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On My Mind

Favorite Stuff of 2019

Ukraine. Wanting to use the remaining allowed “out of country” days during the last weeks of my Fulbright term, I rang in 2019 in Kyiv, visiting on January 1st the incredibly moving Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), wandering the city’s churches, snagging a taxi to a folk park, and taking a painting lesson in the decorative Petrykivka style — before hopping a train to the lovely city of Lviv for another handful of days. What I saw of Ukraine during those days of solo travel made me want more time there; it’s a scrappy, corrupt, charming, complicated place. We recognized in each other some mutual traits.


Belarusian women. As the clock ticked down on my time in Belarus, I was reminded again and again how welcoming and kind the people of Polotsk are. From the day arrived to the day I left, the women (English teachers, university staff, students far and wide, exercise buddies) embraced me — “You can call any time!” “Let me know how I can help you!” “We are so lucky to have you here!” — in a way I haven’t always experienced in the States. The five months in Belarus provided a fundamental internal reset that I’m trying to carry forward.


Belarusian street fashion. Picture whiny blondes in plaid pajama pants pushing carts at Walmart, and feel the shame. Belarusians understand the impression imparted by and self-esteem that comes from making an effort with appearance. (HI DO I SOUND LIKE A BOOMER I THINK I MIGHT SOUND LIKE A BOOMER) All I know is my neck got sore from the head swiveling as I ogled coats and boots.


The wooden houses in Polotsk. Yes, I know you’ve seen them. I know you’re over my Belarus time already. But, jeezus Colton, could you relax for a half-sec, raise your head from your joy stick, and let your soul smile at the picturesque?

Everyone who’s been to Eastern Europe now wants to ask knowledgeably, “Is that a Lada?”


The dramatic farewell enacted by the mural on my Polotsk apartment ceiling. The mural was sad, see. ‘CAUSE SAD ANGEL.

A singular relationship


Leaving something behind. The lending library so many of my U.S. friends and family helped to start in the Language Center at Polotsk State University moves heart to throat every time I think of English language learners having a heap of books to choose from.

More books have been sent since. And more books can still be sent. *cough cough*


Coming home. Belarus was intense. I was broken up about leaving the lovely people yet so glad to be home. For about five weeks, I dipped my head over jigsaw puzzles and stayed in the house, exhausted from So Much, but then, slowly: I rejoined the world.


My pal Christa. I’d never met her before 2019. But a mutual friend connected us online when I was in Belarus, so the friendship germinated through messages; we’d been going to the same yoga class for years but never spoken. It was only this year I found out her nickname for me and Byron in the class has long been “puppies under the blanket.” Tip to toes, Christa is a peach. She feels like a friend I’ve loved for decades. We read the same books, we do exercise classes together, we message constantly, and few sounds are sweeter than her big, dumb laugh. As life goes on, it gets harder and harder to find new Friends of the Heart, but Christa effortlessly became one.


Salon joy. Getting my hair cut has never been my favorite thing — egad, can I please just read this magazine and not have to make small talk? can we please just get this over with? do you actually feel good about sending me home looking like this? Ah, but then I started going to Adeline a few years ago, and since then, visits to her charming salon make me feel like I’m a character in a Netflix series named Shags — during Season One, Adeline dances wildly to Lizzo, hosts pop-up events, organizes community action, masters razor cuts, and mentors up-and-coming stylists, all while her trusty assistant, Kristina, keeps a lid on the place while wearing fierce earrings.


Statement earrings made by creatives. A side benefit of Adeline’s salon is the earring bar conveniently located on a glass case by the check out. The wild and joyous earrings I saw there introduced a slew of local and regional artists who are pushing back against the dull mindlessness of mass fabrication every time they cut-pound-squeeze an idea onto a stud or a loop. And now I’m on a constant hunt for jocund jewelry.

Working a Pledge Drive. This is my seventh year on the Board of Directors for the public tv station in Duluth, the year when they looked at me and thought, much as they would of war, “Jocelyn, huh, good god, y’all. What is she good for?” The answer to this question involved a screen test followed by a bunch of hours in which I asked for money in exchange for cookbooks. I was super nervous. And, as is usually the case when I do the thing I’m nervous about, it was super fun. Sidenote: teleprompters aren’t for the faint of heart. WHAT’S THE NEXT WORD I CAN’T SEE THE NEXT WORD IS IT DONATE MAYBE IT’S GALLIVANT

Had I been stationed on the kitchen set while on air, I’da made you a Julia Child omelet for a one-time five-dollar donation

DON’T…WHAT???


