Brussels

As much effort as we put into proving otherwise, we are still children at heart no matter our age. At no time is this more apparent than when we unexpectedly find ourselves confronting a smell, or taste, or sight of something long forgotten that makes us feel like we did long before attaining the overcelebrated title of maturity. For us, what transported our minds to a more youthful state was the window of a chocolate shop that lied down a glittering hallway in Brussels on a gloomy December day. Trimmed in glowing evergreen branches that illuminated the red poinsettia leaves running alongside it, the shop offered a cinematic picture of Christmas that beckoned us towards it. Practically pressing our noses to the glass, we peered inside the shop as elvish workers strolled about the gold and burgundy trimmed store. Sweets of every shape and size filled the shelves with the crown jewel of the collection being, in our mind anyway, the pralines which, befitting of their value, were neatly displayed behind a glass case much like a fine jewelry would be. The value of the two were indistinguishable to us.

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Across the hall, the aroma of fresh waffles and chocolate sauce demanded the attention of our noses, which we promptly followed only to be distracted by a nearly life size cookie depiction of St. Nicholas in a speculoos shop. Now, if the word speculoos does not send you salivating, you should know that the cookie can be best described as thin, crunchy, caramelized, and infused with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom among others. Perhaps now you can understand our distraction at the sight of them and also, perhaps, our childlike joy at finding ourselves amongst a heavenly array of sweets. There was only one problem, we were vegan and everything described above was most definitely not. Did I mention that the disposition of children is also very flexible? Along with our obsession over sugary treats, it appeared that we would be adopting that trait as well, if only for our weeklong stay in Brussels.

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Checking out a waffle shop

Like our other stops in Europe after finishing El Camino, our main purpose for traveling to the Belgian capital was to visit friends. This time, it would be to see Doriane, whom we had shared a house with in Spain in 2012 and who had traveled to the States to be a bridesmaid in our wedding in 2016. It was time to return the favor, and we were very glad we did, if not only to see a good friend, then also to experience the festive mood of the city as it kicked off its holiday season.

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Enjoying some Christmas tea with Doriane in her apartment
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On our way into the city

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The gilded buildings of Grand Place which most definitely earned its “grand” moniker. Like the skyscraper-laden banks of Shanghai’s Bund, it was hard to believe that a place so impressive had started as nothing more than a small market in a muddy swamp.

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The spire of the Town Hall. No matter where we went in Brussels, whether it be candy shopping, museum hopping, or looking for a cozy place to enjoy a hearty Belgian ale, our path always seemed to lead back to Grand Place. We were happy for this as our feeling of awe at entering the plaza never faded even after a week of countless visits to it.
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The buildings in the plaza were no less spectacular at night

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The crowded walkways of Brussels’ sprawling Christmas market
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Enjoying stew and fritters from one of the few vegan-friendly booths at the market
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Outside of Grand Place, we were never at a lack of finding buildings that peaked our interest. We were especially enamored by the tops of the buildings, which were usually pyramidal in form but varied from one to the next in how they went about from arriving at their point from their base. Some curved elegantly upwards towards a mushroom-like cap and others rose jaggedly like a set of stairs. Because of the uniqueness of each building, we were always making sure to look up as we wandered the streets of the city.

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The National Basilica of the Sacred Heart

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The famous Manekkin Pis, which we were surprised to find was an incredibly small statue lying unceremoniously on the corner of an intersection. We probably would have walked right past it if Doriane hadn’t pointed it out. While naked in this picture, the statue is usually wearing a costume, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century.
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We thought this building looked a lot like Gringott’s Bank from Harry Potter.

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If there was one thing we enjoyed more than Belgian sweets, it was Belgian beer
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Taking in a Magritte painting at a museum dedicated to his life and work. Relatively unknown to us prior to our visit, we were very glad to have been introduced to the surrealist artist, whose work tickled our brains as we tried to make sense of his unordinary depiction of ordinary objects.
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During our time in Brussels, it felt like we stumbled upon this group of musicians just as much as we did Grand Place. Their music added a jazzy liveliness to whichever street we found them on.
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Worthless junk or priceless antiques? That was the question looming over us as we toured an antique market in Brussels. After walking through it, we leaned more towards the former.
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Another city fixture that we fell in love with, along with sweets and beer, was Art Nouveau, an early 20th-century art form that inspired various architectural projects from the same era. We were always excited when we happened upon a building that we could identify as being Art Nouveau.
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An Art Nouveau-inspired bar, one of our favorites of the many we would visit while in the city

