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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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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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