Now that the flush of arrival has worn off, and the phase of tracking down supplies for our flat and orienting myself is done, I've spent the last couple of weeks getting the hang of living, learning, and ministry in minsk. Some highlightable firsts for my life here include:
First weeks of school at the Bible institute, first day of prayer and fasting, first all-night prayer meeting, first visits to children in dank hospitals and babushkas in dank apartments, first really really cold days, first meals in Belarusian homes, first lessons in Belarusian cooking, first (informal) lessons in the Russian language, first experiences with alarmingly crowded Minsk buses during rush hour (and instead of heating them, my theory is they just pump the bus's exhaust into the bus), first hour or two in a little Belarusian recording studio, first trips to various outdoor markets... and, probably partly because of all of these other firsts, my first Belarusian head cold.
A notable second was another slip and crash to the icy ground.
So it's taken some adjustment. I think I am getting the hang of the walking thing now, at least. and despite all the insanity and the fact that I don't know what i'm doing half the time, I keep liking it more and more.
I wrote last time about all our fabulous guides... but after a few days of being guided around town, Sarah (roommate) and I wanted to do some exploring on our own. Our first efforts were funny... or at least I find them funny now. One day, we went looking for a post office in our neighbourhood -- my 1999 map said a post office was there -- so that sarah could buy airmail envelopes and stamps. We walked for about an hour looking for this post office, and when we retraced our steps we finally found what was left of it: a blue box that said 'Poshta' and a shell of a building. Oy! So we wound up going to a hotel and buying the supplies there. Along with a new map.
The next day we looked for an internet cafe and tromped through most of the northeastern part of Minsk. One, though still called 'internet cafe,' didn't have any computers anymore and when we found another one we couldn't make their machine work. And then, on our way home, we saw a huge BelTelecom internet 'club' right next to the central metro station, where we'd gotten off hours before!
We did find some things. The Belarusian History Museum -- once we figured out which rooms we were permitted to visit with our student tickets -- was fascinating and helped me learn words like 'knife' and 'century' since, of course, all the labels were in Russian. The 'Great Patriotic War,' or World War II, museum was a difficult tour. What happened to Jews in Belarus was at least acknowledged and shown in the displays... in Soviet times the Holocaust was often ignored. The thing that struck me most was a 1942 German map that marked out where Minsk's ghetto was. I currently live more or less across the street from the site. I've read about this particular ghetto, and it's sometimes a little unnerving to be anywhere near it.
Wednesday the 17th was our first day at the Bible institute. I always knew I'd be back to school, but Bible school was honestly the last thing on my mind. But as it turns out, I'm very thankful for the sanity that the daily routine of school provides, at least for now. My typical morning goes like this: up at 6.30am, drink coffee, eat what I can find, wash face (showers are for the evenings), pray for peace and patience to face the morning, bundle up, walk 10 minutes to the metro, try not to fly headfirst down the stairs in my fogged-over-glasses blindness, stick my body somewhere into the dense crowd on the platform, let a train or two go by so that I can get closer to the front of the crowd, rush on to a train and be thankful either for my seat (we're at the first stop, so a seat is actually a possibility) or for the fact that I at least have space to breathe. It reminds me of taking the E or F from queens to manhattan at 8am.
At school we start out with prayer and praise, in Russian of course. I've taken to bringing my doumbek along (that always gets some fun stares on the metro) so that I have something to bang on when I don't know the words. Sometimes there's someone who can translate the prayer, but usually not, and I'm learning a bit about praying within my spirit rather than my mind since my mind simply doesn't comprehend what's going on most of the time. After our praise sessions we have lessons, usually videotaped... happily the teachers speak English. When a teacher makes a joke, I've learned to wait 'til after the joke is translated to laugh.
The students are all young believers (like most believers here), and I've gotten to know a few of them either nonverbally or with stunted phrases and jumbled words. Among our institute family, there seems to be no place to hide. There's really no diplomacy; instead there's a kind of healing frankness that is uncomfortable for a minute but ends up making us all feel 100 times closer to one another. Of the students: there's one who was saved in prison and is now the 'head student' at the institute. There's one who was a teenaged alcoholic living on the streets before he met people from the congregation and did an about-face. (Please pray for him; he just had a severe asthmatic attack and has been in the hospital for a few days now.) There's Nadia, who i told you about, who seems to have never gotten into a shred of trouble all her life (She too has been sick lately, so you can pray for these both). Out of the 18 students, there are four guys named Sasha. There are two girls with the same name, one who is quite shy and quiet and one who is learning not to speak all the time.
The other day Natasha and Olga and I were sitting together and the two of them said something to each other and started to laugh... I didn't know why they were laughing and thought I'd done something funny. Later on I found out that they were laughing because they had no idea how to tell me what they had wanted to tell me, and they found the frustrating predicament funny; it seems to be the story of my life. A while ago I pointed out the word 'panic' in the dictionary to Natasha, explaining that it's how I feel after I've used up my few words...
But I'm learning. I very much look forward to when conversations will be possible.
