Sunday, May 27, 2007

Vitebsk and Chagall

We visited Vitebsk, a four hour drive, home to Marc Chagall and Yuri Pen, Chagall's first teacher, on a cold rainy day in April. Chagall's childhood and teenage home has been converted to a museum with a knowledgeable guide and several preserved artifacts. Yuri Pen founded a painting academy in this small city, an unlikely setting for such an array of talent.

Khorujai Street

The streets are full of surprises; the vivid warmth of a flower kiosk on a cold winter night; a lottery prize ceremony on a Spring day complete with a cowgirl hoedown and a samba with two half dead snakes.


Our landlady Zena and her husband Valentin, who, in spite of their dour expressions for the camera, laugh a lot and are charming, lovely and generous people. In spite of their meager ten word English vocabulary, our fifteen in Russian, and four or five shared German words, we managed to communicate quite well and shared a pleasant afternoon thanks partly to Rena's wonderful and creative pasta and Zena's magnificent home made cake.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Metro

Crowded, clean, safe and aesthetically graceful describes the Minsk subway system. Trains are frequent, every three minutes, and zip you uncomplicatedly through the city without adventure. At the end of each station a digital clock shows current time and the time elapsed since the last train left. It is cheap (25 cents a ride, 12 for pensioners and students) and relatively short, with two lines crossing and going to different parts of the city. It is augmented by suburban railroad lines and an amazingly comprehensive above ground system of busses, electric busses and trolleys that cover the entire city safely (if not always comfortably), cheaply and reliably.

English Classes

There is a great desire to learn English here and we have sporadic evening meeting groups in a variety of venues- corporate, civic and private and have met with mixed success for a variety of reasons, the major one probably being that people work hard here, often having two jobs and attending university for advanced degrees. These photos are from the Minsk Jewish Center.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

World War II is still close for many Belarussians. 25% of the entire population of the country died during the war and much of the city was destroyed by the Nazis. During the celebration of the German surrender there is a huge city wide celebration and the old veterans, wearing their medals are honored.

The museum is an elaborate affair in the center of the city, with a striking exhibit of a full size German tank smashing through a wall mural of the Hitler- Stalin agreement. Many of the older people here still view the pact as a necessity at the time and I recently had a long discussion with a colleague about the results of dealing with the devil, which we still see from different perspectives.

The museum is impressive, loaded with weaponry and with two floors, awash with artifacts, devoted to the partisans. The hundreds of period photos are striking- German soldiers guarding hanged citizens in the steets while crowds stand by, underground press rooms, radio broadcasts in the woods, military actions.

One of my colleagues volunteered her daughter and a friend, two charming and multi talented girls who spoke wonderful English, to accompany us and explain things, a great help as all the explanations and captions were in Belarussian only.


I'm way behind on my posting, so we'll just put things up in a random order. We visited Vilnius for a quick weekend about a month ago. It is, of course a city rich with Jewish history, but we'll be exploring that part on a longer forthcoming trip.
The train ride, actually about two hours, is doubled by stops at two border checks (Belarusian and Lithuanian), although other than that the checks are pretty routine and the officials friendly.

We found an 'old town' with churches, restaurants amber and linen shops, narrow streets and a western European attitude. The churches were beautiful as well as full of history, the amber and linen were exquisite and a bargain and the restaurants and pubs were great fun. Trying out our primitive Russian skills here led to a discovery that in general things Russian, including the language aren't that popular here.

The trip back in a friend's car at night, with the Lithuanians just waving us through and the Belarussians, in their Belarussian way, making some arcane bureaucratic adventure out of the process while we waited outside the window in the cold, was spiced up by a mysterious beautiful blonde in a Mercedes who managed to breeze through and roar off, much to the disgust of the waiting truckdrivers. Truckers have it hard here. They have to wait for hours in long lines at both borders.

We were there on Palm Sunday, so the church on Cathedral square was both crowded and colorful. A side trip to the huge Acropolis Mall enabled us to get a couple of Prescription drugs that weren't available in Minsk, and to enjoy the ice cream, crowds and the huge ice skating rink in the mall.