Belarus: Eleven Surprises

I’ve been in Belarus more than three months now — long enough to have learned a bit of the culture and started detecting patterns, but not so long that I’ve stopped rubber-necking my way through each day. Three months in, I find myself teetering between easy familiarity and continued awe.

I know now that I will see charming wooden houses wherever I go in my city of Polotsk, yet I still can’t believe they are always right there, in front of my eyes, so colorful, so whimsical, so rustic yet ornate. I know now that the people I meet will be kind, appreciative, and hospitable, but still I can’t get over the sincerity of each and every generous welcome. I know now that Polotsk becomes a “lake region” whenever rain falls — due to the sidewalks designed without drainage in mind — yet still, I find myself stunned at the vast sheets of ice coating the walkways now that temperatures have dropped. 

Sheet of ice on sidewalk

Before I tip into the unseeing acceptance that is part of being “totally accustomed,” I want to make sure I remember a few of the things that have yielded “Well now, that’s different” reactions since I’ve been here. The past months have teemed with surprises. Here, now, are eleven (+) of the WHADDYA KNOW aspects of Belarusian culture that have raised my eyebrows to hairline.

  1. Drinking birch sap is a thing. It’s a thing in a handful of northern countries, in fact, and part of me thinks it should be a thing in Northern Minnesota, where I live, because we are a birch culture, too. However, it wasn’t until a student suggested I try it that I became aware of birch sap as a drink I could buy in the grocery store (even though I have it on good authority that the really good stuff is homemade). Touted for its medicinal benefits — it can help block cholesterol absorption, internet tells me — it’s also a drink enjoyed just for the flavor, which is something like water with minced forest elf vigorously whisked in. 

2. Cling wrap dispensation is problematic. I’m not looking to complain about a place, and this may be the worst thing I can say about Belarus, but they seriously gotta get with 2018 and start loading them cling wrap tubes into cardboard boxes with serrated cutters. I AM IN CLING WRAP HELL HERE. 

3. There is a remarkable lack of facial respiration in public places. After a couple months here, I started to notice something that is radically different from the United States: in Belarus, no one on the street sneezes or coughs. People don’t blow their noses while waiting for the bus, nor have I caught a glimpse of even one person digging finger into nostril. It’s as though there’s a line in the social contract that reads, “We shall keep our germs to ourselves.” 

At the end of that line, however, there needs to be an asterisk for which the associated small print reads, “…except it’s okay to hock loogies all over the place, creating dried dots of phlegm on paving stones throughout the land.” 

4. University students take all their classes — for five years (although this model is imminently changing to four) — with the same small group of peers. The entire university experience in Belarus is intense, with M-F schedules, on average, of five-six hours of class per day. At the university where I teach, each class session lasts 80 minutes. For an American, it would be unimaginable to sit next to the same, say, ten classmates all day, five days a week, for five years.

On the positive side, these small cohorts end up feeling like families; they know what to expect from each other and are well acquainted with the quirks, strengths, and the intricacies of the group dynamic. On the negative side, these small cohorts end up feeling like families; they know each other so well a kind of stagnation, even dysfunction, can set in as the years pass. Put another way: when a group is good, it’s really good. But when it’s a mess, there’s wet spaghetti slipping down the walls.

I love this fifth-year group so much. When I asked them about being “over it” and ready to move on to fresh things, they all protested. “No, no, no, we are not ready to be done. Here, we know what to expect; it feels safe and predictable. We have no idea what the future holds, and that’s scary.”

5. The light switches are often located outside the rooms they control. In the past three months, I’ve spent a whole lot of time standing in darkened spaces, running my hands along walls, trying to feel my way to illumination. Had I dedicated this time in the dark to self-improvement, I’d be Michelle Obama by now.

6. It is the custom to drink a variety of hot beverages through plastic straws. For Americans in Belarus, there is an actual moment of recoil when we see the straw in or with the hot drink — so alert are we to the dangers of polypropylene and chemical migration from straw to food. Still, coffee, cocoa, even mulled wine…all are served and sipped through straws in Belarus. There must be some rationale for this practice, but my brain can’t crack it. What I do know is that, while I love the feeling of lips to cup, I have occasionally found myself sucking a latte through a straw and musing, “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

7. The transfer of money from hand-to-hand is minimized. Most shops have a tray near the cash register where patrons are to deposit their rubles or debit cards. When the cashier is ready to receive payment, she grabs the money from the tray. Any change is similarly laid onto that tray and subsequently picked up by the patron. 

While I am surely over-analyzing this practice, I’ve decided it is a reflection of a cultural mentality — one that’s more gentle, even genteel, compared to the relatively more aggressive American habit of direct hand-offs, of “See me taking your money now” and “See me giving you money now.”

Alternately, perhaps this system in Belarus has been set up because it leaves hands free to do the work of punching buttons and packing bags until the hands are ready for payment. Either way, I hope some industrious worker is paid nicely to squirt cleaner onto that tray at the end of each day because Belarusian rubles may be pretty, but money is filthy the world ’round.

Please also appreciate the blue-and-white log of ice cream.

8. Speaking of ice cream packaged in logs (but tasting like clouds), the dairy in Belarus is off the hook. I’m not so much a milk drinker in the States, and I usually hate cottage cheese and sour cream, but here, I understand all of these products in a new way — because they are done right…mmmm, creamy like if Dita von Teese were melted and then pasteurized. Also surprising has been the butter, which comes in differing percentages of fat; the cooks I’ve quizzed tell me to go with the higher fat percentage for baking. Even more, I have been witnessing the nostalgia for Soviet-era ice cream, apparently the best thing anyone has ever tasted. Fortunately, there are modern versions of it available still, a fact which saw me stopping midway through a run to purchase a log of this “plombir” ice cream [see: previous photo] and jogging home with it in my arms, despite frigid winds off the forest steppes. I AM AN ICE CREAM CHAMPION

And then there’s the culture of condensed milk. I mean, we Americans use the stuff occasionally for baking. That’s it. But in Belarus, condensed milk is an item of widespread usage. “Put it on toast,” they tell me. “Mix a few spoonfuls in hot water,” they tell me. “Make the cheese pancakes called syrniki and drizzle it on top,” they tell me. A couple months ago, I was taken on a tour of a condensed milk factory, at the end of which we were taken to a tasting party where no fewer than 8 kinds of condensed milk were on offer.

I am left wondering if Americans who suffer from lactose issues might experience the dairy in Belarus more easily, due to the differences in processing. This nation’s motto should be “Come for the potatoes; stay for the dairy!”

9. Fitness classes are held at night. This has been a big adjustment for me, as 8 p.m. traditionally means “bra-less and nursing a beer” in my life in the U.S. But in Belarus, where people work and work and work all day, fitness classes are held much later than I, a noon-time exerciser, am used to. Many evenings, particularly when I’ve been walked home after a circuit class by women wanting to practice their English, it’s 9:30 before I get through the door, 10:30 or 11:00 by the time I eat dinner. And yet. I love these classes, these women, this teacher.

10. Squat toilets are not uncommon. Many a university and public bathroom greets visitors with smells of urine and lost hopes. Rounding out the experience is the fact that there is no toilet paper provided, nor are there paper towels or hand dryers. I actually like this reminder that we Americans often go overboard with hygiene fears. What’s more, there is empirical evidence that Western toilets do us no favors (NPR reports that half of Americans over the age of 50 have
hemorrhoids). So thank you, Belarus, for keeping bowels aimed right.

Seriously. If you are shuddering: don’t be a goose. Drop trou and lean in to them quads. Better yet: do it in heels.

11. Grocery stores allow customers to choose the amount of frozen vegetables they want to buy, and that’s genius, no commentary needed. WHY DO WE NOT DO THIS IN THE UNITED STATES? IS IT BECAUSE WE FEAR GREEN BEAN SNEEZIES?

The list of surprises in this charming country is infinite, to be honest, but I will stop at eleven, as I’m sure more than one reader is itching by now for a trip to the squatty potty. And if I continue, I’ll wax so lyrical about the students, my colleagues, the innocence, the earnestness, the pride of place, the remnant trauma of war…that it’ll be another 20,000 words before you can break free and run for the bathroom.

Damn it. That reminds me. Now I have to add another:

12. Sometimes paper towels in Belarus are packaged and shelved in a way that makes them appear, to a distracted American shopper, to be toilet paper. So if you’ve decided you’re intrigued by this country and want to visit, yes, you are welcome to stay at my apartment.

But you’ll be wiping with rectangles, not squares.

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Bestill: 19

My dad was the person who taught me to be comfortable with silence. We could get in the car and drive for twenty minutes without a word being spoken. While his and my mother’s relationship ultimately cracked under the weight of that silence, for me, the daughter, his quiet felt benign, reassuring, a safe place to be.

Even more, when he did speak, his words carried weight. A handful of my strongest memories, in fact, center around moments when he engaged in verbal expression. One time, after I’d won a forensics tournament out of town, returning from the meet during the early hours of the morning, I left my trophy on the dining room table. By the time I woke up later that day, my dad had left a note, telling me he was so proud, pronouncing he was “busting his buttons.” Another time, after I’d behaved badly, he sat across from my hungover self and told me he was “deeply disappointed.” Many years later, during the night when a bat flew into my house, and I had a histrionic “I’m all alone, and the bat is trying to kill me” meltdown for three hours in my bathroom, I managed to grab my phone and call my parents, over a thousand miles away. When I sobbed and sobbed that a killer beast was out there, and all I had were tampons for friends and nail files for weapons, my dad, casting about, counseled, “What you need to do is reach way down inside yourself now and find something you don’t think you have. Dig deep, and you’ll find something you need.” He was right. We hung up, and I dug deep, finding inside myself the numbers 911, which I punched into the phone with great bravery.

Perhaps my fondest conversation with my dad occurred about a decade before his death. Chatting on the phone, we stumbled across the subject of my sister and me and our many differences. Trying to qualify the nature of the differences, my dad remarked that my sister took after his side of the family, where a certain dourness and pessimism sometimes manifested themselves. “She reminds me of myself,” he noted, continuing, “and you don’t. You’re more, well, effervescent.”

There it was: one of those moments we hope for with our parents, those moments when they give us a word, an adjective, a feeling of being seen, and it signifies everything: that they see us as separate, as differentiated beings; that they have thought about us; that they have taken stock of us; that we are far enough away from them for the space to have cleared everyone’s vision. Because such words, such adjectives, are born from the lifelong process of symbiosis to independence, they have power. Plus, anytime someone describes me to myself, I believe him.

It wasn’t even so much that I wanted to think of myself as “effervescent” – although it was a welcome label – but rather, it was more that I wanted to think of my dad thinking of me that way. Sometimes, from then on, I effervesced just for him.

