The Best Laddie

I want to remember 16 because it’s as good as everything else has been.

He staggers through the front door, having just walked home from robotics practice after school, and in addition to the fully loaded pack on his back, he’s carrying a big box. It’s the new compost bin, delivered onto the front porch earlier in the day. When it arrived, after giving the huge parcel a test tug, I decided to leave it; the thing is ultimately headed out of doors, anyhow.

But he brings it in with him, the kid does, because he saw it there, and we always bring boxes in. He’s helping. When I call out a greeting and ask how his day was, he answers “Fine, especially walking home in the sunshine. You know what’s extra good today? The smell of sap coming from that tree across the street that blew down in the storm. The sap smell is –” He does a chef kiss towards the ceiling.

Before he came in, I’d been upstairs putting in eye drops, so as he speaks I’m wiping my eyes and, thanks to a raging runny nose, snuffling into a tissue. Following him into the kitchen, I complain, “Oh my god, bubs, but my nose is making me crazy today. I am blowing it every two minutes, and it won’t stop. I took the Sudafed thing we have, but it’s not helping at all.”

Pack still on his back, he turns and looks me over. “Could it maybe be allergies? Your eyes do look a bit red around the rims, and they are definitely watery.”

I explain the eye drops but concede it could be allergies although I’ve never had any before; I’ve been sneezing myself hoarse all day. What I’ve ascribed to a cold could, in fact, be spring popping. He squints at me and asks, “Have you used the Flonase that you shoot up your nostrils? That really helped me the other week. It really dried things up.”

Well, no. I didn’t know we had anything like that in the house.

His backpack hits the chair heavily as he eyes the still-frozen iceberg of soup in a saucepan on the stove. It’s been there since morning, gradually thawing, but still: it’s a ball of ice bigger than my skull. “Would it be okay if we start warming that up now? I’ll be ready for it soon.”

100% doable, pup. I turn on the burner under the soup at the same time he says, “Let me go find that Flonase stuff for you.”

In under a minute, he’s back, bottle in hand, peering at the tiny text on the label. “Now, I don’t remember how many squirts you’re supposed to do or how frequently you should take it, and we don’t have the box any more. I’ll look it up.”

He taps his phone a few times before announcing, “Two squirts, once a day. It might take up to 12 hours to start working. Shake the bottle first.”

While he’s been aiding me, I’ve been whittling the edges of the soup iceberg, trying to make it smaller. “Here,” he says, “I’m taller, so I can get a better angle on that thing.” He takes the wooden spoon from my hand and leans over the pot, stabbing at the mass. “Let me Excalibur this thing!”

I snort some stuff and then put on water for the broccoli. “How much broccoli are you going to want tonight? Just a bare covering of the plate, or a mountain?”

“I want one-third of what you make,” he assures me. “I love broccoli.” I ask if he wants parmesan grated over the top. “Oh, yes, I do. I do. Parmesan is delicioso!”

He’s over there, across the counter from me, head over his phone, when I remember. “Oh, hey! I need your skills. So my photo app has crashed and crashed and crashed all day, and I cannot figure out what to do. I restarted my phone, tried googling solutions, and I am flummoxed. I can’t even figure out how to uninstall and reinstall it. Help a mother out?”

The phone is already in his hands, getting triaged. He goes quiet as he assesses the patient, more focused still when he starts reading comments in help forums. “Oh, and also…” I remember something else. “Once you’re done with thinking over there, I have one more thing to tell you.”

Thirty seconds later, his curls tip up, and he says, “Okay, I’m loading something. So you can tell me the other thing.”

Quickly, I run down how I tried using yet another phone we have to access my photos earlier, and as I tried to delete files to free up memory, I ended up deleting them from his account, not mine, because we’d been using the same phone, and he’d re-directed the back-up to his account.

“That’s no biggie,” he says. “I was done with those videos anyhow.”

It’s a wonder, to be in the same room with this young man, a 6′ 2″ linguini noodle who refuses to have a problem even though, for another nine years, his thinking will be amygdala based, the prefrontal cortex a far-off dream.

Two minutes later, he announces, “There. Your app’s all good. Your photos are accessible.”

“Holy crap, Paco, but it’s going to be weird when you go to college, and I move to whatever city you’re in, just so I can show up outside your dorm and hand you my phone periodically. That’ll be weird, right?”

He smiles, just a smidge off kilter, meeting my eyes as he grins. “It would be incredibly fun; that’s what it would be. So fun.”

And in that moment, my eyes still a little wet from the drops, my nose dripping because that’s what it does today, blessings rain down upon my soul.

“It would be crazy fun, poppet. Think about it: Dad would show up at your place with a few freezer bags of soup he’d just made, and I’d always be stopping by with warm cookies…”

His smile grows. “I like soup. And cookies. I am on board with this plan.”

The iceberg has melted. The broccoli has softened. Hoisting his backpack once again, he loads his hands with bowl and plate — off to his room to eat while doing homework.

As he teeters out of the kitchen, he says one more thing — true to form even while awkward and balancing: “Thank you so much for helping with dinner. I’m so excited to eat!”

Somewhere deep inside our phones, people are shouting at each other. Two miles down the road, someone is getting bruised. In the next state over, a family has just lost its apartment. Across the ocean, people are unthinkingly selfish. A plane ride beyond, people cry for water.

But right now, right here, my heart thumping in concert with his footfalls on the stairs, I am witnessing a good thing.

If you care to share, click a square:

Stir Stick

Every few minutes, I wiggle toes inside boots and slap hands against thighs.

It’s cold — the kind of cold that makes hard work out passivity. I’ve been standing outside for an hour reading signs, and I’m frozen to the marrow.

January in Ukraine is serious business, the grey skies flattening landscape and mood, the sidewalks icy and treacherous. Before stepping out the door of my well-appointed hotel room, I’d had a bracing talk with the chandelier hanging over the queen-sized bed, looking to the ornate crystals for assurance that fleece tights under my pants would protect against the wind; that it was okay to step over the snoring homeless man who had set up a cardboard pallet on the landing between my room and reception; that my new map app would guide me to my goal; that the hungover smokers, empty beer bottles, and rotting garbage in the courtyard were welcome set decoration for a travel tale entitled “New Year’s Day in Kiev.”

Emotionally fortified, I had added a pair of socks over the tights, wrapped a scarf from chest to lips, snapped my new wool coat over a thick sweater, and crammed my beloved fur hat – the only thing to keep me warm in the steppelands of Eastern Europe – onto my head. The walk to Independence Square would only take twenty minutes, but since January 1st is a major holiday in former Soviet countries, I presumed businesses would be closed and planned to spend the entire day outside, exploring the parts of the city without walls.

An hour later, as I stand reading signs and tucking my hands into my armpits, I realize I was wrong: even on New Year’s Day, Kiev thrums. Certainly, some storefronts are shuttered, but the streets teem with people, and beneath the open air museum of Independence Square is, ironically, a shopping mall, every shop open for business on this first day of 2019.