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As our time in Brussels, and, by a very long extension, our time abroad, came to an end, we nostalgically reminisced about all of our travels while traversing the city on foot. It was fitting then that we came across a shell marking the way of El Camino, one of our greatest adventures from our eight years spent overseas.
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Have I mentioned yet that we enjoyed beer…
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…and sweets while in Brussels?
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Decorating for Christmas in Doriane’s apartment on our last night
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I started the blog talking about how easy it is to feel like a child at times and will end it on the same note. On our last morning in Brussels, we were giddy to find that our shoes had been stuffed with presents from St. Nicholas.

And of course, no blog about a visit to Doriane would be complete without mention of her cat Pumpkin Pie, or as his friends know him, Pumpkin, whom we will pay homage to in the next two photos.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

Mannekin Pis

Man oh Manny,
you really had to go.
Four hundred years of one steady flow.

You don’t seem to care
that people can see.
Don’t you want some privacy?

My only request
for the sake of this town,
is that when you finish, put the toilet seat down.

 

London

Most places Kate and I travel to require our family members back in the States to pull out the nearest map before being able to appreciate our excitement in going there. “Oh, Raja Ampat?! … And that’s in…Indonesia. Okay…which is…above Australia kind of. Okay, cool!” Knowledge of our destination’s geographical location never quite cut it though and it usually wasn’t until after our trip, when pictures and blogs had been posted, that family members were truly able to share in our excitement for having visited the places that we had. It was refreshing then, to have a city on our itinerary as synonymous with international travel as London was. Finally others would be able to take part in our enthusiasm prior to our trip.

Never before had we been to a place depicted in so many movies, tv shows, books, songs, and the like. Seeing double decker buses whiz past us, red telephone booths dotting the street, and the Union Jack waving from atop the Houses of Parliament, we were positively star struck; like getting to spend a few days with a celebrity. It was a feeling that would last for the entirety of our brief four days in the city. Some may argue that that is far too short a time to see London, and I would agree, but in a way, it was perfect. We were able to leave the city at the peak of our excitement in being there and, for that, it will always retain a special place in our memories.

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Our reason for visiting London was to see a former student of ours, Ian, and his parents Bessie and Yves. We enjoyed our time with them just as much as we did sightseeing in the city.
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We were disappointed to find Big Ben under a thick layer of scaffolding upon our arrival to downtown London. Thankfully, the rest of the Houses of Parliament were in full view.

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We learned that at one point within the last decade or so, London had removed all of their iconic telephone booths since they were no longer in use. After complaints from tourists, they reinstated them.
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The Christmas market in Trafalgar Square
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One thing we loved about London was all of the free museums. At the National Gallery we were excited to see paintings from the likes of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Monet among many, many others.
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One of the famous Landseer lions of Trafalgar Square. The lions‘ namesake and creator was a career painter, not a sculptor, who gathered his inspiration for the statues from a lion corpse. When the corpse had rotted beyond recognition, Landseer had to finish his creation from memory and sketches he had made.

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Inside St. Martin in the Fields Church, where we attended a free concert featuring a burgeoning cellist with piano accompaniment.

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At the Houses of Parliament. While we were walking by, a door in the ceiling of the enclave opened up, making for a cool picture.
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Westminster Abbey
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Stopping for a cup of coffee in a pub outside of Trafalgar Square
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Spending the afternoon with Ian

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Outside of Buckingham Palace
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We were just about to leave the palace and move on to another sight when we started noticing a lot of commotion inside the palace gates. Outside, a regal line of heavily decorated horse riders began filing down the street, led by a man on a white horse sounding a trumpet. Shortly after, the queen came zipping out of the palace gates and past the ecstatic crowd. The scene could have been plucked from any number of centuries except for the fact that the queen was inside a Land Rover and not a horse carriage.
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While walking back from Buckingham Palace, we passed a park where we came across a small group of people surrounded by a significantly large and eclectic group of wild animals. Squirrels, geese, pigeons, and, parakeets enthusiatically buzzed around the members of the crowd fighting over handouts of peanuts.
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At the Christmas market in Hyde Park

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While getting a picture inside one of the telephone booths, Kate discovered that they weren’t entirely out of use. Apparently, they functioned quite well as public toilets, as evidenced by the puddle of urine Kate stood in while taking the picture.