It surprised me, then, to learn – repeatedly – that a pipping personality didn’t reap greater rewards, in the larger scope of the world. Certainly, I didn’t expect to be voted into office on the Effervescence Platform, nor did I expect the medical field to approach me, asking me to donate to the Effervescence Transfusion Bank. But I had expected being smiley and liking sunshine might have snagged me a boyfriend.

did date a man throughout my 20’s, and then I truly, madly, deeply dated another guy – one who left my two liters of effervescence out on the counter with the cap off and made all the bubbles go flat. He de-carbonated me in a way that no one ever had before, not even the boys on the high school bus who moo-ed at my sister and me.

He made my sizzle fizzle.

And then my grandma died, and the doctor found a lump in my breast.

I was thirty-one.

Thirty-one wasn’t my favorite year.

Fortunately, just when I was pacing the circle of my small kitchen for the 123rd time in an hour, gnawing on my cuticles, I still had girlfriends who called, opening with, “Oh, honey. I just heard. Talk to me.” Even when I would have to set down the phone to grab another handful of Kleenex, they would stay on the line, shouting things like, “From the amount of snot you’re emitting, you do seem well-hydrated. And that’s something, right?” Also, I had extended family who knew how to circle around sideways and never look me straight in my teary eyes. Instead, they gave me food and invited me to participate in the yearly butchering of the deer after the hunt in November. Gently, they wove easy affection around my heartache.

Eventually, the molasses movement of seconds turned into minutes finally adding up into hours and days, and then months went by. My grandma was buried; the lump was benign; the former boyfriend had a new girl.

Just after the new year, one of my hunting cousins sent me an email, asking if I’d like to drive north to come visit his family and, by the way, if I would be at all interested in letting him serve as my “agent in the field,” romantically.

Flattened, completely without zest or hope, my response was worthy of my father’s side of the family: “Go ahead, if you want to, but I won’t expect anything from it.”

As it turned out, my cousin already had someone in mind, a twenty-eight-year-old colleague he worked with in a very small town of about 300 people. One day, sitting in the office, looking across at this twenty-eight-year-old, my cousin started musing, “How’s Byron ever going to find someone in this bohunk town?” A moment later, he thought back to Thanksgiving, the deer butchering, and the conversations we’d had, which resulted in, “For that matter, how’s my poor cousin ever going to find someone in the bohunk town where she’s living?”

His head swiveled back and forth, and his thoughts rammed into each other. He approached his co-worker, Byron, who agreed, “Sure, you can be my agent in the field. But this cousin of yours, since she lives more than five hours away, she’d have to really knock my socks off for me to start seeing her.” Fair enough. Next, my cousin approached me.

It was agreed: I’d drive the five hours north and, while visiting my cousin’s family, meet Byron. In the past, imbued with effervescence, I’d greeted any opportunity to meet a potential partner with gusto and a knee-jerk, involuntary planning of our lives together. This time, I didn’t think much of the whole thing.

We’d see.

That February, over Presidents’ Day weekend, I visited. I got to hold my cousin’s baby and watch his four-year-old ice skate. One afternoon, we stopped by the campus where my cousin taught environmental education. As we drove away, he said, casually, “Oh, that man back there who was leaning down, talking to people through their car window? The one in the red hat? That was Byron.”

My cousin, perhaps, didn’t understand that such information would have been welcome, say, two minutes earlier.

That night, the guy in the red hat strolled into my cousin’s house, there for The Meeting, there for dinner. He carried a six-pack of homebrew.

I liked him already.

In short order, I learned that Byron not only wore a red hat and was quite tall. I also learned he really liked making bread, reading the Atlantic Monthly, and running on trails. I learned that he was an anthropology major who’d minored in environmental science. I learned that his Desert Island food would be cheese (dropped from a helicopter once a month, to supplement the fish and coconuts he would be living on otherwise); his Desert Island album would be Van Morrison’s Moondance; his Desert Island book would be some sort of reference volume, all the better if it contained maps.

I learned that, while the idea of him hadn’t infused me with bubbles, the reality of him was creating a few tiny pops.

Dinner lasted five hours. As soon as he left, my previously-cool cousin and his wife, who had discreetly retired to the kitchen eight feet away after dessert, were all nerves. They gave me thirty seconds after the door closed behind Byron before yelling, “SO? SO?????”

My response was positive, but guarded. He seemed nice. I would see more of him. If he wanted to.

Because all the little broken pieces inside of me weren’t quite realigned yet, I wasn’t going to put myself forward this time. I couldn’t take another dashing.

Fortunately, a few days later, Byron asked my cousin for my email address. The interest had been mutual. Apparently, his strongest first impression of me was that I had a lot of hair. He thought he could get lost in it.

What ensued was a modern epistolary courtship. For three weeks, we sent messages back and forth, discovering that writing is an excellent way to get to know someone: the small talk is non-existent; the conversations get to meaty matters right away; there is no body language to read or misread, no annoying laugh to cringe from.

After three weeks, Byron announced he was ready to “jump off the comfortable dock” and into the potentially-frigid waters of face-to-face. Thus, during my Spring Break in March, I headed north again, for our first real date.

As we sat in a dingy bar, having burgers and beers, conversation flowed. Snow fell.

14 inches of it.

When it came time to take Byron to his house before driving back to my cousin’s place, my car got stuck. In the snow. At Byron’s house. He didn’t seem to mind. His roommates were friendly. I stayed over.

I had no choice.

What I learned in those days of my Spring Break was that Byron liked to listen to me read aloud – and if that’s not an activity of the infatuated, I don’t know what is. He also proved that he’s very good at necking.

And, about three days in, after he’d had a bath one night, Byron came back into his bedroom, where I lounged. “Brrrrrr,” he exclaimed. “My feet are cold!”

“Why are they so cold? Was the bath water not warm enough?” I asked.

“No. They’re freezing because. you. knocked. my. socks. off.”

Suddenly, BAM: there it was. The effervescence was back, the flatness banished.

Everything was going to be all right.

Not too long afterward, as I stared very hard at the ceiling, I admitted I had fallen in love. He had the right answer.

By the end of my Spring Break week, five days after our first date, we had talked about what kind of wedding we wanted.

Four months later, one July morning, as I slept on a futon on the floor, he crawled in with a plate of pancakes and a Betsy Bowen woodcut entitled “Fox on a Journey.”

He asked me to marry him.

In quick order, we planned a wedding for the following May.

In even quicker order — that night — I got pregnant. Three months after that, I had a miscarriage. Four days after that, we found out I’d been carrying twins, and one was still hanging on.

We moved the wedding to November, not even nine months after we first played the Desert Island game over dinner. Byron became my groom right there at the environmental learning center where I’d first not-quite-spotted-him in his red hat. The bleeding from the miscarriage had stopped three days earlier. I sobbed through the vows.

Four months later, we two became we three.

All of that wonder unfolded in 1999. Not given to dreaming about the future before then, I have since been granted beauties I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

He likes it when I reach under his shirt and scratch his back.
He cooks dinner every night.
He was our stay-at-home parent for 14 years after that baby girl (and later her brother) was born.
At promptly 8:00 every night, he offers me a drink.
He is unfazed by my random bursts of tears.
He is whimsical. He is dry. He is perceptive.
He sees that my ability to talk to people is as valuable as his ability to do everything else.
He likes to play cribbage.
He knows how to give me directions that make sense, like “go straight until you see the big rock shaped like Richard Nixon’s head.”
He hears my ideas and helps me realize them.
He knows that helping me have an adventure far away from home is an important part of keeping me near.

 

And, like my father, he is gentle. Like my father, he has a thousand-watt smile.

Like my father, he is given to quiet, most comfortable in stillness.

Now, nineteen years in to the marriage, there is nothing we love more than to sit and watch the world flit by

holding hands in companionable silence.

_________________________________________

 

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Who, Me?

My friend Helen, a colleague at the university, arranged the whole thing. 

Weeks ago, Helen pinned down a date when I’d be free to visit her son Sasha’s gymnasium (an academically advanced K-12 school) — the same gymnasium she, herself, attended — and spend some time talking to the English teachers. 

The idea was born one Monday after Sasha’s teacher asked him what he had done the previous weekend; when he told her he had spent time speaking English with an American, her eyebrows shot up. “Alexander, you can’t tell stories,” she chastened. The very idea that one of her students had been speaking English with a native speaker…why, she’d had five years as an English major at university and been teaching for quite some time, all without ever encountering a native English speaker. That this nine-year-old said he had spent time with an American and spoken English to her was preposterous! 

Except. Y’know. 

So an idea was born.

As soon as I agreed to visit the gymnasium and speak with teachers there, I worried that I should prepare something. Fortunately, Helen comforted me, “No, no need. You can just tell them about your teaching, and, to be honest, you can say anything; mostly, they will be excited to be in the same room with a native English speaker, so they will just want to hear you talk.”

Well, all right, then. Yes. This would be the next of a breath-taking many.

When I wrote my Fulbright proposal, I outlined a plan where I would teach two university classes along with an extra hour each week devoted to something more “conversational,” say a club or a group or something. It was this proposal that Fulbright accepted and is giving me grant monies to complete.

The reality, of course, has far exceeded that accepted proposal. Yes, I teach two classes at the university, but instead of a club or casual conversation group, I also teach a class of combined sections of students for the university’s language center in the neighboring city each week, along with, more recently, sometimes helping out with the language center’s Friday night club meetings. Beyond that, I have been going on Fridays to a local gymnasium to work on oral communication with some of their students who are preparing for the Language Olympiad competition season. Filling out the schedule have been the times when colleagues catch me in the hallway or in the middle of town and ask me to visit their classes and give a couple sections of students 80-minute guest lectures on, say, travel. Oh, and the conferences — there’s also presenting at conferences, like the one in Minsk in September, the one in Polotsk in early October, the one next week in Minsk in mid-November. And then there was the time last month when I was on a day-trip with a gymnasium to visit a school in a town about an hour-and-a-half away when one of the teachers from the school recognized me from the conference in Minsk, told me it was her birthday, and exclaimed that seeing me at her gymnasium was the best present she could imagine…oh, and also, when could I come back to give a talk to the students at her school? Later that same day, a gymnasium student asked me for private lessons to help her with verb tenses, something which, as a teacher of native speakers, I’ve actually never taught. You need help with modals? Uh, I might need to google “modals” first, k? And then prepare a series of 45-minute lessons on the past perfect and future continuous, to boot? On top of all that, there are the wonderful, heart-moving students who want to meet periodically at a coffee shop for a few hours of English conversation practice. Oh, and all the ladies in my fitness classes who walk home with me to practice their skills. 

