Minsk: Old Town Stroll

Minsk (pop 2 million)

Republic of Belarus (pop 9.5 million)

September 7, 2014

Minsk: “The Old Country”

So after the drama at the Belarus Embassy in Riga, what can I expect from the Immigration officials when I arrive at the airport in Minsk?   Discrimination?  Suspicion?  Paranoia? 

Belarus has five neighbors:  Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.  Will the immigration officer display a Russian attitude, a Ukrainian or Polish or Lithuanian attitude, a Latvian attitude?   Or a unique Belarus attitude?

I approach the Immigration counter.  A young woman takes my Passport.  She’s blonde.  She’s gorgeous.  She scans the information page, stamps my visa, and with a bright and totally sincere smile welcomes me to Belarus!  The whole bit takes about six and a half seconds.  If this is a Belarus attitude, well, gloriousky!

The taxi drivers?  Not so much.  Unmoved by my diplomatic charm, they insist on a fare of 250,000 Rubles.  Non-negotiable.  10,000 Belarus Rubles to the US Dollar.  I did the math.  So sue me, I’m spoiled.  The equivalent taxi ride back home in Bangkok from the airport to a downtown hotel is about half that price.

The modern Belarus Hotel sits up on a hilltop and dominates the surroundings like a medieval fortress.  It feels like a fortress inside with huge, heavy, steel and glass doors and broad empty spaces.  With three towering twenty story wings, more than 480 guest rooms, several restaurants and cafes including the Panorama on the roof, a health club, swimming pool and spa, gift shop and English-speaking receptionists, I ask myself, “Am I in the Eastern Block?  Is this ‘The Old Country’?”

For Americans and for New Yorkers or for basically anyone born in the USA in the mid-Twentieth Century, “The Old Country” is the place where our parents or grandparents were born.  In my New York City neighborhood for example, if your family name is Ricco or Bartimole, Muscarella, Calabro or Calamari, the “Old Country” is Italy in Western Europe.  If your name is O’Reilly or Cox, the “Old Country” is Ireland, also in Western Europe.  

But what about my other friends and neighbors?  Polokoff or Kossove,  Dosik or Pasternak, Benowitz, Linowitz or Shaywitz, Alinksy, Opochinsky or Leshanski,  Follick or Forstadt, Milman or Zupan?  Or Lifschitz and Lubitz, my mother’s parents?  Now that’s a whole other kettle of barley and beets.  For these families and for my family, the “Old Country” is exactly where I am standing today – in Minsk, Belarus, the geographical epicenter for its neighbors in Eastern and Northern Europe.  I have traveled back to the middle of the “Old Country.”

I don’t own a Belarus guidebook.  I don’t know anyone who has been here.  Except for air tickets and hotel reservations, I did no other online research.   What will I find in Minsk? 

The Belarus “fortress” Hotel is a modern reflection of much of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century architecture in downtown Minsk.  Large, heavy, muscular, masculine government and business structures line both sides of broad, grand boulevards.  Traffic is heavy but flows easily.

A clutch of churches in a variety of bright and airy styles populate the Old Town.

A gossip of old “babushkas” huddles beside a favorite chapel.   And yet, the “Old Country” seems quite young on this sunny, warm and leisurely Sunday afternoon.

Gaily dressed young children feed the pigeons.  Serious teenage boys cavort on their skateboards.  Gentle high school girls stroll along hand in hand.  Attractive young women kiss-kiss and wander off for yet another rendezvous.  Young men lounge in the sun.  Amorous couples ignore their surroundings.  And Old Mr. Jan does what he always does.  He tries to record the scene with his surreptitious photo shoots.

Landlocked and mostly Russian-speaking, in its policies, politics and governance, Belarus leans strongly towards its dominant neighbor to the East.  Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994.  He is Europe’s longest serving leader and shows no sign of retiring.   His style and manner of governing appears to be decidedly old “Old Country.”    

But the scene on the street is “new” and looks more like Belarus’ Baltic neighbors to the Northeast, Estonia and Latvia.  Not a scrap of litter, absent graffiti, electric trams and low levels of pollution.  Finally, I observe what I have seen in other former Soviet Republics:  a neat and well-dressed populace and the ubiquitous, spotlessly clean, bright and colorful footwear.  

I suppose a traveler from the West is a bit of a curiosity here so it’s not unreasonable for folks to be a little shy, reserved and sometimes cold, and given the style of their government, suspicious.   But on balance, and like their Baltic neighbors, I encounter mostly warm, helpful and friendly people.

The helpful receptionist at the hotel recommends the restaurant called Vasilki.  Vasilki ( ВАСІЛЬКІ) means “cornflowers” and in Belarus, the tiny blue blossoms are a symbol of happiness and longevity.  Happily I sit in the glass-enclosed sidewalk section of this charming and authentic restaurant.  But the menu presents the classic conundrum.  Listen:

For openers I order the obligatory Peasant Herring Salad:  Herring, pickled mushrooms, tomatoes, celery, onions with a sour cream and mayonnaise sauce. 

I follow up with thick and hearty, Grandmothers Mushroom Soup with porcini, mushrooms, potatoes, onions and carrots. 

I order a glass of wine: Baron de Cruzares, vino tinto semidulce.  Spanish name.  Belarus produced.

Now here’s the problem:   What do I order for dessert?  The choices are:   

Blintzes filled with cottage cheese and topped with strawberries?  Or, Potato Pancakes topped with apple sauce and sour cream?

These “Old Country” delights were a regular part of my diet in the New World.  No frozen food packets either.  My American-born mother made these treats from scratch.   I would ask my “New World” Mother or my “Old Country” Belarus Grandmother for their advice, but they are long gone.

So here in Minsk in ”The Old Country,” I’m on my own.  Which dessert shall I chose?  Delicate and fluffy Blintzes, or thick and heavy Pancakes?

Which one would you choose?