Instagram Stories. While my favorite multi-segment video Stories of the year revolved around the diaries of my great-great-grandmother, Minerva, and those of her eldest daughter, Ella, there’s also good fun in recreating the dynamics of a Spin class. Especially if there are oranges in the house.

That’s me, the ginger in the egg cup hiding in the back row

Minverva Baker Haddock gave birth to ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Her diaries are mostly about “doing the work up fine”


Gin’s ashes. Virginia Claire Larsen died in May of 2018, and when her ashes were returned some months later to her widow, Kirsten invited me to accompany her to Europe to scatter bits of our beloved in certain spots Gin had treasured. Beyond that, we also tossed her hither and thither — in the corner of a hundreds-of-years-old pub, in the cellar of a monastery, off the side of a bridge. With the bulk of her well interred or swirling in the wind, we finished The Distribution of Virginia in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague, a place that seemed fitting, given her interest in learning Yiddish (she took classes) and the deeply important relationship she had throughout her life with a Jewish couple who’d escaped death during WWII.

The afternoon light was soft when we dribbled Gin from a Ziploc onto a gravestone, dumped a bit of her in the dirt, poured the dust of her onto a fountain shelf. When the bag was empty, the world around us muffled, and up she floated, bits of her becoming circling motes in a patch of sunlight. Lazily, hanging over the cemetery, she drifted toward the sky.


Speaking to crowds. I know it seems odd, given that I’m in my 29th year as a teacher, but I do not enjoy talking in front of an assembled group. The prospect of it makes me cold-handed and anxious, even sick. Yet opportunities for public speaking keep cropping up, and I keep saying yes, so on some level, I guess I get something from the process of worrying, planning, and presenting. Even more, I feel the like an important part of aging well is continuing to tackle challenges, which is part of why I say yes when my brain is screaming no.

I’m very glad I said yes to Adeline one day when she was making magic with my hair; she’d asked me to participate in her monthly community storyshare event, Gag Me with a Spoon. Before the year was over, I’d gotten on that stage three times, once in a dual performance with pal Christa (We told menstruation stories, and I’m still haunted by the image of a well-used tampon as a dead mouse, so thanks for that, Lawler), feeling more confident each time. I also was asked to be on a panel about “Life’s Curveballs” at my college reunion to talk about the Belarus experience; then a month later, I sat on another panel, this one in front of hundreds of outgoing Fulbrighters at their pre-departure orientation in Kansas, to speak about health and wellness while abroad (“Pack some taco seasoning packets for a special dinner on the dark days,” I counseled).

Each time I’ve hoisted my shaking frame in front of all those eyes, I’ve had to dig deep, square my shoulders, and remind myself: You got this, Jocey. The worst thing that can happen is you act a fool or they hate you. And, girl, you’ve already felt both those things in life and managed to carry on. So open your mouth and let something come out. It might surprise you.


Students. This fall, there were these two firefighting students in my night class, one guy always bringing his rope and giving impromptu lessons in knot-tying to the other. At one point, the knotty guy pulled a classmate across the floor in a demonstration of how a body can be removed from a crisis scene. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp class.

In the same class, a mother of two told me she had to miss one evening to attend a holiday gala at a fancy mansion. I told her she’d be forgiven if she sent me pictures of herself all gussied up. She obliged. Except she forgot to send a photo of the shoes she wore. We came to an agreement: if she wore the shoes during the final exam, all would be well. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp student.

Then there’s the fact that a brand-new class I’d prepared, Creative Nonfiction Writing, had low enrollment and was in danger of cancellation. In a last-ditch effort, I posted a plea for students on Facebook. After more than 100 comments, some realities shook out: ten people, not community college students but, rather, friends from my college years, co-workers of those friends, a former Belarus Fulbrighter, a friend from Byron’s years at Wolf Ridge, and even parents of friends, signed up for the course. The numbers were good enough to save the class. That in itself made my heart swoop. But then the actual class happened.

Week after week, the mix of ages and backgrounds created a dynamic like I’d never seen before. For the standard, degree-seeking community college students in the class, there may have been a few weeks of “What the hell?” as they looked at the writing and work habits of those a bit more — ahem — advanced in life. I venture to say their learning experience was boosted as they realized a world exists where the instructions “write 100 words minimum” simultaneously means “you can write 3,000 words if you want.” The mash-up of people in the class yielded something rare and special in terms of the trust and safety we all felt with each other. As the writers mined their life experiences, I was inspired. In one case, after reading the story of a 77-year-old student’s childhood in International Falls, Minnesota, and how she regularly walked across the border into Canada for all sorts of goods and services not available in her own town, I decided I wanted to do that, too. So, one brisk November evening while in International Falls for other work-related business, I did it. I walked across an international border. And on the way back, I carried a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts for several miles, declaring them at the border as I re-entered the U.S.

