I've now been in minsk for three days, but have only just managed to get online (and this is still with a borrowed account). But even three days seems miraculous to me. The laptop I brought with me has been the source of a little worry: on the plane I couldn't even turn it on. I plugged it in in the Frankfurt airport and couldn't turn it on still. And in Minsk, again. Since then I have found the secret (or set of secrets) to dealing with this curmudgeonly old machine, but I've also done a good bit of praying for its health. Already I feel myself being taught to pray in a near-constant manner. From the looks of things, it's a lesson I'll be taught much more.
This is a very good thing, don't get me wrong. I'm actually thrilled to be here. The community is open and generous though they don't have much; the language is challenging but I've already become eager to learn all of it that I can; the flat I live in is not beautiful but it already feels like home. Another American girl is here for about three months; she and I arrived together, and we're now sharing this mostly comfortable flat.
I've spent about 60 dollars to fully settle in: on dishes, food, and other supplies. Like bleach -- in which we drenched much of the apartment the night we moved in (more on that later) -- pots and pans, another phone-jack adapater for the computer, groceries, gauze (so that air can get through the vents but roaches can't). And boots!! My hiking boots, which aren't exactly waterproof, elicited some amused stares from belarusians on the metro. One can get quite good (almost always black) belarusian-made boots for $20 or less, though it's a bit tougher for a bigfoot like me. But even I found boots with the help of nadia, one of our new heroes.
Heroes... we've been dependent on a lot of people, which in itself is a lesson. I tend to want to do everything myself, regardless of whether or not I speak the language (I can smile, grunt 'da,' and point well...), but everyone keeps insisting on helping us. So we've already run around town with three different guides. Nadia is a special one. She's seventeen, a student at the Bible school we'll be attending, and sometimes it seems that she smiles more than all of Minsk combined. She's been using us partly to work on her English, but also she seems to be overjoyed that we're here. Tonight she told me she was praying for older believer friends, and she thinks we're an answer to that prayer. I remember specifically praying for a flat in which i could entertain youth who needed some time away from their families -- time that doesn't involve vodka (far too much here involves vodka) or super-short skirts. Nadia might be one of those youth, but now I think she's ministring more to us than we are to her.
On Thursday we arrived. Belarus from above, as our plane came in, was white, white, white. White Russia indeed... mostly I noted the evergreens: beautiful, with (it seemed) a dusting of snow on each needle. When our plane landed, I was sure we were going to land directly on snow but the runway appeared under us at the very last moment. It was still a pretty snowy runway. It's not that cold, but the snow covers everything and precipitation is more or less constant (apparently this past summer saw only three sunny days). On our arrival, we got most fixedly stuck in a snow-filled ditch by the side of one of our housing development's walkways (yes, it was a walkway and yes, our van was just driving along on it). We all got out and pushed, and I slipped (I was wearing my clogs for the flight) and thus the snow and I were formally introduced.
There is a layer of ice a couple of inches deep under everything. If you are lucky there is snow on top of it, in varying shades of grey and brown, which will keep it from being too slippery. But still, I have gotten shin-splits while perfecting my anti-slip Minsk Winter Walk. The new boots should help in that too; shovelling, however, is not a priority here.
Our new home is a 2-room flat, not a 2-bedroom one as I had previously thought. So we moved a bed, and now it's a 2-bedroom without a living room. It came with furniture and dishes as most flats here do. The thing is, people here don't really wash dishes with soap (I noticed in much of Western Europe that rinsing the soap off was not exactly a well-observed tradition, so I know that not-entirely sanitary dishwashing is not just a FSU -- Former Soviet Union -- thing) and consequently the dishes get pretty grungy. The strategy used here seems to be to buy really cheap, belarusian-made pots and pans and dishes, and when something gets grody beyond what you can bear (which probably depends on how full your pocketbook is), you buy a new one. But Miriam (our new leaders' daughter, an American) instructed us on how to do it the American-in-Minsk way: that is, put all of your landlord's dishes somewhere out of the way, drench everything in the kitchen, inside and out, in bleach, go back over it with dish soap, rinse, and then fill the cupboards with cheap, belarusian-made cookware and dishes of your own. Drench them in bleach and then soap and very hot water as well, and take care of them until the items die from natural causes (ie., cheapness). So this was how we spent our first evening in Minsk. And our first meal in Minsk was at -- you guessed it -- McDonald's. Apparently it's the Place to Be.
Friday mostly consisted of sleeping and shopping, then an amazing Shabbat dinner at the winograds' (the american family who were the ones who convinced me to come here) house. Chantal and Stewart (mom and dad of the family) told us stories. For example: in their first Belarusian flat, they discovered that their landlord was running a huge mafia distillery in the garage.
Saturday featured the Shabbat (sabbath) meeting of the congregation. It's near the science academy, not far from the centre of the city. The service was long, and not only because all of Stewart's message had to be translated by Roman, his interpreter. They sang a zillion songs, and we could sing the Hebrew but were a quite lost when they sang the Russian. It made me very much want to bang on a drum instead of attempting to sing. Which is often how I feel in services in English, come to think of it; 'hitting things' simply seems to be my most natural form of worship, as I suppose dancing and so on must be for some people. So I'll see if I can bring my doumbek along next week. We have praise and worship in russian at the Bible school, too, so maybe I can bang things there as well. while still attempting to learn the songs in Russian. Nadia acted as our interpreter for parts of the meeting, which was a new sensation for me as I feared we were disrupting those around us. At one point Stewart introduced us, which was even more mortifying. "They don't speak much Russian, but they smile nicely." In general, people here don't smile much, and I'm always a little self-conscious when I do; when I was in Moscow and St. Petersburg I tried to suppress my smiles a bit, to fit in a bit better, but by taking cues from a few folks in the congregation who smile frequently, I am starting to think that maybe it's not a thing to suppress. So I try to keep my face open, even when it's wearing a very 'duh,' 'ya ne panemayu' ('i do not understand') expression.
It's an expression I think I'll perfect. Just now someone called; it was a wrong number (I hope) and I had no idea what to tell him. "I don't speak Russian. I don't understand. No. Not here. Sorry. Sorry"... and yet he continued to throw Russian at me. It may have been Sasha -- another one of our heroes here -- playing a joke, but I don't think so. The language is by far the trickiest thing and by far the #1 item on my prayer request list. But this is home now, and it will be okay.
- 14 January 2001
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