Thursday, November 1, 2018

Shopping the American Way (in Belarus)

I needed to buy a rug. Actually, I needed two rugs, because Alla decided she wanted as part of her divorce settlement both of the rugs we bought jointly in Minsk. I’ve been buying a lot of stuff lately because Alla cleaned out the apartment twice. I thought I was done when she cleared out the first time and (theoretically) turned the place over to me. She said she wanted to keep her key, however, so she could come back and clear out her desk. I was surprised to discover how empty the apartment felt after she cleaned out her desk. It turns out that her desk included a lot of other cabinets as well.

I called Alla to assure myself that she was done taking stuff from the Minsk apartment. She said yes, more or less, but that she still wanted those two carpets. Feeling expansive, however, she allowed me to borrow them until such time as I could replace them in the next few months.

The big government-owned department store near me had a sale, so I went shopping. I found a super-cheap reasonable-looking carpet for the spare bedroom and brought it home. I also saw a couple of carpets I could live with if I had to buy something immediately for the living room, but since I still have a couple of months I decided to check some other stores. Finally, I found a rug I liked in the window at another government-owned store called “Nemiga;” so I asked the sales guy if he could find me a rug like the one in the window. He didn’t want to talk to me, and the way he spoke to me made me confident that I didn’t want to talk to him either.

Undaunted, I reviewed their entire inventory and then returned to the window. Wow! I found another carpet in the window, better even than the first one. I chose the other sales guy, who was just as adamant that he couldn’t sell something from the window. At least the second guy was nice about it. In any event, I persisted: “The window is your advertising, right?” He agreed. “And I’m responding to your advertising,” I continued. “I’d like to buy the product you are presenting right there in your advertising.”

“I can’t do that,” he insisted.

I insisted too. I don’t know what the rules are here in Belarus, but where I come from you can get into lots of trouble for false advertising. It seemed like the kind of rule we’d have in Belarus too, though perhaps nobody has insisted until now. Belarusians don’t like to insist unless they are bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats use up the country’s entire “insisting” budget. Fortunately, I arrived with an imported supply. I wouldn’t leave until the guy gave me instructions on how to reach his boss, who was already gone for the evening.

I came back today to look for the boss. The crew I’d met during my evening visit wasn’t there, but there were a couple of women just as sour as the first guy I’d met. I don’t get the impression it’s a great place to work, because it’s not bringing out the best in anybody. I told the sales lady that I’d like to meet Tatiana Viktorovna.

“Why do you want to meet her?” she asked.

“I’d like to buy that carpet,” I said.

“You can’t buy it,” the clerk sneered.

I performed my song and dance, roughly the same routine I’d performed for the evening sales guy. She became increasingly agitated and told me in a louder voice that I could not buy the carpet. I remained calm and told her that I wanted to meet her boss. She thought that would be a waste of time, but I wanted to meet her boss. She said that Tatiana Viktorovna is not here, and I said fine, I’d like to meet whatever boss is here. Exasperated, she made a phone call and told me that Tatiana Viktorovna would be there in about five minutes.

Tatiana Viktorovna started out the same way, telling me that it’s impossible to sell something from the window. They don’t have an inventory number for it and they don’t know its price. I performed my response-to-advertising routine for her and she began to relent. She said she could order one for me, but that I couldn’t take home that window sample.

“At last,” I smiled and exclaimed. “Finally, I’ve found somebody able to solve the problem. All of your employees have told me to go away. Only you have had the insight to reach a solution.” I figure flattery is usually a good thing. The employee who had been trying so hard to prevent me from talking to Tatiana Viktorovna objected that of course she always could have ordered a carpet for me. In fact, she filled out my request in her order book without any help. She knew how, but somehow, she had not been interested in doing that until I had gotten the boss in the room.

Later today, I went over to the Department Store Belarus. These government-owned department stores tend to get their stuff from the same factories and I found there the very carpet I’d been trying to buy at Nemiga. I even bought it on sale. Keeping my costs down, I carried it home on public transit. It was big and heavy, but here it is:
100% genuine polypropylene. Nothing but the best!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Exploring around Boston

A few months ago, I walked to Harvard Square just to get some exercise. Maybe I even had something to accomplish there, but I don’t remember in detail. I do remember, however, that it was a warm spring day and ice cream sounded like a good idea. As I went into Lizzy’s, I passed a young woman at the little table by their door, clearly enjoying a chocolaty ice cream cone. I asked her what she was eating and if she recommended it. She did, so I got the same thing and joined her at the edge of the sidewalk.

We sat at the table for a couple of hours. Her name is Faith, and she was waiting to learn whether a local TV station would fund her entrepreneurial venture as part of a reality-TV show they were producing. While we waited for the expected answer, we had a long chat about many things: her project, apartment living, and life in general. Neither of us had any reason to rush: Faith had finished work early and was waiting to meet a friend later. I just had time on my hands.

The TV station took another day or two before they finally told Faith that they hadn’t chosen her project. In the meanwhile, she’d had a chance to reflect on our conversation and her visit with her friend Cally. She wanted Cally and me to meet.