One particular student registered for the class a few days before the start of the semester after I’d happened upon him, a worker in the campus’ new greenhouse, when out for a walk with a colleague. This worker and I talked for a few minutes about the college’s Eco-Entrepreneurship Program before he asked me about my teaching. In no time, I was giving him a hard sell on the Creative Nonfiction class. By the end of that day, he’d dropped a course he needed for his major and enrolled in the CNF class. This young man, Adison, is an extraordinary person and an equally fine writer (in future weeks, I’ll be featuring some of his and his classmates’ writing on this blog!). When, part way through the semester, I messaged him to ask if he’d ever consider sharing something he’d written for class at Gag Me with a Spoon, he was open to the idea.

The night when he stepped onto the stage and read his piece “What They Don’t Tell You about Hitchhiking” was special in a lot of ways. Most of all, for me, it was a crowning moment from The Little Class That Could — the class that could survive cancellation, pull together a diverse group of randoms, and ask them to commit to the process of putting their lives into words. That class was the best teaching experience of my career.


Fluevogs. When you wear great shoes, you gotta get the photo. There in the tub, I “did the work up fine.”

Relatedly, a student blew my heart open when she wrote — in her comparison/contrast essay about her English teacher versus Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus series! — “Jocelyn’s clothes are a perfect yin yang balance of tweed style mixed with surrealism.”


Books. I read ’em. I love ’em. Very rarely, though, do I give out 4- or 5-star ratings on my Goodreads. Here are some that made that cut this year.


The lake. My feelings about Duluth and Lake Superior are ripening with each year we live here. Every single time I clap eyes on that massive expanse of water edging the city, I have to stop for a second and breathe in the g.d. majesty of it.

Byron and I had a great time walking home from downtown on the frozen lake

In the summer, I chase Himself around while he swims

THIS IS MY CAFTAN AND IT DESERVES A GREAT BACKDROP

Hey, Slick. Didn’t see ya lounging there

When I picked Paco up at 11 p.m. after a McDonald’s shift, he asked if we could drive down to the beach to look at the moon. No, you can’t have him


90-Day Fiance. It’s a regular thing for me to become addicted to crap, but the fact that Byron is, inexplicably, all in on the nonsense of this tv franchise has been a huge delight in recent months. Now, when I exclaim things like “The shitshow that is today reminds me of when Darcey arrived in Amsterdam and got her Louboutin heel stuck in the escalator at the airport,” Byron understands the reference. A show about idiots desperate for ill-advised marriage has brought a greater level of percipience to my own.


Reunion. How to convey the lasting effects of the best choice I’ve ever made? (…save for ending up with the aforementioned 90-Day Fiance watcher — and that didn’t feel like a choice so much as an easy trust fall into yes.) Let’s try this: Starting in my junior year of high school, all these colleges kept mailing flyers and brochures, somehow having discerned that they were the places I should want to be once I graduated from high school. Because it felt wrong to toss potential into the garbage, I kept all those mailings, shoving them into a shoe box that I kept in the basement by the tv that brought me Sting singing “King of Pain.” At the same time the shoe box was getting heavy, I was obsessed with Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook and thus strongly favoring college applications to East Coast colleges where I might learn to wear headbands and plaid like a native. Alternately, I toyed with the idea of a West Coast college, where I could try “smoking grass” amongst ferns and loaves of sourdough bread. But then, as a kind of compromise, a third option gained traction: what if I applied to this one college that was still far enough away — roughly a thousand miles — yet somehow close enough? What if I sent in an Early Decision application to “the Harvard of the Midwest”?

And so I did. The rest would wrongly be dismissed as history — since the experience of that place exhales a daily, very alive, breath even yet. The way that I think, the values I hold, the people I treasure — all came from a semi-random decision to attend Carleton College.

My class had its 30th Reunion this summer, and as we all put feet on those grounds that absorbed our stomps toward adulthood, I felt more myself than I do anywhere else in life.

Plus, I got to follow my daughter around for a bit while she, a student worker, someone who applied Early Decision to a place that felt like Home, counted heads on an architecture tour.


