I walk down to the metro but not to board a train. I’m going down to the cafe where I know they have great pastries. My wife and all four children are with me, and my wife has already figured out who speaks some English at this place. She knows how to order what we want, and I am happy to let her do it. After pointing and talking mostly in English with the kids and the woman behind the counter who knows some English, Beth prepares to pay and wait for the food. I’m carrying our youngest, little Jo, strapped onto me, and I move to the edge of the shop to keep from crowding the counter area.
“Kids, come on over here. Mommy can get the stuff, and we don’t need to crowd around the front.”
They come running. “She’s so cute!” Mikayla says, cooing at Jo, who bounces with enthusiastic appreciation against my chest.
“Nyet!” I hear a little boy saying to his playmate. They are perhaps ten years old, probably in this cafe for the same reason we are. Everybody likes the pastries here. After listening to catch a few Russian words I understand, I decide the two boys are having some disagreement about us.
One little boy walks up to me, his hair like a big boy’s, cut short on the sides and the back.
“What are they from?” he says, the English words like a novelty in his mouth. He must have meant “where.”
“We’re from the United States.”
“Uhhh!” the boy says, nodding vigorously to his playmate, jabbering words I can’t quite pick up, but the playmate doesn’t seem convinced, so I throw in some Russian words. “S-sh-uh.” That means U.S.A. “We’re from America. Americanski.”
Now they both understand me. I’ve erased any doubt even from the more skeptical one. His eyes have widened, and he’s watching me as if I’m not quite real. I’m not just a European who knows English. I’m from the other side of the ocean. He talks to his playmate, then turns to me and tries his English for the first time.
“How. Are. You?”
“I’m doing well.” I pause. “Chorosho.” Thanks to my German language background, I can make the “Ch” sound pretty easily, though Russian and Belarusian use an “X” to represent the sound instead of the German “Ch.” When Beth said the sound was hard to make, I told her just to “hauk it up” as if she’s getting ready to spit. The Cyrillic alphabet is like the Greek– the same letters. Most American college students barely know these letters except as letters for fraternities and sororities.
And now Beth is here with the pastries and drinks. Abigail has been hanging onto my hand, but the older two children returned to Beth at some point. Now they are all jittery with pleasure at the sheer thought of these sweets in their mouths.
I decided to start with an anecdote this week, just to give an up-close image of our life here. It’s an interesting experience– feeling like outsiders because of our dependence on English. Speaking other languages in America usually feels like an unnecessary show of my abilities. Not here. People here often know multiple languages, and English may or may not be one of those languages. I’ve been able to use German rather than English when looking for a common language with some people. A few people have tried French on me, but I’m pretty bad in French unless I see it written.
Besides getting accustomed to everyday life and language in Minsk, of course, I’m getting used to life at Belarusian State University. The building where I teach is on Karl Marx Avenue, so I start thinking about Marxist literary criticism while walking down the street to teach. I’m teaching two courses — one on the American Short Story and the other on Gothic American Fiction. It’s really intriguing to teach American literature to Eastern Europeans and other students from non-American countries. There are a number of foreign students from Iraq and China and other places.
I’m also getting to know a little about Belarusian literature. Here are four big names:
- Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Although he is known (at least in the United States) as a Polish poet, he is also claimed as a Belarusian poet (and a Lithuanian poet). This likely has to do with the fact that he was born in present-day Belarus in the part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had originally been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but he was an advocate for Polish independence. (I think I have that all straight!) He moved around quite a bit — living for stints in in areas that are now within Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, France, and Italy. At the end of his life, he supported the cause of Polish independence and worked toward that end. His literary work interacted with all of these places as well. Four museums bear his name — one at his birthplace in Navahrudak, Belarus, another in Warsaw, another in Constantinople (where he died), and another in Paris where he lived for quite a few years. I hope to visit the first two of these while we’re here. An East European Romanticist, Mickiewicz has been ranked with or compared to poets such as Goethe and Byron. While he’s famous for his Polish epic Pan Tadeusz, his Dziady (which means something like “Ancestors” but is usually translated as Forefather’s Eve) is something like a Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian Divine Comedy, incorporating the Hell-Purgatory-Paradise trajectory of Dante’s masterpiece. Here’s a brief selection of a spirit/shade speaking about the power of the human spirit and will (translation by various, edited by George Rapall Noyes and Harold B. Segel):
Oh man, if you but knew how great your power!