All of which is to say: my throat is scratchy, I had to stop saying yes to everything because the overwhelmage was making me cry when I was alone in my apartment, and my biggest challenge the past two months has been figuring out what “balance” looks like during an experience that is unique to anything I’ve ever known. How do I know when I’m doing enough? How do I know when it’s okay to draw the line? Is it acceptable to push back when participation seems mandated more than chosen? How can I possibly say no to the kindest, loveliest people in the world? Can an introvert who plays an extrovert on tv come out the other side of Fulbright Belarus without being shredded into a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion? Is coming out the other side as a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion actually the goal — because, in the long term, I won’t remember the exhaustion, but I will always remember the gratitude? 

In any given moment, I still don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m trying to figure out the pacing so that each day feels like everyone’s needs have been considered. On my side, I need lots of hours alone, long stretches in front of the computer, a book, or a puzzle. Without those chunks of time for retreat and battery recharging, I feel a scream of hysteria rising from my gut. At the same time, though, I am here for a reason: to make connections, get into rooms with Belarusians who want to learn and practice English, and learn more about this corner of the world. Even more, on the days when I don’t have any formal commitments, the hours can get long, and sometimes by nightfall, I feel flat and grey inside.

Thus, this past Monday, usually a day off, saw me visiting one of the gymnasiums in Novopolotsk. I had done a quick weighing of my internal balance — and the answer that emerged was yes.

The engine in this plan, Helen drove me there in between teaching her own classes. Every time I am with women in Belarus, I appreciate their can-do energy, such a remarkable counterpoint to my own do-I-have-to energy. As we drove, I asked her, “Your days are always so full. Do you like it that way?” Oh, yes, she thrives off being busy — looks for things to keep her occupied, in fact, if there’s a lull.

Wow. What would it feel like to be wired like that? Does this mean Helen actually gets a full night’s sleep before she heads into the classroom instead of lying awake, blood running cold with fear and adrenaline, for three hours before the alarm goes off? WHAT WOULD THAT FEEL LIKE, TO BE RESTED AND SANE BEFORE WALKING INTO A ROOM OF EXPECTANT FACES? 

I could learn a lot from Helen.

After the car was parked (outside the building where Helen’s parents live, next to the gymnasium), we chatted easily as we walked through the courtyard leading to the school’s front doors. Oh, she’d been reading a book by author Tom Holt, and get this, it mentioned Duluth, Minnesota! Of all the —

We walked through the doors of the gymnasium, laughing, our heads turned towards each other as we hooted, but, hey, oh, oops, suddenly I realized some sort of event was happening at the school, so perhaps we should tone it down, lest we interrupt.

Standing inside the main doors were three lovely girls dressed in costume, and nearby was a chic woman holding a camera with a long lens. Ooooh, it looked like the gymnasium was hosting An Event! Would I maybe get to peer into an auditorium and watch a few minutes of a performance? Yessssss. Subtly, I began limbering up my clapping hands.

Those girls in costume looked amazing, and I couldn’t wait to find out what was going on.

A split second later, one of the girls began to speak, “Dear Jocelyn, we welcome you to our gymnasium…”

As it turns out, I was what was going on. I was The Event.

Hooboy. Here we go again. 

Quickly, I plastered a huge smile onto my face and held it there, micro-muscles faintly quivering, as the three girls worked through their prepared lines. They were adorable, so it was easy to react enthusiastically: “You three are amazing! Wow, wow, wow! This is the best greeting I have ever received! How many languages do you speak, anyhow?”

Three. Hey, America, get this: these thirteen-year-olds speak three languages: Russian, Belarusian, and English. Even better, they speak them while wearing rad headbands and holding warm sweetbread rings. 

Swooping in with her camera, the chic woman (teacher? headmistress?) posed us for some photos, allowing me the opportunity, for the fiftieth time since I’ve been in Belarus, to regret that I forgot to lose twenty pounds from my frame and twenty years from my face before leaving the States. Those long lenses forgive nothing.

Once the clicking ceased, the entire group was shepherded upstairs to the teacher’s lounge to deposit coats and purses before being whisked down several more long corridors into a classroom.

The strongest sense memory I will take from my time in Belarus will be of the sound of high heels clicking down dim corridors followed by the whoosh of a door opening before I am ushered into a bright room, blinking dumbly under the florescence as a crowd of expectant faces comes into focus.

Oh, hey, hi. It’s me. A lady who sometimes goes five days without donning underwear when she’s in that glamorous place called USA.

On this particular day, the desks were full of English teachers; Helen, the long-lens lady, and the three bedazzled students filed into the remaining seats. As I centered myself at the front of the room, everyone took out notebooks and removed caps from pens.

Panic clutched my chest: “So maybe I should have prepared something. Because it’s looking like notes will be taken.” Everyone in the room, including me, wondered what I would be talking about.

Trying to break the ice, I asked the assembled women a few questions about their work. Two or three were willing to speak, so that helped pass twenty seconds. 

Quickly taking stock of my surroundings, I registered that there was no computer in the room, so I couldn’t plug in my flash drive and pull up one of my several prepared slideshows. And there was no whiteboard in the room, so I couldn’t dig out my markers. Hmmmm. Well, there was chalk.

Punting, which I believe is a term from a little-known American sport called “futbol,” I wrote my name onto the chalkboard and launched into a much-used spiel about the meaning and difficulty of my names, deciding in the moment to tack on some explanation of middle names versus patronymics, and as long as I was at it, I trotted out my family member’s names and explained how I didn’t change my name when I got married and how my husband I and chose to give our kids my surname and not his and how that’s unusual in the U.S. but how the choices behind names have meaning and power and how it was difficult for the American brain to wrap itself around the use of, say, ten primary female names in Russian and, hahaha, on more than one occasion in Belarus I had found myself at a table with three women named Olga, and so if anyone, anyone at all, had any questions please feel free to ask,

and then I paused to allow for questions, which meant the room fell silent, every face placid and blank, a wall of unmoving expectation reflecting back to me that I was up front, and therefore, I was the one who should be talking

because, of course, the whole point was that they wanted to hear a native English speaker emit words from her mouth.

Still hoping for an assist through shared energy and conversation, I tried turning the tables. “Could some of you tell me about your teaching? Is there something that’s particularly hard for you as English teachers in Belarus?”

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

“Something you wish you could change or that we could discuss today, all together, and maybe realize it’s a problem we all share?”

Silence.

Beat. 

Beat.

“Because it’s a great opportunity, to have us all in this room together, where we can compare stories and maybe suggest some strategies or activities that have worked in the past.”

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

Finally, the woman with long blonde hair in the back corner spoke. 

I loved that woman with long blonde hair in the back corner.

“We have difficulty getting our students to speak. They never want to talk because they are afraid to make mistakes.”

YOU DON’T SAY HEY I WONDER WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE TO BE A TEACHER IN A CLASSROOM WHERE NO ONE WANTS TO TALK IS IT MAYBE SWEAT-INDUCING?

Running with the brave teacher’s comment, I launched into some responsive blather about how the problem with students in American classrooms is getting them to shut up — chuckles all round for that one — before frantically trying to come up with descriptions of what I’ve done in the past two months with Belarusian students that has gotten them talking. As long as I was on a random verbal meander, I threw in things I do in my teaching in Minnesota, passed around a handout regarding writing as a process, mentioned letting students use their phones as part of activities, explained the slang word “stan,” maybe mentioned that Beyonce’s sister Solange has a new album coming out, and emphasized that good communication isn’t perfect communication but, rather, when a message lands with an audience despite its imperfections.

Case in point: the previous twenty minutes of my life.

Kindly, attentively, the women in the room had absorbed every off-the-cuff thing I’d said. Many of them had written notes related to some randomness I’d tossed off. Occasionally, some of them had leaned over to their seatmates to whisper thoughts that didn’t seem like “I hate this woman and wish she would shut up.”

Eventually, after asking for the third time if anyone had any specific questions for me (there was one: “How long will you be in Belarus?”), I announced, “Well, then, I guess that’s all I can think of. I really appreciate you asking me here today!”

Whew. 

Just as I turned to wipe off the chalkboard, the eldest of the bedazzled teens rose from her hard wooden seat and said, “Dear Jocelyn, now we ask you to coffee time with tea also.”

Yes, of course. As we do. How could I have failed to anticipate this would be part of the deal?

Two minutes later, after walking down a long, dim hallway as high heels clicked, I was ushered through a door into yet another bright room. At the sight of the well-laid table, I plastered another huge smile onto my face and called upon those micro-muscles to hold it firm. “Wow! This is beautiful! I am ready for a cup of tea, to be honest, and these sweets look excellent!” 

Over the next few minutes, as I asked questions about cakes and chocolates, most of the teachers filtered into the room. I was excited for the chance to sit around a table together and talk with them more intimately, outside the construct of a traditional classroom layout. Truly, sitting at a table in a small group, face-to-face, is where the best exchanges take place, all the better when there’s chocolate.

I had underestimated this gymnasium’s ability to make a visitor feel special, however; just as a few teachers and I started to relax into conversation, the door opened, and in walked the cutest, most dapper, best-prepared young saxophone player I’ve seen since my own son played that instrument.

“Dear Jocelyn, my name is Pavel, and it is my pleasure to play for you this morning.”

For the next ten minutes, conversation was impossible, but who wants to talk when “Strangers in the Night” and then Billy Joel and The Beatles are being played?

 
Helen was the most-attentive audience member — clearly a mother of a young son herself.

When Pavel’s performance finished, we teachers sampled the tasty cake, drank a few cups of tea, and talked about the use of computers in language teaching (turns out it would be more effective at this gymnasium if the internet worked reliably and with speed). A couple of the teachers spoke not at all, but later, when I told Helen I had worried I was boring them or making them wish I would leave, she assured me being low-key and passive is part of the Belarusian way, in the process reminding me that I shouldn’t always assume people’s body language is a reaction to what I’m putting out there. Sometimes people’s body language is about what’s going on inside of them. When it comes to absorbing this lesson, I am *coughcough* a life-long learner. 

Interestingly, it was only as we wrapped up — needing to hustle out so that Helen could get to the university for her next class — that I realized our visit had taken place during a holiday break, when students weren’t in attendance (except those who’d had the honor of being invited to perform for the American Teacher), but during which teachers had to be in the building nevertheless. Well, huh. So maybe the diversion of an unprepared native English speaker was a welcome one for at least a few of the teachers. Suddenly, I felt better about my rambling, no-topic talk, more able to accept that, for these teachers, hearing the language of their study and profession used in a way that was natural and unrehearsed might have been worthwhile.

In addition to kinking itself as it learns the names here (just ask the seven Nastyas in my classes), my brain has been working hard to comprehend just how important — how valuable — native English speakers are to both teachers and students in what has long been a “closed” country. At first, I was dismissive: if people study a language and use it, then they can speak it, and that’s as legitimate as anything. When I studied French, there was no deep internal desire to get into a room with a native French speaker; it never occurred to me that this mattered. What’s more, with today’s technology, second-language learners are able to hear the studied languages spoken by natives speakers all the time as they stream videos and watch movies…so what’s the big deal?

