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.