Despite the cold, I am riveted by what I’m reading, warmed by outrage, annoyance, righteousness, the courage of the human spirit.

Initially, I am angry at news organizations in the United States for willfully failing the citizenry by neglecting coverage of major events around the world. Even the well-informed in America were largely unaware of the Euromaidan protests happening in this very square over the course of three months during the winter of 2013-14. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we hear about tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooding this public space – constructing a tent city; starting an Open University, a grassroots library, a whimsical post office; demanding the resignation of the president; battling against government riot troops known as the Berkut? Why had we in the U.S. ignored this inspiring example of cooperative public opposition? Had there even been a quick moment on CNN’s scrolling ticker announcing 130 deaths in Kiev?

I’m disappointed at my ignorance. How dare I think I have a right to any opinion about my own country when I know so little about the larger context of our shared world?

Moving from placard to placard in the square, I read details about the Maidan protest, learning of President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal, at the last minute, to sign an agreement with the European Union agreeing to progressive reforms; instead, counter to the hopes and values of millions of Ukrainians, Yanukovych put his pen to a treaty with Russia, in the process accepting a massive loan and aligning his country with Vladimir Putin’s version of nation-building. While many in the eastern part of the country favored Yanukovych’s decision, the overwhelming reaction from the rest of Ukraine was a sustained “NOOOOOOO.” On the evening of November 21st, 2013, the word went out over social media: We are gathering. We are organizing. We have had enough of this government. Together, we will say no.

That night, 2,000 citizens gathered in the square where I stand shivering five years later, setting into motion a revolution that changed the country. Over the course of three months, the number of protesters swelled, and as community infrastructures emerged within the tent city, so did creative liberalizing movements. A piano was brought in. Lectures were given. Music and poetry events were scheduled. Paintings captured moments.

At the same time, the serious business of anarchy was also at work. Molotov cocktails were prepared, eventually hurled. Security forces were formed, their members later becoming part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces when Russia invaded. The guns, tear gas, tractors, tires, chunks of concrete that would allow the protestors to push back against government troops were stockpiled.

As I move around the signs in the square, absorbing the story of the Maidan and trying to stay warm, my respect for the protestors grows with every toe wiggle and thigh slap. The protest grew, and eventually nearly 100,000 fed-up Ukrainians filled this square, claiming the public space as ground to fight for, even during the most brutal months of the year. Their anger, their principles, their passionate insistence that they were through with oligarchies rendered inane talk like “Gee, it’s cold today.” Their sustained, ferocious, life-risking commitment to their cause highlights, in contrast, the Lululemonization of recent U.S. protests in which white women forget not all pussies are pink — although they remember to set down their lattes long enough to snap a photo to post later that afternoon.

Such thoughts are unkind and unfair to American protestors, of course, as all activism is innately performative, and I snort as I accept that I’m an asshole on every continent. But still. Coming from a country that expresses its dissent through #resist and rage-tweeting in response to a rage-tweeter, I am profoundly moved by the Maidan, in awe of how authentic – beautiful, even – the occupation of this square was, extracting sweat, blood, flesh from its participants. The power of the place is upon me. I snuffle as I read firsthand accounts that were shared online after violent clashes erupted in February of 2014, affecting snippets that countered the government’s “official” narrative of bad seeds gone rogue.

It feels wrong to be standing by myself in this place, the site of powerful collective action. While solo travel gives me the liberty to experience things on my own clock, in my own rhythm, the Maidan makes me wish for a partner, someone with whom to lock eyes in shock and amazement. I know I’m blown away, but I wish my reactions were layered with those of others — that I had someone to exclaim to, a companion in awe.


My phone is in my hand; I’ve been taking pictures of the signs, knowing I will want to review them later. Almost without thinking, I open the family chat that has accompanied me throughout my months away from home and start typing to my husband and children – “The people of Ukraine wanted the democracy and benefits of being European, not a return to authoritarian oligarchy, as seen in Russia. So they protested. The president bolted to Russia. Official word was that there had been a lawless coup d’etat. Truth was that the people of a country used their bodies and power of protest to insist on democracy. It’s all very moving.”

I don’t have international data. These messages will dwell in the limbo of “Unsent. Retry?” until I find wi-fi.

It doesn’t matter. I just need to feel like I’m telling someone about this place.


In February of 2014, the Euromaidan occupation of Independence Square reached its peak when government forces killed at least 130 protestors, igniting deeper, more widespread outrage amongst Ukrainians. As clashes intensified and the community established in the square literally went up in flames, the balance of power tipped in favor of the protestors: President Yanukovych was “extricated” from Ukraine with the help of Vladimir Putin and installed into a new life in Moscow; charged with treason and violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, he failed to attend his trial in Kyiv in the fall of 2018 due to knee and spinal injuries sustained while playing tennis.

While Yanukovych has been honing his backhand, Putin has been asserting Russia’s desire to keep a grip on Ukraine. On the heels of Yanukovych fleeing, tanks rolled into the Crimean region of Ukraine and annexed it as part of Russia. At the same time, Russia began pushing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, a war which, according to the Brookings Institution, has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past five years.

As my brain processes what I’m reading, I step gingerly across icy patches, trying not to wrench an ankle as I mull over the profound and continuing costs of the Maidan protestors achieving their goals. The Russian-leaning president was ousted. A reform-minded president was appointed by parliament. The people had risen up, banded together, and given their lives for their nation.

Standing in front of the last sign, rubbing the tip of my nose to restore sensation, I am possessed by emotion, by a single blunt reaction to all I have just learned: what those angry Ukrainians did in the bitterly cold months of 2013-14 was so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

I will learn later from articles online that the impact of the Maidan went beyond ousting a corrupt president and rousing patriotism. For those who participated in the protests, the tip from passivity into action has had lasting consequences. One protestor, a woman who cooked for the demonstrators, Halyna Trofanyuk, reported to The Guardian that she was changed by the three months she spent living in the square.

“I used to be timid,” she says. “But you’d better not mess with me now. If necessary, I can get people behind me and convince them that you have to fight for what you need and not wait to see what others give you.”

People like Trofanyuk, people like the 130 who were killed by government troops, people like the man in a black ski mask who sat at an upright piano and banged out an incongruous song, people like the thousands of Ukrainians who heard something was going down in Independence Square – shit was getting real – and instead of watching to see what happened put on their hats and coats and added their bodies to the number –

Those people were so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

But it’s cold. My teeth are clacking. It’s the first day of 2019, not 2014. There’s a heated shopping center below my numb feet, a bright, shiny place full of coffee shops and bathrooms.

So.

I pull out my phone, readying it to connect to wi-fi and send those messages. I walk through the sliding glass doors of the brand-new mall. And I turn my back on the frigid power of Independence Square to step into the familiar warmth of capitalism and public isolation from others.