My afternoons are flexible. The more interesting ones have been spent accompanying Russian speakers (sometimes they speak some english too, sometimes not) on visits to the sick and elderly. Hospitals here are not pleasant; they are big drafty buildings, few and far between, not very clean, and quite crowded. Doctors are paid very poorly, and everyone seems to do the minimum necessary. The primary way of dealing with most things is apparently injections, and with young kids it means that a lot of them develop fears of people, especially people dressed in white. So the kids we visited clung close to their mothers. One little girl was in the hospital, sick, for two weeks before the doctors even examined her, and all she had was an ear infection (which of course had gotten worse as she waited). We only had a few minutes to visit her because visitors couldn't go back to where the rooms were, and in the entryway it was especially drafty; a doctor saw the little girl there, even wrapped in furs and blankets, and ordered her and her mother back inside immediately. I left that hospital feeling a little bit crushed. But visiting really young kids is nice for me, because nonverbal communication is even easier with people who primarily use it themselves! I can make faces and say 'da' in a high-pitched voice, and peek-a-boo is pretty much the same concept in any language.
But it's the babushkas whom I adore the most. These are usually widows, who are lonely and don't have much to do. And they have stories to tell; though I can't usually understand what they are saying, they talk to me even when there are no Russian speakers nearby. Sometimes, I think, we just need to talk. It was at the home of a babushka that Sarah and I learned to clean the Belarusian way; Sarah learned how to beat a rug properly while I learned how to wash a floor with a few rags and a good crouch... no soap, just hot water. Soap is expensive. One special experience was singing songs in Hebrew for a Jewish babushka, a little mini-concert, lifting up my voice for this woman who just had a malignant tumor removed from her throat -- 'cancer,' because of Chernobyl, is not uttered here. On another visit we only got a few minutes with the man we'd come to visit; his daughter or nurse (I couldn't tell which) fed us, particularly me, 'til I thought I would burst. She insisted on stuffing my purse with candy before I left, and kissed me several times; I have no idea why she loved me so much. I think the candy will end up in some little kid's pockets.
And as for the food: I've been familiarising myself with Belarusian cuisine. Supposedly Americans can't stand it at first, but I've liked everything I've tried thus far. An important event in my gastronomic life here was my introduction to smetana, a substance that i think is basically sour cream, though maybe a little creamier. It's in practically every belarusian dish, including the sweet ones. The other ubiquitous food are latkes; they are not a Hanukkah thing, nor even a Jewish thing; they are a dietary staple. And I actually haven't yet seen them served with smetana. But they are made so very very wonderfully well (mmmmm, latkes.....); I still have to learn how to make them for myself.
What I have learned are some fun tricks like making mashed potatoes and then keeping them warm, "like a little child," by wrapping them in newspaper, and then in numerous blankets. So there's a big ball of blankets on your bed, and somewhere in there is a pot of mashed potatoes. Our little balcony, meanwhile, does well for keeping things cold, though of course that usually means deep-freeze. Good juice is a little hard to find, and good milk impossible, but potatoes are $.30 for a five-pound bag. Imported vegetables (imported is safer) are expensive, and it was sad when one evening we had a girl over for dinner who remarked that green was such a rare colour for her to see on her plate. It's not a colour that I've seen in any of my Belarusian meals, either. I've never been thrilled about eating my vegetables, but even I want to cry out: get some more greens to these people! For meat we've been focusing on chicken, as we've been told that chickens' lives are too short for them to absorb too many contaminants from Chernobyl. We don't eat larger Belarusian animals. But CW does a two-day grocery shopping trip to lithuania every six weeks or so, and she brought us back some lovely beef and some dairy goodies... yum yum! Next time I'll know to get a multi-entry visa so i can tag along.
As I finish this up, I've just woken up from my post-all-night-prayer-meeting nap. Each month the congregation does this, and I was surprised to see that it's very well attended; at least 50 people showed up last night. And nobody fell asleep. My mind didn't understand much, but I did have my doumbek, my trusty intercessory tool that works in any country (my hands are a little beat up now, getting those callouses back...). It was a joy to see how these meetings help knit the congregation together as a body as we worshipped and prayed for the sick, the needy, the fledgling congregations in other Belarusian cities, or for the Russian Orthodox Church here which insists on portraying us as a cult... I also think that God set up a few new friendships (with or without words) in my own life during this meeting, and I felt more and more (bolshe y bolshe) integrated with the congregation as the wee hours went by.
As for prayer needs... of course, as always, I need help with the language. I've had some lessons and even homework from friends already, but my first official lesson is tomorrow, monday the 29th. I'm excited and pretty much desperate to learn. Another issue is my health, just because about a week after arriving I started to have a sore throat, and that turned into a cold which I've just gotten over; a cold isn't exactly debilitating but it's no fun and it's a distraction that I don't much need. So please pray that I stay rested (night prayer notwithstanding) and able to fight off what the weather and pollution would like to foist upon me. Another prayer request is for my computer; I mentioned its oddities in my last email, and they have continued to the point where I don't know what to do to make it turn on sometimes other than lay hands on it! Which has always worked. Buying a machine here would be a bit of an expense, so I need this thing to keep working for the next year or so... so pray that I either figure out how to fix the problem's cause, or that it miraculously goes away.
Also, please pray that my relationships develop. I've connected strongly with some folks here, verbally or nonverbally. Just please pray that I'm able to surround myself with a few good friends and co-strugglers. Last but not least, please pray for my new congregational home. It's a young congregation full of young believers, which provides no small challenge for the leaders. Please pray that unity is preserved as a lot of members go through their spiritual "teenage" years, and pray for grace for everyone as we learn more about being a family.
Spaciba! I rambled on again, but believe me, for each detail in here I cut out two others; I've been processing a lot lately. In the future, I hope these updates (and my brain) will be a little less scattered!
- 28 January 2001
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