Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The doldrums of summer…

We are now into the second week of the month of August which here in southern Belarus signifies the last couple of weeks of summer. Winter here is not so incredibly difficult as might be thought of by fans of Dostoyefki or Pushkin. I mean, we have cold winters here but they are not so difficult to handle. I lived in Minnesota for a couple of years and I think their winters are harder and longer than Belarus'. And of course in the villages it is certainly colder and harder to get around.

Late August and September is also harvest time. The tables set aside for the farmers at the markets are full to busting with folks trying to sell of their fruits and vegetables. We have watermelons this time of year and also yellow melons. There are many apricots and smaller plums now at market- And new potatoes and tomatoes and smaller beets and onions and garlic.

The sellers are more aggressive now with the winter season coming. In the early part of the season, especially for those selling new potatoes at more than a dollar a kilo(!), there was some arrogance to their hawking which had a lot to do with going a against the time honored tradition here of giving rather than taking. People here spoke of the "old days" when the argument was not that people needed to pay more than they had, but whether or not they should take a little extra for good measure. Of course this tradition had a lot to do with having the financial security of that small but fixed in stone paycheck each month. People speak now that the way to get "rich" back in the old days was to sell products during the summer and perhaps that thought led to generosity from the sellers. I mean, you need good public relations to do your business. But these days people are on their own and the job market is difficult and pay is weak by any standards anywhere so these extra few cents that they fight for are significant. These days they call to you to come to them and buy and there is a tear in their voice and urgency in their call.

My good friend Uladsimir once told me that there had been during the times of the Soviet Union a problem with boredom. People didn't really have the sort of issues which kept their minds completely occupied. I mean, there were all kinds of intellectual pursuits and the art were prevalent and available to all. But of course they decided to fight for resources instead.

I suppose it is interesting to think about this when you are a westerner. I think a very basic way of talking about this is to say that if you were to take money out of the argument of what you should do with yourself from day to day, what would you do? And to be sure, the level of economic support was about equal to a modern $400, maybe a little more. This is buying capacity. And from personal experience, and if you live the life as the life was designed to me lived, you can get by ok. You need to give up a lot of things that people take for granted such as daily trips to restaurants, recreational drugs (other than vodka) or expensive toys. In fact, you sort of place the concept of buying in a whole different light.

I remember quite well during my first and most impoverished summer here in Belarus, when there was simply no money at all and I was living out at the farm without a penny in my pocket. Tanya's grandma one time laughed at me for making meals out of the primary leaves of the cabbages rather than the heads. "This is just like we ate during the war". But I bartered with what I had for what I needed; or borrowed. I lost a lot of weight that I have since gained back, but I lived. People live pretty close to the edge here.

But I am wondering if the culture really is gone after all. People in general believe that life is better here now. This is referring to the last few years and this is probably true. Of course a lot of this came from the oil and gas and probably even more from the desire of the president to be elected, but it certainly seems cleaner on the outside what with all of the paint and new landscaping. It certainly seems as if there are more people with more money.

But money or no money, the beach is where I like to go in the summer. Lying around on the blanket and reading a book between dips doesn't cost a penny. I was at the beach with Anya the other day and had a conversation about the economics of Belarus (You pretty much can't have a conversation without talking about economics) and the guy I was talking to had all of the cliché's down. His father though was still a believer in the old values. He had come over earlier wanting to talk. He said he had seem be getting harsh with a drunk several months back and had admired how I handled myself. After a while he insisted that I have a drink with them, and I agreed to one and stood with them looking over the river and the shoreline.

"Look at this beach!" He said with delight, "Do you have this in America?"

"We have two oceans..."

"No, I mean a whole shoreline which is available to all and no fences telling people where they can and can't go?" The guy I had been talking to was about thirty, trim and neat and wearing glasses. He had his 3 year old daughter with him. His father was fat and loud. There was a second son a little older. He had a pencil mustache and looked harder.

"It seems as though we are getting better at this." I said, trying to sound reasonable. "Vancouver, Canada allows access all the way around English bay."

