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.