One thought of yours, like hidden lightening flashing,
Through gathered clouds can send the thunder crashing
In wasteful storm or pour-down fruitful shower.
If you but knew that hardly thoughts arise
When there await as elements the thunder,
Demons and angels in expectant wonder —
Men! One of you in chains, by thought alone
Can overturn or raise the loftiest throne. — Forefather’s Eve, Part III
- Yakub Kolas (1882-1956) – I pass by the Yakub Kolas metro station whenever I go downtown. I also stop there when we go to the market or the Lido Restaurant (traditional Latvian style, excellent food, especially their draniki, which is worth waiting for!) or on the way to the Pushkin Library, where we have access to books in English– including children’s books for my kids! This poet was known for his sympathy with the common folk, the peasants of pre-revolutionary Belarus. Yakub Kolas is his penname, and his actual name is Constantine Mickiewicz, which makes him share the last name of his more famous literary ancestor (see #1 above). I found four of his poems translated into English – “Song of the Bells,” “O Spring…,” “Easter Eve,” and “The Wolf.” Here they are: https://www.poemhunter.com/yakub-kolas/poems/ His poem “Song of the Bells” sounds a cry for freedom in the face of oppression and registers his strong faith in the “bright destiny” of the people (bells) despite their current oppression:
And the crippled bell was heartsick,
For those songs of many voices,
Where in fathomless expanses,
Stars were listening in secret,
Seeking out a hidden meaning.
But the voice of truth and concord
In the soul will live, undying,
With the call of freedom crying,
Ever in the heart unconquered
Its bright destiny is shining.
Here he is described as “the classic writer of Belarusian and world literature, one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature and literary Belarusian language. A poet, playwright, prose writer, publicist, translator, teacher, public figure”: https://archives.gov.by/eng/index.php?id=527368
- Petrus Brovka (1905-1980). Although I haven’t visited it yet, just down the street from where I teach is the Literary Museum of Petrus Brovka. When the Nazis invaded Belarus (part of the Soviet Union at the time), Brovka’s mother was one of those unlucky Belarusians arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Brovka himself became a champion of Soviet resistance to the Nazis. His story is not uncommon. The Nazis did more obvious damage than the Soviets, and the Soviet resistance made them something like heroes in the local lore. Brovka was the National Poet of Belarus for some years, and he won the Yakub Kolas Literary Prize for his novel When Rivers Merge in 1957. From what I have been able to gather, this novel celebrates the relationship between Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. I have not read it or any of his poems. I’m not sure if his work has been translated into English or not. (I will have to inquire of my new colleagues.)
- Svetlana Alexievich (1948-). In 2015, she became the first Belarusian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work is in the line of investigative journalism, and she has collected contemporary oral histories of the Chernobyl fallout. Because of the northerly wind blowing at the time, Belarus was affected more than the Ukraine even though the nuclear power plant was south of the Belarusian border. Alexievich was awarded the Nobel because her writings represented “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” The history of the Belarusian people, as I am learning, is indeed one of suffering and courage — resilience and fortitude in spite of being beaten down over and over again. They are an admirable people, and I am growing to love their voices. The Paris Review published some gripping selections from Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl in the year of her Nobel Prize. These can be readily accessed online: https://www.theparisreview.org/letters-essays/5447/voices-from-chernobyl-svetlana-alexievich
This is just the beginning of my digging. More to come…