Upstairs near a jewelry shop with hundreds of diamond rings glinting from their perches on black velvet, I sit on a tall stool, stir a packet of sugar into my too-hot cappuccino, and consider

fury,

violence,

sacrifice,

revolution and riots as agents of change.

Gnawing on my stir stick, I consider all the many things the Maidan might make me believe in.

If you care to share, click a square:

Biblioteka

It all started with 23-year-old Lilya, a charming and ebullient worker in the Language Center at the university. One night, as she was sending me voice messages to practice her English, she went on excitedly about a recent purchase of some used books. In short order, she was telling me it was her dream to one day read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other classics in English — but that books in English are difficult to find in Belarus, and when they are found, they are unaffordable.
“Sweeheart,” I messaged her in response. “I brought a stack of novels to read while I am here. The decision is made: I am leaving them with you when I go.”

In her next message, Lilya was crying.
When I wrote about this interaction — and how I hadn’t realized how strong the desire is in Belarus to get hands on books in English — my friends and family, dedicated book readers who understand this passion, sprang into action.

From a variety of corners, there were offers: “I will send that sweet girl some books. What should I send?”

Within an hour, a box of books was on its way through Amazon Global. Within a few days, an envelope of books was in transit.
When I went into the Language Center to hang up my coat before teaching my weekly lesson, I slipped the first shipment of books next to Lilya’s laptop.

The moment she spotted them there, it was as though the sun had been hung in the sky for the first time. Lilya cried again. Her colleagues in the office gathered around appreciatively to admire and fondle each volume, slowly turning the pages, in awe at the sight of the words.
It was in that moment I started to realize something: it wasn’t only Lilya who was craving the opportunity to read books in English.
Then Olga, the director of the Language Center, said matter-of-factly, “It is my dream to one day start a lending library through the Center. We have so many students coming in and asking, ‘Do you have any books in English I can borrow?’ And I always tell them no, but that I hope one day we will have such a thing.”
CRIKEY.

You don’t have to tell me twice.
You love English? You love books? You have a visitor who loves English and books and who believes in very few things, but she absolutely believes in the civic good done by and the transformational power of libraries?
Oh, WE WILL GET YOU A LENDING LIBRARY, MY FRIENDS. There will be a lending library.
At first, I thought the library would be small, consisting of the 14 novels I brought with me for personal reading.
But then. Those generous-hearted friends and family in the States kicked into action. Some of those who were gathering books for Lilya realized they could make contributions that could have an even larger impact.
Over the next couple months, as boxes and envelopes of books kept arriving, I learned to negotiate the lines, bureaucracy, and language barriers at the post office.
And when the first stack of books was set onto the big white table in the Center, and Olga realized her far-off dream was actually happening, she cried.
The books kept coming — from a fierce former student who always gets the job done; from a purple-haired slayer in England (shipped twice because they were returned the first time); from one of my high school speech coaches who, in her retirement, breathes libraries; in the suitcase of a go-getter pal who came to visit; from a friend in Oregon whose compassion is built into her marrow; from a fellow blogger who said, after her first shipment arrived, “Now I’m going to send the John Lewis graphic novel trilogy”; from my neighbor across the street and a book group that has been meeting for more than 45 years; from my husband who collected and humped more than 50 books in his suitcase at Christmas time.
So the stacks grew. A plan was made for building a shelving area in a new, dedicated Language Center room across the hall from the main office.
As a few of us gathered the other day to celebrate and document the stacks of books — to appreciate the glory of this burgeoning library before I depart — we laughed, we chatted, we talked about books we have loved, we recommended books from the stacks, we peered over each other’s shoulders.

In a disheartening world of oligarchs, standoffs, violence, and petulant one upmanship, there was, during a half hour my heart will never forget, a small corner of the world where a group of readers rejoiced in the generosity and kindness of strangers.
So thank you, Deanna, Mia, Michelle, Sue, Jan, Shari, Mary Beth, and Byron.
And, of course: thank you, Lilya.

Because it all started with you.

If you care to share, click a square:

Tweaks

Alivaria Brewery

I was tired, but not so tired that my only aim was sleep.

Rather, I wanted a beer.

It was my first night in Belarus, and after having a wander through the neighborhood, I was ready to relax in my hotel room. Fortunately, there was a bar in the reception area, and the young woman working the counter spoke English.

“I’d like a beer. Could you recommend something?”

“You want something local?” she asked, well knowing the tourist’s answer would be yes. I nodded. “Light or dark?”

Um.

Either? Both? Yes? I do like light beers, so long as we’re not talking low-calorie — were we talking about low calorie? — and I do like dark beers. But for my first foray into this new country’s beers, how about…light? So long as “light” meant something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen. By “light,” did she mean something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen?

Shrugging, I committed. “Light.”

The server nodded. Then she complicated things: “Filtered or unfiltered?”

Um. Either? Both? Yes? What even did she mean? Immediately, I felt as though I should understand her question — I have toured a lot of breweries and listened to eleventy explanations of the beer-making process — but the truth was: she was saying words in English to me, and she obviously expected I would know what she was talking about, yet I was baffled. A veteran of beer ordering, a native speaker of the language we were using, I was completely lost in this conversation.

Seeking clarification, I asked: “I don’t know. What’s the difference?”

Responding to my question exceeded the limits of the server’s English; she looked panicked as she gestured roughly in the direction of the refrigerator and sputtered, “One is filtered, and one is not.”

Punting, I decided an unfiltered beer might have, uh, “stuff” floating in it while filtered beer would be more clear, so I veered towards a potential visual display: “Unfiltered, please.”

Later, I would order a filtered beer and neither see nor taste a difference. Even now, five months into my stay in Belarus, I am randomly following impulse when I answer this question that has been so firmly trained into service staff around the country.

Filtered? Unfiltered? Uh, sure. Whatever. This isn’t how we order beers in the United States, where decisions are based on type rather than color or filterage. It’s not that the English words used in Belarus are wrong; it’s just that their application isn’t what I’m used to.


So much about my time in Belarus has been surprising and overwhelming, in particular the way I have been made to feel not only welcome but “special.” The “special” comes from being a native speaker of English, a prized commodity in a country that has been largely closed off from the West. Because they are professionals who are invested in accuracy and quality, English teachers in Belarus crave interaction with native English speakers and seek out every opportunity to have even a short conversation. Even more, students are urged to pursue the opportunity to practice with native speakers whenever possible. At first, all this attention threatened to knock me over. But eventually, I realized: those who study English in Belarus are aware that the information in textbooks doesn’t necessarily align with actual usage. It’s only through contact with native speakers that they can weigh “textbook” against “real life” and tune their fluency.

