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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Buying appliances

Some dear friends are about to get married and Alla suggested that I go out and buy them our favorite kitchen appliance. In the process, I discovered several surprising differences between the way it would happen in America and the way it happens here in Belarus.

It started out pretty typically. I went to a big appliance store in a major shopping mall and spent a half hour or so learning about the advantages and disadvantages of the many different models on display. In pleasant contrast to the American version of this story, sales people swarmed the floor and whenever I had questions I found clerks quickly and got clear and concrete answers. So, finally I chose a product and the clerk got one for me in a sealed box from under the display case. She took the box with her and directed me to a testing island near the cashier.

This is where the story diverges strongly from the way it would go in the US. If you buy anything that plugs into an electrical outlet here, the sales people will test it before you pay. This holds true even for light bulbs. They’ll take each bulb out of a packet and jam it into an unthreaded testing socket to demonstrate that it works. So here I am with my Bosch appliance, manufactured and packed in Slovenia, still in its sealed box. I would be very reluctant in America to give a wedding present in any other condition, but I know I’m about to have my strong cultural preference tattered by a clerk bent on demonstrating that it works. I think about telling her not to open it, but realize that I must relent because if I don’t let her validate the warranty with her two rubber stamps and two signatures, the two-year warranty suddenly decreases to zero. Sigh.

At least the clerk had already opened plenty of appliance boxes in her career and she looked pretty confident. She knew about the various flaps and tabs and she moved carefully so she wouldn’t damage anything beyond the outer seal. Out came the various accessories and the customized bits of packing material intended to hold them in place and create the best possible un-boxing experience. I should have made a video, because I’ll never see that again. Next thing I knew, she had bits of wrapping paper, plastic bags, cardboard spacers and appliance parts all over the table. Fantastic. I wondered if she would demonstrate that each accessory works properly. She did not. She just plugged in the main appliance, revved it up and sent me to the cashier to pay.

When I returned with the receipt, she was still trying to figure out how to get everything back into the box. She was good, but her professionalism didn’t reach quite far enough. She succeeded in fitting all the key stuff inside, but she left out a couple of the spacers. I took the box home, along with the leftover spacers, and re-packed it a little better. Then I went to buy some wrapping paper and a card.

They didn't sell ribbon at the paper store, so we scavenged.
The card presented its own challenge, because out of a huge selection at the bookstore, only four didn’t say “On your wedding day” on the front page. Americans generally give wedding gifts ahead of the wedding, and our cards say something like “For your wedding” or “To the bride and groom.” We won’t even be in Belarus when they get married, so I felt limited to the four cards that didn’t start out with “wedding day.” Of those four, I couldn’t understand one of them and didn’t like the inner text on two others. That left me with one choice, but I think all results are satisfactory.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Tech support

I've had to call my internet service provider's tech support office from time to time because our connection has never been as stable as we'd like. They're always very nice, and sometimes they've found things to change or upgrade but problems kept coming back. Occasionally they'd wonder aloud about my router, but we never got perfectly serious about that.

Last week I got exasperated. Sure, the internet almost always works, but I just couldn't abide the "almost" business any longer. I called the ISP again to see if my neighbor's recent telephone work might have messed up our connection. But wait: I have to pause here. I say, "I called the ISP again" like it's no big deal. In fact, it really isn't a big deal at all. I call, they answer. I never have to wait, and I never have to puzzle over some sort of undecipherable foreign accent. The folks who answer work right across town and some of them even offer to speak English with me. If I called my American ISP, Verizon, I'd be on hold for 30-40 minutes and end up talking to somebody in India who wants to take me through a fixed menu of obvious steps before "escalating" my call to a competent technician.

Anyway, the guy I talked to on Friday told me that he couldn't see anything wrong from his end and he'd like to loan me a modem for a couple of weeks so I can see if a different one works better. I thanked him, but didn't do anything right away, hoping the problem would mysteriously go away again. The internet worked badly over the weekend and I resolved that I'd have to take him up on his offer but made no specific plans to do so. So he called me back on Tuesday and reminded me that he wanted to loan me a better modem. I promised to come see him today.

I didn't go to his office until late in the day, and he became exasperated. He called me at 3 p.m. to remind me that I may need a new modem and he's ready to loan me one. "OK," I said, "I'll be there in 45 minutes." When I finally arrived, my guy had gone home but his associate expected me. When I walked into his office, he greeted me in English, and tested my old modem. It worked OK so he gave it back to me and told me to wait while he went to get me a loaner. While he was out, another associate passed through the office, greeting me in English. Apparently they have good intra-office communication.

They didn't have a combined modem/router like I used before, so they brought me two separate devices and made me a special short cable to connect them neatly. As a matter of fact, they gave me the whole package; though I'm supposed to return the modem and router when I finally close my account. The new equipment made a huge difference and our internet speeds have taken a big jump. All this service comes with a data plan costing just over ten bucks a month. I won't even tell you what our slower internet costs in Boston. This is better.

[For my readers in Belarus, I'm using adsl.by and I'm on the X3 plan.]