Monday, March 04, 2019

Adventures and Misadventures: My 24 Hours in Minsk

Last Tuesday morning, after Natasha and I had fed the chickens ~ actually, Natasha did the work and I trotted along behind, navigating piles of crusty snow and snapping photos ~ just 30 minutes before our planned departure for Minsk airport, Natasha announced that the front door wouldn’t open.

The hen is also wondering: What's with the pile of feathers here on the ground? And two fewer chickens in the coop today? It's a mystery of country life. 

In a typical house, one would simply head to the back door, right? Thing is, Natasha’s house is not typical. There is no back door. If we were to exit, we would need to get through that front door. Or use a window.

Weeks earlier, I had arranged for a 24-hour layover in Minsk and invited myself to Natasha’s new place in the country. I’d wanted a taste of country life adventure. The nearest neighbors were miles away, so it was up to us to solve this.

Natasha fires up the wood-burning stove each morning. So glad I could help her ~ behind the camera.

The two of us could not budge the front door. Seems the door lever had detached from the latch so we would need to take things apart. Natasha found her late husband’s electrical screwdriver and a short-handled Phillips-head screw driver. We managed to get 3 screws removed from the lock plate, but there was that pesky 4th screw. In desperation, Natasha pressed her chef’s knife into the action. No luck.
There she goes: Out zee window! 

On to Plan B, the bedroom window. Natasha stood on the bed in stocking feet and then sitting on the window ledge, had me hand boots to her before she hopped down into the snow. Then she circled around to the front door and tried opening it from outside. Still no luck.

Back inside, we both tried all the door-opening tools one more time. We soon realized that the window would be our only option. We had no time to waste, needing to head to the airport in 10 minutes. But first, we needed to get ourselves and my luggage out the window.
Natasha put a child’s sled under the window to make a step down. She went out again in her stocking feet and eased into her boots. Next to go out was my duffle bag. My upper body strength has its limits but, between the two of us, we managed to hoist that 45 pound bag up and out the window.
Next was getting Yours Truly outside. Being a plus-size person with joint issues and wearing a long, down-filled coat, I was anxious about the gymnastics of getting myself from bed to window ledge to sled to ground. We took it slow. We transferred my oversized purse, boots and carry-on bag. I would be the last out. At least that was the plan. I eased myself to sitting on the window ledge, stocking feet dangling outside. We were so focused on getting outside that I overlooked a critical part of my departure routine, which we discovered shortly.
 I dub Natasha Pioneer Woman of Belarus because she knew how to jimmy-rig the window shut from the outside. She tied the twine around the handle inside, brought it outside and secured it with a nail wedged between the window frame and siding.
As Natasha wrangled the window shut, the wind was whipping around and I dug around for my earmuffs. They weren’t in the purse. They weren’t in the carry-on.
“I can go back in and check.” Natasha said. “It will be easy.”
“Oh, Would You?”
Now That is a Friend.
Natasha pulled herself back inside and eventually found those earmuffs under the living room table. Hoorah!
With the drama of getting ourselves out the window, I had forgotten to stop and look back before leaving. I like to say, “Remember Lot’s wife: Stop and look back.” It’s not the perfect metaphor, of course, but it is a part of my departure routine, one learned the hard way. So after everything’s packed up and at the door, I go back and have a quick look around for anything forgotten. Most often, I come up with a little something ~ the travel alarm, an umbrella, an electrical charger. Or earmuffs.
The front door: It just Looks innocent.

* * * * * 
 Heading to the airport, I assumed the adventures of Belarus were behind me. Imagine then my surprise after smoothly navigating airport check-in and security clearance to get flagged at passport control and then to be pulled into the questioning room for some one-on-one conversation.
“Do you speak Russian?”
“Yes, if you speak slowly and simply.”
They went with the English. (Why Not practice ones English?)

 “So why Don’t you have your boarding pass for yesterday’s Moscow to Minsk flight?”
“Well, it’s in the trash at Natasha’s.”
“So where Were you in the 24 hours you were in Minsk?”

Silly me, I hadn’t managed to scribble down Natasha’s address out there in the sticks north of Minsk. Nor did I manage to document the restaurant where we had lunch. Nor the Soviet-style department store...
With Svetlana and Natasha: We were so busy smiling and posing and wolfing down delicacies that I failed to document the name and location of this fine establishment. It might have come in handy the next day...

