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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

When I’m in Belarus I usually spend my time racing from one meeting to the other.  This prevents me fro having the opportunity to wander around and see how Belarussians live their daily lives.
            That’s why I was delighted to have an afternoon off duringmy most recent trip.  I declinded Vladimir’s offer to show me Minsk’s museums again and raced eagerly upstairs to my hotel room to change. No factory directors to have to talk to!  No battered roads to drive.  No having to disappoint workers when they showed me terribly made proucts their factory has churned out for decases, and on which their conomic future lies.   Just a little bit of free time. 
            It was a bit nippy, even though the sun was shining, as I walked outdoors, with a heavy cloud overhead hinting of snow to come.  I zipped my jacket tight and turned the collar up against the damp and cold wind which was beginning to rise from the east.  The sun, when it broke through the clouds, was pale and shone feebly.
                        I always room at a hotel on the outskirts of Minsk, far away from the noise of the city center and all the prostitutes that hove in the hotel’s foyer (a truly disappointing sight, and truly more disappointing to see Western busiessmen with rings on their ring fingers, leaving with them.  My hotel’s not pretty but it is quiet and clean.  Two broa boulevards—in a city of broad boulevards—run alongside it.  The first handles trffic to and from Minsk and seethes with activity. Dirty, leaning buses fille to capcity disgorge thousands of people every hour at the bus stop next to the McDonald’s. 
            I often despair at the message the yellow arches send to the drab people who trudge by on their way home.  “We, from the West, are superior” the building seems to say.  And in every aspect, provides the proof thereof.  The building is brightly lit in contrst to the darkened buildings all around.  The arches might just as easily say “We’re so superior that what takes you two weeks of saving to be able to afford to eat we consume without a second thought.”
            Seeing the people,  waling home, huddled and bent in the cold, I am often reminded of something I red long ago which described (medieval, in this instance) life as being “hard, short and brutish.”  It seems appropriate in Belarus today.
            The stupefying amount of bus traffic owes it existence to the stacks of falling-apart-at-the seams aparment buildings which ring the second boulevard.  It is difficult to adequately describe how ugly and depressing the apartment buildings are.  Each, colored the same Brezhnev grey with oly hints of accented sections of trim, is jammed tight near the other; five or more to a cluster.  The rows of buildings continues, seemingly, to the horizon line and march to the city’s limites like moern mountain ranges.
            The state has attempted to moderate the ugliness by plantin a few trees or a patch of grass here and there. But the trees soon die (there beig o party directive re. who it to care for them) and the greass thereafter. 
            The apartment’s interiors are so tiny that washing is often hung from the balconies.  They do the same in Italy, but there, it looks charming.  Here, it reeks of desperation.  Other residens use their balcony space as a storage unit, moving refrigerators and piles of cardboard boxes outside, with the attendant deteriorating that only a Belarussian heavy winter can bring.
            Tenants with greater means have enclosed the balconies with an attractive wood finish, but they are in the minority.  Their neighbors, even in communism there is a keep up with the Jonoviches aspect) do the same—but enclose the balony with plastic sheeting, which degrades in the sunlight and tears, the long remnants of which then noisily flap in the wind.
            This is how the majority of Belarussians live.  The rest, the poorest—and in one fashion, the luckiest—live in old wooden houses clustered together in small hamlets.  These type of homes, even though they are located within Minsk’s city borders, and may be adjacent to the high rise apartment blocks, often have no running water or electricity.  Those in the countryside rarely do.
            But if I had to live in Belarus, this is where I would choose to make my home.  Poor, uncomfortable as they might be, they nevertheless are like the home than an apartment in Minsk never could be.
            I clambered over the rusted metal fence which outlined the hotel’s perimiter and followed alongside a poorly paved street to one such nearby hamlet, comprised of no more than about 25 houses.  The houses were beautiful.  Each was painted in bright, pastel tones.  The windows had intricately carved trim and the gables were charmingly appointed.  These houses had spirit.  They had life.
