Sunday, November 27, 2005

Potato chowder

I get some goodies from time to time. Not every day mind you, but sometimes. Tanya made me some chowder today and it was so good. I don’t know where I got the urge for some chowder but I did and I described what it was to Tatyana and she came up with a startlingly good bowl of heavy white potato chowder. I guess I had got to thinking about when I lived for a while in Seattle Washington. I was working for this bike rental firm there and there was an upscaly bar on the waterfront who had as a happy hour dish this unbelievable clam chowder for a buck a bowl. Used to go there all the time after work; brought friends, made a scene of it. So I guess I was remembering this and asked Tatyana to make it. She of course had never heard of clam chowder, so teaching it to her was up to me. I thought about it a little and came up with what I thought might be a legitimate recipe. We do the vegi bit here (and we keep kosher) so you know so we left out the clams, and I guess push come to shove it is basically just milk soup, thickened with flower and inhabited by diced potatoes and veggies. I don’t know if I got it right but it came out really thick and creamy and was really tasty and I ate three bowls of it. Maybe we should call this cream of potato soup instead? Who cares, it was good.

I have managed to bring quite a few things into the house from the other side actually. Mustard is another thing. They have here what they call gorchitsa, which may be from mustard seed but it is much, much hotter and more difficult on the pallet. Tanya says that she loves it but has never, ever bought any. I tried it a few times but then passed on it as being more a nuisance than a condiment. A month or so ago this one specialty stall at the market started carrying a squeeze container of something very similar to Gulden’s spicy brown mustard and, feeling like G-d had answered a prayer, I have thus far bought three. This same stall by the way also sells popcorn and peanut butter, these also popular new inventions for the household here. These things come by way of Germany or Poland though as there is no Belarusian producer of peanut butter or pop corn as far as I know. But then again Belarusians are really good at borrowing things, or maybe it is called stealing and there are a lot of available cheap, imitation goods around town that prove the point. But in any case they are good at it and so who knows, there might be some BY PB and J’s will be available for the kids within a few years. I should add though that for the most part, these sorts of exotics do not really have an influence on the culture, except for maybe cell phones and what is from here is still what is real. Or maybe it is just that people won’t buy what they don’t need when they don’t have enough money. But anyway these days you can get some exotic spices and to me, this is a good thing.

Anyway, we went shopping today at the outdoor market, trudging through the snow and slush every step of the way. So many things happening around here these days. Folks were all bundled up under the gray skies, the sellers stomping their damp feet trying to stay warm. Not a lot of smiles I tell you. And that nervousness I was noticing when I was in Kiev was also all around at the market today. Well, it was not exactly the same; here it was sharper, more bitter, hungrier. I also noticed that the traditional Russian fur hat seems to have made its return to fashion this year. I remember noticing that last year European wool hats were more fashionable and I was thinking that this particular cultural edifice was on the decline. But this is not the case this year, and with the town topped off with their tall, round fur flip-ups, I thought that the whole of the crowd looked remarkable Soviet today. I think they are called simply “shapka u shanka” here, which literally means ‘hat with ears’; remarkably warm things really. I am wearing mine as I write these words.

My guess is that this nervousness is all about the current political situation, which is to say that it is about money. There were maybe three times the normal number of under-the-table sellers out there hawking everything from homemade wool socks to strings of forest mushrooms to slackening tomatoes and apples. And people were very forward today and grim about their necessity to sell things. They were much more aggressive and direct than usual. And also I could see that they were worried as well because the police have been cracking down on all unlicensed sellers since last spring. Gone are the days when all you needed to get rid of those extra potatoes, beats and tomatoes was to go and stand out on the street and show people what you have. Now there are stiff fines and sellers must always keep an eye out for the tall, green bent-ellipse hats of the police officers.

Seriously you must know that these are indeed crazy times here in Belarus. The coming election next year has got everyone tight and worried about what is to come. You can see it on people’s faces and in their body language; you get a feel for it in simple transactions. The tightness is affecting everyone and it is building by the day. To me the central factor in this simply must have to be from the upcoming election. This election is such an enormously big deal and people are really starting to get a little weird about things wondering what will happen, what they should do, what they should say or more to the point, how best to stay out of the spotlight. And unfortunately, Lukashenka’s bucking the system has everyone on edge because of all of the drama and attention it has brought.

I think that this last statement is the most important because Belarus, that is to say the people of Belarus really, really, really do not like to be put on the spot. I do not think it is necessary to ponder the reasons behind this; nobody in their right mind would have wanted to be found guilty of anything under any of the more severe Soviet regimes and quiet living in general was the de facto philosophy of life under all of them. But people here feel free only when there is a lack of controversy around them which means that they will say and do almost anything not to be at the center of an argument. They play a game here called “who’s guilty” in which the object is to avoid being thought of as being responsible for anything and game is played by finding as many words as you can about why you are not to blame for something and then saying them as fast as you can. If you get your peace said before your oponet, and they believe you- or at least can’t think of any more acusations, you win.