This painting. Out of nowhere, it showed up in the mail one day. It was from my friend Tim, who also happens to be my favorite artist. What the…??? I was tipsy with excitement, flattered to my follicles. Later, Tim explained that he’d been thinking about our college reunion and the various people who’ve populated that place. Although much attention is given to the “big names” who graduated or taught there, he decided it would be more meaningful to celebrate someone who’s a mother and a teacher and a smiler — someone lesser known who still embodies plenty of admirable traits.

Hey, you guys? I love Tim.

Hi, my name is Joceypants. But you can call me Ms. Frizzle


Puzzles. There’s that thing about challenging the aging brain. There’s also a thing about how working on a puzzle transforms head space into a calm, abstracted place of focus. When I am working on a puzzle, I am engaged in a deep, intimate relationship with shapes and images — a necessary break from words and people.


The Tommie Twilight 5K. In high school, our girl didn’t particularly like track. She’s a cross-country runner at heart. But now, in college, she’s enjoying track more. Last spring, she had a really good race one week, setting a new personal record for herself. And then. The next week, she raced the 5K again — and whittled almost a minute off her time from the previous week. When a quiet person beams, it’s like a shout. After the race, her face was shouting. Even more, I’m so glad my friend Mary Beth came to watch the race with me that night; she saved me from crying on a stranger’s shoulder when Our Fierce Leggy rocketed over the finish line.


Y peeps. There’s a place I go lots of days, and it’s a place that keeps me steady and sane. There are regulars, and there are drop-ins, and through it all, there is something like community, in this place where we’re all just after being our best selves, a place where we never have to go to meetings or worry about whispers in the hall. That place is the YMCA, and I’m ever so glad I’m a Young Christian Man.


Internet. Thank you, Al Gore. Your invention makes me laugh on the daily.


Teens in the kitchen. They are smart, quick, funny, and kind. I love teens. I love them better when they’re in our kitchen.

Sis and her brownie spoon will Tell. You. About. It.

Not a nubbin of pasta left after the crew of, uhhhh, seven boys finished the dinner they’d made

There’s only Bisquick in our house when an animated flipper brings it over


Live music. Concert attendance took a hit when the kids were little, but Byron and I are gradually re-entering the world known as “going places and doing things.” Fortunately, we both love standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans, ears blasted by noise and energy and a reminder that notes flying through the air belong to everybody. They equalize and unite.

Try on this description from Fifth Element about the roots of Dem Atlas’ music, for example:

Growing up in a dysfunctional home in Minneapolis, there were two things Joshua Turner turned to for comfort when his parents fought: the records he’d listen to on a loop to drown out their conflict and the atlas he’d pore over to pretend he was anywhere else. Turner’s all grown up now, but his sources of childhood refuge continue to play an integral role in his life. In his spare time he draws maps for fun, and, under the name deM atlaS, he’s composing his emotionally complex hip-hop records aimed at listeners who are in need of some sonic solace of their own.

Even more, I had a great time in the bathroom at the Bad Bad Hats show, counseling a drunk college student about why her new boyfriend couldn’t possibly have pangs for his ex. As a rule, I do some of my best work with drunks in bathrooms. Just ask my students.


Teens at the potluck. The challenge for our annual potluck this summer was to make a dish that, as of the reading of the invitation, the attendee had never before heard of. For Byron and me, that sounded like great fun, but the reality was that some folks struggled with the “make something you don’t know exists” angle. You know who rep-re-sent-ed, though? Paco’s crew (See: teens in the kitchen). To a one, those teenagers came up with delicious, inspired entries. Paco’s buddy Trenton is interested in a career in the food world; he brought gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce, and I was delighted to teach him how to pronounce the main ingredients in his dish as he sat at the registration table, riddling out the spellings and accompanying story. Then there’s Mason, a kid who’d never heard of beignets before but made them and made them WELL.

So, y’know, kudos to the adults who entered excellent dishes. But YEEEEEEET to the teens.


The Anthropecene Reviewed. This podcast’s tagline reads “John Green reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale,” and while that’s exactly what the show is about, it’s eversomuch more, too. Listen, I’ve never read any of John Green’s books, nor do I particularly want to, but, glory, he does some gorgeous writing for this program as he reviews everything from the QWERTY keyboard to the breakfast menu at Taco Bell to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. His review of Sycamore trees took me to tears.

What I hope to do in the future is echo Green’s example from this podcast — his mixture of history, analysis, heart — by constructing a sort of “review” assignment for my freshman composition classes. I’m not sure I can take another ten years of teaching a standard comparison/contrast essay — but I surely can stand to read students’ assessments, on a five-star scale, of things like Rock, Paper, Scissors and penalty shootouts.