I didn’t have time for that at the time, as I was preparing to go off to Belarus, but I held onto Cally’s phone number. She and I finally met yesterday, a couple of subway stops beyond Harvard Square. Unable to schedule Faith and ice cream at a time when Cally was free, she and I decided to go out for a walk on the former Arthur D. Little campus nearby. I already knew my way around their land and a neighboring park, but since we were having a good time walking, we went farther and discovered a pond neither of us had noticed before. Aptly, it’s called Little Pond, and it’s quite cute. We also walked along the shores of Fresh Pond and various other interesting places. While we always had a general idea where we were, it was fun to cross known streets and see how they stitched together in the mosaic of the area.

I’ve done this sort of exploring on a coarser scale on my bicycle, but it’s a different experience to poke around on foot. It turns out that even from my bike I missed plenty of details. After yesterday’s success, I’m curious to walk around more attentively in other parts of the city and environs. Maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"Seeing" Novogrudok

As I’ve said, I want to figure out how to visit interesting places in Belarus that I haven’t seen yet. After a few web searches, I’ve got a little list of places I’d like to reach. I’m not sure whether Novogrudok had gotten onto the list, but Tanya suggested it and it looked pretty good on the internet. It’s about three hours from Minsk, so we resolved to spend the night there. A nice hotel room with two beds costs about thirty dollars, so it seemed like a reasonable idea.

Before booking the room, however, I checked another site, which suggested that we should stay “nearby” at Alpha Radon. My neighbor had told me that Alpha Radon was her favorite place in all of Belarus and Booking.com was telling me that they were offering me their last room, so I jumped on it without thinking much. It’s more than thirty bucks, but it includes three meals for two people and I had wanted to see it anyway. It’s great, but it’s way too far from Novogrudok for a quick excursion. It worked out fine, but we didn’t end up seeing much of Novogrudok.

Long boring bus ride
We passed through Novogrudok the first time on our way to the resort. I figured we were almost there and expected to see it around every turn. There were lots of turns, but we didn’t arrive for another 45 minutes or more. It’s OK. There’s plenty to do at Alpha Radon, at least for a couple of days. We went directly to the dining room for lunch, where I over-ate in my efforts to try everything that looked interesting. Then we headed out for a walk around the grounds.

We found our way into a small wood visible from the dining room and took lots of pictures. Mostly Tanya took the pictures. She’d just bought herself a fancy camera and wanted to make good use of it. As you will remember, she can’t see what she is photographing. Amazingly, she takes a lot of very interesting photos. She has a good intuitive sense of where she might find something interesting and then she shoots lots of frames. Sometimes I help her, but she does quite well on her own. Her friend Kristina helps her sort through the photos and choose which ones to publish. I think her Instagram feed will be extra busy for the next few weeks as they go through the weekend’s work.

After our photo expedition, we repaired to the Alpha Radon aqua zone, where we swam laps in their large pool and visited the sauna and steam room. We met an interesting Israeli lady in the sauna, who said that she and her husband came to spend a week in the woods, since she tired of the seashore where she lives. They’d been out walking for about four hours that morning, and at the time I couldn’t imagine where she’d gone.

We found the big woods on Sunday after we’d checked out. There are trails, a couple of lakes separated by a dam, beaches, docks, and lots of fun things to do. Somehow, we hadn’t learned about this, but the weather hadn’t been so great that we missed anything. But it makes the resort much more appealing. I could imagine spending more than a couple of days there now, especially for cross-country skiing or beach and swimming. When I asked the receptionist about what to do, she only told me about things she wanted to sell, like medical treatments and spa services. It seems kind of funny now.

Anyway, we got to Novogrudok on Sunday afternoon and had about three hours there before the last bus left for Minsk. That was enough time to walk around the old city center, enjoy the views over farmland and valley below, stroll through the park, eat a quick meal and come to understand that we’d have to come back and see the town properly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Day trip to Zaslavl

On my way back from Vilnius, the train took me alongside a cute little town. I whipped out my phone and asked Google Maps to tell me where I was: Zaslavl. I’d been there once before in my student days but didn’t remember it very well. Since it looked cute and I wanted to see more of Belarus, I decided to come back, and I invited my Belarusian daughter, Tanya. I planned far enough ahead to learn that the trains run so often that one can basically show up at the station whenever he wants to go there, and we agreed to go on the following Monday. Fortunately, however, Tanya did a little research and learned that the museum would be closed on Monday, so we postponed the trip until Saturday.

We had a great time. Once we figured out how to get the tickets and where to catch the train (the ticket lady was none too helpful), we got to Zaslavl in about half an hour. We decided to start with the museum, which we found easily despite the crazy V-shaped route Google Maps thought we should take. Our direct route took us to the back entrance, which proved convenient because there was only one docent running the whole museum and she was out with a group. She invited us to join her group and we started the tour from the middle. We made our first stop at a grain mill, the central feature of the museum. The other people on the tour were sisters whose grandmother had owned such a mill. They explained to us in detail how everything worked and took pictures of us near the grinding wheels.

