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