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Almost immediately after arriving in London, we discovered mincemeat pies, which, in spite of their name, we were happy to find entirely meat free. We would eat an unnecessary amount of them during our brief stay in the city.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Millennium Bridge

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Apart from seeing St. Paul’s Cathedral, we were also excited to go to Millennium Bridge as Kate had read that there was artwork on the bridge made from discarded chewing gum. At first, we thought we had missed what we thought was a permanent exhibit but then, upon further examination of the bridge, we notice tiny specks of color tucked into its crevices. The artwork, to our delight, was miniature. A scavenger hunt then ensued, trying to locate as many of the colorful creations as we could.
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One piece of work next to my boot

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Apart from the free museums, concerts, and an abundance of iconic landmarks, another thing we loved about London was knowing that buried beneath our feet were centuries and centuries of history waiting to be discovered. While walking down a street in between fairly modern looking apartment blocks, we came across a significantly more ancient looking wall. From an indiscreet plaque, we learned that we were looking at the Grand Hall of Winchester Palace, a site of once great importance and prestige. The ruins had been discovered during the London Blitz and weren’t entirely unveiled and restored until development started taking place in the area in the 1980’s.
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A couple important things we learned while touring London was that this is called Tower Bridge, not London Bridge
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…and that the Tower of London isn’t merely a tower but an entire castle complex.

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Going to the London Natural History Museum with Ian, Bessie, and Yves. We could probably could have spent every day for an entire year in the museum and still not seen everything we wanted to, just like London itself.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Hidden Treasure

Hop off the bus and look around,
Tower Bridge is easily found.
While passing through Trafalgar Square
observe the lions’ stately stares.

Spin around the London Eye
to see the city scrape the sky.
Watch Houses of Parliament wield their power
while Big Ben tolls at every hour.

Near St. Paul’s stretches Millennium Bridge,
Be sure to look down at each thin ridge.
There are treasures there easily missed,
not found on any tourist’s list.

Tiny wads of discarded gum
have been shaped and painted for a bit of fun.
Once forgotten, dismissed as trash,
they’ve found a home in an artist’s cache.

 

Belarus (An Overview)

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:

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Toilet
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Taxi
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Museum
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Restaurant (the top word)
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Mini Market
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Big Z Supermarket
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Dodo Pizza
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Cafe
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And, a subway station map with the Cyrillic word on the left and what it would roughly sound like in English written in yellow on the right.

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.

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Kate imagining herself as a knight

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.

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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. 

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Looking up at a very symmetrical ceiling within the castle
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coming up from one of the castle tower’s spiraling staricases
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A view of Mir from atop the castle

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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.

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A church on the castle grounds

 

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.

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Emmet guessed that the reason for the houses’ unorthodox colorfulness was that bright colored paints were cheaper and easier to come by and therefore a better option for painting a large surface like that of an entire house.

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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:

Merely Mir

Groups shuffle past
oil-painted faces
frozen in frames,
staring out
at each passerby
who absently takes in
their features
and scarcely scans
their golden name plates

Florian
Katarzyna
Sophia

They pass through
sitting rooms
dining rooms
bed chambers
and libraries.

From family trees,
centuries-long branches
reach out
but can’t
get past
the glass
that now encases them.

Before,
their roots stood firm,
growing into a home
for generations
to live their lives
in a palace meaning peace.

Today,
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.

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Looking up at Puslovskys Palace. We thought it looked like a large birthday cake elaborately decorated with white and pink frosting.

