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?”
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.