Here, please enjoy the closing paragraphs of John Green’s review of sunsets.

My dog died last year, but one of my great memories of him is playing in the front yard of our first house at dusk.

He was a puppy then, and in the early evenings he would always come down with a case of the zoomies. He’d run in delighted circles around us, yipping and jumping at nothing in particular, and then after a while, he’d get tired, and he’d run over to me, and he’d lie down. And then he would do something absolutely extraordinary—he would roll over onto his back, and present his soft belly. I always marveled at the courage of that, his ability to be so absolutely vulnerable to us, to offer us the place that ribs don’t protect, and trust that we weren’t going to bite or stab him. It’s hard to trust the world like that, to show it your belly. 

I don’t know exactly how to describe this, but there’s something deep within me, something intensely fragile, that is terrified of turning itself to the world. Maybe it feels like loving the beauty that surrounds us somehow disrespects the many horrors that also surround us. Or maybe I’m just scared that if I show the world my belly, it will devour me. And so I wear the armor of cynicism, and hide behind the great walls of irony, and only glimpse beauty with my back turned to it, through the Claude Glass. 

But I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing. The photographer Alec Soth has said, “To me, the most beautiful thing is vulnerability,” and I would go a step further and argue that you cannot see the beauty which is enough unless you make yourself vulnerable to it. 

And so I try to turn toward that scattered light, belly out, and I tell myself: This doesn’t look like a picture. And it doesn’t look like a God. It is a sunset, and it is wildly beautiful, and this whole thing you’ve been doing where almost nothing gets five stars because almost nothing is perfect? That’s b.s. So much is perfect. Starting with this. 

I give sunsets five stars.


And finally.

These ones. No matter the year, they are my favorites and my best.


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Categories
Fulbright

Do You Have Time for Me?

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

At the end of January 2018, I returned from five months of living and teaching in the country of Belarus where I was a Fulbright Scholar. For those months, I left my family in the United States and went by myself on a grand adventure.

Belarus is a country about the size of the state of Kansas, with a population of roughly nine-and-a-half million people. The president has held office since 1994, and that is the reason why Belarus, more closely aligned with Russia than any other former Soviet republic, is also known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Although I had sought this opportunity and was ready to say “yes” to everything, the truth was: for me to go on this Fulbright, to relocate to the city of Polotsk near the Russian border – for me to rent an apartment and throw myself into untested professional waters – this was something much more than a grand adventure.

It was a chance to see who I was when untethered from all I’d carefully cultivated over decades.

***

In my new city, I taught at several locations, and I taught different groups of students, but one of my main duties every week was to teach at Polotsk State University. At the university, every Tuesday, I was scheduled for two 80-minute classes back-to-back. The first class was fifth-year students (the undergraduate degree path in Belarus is a five-year course, so the fifth-year students were in their final year); these students were charming, dedicated, delightful.

After their 80-minute class, the next class was fourth-year students. There was some confusion with the enrollment for this class, and it ended up that I taught two different groups of fourth-year students who alternated every other week, setting up a rotation where I would see each group of students once every two weeks.

The fourth-year students were messier than the fifth-year students. Perhaps it was because their schedule was somewhat irregular, or perhaps it was because I was teaching to them a class that had never been heard of or seen in their curriculum before. With the fifth-year students, I was teaching a customary class, Extensive Reading, in which we read and discussed American short stories.

But for the fourth-year students, I had proposed to teach a class I had developed in the United States called Writing for Social Media. We thought the students would love this. The students thought they would love this. Maybe the students loved it.

It was hard to tell.

The fourth-year students excelled at absenteeism, attended infrequently, and often didn’t turn in work. It felt like I was teaching at my home college, in some ways.

But when those fourth-year students did attend class, they were a joy. When they were in the classroom, they were attentive, fun, and energetic. When those faces were in front of me, I forgot how ineffective I felt in their absence.

It’s important to note: when it comes to any kind of teaching, I’m high-strung and anxious. I don’t sleep well when I know I will be heading into a classroom. Most definitely, I don’t cruise into the place tossing candy out of a top hat. Rather, I spend significant agitated time in the bathroom as the minutes to the class period tick down.

When put into a new situation, such as teaching in a country like closed-off Belarus, my nerves were even more heightened.