Being in the presence of live spoken English from someone who’s not running every utterance through an internal editor is a very big deal, in fact, and I’m only now really understanding how much it means to Belarusians to have us here. A live speaker can convey the dynamism of language in ways that no streamed YouTube video ever can — because a live speaker is reacting in the moment, responding to the energy and faces in the room, jumping topics and verb tenses, dropping word endings, speeding up and slowing down, adding gestures and grimaces, folding in slang and idioms without conscious thought, blurring word boundaries, asking questions, considering answers, initiating conversation. Most of all, a native English speaker puts on the spot those who have learned the language, as they say here, “artificially.” Can a person ever be confident she is using a second language effectively until she’s said something to a native speaker and seen that it has been understood?

Having settled into this Belarus experience, I get that now. I get that every time I can say yes, I might affirm years of study and work for the people in the room. Or I might unwittingly have something tumble out of my mouth that is completely new and fascinating for those in the audience. Definitely, always, even if I’m a bumbling idiot, it is worth showing up.

As Helen and I walked down the dim corridor, the long-lens lady’s high heels clicking satisfyingly next to us, I felt the mixture of relief and buoyancy that comes at the end of every public interaction. My feelings expanded into awe and gratitude a minute later when Long-Lens Lady packaged up my sweetbread before handing me a gift bag containing a souvenir mug.

Gollee. These people are good.

In the car, Helen and I relaxed. That had been nice. But now she was running late for her next class, and we were still fifteen minutes away. No matter, though; her students would wait, and she was glad we had the time together. When would I be able to visit her classes with first-year students and talk to them about American culture? How about some time in December, I offered, because then my daughter will be visiting, and it will be interesting for her to visit some university classes, along with providing the bonus of TWO native English speakers in the room. Oh, yes, Helen agreed, that would be great.

Words flowing thoughtlessly, I continued talking, telling Helen about the friend who will visit the week after Thanksgiving and who will rent a car and bravely navigate her way from Minsk to Polotsk after dark, fresh off her flight, without any Russian in her arsenal of skills. 

Then, suddenly, surprising me in the middle of a sentence, Helen whipped her hand off the gearshift and grabbed my gesturing hand mid-air. Clutching my hand tightly, even emphatically, she interrupted with an excitement I’d not seen in her before: “You are like a unicorn! I never thought in my whole life I would hear an English speaker actually use the future perfect progressive, but you’ve just done it! I never thought — I can’t believe — I just assumed it was something in textbooks but which no native speaker would ever use, but here you’ve gone and done it. The first time in my entire life, I have heard the future perfect progressive used in real speech, right here in my car. I cannot believe it!”

What had I even said? And what the hell is future perfect progressive again? Frantically, I tried to pedal my mind back to 1993, shortly after the break-up of the USSR and the last time anyone explained anything like verb tenses to me. “Future” is no problem. That would be, like, tomorrow. Okay, okay, and I remembered “perfect” is something that’s “over and done with.” And I knew “progressive,” that enemy of red states. Lemme see, carry the three, minus the seven…so, putting all those concepts together, it seemed I’d used some verbs that indicated something in the future with hints of completion presented simultaneously with something ongoing?

Well now. I still had no idea what I’d said, but one thing was clear: I am pretty impressive, indeed.

Laughing as Helen still grasped my hand — her excitement making it impossible for her to let go — I admitted, “I have no idea what I even said. What did I say?”

Somewhat breathlessly, Helen told me. “You just said ‘She will have been traveling for 24 hours by the time she gets here,’ and that is the first time in all of my life that I have heard a native English speaker and not just someone reading from a textbook use the future perfect progressive! I cannot believe it, I tell you. I never thought I would witness this in real life! Never!”

We laughed some more, and eventually Helen had to shift gears, so my hand returned to my lap. But still. The moment stuck with me. Continues to stick with me. Will have been sticking with me for decades when I’m 90 years old. 

I’ve gotten used to taking myself for granted. That’s what it is to live inside your own skin, in your usual, comfortable world. I’m just a lady who likes beer and puzzles and no underwear. I’m nothing remarkable.

But now. Here. In this Belarus experience. I’m starting to realize I have something special to offer just by being myself and letting words drop from my mouth. And so I need to say yes and say yes and say yes again, even when I really don’t want to, even if it leaves me wrung out and weepy.

Because maybe ending up as a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion is actually the goal.

Because in the long term, I won’t remember the exhaustion,

but I will always remember the shyness; the gifts; the sweet applause; the tentative questions; the constant requests; the lovely articles on the university website; the woman walking me home from Zumba looking up words on her phone as she tries to explain in tear-filled English a devastating fight with her daughter; the students standing up at the end of class and weakening my knees by saying, “Thank you for the interesting lecture”; the adolescents in costume on a day off from school carefully enunciating their scripted lines because it is an honor; the boy in the front row — a different boy every week, but always, there’s the boy in the front row — who is studying IT but who loves speaking English so much he can’t be hushed; the unflagging kindness and support of my English-teacher colleagues, so many of them now treasured friends; the 19-year-old boy who messages me on Instagram to say he thinks my daily stories are so funny he hopes I never stop; the cashier at the grocery store who runs to the produce section to check the SKU number of my apples because I didn’t understand her question in Russian; the other Americans having their own versions of this experience right now, all around Belarus, who have become a family that sustains me when I think I’ll crack from missing my people back home; the teenagers who teach me new words every day, slowly enunciating pronunciation while my tongue twists; and, of course, the woman who clutched my hand in spontaneous joy over a verb tense.

Without question, in the long term,

I will only remember the gratitude.


 

 

O Mighty Crisis is obviously not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Duh.

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First of the Month

His grunting is muffled, but still, every “oof” and muttered curse can be heard in the hallway where his wife and I are stifling our laughter.

She speaks a few words of English, and I have a smidgen of tatty Russian, but we don’t need language to share a giggle, especially when it’s about the man in the bathroom grubbing around on his belly beneath the sink, frustrated and grumbling.

Every twenty seconds or so, we hear a cranky clank as my landlord tries to remove and then replace the metal vent covering the water meter. It’s October 1st, and, in addition to stopping by to collect the rent, he’s taking pictures of the numbers on various meters around my apartment so as to gauge the cost of utilities. 

Getting to the bathroom meter, though — it just might defeat the best efforts of even Slava, a man whose tattoos and bald head convey an initial impression of undauntable toughness. There’s a truism about metal wall covers, however: they’re indifferent to tattoos. 

To our credit, Slava’s wife and I weather the grunts straight-faced for at least three minutes before, eyes locking, we throw fists to lips and start shaking. I don’t know for sure what Slava is threatening down there on the floor, but his mumbles telegraph “FFS” effectively. Part of me wants to peek through the partially closed door, just to see if his track pants are slipping at all. I’ve never seen Belarusian plumber’s crack before, and I do so hate to miss a cultural moment.

But no. If I peer through the door, and Slava looks up at that moment, it’ll just irk him further, and then I’ll have to type some sheepish words into Google Translate and jam my phone towards his face down there under the sink. Better I just hover in the foyer with his wife.

THERE. In concert with three slams and six curses, the shadows in the bathroom shift as Slava stands up. I hope he’s not too worked up — because next he’s going to look at the faulty microwave and try to determine why it works fine for a few minutes and then taps out for ten hours. Since I need to type the particulars of the microwave’s moods into the translation app and coordinate a technology-assisted conversation, I want him calm and collected.

I scare easily, see, and I’d rather have no microwave at all than get yelled at.

Fortunately, Slava’s face, as he comes out of the bathroom, is full of good humor. It always is. 

***

From the day I arrived in Polotsk and looked at apartments, Slava’s charmed me. When the women from the international center at the university and I first followed him up the crumbling stairs of the building and waited for him to unlock the possible rental, we had no idea what glories awaited us inside. We had no idea the apartment we were about to see had been the first place Slava bought for himself — ten years ago, when he was burning to create the perfect bachelor pad. As he remodeled his new purchase to showcase his tastes and sense of self, the driving motto seemed to be “Only the Best.” 

“Only the best” is, it turns out, a uniquely individual expression.

I didn’t know, that first day when I walked into Slava’s former bachelor pad, if I was allowed to raise my eyebrows, make a face, have a laugh. I didn’t know if what I was seeing was representative of Belarusian decor, as a rule. The women with me were properly respectful, definitely awed as they looked up at the massive Sad Angel mural spanning the ceiling of the living room, so I tried to follow suit. 

As they asked questions and established a feeling of connection, I poked around the apartment, amazed at the sheer number of distinctive touches that revealed the interior of a man who initially read, to my gaze, as “thuggish.”

But then, every time I stopped peeking into the closet, taking stock of the washing machine, and wondering at the bright pink flowery rugs in the bathroom — every time I slowed my roll and looked at Slava — I saw the truth of him there, in his eyes. 

This guy was sweet like a chocolate lab. It was all I could do not to pet his head and scruffle him about the ears. 

Slava was all right. 

Without question, I took the apartment.

***

It’s at the end of my first month under Sad Angel that Slava and his wife stop by to check the meters, collect rent, and troubleshoot the microwave. Even though I know he’s the dearest soul, still, I am a bit nervous. This will be our first interaction without a translator present.

True to form, even though I am prepared for his visit and have had a stack of American dollars flattening and smoothing for days, readying them for proper payment, I dither from the moment he buzzes the apartment. Because I don’t have a steady flow of people stopping by, needing to be let in, I haven’t used the security system much.

Hearing the buzz, I push the button that shows me the building’s exterior view. Yup. Someone or something is standing there, a blurry landlordish blob. Simultaneously, I lift the handset and warble “Allio?”  

A tough monotone replies: “Slava.”

“Okay,” I half shout and hang up the receiver.

Flustered, I hit the security camera button again, realize it’s the wrong one, and then randomly punch three other buttons on the camera pad. None of them yields the tweeting sound that indicates I’ve unlocked the building’s front door.

Fuck.

I always know I’m an idiot, but I hate it when other people know it, too.

A few seconds later, the handset rings. 

Again, I hear the terse “Slava,” but this time I lapse into a garbled English explanation that sounds something like “Sorry, I pushed the wrong button I don’t really know people here so I haven’t really done this before nobody ever needs buzzing in at my home in America we don’t have an intercom system I’m kind of a book reader more than a button pusher hahaha bad joke actually not a joke at all if you really think about it…”

On the other end, there is silence. 

I push the correct button and hear the tweeting of the main building door unlocking.