"But you see how we can live here. Normal, yes?" He wanted to make a point. "You see how people can come here and relax and feel free. It I a beautiful view here and it is a fine day. And we don't have so much money, but we can come here and the life is normal." At this moment, the son with the glasses took a call on his cell phone. He lit a cigarette and walked a few meters away. The other son was angry at his father's starting up with me and sat quietly with his arms wrapped around his knees. He was thinking that it is low class to go and speak to someone just because he is an American. This is like begging. The father's side of the argument was that he was free to speak to who he liked and he would be himself, regardless of who he spoke to. They were drinking vodka and enjoying a day at the beach.

"But you must agree that this is beautiful." Grandpa went on. "Certainly you don't have this in America."

"I wish people would be a cleaner. I don't like all of the cigarette butts in the sand." The father laughed. He was also smoking a cigarette.

"Yes, we used to be much cleaner about things. We never were like this. In the old days we always used to carry away our garbage. I don't know what has happened. The old people always clean after themselves. But the young people, they come and have a party and then just leave their shit behind. It is terrible." He took a last drag on the cigarette and flicked the butt into the grass. He was a little drunk.

"Come on in!" He yelled and ran into the water and splashed about, "Come on America! This is life. This is living. This is the real thing." I nodded and said I would wait till it was warmer.

"Come on America, don't be shy. Jump in." He was splashing about and making a lot of noise. The son with the glasses finished with his call and snapped the phone shut. He was standing next to me and we looked at his father splashing about.

"Your father is a big fish." I said. "He could feed the family for weeks and then soup for a month." The joke did not go over.

"I don't like this talk." Said the son in glasses.

"It was just a joke."

"I know it was just a joke but it wasn't nice."

"Come on America, come into the water."

"I think I will go back to my blanket and read. It was very nice meeting you all." The father started to call for his sons to come and play in the water with him. He needed for the American to understand what life was all about. They didn't want to either but after being asked three or four times, they both flicked their cigarettes into the river and dove in. They made a show for me demonstrating how wonderful it all is for a while and I smiled and nodded and tried to concentrate on the book and Anya.

I like being at the beach. I don't know why laying around and doing nothing at the beach is different from laying around the house and doing nothing, but of course it is.

I like taking Anya to the beach quite a bit. I like her to have her freedom and the beach is certainly that. She is afraid of the water, or at least having her head in the water but she playing in the water and she also likes to press against her fears. Yesterday she wandered out into the river and inch further and further and further until only her head was above. I was right next to her and staying as calm as I could. I gave her a kiss on the head for being brave and then she slowly walked back to shore. When she was at about waste deep water though she fell and dunked her head. At first she managed to get back out by herself but then slipped again. I waited just a second to see if she would get herself out of it and then lifted her and put her back on her feet. She cried a bit and kept crying till I put her on my shoulder and then demanded to set up house over at our blanket. To tell the truth, I liked this turn of events because it gave be a way to do a little reading which of curse is impossible while I have to keep an eye on her.

We found for her an inflatable hippopotamus which she can sit in and float about. She likes it and seems to like floating about with me. But there are a lot of children at the beach and these sorts of toys are really popular and we ended up sharing with others. For the most part Anya is a bit indignant with sharing. She is not demonstrative; she just stares down the child floating about in her hippopotamus and deals with the invasion. Mostly the children and adults are polite but the little girl who was with the grandfather and his sons was a real bitch about it and demanded that the hippo was now hers. Again Anya suffered the indignity quietly but she was obviously upset. I had to play advocate and argue gently to the father's that this was not right. They screamed at the 3-year-old and she screamed back. Her father took the float away from her, made pains to show that he was washing it first, and then brought it over to our blanket. His face showed that he was angry at me for making all of this trouble on the beach. I nodded in agreement that yes, he was a drunken ass.

Such is a lazy summer day in Belarus. Winter is coming. You can't feel it yet but you know it is there. She'll make her presence known within the month. Or maybe she already has.

More soon…