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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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Survey

The Latest Survey: Jocelyn’s Responses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currently, it’s

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

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

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

When I think about the word

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite sound?

The quiet whoosh of a page being turned.

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe I could bang out a badass butter churn.

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

Yeah, let me be a Comfort.


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