While these uniformed young men turned to their computers, producing documents about my trespasses, I practiced deep breathing. I texted Natasha unobserved except, one might assume, by those ever-present video monitor bubble things.
“Will this plane wait for me?”
“We have contacted the airline.” (Translation: Yes.)
In the end, I signed several documents in 25 places promising that I would never, ever again fly from Russia directly to Belarus under penalty of a very big fine.
“And how much will that fine be? Enough to buy you a new car?” (Girlfriend, listen to me. Don’t. Just Don’t.)
“About $150.”
“Oh, that’s how much a visa to Belarus would cost.” (Throw in expenses for a trip to the embassy in Moscow).
Except now visas to Belarus are no longer required for 30 days, or so.

Unless. . .
. . . unless you’re arriving from Russia. Then you do need a visa for Belarus. Or unless you’re arriving on an international airline, not a Russian airline. One could fly, say, to Riga, Lithuania or Warsaw, Poland so as to arrive in the international flights section of the airport and thus get that precious entry stamp in the passport. Arriving from Russia is seamless, for a citizen of Russia or Belarus, that is. For a foreigner such as myself, arriving seamlessly from Russia ~ the big no-no, we now know ~ means time in the questioning room and lots of documents to sign. And possibility of a very, very big fine.
Gotta say, kudos to the passport control officers at the Minsk airport. They were professional, respectful and helpful. One young man escorted me to my plane, pulling my carry-on, while continuing to lecture me, probably for my own good. Ahem.

Once on the plane, one more text to Natasha.
“I’m on the plane.”
“Plane door wouldn’t open. Crawled in through the window.”

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spotted in Canada: A Yuri Gagarin

On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Still in his 20's, Gagarin (pronounced YOUR-ee Guh-GAR-in) shot up from being a household name across Russia to being an international celebrity. His smile lit up the Cold War noted his boss, Sergey Korolev, chief engineer of the Soviet space program.
Gagarin's premature death seven years later was a national tragedy. A seasoned test pilot, Gagarin crashed during a routine training flight. In recent years, conspiracy theories having been ruled out and all fingers point to human error.
Across Russia, numerous memorials honor Gagarin, including a statue here in Rostov-on-Don. According to Wikipedia, Gagarin's body was cremated and his ashes, along with those of his co-pilot, were buried in the Kremlin Wall.

On a decidedly happier note, in perhaps the ultimate tribute to Yuri Gagarin,  his namesake was born summer of 2014 in Canada. Like the Soviet hero, this little fellow is diminutive, likable and bonds quickly with others. But unlike the cosmonaut, young Yuri is 4-footed, barks when excited and eats dog food. Yes, the Canadian Yuri Gagarin is a pure-bred Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta with his owner, Janelle. No word yet as to how lofty his career aspirations.
Janelle and I crossed paths in February 2014 when she came to Russia and volunteered at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Janelle in Sochi at the Olympic Games. A correspondent by profession, Janelle coordinated the press conference for the Canadian Hockey Team after they won the Gold Medal. (Photo courtesy of Paul Griffin, Facebook).

After the Olympics Games wrapped and before the Special Olympic Games began, Janelle had a weekend planned here in Rostov-on-Don to visit a mutual friend. He asked me to consider hosting Janelle. I remembered my trip abroad scheduled shortly thereafter and said Absolutely not! But that notion changed moments into watching a interview of Janelle for Canadian television, I said, We will make this work! We have Got to be available for this young lady!

And what a delight! Definitely her own person and yet so personable. Janelle has Russian roots several generations back and wanted to honor her great-grandparents who emigrated from Russia to Canada shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

It is what it is. . . a living leg-acy. ;)

Regarding souvenirs, Janelle had but one wish ~ to leave Rostov with a very special tattoo. Prior to her visit, Janelle connected with a Rostov tattoo artist who gave her a permanent tribute to her Russian heritage ~ and to her own Yuri Gagarin, yet unborn.
And so on this anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic achievement, we imagine that in Edmonton, Alberta is a frisky little spaniel who wants to celebrate the day playing fetch, his feet firmly planted on planet earth.

Monday, February 02, 2015

McDonald's Celebrates 25 years in Russia

McDonald's of Russia celebrated its 25th anniversary in recent days. Oh sure, we remember that red letter day in 1999 when the biggest-ever Mickey D's opened in Moscow. Folks waited in an hours-long queue for a taste of the west. These days, the wait's so much shorter. And since then, even bigger McDonald's restaurants have opened elsewhere. . .

Best of all, McDonald's eventually came to Rostov-on-Don, some 600 miles south of Moscow. That might have been 2003 or so and I stood in line for 15 minutes, all smiles. Rostov now boasts at least four McDonald's and across this vast land, more than 400 sites crank out burgers, fries, the works.