From the museum, we found our way along a delightful stream to the entrance of the city’s other main historical attraction, one of two very old churches. It’s a beautiful building with a fine garden, protected by a tall earthwork covered with wildflowers. We explored all viewpoints before picking our way to the other church, which needs maintenance and is not open to visitors. We didn’t mind, however, because we had a nice walk on a nice day and the birds overhead made us feel as cheerful as they sounded.

Finally, we set out to find lunch. Or dinner. We debated about asking our phones where to eat, but then I spotted an actual human being, who told us how to find the nearest (and possibly only) options. There was a wedding going on at the restaurant where she sent us, and the waitress admitted as we left that she felt a little frazzled running the bar and serving the wedding as well as the restaurant guests all at once. We hadn’t noticed that she was frazzled, however. We were sitting in a nice room with a pleasant view out the window and occasional sightings of the wedding party dancing and making merry. Everybody seemed happy and we enjoyed our meal at the same time.

I was ready to go home after the late lunch. We’d had such a wonderful day that I figured we were more likely to wreck it by plunging into the new part of town than to extend our pleasure. Tanya felt optimistic, however, so we went. I picked out a route parallel to the main street, and it felt positively rural. I could see traffic parallel to us, but we walked alongside beautiful yards in a modernized Belarusian village. We had a great walk, saw nothing in particular, and walked back by a slightly different route. The birds continued to chirp, the sun continued to shine, and we continued to enjoy this fine little town.

I look forward to finding more of these little gems. It’s easier to have fun outside of Minsk than I imagined.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Harlem (Lithuania)

Last year I went to several dance events and ranked Harlem among my favorites. It’s held right across the border from Minsk, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Naturally, I came back this year.

I always enjoy going to Vilnius. It’s a small city with lots of charm, always fun to walk in and filled with interesting shops and restaurants. I asked the receptionist at my hotel to recommend a place to eat right after I arrived. I’d missed lunch and ended up eating my main meal around 3:00 p.m. This worked out very well, because she sent me to a place called Lokys, which can fill up in the evenings. In my case, I had a charming waiter pretty much to myself. And great food. It’s the oldest (or second oldest?) restaurant in the city, and it’s been around since the early ‘70s when Communist big shots used to eat there. I tried a sampler platter of various kinds of wild game and enjoyed my meal thoroughly.

Of course, I also enjoyed the dance classes and the parties I’d come for. In class I met a French woman named Rachel and a German guy named Stefan, and we agreed to have lunch together. Another fellow, Thorsten, came to join us and we had a great time together, so we posed for pictures at the photo booth that evening.

Rachel hadn’t been to Vilnius before, so I took her for a walk around Old Town and Uzupis. Later, walking on my own, I explored some back streets I hadn’t seen before and found a very interesting chocolate shop. Too bad I’d just had a big breakfast when I found that one, so I can’t review the taste of their beautiful hand-painted confections. I also found the Belarus Embassy (extremely fancy) and a place to buy the Italian tuna I like to bring back with me from Lithuania.

Rachel and I went back for dinner once at Lokys. This time we ordered quail and beaver. The waiter had to warn us, by company policy, that the beaver was a “particular” taste, and that not everybody likes it. We both thought it was great, so we took a chance on the Lithuanian dessert the waiter had warned me away from on my first visit. We liked that too. I’ll definitely return for another meal next time I’m in Vilnius.

As I said earlier, the dance festival was great. I want to leave you with a dance contest from the final night. Pay particular attention to Ana and Tadas, a couple of Lithuanians I’ve known for a while. They’re extremely nice, and Ana’s a lot of fun to dance with. You can see why, when you watch them cement their victory in the eight bars beginning at 4:25.

Monday, May 14, 2018

A delightful day of failure

The key elements of yesterday’s plans failed utterly, but I couldn’t have been happier with the day. Öznur and I signed up for a tour featuring a huge cave and spectacular views of valleys above Trabzon. I met the tour near my hotel and introduced myself to other passengers as they boarded the minibus. All of them spoke English, lucky for me, and none spoke Turkish. We started with a couple from Sudan, a family from Yemen, a couple from Palestine and an American; me. Since our route would take us right through Öznur’s town, she got on the bus last and immediately became our translator.

I had a bag full of Trabzon dates and passed it around. Then, at our first rest stop, Yusuf noticed a guy with a pot boiling on on an outdoor stove and offered tea. I declined at first, but in the end we all went over, and Yusuf treated. The group began to coalesce, but I’m not sure we knew that yet.

We hit our first setback when we arrived at the cave. The driver said something with a disappointed tone of voice. Öznur translated that the recent rains had engorged the river and we wouldn’t be allowed into the cave. Yusuf and I didn’t feel deterred by walking under a waterfall and tried to talk our way in, but the lady at the booth was adamant. Nobody gets in, regardless of courage or foolishness. We went upstairs to a little café in a minor cavern above the cave’s entrance and took pictures of the cataract and each other instead.

Still acting optimistic, our driver took us up to visit a manmade lake higher in the valley. As we approached the lake, we rose into the clouds, and by the time we reached the lake, we couldn’t see much. Nevertheless, Yusuf and I followed the lakeside pathway and found a dam not far away. Yusuf took my camera, ran around the dam, and took pictures of me in the fog near the spillway. We had a good time there, and ultimately enticed the rest of the group to follow us back. First, however, we all found our way into a warming house where somebody bought tea. Öznur produced cookies. We chatted and warmed up. We were a team.

