Saturday, December 2, 2017


I guess I’ve always liked puzzles, but I came to understand the fact on the day I decided I didn’t want to go to kindergarten. I had been going to school for at least couple of months already, and I’d had enough. I told my parents that I didn’t want to go that day. My mom didn’t know what to do, but my dad assured me that I would indeed go to school, but that I didn’t have to walk. He’d take me in his car on his way to work.

I resisted this idea, and he had to carry me to the car. When we got to school, I went limp as he tried to walk me up the pathway to the kindergarten classroom. Dad kept up his pace, holding my hand high enough that I couldn’t sit down. Mrs. Canavan came out to meet us. Mom must have phoned ahead to warn the school that they’d have a problem child that day.

Mrs. Canavan wasn’t worried, and I don’t think Dad had any doubts either. He drove off to work, leaving me in the care of my teacher. She apparently knew that I liked puzzles, so she took me over to the puzzle cabinet to choose one. We assembled it together. Then we assembled another one, and she helped me less. By the third puzzle, I started enjoying myself and decided I might as well stay at school at least one more day.

Everything was OK until nap time. Before we took our “naps” (we never actually slept), we got one Graham cracker apiece and a little carton of milk. I understood why Mrs. Canavan started passing out the crackers with the kid to my left and went around the circle clockwise, leaving me for last. I’d gotten a whole lot of attention that morning, and I knew that she didn’t want to look like she were playing favorites. Still, she had me worried because she had warned us that she was down to her last box of Graham crackers and it didn’t look certain that she’d have enough to go around.

Still having my “bad day,” I didn’t know what I’d do if the crackers didn’t reach me. Nobody wanted to find out. They nearly made it. By the time she got to me, Mrs. Canavan announced that she’d reached the very last cracker, but it was in pieces. All I saw was a bunch of junky pieces from the bottom of the box. I felt cheated, and started to melt down. Mrs. Canavan, however, assured me that I had a complete cracker, but it was a puzzle. She assembled the pieces on my paper towel. Wow! They really did form a whole cracker! This was great.

Often after that, I’d break up my cracker to make a little puzzle to reassemble before I ate it, but it was never as hard when I’d broken it up myself and knew how the pieces went together. Perhaps I should have asked a classmate to break it up for me. If you bring me crackers, we can try it out.

Here are a few pictures of my school as it looks today. It’s about the same, but with an adult clientele.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


People who haven’t seen me in a year or two tell me my Russian’s getting better. I’m not really aware of the change, and don’t remember my Russian being all that bad a couple of years ago. Then again, there are still some things I just don’t get right. Honey, for example.

Honey. It’s even simpler in Russian: мёд. Three letters. One syllable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can buy it just about anywhere. But I can’t buy it anywhere, because nobody knows what I’m talking about when I ask where it is in the store.

Today I went to a big supermarket called Green City. The sign is even in English. The store is huge and I had no idea where to look for the honey, so I asked a clerk stocking one of the shelves. She looked across the aisle at the health foods and asked me what kind. There were bottles of colorful fruity-looking stuff on the shelf she was looking at, but I couldn’t see any honey at all. I said, “Regular. I prefer it runny.”

“Maybe we don’t have it,” she replied.

Certain that they sold honey, I asked, “Do you understand me?”

She clearly wanted to answer yes, but she looked at me long and hard, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe not,” she admitted.

I repeated, “Honey. From bees.” Her face didn’t change.

“Bees,” I said. “Do you know what they are?”

“No,” she admitted. She didn’t.

Finally, I got out my phone and wrote on the screen: мёд.

“Oh!” she said, clearly embarrassed. She took me directly to the honey, two aisles away. As we walked, I asked her what she heard me say, how I might improve my pronunciation.

She was too embarrassed to answer, so I pressed her. “Please,” I asked, “say ‘honey’ for me.”

She wouldn’t do it. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t understand.”

“But if you say ‘honey’ for me,” I said, “I’ll learn how to say it right. Please, say ‘honey.’”

She said it. I could tell that the vowel sounded a little different, and she said the letter “d” without resonance. It just stops. My English-teacher friend Natasha tried to school me on this earlier, and I thought I’d gotten the point, but clearly I still need practice.

I’ve told stories like this before to friends who have gotten used to my American accent. They usually tell me that I say мёд just fine, that the problem is with the other guy. One of them repeated it to me today, as I relived my grocery-store trauma. It’s very nice, but I don’t believe it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Istanbul again

So, lemme tell you about Turkey. Or, to be more accurate, I want to tell you about my recent weekend in Istanbul. It’s a city I already knew fairly well, and I went only because Belavia offered a super sale price and a friend there offered to show me some parts of the city I hadn’t seen yet. But a couple of days before departure, my friend told me that she was crazy-busy at work and the only time she could spare me would be dinner on Friday evening.

I nearly didn’t go at all. I’d just had a great week in Athens and didn’t trust my luck with solo travel. What if I found myself stuck and bored? Why pay hotel and restaurant bills when I could just hang out in Minsk? I’m not sure what factors finally led me to go. I’m just glad I did.

In the first place, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t just lucky traveling in Greece. I like solo travel. It’s easy. You meet people. You do what you want. You have to ask a local when you want advice. You get nowhere to hide.

