6.09.1997

Life in the army

Life is like being in the army. And if you had really been in the army, the whole thing gets very tough from there on. This morning, the trainees were completing some pipes under the supervision of Tom, our mechanic. Anatolyi wanted to do it in some fashion other than the instructions. Finally, Tom told him "Look, out here, Allen is the general, I am the bloody sergeant and you are the private. So, if Allen wants in done in one way, that is the way it is." Vladimyr translated this, and Anatolyi apparently understood. But did he, really? I know that in the Soviet Army, Anatolyi used to be a major. Being a private does not come so easily once you lose the habit.

Our interpreter Vladimyr is out of place in Belarus. He and his wife Natasha are absolutely capitalistic, corporate-minded people. The most interesting news is that Vladimyr once had an accident with a KGP vehicle, and it was post-perestroika. His Mazda, bought in Sweden, was smashed, totaled. Somehow, he managed to sue the KGB, and WON!!

In the heart of Minsk is a grand old building. I went in there once, and walked into an auditorium. Not knowing what was going on, I sat down and after a while, the curtains opened. On the podium, two men and a woman came to the mike one by one and gave speeches. I left pretty soon, though I did faithfully clap after each speaker. Later, I learnt that this was the Trade Union building, a place of not insignificant stature during the old days. We went back there this evening (Saturday). The basement has an Italian restaurant, with very good pizza. On the main floor are a bar & casino and a disco. !!! Standing outside at 9 pm, with the sun still high in the sky, I watched the building with its Greco roman facade, murals on top, with scores of young teens standing on the steps, and the pounding beat shaking the pillars. This is indeed Glasnost.

Yet another trip from Minsk to Naroch. The roads are so beautiful, with rolling meadows and the distant hills. Through dense forests and farmlands travel the highway. Our driver Shasha knows each and every pothole on the trip, and steers right into each one!! I am beginning to feel positively car sick. But I lean back in my seat and watch the dachas with smoke coming out of the chimneys, their patches of land speckled with green houses made of plastic sheets. Every so often the militia stops us, and check license, registration, safety box and fire extinguisher. He asks where we are headed and which year the car was manufactured. Shasha finally said "I am tired of these stupid questions...”. Occasionally, the car slows down and tries to veer through a herd of cows. My friends take photographs of cows, cowherds, dogs and dachas.

Our driver Shasha graduated from the University with a technical diploma, corresponding to an electrical engineering degree. For some years he could not find work and was doing odd jobs. Driving for us is a temp job, which is well-paid but will go once the Nunn Lugar program is over. Shasha now goes to a special institute and is taking a degree in Finance. I think it is great and told him so. In my observation, bankers tend to do much better than engineers. His wife is a geologist and models ground water at a research institute. I told her about Chandreyee who does somewhat similar work. Of course, Lisa (the wife) does not speak English, and I communicate with her in a language that my colleagues call Shouvik-Russian and predict that it will be taught in schools soon. They compare it to Ebonics. Laugh they might, but I am doing well. I am the only person who has managed to successfully order two cups of coffee at breakfast.

Anything to wash down the beet and mayonnaise.

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