5 First Impressions From a Guy Who Doesn’t Know a Thing About Belarus
It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in Minsk as an English Language Fellow for the US Department of State, and frankly I couldn’t be happier. I came prepared to be met with challenges typical of a transition abroad such language barriers, bureaucratic nightmares and having to do without the creature comforts of home. Instead, I have found myself wondering how I got so lucky. Without a doubt, it has been the Belarusians themselves who have made me feel so fortunate to be here. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn from this place, but I thought I’d share a few of my impressions so far…
#1 Belarusians Move Fast
Whether it’s behind the wheel or on foot, Belarusians are speedy. I’ve always thought of myself as a fast walker but I just can’t keep up with this crowd. It’s like everyone is late for something important. Even so, you somehow never get that hectic feeling that usually comes with a big city with lots of people whizzing by. You never feel rushed or in anyone’s way. Minsk is a restful, livable city. I mentioned to a Belarusian how much I was enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Minsk, and she replied, “Yes, you hear the same from the Russians who visit here, but they complain about how slow we all walk.” Huh?
#2 Minsk is a City on the Rise
Minsk has gone through a lot of changes, and the future often comes up as a topic of conversation albeit with some uncertainty. WWII left the entire city of Minsk in ruins, so nearly all of the buildings you see today are relatively new, especially by European standards. The Ballet and Opera Theater pictured below is credited as the only significant building to survive the bombings. I have the pleasure of walking by it everyday on my way to campus (I love the statue of the three ballerinas who grace the path to the entrance). Since the post-war rebuild, the face of Minsk has gone through many makeovers. The most recent being the birth of several trendy neighborhoods complete with hipster bars and vegan restaurants. Of course, the American invasion has struck with the inevitable Micky D’s, Papa John’s, KFC and even a TGI Fridays. Yep, that’s right. There is a TGI Friday’s in Minsk. It’s right on Lenin Street about one block from the KGB headquarters.
#3 Belarus will soon be full of Ex-Millionaires.
Coupling practicality with confusion, the Belarusian government has produced new denominations of their Ruble for 2016. Both the old (BYR) and new (BYN) versions will be in circulation until the end of the year, with the former consisting of bills (no coins) worth one ten thousandth that of the latter. That’s right, four zeros. You’d think it’d be simple enough to just move the decimal four places, but I am nonetheless reminded each time I make a purchase why I am not a math teacher. At least I’m not the only one who has trouble sorting it out. As a testament to the trust and civility Belarusians enjoy, it’s common to see locals fanning out their mix of old and new bills to let a cashier or vendor take the correct amount. Personally, the real bummer about the government getting rid of the old money is that there will no longer be a bill which honors my apartment. Yessirree, my apartment is pictured right smack dab on the back of the 5 BYR bill. Okay, okay. I know it’s only worth .025 of 1¢, but come on! Do I have a great gig, or what?
#4 The Sadness of Belarusian History is Tempered by an Atmosphere of Peace and Trust.
Belarusians know firsthand the hardships of war. Not only was Minsk destroyed, but the country lost over a quarter of its population in WWII. My apartment (which is far nicer than I deserve) overlooks the Island of Tears, a beautiful tribute to the mothers, wives and sisters who mourn for the Belarusian soldiers lost in the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan. Indeed, many of the sights in Minsk relate directly to the suffering Belarusians have endured through war. Yet, the city itself maintains a vibrant, peaceful and trusting atmosphere. What a treat it is to be surrounded by all the opportunities and amenities a place like Minsk has to offer seemingly without any of the jostling, scams or mistrust typically encountered in urban settings.
#5 Belarusians are of the Forest
Admittedly, this last point is a bit far-fetched and absolute projection, but I have always felt there was a strong correlation between the geography of a place and the demeanor of those who call it home. There is perhaps no better example than that of Tibetans. With their red cheeks and proud smiles, to me they simply radiate mountain living. Belarusians, for their part, are of the forest. It’s a straightforwardness, a decency. Driving back from a weekend visit to the countryside on this first cold day of the season, I found myself smiling at the many folks coming out of the woods with buckets full of freshly picked apples and mushrooms.
During that same ride home, two little girls in the backseat of the car in front of us, still wearing their headscarves from church, waved at us. Much to their delight, Victor (my host) and I both waved back. Of course, the girls couldn’t help but wave again and again, and each time Victor and I obliged. They laughed harder and harder. Victor chuckled and said to me, “It’s the same everywhere in the world.”
This webpage is not an official U.S. Department of State webpage.The views and information presented are the English Language Fellow’s own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.