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One of our favorite experiences was going to a banya, which was like a Belarusian spa. There, you  sit in a sauna that’s so hot inside that you can only last about ten or fifteen minutes. After leaving the sauna, you  dump an ice cold bucket of water over top of your head to cool off. In between sessions you can sit in a common area and have snacks and tea. At the very end of your time at the banya, once your pores have opened up entirely, you take a bundled group of leaves dipped in water and hit your body with them. This is supposed to help your body absorb the nutrients in the leaves.
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In Minsk, we went to a Soviet-era cafeteria where they served food much like they would have during its time under the rule of Communism. The food, simple, consistent, dirt cheap, and delicious, was enjoyed in a bare bones dining area with videos of Russian pop music playing on a television screen.
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Inside an Eastern Orthodox Church in Minsk

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Ruzhany Palace

Nothing quite captures the imagination like a good, old-fashioned ruin. One can fill their hollow shells with as many fantastic stories as they wish, conjuring up a cocktail of questions that are just as entertaining to answer as they are to think of.

Belarus’s Ruzhany Palace was no exception to this. As we toured its dilapidated remains, we wondered at the idea that the ruins we were walking through used to be a center of bourgeois life in one of the largest and most populous empires of medieval Europe. Hallways once tread by kings and queens now bore a carpet of grass and dirt. Grand halls once famed for their literary collection and the world-renowned theater troupes that performed inside of them, now harbored a mini-forest, collections of bushes and twigs replacing the vast collections of books and art that once called them home. Blurring the line between the two extremes was a thick fog, concealing hidden corners and obscuring the blemished state of the palace. We found that, if we unfocused our eyes just enough, the imagination didn’t have to work too hard for an image of what the palace once was to come into focus.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

Nature’s Rule

I wander through
hollowed halls
covered in tapestries
woven by brittle vines
and decaying leaves.

My feet sunk
into plush carpet
of rich soil and fragrant grass.

I find myself
in a grand ballroom,
or perhaps a kitchen,
a whisper of stairs clings
to the crumbling brick wall.

The room
once closed off to the outside
is now open to the elements
to hold court.

Tangled branches
offer their winged subjects
places for shelter and rest.
Breezes loosen seeds
from dried flowers,
scattering them about the earth.
They take root, new life rising up
to join the old.

I watch through the fog,
marveling at the harmony
of nature’s law.

 

Brest Fortress

In the summer of 1941, two years into the onset of World War II, German and Soviet soldiers were still serving side by side in a fortress in Belarus, their complacency with one another kept afloat by the buoy of a non-aggression pact signed two years earlier. Tides were rapidly turning though as Hitler grew increasingly dubious of the slumbering Soviet bear lurking in the north. The pact, like a buoy in the face of a tsunami, was doomed. 

On June 22, with the tactical flip of a switch, Operation Barbarossa, whose end goal was nothing less than the seizure of Moscow and the extinguishing of the Soviet empire as a threat to the Nazi agenda, was initiated. At Brest Fortress in Belarus, German soldiers began firing on the Soviets, forcing them to scramble into a frenzied counter-offensive against people who had been perceived allies just moments before. The capture of the fortress, like the operation that spawned it, did not go as planned though. For one, the Soviets offered far greater resistance than the Germans had anticipated. Also, the Soviets had an important ally, the Russian winter, and their lopsided immunity to it when compared to their German foes, who died in the hundreds of thousands due to their ill-equipped gear.

Brest Fortress was captured long before winter arrived, or fall or even mid-summer for that matter, entering German hands on June 29. Despite the swift takeover though, the defenders of the fortress were stingier than anticipated (the last Soviet soldier wasn’t captured until July 23), which did its part in interrupting the Nazi push towards Moscow. Because of this, the fortress played a pivotal role in the turning point of the war and earned it a mythical standing among the annals of Soviet propaganda; an esteemed status still appreciated among its visitors today.

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Just outside the fort’s gates lied the remains of a Bernardine Monastery, whose ruins we explored as best we could.
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A hole in the monastery’s ruins that looked a lot like an eye
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At the Brest Archaeological Museum, log cabins and wooden plank roads from the 13th century were miraculously preserved and on display. It was the first time in all of our travels that we had come across wooden ruins.
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A view of the fortress through its wooded surroundings
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Entering the fort through one of its gates
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The fortress dates to the early 19th century, when construction on it began