Getting to the fourth floor takes Slava a couple minutes, time during which I hover uncomfortably inside the apartment’s open door, wanting to appear welcoming while, at the same time, worrying — because I have a faint recollection of some Belarusian belief that it’s bad luck to exchange money in a doorway, or maybe it’s just bad luck to give someone a bouquet with an odd number of flowers, or maybe it’s both, but mostly I am well aware I need to hand over a stack of money, and I still don’t pronounce “Zdravstvuyte” correctly. Will Slava think I’m sneezing if I try to greet him in Russian, and should I maybe have gotten him a dozen ‘mums to lubricate the rent payment? 

***

In short order, I’ve handed Slava the rent, and he’s taken photos of the meters in the foyer and the bathroom. The bathmat next to the tub is askew, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple belly hairs in its folds.

When he enters the kitchen and opens the cupboard that houses yet another meter, his eyebrows jump.

Crap. Did I use a kabillion kajigawatts during the month of September or something?

“Is there a problem?” I venture, hoping “problem” is a word Slava will understand. 

“Nyet,” he tells me, adding something that sounds like “Tak mnogo produktov.” I understand that last word: products. Dude can’t believe the size of my food stash.

Dude has no idea there’re three times as many products hiding in other cupboards, that he’s only glimpsing the tip of my issues. Dude has no idea he’s just clapped eyes on my “I’m going to a place called Belarus without my family” nerves made manifest, laid eyes on the comfort foods I brought from the U.S., witnessed the remnants of months of nervous preparation that resulted in a Mountain of Anxiety on our dining room table in Duluth: if I had a bad day in a foreign country, could the key to restoring mental balance possibly, perhaps, be a container of curried cashews from the Whole Foods Co-op? SHOULD I MAYBE PACK SOME TRADER JOE’S CANDIED PECANS IN CASE I EVER FEEL LIKE CRYING?

Slava recovers quickly from the surprise of my beef jerky hoard, snaps a photo of the meter, and turns his attention towards diagnosing the microwave.

First, he takes a pink, flowery plate out of the dish cupboard and sets it inside the microwave. Then, looking around for something to “warm,” he lands on a piece of scrap paper. Since I’ve explained to him through the translation app that the microwave works fine for four or five minutes, he sets the plate with the piece of paper on it inside the oven, programs the timer for five minutes, and hits Start.

I wish I’d watched more closely which buttons he pushed, as I have yet to figure out how to set a timer on the microwave. Instead, I stick to using the one button I faintly understand. If I push it twice, it yields a reasonable about of heating time before, of course, the entire machine goes dead. When I try pushing other buttons, the whole effort spirals into a cold-food snafu faster than you can say “Moy kartofel syroy.”

As it takes me thirty seconds to realize, five minutes is an incredibly long time to stand in front of a microwave next someone without speaking. Silently, we watch the piece of paper spin. ‘Round. And. ‘Round. At first, I try to fill the time by typing “That’s a delicious dinner you’re making” and forcing my phone screen in front of his face, but after my first attempt at app humor, I realize it’s a lot of work for both of us to act like I’m amusing. 

I last another half a minute before I break. The microwave’s problems are something I can live with; so long as I can warm leftovers to an edible temperature, I’m not bothered. Typing the words “The problem with the microwave is no big deal” into my phone, I once again jam my phone into his face.

Reading the screen, he looks more puzzled than when he met my Anxiety Food Stash.

Oooooooh, of course “no big deal” doesn’t translate correctly! I hadn’t been thinking of it as slang, but I probably just told him “The problem with the microwave is small process of distributing the cards to players in a card game.” Coming at it more straightforwardly, I type, “It is not a problem.”

Nodding with comprehension, he uses my phone to respond. “If it gets worse, tell me. I will get a different one.”

***

Ten minutes later, just as I’m about to put on one of those facial masks that makes me look like Jason in Halloween, I see something red on the kitchen counter. It’s Slava’s phone. Once he stopped the microwave at my behest and pulled out the slip of paper — making me feel how warm it was — he’d booked towards the door, quickly putting on his shoes before he and his wife wished me a good night.

Apparently, for all of us, it was a relief to be done.

But damn. Now he’d have to come back for his phone, thus providing me with another opportunity to push seven buttons on the security pad and still leave him standing outside.

Sighing, I realize I should let him know his phone is here, lest he tear apart his car seats, thinking it’s slipped out of his pocket. Taking a photo of his phone on the kitchen counter, I send it to him. A minute later, I think maybe I should tell him I won’t be home later, so I copy and paste some words from the translation app into another message.

Wow. Slava’s phone keeps dinging. He sure gets a lot of notifications.

There’s a beat. then another beat. Plus one more beat…before my brain catches up with my behaviors. Oooooooooooh. Slava’s phone is dinging every time I send him a message. Yeah, he sure does get a lot of notifications — from me.

A few minutes later, the phone begins ringing. I look at the screen. Can I answer it? Should I answer it? Somehow, it seems wrong to answer someone else’s phone, especially without being able to speak the language.

After a few more rings, the thing goes quiet. So. How long until Slava realizes where he left his phone and comes back?

Again, his phone starts ringing. Again, I don’t answer it. And then again: it rings. I cave: grabbing it, I jab randomly at the screen. Hell, 80% of the time, I can’t answer my own phone and hang up on the caller by mistake. In some sort of miracle, though, I manage to swipe the right direction and establish a connection on this foreign phone. “Allio?” I croak.

It’s Slava, and because he launches into a whole lot of words in Russian, and because I have no idea what he’s just said, I simply agree, “Okay.” For all I know, I’ve just made a date to shave his back. But “okay.”

Twenty minutes later, he’s back at the door to the building, and after I successfully buzz him in, I start down the stairs with his phone, hoping to save him a few flights of climb. Meeting in the middle, our eyes lock, and we smile knowingly at each other: so, yeah, hi again anyhow. Before we head opposite directions, I use all my words on him, from “spaciba” to “das vedanya”; in return, he musters a hard-won “goodbye.”

***

Back under Sad Angel, I sink into the couch and smooth the lotion-infused mask over my face, feeling the muscles relax completely as they absorb both anti-aging promises and the fact that they no longer have to host an overly perky smile meant to compensate for lack of language. Hoping some ginseng fairy dust will manage to make my face look less like an unmade bed, I tip my head back and close my eyes as I muse on the appeal of my landlord.

If my life is a book, and I’m currently writing the Belarus chapter, then Slava is everything I could ask for in a character. He’s cute, complex, charismatic, cuddly, quirky. If I were creating a “landlord,” I wouldn’t come up with material as good as what he’s given me — warming a piece of paper in a microwave, crawling around frustratedly on the bathroom floor, proudly describing the expensive living room ceiling mural. 

It’s the job of supporting characters to amplify the protagonist’s humanity, offer hope, play a role in a turnaround, remind the audience why the journey of the main character is important, heighten conflicts, advance the plot, or develop themes. 

In my time in Belarus, Slava is a perfect supporting character. He is one of the few people to enter the intimacy of my home here, to know “too much food” feels about right to me, to have seen the half-read People magazine by the toilet, to know I am inept with seemingly straightforward tasks like pushing buttons. He is one of the few here who crosses the boundary from public to private interaction. Whenever I leave my apartment in Polotsk, I am dressed, wearing make-up, braced with the trappings of full public persona for whatever comes. But as soon I get home, I am, blessedly, just me again, my real self free to wander the rooms with poor posture and a finger up her nose.

Back in the States, my family knows my truest self. They live with her.

Here, though, I am the only one who knows My In-the-house Self.

Except, of course, for Slava. 

He’s seen her, too, and despite these insider’s glimpses, he still smiles when he sees her.

And that very specific connection, especially in the midst of an intense experience that is a constant swirl of wonder and exhaustion,

feels like home.


 

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Waking Up

Wait.
What?

I am skimming down the crumbling stairs, focusing on not tripping. It occurred to me early on that I don’t want to get hurt while in Belarus — not that I ever want to get hurt anywhere, but I hope to be particularly careful during my time here because I don’t know how to ask for help or call emergency services. So the plan is simple: be careful.

My neck has been bent as I watch my feet move — where is that stair with the huge chip broken out of it? — and it’s only through a random fluke that my eyes rise as I reach the landing where the post boxes hang on the wall.

Initially, my assumption had been that these mail boxes had fallen into disuse; sure, they are painted a lovely blue, but at the same time, they’re ramshackle, not labeled, and some hang open while others appear jammed shut. I’ve visited places where mail delivery isn’t a regular or expected thing, so I had figured that it was the same in Belarus and that those expecting mail picked it up at the post office. However, when I asked my friend Iryna about the mailboxes in my apartment building, she corrected me: they are working boxes, maybe not used much, but occasionally flyers and coupons might be stuck into them. For the most part, though, she explained, such boxes are not used, especially because younger people pay their bills online; in general, the mailbox is becoming passe.

That’s why I’m so surprised when I raise my head and look at the mailboxes. As usual, there is nothing much going on with them, except wait. What?

Inside the third square from the left on the bottom row, something catches my attention. What the heck?

For the past month, I’ve been swiveling my head back and forth constantly; sometimes, by the end of the day, I need to tip it backwards with my eyes closed for a couple minutes before I can find the energy to make dinner. I don’t want to miss anything in this new place, so I’m always looking, looking, looking. There are those charming wooden houses; there are the grannies with their scarved heads; there are the fashionable young women in satisfyingly clompy boots; there’s the dirt path by the river, the dizzying array of spices in the grocery store, the kids playing in the fountain in the town square, the three dogs who oversee the block where my favorite cemetery is. Because I can’t believe I get to be here, I don’t want to miss anything. Because I only have a few months here, I want to absorb as much as I possibly can. Because I find great joy in the small details that tell a bigger story, I am always wondering if an untied shoe signals arthritis. 

That’s why my careful descent halts on the landing where the mailboxes hang. What even is inside that box where the door always hangs half open?

It’s a piece of paper — a card? I might not have noticed it, were the letters Cyrillic. But whoa. The words on this card are in English. And somehow, that feels like a secretive whimsy. Who had a card with English words on it and then decided to dump it inside one of these mostly unused boxes? In recent weeks, I’ve taken to cataloging the items that appear and disappear in the stairwell: there’s the pile of dirt on Floor Three that someone swept into a mountain but then never disposed of; there’s the candy wrapper on the stair about halfway up my climb; there’s the empty vodka bottle behind a radiator; there’s the half-eaten apple on a windowsill; there’s the rusty tin can with a receipt in it.

Daily, as I come and go, I remark the life of the stairwell and try to figure out what it might be telling me about the people who live in the building. Is there a granny who started cleaning the landing by her apartment but, after sweeping up a pile of dirt, realized she was out of steam and needed to go watch her stories rather than finish the task? Is there an adolescent who was eating a piece of candy while helping his mom carry the stroller for the baby, and he couldn’t be bothered to pocket the wrapper? Is there a woozy man who finished his drinking binge but hoped to fool his wife about his sobriety? Is there a nine-year-old who sometimes realizes a whole apple is just too much, much less finding a trash can? Is there a suitor who was bringing flowers and realized twenty-five steps up that he didn’t also want to be clutching a receipt?