I arrived on a Thursday morning and paid too much to have a taxi driver take me to my hotel the long way. I got my revenge for this by taking public transit to the airport on my way home. In fact, I didn’t take another taxi ride at all. By Friday, when I told my friend that I’d walked from Beşiktaş to Galata Tower the previous day, she didn’t believe it. It seemed impossibly far to a Turk, but any Belarusian will tell you that no distance is too far to walk. I didn’t actually plan to do that, but it sneaked up on me. I’d started by walking to Dolmabahçe Palace, which was closed, so I continued to Taksim Square after visiting the palace cafe. At Taksim, I found a Lebanese falafel place which may have raised the bar for the best falafel I’ve ever eaten. The only thing that could possibly follow that would be the best baklava in Istanbul, for which I had to go to Karaköy Güllüoğlu. I walked, of course. There, I ate a prodigious amount of baklava, overwhelming any urge to bring any more back to Minsk. That’s fine. I like to travel light. That was basically my Thursday.

I had intended that day to take a boat tour up the Golden Horn, but just missed a tour boat, sat down to lunch, just missed another boat, and took the long walk instead. On Friday, then, I went directly back to Dolmabahçe Palace because it looked so great from the outside. I loved it and the associated museums, and spent the whole day there. Finally, I left in time to change my clothes and take public transit to Galata Tower, where I would meet Gaye for dinner. Walking back from the palace toward the hotel, I saw a couple of Turkish students taking pictures at the clock tower. They’d found a great photo spot, so I waited and asked them to take a picture of me, too. We started to chat, and found each other interesting for a variety of reasons. Conversation flowed easily and naturally all the way to the bus stop, where we exchanged Facebook contacts and talked about doing something together the next day.

Beside the tower, Gaye showed me the Anemon Galata Hotel. Their rooftop restaurant has a wonderful view both of the tower itself and of the city as one might otherwise see from the tower. The food was fine, but you go there for the view. It’s spectacular.

The next morning I texted my student friends Gulim and Öznur to see if they wanted to go for a ride with me on the commuter boats. Because of rain, my commercial tour had been canceled, but the commuter boats looked promising. I’m sorry they weren’t able to come along, but I had a really great time. I bought an Istanbulkart and put enough money onto it to take a lot of little rides. Looking at the map, I’d imagined I’d have to pay for many segments individually, but it turns out that most of what I wanted to do was one long ride with many stops. I rode up the Golden Horn until I noticed the Rahmi M. Koç Museum at one of the docks. The concierge at my hotel had assured me that I’d like this museum, so I got off the boat. Guys. The museum deserves its own blog post. Mr. Koç got rich making things like tractors and he collected a whole lot of things that go. I didn’t even manage to see the whole thing, but had a really great time trying.

Wanting to continue my boat ride up the Golden Horn before the sun set, I left the museum late afternoon and returned to the dock. Although rain sometimes blew in under the canvas roof, I stayed on the upper deck and enjoyed fabulous views and the company of a few other intrepid travelers.

On Sunday morning, I awoke to clear skies and thought about my over-filled Istanbulkart. I could use public transit liberally that day, so I asked the concierge where he thought I should go. He suggested Kadıköy. This is another interesting district of Istanbul, with a blend of homes, cafes, little shops and restaurants, and lots of character. I had a great time walking around, and bought some kaymak to bring home with me.

Finally, I headed off to the airport. As I said, I took public transit, which wasn’t perfectly easy for me this time because it wasn’t obvious where to go to find the Metrobus at the first connection. But it was easy enough, because I showed the map on my phone to a fellow commuter. She recognized what I wanted to accomplish and took me right to the transfer point. I’d had a similar experience the day before, when I got stuck at a pier because I had an old tourist map that showed a discontinued boat route. Some guy with very little English took me down the road to another pier where I could wait for a private boat (which still cost less than a dollar) back to the Golden Horn line. The private boat was small and smelly, and the only other passenger spoke no English at all, but we had a great ride together and took a selfie.

I had a great time. If you want to see pictures, click here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

My week in Greece (part 2)

On Friday morning, I rode with a friendly Uber driver down to the port and boarded the Celestyal Olympia. Since I bought a cheap cabin at the last minute, I ended up right next to the engine room, where the smell of diesel fuel and the rumble of giant engines made me want to flee. I went to the reception desk and asked about changing cabins. The receptionist was very nice, but said she couldn’t talk about any changes until everybody had boarded and she knew what else may be vacant. What she really meant was that she didn’t want to change anything until after the lifeboat drill, which is choreographed to room numbers and they were very serious about getting the lifeboat drill right.

Once we’d all assembled in our lifejackets and been inspected by the safety officer, the friendly people at the desk offered to put me into the bow of the ship, still windowless and one deck lower, but in a place much quieter and more pleasant. I met the two people who would be doing my housekeeping, and I learned who at the front desk also spoke Russian. The Russian-speakers always jockeyed into position to help me when I approached the desk, and I felt like I had my own personal concierge. They remembered everything about me and took excellent care.

I wasn’t so pleased with the dining room staff, but we ultimately warmed up to each other. The problem was their policy for dealing with solo travelers. They would only put solo travelers across the table from an empty chair, and my first meals were rather lonely. At lunch, I sat to the side of a group of four people from some American church, who talked animatedly among themselves about their pastoral duties but ignored the guy beside them who offered a couple of times to participate in the conversation. Dinner was even worse, when I got seated beside a Greek family in dirty clothes who specifically did not want to have anything to do with me. By breakfast, I’d had enough. I ignored the steward and sat down where I wanted, in the empty seat across from one solo traveler and beside another. That was much more satisfactory. After the dining room staff came to understand my preferences, meals became more interesting.