As the resident native speaker in my city, I have fielded daily questions about English, and more of than not, the questions take me by surprise. I’ve had fellow teachers open the English textbooks they use in class, point to page 39, and ask me why the first example sentence demonstrating a grammatical rule I’ve never heard of is constructed one way while the next example sentence follows an entirely different pattern. I’ve had fellow teachers text me error-riddled sentences from the EU Educational Committee, sentences they are tasked with translating from English into Russian, to ask, “Are these correct sentences in English?” No, they are not. Before you translate those nonsense sentences into Russian, we’re going to need to clean up that English. I am asked about slang, verb tenses, idioms — and invariably, the questions make me consider things about my own language that have never registered with me before.

At one point, I fell down a rabbit hole after filming a video of various phrases for the language center when I felt compelled to research the verb “catch” and subsequently realized it is rarely intransitive; probably 90% of the time, it’s transitive — as in, it’s followed by a direct object (something receiving the action of the verb). It was only when I was asked to read aloud “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch?” from a prepared script that this interesting quirk of “catch” became obvious to me. As a native speaker, I knew the sentence wasn’t right; I knew I needed to add something like “that” or “what you said” after the verb. But before that moment, I had never caught this nuance of my own language.

Naturally, many of the usage issues that my brain flags are easily explained: Belarusians study British English, so it’s common to hear lift instead of elevator, lorry instead of truck, flat instead of apartment, marks instead of grades. However, over the past few months, I have realized there are some consistent uses of English in Belarus that are neither British nor American. They are uniquely Belarusian English — Belarenglish. The hallmark of these Belarenglish constructions is this: they are real English words, and technically they fit the context of the sentence, so the listener understands the intent. Yet, at the same time, the native English speaker’s mind hitches in a quick glitch — filtered or unfiltered? — before relaxing into comprehension.

Eventually, after quietly schooling a few visitors from the States whose eyes crossed as they tried to connect the words they were hearing with what the speaker was trying to communicate, I started making a list of these words and phrases. It wasn’t difficult. After all, I’d reached the point of speaking Belarenglish; by Month Four, I’d become so accustomed to the following usages that I’d adopted them myself.

  • Territory instead of land (For a native English speaker, territory implies a massive amount of land rather than, say, an acre.)
    • Belarenglish: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this territory for hundreds of years.
    • Native English: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this land for hundreds of years.
  • Hostel instead of dormitory (When I first arrived in Belarus and heard that many students live in hostels, I imagined a bunch of privately owned youth hostels, like cheap hotel accommodations; it was only after questioning that I realized these are university-owned and -run buildings: dormitories.)
    • Belarenglish: I lived in the hostel nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
    • Native English: I lived in the dormitory nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
  • Excursion instead of tour (For native English speaker, excursion implies a trip to a place, probably involving a vehicle and at least a few hours whereas a tour is a guided walk through or around a sight.)
    • Belarenglish: Can we arrange an excursion at the museum this afternoon?
    • Native English: Can we arrange a tour of the museum this afternoon?
  • Exposition instead of exhibition or exhibit (Does anyone else remember when there was a thing called a “World Fair” that was also tagged as an exposition? I feel pretty sure my family attended the 1974 World’s Fair — also known as Expo ’74 — in Spokane, Washington, but I’m also pretty sure that’s the last time I saw or heard expo or exposition used. Technically, according to Google, an exposition is a large public exhibition of art or trade goods. But when it comes to smaller displays within museums, English goes with exhibit rather than exposition)
    • Belarenglish: This exposition shows the artifacts found by archeologists on the territory of the university.
    • Native English: This exhibit shows the the artifacts found by archeologists on university land.
  • Faculty instead of department (Okay, this one is British English, I believe, but I want to highlight it as confusing for American English speakers; faculty for Americans means the individuals who teach while department means all the faculty who teach in a common discipline.)
    • Belarenglish: There are three faculties located at the campus in Polotsk.
    • Native English: There are three departments located at the campus in Polotsk.
  • Canteen instead of cafeteria (To an American English speaker like me, canteen harkens back to WWII as a place of dining and entertainment for soldiers; when it comes to the place where college or university students eat meals, native speakers use cafeteria or even dining hall.)
    • Belarenglish: I had some soup in the canteen between classes today.
    • Native English: I had some soup in the cafeteria between classes today.
  • Tormented to death instead of tortured to death (We saw this one on a sign in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk. It’s not a usage I have seen or heard elsewhere, but since it’s permanently placed in the biggest city’s most-famous museum, it seems worth noting that torment can result from torture, but torture is what kills. Either way, it’s awful.)
    • Belarenglish: The prisoners of war were tormented to death.
    • Native English: The prisoners of war were tortured to death.
  • Sanitarium (British spelling: sanitorium) instead of health spa or resort (To the native English speaker, the word sanitarium means a place for recovery from a medical problem, such as tuberculosis or mental illness, rather than a place one retreats to for rest and relaxation.)
    • Belarenglish: Our family goes to a lovely sanitarium at the lake for New Year’s.
    • Native English: When her test came back positive, Charlotte was sent to a sanitarium to recover and to keep her illness from spreading.
  • Marinated instead of pickled (When Granny preserves food from her garden in jars for the winter, these foods are then described in Belarusian English as marinated. A native English speaker would use the word pickled for the process these vegetables have undergone.)
    • Belarenglish: My mother makes too many jars of marinated squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
    • Native English: My mother makes too many jars of pickled squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
  • Write a test instead of take a test (This usage is another one where we Americans in Belarus initially thought it might be British English; for me, write a test is definitely something I have heard in my lifetime, but it seems old-fashioned. After checking with British friends, though, we discovered that write a test is not a phrase in common usage there, either.)
    • Belarenglish: I’m nervous today: I have to write a test in my math class.
    • Native English: I’m nervous today: I have to take a test in my math class.
  • Variant instead of option or choice (I hear variant used frequently here, in any situation where there is a choice to be made. For a native English speaker, variant implies there are at least two things that are different from each other, such as sanitorium versus sanitarium, where one is the American variant and the other is the British variant. In Belarus, though, variant is used for any of the options when there is a choice.)
    • Belarenglish: We will look at flats to rent today. I have lined up five variants for you to consider.
    • Native English: We will look at flats to rend today. I have lined up five options for you to consider.
  • Hometasks instead of homework (I’ve talked about this usage with other Americans who have lived and taught in Eastern Europe, and here is what my friend Sidney explains: “. . . hometask is a word originating as a direct translation from Russian and therefore linguistically specific to the Russian-speaking community.” Some of us here thought perhaps hometasks was a British usage, but Brit friends assure us it’s not. It’s very specifically a term used by native Russian speakers who learn English. Native English speakers use homework!)
    • Belarenglish: Your hometask for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.
    • Native English: Your homework for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.

The thing about Belarenglish is that it’s not exactly wrong. It’s just not completely natural. And it’s the space in between those points that a native speaker can help.