Now, you must know that this was not the case over the last few years. Though money has been a real problem here for people for the last decade and a half, people have always felt free, at least privately and amongst friends, to speak about the government, either plus of minus. It was always thought of as a bit of a joke actually: “Yes, I like Lukashenka, he keeps things calm”, “No, I hate Lukashenka because we have no way to make any money…” But in the end, all felt free to say their mind because he was there, he was theirs, they had elected him and whether or not he was liked, everybody pretty much assumed for good or bad, he would be gone at the end of his term and they would have another chance at life. This is not to say that they knew who they would vote for, they just basically they knew that Lukashenka was going to become a part of history when his second term ended; the constitutions said this and no matter how tough the guy was, no matter how hard-line his policies, all felt ok with the situation because they knew at least that there would be another guy tomorrow. No matter how bad things were, there was always hope…

And I think this feeling was true even during the time of the referendum vote a year ago. I mean, they knew what they were doing, they knew what the situation was but I think people were sort of stunned by the vote. And perhaps inside, the thinmking was that it was all somehow unreal or that it was not actually a vote for the man to be presidenty really. I mean, it was in fact just a vote as to whether or not he could continue. Do you see what I am getting at? People here invariably want to be kind of easy about things and going with the flow. But in the end, I really think that people didn’t really believe that Lukashenka would actually stay on. Oh yes there was some strong arming by the bureaucrats and the administrators and there was registering of names and people were made to feel an obligation to go and vote. I am not convinced that for the most part that there was too much direct influence to vote specifically for Lukashenka, but they very much were told to go out and vote. And when the results came in, I think people here took it with a grain of salt that the president got his vote and gained his right to run again.

But these days the story is really quite different. I have to tell you that people here are actually pretty well informed as to what is going on. I know that the west is banging their heads against the wall trying to make as much noise as possible, but believe me, people here do know what is happening and this includes the newspaper closings, the internet censorship, the arrests of protesters and the harassment of political opposition. But as is true with most people, the folks around here rather than felling sympathy for those being hauled off or fined beyond their means, are more worried about what is going to happen to them. And now that things are starting to heat up (and get colder) people are getting really nervous up and down the social ladders.

Anyway, to me this business of the hats is somehow connected to all of this. Last year, regardless of the referendum, I think that everyone was planning on becoming European. No, there was not going to be any revolutions, Belarusians don’t like this at all, but I believe the thought was that there was going to be a new president and this meant change and change meant the possibility of something good happening. I am not saying that people knew what this new era would be like, and they certainly had no ideas as to who this new guy might be, but people were looking forward to something new and I think that this thought made people happy in the way that going away on holiday makes people happy; a change of scenery, some fresh air.

But now it has become clear that not only is there not going to be any changes but that the current president, perceived as having a warm and homey Belarusian heart in his referendum rhetoric is in fact the hardest of hardball players and is very much playing to win. And not only this, but that even after the pegging of the ruble to the dollar stemmed the depressingly endless inflation, a mild rise in wages and several million gallons of paint in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the war made people feel a bit better about life, in the end he now appears to be ready to lower the flag and make Belarus nothing but an attachment to Russia; no longer a country, not independent, nothing special, nothing to be proud of. And don’t think this isn’t a kick in the teeth.

I of course may be reading too much into it. Shapka u shanki are really terrific hats anyway and their reemergence as the head warmer of choice might just be from another source; possibly a new manufacturer or that these particular hats went unsold in another market last year. But then again, it might just be a sign of things to come. And if this is the case the grim necessity to find even a few more kopeks to stow away for the winter is what had so many people out there in the snow and ice today. I mean this is Belarus: you take the good with the bad, tighten the belt, steel the eyes and keep going. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last and anyway the bottom line is that you must live. I think that this is how people here really think and that this is the real essence of the culture. And they are entitled to it, you know; they earned it.

1800 Map of Poland showing the Russian, Prussian and Austrian particians
However, I do find it ironic that after fighting soi hard to keep the main opposition here in Belarus down, and I am speaking of two groups who claim ethnic poles living in Belarus as their constituency, that the president might actually in the end do something as Polish as Polish sausage by signing away Belarus’ independence. Did you know that Poland did not even exist for 117 years years? This is true. The Polish royalty, while making deals with more powerful countries partitioned away their country inso many different actions that in the end succeeded in actually removing Poland itself entirely from the map. It simply ceased to exist from 1795 and didn’t come back into existence until the end of the first world war in 1918. I don’t know, I guess to me I liked the idea of living in Belarus. Not that there’s anything wrong with Russian culture, I have always said that there is a lot to be said for it. It just seems kind of sadly ironic that’s all.

But yea, that soup was really good. Cost a few cents more than out usual soup costs because of the milk, but it was really good. Nothing like a hot bowl of soup to warm you up on a cold winter day.

I have added an editorial section to the Being Had Times. It can be found at the end of the day’s stories, just about the comments section. Please click the link to go over and have a look and then let me know what you think. You can also leave comments about this blog as well. I know that I did not allow comments for a long time but that had more to do with editing away spam than it did not wanting comments. That isn’t to say that spammers have got any chance, blogger has a cool new technology to edit these out, but anything real and about the subject at hand will be printed.

Thanks for reading me,

More soon…