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10 Impressions From An American That Will Make You See Belarus Anew

“I will miss the dairy, the ubiquitous memorials, the feeling that every day has the potential to surprise, and the constant and heart-touching generosity of the people,” an American wrote on her Facebook as she was boarding the plane at Minsk airport.

Jocelyn Pihlaja spent five months in Belarus teaching English to university students and exploring life in different parts of the country.

She continuously shared her observations online to the surprise of Americans and the joy of Belarusians.

BelarusFeed has scrolled through the American teacher’s notes to bring you the best insights from her time in Belarus.

Some sweet, some bitter – but all revealing and touching.

Papers, papers, papers…

Lunch at a new cafe in Polotsk was the best meal I have had yet –THOSE DRANIKI WERE LIGHT AND CRISP! And the mushroom and beef sauce was crazy tasty.

Well fortified by such food, we managed to finish out the migration process this afternoon – four offices, two banks, and many forms in quadruplicate – and so now I am officially registered in this city and my apartment!

With each passing day, I feel more fortunate to have this time in this place.

Daily contrasts

Okay, kids.

There’s no Pandora in Belarus. No Spotify. So basically I keep falling down deep YouTube music rabbit holes, which is definitely fun.

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In the States, I hate sour cream. Here, I would bathe in it and then still eat it.

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Two things I don’t like about American culture are that we glorify “busy” and that we have built so much of our infrastructure around cars and not pedestrians.

With everyone living in a time crunch, zipping around in automobiles, millions of Americans lose out on daily moments of sweetness – like children and parents slowly walking home after school, swinging hands and chatting.

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HI OKAY I’M FROM NORTHERN MINNESOTA AND THIS IS ME ADMITTING IT’S COLD AS HELL HERE

The locals

“Can I maybe come to your classes?” he asks, excited to have the chance to practice his English in this city with so few English speakers.

Gently, I tell him no, that only enrolled students can attend my classes. But then I add, “However, I hope to give some public lectures or start a conversation group, so I will let you know the specifics if I can have your phone number.”

Sliding me his card, he tells me again how happy he is when people from other countries come to his outpost of a city. After he sets in front of me a glorious-looking cappuccino, he bends down to the cupboard behind him. When he stands and turns, he is holding a box of tea.

“This tea is called rooibos, and I import it from South Africa. I would like you to have this as a gift and a welcome”

And now I must stop typing this post – because I need to send a message to a man in an apron.

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Natalia is 84, her coat is alpaca, she made my new mittens, and I love her from the tip of her hat to the toes of her boots.

american in belarus

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This sweetest of boys was outside the city museum, having just taken a class in a traditional craft – making figures from straw – when we ran into him.

In under a minute, the bird he’d made was in my hand because he insisted we take it as a gift.

And now I must pen a quick letter:

DEAR PARENTS OF THIS BOY, WELL DONE.

SINCERELY, THE AMERICAN WITH YOUR SON’S BIRD IN THE HAND (INFINITELY BETTER THAN TWO IN THE BUSH)

The muddy paths

I was asked a question the other day, “What don’t you like about Belarus?”

It was difficult to come up with a response

Eventually, I said, “I don’t like that the roads and sidewalks are built without systems for drainage – because when it rains, and it rains almost every day, then pedestrians have to deal with obstacle courses of lakes and puddles.”

Today’s Granny of the Day illustrated another facet of that point as she picked her way through the muddy paths between buildings, gingerly stepping, sometimes backtracking.

Keep at it. With endurance and fortitude, which you appear to have in spades, you will make it home, your shoes dirty, your stockings soaked, your coat needing a drying near the radiator.

But then you can have a cup of tea, and nothing feels as good as warm sips after ginger steps.

The art of wooden design

I love these houses!

The mighty babushki

The first post office I went to today was the wrong one. Apparently, I was supposed to have gone to the address that had been carefully crossed out on the “you have a package” notification slip.

When I got to the second post office, I was the 17th person in line. There was one worker behind the counter handling the crowd of roughly 50% babushki and 50% babushki-wannabes.

It’s a rare and wondrous cultural experience to be an observer in a post office in Eastern Europe crowded with babushki and line-cutters

Each time a new person opened the post office door and stepped inside, there was a quick intake of breath and then the question, “So who’s at the end of the line?”


A few times, however, the new person – wanting to bypass what might be a two-hour wait to reach the front of the queue – refused to honor the social contract and, instead, busted brazenly to the counter and positioned herself as third or fourth in line.

Thus far in my experience, Belarusians have proven to be a calm, steady people, not easy to rile, not prone to public shouting.

But.

Woe to the idiot who thinks he can cut in line when there are babushki with aching knees who have been sitting on that bench for more than an hour already.

There was shouting. There was public outcry. There was chin jerking.

And in one beautiful moment, there was cane pounding.

I don’t speak Russian, but still, I’m pretty sure what the irate granny yelled was, “IF YOU THINK I LIVED THROUGH STALIN JUST TO LET YOU SLIP AHEAD OF ME IN THIS QUEUE, YOU ARE ABOUT TO LEARN SOME BASIC TRUTHS FROM THE HARD HEAD OF MY CANE ON YOUR BACKSIDE.”

Babushki. They will put you in your damn place.

The capital

Sure, Minsk, I love you for your street fashion and energetic hustle and Stalinist architecture.

And I love you for your fabulous national gallery and wacky library and penchant for serving carbohydrates in sizzling skillets and Utopian cleanliness and cute little shops that only fit three bodies – but mostly I love you for being the place in Belarus where I can reliably fill my mouth with a hoppy India Pale Ale.

Always together

We were talking about the Belarusian custom of etching a photograph of the deceased onto tombstones – something we never do in the United States.

One of my favorite things to do whenever I go to a new place is to visit cemeteries, maybe because travel is a kind of amateur anthropology, and anthropology is always careful to examine traditions of birth, life celebrations, and death.

I returned to that fascinating cemetery today and took a bunch of photos. The tombstones are so different from what I am used to… but also, and this moves my heart, so is this practice of installing a table and bench on the family plot.

In this country, they literally build a place for people to sit and spend time with their deceased loved ones

You could bring a meal. You could play cards. You could sit and knit. No matter what you do, there at the table, you are together again.

The apple hospitality

I am revising an essay I wrote a few months ago about the amazing hospitality I experienced in Belarus –  and how that hospitality was so often expressed through…APPLES.

During the autumn months, every time I went anywhere, some kind person would hand me an apple or a bag of apples (from the dacha, of course!)

So the apple became the symbol of Belarusian warmth to me.

Sweet memories

american in belarus

I will miss

the dairy,

the ubiquitous monuments and memorials,

the brightly colored wooden houses,

the grannies carrying themselves like queens in their full-length fur coats,

the feeling that every day has the potential to surprise,

the fact that each apartment building has cats who run the place milling outside,

the cashiers at the grocery store who shyly say “Hello” when they realize I’m The American,

and

the constant and heart-touching generosity of the people.

Text and photos by Jocelyn Pihlaja.