7.05.1997

Independence Day

This may well be my last note on Belarus before I leave, unless I can sit down and re-write the weird story of the site visit and the conference banquet. It’s pretty much my last e-mail session from Minsk, the grand old city which celebrated it’s 930th year this week-end. I am glad, cutting and re-connecting wires in hotel rooms was just a bit much. I’m also glad, because like I said before, it will be good to get back. It has become noticeable, sometimes during the middle of the work day, I let off this statement “I wanna go home”. The Byelorussians are concerned and they say “Shouvik, you may want to go home now, but in a week, you will miss this place.” I know they are right, and my statement is half in jest. It is a curious phenomenon for me. In reality, what is home? I have never hankered for home, because I move from one place to set up in another semi-hotel accommodation. Home is where I hang my hat. Talking about hats, I bought two here.

The first hat is the leather working class hat. It reminds me of the one that Yuri Zhivago’s brother wore (played by Alec Guinness in the movie version) when he assimilated among the marching crowds. My interpreter does not like me to wear it, as with the fall of the Soviet Union, class distinctions are back. It looks cool. I used to wear it during the days that I needed a haircut, but did not have the time to find a barber. I almost need another haircut now, may wait till the USA for that one.

The other one is a black hat worn by cadets in the Naval Academy, during Soviet days. I bought it in Lenin’s hills off MGU as a present for someone. It has the red Soviet star and three cyrillic “slavs”. I was thinking about buying one of those really Russian looking fur hats, but finally gave up the idea.

I attended the parade in Minsk. It was pouring, so clutching an umbrella I set out for independence square. Along the way, I got stopped by policemen, who had cordoned off the street leading to it. I was unable to understand a word they said, so I stood there till a group of people came marching down the road carrying flags and banners. The militia opened the road for them taking care to still cordon off the rest of us. In a jiffy, I slipped through the police line, joined the march and hiding my face with my umbrella went down the road, in solidarity with people with scores of medals on their chest, clutching pictures of Stalin, and carrying the old Red Soviet “hammer an sickle” flag. Soon, we were at Independence Square. I am, of course, making my trip to the square sound like a James Bond movie. Although factually, this is exactly how it happened, I don't think the militia really cared if I went or not. They were just following orders.

The parade was quiet impressive, as parades go. When it was over, I walked over to Victory Square where they have the eternal flame for the Unknown Soldier. Atop the monument is the famous star, which has been awarded to only five people, Stalin and Zhukanov among them. Four young cadets stood at each corner of this monument, while little children played among the flowers that are placed on the monument perhaps every day. There must have been a million people on the street. I walked through Gorky Park, and Ivan Kupala Park, amidst the music and gaiety. There was a theatre going on, with men dressed in armor and fighting dragons, with a guy in the background playing a bagpipe. Just a very lazy afternoon, and of course me without a camera. I drank gin and tonic with new found friends, university students who spoke a little English. They sell this mixture in both bottles and cans, and it is a favorite among young women here. The alcohol percent is lower than a regular gin and tonic. The Byelorussian name (note: Byelorussian and Russian are two fairly different languages, and Byelorussian is spoken only in very rural areas. Everyone else speaks Russian, some with Byelorussian accent) for it is “djin djer tonic” which I managed to pronounce correctly after a few attempts. To do it perfectly, one has to drink a few gin/tonics first.

The city has gone crazy for a few days. There is the Minsk marathon, the fireworks every night, music in the park and other ethnic entertainment. The fireworks were really very good, my favorite being the one which exploded creating a white circle with a red star in the center. Way cool!!!!! People throng the streets, till about 4 am. Many among them are extreme pianitsa’s, who my friends describe as “crazy Russian boys”. Actually, they said “Kray-zee Rush-an bow-ez”. My new theory is that communication here is simple. A lot of these people know broken English. I know about 50 odd Russian words. The only other thing I need to do is tune my English accent to make it palatable to the Russian ear. And it seems to be working in moderation.

I walk by the Stella monument, dedicated to the mother of dead war heroes. Bright flags of every color adorn the steps leading up to it. Stella looks like any other statue/mural in the former Soviet Union. Glorious face held high, with a beatific smile. I am on my way to a farewell dinner for our team. We eat at the Spanish Corner Restaurant across from McDonalds, two of the cities most expensive restaurants. (McDonalds is not that bad). I mail five post cards that I have written, and then stop at a Post Office to buy more stamps. I realize then that I am being charged more for the stamps, and find out that the postage has gone up since June 20th. I have thrown five post cards into a black hole. At the little post office in Postavy, perhaps nobody has sent a letter outside the Soviet Union for decades.

I ended the night drinking some vodka with friends, who follow the strange custom of buying a bottle of orange juice and vodka, and will drink the orange juice, then swig some vodka and then drink orange juice again. Why not mix it in one glass?

When I leave Belarus, the following changes will happen:
• Bedtime will shift from the average one a.m. to 11 p.m.
• Daily sleep quota will rise from 5 hours to 8&1/2 hours.
• Vodka consumption will take an incredible dive down (My blood potato level will decrease)
• Will no longer trade vodka for spare parts.
• Will start having milk again. (I went through two months with bare minimum dairy products.)
• No more cabbage, beet and fish for breakfast.
• Raw meat intake may all but disappear. (I will still try and eat caviar).
• My disco attendance will be badly affected (though in truth I have gone to a disco maybe once in the last two weeks.)
• Will not hear any more diatribes on Lukashenko from drunken people on the street. (Lou-ka-shane-ko is beeg bool-sheet)
• Lose my Russian accent.

Life, in short, will really suck. ;-)

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