Here's the nearby McDonald's: See you're reading Russian!

Another view, another day: Saturday morning and headed over there for breakfast.

Rostov International Airport welcomed travelers with McDonald's Big Tasty RIO burger, celebrating the 2014 World Cup games.
Back to the anniversary. . .
Even the tray mats announce the anniversary: #25 together: Your History.

Another look, snapped in my photo studio, haha, with translation below. Such clever marketing, using social media.
Here's the translation ~ January 31, 1990, 25 years ago, on Pushkin Square, opened the first McDonald's in Russia. Since then, McDonald's has received more visitors than the entire population of Russia - and each of them left at McDonald's part of his soul. We have grown and changed together. On the eve of our twenty-fifth anniversary, we would like to invite you to remember and revive the brightest moments of our common history.

Share your story on our website or on our social networks, celebrate their friends using the hashtag # 25vmeste, and note our page in the living history of McDonald's in Russia.

Sure enough, visit the McDonald's Russia website and check out the Big Mac memories. Visiting McDonald's here in Russia is an event ~ it's a place to see and be seen, worthy of your favorite mink coat.

The taste of the season, the Beef a-la-Rus, pictured top, only.  My favorite, on a rye bun, with a country Russian feel.

Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet gazes hungrily at the McDonald's adjacent, across Voroshilovski Street. Sir, just tell us what you'd like: We'll handle your order, you can stay your pedestal and wax poetic. 

McDonald's: Who needs a drive-through or children's play area when there's free WiFi!

Perhaps you've been to a McDonald's in Russia or another exotic land? Please share ~ we'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Auschwitz: A Look at the Russian Exposition

Soviet troops fought their way into Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They first learned about the death camp weeks earlier when liberating Krakow, Poland an hour east.

In the 70 years since, the Auschwitz site has been carefully preserved. The memorial and museum are a high-priority visit for travelers to central Europe. I'd been to Auschwitz, myself, in 2004, part of a large conference group and soon realized it was so emotionally intense, I'd need to make another trip: There's a limit to what one person can absorb in an afternoon.

April of 2010, happened that I was in Warsaw waiting for my Russian visa ~ the perfect opportunity to revisit Auschwitz. Dear friends in Warsaw, Lukasz and Nicole led the way. Say, care to join us and see what we saw?

We left Warsaw before dawn that Saturday and headed south on a high-speed train to Krakow. As the sun came up, we were zipping through forested areas of southern Poland.

Deep in thought, fellow traveler in our compartment.(Click to enlarge.)

Zipping through rural areas, heading south from Warsaw.

Several hours later, after a train-to-bus transfer, we arrived in Auschwitz. This time, it was The Russian Exhibition that caught my attention, a work-in-progress at the time of our visit. Since then, it has been finished and dedicated.

Liberation: From RIANOVOSTI, Russian News Service. At the RIANOVOSTI site, a slide show of the exhibition's dedication. (The site is in Russian, but photos are photos!)
But oh, mercy ~  I'm getting ahead of myself. First, at the camp entrance, we meet the orchestra that sent prisoners off to work and then welcomed them home each day.

Imagine playing in the Auschwitz Orchestra. When a trainload of new arrivals pulled in, they were welcomed with folk music from their homeland. The orchestra also performed at the most gruesome times and also on Sundays for the Auschwitz staff and their families.

Under the sign, Work Makes You Free, in German, likely the most photographed site at Auschwitz.

Once inside, fences, barbed wire and barracks.

Well, okay: We won't even think about going there. . .

Auschwitz is near a small town and has a rural feel even now. It's so quiet and peaceful. What a contrast to 70-some years ago when thousands of people were packed together and the air was rank with smoke from the crematoria.

Nowadays, the air at Auschwitz is so fresh, songbirds abound and tiny violets grow.

Insightful video from Rick Steves, Seattle-based travel expert and author.

Billed as America's leading authority on European travel, Rick Steves pretty much wrote the book.

Star of David in wrought iron.

Wall of Execution: In the early days of Auschwitz, it was here that prisoners faced firing squads. But the faces staring back at them so haunted the Nazi solders, that camp switched to mass cremation. 

Visitors to Auschwitz. The gentleman standing, far right intrigues me. Perhaps he's overcome with emotion. Perhaps he's just checking his phone.

Now, on to the Russian Exhibition which opened in 2014. Renovation was in process when we visited in 2010.
Exhibition of the Liberation of Auschwitz. Sponsored by the Russian Federation.