We drove back out of the clouds and up into a spectacular valley. I savored the views all the way up, in case there would be no view at our destination. It was clear enough to be pretty most of the way, though we never saw across the valley. When we finally reached the high viewing point, however, the clouds were so thick that we could barely see the road. The driver said that he ordinarily stops there for lunch because the view is spectacular. Not today, however, so the group readily agreed to delay lunch by another hour and eat at a lakeside café close to town. I bought local strawberries to tide us over.


Over lunch, Öznur made an excellent proposal. She suggested that we eat lightly so everybody could come to her town for fish dinner at the end of the tour. Those sitting closest to Öznur understood immediately, but those farther away ate full lunches. They regretted that when we got to the fish place. Anyway, we had a lot of fun sharing a family-style lunch, and after lunch most of us went out to ride pedal-power boats around the lake.

Only the couple with a small child was unable to join us for dinner. Their daughter had done very well, but it was time for her to go home. Replacing them, Öznur’s friend who had come to the restaurant to prepare a table for us joined the group. He insisted that we order a dish that didn’t appeal to most of us, but since his English isn’t very good he may not have known that he was forcing something. It didn’t matter because we all liked it. It tasted far better than it looked.

Reluctant to part, we took a public shared taxi with Yusuf and Reham to the Aya Sofya mosque, formerly a very early Christian church. The ceilings inside the mosque are covered up right now, under restoration, but we were able to see a lot of early Christian motifs on the ceilings of the porticos that served as entryways to the old church. Then we crossed the street to Yusuf and Reham’s favorite dessert place. The owners greeted Yusuf with big hugs and called him brother. Everybody likes Yusuf. Then they gave me big hugs and knocked heads with all the men. We chatted into the night, probably keeping the owners from closing their café. I had to say goodbye to Öznur there, since we lived in opposite directions. She tried to pay the check, but the owners wouldn’t take money from anybody. Everybody is so NICE here.

Speaking of nice people, I feel compelled to mention politics. At least once a day, somebody asks me nicely about Donald Trump. Yesterday’s driver pretty much summed it up. It’s the only English I heard him use. He told me, “America very good. Donald Trump, problem.” Everybody seems to agree, but I’m glad that international political problems have not changed the underlying dynamic of human relations. Wherever you go, people are generally nice and want to get along. It makes for a pretty sweet life.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Another amazing day

We've had a couple of amazing days. Yesterday, Oznur and I took a bus to Uzungöl and "just" walked around. First we walked around the perimeter of the lake, stopping to eat a picnic lunch at the far side. A kind waiter let us use a table with a superb view for the price of cups of tea, and then moved us inside when rain came.

It rained off and on all day, but we never got wet. Generally, we simply found ourselves at the right places at the right times. Once it rained a little as we walked down from high above the lake, completely engaged by the amazing view, and my umbrella protected us during those few minutes. At the bottom of the hill, we stopped to savor the sweet scent of a damp field full of wildflowers and then stopped at a covered outdoor cafe for soup and snacks. It rained some more while we ate, but stopped again when we wanted to go out.

We walked downstream below the lake and found another huge field of wildflowers, amazing views and singing birds.

That evening, after returning to Trabzon, we had a traditional Turkish dinner of black liver and enjoyed the attentions of a very kind staff. We enjoyed our next meal at least as much, this time in a little coastal town called Rize. Somebody sent us to a popular place with a variety of fresh-cooked dishes. We ordered well and ate with pleasure.

After lunch in Rize, we went up to a formal tea garden with a small arboretum and excellent views. The taxi driver who took us there offered to pick us up later and bring us to the castle we wanted to see, but we nearly didn't call him because we saw a taxi in the parking lot. I wanted to take the car at hand, but after much conversation with the driver, Öznur decided to call our original guy. This happened because of a misunderstanding, but worked out to be the right thing.

As Öznur and the driver chatted, he suggested that we might prefer to see a mosque at the top of a hill. It would be far away, but we'd go past his house in the village where president Erdogan was born. Later, we met the driver's family, including President Erdogan's cousin. But first, the mosque. I had no idea we'd get so high into the mountains, but we drove far away, gaining a commanding view in spite of the day's mist. The driver and I stepped into the mosque for a while, and after I stopped to pray (in my own way), he decided to invite us home for tea.

We sat down in an overheated room with a fire burning in the fireplace and sipped delicious tea. More and more family members appeared and the room began to fill up. Öznur was the only woman to stay in the group, though I meet some other women from the family as they went about. Öznur stayed busy translating the important stuff and participating in the conversation. We both felt loved by this wonderful group, and delighted to be among them.

By and by, the conversation turned to Trump, as it always does. I'm used to it. Even in Belarus, where people generally supported him during the elections, they are now worried. You can imagine how much he scares Turkish Muslims. As we wrapped up that part of the conversation, Ahmed asked me to tell outsiders that the real Islam is good and that Muslims themselves are generally good. That's certainly been my experience.