As a result, every Tuesday, when my two back-to-back classes were finished, I felt a rush of endorphins, a glorious and sweet relief that exhaled, “Whew, I did it!” As celebration, once the students had departed, I would run to the bathroom down the hall for another kind of exhale.

Most Belarusian universities and public places are equipped solely with squat toilets. No toilet paper is provided, nor is soap, towels, hand dryers, or hot water. This spartan approach is at odds with the effort that goes into personal appearance. In Belarus, everybody is turned out – as a rule, Belarusians look chic, they look crisp, and they own irons. I was trying to keep up, so when I taught, I wore fancy shoes. Thus, even though I was flooded with relief that I’d made it through my classes – YES! – I still had to navigate the pedestal squat toilet – two steps up — in high heels for the after-class exhalation.

***

One particular day, I’d had my trip to the toilet and returned to the classroom to wait for the next teacher to arrive so I could hand off the key. Sometimes she showed up ten minutes, even twenty minutes, into her class period – she had tea to drink in the faculty office, gossip to catch up on, or questions from the “professor of the professors” to answer regarding her dissertation. Her students didn’t mind; they were perhaps happier to see me than her – because, again, Belarus had been so closed off from Westerners that in this city of Polotsk, with a population of 90,000, and in the neighboring city of Novopolotsk, with a population of over 100,000, I was the only native speaker of English. For those who’d spend years studying the language, my presence was a chance to experience authenticity.

On this particular Tuesday after I’d been to the toilet, I was hanging out in the hallway, waiting for Vera, the teacher of the next class. I loved to hang out in the hall and watch the university students in their native habitat, but I also loved to linger there because into the wall outside my classroom was embedded a cannonball from 1812, from one of the times Napoleon’s troops had invaded Polotsk. I liked to stand there by the door outside my classroom, leaning, resting my hand on the cannonball, rubbing it and thinking, “When else in life will I be able to casually stroke a cannonball?”

On this day, as the cannonball and I were hanging out, I heard a voice come at me from over my right shoulder. “Excuse me. I have a problem.”

It was one of my fourth-year students; I wasn’t quite sure what her name was yet. When it comes to names in Belarus, as in Russia, there are a lot of Nastyas, a lot of Dashas, a lot of Elenas, Irynas, Alionas, with occasional Sonyas for variety. But with this student, I couldn’t think of her name even though she was standing in front of me, telling me “I have a problem.”

Then, in a flash, I remembered: Yana. Her name is Yana. This is the Russian diminutive of Johanna. Yana.

Relief flooding me, I said, “Oh, Yana, yes. What is your problem?”

Inside myself, I was braced and nervous. When a student comes up to a teacher and announces “I have a problem,” the words send a gong of doom ringing through the teacher’s skull.

In very broken English, she communicated, “I need help. My English no good. I need help. You have time for me?”

At this point of my experience in Belarus, I was constantly overwhelmed. As the only native English speaker in the area, I was a kind of celebrity. I was teaching my classes at the university; another day each week I was teaching at the language center in a nearby city; another day of the week I was volunteering at a gymnasium with high school students who were training for a Language Olympiad. When I would leave my apartment or walk home from campus, I would be chased by Belarusian English teachers who would breathlessly ask, “Next Wednesday, could you come to two of my classes, 80-minutes each, with second-year students, and talk on the topic of Travel? A slideshow would be very interesting.” Or another time, “Could you come do two 80-minute classes with my first-year students? We’ll try out a round table discussion on the subject of The Intersection of Culture and Colors.”

Even more, I went to fitness and yoga classes, and every time I left the studio, there would be two or three women wanting to walk me home – to practice their English. The ten-minute walk could take thirty. Sometimes it ended in someone’s home, with tea and cake and photographs.

Absolutely, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attention that alternated with days of drifty loneliness. Whereas my life in the U.S. has a steady, predictable pace to it, Belarus was a study in extremes. Indeed, when Yana said, “Do you have time for me?” I felt an internal panic, a scream rising. What I wanted to say was, “NOOOOOOOOO, PUBLIC INTERACTIONS EXHAUST ME; MY COUCH AND I NEED MORE MOPING TIME!”

But still. She was a student. And I was her teacher.

Of course, the answer was “Yes, I have time for you.”

***

We arranged to meet the next week in the square in the middle of the city where there’s a big fountain. It was October, and the water was piping. Kids after school were playing in the fountain as their parents and grandparents hovered nearby.

Yana and I had decided we would sit on a bench and just talk to each other so she could practice her conversational English. On that gorgeous October day – that kind of October day when the sunlight is slanting sideways, and the whole world seems like it’s glowing, the leaves skittering across cobblestones – on that kind of October day, Yana and I sat for two hours on a bench, chatting and watching kids play.