Soviet military leader, V. Sokolovskiy, who planned the Auschwitz liberation.

Precious innocents: Keeping warm in cast-off clothing.

Soviet soldiers visit with Auschwitz prisoners.

Soviet physician examines a prisoner.

Children of Auschwitz: Taken to an orphanage somewhere. . .

Funeral service, attended by Polish church dignitaries and Soviet military leaders.

Yours Truly

Lukasz and Nicole manage an early-morning smile.This dear couple were my hosts. Lukasz made it all happen: He's a Polish national, the ultimate resource on such trip. 

This high-speed train from Warsaw to Krakow.  

Our Auschwitz trip included a side-trip to the nearby Birkenau camp and took a full day. I need to return and take in the Russia Exhibition, completed since my last visit. I'm so grateful to those who liberated the camp. Grateful to those who brought to justice the perpetrators of these horrors. And a bow of deepest respect to those whose lives were shattered by what happened at Auschwitz. May they somehow find strength to move on. May they find peace.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resurrection of a Moscow Cathedral

On a recent trip to Moscow, a visit to Cathedral of Christ the Savior topped my list of new experiences. Having stumbled across the drama of its construction, destruction and eventual rebuilding, I wanted to learn more. I can't endorse all its teachings, but still, there's much to admire here, including the resilience of the Russian spirit. 

At the cathedral on a recent December evening.

Close up: Golden cupolas up there somewhere. . .

Life in the USSR grew darker still when Joseph Stalin looked out his Kremlin office window and was displeased by that cathedral, that Christ the Savior Cathedral which dominated the mid-distance. For one thing, he agreed with mentor Vladimir Lenin, that religion needed to be quashed. Another thing, the cathedral was a czar-era accomplishment, an era Stalin wanted erased from history.

Besides that, he had other plans for that very spot, plans bigger and bolder than had ever been imagined. And, so, December 1931, Stalin ordered the cathedral destroyed. Because he could.

Eyewitness account of videographer who captured the destruction.

Of course this wasn't the only Russian cathedral Stalin demolished. There were hundreds. But the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was exceptionally dear to the national psyche: It was built to celebrate surviving Napoleon's invasion. In fact, on Christmas day, 1812, as Napoleon's troops staggered out of Russian in defeat, Czar Alexander I, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, ordered a cathedral built . . . to signify our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her

Generations later in 1883, the cathedral was finished and for the auspicious occasion, ~ drum roll please ~ Russia's legendary composer, P.I. Tchaikovsky, was pressed into service to write the Overture of 1812. To this day, the overture is popular, even in the U.S. where it is often played during Fourth of July fireworks displays, complete with the sound of cannon fire.

During its 50 year history, the cathedral witnessed seismic political upheavals. Protests of the early 1900's, led to the the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the end of the Czarist monarchy and the Russian Civil War. Then, under Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Empire evolved into the Soviet Union during which massive military parades were staged in Red Square, just blocks from the cathedral. After Lenin's death, Stalin  had dramatic changes in mind for the structure itself.

In place of the cathedral, Stalin envisioned a massive Palace to the Soviets, planned to be the tallest building in the world, topped by Vladimir Lenin himself, his right arm extended in his favorite hail-a-taxi pose.

And so, on December 5, 1931, as per Stalin's decree, the cathedral was demolished. Only thing, after all that, Stalin's Palace to the Soviets never materialized: The spot stood empty for years while Stalin dealt more pressing concerns including Hitler's invasion in 1941. But on to Plan B for the site: After Stalin's death in the early 50's, Nikita Krushchev transformed the crater into a heated swimming pool, and in typical Soviet style, it was huge.

In the early 1990's, after perestroika and waves of political changes, the Russian Orthodox church requested permission of the Russian government and city of Moscow to rebuild the cathedral. The request was granted. First, the swimming pool was dismantled in 1994 and work begun on the cathedral. Six years later, the new cathedral was finished and dedicated.

Care to join me on a tour? Here's the backstory, reconstruction and dedication. Thrilling, indeed.

Current view from the Kremlin. The cathedral has been rebuilt.As for Stalin,
his grave is in Red Square, just yards from Lenin's Mausoleum. (Photo from book, below.)

The cathedral bookshop sells this book in several languages. Copyright in 2005, published by Ivan Fiodorov. Printed
in Russia. Photos by N Rakhmanov and V. Korniushin.

In  the closing words of the video, Maybe now, the future of the church's place is assured in the minds and hearts of the Russian peoples. History will surely tell.

We are told that God is the Rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). May this magnificent cathedral serve to point searchers to God and to His truth.