My second night in Belarus, I had a companion: another American Fulbrighter had arrived. Liz and I had dinner together that evening, and when we got back to the hotel, I offered to buy her a beer.

As we perched on tall stools, the server launched in to her script. When she asked “Filtered or unfiltered?” I was deeply gratified to see confusion flit across Liz’s face. Turning to me, she whispered, “What does that mean? What is a ‘filtered’ beer? What the hell is ‘unfiltered’?”

Speaking a language: it’s about more than using the words.


If you care to share, click a square:

From a Kindred Spirit

Below are responses to Allegra’s latest survey questions written by a woman who has become a great friend to me in recent months. She’s supportive, she’s attentive, she’s crackerjack smart, and we just GET each other. Will I ever forget that she drew me vowel charts to help me improve my Russian pronunciation? No, I will not.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

The teacher who has made the biggest impact on me is my sixth grade English teacher, Sarah. I have been privileged to have a multitude of amazing, impactful teachers, but in terms of sheer magnitude of impact there’s virtually no contest. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but over the course of my sixth grade year, Sarah invested in me and helped me find my voice in my writing. I must have been like a sponge at the time—with that attention and encouragement I just took off. Not only did her impact on me shape me academically, as I realized that I cared about school as a way to explore various passions and interests of mine, but it also shaped me personally. From there I started a practice of journaling that I’ve kept with me to this day, and I wrote constantly, from poems to nonfiction, from that point on. I got published for the first (and, thus far, only) time in eighth grade by winning a writing contest on the topic of treasured objects, in which I wrote about the journal Sarah gave me when I finished sixth grade and moved away. I even ended up going to the university I did because of this teacher. Having worked in education, we talk about how you never know what interaction you have with a student is going to be the one that sticks, so we try to be intentional about as many as possible. I clearly proved this to the extreme, because the reason I initially became interested in my university was not from a conversation Sarah had with me but from a conversation she had with another former student nearby where I was sitting. At this point I was about thirteen and still absolutely idolized Sarah. I still very much look up to her, but at the time it was far more utter idolization. Anyways, we were all working at the same summer camp, and she was talking with another former student who was on her way to Brown in the fall. From the conversation I gathered that Sarah thought rather highly of the university (which I had never heard of prior), and I ended up looking into it, liking it, and deciding I’d include it in the schools I applied to when the time came. And then I was accepted and chose to go there! Of course back in middle school I thought I was going to be an English teacher, as in the subject in school for native speakers. That evolved over time, and I ended up studying International Relations and Slavic Studies. But still somehow I’ve circled back to teaching English, just this time as a foreign language. So when I look back at the last thirteen years of my life, massive chunks of who I am and what I am doing are tied to this one teacher. And those are a lot of the best parts of me. There have been periods of months and years where Sarah and I haven’t been in much contact, but it always picks back up. I went through a hell of a summer this past year, and sure enough, there she was, reminding me I have a couch to crash on if I needed to get away from it all and spending hours on the phone with me, listening to the craziness, giving me challenging but important advice, and reminding me I’m stronger than I know. This answer is a no-brainer. As I count through the core tenets, experiences, and identity markers of who I am, I realize many would be radically different were it not for this one teacher. Perhaps some of that is simply a matter of timing—a bump in trajectory early on has the biggest impact much further down the line—but boy does it make a difference. And now nearly every week I sit down at the computer to a digital whiteboard/video conferencing system where I check in with Sarah’s daughter, nine time zones away, to tackle her schoolwork because life is funny and circular that way.


What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

I don’t feel like I have too many years under my belt as an adult with a solid sense of what I like and dislike in terms of music, so I can’t say this will earn the “lifetime favorite” title down the road when I have more data points, but I love “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire album is a favorite, but I find this song epitomizes the hauntingly beautiful narrative quality of the album as a whole. It’s also dear to me in that it’s the song that catalyzed my guitar playing. I had learned a few chords at various points in my life, but it’s when I thought, “hey, here’s a song with a strumming pattern I have internalized well enough to probably not screw it up entirely,” that I picked up my roommate’s guitar and tried to make it work. It was an achingly slow and painful first attempt, but I love that I can pinpoint this hobby back to that moment and this song in particular.


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

In a lighthearted or decidedly “speed-datey” conversation I am always a fan of the question: “Would you rather have muffins for hands or muffins for feet?” It’s one of those fallbacks that has no moral or logical basis, but I like to see the way people think through this. Do you say feet because you hope the muffin stumps will become stale and be somewhat easy to balance on in the long run? Do you value dexterity in your fingers or do you start imagining that this question exists within a universe where the muffins regenerate and you have a lifetime snacking supply?

With closer friends, I like to ask what’s bringing joy in their lives and what is weighing on them. I do a lot of catching up with friends since I have moved so much in recent years, and I like to ask this directly because people don’t always feel the floor is open to either brag or lay out what’s difficult. But in the end that’s what I’m interested in when it comes to knowing someone and making sure they know I care about more than the cursory details of their life.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I have a really hard time identifying a turning point in my life. My life has been a lot of turns, and a lot of beginnings. That sounds dramatic and overly poetic, but when there’s so much movement and so much left up in the air I am not sure which point to turn to. I’ve moved every year for the past thirteen years, and so maybe the turning point is ahead of me when I decide it’s time to take a break and settle in for a while. But I also wonder if it may be honest to say a big turning point for me was this summer, and I just haven’t walked far enough down this road to feel confident calling it a true turning point. However, if it turns out this summer was a turning point for me, it’s for this reason. I finally decided I was going to make choices for my life that would prioritize me and how I want to move forward. I dug deep and, backed by friends who spoke scary and important truths to me, found the strength to do what I wanted to do simply because I wanted to do it. So I’m not sure if this particular venture into teaching abroad will pan out, either short-term or long-term, but if this is a turning point it is one in finding the confidence and trust in myself to set and follow my own goals in life. 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

The word refunfuñar in Spanish is a favorite in terms of just being a fun word to say. Also it means “to grumble,” which is a good word to know when pushing beyond the basics of a language.

I also love the Russian word Tocka, that particular Russian melancholy, loneliness, or grief that’s just not quite translatable into other languages. I can be a pretty nostalgic person in general, but I like to think that the nostalgic pains I feel for my times in Russia and Belarus are separate from that General Nostalgia and are a little part of my heart that maybe approximates Tocka. I think of it when I remember walking the quiet, cool streets of St. Petersburg at 2am with the dawn already breaking, or when I recall riding a deep-Soviet-era bus puttering through the wintery forest of Belovezhkaya Pushcha, wiping the condensation from the windows to glimpse a bison out in the wild and wondering how my life ever led me to that moment.