Is there someone in the building who was given a card that has a book title in English on it — maybe a teacher handed it out as a reward for a good score on an exam? But then, since the student cheated on the exam, he didn’t want to keep the token of “Excellent Work”? And so he ditched in in one of the mailboxes on his way upstairs?

Made happy by the surprise of the peeping postcard, I grin and continue down the staircase. Huh. Life’s little surprises bring the best kind of joy. Note to self: go back during the daylight and snap a photo of that secret card in its hiding spot. 

***

Two weeks pass, during which I mostly forget about the card — forget to peer inside the mailbox except once or twice. One day I remember because I’ve come home, and there are grocery store flyers hanging from the top cracks of a few of the boxes. Another time, I remember because my bag brushes against the slightly open door of that third-from-the-left bottom-row square. But mostly, my brain is focused on other things: 

What activity will I do with pre-intermediate language learners in the neighboring city when I work with groups taking classes through the language center? What activity will I do with more advanced learners when I am in the room with them? How about beginners? What will I do every week with the 50+ groups of learners enrolled through the center?

How exactly should I be grading the students in my classes at the university so as to align with what the rest of the department does? 

What should I say to the young students at the gymnasium when I go to their auditorium to talk about “American Houses”?

Were the students at the university actually that interested in the Native-American powwow and drum circle I showed them, or did they just give good face?

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

How did that 65-year-old woman in yoga class do Chinese splits like that? And how come, in any fitness class, when we do something that requires flexibility and balance, not a single person struggles?

Are there miserable unseen lives for those with disabilities here? 

Does everyone genuinely not want to talk politics? 

Why can’t the U.S. crack the sour cream code of Belarus and make a delicious, creamy, slightly sweet product that is then worked into 80% of meals?

Will the natives ever believe I’m a grown woman who can dress herself and, therefore, no, I’m not cold, and no, I don’t need a warmer jacket? 

Why is the Sad Angel on the ceiling of my apartment so inconsolable?

Does the mail carrier have a key for the entrance to every building on his/her route?

Why did it never occur to me before that almost everyone in Belarus who takes vacations has been to Turkey because it’s cheap, and there’s no visa required? Why did it never occur to me that problems between Russia and Ukraine with regards to Crimea mean Belarusians lost their #1 vacation spot?

How come the roads and sidewalks have been built with zero interest in drainage?

How many more days will pass before I drink a hoppy beer?

How do these women who work long, full days and have children with after-school activities mange to find the energy for evening fitness classes?

What is the word for “understanding someone’s heart without sharing a common language”?

***

One day, as I’m heading downstairs, trying to get my head around the idea of “speaking Belarusian instead of Russian” as a statement of opposition, I see something hanging from all the mailboxes. 

There is a half-folded slip of paper carefully tucked into the top crack of each box. Slowing my roll, I assess the papers. The content looks official — except, of course, as is the way here, it’s printed on the back of already used paper. But there is a short paragraph in Russian on each slip, and within the paragraph is a fill-in-the-blank spot that has a number hand-written into it. So. This is maybe, like, a bill? If it is, how do I know which one to take? There are no names or apartment numbers on any of them.

Always afraid of a firm talking to, especially from a stranger, I continue down the staircase.

***

Hours later, when I return home, it’s dark outside. It’s dark inside. There are motion-detector lights for each landing in the building, but it’s pitch black for the first set of stairs, and frequently my motion isn’t detected until I’m well past a landing. 

Ugh. Even though I am moving and climbing, I can’t see anything. Shifting bags to one hand, I grab my phone from my pocket and give it a quick shake; a flashlight beam hits the mailboxes. Well now. It appears all my neighbors have already returned home for the evening. Only one piece of paper still hangs from the mailboxes.

I know of one person in the building who hasn’t taken hers yet. 

This is my kind of math.

Tentatively, I reach for the bill just as the motion-detecting light flicks on. Quickly, guiltily, I withdraw my hand. Did I just get busted? No, no, no. It’s just light, not an accusation.

As I reach again for the slip of paper, I remember to take stock of which box is apparently “mine.” The only numbers I’ve ever seen are a 10 and an 8 at the top of the mailboxes, with the 10 on the left and the 8 on the right. My apartment is 15. Slowly, I start counting boxes from the top row, left to right. Yup. When I get to the box where the lone slip of paper remains, I am at 15. And now that I’ve done the easy, logical counting that has eluded my brain these past weeks, I realize something: there are faint numbers above each box.

Hey. I have a mailbox! And it’s the 15th one! And it’s the one with the number 15 above it!

You all remember I was in my mid-thirties when I figured out that sunflower seeds come from sunflowers, right?

***

So I have a mailbox, and it’s the 15th one, which means third from the left on the bottom row, the one that has no latch and hangs half open, 

the one hiding the surprising, whimsical card with English words on it — the card tucked in there by the kid who cheated on his exam.

Wait.

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

A.

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Minute.

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

Inhaling to a count of three, I calm the questions and thoughts and observations that keep me from seeing what’s in front of my face. 

The American visitor who has spent the last few weeks twirling dizzily around the margins has a mailbox, and in it is a postcard…sent from someone who speaks English, who knows how lovely it is to receive mail, who realizes a quickly jotted note can feel like a reassuring hug.

Bags hanging from one hand, my phone and a slip of paper in the other, I am both clumsy and delighted as I reach into my mailbox to extract the long-neglected postcard. 

Alone in a dark stairwell in a new country, moisture dripping off my raincoat, tote bags cutting into my wrist, I lean my head against the cool metal of the mailboxes and aim the flashlight at the back of the card.

There they are: my name, my address, my location on the earth, all scratched in the familiar hand of my friend Maggie, she who excels at postal thoughtfulness. 

I am official.

I am here.

I’ve got mail, and I have a bill.

This is really happening.

***

Stuffing the card between my front teeth, I bite into the ink as I fumble for my keys and try not to trip.

The taste of home seeping into my mouth, I wonder,

Do those guys fishing in the river need licenses?

———————————-

 

 

 

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Little Pink Houses for You and Me

I can’t keep up with the apples.

Even at my current pace of eating two a day — BACK OFF, DOC! — I can’t keep up with the apples.

Nearly every time I leave my apartment, some kind person slips an apple into my hand, topples a dish full of them into a bag for me to carry home, or greets me on the street with a couple at the ready.

It’s a thing here in Belarus, this business of conveying hospitality through apples.

Of course, culture seeps beyond borders; it’s more accurate to generalize about “the region” than any specific country. In the late 1990s, my sister lived in Moldova for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and she remembers the same phenomenon: her students’ families were constantly giving her bags of apples. And with every other photo I post or tidbit I comment upon now that I’ve been in Belarus for a few weeks, her comment is invariably “That’s how it was in Edinet” or sometimes “I thought that was Romanian!”

I visited her in Moldova; we went to Romania; I’ve been to Poland, Hungary, what was formerly Czechoslovakia, so I had some sense of Eastern Europe. But still. The experience lodges differently when you’re paying rent somewhere. Exposures are repeated, relationships gain depth, and there is a feeling that choices and behaviors have “stakes.”

It all feels more real somehow, to spend an extended period of time in a place. To bring home the apples. To have a fridge to put them into. To think to myself, “I’m not usually one to put apples in the fridge, but here in my new home city of Polotsk, where my apartment has no screens on the windows, where the flies, gnats, and mosquitoes do a number on both fruit and my skin, yeah, I am someone who puts the apples in the fridge.” And then I marvel that I’m in Belarus and that I’m a person in Belarus who has a fridge teeming with Belarusian apples handed to me by Belarusian friends who have sacks of apples they gather at their dachas every weekend when they go to their family homes in the country to work the gardens and fire up the grill for shashlik (kebabs).

From apples to fridges to gnats, I have been marveling at it all.

We Americans are so uninformed about this great country living mildly in the shadow of stomping Russia; the little we are fed in the news in no way reflects the reality of this place any more than a front page article about Donald Trump tells the story of your preschooler twirling until she’s dizzy, just to watch her skirt flare. 

The essential truths of a country aren’t in the leaders. They’re in the apples.

And they’re in the women who message me every night to check in about my day and ask what they can do to for me. 

The truths of this place can be found in the focused, respectful students who are excited and intimidated to have a native English speaker in the room with them, breathing, gesturing, joking, pronouncing words like they’ve never heard words pronounced before.

The truths of Belarus are in the groups of grannies on the benches outside each apartment building, their canes resting casually as they take stock of the neighborhood and catch up on aches and gossip.

The truths are in the stories of people in their mid-thirties who still live in their childhood homes with their parents because there is no way, financially, that they can move out unless they marry.

The truths can be seen in the animated conversation between two “Hey, Tatiana! It’s been a coon’s age! What’s up?” acquaintances in front of the cheese display at the grocery store.

The truths are found in the women who walk the city streets alone after dark without fear.

The truths of this place are evident on the mini-bus marshrutkas, so much like Turkish dolmuses in the way everyone squeezes together to make room for the newbies while an assembly line of passengers hands fistfuls of change from the back rows up to the driver.

The truth of Belarus is in the excitement of a recent college graduate who has confided to an English teacher that she recently found a used copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian and is loving it more than anything she’s ever read. When she is told, one reader to another, that she will inherit some books in English in a few months, there is truth in her squeal: “Never in my whole life did I think I would get to have my own books in English! I do not even know what to say except one thousand thank-yous! I almost can’t breathe right now except I think I am crying first. Books in English are so expensive I could never imagine buying one, and I am so in love with English and reading that I may never sleep again because I cannot believe I will get to have English books in my hands!”

The truths of this place are in the dingy, crumbling stairwells of every building, neglected for decades because “they are no one’s responsibility.”

The truths of this country are seen in the ubiquitous monuments to the national-identity-defining years of The Great Patriotic War, during which 1/3 of the population was killed and 80% of the buildings and infrastructure decimated. When a young woman explains that her family’s dacha was built after the war by her grandmother and the grandmother’s sisters, and not a single man helped, this story is code for the truth of loss.

The truths of this place shine in the excellence of the dairy, the pride in the meat products, the repeated urgings to “try the draniki.”

The truths of this country that Americans know nearly nothing about are seen in the fitness instructors who, although unable to speak a common language with a new student, nevertheless come over for quick half-translated consultations: Are you used to exercise? Have you done a class like this before? Will you please listen to your body and modify as necessary? Did you have fun? 

The truth of this country is evident in a store clerk who won’t sell a customer a shirt because it costs too much.

There is truth in the scooters crowding sidewalks after dinner each night, rolling small bodies along the pavement while easy-going parents meander a few steps behind.

