Tuesday, July 25, 2006

This is the lonely life, sorrows everywhere you turn.Now that's worth something when you think about it, that's worth some money…P. Simon

I had an interesting reaction to my last blog. At the end I wrote about how we were living without hot water, without lights or electricity and the gas was out. A friend of mine wrote that it was terrible that my lights and gas and hot water had been turned off and that obviously this was due to lack of payment on my part.

This is very reasonable thinking for an American mind on two counts. Firstly he assumed that any stoppage of utilities of any kind would have to be because of financial failure, and secondly he was assuming I was begging for money by saying something about it.

But in this case, the problems with the water, lights and gas came from a way, way, way too typical situation that pretty much everyone in Belarus understands; they, the city workers that is, are always working on the houses and apartments. They are at this all the time and there rarely is a month that goes by, especially in the summer, when the hot water pipes are not down for long periods of time. The reason for this is that the materials used for the piping and wiring were always the cheapest possible, sub-standard by design, and therefore require a lot of extra maintenance. Perhaps during the time of the Soviet Union, this was not an unplanned eventuality; labor is and was cheap and the necessity for constant up-keep keeps people in their jobs.

But it is bloody annoying to tell the truth. Coming home sweaty and filthy from a day of pulling weeds in the hot sun has one in the mood for some cleaning up. But out here, far too often all that greets you is the same cold water bath you had from a bucket of water with some holes punched in it back at the farm.

The situation with the gas is along these same lines. We get the gas for our kitchen from a big red tank that sits like a lump of reality in a predominant place in our kitchen. The balloon, as it is called, lasts about a month but for some reason it is simply not possible to get a gauge for the top which would tell you that you are about to run out. And of course, and this is pure physics here, the time when it will run out is WHEN YOU ARE COOKING! So invariably there will be a moment while you are waiting for your cake to rise, or for your onions to fry, or your eggs to harden up and then in one moment, psssss- it's just simply over.

This particular month we got some service that we have never gotten before from the gas company when they actually agreed to send out the truck with a new tank on the same day. This is a miracle here of similar stature to a movie shown in nits original language; it just doesn't happen. But just as we got to see "Eyes Wide Shut" in English (and uncut by the way), we similarly got to receive a fresh tank of gas on the same day that we called. They said that it would cost an extra dollar to get it to us, but we agreed. Funny how you feel that dollar though…

So the point is that the events I wrote about were more a commentary on how things work here in Belarus than they are a commentary on my finances. And about that I would like to say that though I am doing nothing but treading water, I do have enough to pay the bills here this month and for this I am thankful to above, or at least the folks who work for Him out here and pay my workman's wage. I mean, I am not against doing better, but we are ok.

But am I so happy with my life here in the museum for the Soviet Union? I don't know. I guess like any life there is some good and some bad.

One of the main things that I think about when I think of my life back in the states, is how little I really and truly miss it. There is landscape thing you notice when you cross the border into Ukraine or Lithuania. Almost the moment you cross the borders you start getting sign boards telling you about businesses that you need to support, or roadside bars calling you in for a drink. You don't notice it so much going out but you certainly feel it coming back. On this side of the fence it feels like you have crossed the entrance to the desert. There is nothing but homesteads and small towns with their state owned-businesses which, are usually closed if you are coming back at night. Maybe it is just the lack of electricity, or maybe it is the lack of electricity spent on advertising that does it, but I don't remember one time that this effect didn't make me sigh a little with relief that I was back home.

I don't know if this tells you anything or not, but it makes sense to me.
But then there is the argument about eating well that always comes from the west. People seem to think that rubbing your nose in how much money they have for food is their way of fighting McCarthy's war on communism. I read a blurb in Spanish from some western human-rights warrior written to a supporter of Hugo Chavez, telling him that he was at that minute eating a steak and a milk shake and that he didn't have to have his sister sell herself on the streets to get it. I argue that this shows the class of the writer as much as it proves any points about socialism.

And while it is true that I actually need a few more dollars than I have, it would be nice after all, I am not dying at the moment. I mean, it is hard. Do not get me wrong: I am in need of more than I have and it would be wonderful if I could fill out my wish list, but on a day to day basis, I do live, I do get by.

I mean, when I say this I am just speaking of survival. I am not measuring my status in life by my bank account nor am I saying that I am dying because I do not have better than 20% growth in my stock portfolio. I just do what I can to pay for what we need and to make sure that there is enough to eat and this is about it. This is what people do here. We call it living.

But no one is immune to thoughts of big clean homes and flash cars (and guns, drugs and bitches and whatever else the videos tell us we need). All of my neighbors have forever been asking me the same questions over and over and over again about whether or not "The Life" is in fact too hard to live so it is not just a question to be answered from the haves.

We had a gentleman come to Pinsk on a Jewish tour who I got to talk to for far too few minutes last Saturday and he made a point, in between talking about the Dodgers from the early and late seventies, about how America and the west are still about "What have you done for me lately?". He said "You made a million bucks last year, what have you done this year? You put out a winning project last quarter, where is your genius now?" and other things of this nature. I don't know if he was saying these things for effect or whether he thought he was telling me something I didn't know, but for sure it confirmed my fears that nobody has learned a damned thing in the four years since I went east.

But yea, I am working on doing something at the moment that should allow for easier availability of incoming funds and this should help. I mean, I am trying to build something here that does function and provide income for the family. And hey, I would still love to try that bike shop some time- but at the moment, no, we did not lose our utilities because of lack of payment, we lost them because it is an inherent part of life out here that nothing ever works too well or can be depended on, so you learn to live without it.

But for sure, let me tell you what it is like to be here right now. This is the beginning of the harvest season right now and we are simply flush with fresh veggies from the field. Maybe you don't feel it if you are pure money, but I really do. We have so much lettuce right now, we can't eat it all. I came back from the farm with so much Zucchini, so many pickles and so many apples I almost could carry it all on my back or over my shoulder. We have already made four gallons of fresh apple juice and that season has not even started. We already made ten liters of strawberry preserves and six gallons for berry compote. And there is so much more coming now all of the time; new potatoes corn, beets, pumpkins, onions…

And you know I worked for this moment. I worked for this from January of this year. I planted those gardens along with Tatyana, I plowed that field with my own hands. I did this, and I did it with my eyes open and an aching back; I do it now barefoot, in cycling shorts under the sun and I am paid for all of this with salad sandwiches, and sautés and new potatoes covered in sauces made from chopped everything that I grew myself; and fresh juice and compote to wash it all down.

This is harvest time and I am doing nothing but thanking the lord that I am alive to be here for it and to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I feel like an old ball player right now; bones aching, reflexes slowing, but begging, just begging for one more season in the sun. Thank you G-d almighty for what I have right now. Is it hard? Well, it is probably harder than you could handle. But right now I work on my land with pleasure, even with tears in my eyes. There were so many old Russian movies about people who cry over the land, but I must tell you, even if it all was nothing but propaganda, it was based on the truth: It is about staying close to the land and they know THIS here, absolutely. This is really why I came here, I am sure of it.

So, you know yea, you can send money. I would love to expand the BEING HAD Times to include a Russian language version. I would like to do more translations of local stories than I can currently. And most of all I would like to do some photojournalism of Belarus and to get out and go around this country and tell people about what is really going on in the land that agreed, at least 83 percent agreement, that Alexander Lukashenka should be allowed to continue his work. These sorts of things require a bit more funding than I have. But as far as "The Life" is concerned, I am doing just fine. I mean, nobody said it would be easy, but I am ok for the moment.

More soon…