The last couple of days have been absolutely extraordinary. I think that Öznur and I open doors for each other, and we're having a very rich experience that neither of us could have had alone.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Pictures from Trabzon

So here I am in Trabzon, Turkey. I've had another great day, but it's too late to write a blog post about going up to Uzungöl. I hope you'll have a look, then, at some of my favorite pictures. I've added captions to each of them, so click on whichever ones aren't obvious to you and the caption may help.

Click here for the album.


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Minsk to Turkey

Yesterday was a big holiday in Belarus, and almost all businesses were closed. As a result, I had the unusual pleasure of seeing some very busy friends together. My friend Katya moved off to the Philippines and married a guy named Paul, whom I had yet to meet. But Paul came to Belarus for the first time on May 8, and on the 9th Katya brought him to Gorky Park along with her best friend and others close to them. We had a great time wandering around the park and generally just being together.

I had to leave before I wanted to because I had to catch a flight. Once aboard the plane I intended to read my book, but I ended up with such an interesting travelling companion that I didn’t even think of it again. I had a musician turned scientist, who is presently pursuing a hobby in photography with the same scientific zeal that got her to where she is professionally. She’s absolutely fascinating. She was on her way to Boston, and reports that during her layover Turkish Airways put her in a beautiful four-star hotel at Taksim. I should have let Turkish Airlines find me a hotel when I flew that route. I had no idea they’d be so generous.

Meanwhile, I flew on to Trabzon; where I expected to meet a new friend from my last visit to Turkey. Öznur is a graduate student about to defend her dissertation, but she took time off to show me her home region. Unfortunately, she got overwhelmed by professional responsibilities at the last minute and couldn’t get free when she expected to, so I started out to see Trabzon on my own.

I had a little trouble launching my tour of the city. In the first place, very few people here speak any English. In the second place, I hadn’t put any serious effort into my contingency plan, figuring that somebody at the hotel could give me a few pointers if necessary. Expecting Öznur at any minute, I didn’t want to do anything she might want to show me later, and I went down to walk along the seashore. It smells like sewage down there, and there are lots of foul pipes dumping into the sea. I saw fishermen, but I’m not so sure about those fish. I wasn’t tempted to order any today.

Returning from my seaside walk, I passed an abandoned construction site and took pictures of the pile of dirt, suspecting that my Trabzon city album would come to tell a dark tale. Fortunately, my next destination changed the mood. I took a shuttle bus (like a Russian marshrutka) to Boztepe, where there’s a beautiful tea garden with a spectacular view over Trabzon and the sea. Then when I went back down I ate dinner at Maidan, the main city square with a beautiful park. By the time I finished, Öznur arrived and took me off to see a different view of the city.

Öznur is great, filled with kindness and practicing an open-minded curiosity. We visited some tour agencies and talked about what we should see in the coming days. Then she took me off to look for a wedding gift for a couple of my friends, to explore some very cute and hidden corners of the city, to eat baklava and to visit a mosque. I asked for the visit to the mosque, which somehow meant more to me than the other mosques I’d visited. I think the difference was in part Öznur’s reverence, and her translation as we approached of what the Imams were singing. We have three interesting days ahead of us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Everything is grand (Belarus)

I returned to Belarus today, and aside from the crazy-expensive breakfast in Frankfurt it’s been great. I had an interesting companion on the plane from Boston, a doctor from Kazakhstan who’d come to the USA to study English. He’s a nice guy and I enjoyed talking to him in Russian, but I think he needs to return for more lessons before he’s ready to teach medicine in English, which he’s supposed to do in 2020. But I didn’t chat as long as I might have because I wanted to sleep. It was already 1:00 a.m. in Minsk, so I put on my eye-shades and thought ahead to my new time zone. It worked out pretty well, and I didn’t even mind missing the meals.

By the time I got to Frankfurt, however, I was hungry. By tradition, I have breakfast at the Goethe Café near the departure gate for Belarus, and I did it again without much thought. After eating quiche with salad, I decided that I still needed something, so I ordered a different breakfast at the same place. The first breakfast was OK but small. The second wasn’t even OK. Hoping to avoid a repeat, I went walking around after I finished, hoping to find another interesting restaurant in that area for next time. There it was, Deli Bros. They serve only breakfasts, for a lower price, and everything looks nice. I wish I’d found it sooner. (It’s between gates B59 and B60.)

That was all just preparation. When I got to Minsk, things really got great. I found leaves on all the trees (a contrast to Boston), warm weather and sunny skies. After unpacking, I walked over to the Hotel Beijing for a massage and dinner. Knowing that I had the massage ahead made my time on the economy-class flights much more bearable, and I had a good time catching up with my masseuse, who had a lot to tell me about.

And then dinner. Oh, dinner. I’ve only eaten at the Hotel Beijing a few times, and always liked it. Today's delightful extravaganza cost a lot less than breakfast and delivered several times the pleasure. I had a couple of extraordinary dishes, starting with a Greek Salad that looked like a new moon. The chef didn’t use typical Greek spices but presented a very creditable variation on the idea with dried powdered beets decorating the plate and perhaps flavoring the salad. I spent a lot of time sampling the powder from the edge of the plate before I figured out what it was. It’s delicious! I raved to the waitress about how much I liked it, so the chef sent me a little jar of the stuff. He'd made it himself, though I found a freeze-dried variant at Amazon. I’ll enjoy experimenting with both.