I knew for this to be helpful time for Yana, I shouldn’t be the one talking. Rather, I needed to get her talking. I went for the easiest possible opener: “Tell me your life story.”

Yana began with the fact that she was from a small village about an hour outside of Polotsk, and her coming to the university was an achievement for her family and her village. She loved her parents, her sister, her older brother, their spouses, her nieces, her nephew. She was devoted to the kids and would help them every day with their homework and play games with them. Her family was her life.

Jumping to important life events, she rewound three years, disclosing, “My head start hurting. Bad head hurt. I no okay.” She went to a doctor, then a lot of doctors, and after many exams they discovered that Yana, at the age of 21, had a brain tumor.

It was difficult for me to find out all the small details of Yana’s medical journey because her English vocabulary was limited. When I asked her, “Did you have surgery?” she looked at me blankly. I tried “Operation?”

She got that one. “Yes, yes.”

I followed up with “Cancer?”

She knew that word. “No, no, no. It okay. I was okay.”

“It was benign?” I clarified.

“It was okay.”

Then she made it clear she had many treatments after her surgery, the aftereffects of which were that she had debilitating headaches still, but she also fell into a kind of depression, suffering from cognitive challenges that made her flat, grey, nonfunctional.

During this time, she dropped out from the university; stuck in darkness, she couldn’t handle being a student. For the next three years, Yana stayed in her bedroom in her parents’ house in the village. The only person she would speak to, the only person she would allow into her bedroom, was her mother.

Every day, her mother would bring in food and try to cajole her. She’d bring in the little nieces and the nephew. Desperately, she tried anything, everything, her every effort asking, “Can we bring Yana back to life?”

Always, Yana refused every overture. Every day was NO.

It got so bad that Yana was hospitalized. There under the October sun, kids splashing nearby, she haltingly explained, “They take me…asylum. Asylum. One month. Bad place. I believe asylum…horrors. Asylum worst place in the world.”

I decided not to press for details on those horrors, but my takeaway from those two hours on the bench was that Yana was different. In Belarus, you don’t see a whole lot of different.

After Yana was released from the asylum, something inside her flipped. She decided, “I’m going to rejoin the world. I’m going to re-engage.”

Bravely, tipping towards the light, she walked out of her bedroom and out of her house. She returned to the university.

When I saw her that fall in my classroom as a fourth-year student, I hadn’t realized it was the first time she’d set foot on the university campus in over three years. I hadn’t realized that when she was sitting in my Writing for Social Media class, she was returning to the world of the living.

As we talked on the bench that October day, she said to me, glowing like the autumn sun, “Now, I fine. No stresses, no pressures, no problems. I look my classmates, these girls, hair, make-up, boots, boyfriends, all look same. Me? I not same. I fine. Nothing bother me.”

***

After that day on the bench, Yana and I agreed to meet again two weeks later. By that point, the weather had changed; stark and windy, November helped us decide to meet at a coffee shop.

Again, we spent two hours together. Contemplating how to fill the time, I had been intimidated, thinking, “She pretty much gave me everything that first day. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.” Punting, I packed some games into a bag.

As we sat down at a table with our lattes, I asked her if she knew the phrase “to be a guinea pig.” No, she did not. I explained the idiom and told her she was my guinea pig with these games because I wanted to know if they would work for non-native English speakers.

Yana’s eyes got big when I pulled out Bananagrams.

For two hours, we sat there, starting off easy and slow – “We don’t have to play by the rules,” I told her, spreading out the tiles. “Just take some tiles and try to put together words in English. I’ll help you. Can you see some words there?”

Oh, yeah, she nodded. Uh-huh. She could see some words there.

Upping the difficulty, I pressed, “Can you link some words together, like in a crossword?”

Sure. Okay. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yana nodded and moved tiles.

Then she got quiet. Her head was down. As she slid more tiles in front of her, I realized she was improvising her own variation of the game.

She had spelled the word deep.

To its end, she had attached the word horizon.

She’d seen the movie.

Her eyes continuously scanning the tiles, she told me, “I want put more after horizon. What I do?”

“Well,” I mused, “horizon could become the word horizontal if we add some letters on the end…”

Yana’s eyes brightened, and before I quite knew what was happening, we were launched into a version of Bananagrams that involved the creation of compound words and portmanteaus and strings of overlapping text.

