Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feeling charmed

I feel so blessed just to be alive, and for all the little things that work together to make life delightful. I started the day with SMS messages from friends in Texas, Vermont and southern China. Grateful to be thought of, I furthered the conversations and made breakfast before starting an online meeting with my friend Katya in Poland. Katya and I studied Proverbs 11 together for the second time, because both of us had been a little overwhelmed at the language in it the first time through. She’s improving her English vocabulary and I my Russian vocabulary by these exercises. Besides, the Proverbs are great conversation starters.

After my chat with Katya, I went down to the gym for a good workout. I achieved a couple of new personal bests today, and I listened to a very entertaining audiobook as I exercised. The audiobook is called Wanderlust, by Lauren Blakely, and it’s so funny I found myself rolling on the floor laughing. Well, to tell the truth I wasn’t rolling. And I already started on the floor, since I was doing sit-ups when it happened. But I did laugh a lot.

Next, I went for a massage at the spa where I go regularly. Knowing that I didn’t particularly favor the scent of the spa’s regular oil, my masseuse brought coconut oil from home. I liked it a lot better. And then halfway into the massage, I noticed that we weren’t listening to the same boring music they usually play at that spa, and I asked about it. Lyubov had brought different music for me too. She’s such a sweetheart, I signed up for two more weekly sessions before my departure on 1 May.

Afterwards, of course, I went for lunch at my favorite restaurant, located in the same building. I had with me a little box of chocolates I’d bought in Lithuania, a promised gift to the waitress who served me last week. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed for a special event, but I asked if Marta were there so I could hand off the gift. She was not, but in the course of my finding that out, the administrator came to invite me to eat in the closed restaurant. I ordered the halibut, which my waitress said had just arrived fresh. It was great, of course. This (Oasis CafĂ©) is one of few places I know where I can reliably order fish in Belarus. And it came with fried mushrooms that were simply WOW. After one bite of mushroom, I decided I’d better take a picture.

As I ate, the other of the two administrators I know came to chat. I hadn’t seen Kristina in a couple of visits, and the last time I saw her she was urging me to get the seared tuna salad because she loves it so much, she said, she can barely talk about it without drooling. It’s one of my favorite salads there too, and I told her that if she’d sit down with me next time, I’ll order two of them and she can eat one with me. Surprisingly, she said she’d do that, but then she wasn’t around the last two visits. When she came to greet me today, I was just finishing that very salad, and I told her that if I’d known she were in the building I would have ordered two portions. She said she was too busy today anyway, what with that special event, but that she hadn’t forgotten.

I mentioned to my waitress that I’d already booked my next massage for Monday, so I’d see her then. Apparently she told Kristina, because as she saw me off at the door, Kristina said that she looked forward to seeing me on Monday. She added that it would be an excellent day to come because that would be the first day with the new menu. They’ve been promising me this new menu for weeks, so I expressed skepticism, but she assured me that this time nothing could go wrong, and it would indeed be a new beginning. I reminded her that she would be invited to eat salad with me on that day. She accepted, then realized that it was her day off, then contemplated the first day with the new menu and said she’d come in anyway. I said that if she were coming in specially for the new menu, then I’d like to treat her to an entire lunch, and she accepted. That’ll be fun.

So, after all that I started home. It had already been a perfect day and the sun was shining. I contemplated going to get my bike but decided to enjoy the day at a walking pace and headed up the riverside path. Out of nowhere, a young woman stopped me for advice. She wanted to know where were the most beautiful parts of Minsk. It sounded like a come-on to me, but as I tried to describe where I thought she should go, I realized that I couldn’t really explain it and I was walking that way anyway, so I invited her along. She said yes, but by her pace I realized that she was starting reluctantly. I stopped to assure her that I didn’t want anything from her, but I’m taking a walk anyway and she should feel free to send me off or veer off in her own direction whenever she wanted.

We ended up walking together for a little over an hour. She’s very nice, an actress from Moscow in town with a movie crew. She’s got a leading role in a war movie, and she said that the last couple of days had been very hard, as she had to cry most of the day. Today she seemed cheerful, and we had a nice walk. I doubt I’ll ever see her again, except perhaps on the screen, but our meeting capped off a day with amazing surprises and connections. Life is good, is it not?

Saturday, April 13, 2019

One day in Vilnius

I got an email from the hotel where I usually stay in Vilnius, offering me a room for “up to 40% off.” Clicking through, the deal indeed looked good and I booked a room for one night. It's an easy trip from Minsk to this city I like very much.

I took the early train, and got to the hotel around 10:30. They told me that I’d ordered a “freedom” room, and they didn't have one ready for me yet. Knowing I’d ordered the cheapest possible room, I tried to get an upgrade by offering to take whatever else might already be prepared. They cheerfully declined, but I had anticipated this and asked to be admitted to the fitness center in the meanwhile. This suited us all. I like working out there because it's on a high floor with great views. Even before I finished my workout, the front desk manager came up to tell me my room was ready and I could let myself in whenever I wanted.

Guys, they put me in a corner room in the fancy section at the top of the building. I had four windows, all with spectacular views; a bathrobe; slippers; all that stuff. I don't know how it happened, but it was great.

I wandered off from the hotel looking for lunch, and noticed an Indian place, Sues Indian Raja. This turned out to be a great choice, as my Google review describes. Both my waitress and the restaurant manager took excellent care of me, stopped to chat, and generally made me glad I came. They finished by recommending that I visit the modern art museum, so I headed that way after lunch.

