Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Those fat lines (again)

I generally liked learning Russian at the Minsk State Linguistic University. I only disliked waiting in the cafeteria line, as an endless stream of students would rush up to their friends ahead of me so my part of the line, way in the back somewhere, would not advance. I had the same thing happen last summer when I tried to buy a snack at a shashlik stand in a park during some sort of an event. While there appeared to be only a few people ahead of me when I queued up, I had to wait an extra twenty minutes or so because people kept running up to their acquaintances ahead of me and adding many servings to each order, more than the cook could deliver before additional "friends" happened by and inserted themselves ahead of me. I complained loudly, and the people standing behind me told me to give it up, that this was normal behavior.

A church community, in many ways, develops its own culture. People are nicer at church, perhaps nicer even than they themselves would be in another situation. Cordiality reigns. I figured I'd get myself a big dose of niceness by going to a weekend conference on healing. Everybody was indeed quite neighborly. And then we broke for lunch.

Volunteers had laid out tables in the lobby, arcing around themselves in the shape of the Russian letter П. On these tables, they'd set up a sea of divided plates with the salad course already served up. People flowed out the doors of the church and queued up at the flanks of the tables, waiting to reach the center to get completed plates with hot food added. It worked well for about two minutes, but the servers didn't move fast enough and people started swarming around the hot food rather than go back around behind the people waiting along the flanks. I'd arrived early, and was already near the hot food but not at the center. Those of us trying to form an orderly line had to wait until the swarm at the center thinned out before we could begin to make progress, but I figured this must be due simply to confusion about the layout.

The evening coffee break, however, gave me a different impression. I got in line about six meters from the counter and stayed there for three or four minutes. During that time, the line ballooned ahead of me, swelling to resemble a snake that just swallowed a cat. Finding myself at the back end of the cat, I decided those pastries weren't so attractive after all and returned to the tangerines in my briefcase. Sure, church people are nice. But a line is a line, and here the priority goes to being nice to the people who walk up and find friends already standing near the food.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Land of darkness

Arriving in Minsk in late afternoon on Saturday, our plane descended through clouds to land on a dark and foggy runway. We rode home with our favorite taxi driver, chatting all the way. I asked him when was the last time he’d seen the sun. “Today!” he exulted. “For fifteen minutes.” I haven’t been so lucky. The city gets bright enough to shut off the street lamps for a few hours every day, but a thick blanket of fog prevents any real sense of brightness. If the sun ever comes out, I’m planning to run outside, regardless of what else I might be doing at the time. It’s really dark when I get up, and stays so until around 9 am. Then it gets really dark once again by around 4 pm. In between, we don’t need street lights but we have no idea where the sun might be in the dimly-lit space where sky should be apparent.

In spite of the solar darkness, our friends seem to be pretty sunny and we’re having fun getting reconnected. Tomorrow I’ll find out how the bureaucrats are feeling, since we have to go get ourselves registered within five days of arrival. The folks in the registration office aren’t always as cheerful as the rest of the population, so we try to nurture them with extra documents, passport photos, and whatever other gifts we imagine might soothe their troubled bureaucratic hearts.

At least with all this fog we don’t have to run our humidifier. Still, I look forward to seeing the sky.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year

From 2013-12 December
We’re very happy about how we met 2014. After a lot of searching, trying to balance entertainment, view and quality of experience based on what we could learn from Boston, we booked ourselves a table at the Bellevue Restaurant (in Prague.) They won because of what people said about their food and because the pictures on their website convinced us that we’d enjoy a good view.

Not only did we enjoy fantastic food with a beautiful view, we were pleased also to meet a very professional staff and a group of funny and outgoing English people at the next table. The menu included many courses, and we had lots of time to enjoy them because we arrived around 8:30 and didn’t want to run out of distractions before midnight. We decided to make a point of enjoying our delicious food, eating slowly and chewing each bite more thoroughly than we would ordinarily consider necessary. We had fun stretching our meal out until we finally finished the incredible desserts at around 11:30.

At midnight the sky lit up with fireworks outside our window, and restaurant guests wished each other a happy new year in several different languages. (Šťastný nový rok in Czech.) Then we had to get home to our hotel, on the other side of Old Town Square. Our guidebook said that the fireworks in the street would be safe, but just barely. I guess that’s about right. We had to walk through lots of broken glass while avoiding skyrockets, showers of sparks and various kinds of small explosives. I guided Alla carefully, since she was already somewhat wounded from Christmas Eve and was at this time wearing a green sparkly mask. We passed several fireworks vendors, but didn’t buy any ourselves. We got to see plenty without lighting any of our own fuses.

From 2013-12 December
Alla slept in on New Year’s Day, so I went out alone to see the view from the top of the Powder Tower, tour the Moser museum and gallery, and listen to an opera performance on an open stage in Old Town Square. The sales lady at Moser told me about a delightful restaurant at the Hotel U Prince, where Alla and I ate dinner this evening. They have a beautiful rooftop terrace with glass walls and ceiling so we enjoyed a fabulous view with our quite tasty and modestly-priced dinner.

All told, I’d say that we’ve gotten 2014 off to a good start, and I hope the same goes for my readers. Happy new year!