For our first port, we visited Mykonos. We arrived just as the sun set. In the lingering twilight, I scrambled up the hill to try to get some sunset photos. I enjoyed walking aimlessly through the village, the crooked little alleys and staircase streets. I didn’t stay as late as possible because I wanted to eat dinner on the ship and I knew I’d have to get up early the next morning. We’d have to assemble for our tour of Ephesus by 07:00.

I discovered that there were lots of Americans on our ship, many of whom were engaged in tours of the Holy Lands. Some of them had intended to see more of Turkey but had been thwarted by the diplomatic kerfuffle limiting visa services between Turkey and the USA. Everybody on the ship gained entry today by a special ship visa, so nobody needed individual visas. One of the churches to which Saint Paul wrote was at Ephesus, and we’d get there by a short bus ride from our port at Kuşadası, Turkey.

We had a great tour guide who knew a lot, loved her country, and spoke with enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge. She led us through Ephesus and told us about ancient life, archaeology, and related subjects. My favorite moment was visiting a public latrine downtown. We saw a marble slab running along two walls, with cutouts body-width apart. I don’t even know if this was the whole thing, but it looked like about twenty men could sit side by side and poop at once. Running water washed away the falling feces and wall openings allowed for fresh air, so one could imagine this as a social gathering place. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the three-seat “bloopers” we had at Boy Scout camp.

This being Turkey, we also visited a weaving cooperative, where a different guide showed us how they get silk out of cocoons, how different kinds of looms work, and how they make hand-tied Turkish rugs. Not surprisingly, they also offered to sell their work. I don’t know how many they sold to our group, but I’m pretty sure we bought more than a few.

When we returned to the ship after this tour, I went to the dining room and insisted on being seated with other solo travelers. The steward offered me a spot beside Annie Counts, a recent college graduate whom I had seen on the Ephesus trip. Annie, like me, reads the Bible and had more than passing interest in the historic aspects of the places we would visit that day. We discovered that we’d both ended up on the religious tour of Saint John’s Monastery at Patmos that afternoon, though both of us had thought that we’d prefer to take the other, sold-out tour that included more of the countryside and less of the saints.

The best thing about our tour of Patmos, other than getting to know each other, was that we met Pastor Mark Correll and some people traveling with him. It felt like a privilege to know these people, and we joined their group that evening to hear Mark debunk some of the myths and legends we had heard from our tour guide in Patmos. (Our guide was well versed in local legends, but not so well versed on scholarship or the Bible.)

The next morning, our tours started early once again. Annie and a couple of her friends joined the same bus group with me to Crete and the Minoan Palace. We got very wet during this tour, as it rained almost continuously. The Minoan Palace is, today, mostly a reconstruction on old foundations. The rain prevented me from enjoying it as much as I’d enjoyed other archaeological sites in Greece, and I ditched the tour when we returned to the city of Heraklion so I could see the Archaeological Museum instead of taking a city tour. Much to my chagrin, I failed to notice that Annie’s friend Mason had tagged along to the museum, and I ditched him too. Isn’t that the same failure I was complaining about from the church group I sat beside at the first shipboard lunch? Oops.

The museum was great, and I think Mason got his revenge by grasping more of what he saw than I did. We had an interesting conversation about it all on the bus ride back to the ship.

The weather cleared as we approached Santorini, and the island beckoned alluringly as we drew near the shore. I had queued for an early departure, wanting to get onto one of the first boats, and I studied the hillside as we approached the dock. It would be fun to climb up the mountain on the footpath, and that’s what I intended to do. But some Greek passengers on the same boat urged me to take the cable car so I’d get up high sooner, before the sun set. They assured me that I could do plenty of walking up there, and that I’d like to see the sunset from the hilltop.

I’m glad I took their advice. From the cable car station, I hustled off to the left, toward the town we usually see in photographs of Santorini. My pathway took me higher and higher along the brow of a cliff, with little homes, hotels and restaurants below and sometimes above me. The sky reddened as the sun slid past a few clouds leftover from the morning rain. The sea sparkled. I loved every step. Finally, as the sun touched the water I reached a pleasant outdoor restaurant with a spectacular view protected by a glass shield. Since the air was cooling off, this seemed like a perfect place to punctuate my walk. I stopped for a cup of tea and then started back down toward the cable car. For a while I considered the possibility of walking all the way down to the dock, but it got quite dark and I began to have a little trouble choosing my route. I decided to take the cable car, so I’d be certain to get back to the ship on time.

The next day, Monday, we landed (as usual) early in the morning. I walked from the ship towards the Metro station, stopping at a little café for water and a restroom. After leaving the café, I ran into Annie and her group, also about to enter the Metro. We traveled together to the city center, and then I continued on to the airport. I liked being able to say goodbye to somebody as I prepared to leave Athens. I’d had a great trip and met a lot of wonderful people. I’d certainly be pleased to come back.

You can see more pictures from the whole trip here.
And here's the first half of my Greece story.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

My week in Greece (part 1)

I was in the midst of some life changes and didn’t want to write about it on my blog. (I am now divorced. It’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it.) But as soon as I could see the divorce process coming to a close, I went to see where I could go. I didn’t want to arrive in Belarus before October 30, but would be free to leave the USA as soon as the 20th. So, I logged onto the British Airways site to see where I could go on a travel reward. They offered me Athens, and I accepted.

I’d never been to Greece, and never even thought much about what I might do there. I just knew it should be warm, and it would get me closer to Belarus. Busy with personal matters, I didn’t have time to think about what I should do in Athens. Fortunately, the Google Trips app on my phone noticed my airline reservations and recommended a three-day itinerary. So, just before leaving, I booked a three-day reservation at the Golden Age of Athens hotel and assumed I could figure out everything else later.

