Minsk is not yet a city crowded with visitors. This fact makes travelers’ experience curious and valuable, especially when they spend a long time in the capital – like the volunteers at the 2nd European Games.
Finding foreign volunteers, however, turned out more difficult than I thought – either there aren’t many them, or they aren’t willing to talk to journalists.
Gladly, the two volunteers I met turned out to be everything you’d expect from people who travel to another country to help out selflessly. They were incredibly easy-going and open to any experiences, and, to my delight, they seemed to have a little crush on Minsk.
Good spot to start exploring Eastern Europe
Michal and I decided to have an interview in a pub on a Friday night just before the Games solemn opening. Michal is 19, he graduated from high school and is about to start his degree in either International Relations or Sports Management.
It’s his second time volunteering at a sports event. He’s visibly excited, enjoying the time and place. In the pub, Michal chuckles in surprise as he discovers his favorite beer that doesn’t exist in Slovakia on the menu.
It’s Michal’s first time in Belarus and this part of Eastern Europe in general. Before arriving in Minsk, he had a stop in Kyiv but didn’t get a good impression of it – he simply didn’t have much time to explore the city.
So for Michal, Belarusian capital feels like a good start to explore Eastern Europe.
Have you heard of Belarus before the Games?
– Yes, we quite a bit of news about Belarus, especially about your president. Back in Slovakia, our media is either West- or East-focused, and Western media criticizes Belarus a lot. But I see now that not everything is that bad. For example, I feel very safe walking the streets in Belarus. And people are incredible here!
There’s one tangible drawback, Michal admits. The language barrier.
– I am the only foreigner in my team in the shooting center where I volunteer. At first, everyone was speaking Russian and I was just sitting there thinking I’ll have to learn Russian. Communication has improved since then; now my team knows they’ve got to speak English with me. If they’re not speaking English, this means they are probably talking about me!
– Thing is, many people here can speak English, but they are so afraid to, while there’s no reason to be afraid, they just need some practice. And the 2nd European Games are perfect for that!
The 2nd European Games in Minsk were the longest and most prestigious event on the sporting calendar that Michal turned to when looking for volunteering options last summer. For him, volunteering is one of the best ways to explore the world.
What was the selection process for volunteers?
– First, you need to sign up. It’s a long process: the bigger the event, the more they want to know about you, especially about your experience in similar activities. Then, you have an interview with one of the organizers. Next, you get training materials about the country and sports. You’ve got to at least know top athletes in your sport and the latest news.
The information about Belarus was very detailed, Michal recalls:
– Now I know a lot of things about your country, but it was pretty hard at the time: I had to study and simultaneously learn this.
Hospitality and hipster hubs
Michal’s expectations from Minsk and the reality didn’t match.
– I have to admit that I thought I was coming to some Eastern-European-90s-Soviet-Union country… But the moment I landed at the Minsk airport I realized that I was totally wrong. Minsk is a European city. I was so surprised to see all the world food chains here! We don’t even have some of them in Slovakia.
I was also quite surprised to see that people are really nice. Sure, as the stereotype goes, they don’t smile, but neither do people in Slovakia. I am trying to change that in myself.
Michal comes from Žilina, a town of 80,000 inhabitants surrounded by mountains.
– In Minsk, everything is huge. Streets are huge, roads are huge. Highways all around the city! It’s glorious, the guy comments.
His biggest surprise was the hospitality of locals and the event’s organizers – in the volunteers’ accommodation everyone is nice and helpful.
– People helped me upgrade my sim-card, they went shopping with me and spoke Russian because I obviously can’t. They recommended bars and places to go to. It seems, they really care about me.
What did you like the most in Minsk?
– I liked the Oktyabrskaya street a lot! Such a hipster hub. All cool people seem to hang out there. I also went to Zybitskaya because everyone recommended it, but I am more into the hipster one. I also loved Karl Marx street, especially the architecture there. The houses there remind me of the houses in Munich.
– People don’t travel to Eastern Europe often, – Michal sums as we say good-bye to each other. – I think they should start. It’s a great experience, and hey, I’ve been here for two weeks now, and I am not tired of the city!
Summer in Belarus is like winter in Brazil
Meeting up with Cristina was a challenge. First, the time of her shift changed, then she didn’t know when the next one will be.
At the last moment, she said we could do the interview at Minsk Arena, one of the venues of the 2nd European Games so that she can get back to work straight after it. Heat, singers, people, dozens of volunteers dressed the same… It took us forever to find each other and we had very little time to speak.
Cristina applied to be a volunteer at the Games online, then had a phone interview, and two months later got an email with approval.
– We started taking the training online, about the country and the athletes… Lots of training. I found out what I had to do – I work on an arena, I meet guests, show them the way, the lounge, the VIP sector, and give them the information about the Games. Besides, we help at the medal ceremonies.
Cristina likes accommodations for their convenience – amenities like shops and bus stops are close and at hand. There’s also a lot of networking.
– I spend a lot of time with my coworkers and roommates. I like everyone here, everyone in my group. Girls in the dorm are from Peru and Colombia. I think they put us together due to the languages that we speak: I speak Portuguese and they speak Spanish. And I speak Spanish, too.
Cristina is an incredible person. She’s from Brazil, a teacher at a language school and a translator who regularly works and volunteers at sporting events. She travels a lot, both for work and vacation.
It’s her first time in Belarus, but she’s been everywhere around – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia… She also went to Russia for the World Cup.
She tells me how happy she is that the weather here in Belarus is nothing like what she expected – it’s just like in Brazil! During winter in Brazil, of course. The volunteer has been in Minsk for three weeks and plans to return again after learning a bit of Russian.
– I love it! Minsk is very different from what I expected. I’ve seen some pictures on the Internet, I didn’t like the buildings much and couldn’t imagine the city. But the city is wide open and you have so many parks! It’s one after the other, I love the parks here. Minsk is very calm, the traffic is easy, people are welcoming
The Brazilian explored the city thoroughly and from all sides:
– I had a chance to see the opera and actually found the scenery to be better than in Paris.
For her, Minsk is a peaceful paradise:
– Rio de Janeiro is very busy, the only relaxing place there is the beach. In Minsk, I feel the same atmosphere as I feel on the beach and that’s my favorite spot.
I walked around the city a lot, and people approached as they usually do. They always seemed to be nice and helpful. I would ask them for information, and they would show me the way or even take me there.
– I regularly send pictures to my friends from here and they are very impressed with Minsk! – Cristina smiles, waves at me and runs back to work.
Text by Alina Gorbatch. Photo: Kristina Volchek, Vadim Zamirovski/TUT.BY.