Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Home Sweet Home (2)

When you are little, the world around you is huge. It is full of vast spaces, giant buildings, big cars and very tall people. You look up on almost anything, and when you look down, you can notice a whole other world below your feet: plants, cracks in the asphalt, bugs, rubbish on the pavement – all really interesting and within an easy reach.

Your walk to school takes you ages, and you can think over so many things on your way! Who will be your best friend that day, who may beat you up, why your pencil box is better than that of your desk neighbour, will you give back the eraser that you stole from the girl with pigtails in the front, how funny her head bobs up when you pull the said pigtails, how the teacher would react if she catches you – and if you are feeling like a good boy, you will even try to revise some of the day’s homework. All that before you are even half-way to school!

On your way, you’d stop by the shop and secretly pinch loaves of bread – just because. You will kick an empty tin down the road until you reach the school, even if it will take you on all sorts of zigzagging detours. You may not even notice whose hand is pulling your ear when the tin smashes into someone’s car.

Grown-ups seem like giants, whose sole purpose is to make your life difficult. They order you about, they give you bad marks at school, they tell you off, they put you in the corner, they make you listen to them and do things you don’t want to do. Your head is used to looking up at them, unless when you know you are guilty and your head looks down, at the friendly and cozy world below your feet.

But as you grow up, the big world slowly shrinks around you. You don’t really notice it though. Only looking back occasionally, do you find it weird how the road to school that used to take fifteen minutes, now only takes ten, how the once menacing grown-ups are suddenly just a nuisance and even butts of your jokes, and how you wouldn’t even bother bending down for a coin on the pavement unless it’s silver. But it is still the old, comfortable world, the one you grew up in, and the one that still controls you like a string puppet.

At some point in your life, you leave your comfortable world for another, strange one. You spend years adjusting there, where everything seems new every day, and you are not bothered or occupied by thoughts of how big or small it is – it’s just different, and you deal with it.

When you finally come back to the world you were born, you are shocked and amazed at how small and shrunken it suddenly is. The grown-ups you were once scared of are now small and harmless, and you, in fact, look down on them now. The toys you played with now seem tiny and silly, and you are surprised you were ever interested in them at all. The ceilings in the old houses are lower, and you can no longer stretch your legs in the bed you used to sleep. This small world is full of strange people your own size, that are everywhere and whose faces are frowned and tired. But when you look down, there are little people running, laughing, crying and playing down below there. Occasionally, they look up at you, and you step with care in order not to tread on their fragile small world.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Home Sweet Home (1)

Belarus seems like a place stuck in time. While Poland, Czech Republic and even Russia are very different now than they were 5 years ago, and mostly for the better, Belarus has defied change, and it is hardly a positive thing. Same gloomy, unfriendly faces in the streets, same indifferent attitude from the staff in stores and restaurants, same cheerful posters on the streets praising the "course for independence" and featuring same old communist flags (sans sickle and hammer though), same monument to Lenin on the main square in Minsk, same ominous edifice of the KGB (we are the only place where it still goes by that name), same tasteless assortment of Belarusian-made souvenirs in the shops. Western goods and foods are available now, it's true, but mostly for the prices unaffordable by 90% of the population.

And yet there's hardly visible poverty in the streets. I remember seeing a lot more beggars 3 years ago than now - it's almost as if they magically vanished. Or perhaps the crime of begging is being prosecuted more vigorously. Instead of the bums, the streets are full of police. Belarus is the only country I have visited that has more cops around than the US, which I have always considered a police state. The streets are clean, almost sterile. Pedestrians are disciplined and never cross streets on red. Drivers are relatively polite, too, considering the part of the world, especially on the central avenues where there's a chance of a presidential escort passing. There is still the old reluctance to use seatbelts, especially among men. When I fastened my belt in a taxi I flagged during the heavy rain, the driver looked at me funny and actually asked, "What's the deal with the seatbelt?", as if by the sheer act I was insulting his ability to drive a car.
People seem strangely content - neither happy, nor unhappy. It is almost as if they are zombified. While the life does seem to be going on, the sense of the ever-present "big mustachioed brother" is almost tangible. Just as in the US white people instinctively lower their tone when talking about someone's being black, people here mute their voices whenever a subject of Belarusian politics comes up. And tha'’s only among the close friends. You will never hear a stranger talk about the president, let alone criticize him.

On the other hand, it seems to have gotten a little bit safer in Minsk. Perhaps the abundance of police has its positive effects after all. I was rather reluctant to take too many pictures in public though, for the concern of both people and police start asking questions.

The main positive change in Minsk is girls. They seem to look even better than before, perhaps due to better skin care products and diets available. Straight blonde hair seems to be the hit this year, and strictly in line with their Western counterparts, local girls don hip-hugging jeans, short skirts and stiletto heels. Except that unlike in the West, they, as always, overdo the revealing part of their outfits. The low-cut jeans are sometimes so low it is a miracle one cannot see pubic hair (which is probably shaved off to pull the pants down even more), and the skirts are so short that it is not unusual to see girls'’ underwear when walking behind them upstairs. Basically, most girls that walk around Minsk are pretty and many are drop-dead gorgeous, and they wear outfits that in San Francisco you'd see only on hookers in Tenderloin. I'm loving it.

There is a good explanation to this guys' paradise. In Belarus, as well as Russia, Ukraine and Poland, there is its fair share of good-looking women, who, on top of their looks, from the young age are brought up to be caring girlfriends, loving wives and mothers. Men, at the same time, are submerged into an entirely different subculture - that of toughness, violence, carelessness and machismo. By the age of 30, many men are simply drunkards, some are involved into some kinds of criminal activities, and almost all are disillusioned and pessimistic about their futures. As a result, there is a shortage of decent, attractive guys in Belarus (and Russia). So the competition among the women is fierce, and they go out of their ways to look their absolute best literally at all times.

All that is in sharp contrast to the US, where it is so hard to find a feminine, caring, capable woman that it is men who have to compete them, and as a result, even very average in all aspects women get heaps of attention and frequently get spoiled rotten by it.

Of course, I may be idealizing the situation. Many women in Belarus these days are somewhat emancipated, fewer and fewer have any use around the kitchen, many smoke and even though their clothing tastes have improved, for many women, especially provincial ones, Turkish and cheap Chinese clothes with plasticky bling accessories remain the pinnacle of fashion. That was witnessed particularly in one of Minsk nightclibs called 'Overtime'. The place was packed solid with pairs of very young girls, seeking out foreigners in the crowds (apparently Italians are on the top of the foodchain), hoping to get at least a few of their night's drinks for free. Most were dressed not just scantily, but actually tasteless even for my liking of minimalist outfits. The dancefloor music, played by DJ Mahmoud (or something like that) from Azerbaijan, was quite fitting and almost amuzing in its amateurishness...

Friday, August 04, 2006

The grass was greener

Tomorrow I am leaving for Belarus, the land where I grew up.

I am leaving behind a cubicle job for a piece of my childhood.

7.50 alarm clock for sleep-ins in my old squeaky bed with a prickly mattress.

Endless nightlife for evenings with relatives and old friends.

Pizzas and burritos for homecooked, hearty meals.

Martinis for vodka shots.

Obligatory foggy evenings for puffy clouds in the blue sky and late-night dusks.

Strange foreign plants for daisies and dandelions.

Unsightly gum-trees for birches.

City parks for beautiful forests.

Fake smiles for honest grumpy faces.

Unindentified melting pot of ethnicites for the slavic surrounding.

Uncertainty of the new for uncertainty of old.

Rule of police for.... rule of police.

Fake friends for real friends.

Age 31 for age 17.

I am going home.