There is truth in every person passing by another — stranger or friend, neighbor or delivery man, grandpa or teen — politely greeting the other with a “Zdravstvuyte” or wishing them farewell with a “Das vendanya!”

There is truth in the hand-knit woolen socks, the hydrating with soup instead of water at mealtimes, the crisply ironed collars, the quick sign of the cross quickly tapped onto the chest when the car flies past a cemetery.

And there is truth in those apples, dispensed so generously because there are plenty, and they come from the plot of land at the family’s dacha, from the garden at that old wooden house that has passed through the generations, that spot supposedly about rest but, in reality, more about the work of growing and fixing and storing and foraging.

These old wooden houses, for me, have become my favorite Belarusian truth. While dachas are “in the country,” many old wooden houses are now within the city limits and are the primary, not weekend, homes of families. Every time I go for a walk or a run, I encounter another pocket of these dacha-like homes, so charming, so whimsical, decaying yet alive. 

When I asked a teacher friend about these houses, she told me the ones in the city require a significant financial commitment, not just to purchase, but also because the owners agree to abide by rules dictating the materials that can be used in renovations and improvements. In buying or continuing to own one of these wooden houses, people are agreeing that preservation merits sacrifice. While the original wooden houses, those dating back centuries, were wiped out during the war, they were rebuilt after 1945 and are now close to 80 years old; these replicas of the houses that were lost are true to the originals in design, right down to the ornate window frames and geometric patterns of the timbers. In most of Belarus, these houses adhere to the original brown and white colors, but the city of Polotsk favors bright colors on its wooden houses, splashes of exuberance next to the placid river. At their essence, though, these homes always must remain true to the traditional Belarus that existed before Fascism crashed through.

All of these houses have apple trees in their yards.

The house is a source of pride; the tree is a source of hospitality.

Together, they tell Belarus’ best truth.  

 

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Notes over the Atlantic

 


The problem with hypervigilance: as the plane starts to taxi for take-off, I am fretting. Two people on the aisle haven’t fastened their seatbelts. The old white guy in front of me has inflated his pillow and slapped on his headphones, but half his unclipped belt dangles out the side of his seat. Fortunately, the flight attendant catches sight of it on his final walk-through. Old Guy chuckles too loudly as he snaps in.

Three minutes into the air, I begin to dislike the old white guy in front of me when he reclines his seat into my space, the diminished inches between me and my screen (trying to watch Moonlight) casting my head into a vertigo of too-tight viewing. Two hours later, my rage softens when he clinks plastic glasses of Cabernet over the aisle with his wife. We are on a flight to Paris. This is apparently Something for them.

After waiting foot-tappingly long for the black man in a flowing tan “outfit,” dark sunglasses, and a flat cap to emerge from the airplane bathroom, I finally get my turn. Locking gazes with me, brushing past, he nods. When I enter, the first inhale tells me why he took so long — why he looked so much lighter upon exiting. Dude made a dookie. And, just as it was difficult, nigh on impossible, for him to figure out how to open the bathroom door when he first entered, it was, didn’t I discover in no time, completely impossible for him to figure out how to flush. There is a meatloaf awaiting me. Although I am afraid to try it, fearing the mechanism is broken, I push the big FLUSH button. With a roar, the meatloaf plummets into the friendly skies.

The couple next to me has ordered “Hindu vegetarian” meals. When they arrive, the wife picks at her entree suspiciously, eventually flicking out small bits with disdain. They ring for the flight attendant. A long discussion about the labelling known as VGML ensues. When the attendant closes the conversation with a shrug and a few steps down the aisle, the wife focuses on her roll and fruit salad, gesturing with resignation at her tray, complaining mildly but steadily to her attentive husband.

Pressing my head back into the seat cushion, trying to gain an inch of distance, I watch Moonlight and drink an extra pale ale, wondering when I next will have a hoppy beer.

The disgruntled vegetarian on my left pinches a piece of honeydew between her fingers, examining it from all angles, her face fighting off revulsion.

Sipping the foam from the bottom of my flimsy glass, I wonder how screwed up her face would have become if she’d walked into that airplane bathroom after Tan Outfit Guy.

The flight attendant working my section has taken an immediate dislike to me. Whenever he hands me something, it’s with the revulsion and pinched fingers of a skeptical honeydew examiner. He has gorgeous, full salt-and-pepper hair; if I got chatty and complimented him, his attitude would shift immediately. But I’m not in the mood. I don’t want to compliment him. Every time he walks past, I think, “I am never telling you that you have a gorgeous head of hair, you cranky snip.”

Shortly after finishing her meal, my seatmate moans a few times while rocking.

I will not be following her to the bathroom.

_____________

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Highlights

We recently returned from a family trip to Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia — meeting up with Allegra, who’d already been traveling by herself for six weeks. We flew from Minneapolis to Sarajevo, and she took the bus into Sarajevo from Montenegro; easily, beautifully, shortly after we checked into our apartment the first night, she pulled up in a taxi, tan, her hair lightened from weeks in the strong Turkish sun, and suddenly there we were, we four, together again, ready to push the unit of us into new spaces, new places.

And although the list below covers my personal highlights from our 17 days together, I could actually stop this post about “best moments” here, after typing the next few words: my favorite moment of the trip was when that taxi door opened.

Maternal mush aside, there were a host of other memorable, mind-blowing experiences we shared together. TAKE THIS, INTREPID READER:

    1. The Kravice waterfalls: Located about 40 km from Mostar — which helps you locate it precisely in your mind just now, doesn’t it? — this series of falls was easily my favorite “spot” on the entire trip. There weren’t too many people, although it did get more crowded as the day wore on, and there weren’t too many swimmers. After our initial “whoa, baby” shock when the falls first came into view, we took turns swimming out to the base of the pounding water, working our bodies against the strong counter-currents, and that was like no experience I’ve ever had. As Allegra and I paddled towards the first fall, the second, the third, the next, I was buoyed by wonder. By the time we left a few hours later, that feeling hadn’t subsided. Even now, weeks later, my strongest sensation when I think of these waterfalls is that of gratitude: we were so fortunate to be able to get ourselves to Bosnia; we were so lucky to have heard of this place; we were so fortunate that all four of us were strong, able, and willing. Sidestroking through that cold water, I was propelled by awe. 
    2. Cevapi: Is there anything more important while traveling than the food? To put a finer point on it, is there anything more important than food any day, anywhere? Oh, all right. I’ll give you “water.” Shelter. Love. The Netflix password. But food’s right up there, yes? That’s why I was so glad we tried cevapi our first full day in Sarajevo; it set us up to order it again and again throughout the entire trip — because our family has its values in order and, thus, is always enthusiastic about a heap of small grilled sausages stuffed into a bread pillowcase and sprinkled with sharp onions. 
    3. The view, breakfast, and coffee at our guesthouse in Mostar: The place we stayed in Mostar is best called “a hidden gem.” At first, the emphasis was on “hidden” since we circled through busy one-way streets a few times, the GPS always telling us we had arrived when basically there was no guesthouse or signage in sight. Finally, we spooled out of the busy center of town to a wider road where, after a few attempts at finding parking, we left the boys in the car while Allegra and I set off on foot so as to better explore the nooks and crannies that might yield GUESTHOUSE. Fortunately, the girl is a GPS whiz, and her phone turned us into a narrow slot and thirty feet into a dusty lot — and then, HAHA!, we saw a small sign for the guesthouse. Ultimately, it was worth the effort because our room had, hands down, the best view in all of Mostar, the balcony looking straight down the river at the famous, symbolic, and now-once-again-beautiful bridge.Listen, because we are budget travelers, we’re not used to nice things — but that view of the restored bridge, a bridge that connects the Muslim-dominant bank of the city to the Christian-dominant side, was the nicest thing, particularly because every time we looked at the bridge, we were reminded of the deliberate forgetting Bosnians are willing themselves to do in order to move past the trauma of war and genocide. In a country where every open meadow and every former soccer field is teeming with fresh, shockingly white headstones, looking at that rebuilt bridge reminded these heartsore American progressives that trauma is relative. And while the U.S. currently has a callous bully at the helm and is deliberately implementing policy that shouts “la-la-la” with fingers in ears to cover the pleas of the distressed, being in Bosnia made us blink slowly and repeatedly acknowledge: at least the U.S. is not engaged in civil war where neighbors are slaughtering each other. At least our soccer fields are still soccer fields. At least we can leave our houses and not get food only by sending out a runner in the middle of the night who, dressed in black, prays for invisibility. At least their aren’t snipers ringing our cities, ready to mow us down if we dare to open the front door. Looking at the people of Bosnia, not a one of whom lives unscathed, we took their lessons. …all of which is to say: the host at our guesthouse provided a tremendous and lovely breakfast each morning! And Bosnian coffee, for multiple reasons, is soul restoring. As our airport driver, Anis, told us: “In Bosnia, we love our coffee and have many cups each day. During the war, we missed it so much; we wanted it so much. So now, we have many cups each day.”
    4. Dating the Adriatic: The funny thing about Bosnia, geographically, is that it has only 12 miles of coastline (this is due to a convoluted historical agreement; read about it here). Due to this, people visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia engage in multiple border crossings since the Bosnian stretch of coast splits Croatia in half. No matter what country’s name is assigned to the coast, though, there is no denying that the drive is consistently breathtaking. In these next photos, you will meet my new girlfriend, and her name is Adriatic. We get each other. She’s holding my hand right now, in fact. Which is awkward ’cause I’m typing. *shucks off Adriatic in favor of QWERTY* 
    5. The roadside stands where all bottles were labeled with gold-penned script: They just kept coming, these stands did, along one stretch of road in, hmmm, was it Bosnia? It might have been Croatia (see previous mention of multiple border crossings in the same day). Let’s just say “former Yugoslavia” and call me right. At any rate, after we flew past the first twenty stands, we decided to pull over and see if there was any produce for sale that we hadn’t yet seen in the grocery stores; this strategy was loosely titled “My Queendom for Some Broccoli.” By the time we were done staring and considering and pointing and paying, we had a handful of bags and a lovely jar of Lemon-Lime juice, pulp a’floatin’.
    6. The Old Town in Sibenik, Croatia: Hey, look at this next one! I actually know we were in Croatia! I’m super sharp, see! To a one, the members of our family loved the historic apartment we booked in the heart of Old Town in the city of Sibenik. The streets are narrow, the vibe laid back, and the sculpted heads of benefactors decorating the facade of the cathedral totally rad. Even better: the crepe stand is open late, and when we initially couldn’t find the apartment, our host came out and stood on the street (“I will be by the cannons, wearing short blue pants made of denim”). Because I am a paragon of restraint, I didn’t even tell him that one of my mild-mannered husband’s most firmly held opinions is that men should not ever, no, not ever, wear jean shorts.
    7. The half-attentive waiter when we stopped for coffee in some random place, a guy with one quarter of one eyeball focused on our needs, a guy who failed to bring me the panna cotta I ordered, thus saving me from myself. Thank you, negligent waiter. I bet your panna cotta would have disappointed anyhow, especially because I would have gulped down huge mouthfuls of cigarette smoke with every bite, and even if the custard had been grand, I did JUST FINE WITHOUT IT. DOES YOUR ONE QUARTER OF ONE EYEBALL SEE ME BEING JUST FINE OVER HERE? I AM AN ACCOMPLISHED WOMAN WHO HAS GREAT EXPERIENCE DODGING FALLING PEACHES, SO WHY WOULD I NEED YOUR STUPID PANNA COTTA?
    8. Spontaneous finding of a cliff-side path: We loved Sibenik so much that it was hard to leave, hard to adjust our brains and hearts to the next location, in this case a “just fine” town named Senj. Again, in Senj, GPS got us within a few hundred meters of our booking, but after that, it took good old-fashioned rolling down the window and yelling to a frazzled-looking woman, “Do you speak English? No? Okay. Do you know where this apartment is?” while holding Byron’s phone up to her face. Important to any story such as this one is the fact that she didn’t know the location of Apartment Leona, nor did she know where Krcka ulica 2a Villa Nehaj, 2 kat was, but she did know an old guy in overalls across the street — did he have cement on his arms? was he building a retaining wall? was his name Grgur? — and so once she waved him over and three or four congregants had a lively discussion for a couple minutes, we received direction and the helpful advice of “big building” from Grgur and Frazzle, which allowed us to circle the streets a bit more before parking at a new apartment complex and wondering how we would ever know if we had arrived. Of course, as is the way 99% of the time with travel, it all worked out, and soon enough we were up a few floors in a spanking new IKEA-furnished apartment (Hey, Leona!), which actually proved a perfect counterpoint to the historical place in Sibenik. Even better was our discovery of a path running along the side of the cliffs edging my girlfriend. The ensuing ramble provided everything I could want from Senj.
    9. The food and fish in Piran: On the tip of a Slovenian peninsula is a town named Piran, a place described as “Venetian” since it’s just across the water from Italy and has, over its history, absorbed a great deal of culture from that neighbor. Since Piran is popular, it’s expensive, so we stayed in a hostel; the digs were rudimentary, but the guy at the front desk hooked us up with great recommendations, including one for the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and trust me, I’m a well-seasoned pro on the professional ice-cream-eating circuit. Piran also presented an opportunity for Allegra to use some of her gift money from friends Kirsten and Virginia — their urging being to use it for something in her travels that she would never do otherwise. Well. So. When we passed a shop where a few people were sitting comfortably on benches, having their feet nibbled by fish, it was a no-brainer. This was something she (and I) had always wanted to do, and it surely was something she’d never do without that money. Thus is was that the two of us sat, giggling, at 7 p.m., learning that this species of fish is originally from Turkey and lives for three years — although to be honest, one hungry guy took a look at my left big toenail and decided to throw his body out of the tank there and then. Most glorious of all was eating a cheap to-go dinner from a bakery while watching the sun set over Girlfriend.  
    10. Predjama Castle in Slovenia: So you know Rick Steves, right, O PBS Fans? And you either love him or hate him? We at our house decided some years ago to love him since our kid had taken a shine to his untroubled and informative travelogues. So we’ve all watched a whole lotta Rick Steves over here, and in our best moments, we sling a single backpack strap onto one shoulder, tuck a thumb into a belt loop, and make up closing-reel bloopers about public art. Hey, some families play banjo together; ours Rick Steveses together. Anyhoodie, one time Rick visited a place called Predjama Castle in Slovenia, and one other time, so did we. Built into the opening of a cave, parts of the castle itself constructed FROM the cave, the architecture of this place is stunning. Adding to its appeal is a system of tunnels running out the back so that residents under siege could still retrieve fresh food and toss a big nah-nah at their attackers. Most famous is a robber baron named Erazem who brazenly threw the pits from cherries at Fredrick III’s soldiers during a year-long siege. They got him in the end, though, as a servant sold Erazem out, raising a flag to notify the attacking troops when Erazem popped into the WC on the front of the castle. Fredrick’s men blew the bathroom to smithereens with a shot from a cannon, and Erazem never did get to finish reading that article about the best red-carpet looks at that year’s Oscars. Enhancing the wow of the castle itself was our lunch — goulash over polenta with a side of angel-pillow gnocchi– and our post-tour snack — cappucino and cream cake (kremsnita).
    11. Metelkova in Ljubljana: The first thing that struck me about Ljubljana was the graffiti EVERYWHERE. Every surface, from windows to walls to post boxes to light poles, has spray paint on it. The net effect is, naturally, somewhere between cool and grungy. Speculating about why this city seems to have more graffiti than any other place I’ve ever been, I announced, “I hope it’s a way of exerting freedom in a place that used to be quashed under authoritarianism.” I’m a real hoot to travel with, btw. Later that day, we did a free walking tour of the city with an excellent guide named Daniel (Me to Daniel at the end of the tour: “I told my kids that if you were my teacher, yours would be my favorite class.” See how well I follow my policy of Actually Say the Nice Things Out Loud to the People?). At the end of the tour, we lingered so as to ask Daniel a couple of extra questions. When I asked him why there is such an astonishing amount of graffiti in the city, he confirmed that, indeed, it is created by citizens expressing themselves after too many decades where they would be arrested if they so much as painted the letter “A” for “Anarchy.” (RIP, Sue Grafton) Continuing, Daniel noted that he doesn’t much like all the thoughtless, “do-nothing” graffiti, but he absolutely finds joy when it is art. Then he told us about a lesser-known spot in the city — “a former military barracks where artists began squatting after the fall of Communism” — and urged us to walk through it to get a taste of graffiti’s power when it’s done right. And so. At the end of our day, we found this artist’s community and wandered through. “Oh!” I thought, my heart filling. “Oh, oh, oh!” To see evidence that la vie boheme is thriving, that art triumphs over war, that the counterculture can be a force — well, it was the most beautiful balm.
    12. The fact that I can now spell Ljubljana without looking it up because I just say in my head “luh-jub-luh-jana,” and bam, all those letters line right up for me:
    13. And finally, perhaps most importantly, a major highlight for me of our trip to the Balkans was watching The Revenant on the flight home because I delight in any movie where Leonardo diCaprio doesn’t talk much:
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Finally Full

Two years ago, after weeks — nae, months! — of work, I finished writing an essay, and I thought to myself, “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written.”

So I started submitting it to various publications, hoping someone, somewhere, would like it, too. Would want to publish it. Would feel like my piece was a good fit for them.

Early on, the essay made it to the final round at a dream publication, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut.

For a while, I stopped submitting it anywhere. Then, I remembered how much I loved it and started sending it out again.

Last fall, after fifteen rejections, I got an email one night after teaching an evening class. There was this place. A literary journal. And they loved my essay about food that integrates bits of diary entries and snippets of letters. They wanted to publish it.

Guess what today is? Publication day.

It is with great excitement, then, that I shout, “Hey, guys, if you have a few minutes, maybe click over and read this thing! It’s been waiting for an audience for YEARS!”

Plus, maybe you need a feel-good moment. And while this essay might be about food, it’s actually a love story.

The full issue of Palaver can be read here, as a flipbook. My piece starts on page 89. 

Alternately, a .pdf of just my essay can be read here

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She’s Off


I want to tell you what love looks like.

She is 18, about 5′ 7″ with dark blonde hair to her shoulders.

Love looks like her, fresh sweetness driven by curiosity.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She is 46, about 5′ 10″, a brunette with tints of red.

Love looks like her, powerful directness fueled by loyalty.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She’s a horizontal 5′ 3″, maybe 80 pounds, but it’s hard to say since she hasn’t eaten in days.

Love looks skeletal and radiant in her hospital bed positioned next to the living room window, so she can live in the light as the veil between Here and There thins.

I want to tell you how blinding love is when these three versions of her are supported by the same laminate wood floors at the same time, one over by the living room window, her breathing shallow, her eyes half-open as she drifts in and out of medicated sleep, the other two facing each other near the dining room table. 

The brunette by the table has enough vigor for everyone, despite the exhaustion of walking slowly, over years, then days, now hours, shoulder-to-shoulder with her shallow-breathing wife as she eases to the next phase. The brunette by the table not only has vigor. She has a plan. 

The 18-year-old who has just been given a firm hug by the brunette does not know of a plan. All she knows is that she’s come for one last visit with the shallow-breathing love in the hospital bed. All she knows is that the first person to see the top of her head as it crowned its way into this world is now leaving it. All she knows is that she will be one of the last people to see the first person who saw her. All she knows is that something about this business of first and last smacks at the heart. All she knows is that being there for each other at the beginning and at the end feels like a rare magic.

“So,” says the brunette Kirsten to the teen who is on the cusp of three months of travels. “Here’s a deal I have for you. I’m going to slip a big swaaaaak of Euros into your pocket from Ginnie and me, okay?”

Not sure what is happening, the blonde Allegra nods uncertainly.

“And at some point while you’re in some far-off country, you’re going to see something that looks really fun — like something you’d love to do, if only you had the money. Like, it would be a great adventure, but it costs a lot, so you’ll just have to imagine how cool it would be. Except, see, you’re going to have this stack of Euros with you, and you’ve been told you can only use them to do something you otherwise would never be able to. So the whole point of these…” she trails off as she turns towards the dining room table and grabs a stack of colorful notes, “…is that you use them in memory of Gin…” — she tips her head towards the form in the hospital bed, the same form that was bitten by a lemur in Madagascar, that carried pails of ashes up and down staircases in a crumbling French chateau, that hugged a baby sloth in the Amazon — “…so you need to find an amazing thing to do, and when you throw this money at it, you will be taking Virginia on one last adventure, this time with you.”

Having explained the terms of the deal, the generous friend, auntie, wife, soon-widow pushes the money into the 18-year-old’s hands. The girl’s eyebrows lift as she nods. The terms are accepted.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like a stack of Euros with strings attached.

It looks like a blonde teen and a brunette chosen-auntie locking eyes for a brief moment as they acknowledge the lasting imprint the slight form in the hospital bed will leave on them both, with the lessons of generosity and gusto she modeled for them.

It looks like the tears in the eyes of a melancholy mother lurking two feet behind her teenage daughter who holds a stack of Euros in her hands; like the tears in the eyes of a grateful friend watching a pal make things possible for her girl; like the tears in the eyes of a grieving intimate who knows her beloved chum is days from death.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like four unsteady women united on a laminate wood floor, four women whose lives have intersected in profound and unpredictable ways, four women finding balance by leaning on each other.

I want to show you what love looks like.

 

 

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