            Ahead of me, chickens free-ranged in small groups.  The hens scratched noisily at downed leaves, their heads jabbing downward sharply at the insects they had exposed.  Roosters asserted their territory (one house?) with loud crows. It was a charming and quaint scene, though I knew that the chickens were nothing more than clucking sources of protein.
            As I walked along the street, an old woman wearing a heavy winter coat shuffled toward me.  With a purple scarf bound tightly around her chin and worn rubber boots on her feet, she looked as old as the street, as we say in Belgium.
            The old woman stopped at the wooden gate in front of her unpainted home and pulled at the rusty loop of wire which held the gate in place and stepped inside her front yard.  It then that she noticed me.  She stood stiffly still at the gate, not four feet from me and inspected me closely.  The tables had been turned: the observer was now being observed.  I felt uncomfortable at the way she stared at me like a hawk would a little mouse.  From the way I was dressed she instantly categorized me as a foreigner.  In Belarussian history, foreigners: Huns, Cossacks, soldiers from the Napoleonic army, and those from Germany in two successive world wars, and afterward, soldiers from the Red Army, meant trouble. 
            The old woman’s eyes never left me as I walked past, smiled at her (she did not smile back) and continued down the street until, thankfully, I turned a corner and disappeared from view.  She’d been watching the back of me the entire time (I checked).
            The home immediately after I turned the corner was undeniably pretty, with fruit trees planted in the yard and a pretty picket fence running along the front.  The house looked so inviting that I stood before it for a few moments in appreciation.  Then, I noticed two gallon-sized glass jars sitting on a small wooden platform which had been nailed to a large birch tree which pushed at the picket fence.  A light-yellow sap dripped from a tap pushed into the tree and into the jars, which were three quarters full.
            Intrigued, I stepped closer and then immediately back in horror as a dark cloud of thick bodied flies buzzed off the air and into the air.   The trees and jars were right on the fence line so I was able to lean forward and look into the jars and saw, with disgust,  that a black slick of drowned flies floated on the liquid. Was it a Belarussia fly trap of some sort?
            I couldn’t figure it out and walked on down the street, across an open field dotted with the stubble of the prior year’s crop, and then across the boulevard to another hamlet which was tucked in a hollow, heavy with trees.  Going there was a mistake.  There was an anger, a sullenness in the air that I hadn’t felt in the other hamlet.  Dog barked at me menacingly, held back only by a thin metal chain.  I walked by a group of men working on an old car, the wreck propped onto four cinderblocks.  The four men away from the car and glared at me as I walked past.  I felt as if I’d just wandered into the midst of a drug deal.
            Everywhere that I went there, I felt uncomfortable.  Hands parted lace curtais in darkened windows.  Children saw me and ran inside their houses.  Several dogs, aggressive and left loose to roam, tried to bite me.
            I gave up and took a path along another farm field back to the pretty hamlet I’d seen earlier.  I remained curious about the two jars of yellow liquid I’d seen earlier and walked along that side of the street so I could look at them again  Sadly, as I drew near I was disappointed to see that the jars had been taken away.  Flies were thick on the trunk and great numbers of them buzzed angrily over the metal tap still jammed into the tree and puddles of sap which had collected on the wooden platform.
            A child’s voice, lilting and happy and clear, cut through the silence.  I turned and saw a family of three standing together at the side of the house: a mother and father, and a beautiful young girl of about eight years of age with thick, curly hair.
            The father held up one of the jars like a prize and passed it to his daugher with a paternal smile.   The same jar of liquid that dead flies had been floating in just a few minutes earlier. I stifled a groan as I watched the pretty little girl drink eagerly and deeply of the contents. I had to turn away.  All I could think of was the flies.  The disease of it all.
            I later learned from Vladimir that birch juice, which tastes like watered-down applie juice, is a Belarussian delicacy.  It’s something I don't expect to be drinking any time soon.