I arrived on Monday morning, October 23. The desk clerk at the hotel gave me a map of Athens and marked some areas where he thought I’d enjoy spending most of my time. Fearing that jetlag might set in if I sat still, I went out immediately to do a hybrid of Days 2 and 3 of Google’s three-day itinerary. It felt like I could tear through Athens in a big hurry and then think about seeing something else. Anyway, I was learning the layout of the city.

I started in Syntagma Square and meandered through the National Garden and the Zappeion before reaching my first significant historical landmark, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I bought a single-entry ticket and walked around inside. It didn’t appeal to me very much at this time, and I decided not to buy entry tickets to most places but just to look in through the wrought-iron fencing that surrounds most of the archaeological sites. I had more fun discovering quiet streets and cute restaurants than I had in the recommended sites. But that all changed as I circled the Roman Agora for the second time, wandering around and looking through fences. I met Cati, a Venezuelan professor of Greek classics. She’d been there for a month and was sad to be leaving so soon. She would go to the airport that evening.

Cati told me about her favorite places and the people who had helped her to understand them. She spooled off a long list of ideas, contacts, suggestions and advice. I wrote down as much as I could and urged her to share anything more she thought of. She did write to me that evening with more concrete ideas, but most importantly she inspired me. She reminded me of the importance of the artifacts I was seeing and inspired me to see them better, to try to see them through the eyes of the people who built them. She also told me that I should really buy the 30-Euro pass to get into the Acropolis and surrounding sites. She didn’t think I should go to the Acropolis until the next morning, but my meanderings took me to the Acropolis main gate and I plunged in after climbing to the top of Mars Hill and thinking about Saint Paul’s lecture to the Athenians from there.

I loved the Acropolis, but I still didn’t really understand it. I “saw” it in a couple of hours, but thought when I’d left that somehow I hadn’t managed to see the Odeum of Herodes Atticus just below it. (This wasn’t true, but I didn’t know what I was taking pictures of.) I’d loved my visit and was glad I’d bought the ticket, but I still didn’t really grasp what I was looking at or what it meant.

I made some progress the next day, when I used my multi-entry ticket to go inside the fence I’d peered through at Hadrian’s Library. I stopped to read most of the information posted on signs around the site and began to take a new interest in what I was seeing. I’d had a hard time getting motivated even to go out that morning, but by the time I finished Hadrian’s Library, I felt excited and energized to see more. I finished the library in a little indoor space walking around and around the statue of Athena Nike. The more I looked, the more beautiful, interesting and real she became. No, I didn’t start believing the mythology, but I began to feel a connection to the ancient Greeks and it made Athens much more interesting.

Walking out of the Library, I noticed a little business advertising boat trips to the Greek islands. I’d hoped to “finish” with Athens in three or four days so I could move on to see something else, and I thought it would be more fun to reach Santorini or Crete on a boat than by air. So, I went in to ask what they knew. As it turned out, the guy was promoting the last island cruise of the season, a three-day all-inclusive trip on a big ship. The daily cost would be less than I was spending to sleep and eat in Athens, and I’d see a bunch of stuff, however briefly. I signed up, and I’ll write about that in a separate post.

Still in Athens, brimming now with enthusiasm, I continued my reevaluation of sites I’d previously seen only through fences. I had a nice lunch in a sunny spot and finally entered the Ancient Agora. Wow. Guys. This is incredible. I walked back and forth through the Agora, circled the Temple of Hephaestus, surveyed the vast territory and finally went inside the museum in the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos. Somehow I still had time to return, afterwards, to the Roman Agora. Once again, I liked it a lot better from the inside even than I had through the fence.

I don’t know how far I walked that day. It wasn’t even over. Mid-afternoon, I went out to climb Filopappos Hill to see the like-named monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Athens. From the top of the hill, I could see the sea, the city, and a lot of the history. I met some Lithuanian travelers who spoke Russian and we shared our favorite impressions. They told me about the museums that interested them the most, and I remembered how much Cati wanted me to see the Acropolis Museum. I made my way slowly to the museum, passing the spectacular side walls of the Odeum of Herodes Atticus. I’d have to come back to see this in the daytime.

The Acropolis Museum was open late that evening, so I went in. Generally, photography is not allowed in there, but the docent encouraged me to take pictures of the original columns from the Temple of The Muses. (The columns I saw at the Acropolis were reproductions. After restoration, the curators did not want to put the original columns outdoors again.) These are the columns that look like women in robes, and they are amazingly beautiful. Truthfully, one of them is missing, stolen by Lord Elgin and placed in the British Museum. The Brits have a bunch of Greek antiquities, and I get the impression that Greeks today aren’t too happy about it. Anyway, I had a great time in the museum though I went through it in a bit of a hurry. I even finished my speedy tour in time to have dinner there just as the staff was closing the dining room.

I felt pretty satisfied by the end of the day that I’d seen the highlights pretty thoroughly, and wondered how I’d use my last two days in Athens before the cruise began. I slowed my pace a bit for those last two days, but was never bored.

On day 3, I started out by getting into that Odeum of Herodes Atticus from the downhill side. This also gave me access to long pathways leading left and right around Acropolis Hill and even back into the Acropolis. I really enjoyed my second visit to the Acropolis, seeing things with new eyes and new interest this time. I stayed on the hill for hours, exploring obscure areas off to the sides of the main structures. I met and chatted with tourists from China, Argentina, Germany and a few others. The Chinese were boisterous and enthusiastic. I enjoyed them, but their group was so big that it became easy for them to block masses of people as they assembled for selfies.