My tasty-but-tough duck main course doesn’t deserve its own paragraph. Let me close, however, by describing dessert. I ordered a berry mousse, which arrived looking as good as my salad. Unfortunately, I ate most of it before I thought to take a picture, but it started out a shiny purple dome with white chocolate shavings and dark chocolate leaves on the top. Inside, I found a white mousse and cooked berries, layer by layer. It tasted just as good as it looked.

When I walked home, it was still light out and I enjoyed my route under trees alongside the river. I stopped at the grocery store to load up on basic supplies and got a whole bag of meat, dairy, fruit and staples; about as heavy as I could comfortably carry in one hand; for a little over ten bucks. This city is great!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

New Orleans

I used to go to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival almost every year, but haven’t been in a long time. I thought it was time to go back, especially since I haven’t seen my friends Bryant and Sam in almost as long. Bryant’s an old friend, and I always enjoy seeing him.

My first day in town I ate a light lunch because the guys and I had big plans at Brightsen’s, a well-loved restaurant, that evening. It was an appetite well saved, because we had an excellent dinner served by a charming waitress. This waitress began my re-introduction to Southern hospitality. Everybody is SO NICE here. I noticed it over and over as I got to the fairgrounds and navigated the festival. Moreover, the hospitality rubbed off on the other guests at the event. People came from all over, but as we congregated for the music, we all became extra nice, extra patient, extra friendly one to another.

I didn’t freak out with joy at the festival quite as I expected. Maybe I had inflated it in my memory, or maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening almost exclusively to big-band music over the last few years and that’s not the kind of music featured at this event. I had a fine time nevertheless. As I think about my favorite groups, I have too long a list to even start mentioning them by name. Except I will say that I heard Samantha Fish for the first time this year and I’ll make sure it’s not the last. If she comes to your town, go see her. And John Mayall has a new member of his group, a guitarist named Carolyn Wonderland. I think she still has her own group as well, and I’d go see her again any time I got the opportunity. John Mayall is great too, but we already knew that. The more I reflect on my experience, the better I like it.

It was a short trip with many delights, but I still rank hanging out with Bryant as one of the chief pleasures. He came to the festival with me on Saturday, took me to the airport today, and made his presence felt even when he wasn't personally at hand. I also delighted in eating well on the fairgrounds and elsewhere, kept up on my exercise, heard great music, and enjoyed lots of that Southern hospitality. I’ll bring some of the hospitality with me as I go north.

Friday, April 20, 2018

I met Lionel Hampton!

I want to tell you a little story, but before I can tell it, I need to set the stage.

When I was getting to know a chatty and precocious kid in 1998, she asked me to tell her my most embarrassing moment. I thought a bit and replied that it would be hard for me to answer because I don’t embarrass easily. That’s generally true, though it’s not because I don’t do stupid things. It’s just that I don’t notice my stupidity until much later. I have a few memories that make me cringe and whistle whenever I think of them. I’m about to tell you one of them.

I’m acutely aware of my embarrassing failure because I’ve been listening to a lot of Lionel Hampton music lately. Just about every day I listen to a few of his recordings, as I am right now. He’s become my favorite musician, or at least one of two. (I love Duke Ellington too.) After some years of listening to Hampton, I got curious to read a little about him, and came to suspect that he was the subject of my story. Now that I am reading his autobiography, there is no doubt. I met Lionel Hampton around 1980.

I had recently moved to Massachusetts and started volunteering as an usher at church. I am a Christian Scientist, and the Mother Church of our denomination is here in Boston. Lionel Hampton was a Christian Scientist too, but I didn’t know that. I had no idea even who he was: Jazz music had not come up on my radar at all. One cold Sunday morning, a big car pulled up to my door. Our church has an underground parking garage, and nobody ever parked on the plaza. In my mind, somebody was taking a major liberty.

The driver let out a tired-looking African-American man in a camel-hair coat with fur collar. The man didn’t say much. He seemed out of place to me, and I imagine today that he felt my discomfort as he scuttled past. This is all so painful for me to recount: I had never been around a prosperous person of color, and couldn’t connect with him at all. I imagined that he was an old-time blues musician, wasted after a life of dissipation. More likely, he was just tired after working late and then getting up early for church. According to Ahmad Jamal, getting any jazz musician to do anything before noon is a very big deal.

I invited the driver to park in the garage and come inside, but he preferred to stay out in the car on the plaza. He waited by my door, the engine running.

As soon as the service was over, my guest was the first person down the stairs, apparently eager to go. Knowing that I had done a bad job of connecting with this man, I tried to engage him in conversation, learning only that he lived in New York. He hustled out to his car.

