Last night must have been the most enjoyable party of my stay in Belarus till date. It was not a big gathering which made it cozy. There was Colonel Levsha and his daughter Tanya; Colonel Borovko, his wife and two daughters (Katya and Dasha), Sergei (an informal ECC employee in Minsk) his wife and baby daughter and then about six of us. It started with a whole table full of hors d'ourves, and I pigged out on the caviar. I have developed quite a taste for it, particularly the red ones which are available only in this region. After many toasts later, we stopped for a smoking break. The banquet was at a restaurant called the Billiard Club, and they had reserved the whole place for us. Don West, who had missed the earlier banquet, asked me if the appetizers were all we would get, as this part of the meal lasted for an hour and a half. I told him that there was more, since I had already been there and done it. He was skeptical.
After the smoking break, we went back for some more appetizers, and then started playing Russian pool, or billiards. It was great, although the tables are different and much more difficult than in the US. Each game lasted at least half an hour, and the rules took a little while to get used to. Then we went back to the table. Eugene Borovko had produced a guitar which he played, as well as his two daughters and Sergei. They were all excellent and the whole company sang songs. And Fyodor Levsha sang. His booming baritone took over the place, he is really good. Finally, at 11:30, the main course was served. Don, by this time, was giving me dirty looks as he thought the meal was over, he was actually convinced during billiards itself. I had the last laugh, and he said "I guess you know your Byelorussian banquet norms ". After dinner we danced for a little while and drank some more vodka. Then I went back to the hotel Belarus.
Another tragic post soviet syndrome came to light on the way back. I was given a car to take me back although I had wanted to walk (it's about 10/15 minutes). However, Ron Mis of ADL was in no shape to travel, which made me finally understand something. ADL had given us a memo of do's and don’ts before we got here, and one item was No Drinking. We had laughed at it, and looking at Ron, I guess they have their own employees in mind when they write it. Anyhow, on the drive back, I started talking to the driver, and it turned out that he was the coach for the National Rowing Team and he was in Atlanta for the Olympic Games. He is now driving me around Minsk.
I had a pleasant Sunday morning as Tanya Levsha and Dasha Borovko had offered to take me around Minsk. I treated them to McDonalds (which turned out to be a huge deal for these giggly teens). Then we went back to Naroch, making our usual pit stop at Vladimir’s house to drink coffee with him and his wife Natasha. I am a little nervous, as tomorrow will bring a hopefully happy ending to a long adventure that we have been having (this is the story of Shasha rectifier), and if it is solved, the project is just gravy from here on. I already typed this story to lose it to unrecoverable disk error, so will wait to type it till tomorrow. Just to add to suspense, we have imported Victor from Minsk, who will be sharing my room in Naroch till we have a solution.
The usual way back to Naroch, through the fields that I have watched being tilled, seeded, hayed and has now little rows of potato plants coming up; through the rolling countryside, speckled by the militia every so often; through little towns where girls wait at bus stops with golden locks, glistening in the sunshine. Little streets where babushkas sit on park benches and gossip. Dogs that chase our Citroen van. Dense forests and open fields with the blue and yellow wild flowers, the nizabutka. Fyodor Levsha sang a song yesterday, comparing a woman to a nizabutka who he saw tolka dlye (only for) minutka, but he will remember her nafsyegda (forever).
I remember a story by Kundera where a man is suddenly overwhelmed by his own achievement. So much so that he raises his hands up to the sky and says "I am Bobby Fisher". To me, this had seemed so classically East European, where idols are so different. No one wants "to be like Mike". The superhuman is a chess genius, incredible, so very soviet or soviet like, the land of the game of shak-matee.
This morning, I had called Shasha, our driver. He was not home, and it was his wife Lesha who answered the phone. She spoke no English, but I understood that he was not home. It was really urgent for me to leave a message for him, so I started talking in English. Then, realizing the haplessness of the situation, I laughed and laughed and I could hear her laughing at the other end. I raked my memory for all the Russian words that I know, and continued till she finally said "Ya ponemayu (I understand). And I knew she did, for she confirmed my message in what was much more proper Russian. As I hung up, I am left with a sense of supreme achievement. I raise my hands to the skies and say "I am Bobby F...." but stop. Times have changed, technology has advanced. I am not Fisher, Korshnoi, Karpov or even Kasparaov. I raise my hands again and say "I am Big Blue!!!”