On our last day in Belarus, we spent the afternoon walking around Minsk looking for a sign labeled “сувенир.” If you happen to read Cyrillic, the alphabet of the Slavic world, congratulations, you can skip ahead. If not, take a wild guess at what that word might translate to. A couple of hints, it is pronounced almost exactly the same as its English counterpart. Need another one? The sign pertained to a shop where we would be able to find traditional Belarusian keepsakes to take back to the States with us. Still can’t crack it? Perhaps you can use this phonetic key to help: с=s, у=u, в=v, е=e, н=n, и=i, and р=r. Yes, “сувенир,” is “souvenir.” If you enjoyed doing that and are amused at how a word pronounced exactly the same can look so different, then you may understand just how fun it was for Kate and I to learn the Cyrillic alphabetand try to decipher signs, seeing if they bore any resemblance to their English translations. A few more of our favorites were:
While we found the most joy in deciphering common items like those above, perhaps our favorite contrast between the two alphabets was for the city of Nezvizh, which in Belarusian was written as “Нясвіжскі” (pronounced “knee-ez-Vee-chee”). There, we planned to tour the city’s palace, which dated to the 16th century and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belarus. Before being allowed to enter though, we had to go through our first ever mandatory coat check, where our coats were taken from us with such sternness and efficiency that we almost felt as if we had done something wrong by choosing to dress warmly that day. Being a bit chillier than we had hoped to be after being unburdened of our coats, we began to tour the palace, where we were confronted with the excessiveness of wealth, inspiring in us equal feelings of awe and envy, as all displays of wealth seem to do.
Prior to the trip, Belarus’s history had been completely unknown to us and we were now coming face to face with the physical manifestations of its grandeur. As a part of the ill-fated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the land and people of present day Belarus were once members of one of the largest, most populous and most powerful empires of the Middle Ages. It remained this way for the better part of three centuries until the Russian and Germanic forces that bordered it began eating away at its prominence. We were glad that remnants of its glorious past were still on display for us to have a glimpse into.
Perhaps the easiest (read “least fun”) translation we came across was the town of Mir which was unceremoniously translated as “Мір.” There, we would tour a castle that shared its name with the town. We thought that the name for the castle, which is Belarusian for “peace,” was a rather Orwellian name to bestow upon a military fortress. Inside, we roamed its vast halls and elaborate rooms, though it was its exterior that intrigued us the most. This created a dilemma as seeing the outside of the castle involved being outside, a feat that presented a significant challenge as the weather was in an arctic kind of mood that day.
As we went outside, we were thrust into the grips of winter and shuffled about the castle’s grounds in a futile attempt to stay warm, teetering all the while between our desire to see as much of it as we could and our increasingly more urgent desire to find a warm place to escape into. Before succumbing to the latter, we made one more heroic push against the gusts of frigid air in a quixotic attempt to walk around the grounds outside the castle so we could view it from afar. As these grounds were even more open to the elements than we had been when in the castle, our heroism didn’t last long. Kate made it about one hundred yards in, turned around, looked at the castle for about five seconds, chattered “Okay, good enough,” and shivered her way back to the cafe where our friends Emmet and Olga were waiting for us. Foolishly, I continued on, though once bodily numbness became an issue, I quickly abandoned my pursuit to circumnavigate the castle and scampered back to the cafe to join them. There, over a cartoonishly large cup of hot cocoa, and some of the more delicious Belarusian food we would have during our time in the country, Kate and I had a long and painful thaw as our toes and fingertips regained feeling. Just as we were beginning to recall what warmth and comfort felt like, it was time to leave.
Towards the end of our time in Belarus we began feeling very confident about our Cyrillic skills, so much so that I assured everyone that I could comfortably split from the group and follow road signs to meet up with them at a predetermined destination. My reason for doing so was to get some pictures of Belarusian houses, whose colorful facades had intrigued me since our first day in the country. “It’s very easy, just look for this sign, take a right, and then the next left and that road will take you directly there,” Olga explained to me. “Got it,” I said. I didn’t have it. Not even one hundred yards into the walk I saw the street sign that I thought could possibly be the one she was talking about…and walked right past it. As it turns out, like with the Roman alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet has different fonts and letters can look slightly different depending on which font is used. So, despite the letters on the sign looking similar enough to the ones I was expecting to see, they were still just different enough for me to convince myself that I should continue lumbering forward. It wasn’t until I got to the edge of town and the road I was walking on turned into a highway that I suspected that I may have missed my turn. I frantically retraced my steps through the rapidly darkening landscape, making guesswork of where to turn and, by complete dumb luck, happened across the store where we were supposed to meet. As it turned out, beer had saved the day. Kate, Emmet and Olga, justifiably worried that I was lost, were planning to get in the car and drive around to look for me until they remembered that they had forgotten to pick up beer in the store and went back in to get it. I arrived just as they were checking out. The panicked moment was brief, but worth it as I was able to capture the houses that I had become so endeared by.
We’ve come to look forward to seeing what seemingly mundane things capture our attention when visiting a new country. If you had asked me before traveling to Belarus what I thought would intrigue me the most, grand medieval castles and palaces or modern everyday houses, I would undoubtedly have chosen the former. But, as I look back on our time in Belarus, it is the houses that come to mind first along with the language whose characters, masquerading as the familiar Roman alphabet, twisted our minds time and again trying to discover what familiar word lay behind them. We’re thankful to have been able to see all of the incredible sites that we have throughout our travels, but it’s the unexpected places, people, and experiences in between that have stuck with us the most, and for those, we are even more grateful.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Groups shuffle past
frozen in frames,
at each passerby
who absently takes in
and scarcely scans
their golden name plates
They pass through
From family trees,
that now encases them.
their roots stood firm,
growing into a home
to live their lives
in a palace meaning peace.
the castle is a museum,
as disconnected from its visitors
as it is from its former inhabitants.
A part of a holiday,
a piece of an itinerary.
Below, you can find some pictures that didn’t quite fit in to any of our posts about Belarus, but that we thought were worth sharing still.