Unaware that I'd ever met Hampton, I heard him live in 2000 or 2001. He was one of the headliners in Bending Towards the Light, a Jazz Nativity. Supposedly one of the Three Kings, he had not performed in any of the previous shows due to poor health, and the usher warned us that he may not play tonight either. When it came time for the Three Kings, however, a vibraphone appeared on stage and an assistant accompanied the great man out. He leaned heavily on his escort, and tottered a bit before catching his balance in front of his instrument. He picked up a pair of mallets and began to play. Not quickly, not a lot of notes, but oh my, did he play! He didn’t just play the notes: the spaces between them said just as much as the notes themselves. I cried. It was pure soul. This must have been one of his last public performances, but his music lives on brilliantly. Here's a clue for you, what it felt like.

I’m sorry I can’t meet him today. I’d tell him that I love his music, but also that I admire his life, respect the way he thinks, and could hardly put down his autobiography.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A few warm days

I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area much later than I’d planned, but still on the intended day. By the time I got to John and Meredith’s house, they’d put the kids to bed and retired to a back room to do some work. I let myself in and crept past the bedroom where James was theoretically asleep. He called to me through the door, and I stepped in to say “hi.” Though we chatted for a little while, my eyes never adjusted to the dark enough to know where he was, a small boy in a big bed. We agreed to play together first thing in the morning and I crept out.

Saturday, then, we played a lot. John builds brilliant vehicles and buildings from James’ toys, and James has learned from his dad. We built some excellent stuff before going out to visit the Heller Aviation Museum. We expected to see just aircraft but got a special treat because several model train clubs had brought in their gear and filled the usually-open floor with intricate model railroads. We did see a lot of things that fly, but spent our first hour with the trains. Here are a couple of photos from a Boeing 747.


On Sunday, we went up to San Francisco to meet Johnny’s dad at an aquarium. As a special favor to James, we rode the last mile on one of the classic trollies the City of San Francisco runs along the waterfront. Continuing our "transportation" theme, we also rode a carousel after we finished in the aquarium.


It being school vacation week, I stayed an extra day and Monday included a picnic in a park and other outdoor activities. I enjoyed the warm weather, but I especially enjoyed the warmth of the family I had come to visit. I'll miss them until I'm able to return in summer.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Visiting Auntie Bea

For some reason, it’s hard to visit my aunt in Oregon. Last time I tried, I got snowed out. This time, I got there but now I’m a bit stuck in Oregon.

I flew out yesterday, leaving home at 4:00 a.m. so I could arrive in time to eat lunch with Auntie Bea. We did have lunch together, but later than we expected because the highway got closed and I had to cross two narrow bridges with lots of traffic in order to follow the Columbia River on the Washington side instead of my usual route on the Oregon side. I would like to say that I got great views, but it was raining so hard I couldn’t really see much or even look around much.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining in The Dalles, and I managed to take a little walk after we ate. The Dalles calls itself the end of the Oregon Trail because there was no good way to take a covered wagon farther west from here and travelers had to choose between a difficult and dangerous trip over mountains or a very scary and dangerous raft trip down the rapids of the Columbia River. I didn’t walk far, but enjoyed seeing spring blossoms in this small but cozy town. Spring hasn’t made much of a show yet in Boston.


Today we went to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, toured the museum and stayed for lunch. It’s situated on the Columbia River at a beautiful place with an attractive walkway. Though my aunt wasn’t up for the walk, we had an excellent time at the museum. I was surprised to see a couple of historic wagons rotting in the parking lot, one of them filled with rotting wooden trunks. It seemed too valuable to leave out in the rain.


My flight to San Francisco got canceled for reasons I never learned. The next flight wasn’t a lot later, and they promoted me to first class so I figured it would be OK. But then the later flight got delayed because of some air traffic control problems. The San Francisco airport is running on a very reduced schedule, and my flight won’t even go there. They will fly me into Oakland and then take me in a bus to San Francisco airport. As I said, visiting Auntie Bea hasn’t been easy. I hope it goes better next time.

While I'm thinking of it, here's a picture of my aunt's staircase. I can't believe that we slid down that banister as kids. Or that the adults let us:

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Real life

As I prepared to pull the plug today on Facebook, I spent some time thinking about how I’d replace its better features. I made a list, for example, of the people I tend to “see” only on Facebook. It’s woefully incomplete, but it’s a reminder that I need to take steps to stay in touch with people important to me. I’ll try to write at least one personal email every week. I won’t hit everybody. I don’t even know everybody’s email address. But I hope that improving the quality of key relationships will polish some of the pain from losing touch with, for example, some of my dance friends. Ideally, I’ll see the dance friends at social events anyway, so it won’t be a total loss. We’ll see how it goes.

Facebook demonstrated its adroit understanding of my soft spots when I began to deactivate my account. On the first of their “are you sure?” pages, they strung a garland of pictures. On each picture, it said “<Person’s name> will miss you if you leave Facebook.” The people they chose to feature weren’t necessarily the people with whom I interact most often. Some of them don’t appear to use Facebook much at all. But Facebook accurately chose some of the ones dearest to me. I’m not sure how they did that. I suspect, based on things I’ve read recently, that they look for words of emotional connection in our communications. I don’t know what else. But since I am leaving largely over concerns about privacy, they effectively illustrated what I’m worried about (while suggesting that the benefits may outweigh the costs.)