I also love the German word Heimat. It’s another one of those words that doesn’t have a direct translation, at least in English. It means home, but in a way that is a specific to where one feels at home, not just where one comes from or how a social system might define someone’s concept of home for them. This has been particularly meaningful for me as I have quietly accepted that, at least for now, I feel at home in Germany in ways that I don’t in my home country. It affirms that feeling in me, in a way, to be in a country with a word that lets me know it’s okay to feel at home simply because it’s where I feel at home.

Also German has a word for “awaysickness,” in the same way that we (and they) have a word for “homesickness.” And the word for skunk translates to “stinkanimal.” And the word for sloth translates to “lazyanimal”! You can tell German likes to mush words together. I wanted to preserve that in how I noted them here. Okay, I’m done now. I love words.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

Two friends and I were working 55-hour weeks, and with only a day or so of preparation we decided to go to Yosemite. It meant a long drive for less than 24 hours and only one night there, but it was exactly what we needed. We got out of the city, got drenched by waterfalls, used what we knew from leading children in STEAM projects to cook our foil-packed meals, and sat by a rushing river for a while because it’s what we needed to recharge in the moment. I’m a planner by nature, which you can probably tell by the fact that this really isn’t that wild of a spontaneous story, but I’m glad I said yes to that last-minute trip.


What is your favorite sound?

I’m a sucker for the sound of powerful water, whether it be the aforementioned river, rain, or the ocean of my California roots. I love the sound of unencumbered laughter. And I love the sound of light conversation going on around me. I’ve fallen asleep on multiple occasions just hanging out with friends in a cozy room as a gathering extends late into the night, happily listening to them chat while not feeling any pressure to contribute in a certain way (or, clearly, even to be awake). By now you are probably well aware that I am generally incapable of picking a single favorite anything. This will likely not change. Favorite for me is a category, rather than a single unit. I’ve constructed my own meaning for the word—that’s how reticent I am to choose a favorite anything.


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

My dream vacation would miss the big cities. I’d have my boyfriend and/or a good friend or two at my side, and we’d hit the “in-betweens.” We’d hike greenways or cliff walks, because the nature in new places gives you a feel for the land from the bottom up. We’d get a lot of little bites to eat to maximize the reach of our culinary intake, and we’d also eat at someone’s grandparents’ place. Because if we’re talking dream vacation, we’d be connected with people from the places we’re going to. There would be slow mornings, and there would be the calm quiet of breathing in a place late at night when everything has settled from the day that’s passed. Of course there would be some museums and historical sites, but I also love just walking the streets of a new place. This past year I traveled with my boyfriend for the first time, and I was so happy to find that the two of us could just set out for the day with a couple destinations in mind and spend the rest of the time enjoying wherever else the streets took us. Perhaps our travels will become more organized or pointed in the future, but a dream vacation of mine includes a lot of time for unscripted discovery. I’ve also always said that my two tips for visiting a new place are to go to whatever place is the tallest, to get a view of everything, and to go on some sort of bike tour or excursion. You cover more ground than by foot, but it’s more up close and personal than a hop on/hop off bus tour.  


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

9. I think I’d become an expert in something artisanal, like baking or pottery. Both are hobbies I love, and there’s something to having a physical product as the result of expertise that I find so satisfying. But I would also be totally excited about being an expert in 20th century Soviet poetry. I’ve absolutely loved the times I’ve dived into that world, and I think I would love being an expert on that corner of the world’s writings.


If you care to share, click a square:

A Slice of Leslie

I met Leslie in July in Washington D.C. at Fulbright orientation, but in the flurry of those quick days, I didn’t get to know much about her beyond my observations that she is intelligent, poised, organized, and professional. It was clear why she’d been selected as an English Teaching Assistant (now living in the city of Grodno). In the months since the orientation, though, as we’ve shared so much of this experience in Belarus, I’ve developed a deep admiration for this fine young woman — whom we call “Good Mom” (contrasting with my highly appropriate tag of “Bad Mom”). She’s rad, Leslie is, and not just because she was the first to return a completed survey to Allegra.

Here. Meet Leslie.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

My favorite teacher in the world is Mrs. Bell from high school. I had her for 9th grade English and critical thinking skills, when I was desperately trying to be a “cool” kid. I remember vividly her pulling me aside telling me she was disappointed in my B for the first quarter because she knew I was being lazy and could do better. Her tough love was… tough in 9th grade, but I had her for 10th and 11th, and English soon became my favorite class. She taught me to write, analyze, think critically, public speaking, grammar, and so much more. She also helped me study for the SATs on her own time and was IB thesis advisor my senior year. I truly think that without her lessons and love I would not be the learner, worker, and thinker I am now. I’m still in touch with her on Facebook and meet up sometimes when I’m home in Tampa. 

What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

“Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root. I went to a summer camp in Colorado from age 10-17 and then became a counselor. Every Thursday was the all-camp dance at a big partially-covered area called the pavilion (pav for short). It was very PG but the perfect opportunity to dance with your camp crush. I was definitely in it for the butterflies from age 12-14, but then I did leadership programs with a small group of people who became my best friends overnight. Then, the dance was just an excuse to be crazy, to dance like you could never dance at homecoming or prom back home. As a counselor it was incredible to be with so many free spirits and amazing people, but also to see camp through your campers eyes. Anyways, “Send Me On My Way” was the last song that played at the dance before the closing campfire and it always played at sunset. They would blast Rusted Root and everyone would run down from the pav into a valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. There was no routine or special dance, we would all just run around dancing and hugging. This is probably the closest thing I have ever felt to magic. 


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

LOL I feel like living abroad + being in a sorority + being a smiley American has forced me to come equipped with an arsenal of questions. Honestly, I usually bring up food and my love for pizza to break the ice and get people talking. Everyone – no matter their level of English, background, age, or job – adores food.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I can pinpoint a few turning points in my life but I think the one that impacted my the most was going to Poland for my gap year. Not necessarily the “sexy” living abroad part, but I had the hardest few months of my life there. I was unhappy at my local school, gaining weight from only eating pierogi and potatoes, missing my family since I didn’t go home for Christmas, and it was the longest winter Poland could remember for a few decades. In retrospect, it was probably seasonal affective disorder, but I definitely was depressed but couldn’t identify it. Getting through those few months was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But I didn’t give up, I didn’t go home and I didn’t turn to any destructive habits. Now my mom and I joke that I can literally do anything after a “winter in Lodz.” Nothing seems as difficult as those months did. And I think that attitude has shaped the way I approach challenges. I’m not afraid and I don’t let the potential of discomfort or obstacles stop me (i.e. Belarus). 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

This is lame but I love the word przedsi?biorczo?? in Polish because it looks like gibberish to English speakers and has too many consonants next to each other. It’s not a cool weird, it means “enterprise.” I also love ???? in Russian. It basically means “crap” or “dang” but it literally means pancake. I just think that’s so cute.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

This is a cliche but skydiving. I was in Estonia and I was dating this U.S. army paratrooper (the guys who jump out of helicopters and planes). One morning we were talking and I was talking about how much I wanted to try his job, so he said “let’s do it.” So we called a place and he drove us to the middle of nowhere in central Estonia. It turned out there were no other newbies jumping, just a group of people with over 40 jumps each training to be instructors. They also spoke zero English, only Russian. The army guy bailed on the actual skydiving because he didn’t want to be attached to someone else (fragile masculinity, lolz). The plane was from like 1945 so I got in and was thinking “well, the only way I’m getting back is to jump because I don’t trust this thing to land.” The pilot let me sit in the cockpit and put my hand out the window. After the jump I felt high for the next two hours. It was amazing.