For my last day in Athens, I visited several museums. This post is already so long that I won’t describe them to you in detail, but they’re all fabulous. The Benaki Museum is the most colorful of the three I visited, and they have a great rooftop café. The Museum of Cycladic Art was more intimate, and included a large and interesting space dedicated to Cypriot arts and culture. I also enjoyed listening in as a teacher addressed a very young and very interested group of school kids. Unfortunately, she taught in Greek and I understood almost nothing. Finally, I walked a long way to the National Archaeological Museum. I walked a lot all day because of a one-day Metro strike, but I had enough time that I didn’t mind. The Archaeological Museum has, in its spacious halls, an amazing collection of beautiful and important artifacts. I spent lots of time among beautiful statues and other artistic artifacts before discovering that they also have the actual Antikythera mechanism and a lot of other amazing scientific stuff. I loved all three museums.

Coming home from the Archaeological Museum, I squeezed into a bus along with about a thousand other people who might otherwise have been on the subway. I don’t know how anybody managed to unzip my over-shoulder bag in that crowd, but they did. I left, however, before they reached anything interesting. The most interesting thing might have been my wallet, which I kept in a sticky rubber band inside my front pants pocket after snatching it from a pickpocket’s hand on a crowded Metro train two days earlier. Everything is fine, but I decided not to take public transit to the pier the next morning. Packing my suitcase, I thought about how much fun I’d had in Athens, how many interesting things I’d seen and how many kind people I’d encountered. Maybe traveling alone is going to be OK.

I’ll tell you about the second half of my Grecian adventure tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can see all of the pictures I posted from this trip here.

Friday, August 18, 2017

On being Arabic

Today at the gym, I met a young man in a football jersey from Qatar Airways. Since he looked Arabic, I asked him if he were from Qatar. He answered in English, telling me he didn’t understand, so I switched from Russian to English, posing the same question. He demurred: He doesn’t speak English. I went back to Russian and asked if he spoke Russian. “Чуть-чуть (a little bit)” he replied.

I tried once again to ask my question about Qatar, but he would have none of it. Maybe I don’t really know how to pronounce the name of the country anyway. I learned it third-hand from the father of a guy who went there to work as a journalist. In any event, I gave up and just asked where he was from.

“Minsk,” he replied.

Something’s not right here. If he’s really from Minsk, he should speak Russian. I probed and he evaded. He’s a figure skater and trains at various places all around the world. Maybe he’s not really from anywhere. But, surely he speaks some language. I don’t think you can learn to be an internationally-competitive figure skater if you can’t talk.

I asked him which language he speaks best. “Russian,” he replied. I just don’t believe it. He speaks another language at home with his family, and I’m pretty sure it’s Arabic. Understanding that he doesn’t want to talk about it, however, I let the subject drop.

If I’m right about his native language, then I’m curious about why he’s unwilling to talk about it. Perhaps he really didn’t understand my questions, but I think more likely he just didn’t want to talk about it with an American stranger.

I’m still thinking about this.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Doing business

As I wrote to a friend, “Doing business in Belarus is a maddeningly obtuse process, softened by displays of great kindness and generosity.” Here’s the story of the day.

I decided this morning that I’d like to go hear some music, and maybe bring along one or more of my blind friends. I went online to see if I could find a show they might like, maybe a rock concert of some sort. I found nothing promising, but stumbled across a jazz show by a group called the City Jazz Quartet. I listened to some of their music on YouTube, and they’re the real deal. Far better than the third-rate American musicians who sometimes come to perform in Minsk. And somehow, in the midst of a few unsold tickets, they had a block of four tickets off the center aisle in the orchestra section. They looked like ideal seats for this show, and I tried to buy a pair online.

I failed, of course. I don’t have a Belarusian bank card, and my Visa card never works for online ticket purchases. I tried, but couldn’t even reserve a ticket. Theoretically I could have reserved on the phone, but nobody answered either phone number so I want down to the nearest ticket agency, which turned out to be closed until August. The sign on their door said to go to October Square and see their affiliate. At October Square, they had different tickets to sell, but not the excellent seats I expected. I checked online. The tickets were still there. I tried to reserve them from my phone, but again without success. So I clicked through to get the address of an outlet with access to these seats. It was right where I started, beside the Metro station near home.

By the time I got to the right agency, the tickets I’d been trying to buy were no longer available. They’d been reserved but not picked up. I took second best and went home for lunch. After lunch, however, those two tickets were available again. Since the lady who sold me my tickets told me to keep the receipt “in case something comes up,” I figured she could help me swap them out. I assumed incorrectly, it turns out. She told me that they only sold tickets and if I wanted to make a return, I’d have to go to the main office. I opined that this sounded not worthwhile, but asked to know where it was. Maybe it would be useful information. She went into the back room, ostensibly to look it up.

She came back a few minutes later, stony faced. She walked right past me, over to her computer terminal. I followed. She typed. She scowled at the screen and typed some more, never saying a word to me. Somebody who appeared to be the shift supervisor came over to see what she was doing, and told her that she couldn’t take tickets back. My stony-faced clerk ignored her and made a couple of phone calls. I told her how grateful I was for her efforts. The big boss came in from the street and interrogated me on what the heck I was trying to do, but when she noticed her employee making progress she put her finger on her lips and went to the back of the store.

