Wednesday, October 28, 2015


To be perfectly honest, I thought the world was in a state of serious decline. I haven’t always felt that way, but that’s the way things looked to me recently and I didn’t see any reason to doubt it. Today, I’m not so sure. My renewed optimism came out of a lunch-time conversation at a little middle-eastern restaurant, and I almost didn’t go inside.

I don’t even know the name of the restaurant, but I go there from time to time for falafel. Today was almost warm enough to eat at a table on the sidewalk and I considered it because a crowd of guests already occupied almost all of the seats at their tiny dining counter and the room had gotten very hot. But I decided I’d get cold before I finished my lunch, so I squeezed into the last seat at the end of the counter, right beside the hot soup pot.

Fortunately, the guy beside me left soon, and I could move away from the soup. There, I found myself beside a hungry music student eating from two platters. We chatted, and I learned that she’s a pianist studying composition. This interested me, particularly the part about learning to compose. She taught me a little bit about how Bach and Mozart’s audiences might have interacted with the music, and how it differs from modern traditions. The conversation made me remember, once again, that I should never assume that my way of doing something is the best way or that somebody else’s approach is necessarily worse.

Finally, the conversation looped around to her native city, Istanbul. I told her how much I like Turkey and asked about whether the recent civil unrest had changed things for her family. Her optimistic reply didn’t surprise me so much as her thinking impressed me. She pointed out how when a person has a headache, the pain is foremost in the person’s thought even though the rest of the body may be entirely healthy. Similarly, we lose track of all the good things going on in the world when we focus on trouble spots. She sees lots of reason for optimism and directed my attention that way.

I like it. I could have recommended optimism to somebody else at another time, but I wasn’t feeling it this week and I’m grateful for today’s redirection.

Friday, October 23, 2015

An American train

Trains in America aren't very good. People don't use them much so the government subsidizes the passenger train system. The subsidies guarantee that the trains will run, but they don't assure quality. Freight trains get priority and if anything goes wrong anywhere in the system, the passenger trains get delayed. And once a train  gets delayed, the whole rhythm of the tracks gets out of whack and the delays keep adding up.

Years ago, I used to take trains often between Boston and New York because nobody in his right mind wants to park a car in Manhattan. Most of the time any given train would be late, but the amount of lateness varied. The government poured money over the problem, fixing up the tracks and starting a deluxe fast train called Acela. The Acela trains tend to run on time, but the rest of the passenger trains still run late to very late. I don't ride those trains any more because there's plenty of bus service and the buses almost always run on schedule, cost less, and get there sooner.

We got onto a train today, however. We're not going to New York -- we're going to Portland, Maine. There's a nice train called The Downeaster, which pretty much gets the track to itself. We could have taken a bus with shorter expected travel time, but Alla really wanted the train. She thought the route might be prettier and we'd save a couple of dollars.

It's pretty and we did save a little money, but it's still Amtrak. We left Boston on schedule and passed the first few towns uneventfully. Then, near the New Hampshire border, we stopped. The conductor told us that we had a stop signal alongside the tracks and we'd have to wait for the light to turn green. Later he announced that he was still waiting to hear from the dispatcher to learn what's going on. I took a nap.

I felt like Rip Van Winkle. When the train started moving, I woke up and checked my watch. We'd entered a new epoch. Well, anyway, I'd slept for forty minutes. This didn't mean that we were just forty minutes late, however. Now we had to stall around so that some other train could go around us.

I'm glad we bought one-easy tickets. This means we can go home on a bus.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Not-quite tourists

I want to tell you a story about a bunch of Westerners I met in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Carrie and I spent our first night there in a guesthouse, which she and I have already told you about. Most of the guests were guys in their 20’s and 30’s and Carrie was the only woman. While we were out exploring the city, visiting Choijin Lama Temple Museum, Sukhbaatar Square, minor plazas and monuments and even the Children’s Park, most of the guys hung out at the guesthouse surfing the internet and telling each other stories about other places they’d idled and where they might go next.

While we slept, or tried to sleep, the rest of the gang warmed up a party in the living room which led, many hours later, to singing drunken songs about sexual conquest. Apparently they like girls, at least in the abstract. When we returned after our three-day tour of parks and remote villages, however, the guys were still at the guesthouse, now abuzz over the arrival of two attractive young women from Germany. They seemed disappointed that the young women had not stayed long in the living room, but had gone out to explore the city.

“Guys,” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t any of you offer to show them around town?”

“Because we don’t know anything about Ulaanbaatar,” the most honest among them replied.

I don’t understand this. If all they wanted to do was sit around with a few beers and some company, they could have surely enjoyed the same thing in their home towns. While they’re probably too old to sit around in college dormitories, certainly they’re old enough to visit a bar or join some social clubs. What’s the appeal, then, of going far from home if not to meet some people with different backgrounds and experiences or at least learn to walk around and see stuff?

For that matter, then, their failure reminds me that I should make the best of wherever I am, even when I’m at home. I know my home towns pretty well, but can always discover more and see familiar things from a new point of view. I have some ideas, and I hope to tell you about them later.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Back in Minsk

Last summer I made a big list of my favorite things about Minsk so I’d have something to choose from when Carrie came to visit. I like Minsk, so the list got long. I compiled my list in the first place as a summary of favorite moments as I walked and cycled around the city. Since some of these moments are geographically far apart, I had to summarize for Carrie and I tried to string together favorite places within walking distance of each other.

Carrie and I were already used to walking, but I’d worn out the insides of my shoes during the preceding weeks. Carrie gave me a strip of blister tape to cover over the tunnel my little toe is mining toward the outer surface of my left shoe, and we strolled through the Island of Tears, Victory Park, along the banks of the Svisloch River and back up to Gorky Park. Then we took the urban tour, along Karl Marx Street and then back up Independence Avenue and under the eternal flame in Victory Square.

Stretching into our second day, we took Alla with us and toured the National Library, a couple of important churches, a block of Soviet apartment buildings, another park and many gift stores. Carrie was finally ready to do some serious shopping, since she didn’t have to carry anything very far and she wanted to bring home gifts for friends. My favorite of the gift stops was at the main post office, where they sold Carrie some oversized post cards and very fancy Chagall stamps. They insisted that she mark each of the post cards with a big rubber stamp saying “Welcome to Minsk” in two languages. Alla and the postal people all felt strongly about this. Rubber stamps are important here, and I’m sure everybody felt better knowing that Carrie’s cards would have them.

At the beginning of the trip, I told Alla that I wasn’t sure how Carrie and I would feel about each other after three weeks of such close proximity. I’m happy to report that I was sorry to see her go. She helped me to see and understand things I wouldn’t have seen, took my quirks and personal affectations in stride, offered me companionship and solitude in appropriate doses, and collaborated marvelously. Collaboration brought us to places we could not have reached alone and I’m happy we undertook the project together.

Steve's hedgehog and Carrie's camel, together in Minsk. - - - From 2015-09 Beijing-to-Minsk