What is your favorite sound?

My favorite sound is the sound of wind rustling aspen tree leaves. You know, I had never thought about it until doing this survey but it came to me so quickly. 


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

Hmm dream vacation. I think backpacking in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park to be specific. I want to go with a group of friends or my dad. With my friends we can disconnect, bond, and sleep under the stars. My dad and I would play word games on the trail and cards at night. Some of my greatest memories are camping in Colorado with friends and family and I miss it. 


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

So I kind of hate the word “expert” because I think the more you study something, you should learn that you really can never know enough. I did my master’s in Baltic Sea Region Studies and after two years, I realized how little I know. I would love to become a go-to for the Baltic Sea region and American public diplomacy in the region. This region has my heart – despite it being cold, dark, full of impossible languages, and having a largely meat-based diet. Doing public diplomacy is my dream professional goal so to combine the two would be ideal. 



If you care to share, click a square:

The Latest Survey: Jocelyn’s Responses

As many of you know, Allegra has been making, distributing, and collecting surveys and responses since she was in the second grade. Now on break from her first term at college, she’s done it again.

Below are my responses to her latest set of questions. If you, too, would be willing to write up answers to these questions, she would be most delighted (and your words will one day end up in a well-organized three-ring binder!). Responses to the nine questions contained in this survey can be emailed to her: allegrapihlajaATgmail.com. Enjoy, and thank you!

What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

Lowell Gorseth was the teacher for Honors English my junior year of high school, and, like most of my peers in the classroom, I never got over him. We read good stuff in his class – not that I can recall, at this long reach, any titles specifically – and his was the first English class that asked me to research and integrate literary criticism into essays I wrote, which subsequently taught me how to look up and pay attention to the persnickety rules of citing sources and typing footnotes and a bibliography. When I think of Mr. Gorseth’s class, I remember being in the public library downtown, pulling volumes of criticism off a shelf located on the second floor at the top of a turning staircase. And I remember being in the library of what was then Eastern Montana College, again trying to find sources to use in essays for Mr. Gorseth. I didn’t really understand how to maximize my use of the outside sources, nor did I necessarily see how it was making my papers better to use other people’s words, but I was going to fulfill Mr. Gorseth’s criteria and pretend to be confident as I did it. Memorably, I wrote a paper about Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, pulling from lit crit to support my points; I can still feel the slow-motion swoon I went into as I discovered O’Neill and realized I was getting and loving something like “adult” writing. When I found that essay in a box in the basement a year or two ago, I was surprised when I re-read Mr. Gorseth’s comments. His feedback had an eyebrow raised, and his tone in those comments was almost brusque, certainly not impressed. For someone like me, tough feedback would usually be the thing I let dent my heart, yet somehow, when I think of writing that paper, all my memory has retained is how crazy I was for Eugene O’Neill and how much I adored writing about his play. That Mr. Gorseth’s comments didn’t lodge negatively into my psyche is perhaps the greatest testament to his ability as a teacher. He didn’t put on the shine when giving feedback to me, a notoriously sensitive weeper, yet my memory only stored how much I loved that writer, that assignment, that teacher.

So what was Mr. Gorseth’s magic? Well, he was funny. Also, he pulled a student desk to the front of the room and sat in it, on our level, during discussions – not standing to lecture or sitting behind the teacher desk. He did random accents, notably a German one. He made all the kids in the room feel like he saw them as people. His standards were high; pap would not pass. He had a recliner chair in the corner of his classroom, and nearly every day during my final two years of high school, I would get up at 5:30 a.m., apply too much baby blue eyeshadow, drive to the high school around 7-7:30 a.m. (getting there before most everyone else meant I didn’t have to experience the trauma of walking past the line of guys on Jock Rock who rated girls as they walked by), shuffle some books in my locker, and then plop myself into the safe haven of that recliner. My friends knew where to find me when they got to the school; there was certainly room for more than one rear end at a time in that chair. And always, there was Mr. Gorseth, floating in and out of the room as he prepped for his work day, smiling at me and my eyeshadow, asking questions, joking around. He even took it well when his students realized he looked eerily like cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and made xeroxes of the faces of Dahmer and Gorseth next to each other, hanging those xeroxes on lockers around the building.

As you well know, I became an English teacher. It would be precious of me to act as though I chose this career because of Lowell Gorseth, for I never distinctly wanted to be a teacher; it’s a profession I fell into because it seemed a way to use my love of reading and writing to earn a paycheck. However, there is this: in about my 9th or 10th year of teaching college English, I was asked to mentor a high school English teacher in my town because he would be teaching some college classes to high school students (Minnesota has a program that allows high school students to earn college credit). This high school teacher was named John Alberts, and when we first met and started learning about each other, I discovered his then-wife, Rhonda, had grown up in my hometown of Billings, Montana. Her maiden name had been Gorseth. Her dad, who had passed away a couple years previously from a brain tumor, had been named Lowell.

When I eventually met Rhonda, I burst into tears and dove for a hug. “Your dad was the teacher of my lifetime,” I sobbed. “He provided such brightness in those tangled teenage years. He helped me love literature and writing, and look at me now, teaching those things.”

Rhonda was crying, too. “I have met so many of my dad’s former students, and they always tell me how much he affected them – how he was their favorite teacher. He was just my dad, but I am constantly reminded that he was more than just my dad.”

What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

The idea of “lifetime favorite” makes me want to reach way back to childhood and find a song that has stuck with me for 40 or more years. Sure, there are many songs I have loved for a long time, like Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. And if we’re talking about a song that I have heard a million times yet never get tired of, well, I will go ahead – predictable as it may be – and tell you that “Purple Rain” has never failed to raise goosebumps on my arms. It remains powerful for me even on the thousandth spin. Another song I can play ten times in a row and then play again is “Within Your Reach” by The Replacements. Similarly, the joy of “Be Good” by the Hothouse Flowers has never dimmed.

But, okay, if it’s a lifetime favorite song, and I’m reaching back to childhood, my mind goes to tunes noodled out on the piano. There was “Nadia’s Theme,” which my sister and I desperately wanted to play well and which now causes me to stifle laughter when it fills the room during yoga class in this Russian-ish place of Belarus. As well, there was “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills. But rather than choose a cheesy 1970s hit tune as my song of a lifetime, let’s try another.