Now I have the tickets I set out to buy in the first place. It took far too long, but things often take a long time in Belarus. And, like now, the resolution may depend on somebody’s personal kindness. Somehow I find this frustrating and delightful at the same time.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Eating well

I’ve been trying to be methodical about my dinners, planning a week in advance and cooking interesting food for myself. It’s harder in Minsk because I don’t know how to buy things I’d like to use. I think the locals tend to work in the other direction: go to the store and imagine what you can make with what you find. I’m not that clever, however, and I start with recipes and struggle.

This evening I gave myself a pass. I hadn’t made a plan yet and I got home late after a long bike ride. What to do? I went onto and looked around. I noticed that lots of people liked a restaurant called Spoon, which some friends had mentioned earlier. Since TripAdvisor thought I could eat there for a moderate price, and since I had no better plan, I rushed to the shower and called an Uber as soon as I got dressed. When I pushed the button on my app, it immediately reported that the car would be here in two minutes. I dashed to put on my shoes and get downstairs before the guy got here.

In my hurry, it turns out, I did not completely load my pockets. Specifically, I did not bring my wallet. I noticed this as I walked into the restaurant, patting my back pocket for reassurance and finding none. Oops. This place was far from home and my car had already left, so I put on my best “responsible citizen” expression and asked the hostess if, perhaps, they took Google Pay. (Fat chance. I don’t think it even exists in Belarus.) They’d heard of payments by phone, but could not help me out. I asked, then, if I might eat now and pay later. It was getting late and the round trip to get my wallet seemed overwhelming.

The hostess took me over near the manager, close enough that he could see me but far enough away that I couldn’t hear their conversation. They chatted. He looked at me. I came over and asked directly if I could eat now and pay later. He wanted to know when I’d pay, and I said I could even pay tonight if he wanted. He invited me to stay.

Guys, the food there is VERY GOOD. Delicious and interesting. Beautiful. (Sorry, but I didn’t take any pictures.) The waitress, the hostess and the manager were all super-nice. I loved it.

As I ate, I thought about how I’d pay. I’d hire an Uber to take me home, wait, take me back to the restaurant, wait, and take me home again. I could do that. But wouldn’t it be better simply to wait until tomorrow for the return trip, say around dinner time? Wouldn’t everybody like it better if I bought a second dinner tomorrow and paid for both of them at once? The manager thought so.

It sounds a lot better than going grocery shopping.

Monday, May 15, 2017


I saw my friends Sasha and Elena yesterday. Sasha was still celebrating his acquisition of an unusual English word, kerfuffle. He and I understand the word the same way. It’s about a disagreement that gets a little tense. I had one of those today.

I went down to the neighborhood bread store to get myself half a loaf of fresh bread (for about 32¢) and some snack stuff. Until maybe a year ago, everybody at this store queued up at the register of their choice and hoped they’d chosen a good line. But after a renovation and reconfiguration of the store, the space got so narrow that people started lining up in one long line and people at the front of the line split off to whichever register is free first. We all know it works better.

I noticed this transition taking place during the winter. Most people waited patiently in one line, but a few people would remember the old system and barge in front at the register farther from the queue. This usually resulted in a collapse of the new system and other people would add themselves to the newly-formed (and shorter) queue for the second cashier. It happened often enough that I didn’t feel bad about joining the disorder at that time, but now people are quite conscientious and cooperative about occupying a single line and letting the person who waited longest go to the first available cashier. I’ve been reformed, and always wait with everybody else.

Today, a man and his wife passed an unusually-long line in order to install themselves at the second register, immediately behind the person finishing her transaction. I tapped the man on the shoulder and told him that we’re occupying a single line and indicated the lengthy queue behind me. The people behind me looked like they wanted him to understand that they felt the same way.

The man replied that he’s been shopping here all his life and he knows how things work.

I replied that things change. I too remember the way it used to be, but the store is different now.

He congratulated me for remembering the old store, but went on to explain that he was born here and really knew how things worked.

I turned to the people behind me and said, “I tried.” They thanked me quietly, but nobody else spoke up to the couple. The line jumpers left the store just after me, as I was gathering my gym bag from a locker in the entryway. With a great show of graciousness, I opened the door for them and welcomed them. The lady behind them, who had been first behind me in the line, acted both amused and delighted.

Emboldened, I pressed my case as we walked down the sidewalk, encouraging the couple as kindly as I could to notice how the other people in the store were behaving. He bristled, returned to his refrain about his birthright and, basically, told me to shove off.

That, my friends, is a kerfuffle.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gold digging

A Belarusian friend lamented, mainly in jest, that she had been unable to meet and marry a rich foreigner. That kind of thing happens around here sometimes, and it’s an easy exit from a dreary economy. For the general good, then, I’ll share what little I know about gold digging.

I’ve gotten to know two gold diggers willing to share with me something about how they think and operate. Let’s be clear about it: this is work. I met Gold Digger Number One, whom I’ll call Natalia, at dance class a few years ago. When I first met her, she told me she worked in tech. This had been true at one time, but was no longer true by the time I met her. She had befriended some sort of Czech criminal, who bought her an apartment and continued to send her money. While they still communicated, he couldn’t just pop in to visit because Interpol was looking for him. The authorities had asked Natalia about him too, and she told them she did not know how to reach him.

