to me anyway, and for the life of me I can't catch whatever it is I'm doing wrong. At least the lady got off the train and I'm not like Boston Charlie riding forever beneath the city streets.

Monday, March 24, 2014

MLX 2014

I know a bunch of tired people today; I’m one of them. We spent the last two and a half days dancing. Uff. What a ball! We celebrated the fifth annual Minsk Lindy Exchange, with dancers and teachers from several countries. We had a lot of Lithuanians, even more Russians, and people from Poland and Ukraine, in addition to visitors from other cities in Belarus. I already knew a few of the visitors, and had a great time getting to know some more. I particularly liked Oleg, for example, who came in from Smolensk. He demonstrated his outgoing personality with a perpetual smile and abundant enthusiasm. Actually, nearly everybody smiled almost all the time. I had to deal with just one exception, a girl who seemed surprisingly grumpy every time she came up in the rotations as my dance partner. Finally, when we were thrown together again I asked her if she felt OK. She said yes, and at the same time became noticeably softer.

A huge group from Moscow traveled together on the train, organized around members of a jazz band called The Facepalmers. I’d been curious about the name of the band, unable to guess what relationship they might imagine between faces and palm trees. When I heard about the train ride, I asked the girl from Moscow if she knew what’s a facepalmer. By way of answer, she slapped the palm of her hand against her forehead and said, “Oh!” The Facepalmers also dance quite well. They danced with all of us until late on Saturday evening to the music of Belarusian musicians. Finally, around midnight, they took the stage and played joyfully while the rest of us danced. Last night, on my way to the farewell party, I saw their saxophonist playing solo at the subway exit nearest the hall. A couple of girls stood and listened. I put 20,000 rubles into his open case and invited one of the girls to dance with me. It was a perfect MLX moment.

It sounds like I put a lot of money into his saxophone case, but I didn’t really. That’s about two dollars. The people from Russia had a lot of trouble with our currency. On Saturday I was helping at the registration table for one of the dance contests, where participants had to pay 30,000 rubles apiece as an entry fee. The Russians would walk up with fistfuls of currency, but they’d have mostly 50, 100 and 500-ruble banknotes. You’d need a bag full of that kind of money to come up with 30,000 rubles.

I don’t have any pictures from MLX yet, but for your amusement here’s a picture of part of the Moscow contingent on the train. I hear they didn’t get a lot of sleep along the way.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Politics of trees

We have a troubled neighbor who lives on the first floor of the northern corner of our building and wishes she had more light. Last summer she wrote a letter of complaint to the city's environmental department and they responded by cutting off all of the lower branches from the birch trees near her part of the building. In fact, they trimmed all the way up to the fourth floor. Appalled, her neighbors begged her to consult with them before writing any more letters of complaint.

That lasted a few months, but she freaked out again as winter drew to a close. We had foggy and dark weather all winter long. Nobody saw the sun more than a few hours out of several months, and our neighbor apparently got depressed or at least frustrated. Alla learned this when the city workers arrived with their cherry picker and started removing branches from outside our kitchen window. I learned about it later, when I came home from the gym and found the house empty and the kitchen window open. Fortunately, Alla had not jumped out of it. She did yell at the tree guy, who continued sawing, so she ran out the door, gathering up a neighbor for moral support and stood under the tree until the supervisor came to stop the project.

It turns out that the environmental department had broken a rule, sending out the demolition crew before verifying the complaint. Alla and a neighbor went down to meet the head guy for our district and encourage him to investigate before cutting anything else around our building. Abashed, the boss asked if he could do something to make up for the mistake. Would they like, for example, to receive some new trees? "Oh yes," our people replied, "we'd love to have some new trees."

This answer pleased the environmental boss greatly. As it turns out, he had a problem. He'd bought a bunch of trees and discovered that not everybody likes them as much as we do. They drop leaves, and too many people would prefer to have no trees than to rake up after them. Spring is at hand, and the greens people were very eager to plant their dormant trees before they would die piled in a lot somewhere.

First, they delivered a row of linden trees to fill in along our back fence and cover up an abandoned construction project we never liked. The boss called us on the phone a few days later, while Alla was out of the house. I gushed a little bit, thanking him for the trees and telling him I'd like to know to whom I should address a thank-you letter. He responded by asking me if we'd like to have a few mountain ash trees and I said yes. Next thing we knew, the crew came back with a LOT of mountain ash saplings. Matvey and I won't be playing Frisbee in our yard anymore, because we have no yard. Now we have an arboretum. That's OK. There's a park nearby and I figure we'll have more oxygen than anybody else in the city.

We did have a little more drama. The guys from the old construction project tried to dig up the linden trees soon after. Fortunately, our neighbor's dog noticed and barked at them until the neighbor came out for yet another confrontation. The construction guys showed a year-old plan that had already been defeated, showing that they could run some pipes across our yard underneath the new trees. When our neighbor pointed out that the planned project had been first revised and then rejected, they left, saying they didn't want to do it with a shovel anyway. So far, we still have our trees.

From 2014-03 Minsk