When I was four years old, a baby grand piano was delivered to our house at 3030 Forsythia Boulevard. With Grandpa Don being a voice professor, the piano was an important tool for him to give private lessons to students. Plus, he and GramMax hoped we kids would learn to play.

Once the delivery men had oomphed that beast into the living room, my dad sat down on the bench and played a few notes. Nearby, I hovered. He patted a spot on the bench next to him, and after I clambered up, he taught me my first song on the piano. It used only three keys: C, D, E. There were words: “Here we go/In a row/To a birthday party.” That tune still runs through my head sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

A few decades later, when a piano was deposited into our house and the work men left, you sat next to me on a bench, and I taught you that same song. C, D, E/C, D, E/D, C, D, E, C, C. And there we went, to a birthday party.

Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

Jeezus. You know I have about a hundred. This is tough. Okay, my favorite such question, because it always yields a good twenty minutes of response — longer if I can work in follow-up questions – and because it always ripens the connection between everyone at the table, is this: “Tell me your life story, starting with ‘I was born . . . ‘.”

Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

When I was 31, I was dumped in a way that shattered me completely. I was sure I’d never find love or have kids. Then Cousin Kurt messaged me and told me about a guy he worked with, asking if he could serve as my “agent in the field.” Without much hope, I shrugged and said sure.

In a couple months, it’ll be 20 years since I clapped eyes on your dad for the first time. His intelligence, steadiness, appreciation for who I am, and ability to live without resentment changed my everything.

What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

Currently, it’s

which is the Russian word for “sea buckthorn.” Sea buckthorn is HUGE in Belarus; there are juices, teas, lotions, chapsticks, oils, and on and on. In the last few days, due to a tip from Alana, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant here in Belarus, I have been rubbing sea buckthorn oil on my face in the hopes that it makes me look young enough to be wearing baby blue eyeshadow in Lowell Gorseth’s class again.

Certainly, I love this word because I love the stuff made from it, but also: I love this word because it’s so fun to say “abla-pika,” which I am able to remember because the first half sounds like the Turkish word for “sister” and is commonly used on the streets to address strangers, and the second half sounds like the first part of “Pikachu,” which reminds me of Paco when he was younger and was into Pokemon. When I first came up with this pneumonic device, another ETA, Leslie, gave me the tip to soften the pronunciation of the “k” so that it’s almost an “h” sound. She gave me this tip at her kitchen table shortly after she’d crushed berries into hot water for the two of you to sip as evening tea.

Thus, whenever I say this word, I think of Turkey, and I think of Paco, and I think of how much the four ETAs here in Belarus and I have gone crazy for all things sea buckthorn (with Kate messaging about how the oil is “the perfect blend of good fats” and Liz giddily reporting she bought a heap of berries at the market), and I think about how you, dear Leggy, immediately tapped into the craze for it and loaded up with shampoo and conditioner and lip balm when we visited the Soviet-era department store, GUM.

When I think about the word

I think about all my many families, in all their many forms, and then I am full of wonder at this life I’ve lived, and that’s some powerful stuff right there.

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

In college, I would sometimes head out for class, get halfway there, be possessed by a feeling of “Nah, not feeling it,” and turn around to head back to the dorm. In other words, my every day for 51 years has been ruled by spontaneity, so this might be an impossible question for me to answer. I hate plans. I hate having to be somewhere at a certain time. I hate expectations. Spontaneity feels much more natural and right. That’s why your dad knows that if I’m not home around the anticipated time, it’s not that I’m in distress but, rather, than I decided to turn left instead of go straight, and like as not, I’m having a chai latte with someone I’ve only talked to twice before.

I do want to give you a real answer, though. Let’s go with this: last time I had a sabbatical, and we’d been working for months to hammer together a plan for living abroad, with possibility after possibility falling through, there came a moment when my husband’s father’s boss’ daughter said, “Hey, you should come to Turkey for a year,” and without too much thought, your dad and I looked at each other and agreed, “Hey, yeah, we should go to Turkey for a year.”

Following that impulse provided us with a seminal experience for our entire family. Not a day goes by, still, when we don’t feel the effects of that spontaneous choice.

Add this to your Journal of Maternal Wisdom: “Don’t plan your way out of potential adventure.”

What is your favorite sound?

The quiet whoosh of a page being turned.

What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

We had just such a vacation when we went to Çirali on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Our year in Cappadocia was so rich, so lonely, so amazing, so taxing, as were our various travels around the country, with us trying to wrap our heads around “What even is this place?” When we headed into Çirali, we had no idea that a one-road town next to sparkling water was exactly what each of us needed. Dad needed a break from three cups of tea with guys he couldn’t talk to every time he went to re-up our bottled water order. I needed a break from the village ladies sitting on the curb eyeballing me whenever I went out for a run. You needed a break from crying through math homework during homeschooling. Paco needed a break from every part of regular Turkish life – since his seven-year-old self had decided the first day he hated the place. Those days floating in the waters of the Mediterranean, exploring the ruins of Olympus in our still-wet suits, eating gozleme with lemon and powdered sugar…well, they were my dream vacation. I just needed you three and a departure from the regular. That was all.

If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

I’d like to be a really, really good writer, but getting there is a life’s work; these days, I’m galumphing around the hinterlands of Good Writing, trying to tame my gait. As someone who gets weak-kneed in the presence of a well-wrought sentence, my smaller goal is to write the occasional fine sentence. That’s some hard work – because it’s not just about the words and how they’re ordered but, rather, about the thinking distilled within them. So let’s put a finer point on this: I’d like to become an expert thinker and figure out how to convey that through vocabulary and syntax.

Alternately, it would be cool to master some craft where there’s a physical result that can be displayed. All my best life gifts are “soft” and not so easily seen – “comfortable with public crying” doesn’t make for a gallery show – and so I might enjoy the feeling of making a thing, a physical thing, really well. Maybe I can become a master weaver who makes her first kilim at age 60.

Or maybe I could bang out a badass butter churn.

For a third alternative, because you didn’t give me a word limit, there’s this: I would love to be an amazing dancer, the kind who is crazily talented and attuned to how the finer nuances – a shoulder pushed an inch higher, an arm flinging left while the foot steals right – create greatness. This can happen in any genre, but since I’ve been obsessing over the dancing of Comfort Fedoke on Instagram the past few days, let’s go with the kind of freestyle street dancing she does. Fedoke is a back-up dancer for Missy Elliott, but she’s also able to make her feet write in cursive along the line of a shadow and tell a tall tale with steps that describe new spaces inside a crew battle circle.

Yeah, let me be a Comfort.


If you care to share, click a square:

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.

—————————————–

If you care to share, click a square:

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.

_________________________________________

 

If you care to share, click a square:

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.

If you care to share, click a square:
Translate »