So, by the time I met her, Natalia was developing new skills, including salsa dancing; and networking with other foreigners on the internet. She had one particularly promising American on the line, and she asked me for help sometimes with terms of endearment in English. There had been a Spaniard before him, but he seemed to Natalia overly cynical, encouraging her to squeeze more money out of the Czech. Over dinner, we talked about gold diggers. She averred that she was not a gold digger herself, although she described one of her classmates as one. She simply liked to meet nice rich guys who would show her a good time, and in return she’d “show her gratitude.” “And,” she added brightly, “it’s fun.”

So, in Natalia’s example, we see a transactional mindset and a focused trolling for rich foreigners. I’m not sure what percentage of her guys imagined they were looking for long-term relationships, but she ultimately did marry a Lithuanian guy and stayed married to him for a couple of years. She trolled with subtlety, haunting dating sites and behaving romantically. Her Facebook profile included a collection of professional photographs which presented her in flattering and alluring ways. One photo suggested that she might have posed in the nude, but of course one would have to get to know her better in order to see the rest of those photos. She never said anything that made me imagine she really thought romantically, but she didn’t disabuse me of the belief either.

Gold Digger Number Two, whom I’ll call Katherine, told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t believe in love. Alla and I met her over dinner at a friend’s house. Katherine had invited herself over when she learned that our friends were hosting a couple of Americans. She arrived in a tight dress, and radiated sexuality and availability. Katherine was older and more experienced than Natalia. By this time, she appeared to be financially stable and didn’t waste her time on anybody she couldn’t identify right away as financially secure. She liked to travel, and enjoyed visiting wealthy foreigners. But she bristled when I spoke of love. Perhaps love existed between her and her dogs, but nowhere else in her world. Like Natalia, she appeared to think transactionally.

I’m tempted to editorialize. This all strikes me as very cynical, and it discounts what is to me among the most important things in the world: love. Statistically, people who love well live longer, but clearly some people like to burn their candles from both ends and enjoy the bright lights while they last. Anyway, that’s how it’s done: Search actively, radiate sexuality and availability, keep a short time horizon and make the best deals you can. Good luck.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A day in Kiev

I came to Ukraine for a dance festival called Swinglandia. As it worked out, I saved money by coming a day early, so I got to explore Kiev yesterday.

When I came from the airport, my driver spoke animatedly about Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a religious complex with a monastery, several churches, religious museums and other stuff relating to the origins of Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic world. I learned how to get there on public transit and spent the morning wandering to and through the enormous compound. Given the country’s Soviet history, a surprising amount of beautiful artifacts survive today, though some required significant restorations after lying for decades in trash heaps.

I paid an extra fee for the privilege of climbing a bell tower at the apex of the complex. I enjoyed spectacular views from the parapet, and more spectacular views from the loft where the bells hang. (I guess that’s called a belfry, isn’t it?) A web of ropes reached the clappers of the larger bells far from where the bell-ringer worked. One person rings all the bells, working with hands and feet. I have to imagine it’s quite loud up there.

After I spent a couple of hours in the museum area at the top of the hill, I descended to the working monastery below and took a tour of underground caverns filed with coffins. I started into the cavern without a candle and discovered that I couldn’t see where I was going. Using the flashlight on my phone sounded too high-tech for this place, so I went back and bought a candle. It seemed crowded down there and I didn’t really like being in the midst of a lot of strangers holding open flames, but nobody lit anybody else’s clothing on fire during my visit. Most visitors kissed each of the caskets. I did not.

When I left, I found the monastery’s cafeteria, where I bought lunch for about $3.50. It was pretty good, considering how little I paid for it. My favorite part was the ugly brown salad, made from pickled eggplant, mushrooms, carrots and onions.

I stopped at my hotel for a little break on my way back from the monastery. It gave me a chance to recharge my phone before beginning the more commercial part of my tour.

Downtown Kiev looks reminiscent of a lot of European downtowns. I stopped, however, when I saw TSUM. The doors looked a whole lot like the doors on the downtown department store in Minsk, so I went inside to see how similar it might be. Kiev’s central department store looks like a modern mall on the inside with glass escalators, glowing purple tubes of light, a huge atrium, and a variety of attractive storefronts.

Maidan Square is filled with memorials of the political struggles that took place there. On the periphery, coves of bricks are stacked around photographs of people who lost their lives in the struggle. Many of the bricks had been thrown down from sidewalks high on the hill above, and the sidewalks are now repaved haphazardly with mismatched replacement bricks. I asked some kids why the sidewalks looked so bad, and they’re the ones who pointed out to me the memorials. One of them suggested that this commercial center doesn’t really represent the spirit of Kiev, and that I should take the Metro out to see a place called Hydropark. His friends agreed, so I want.

Hydropark features a wide sandy beach on the shores of the Dnieper River. Or maybe it was an island. The kids had sent me to the bank with the widest beach, where people have constructed a huge weightlifting facility made mostly of junk and scrap metal. Lots of people exercised there, and while I saw signs mentioning a website and a phone number, it appears mostly to be a cooperative venture with no particular oversight.

On the near side of the bridge, I strolled through a construction area, where workers hoped to refurbish an amusement park before Eurovision comes to town next week. It won’t be completely finished, but there’s plenty in place and I can imagine that it’ll be quite a party. They have at least three discos.

Returning, I rode the Metro one stop beyond my hotel so I could see the main train station. I’m glad I did, because I found a railway museum on one side of the tracks, and they have a collection of extremely fancy railroad cars, generally used by Soviet bigshots for occasional meetings and for comfortable travel to Crimea. I got to stroll through the salons at leisure, touch the upholstery and marvel at the shiny woodwork. It was a great way to balance my day, ending with something I liked as much as I liked the lavra in the beginning.