Having run out of space with deephorizoosafari, Yana started a new line with balloon, asking, “Hmm, what I do? I want add more.”

Looking at the word, I suggested, “Well, if you add a -y, you’ll have the word loony growing out of balloon. We have this cartoon in the United States, Loony Tunes, that’s really famous; do you know it?”

No.

I explained Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Then we added letters to make: balloonytunes. Excitedly, we kept the growing word evolving – adding, re-spelling, shifting – “Ah, how about tuna? Tuna is a kind of fish!”

Placing the letters on the end of the growing word, Yana read aloud, “Balloonytunafish…what I add?”

“What’s the word for a person who takes a rod and a line and stands in the river trying to catch fish?” I challenged her, miming my description.

“Fisherman!” Yana yelped. “Balloonytunafisherman!”

Starting a new word, her brain churning as she tried to figure out the spelling, Yana came up with squeal. Immediately, mind-bogglingly, she saw a word to attach: algebra.

Her hands restless on the table, picking up letters, considering, discarding, she kept going. I helped her with vocabulary and spelling, but she was a firecracker. For an hour and a half, we strung together words.

Before we finished, I realized something important.

I was watching this young woman, so excited, so involved, this same woman who had spent three years in her bedroom, refusing to speak to anyone but her mother – and this young woman was lighting up the space around her in a coffee shop, stringing together letters, enjoying the burble of her brain. She was happy. She was excited. She was pipping.

Clocking the wonder of transformation, I marveled: “Her English is not limited. She does not have ‘a problem.’ Yana’s English is amazing.”

***

After Yana and I met those two times, she tried to schedule more meetings.

Each time, she had to cancel. She had to go to the doctor. Another time, her class schedule changed for the day, so I got messages from her, begging off. “I can’t come. I’m sorry. I can’t come.”

In terms of our class together, her group met with me seven times. Of those seven classes, Yana attended three. Her group was to submit to me five written assignments. At the end, Yana had turned in two.

In terms of the classroom, Yana was terrible. And I felt like a terrible teacher.

So.

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

But.

***

At the end of our conversation that first day under the October sunlight when we sat on the bench and watched the kids play in the fountain, I said to Yana, “I am so happy we had this time together. I am so happy we had one-on-one time, and now I know more about you. As soon as I get home, I’m going to message my husband back in the United States, and I’m going to tell him all about you.”

In return, Yana beamed. “As soon as I leave, I send messages and do phone calls. My family in village, they wait. They know I am meet you. My family know this first time my life I speak with foreigner. They wait hear me. When I call, I tell them – “

her words cracked me open, made me need a kleenexboyfriendshiplollypop, bestowed a benediction upon five months of lonely, exhausting, untethered, gratifying, glorious, unimaginable adventure –

“When I call, I tell them, ‘The English teacher from America, she make me most happy I can be.’”

Damn. I grabbed her for a squeeze.

And then we turned our faces in opposite directions to begin the trek to our respective homes.

Slowly, deliberately, contentedly, we walked away from each other, two changed people, forever connected.

***

This story was first told at the Gag Me with a Spoon community storyshare. If you’d like to hear it spoken: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/gag-me-with-a-spoon/perhaps-this-is-not-that-HKjLDkc76TO/#edit

Yana gave me permission to write about her, in case you feel your panties getting bundled.

________________________________

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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.

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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.


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Belarus: Eleven Surprises

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

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

Sheet of ice on sidewalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————–

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Fulbright

Who, Me?

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

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

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

Except. Y’know. 

So an idea was born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could learn a lot from Helen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hooboy. Here we go again. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

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

Silence.

Beat. 

Beat.

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

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gollee. These people are good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without question, in the long term,

I will only remember the gratitude.


 

 

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

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Fulbright

First of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slava was all right. 

Without question, I took the apartment.

***

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

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

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

A tough monotone replies: “Slava.”

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

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

Fuck.

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

A few seconds later, the handset rings. 

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

On the other end, there is silence. 

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, of course, for Slava. 

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

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

feels like home.


 

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Waking Up

Wait.
What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there miserable unseen lives for those with disabilities here? 

Does everyone genuinely not want to talk politics? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

This is my kind of math.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Wait.

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

A.

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

Minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am official.

I am here.

I’ve got mail, and I have a bill.

This is really happening.

***

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

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

Do those guys fishing in the river need licenses?

———————————-

 

 

 

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Little Pink Houses for You and Me

I can’t keep up with the apples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of these houses have apple trees in their yards.

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

Together, they tell Belarus’ best truth.  

 

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