But, along the way I attended to another of my goals for this trip by stopping at Theo Bromine Chocolates. I didn't really need any more sweets after finishing my lunch with ice cream, but I wanted to affirm that I still liked this place so I tried four different chocolates. They were good, but not as thrilling as I remembered. Planning to bring chocolates back to Minsk, I decided to check out some other options before buying more.

I enjoyed the museum, especially a film told from the point of view of Water. Water considered himself not of the earth, but of the cosmos, and commented on his ability to take on any shape. Somehow it all seemed very deep at the time, but I don't remember this sweet character in any great detail because I fell asleep in the beanbag chair from which I attempted to watch.

Upon leaving the museum, I continued my effort to buy some good chocolate.  Setting out with Google maps and no plan, I wandered far and ate a lot of chocolate. Finally, my head spinning, I found my way into Aj Sokoladas. Heroically, I are three more candies and decided this was my place. I'd be back in the morning.

Dinner was uneventful. I ate beaver stew and went back to my room to read and, finally, get to bed early.

Today I went out for a long aimless walk in old town. I thought maybe I'd find a supermarket with something exotic, but that didn't happen. But the sun warmed the streets and I enjoyed a great walk. I didn't have to hurry because the folks at the hotel allowed me a late check-out, and I finally left at two, returning for lunch at the Indian restaurant. This time I liked my meal even better, choosing to order two of my waitress’s favorite dishes. I'll get the prawns again.

As I write this, I am returning home with a lot of chocolate, some Lithuanian yogurt, and a full belly. I had a great outing.

In closing, here are three photos from my wanderings in old town this morning.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Table tennis blindfolded

I got a call a few days ago from a woman named Irina, whom I had helped a couple of years ago when she and her table-tennis team were passing through town. They’re all visually impaired, and they found me through the volunteer organization I helped to organize. I was curious about how they can play with just a noisy ball, and they promised to show me how the game works at their next opportunity.

Irina’s team was in town again last week, training for the national playoffs later this month. The winning team from Belarus will take on teams from all over Europe, and I think there’s even a world event at the culmination. Anyway, Irina invited me to watch a practice, and I brought along a blindfold “just in case.”

I filmed a couple of the women warming up. Later, I learned that these are not the strongest players in the group, but the video at least shows you how the game works. There are rules and subtleties, but it’s not hard to get started.

After I watched a few different pairs play, somebody finally invited me to give it a shot. “Well, yeah,” I said, and I got out my blindfold. They wouldn’t let me play with just a blindfold. The ball is hard, and sometimes it moves quite fast. They wear heavily-padded gloves and insisted that I find a glove before I could play. Valentina even loaned me her wristband, showing me a red spot on her arm from a ball that missed the wrist band.

I played OK at first, against a woman. They had warned me, however, that men played much more aggressively. Then they brought in Alexander, one of the other guys I’d met a couple of years ago. He annihilated me, but I had a good time trying to keep up. When we finished, he promised to send me details about the national competition in Gomel later this month. I’m thinking I’ll go, at least for one day. I want to see them going at it for real. I’d love to play again too, but I can’t figure out how to make that happen, short of buying a table.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Brunch x2

I went outside of my comfort zone on New Year’s Day this year. I’d been feeling a little lonely and wondered if it would be a good idea to go alone to the holiday brunch at my favorite restaurant in Minsk. I wasn’t sure I’d actually go until the holidays arrived and I went to a New Year’s Eve service at the church I attend here. By New Year’s Eve, I had finally begun living in the present and stopped worrying about whether my life conformed to my expectations. Better, I resolved, to make the best of what is.

So, on New Year’s Day I went over to the Hotel Beijing for brunch, believing it started as usual at noon. It did not. When I arrived, the hostess came to meet me, calling me by name and apologizing that she hadn’t made clear that this event started at two o’clock, not noon. Fortunately, I’d signed up for brunch plus spa access, so she gave me my wrist band early and sent me off to the spa, where I spent a delightful two hours swimming laps, reading my Kindle and generally relaxing. I had a great visit to the spa and then returned to the restaurant.

Christina told me that they still weren’t ready but asked me to sit in the lounge for a couple of minutes while they finished preparing the restaurant. Finally, just a few minutes late, she invited me in. I was still the only client to arrive so early, so when she opened the double doors the band started playing just for me. The restaurant looked absolutely beautiful, and the waitresses and kitchen staff stood attentively at their stations.


I finally met Sergey, the lead chef, whom I had complimented several times via the waitresses. And all my favorite waitresses came by to make sure I had everything I needed. The band even took note of which tunes I particularly liked, and perhaps they played more of it. I had a great time and took it easy over my meal and spent the entire four hours in the restaurant, first eating and finally just listening to the music.

Grateful for the good treatment, I wrote them a letter after I returned home.

I left Belarus shortly after that and returned only recently. A couple of days after arrival, I took Tanya there for lunch on International Women’s Day. The people I knew at the restaurant buzzed all around me, grateful to have read my letter and touched that I managed to write to them in Russian. As we left, they gave me a gift certificate for a Maslenitsa brunch the next day. This gift certificate for two included spa access, so I invited my gym buddy (in the photo) who has told me how much she likes their spa and pool. We had another great day there, eating and swimming. Once again, I saw Sergey the chef and a lot of other people I like very much. We ate very well, from a delicious array of dishes prepared for the occasion. The staff told me I was a member of the restaurant family and urged me to spend more time there. I probably will.