I’m heading off to dance camp now. Ideally, I’ll have something to write about.

You can see more pictures of today's adventures here.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

From Green to greens

When we arrived in Minsk last month, our taxi driver mentioned that he liked a new hypermarket we passed, called Green City. I finally decided to pay them a visit today. For the sake of exercise, I walked. It took me well over an hour to get there and I arrived hungry, so I started by looking for a café. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. The hypermarket anchors a new mall, but most of the smaller spaces are still empty. The lady at the information desk suggested that I could buy a sandwich at the Green City juice bar, so I went there first.

I waited in line as a woman called Anna served the people ahead of me. She looked glum. I couldn’t tell if she were unhappy or if she simply thought her customers were contemptible. I resolved to make her smile, but didn’t feel optimistic about it because she looked like a tough case. Nevertheless, the customer ahead of me broke through with a little joke. She laughed, and I remarked on how pleasant it was to see her smile. She continued to smile, more or less, as she sold me a beef burger and a chicken wrap, which she took from a refrigerator and heated in a microwave. I liked the chicken wrap OK, but wasn’t so thrilled by the beef burger, which reminded me of a stale Big Mac. This being Belarus, the “secret sauce” must have been about 97% mayonnaise. My sandwich was a little cold, but I didn’t ask her to warm it any more because the microwave heating had already made the bun tough and I figured that any further heating would render the burger impossible to chew.

Fortified by my nutritious lunch, I went to explore the store. As I turned, my eye fell on a very unhappy-looking customer coming up the aisle. I looked around. Nobody older than high-school age smiled. OK. I exaggerate a bit. I saw a little hint of a smile here or there, but this did not come across to me as a happy place. The employees in their silly green uniforms certainly didn’t light the place, and the customers seemed to take their cues from the employees. Nothing I saw made me happy either. I wouldn’t buy any of their produce, which didn’t look terribly appealing, and couldn’t find anything else that even interested me. I tried hard to buy toothpaste, but couldn’t figure out where they kept it. I saw wiper blades and underwear, but needing neither I left with a bottle of drinkable yogurt and a package of crackers apparently made out of cardboard. (I’m not kidding. You should try them.)

Still needing some fruits and vegetables, I got onto the Metro and went back to Komorovsky Market. I love that place. Everything is different there. It’s dark and drafty, but people inside smile. Customers chat animatedly with each other as they walk to and fro. Sales people beckon: “Buy from me. Buy from me!” I went straight to Terane, from whom I always buy my greens. She welcomed me with a big smile and sold me beautiful and delicious stuff. Her friend the fruit lady next door took good care of me too. Then I went off and found Lydia, who makes mozzarella cheese at home and sells it at the market. Lydia isn’t always there, and this is the first time I’ve found her this year. Standing in a drafty place over her refrigerated showcase, she wore multiple layers and looked somewhat inflated. I bought two chunks of cheese, one for myself and one for Terane. Then I went back to buy some basil and some more tomatoes to go with my fresh mozzarella, giving Terane cheese to take home to her family when I finished. That’s the way to shop.

For more pictures, see this month's album here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Minsk Mosque

I saw a news report a few weeks ago, telling about the opening of a new mosque in Minsk. Apparently, it had been under construction for some ten years; and finally some donors from Turkey took steps to get it completed. I was curious to see it, and didn’t have too much trouble talking my friend Natasha into helping me find it, since most of her students are Muslim and she was curious as well.

Officially, they give tours on Saturdays, but we dropped in optimistically today. We walked around the building trying to imagine the proper way in. Finally, we tried a door on the lower level, which opened but we found nobody inside. We tried all the other doors, but none of them opened so we returned to the first one, but felt reluctant to go inside without an invitation. Cautiously, we let ourselves into the reception area, where we saw lots of coats hanging in the wardrobe but I still couldn’t find a person as I went around knocking on doors. The last time I’d been in a mosque, in Kazan, I felt a little unwelcome, so I wanted to avoid putting myself into a position where I might offend somebody else here.

Nobody at this mosque, however, displayed anything but welcome. The young man who eventually found us brought us back to a meeting room where the Imam was lecturing a group of Christian ladies, explaining Islamic theology from their Christian point of view. He answered their questions with patience and, I think, a little imagination. I asked one question myself, about something that puzzled me when I read the Quran last year. The Book talks a lot about what men can expect in the afterlife (it’s pretty great) but says nothing about provisions for women. The Imam explained that women are cared for too, and that they can be invited into heaven by their husbands. They can get there through their own piety as well, and even invite their wayward husbands if necessary. I hadn’t seen any of these details in the Quran, and enjoyed hearing his explanation. We stayed for about a half hour, and then slipped out when we heard the doorman walk down the hall. He invited us into the first-floor prayer room, where we looked at photographs on the wall of prior Islamic structures in Belarus. There had been quite a few Muslims here before Soviet times, and the original Minsk mosque looked a lot like the new one.

We asked about upstairs, and he offered to get a key so he could take us up to the main prayer room. It’s bright, spacious and cold. They only heat it for their big religious gatherings on Fridays, but the thick carpet felt warm under our stocking feet.

The women’s areas, both downstairs and up, are much smaller than the men’s areas. Our guide explained that women come to pray much less often than men, and they usually rely on their husbands’ piety to assure their place in Paradise. I hope that works out for them. I’d show up, just in case. Now they’ve got a nice place in which to pray.

Note: To see more pictures of the mosque and all of this month's photos, click here.