Meanwhile, life goes on quite nicely. As the weekend approached, I got an Easter card in the (postal!) mail from a friend in Belarus. Then on Friday I had a great time at the regular weekly dance near Boston. On Saturday morning, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art with a group of alumni from my university. We enjoyed the exhibit we came to see, and then I especially enjoyed another exhibit there, called “Art in the age of the Internet.” They had some amazing stuff, all of which would have been impossible to create without computer assistance. After the show, we went out to lunch, where we enjoyed spirited conversation and a delightful waitress.

The whole weekend is going that way. I’ve always liked real life, and today I am savoring it with new commitment since I have nothing else.

Monday, March 26, 2018

In lieu of Facebook: Family

I haven’t disabled my Facebook account yet, but I’m already living apart from it. So far, so good. I’m trying to make good use of the extra free time, choosing a small number of priorities for each day. This blog is a part of that.

I identified family members on Facebook long ago, but then I hid my friends list because it creeped me out when a former classmate started “friending” all my prettiest female acquaintances and none of the others. So; here I am on a new platform, and I want to say something about the cast of characters I may mention in my blog posts.

I have a large and expansive sense of family. I grew up close to my cousins, and we did stuff together regularly enough that we built strong and lasting bonds. And then my sense of family expanded to include Luci’s brothers and cousins. Luci was my first wife. When she passed on in 2002, her cousin Nants flew out to spend a week with me and helped me take the first steps in giving away Luci’s clothing and the personal items that might have been hardest for me to sort through. Nants assured me that she thought of me as a brother, and she’s been quite consistent about that. We’ve leaned on each other from time to time in hard times since then, and I’m delighted finally to have a sister.

The rest of her family is just as close. I love her Trump-loving gun-toting brother just like my own. He and I talk politics from time to time, knowing that we’ll never agree. But Tom’s alright. He’s always got reasons for his opinions, and he shares his reasoning without being offensive. I need to understand how other people think, and Tom makes it easy. Their sisters are the ones who usually organize family gatherings, and they’ve continued to treat me as a full member of the family even though the blood relative is no longer among us. I love them deeply and enjoy feeling loved by them.

One other member of that group stands out, a fellow from the next generation. Johnny went to Princeton, which is a lot closer to Boston than to San Francisco, so Johnny spent a lot of time with Luci and me during holidays and breaks. When Luci passed on, Johnny was there for me. Just as I realized that I might have made a terrible mistake not providing myself with a son or daughter, Johnny took on the role. He’s an amazing guy, a total credit to his parents as well as to himself, and I love him dearly. He‘s brought other wonderful people to the family, starting with his amazing wife Meredith. Maybe some time I’ll tell you about how she brought reconciliation between my dad and me, but that would be for another essay. For now, just take my assurance that John, Meredith and their kids are all extremely important to me.

A few months ago, I told my story to one of the visually-disabled kids whom I’d been guiding around. Her own family situation left a lot to be desired, and I felt like it was time I should pay forward the kind of inclusion I’d received from the people I described above, so I told her that if she wanted to consider me a brother or some kind of a parental figure, I’d be up for it. Not long after, she started calling me Papa, and I like it. Her name is Tanya, but sometimes now I call her “dochka.” That’s a diminutive form of “daughter” in Russian. Once again, my family is expanding.

You’ll hear more about these people if you keep reading my blog. All of them bring me great delight.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve never trusted Facebook. In the eleven years I’ve been a member, I have too often seen them disregard users’ privacy and violate trust. Persistent concerns prevented me ever from turning on the application platform or installing the mobile app. Granted, I’ve been an active user of the service and enjoyed it in many ways. But today I’m not so sure that the benefits outweigh the costs for me. The Cambridge Analytica scandal pushed me over a tipping point.

Studies show that Facebook generally decreases users’ happiness, and I’ve tried not to hang my sense of welfare on comparisons to other people’s lives. On the other hand, I may be a part of the problem, presenting an overly pretty picture of myself online. Like most other people, I filter. I post the good stuff, but don’t talk much about my failures. Anyway, I’m confident that my happiness derives from sources other than Facebook and don’t imagine it will hurt me emotionally to part ways with the company.

What I like about Facebook is the sense of connectedness it offers. I’ve learned lots about race relations, culture wars, my friends’ political beliefs, beautiful vacation spots and numerous other things on this platform. I’ve offended, been offended, soothed hurt feelings and attempted to buck up the depressed. It’s been a big part of my life. But is it life?

On April Fool’s Day, I’ll begin an experiment. I’m going to deactivate my Facebook account and try to live a little more like I did in the old days. I’ll initiate more conversations on email and telephone and hope that others will do the same. I won’t be in touch with quite so many people but hope that the loss will be compensated by deeper relationships among those who are left. Please feel free to reach out to me at your convenience: I’m easy to find through my website. You can leave comments on blog posts or find my email address and phone numbers on the “About me” page.

I’ll try to share a little more on my blog, so the seriously curious can know what’s up. I don’t have a lot of followers, however, so if you’re reading this then you’re already special to me. Please feel free to get in touch. I read Russian and English, and I will respond in whatever language you write. (But answers in English tend to be much more nuanced.) Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to keep up, but I’ll get my information from truly-personal or reliably-professional sources.

I hope to see you in the real world!