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Inside the fort, you can still see remnants of the fighting that ensued once Operation Barbarossa began and German soldiers open fired on their Soviet counterparts. The holes in the white facade of this building are from bullets aimed at Soviet soldiers looking to take refuge behind the doors of the gate.
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Caught entirely off guard, Soviet soldiers had to hole up in any building they could find in order to form a resistance and avoid surrender. Their biggest enemy then became thirst, with many soldiers dying as a result of their blocked access to a water supply. The building in this picture is one of the places Soviet soldiers took refuge. Floodlights and machine guns were set up by German soldiers along the river. Once dehydration set in, the Soviets had to choose between ending their resistance for a sip of water or holding their ground and dying from a lack of it. Because of this affliction, there is a statue in the fort called “Thirst” dedicated to the soldiers who perished as a result of their dehydration.
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Heading to an Eastern Orthodox Church in the fort. We were thankful to find that a funeral was not taking place, given our experience at another church just a day earlier.
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Before entering the church, our friend Olga showed us a picture of Hitler and Mussolini inside it during their celebration of the fort entering Axis hands. It was strange knowing we were standing on the same ground that those infamous figures once stood.
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Lighting candles inside the church
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One of the most imposing sights during our time in the fort was of “Courage,” a massive statue that, like contemporary art, is up for interpretation. We learned that the statue, a giant, stern face emerging from a metaphorical rock, was originally supposed to have arms. After deciding to erect a monument inside the fort, officials called for submissions from local artists. The artist who designed “Courage” made his model out of clay and, on the way to submitting it to the selection committee, the arms fell of. The officials liked it as it was and, so, the statue was built without any appendages.
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Fisherman along one of the rivers that run through the fort

Pushcha Forest

A dense, unmoving fog lay spread across the landscape. Out of its depths one can make out the faint outlines of familiar figures: houses and cars and fences making their presence known through their clouded, somber forms. Above all of these rises an unfamiliar silhouette, the bulbous dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church, its figure sitting unceremoniously through a view splintered by the bare branches of a nearby tree. We are in Belarus and one could say that a similar fog lay over our understanding of the country; our knowledge of its culture and history just as obscured as our view of its landscape. Luckily, we were visiting our friends, one of whom grew up in Belarus, so our knowledge about the country, unlike the fog that would occupy its terrain for almost the entirety of our time there, would become significantly less hazy.

If asked to name a fact about Belarus, most people would struggle to come up with one. When calling to inform my bank that I would be visiting the Eastern European country and not to block my card while there, the teller on the other end asked which country Belarus was in. Now, while we at least knew it was a country, and could perhaps point it out on a map, nestled in between its better known neighbors of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, the ceiling of our knowledge topped out there. Some may recognize Belarus from its cameo in HBO’s Chernobyl and most anyone would recognize its translated name “White Russian” as an alcoholic beverage. But, like a landscape obscured by fog, there is much more to the country than one might initially think. For starters, Belarus is a proud owner of several European superlatives, including being home to the continent’s largest forest, which earned it the nickname “the lungs of Europe” and is even represented on the country’s flag in the form of a large, green stripe. It is also home to Europe’s largest land animal, the bison, and its most dictatorial state, with pride in the latter varying depending on who you ask. And, so as not to end the list with mention of a dictatorship, Belarus manufactures the world’s largest dump trucks.

Our time in the country began at our friends Emmet and Olga’s guesthouse (Holiday Home Olenia), which sat on the outskirts of Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest. As the fog surrounding the guesthouse dissipated, we realized that it was hiding far less than we had imagined, namely, a collection of sleepy cottages, the quirky blue body of the church, and, of course, trees. “It’s better during the summer,” they reassured us, painting a picture of green across the landscape filled with flowers and life, though this was unnecessary as we found the scenery beautiful even at its blandest. Inside the homestay, the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah” which is appropriate given that adhering to the concept feels like getting a warm hug from your living space) was in full effect. Heated floors created a warm and cozy environment, decorations were derived from the natural world, and hot beverages were always on tap. A day spent entirely in the homestay would not have been a day wasted. However tempting it was though to while away our time in Belarus relaxing there, especially since it had come at the heels of our 800-mile hike through Spain, we were eager to get out into the country, see its sights, and learn about its history and culture.

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One of the first things we did upon arriving in Belarus was to visit an animal reserve on the outskirts of Pushcha Forest.
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The elk calling out in this picture was extremely friendly. On a couple of occasions, he would walk up to us and let us pet the thick, wiry, and extremely dirty hair on his neck.
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The short and stocky Konik horse
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The reserve was also home to bison, which were absolutely massive

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The first historical site we would see was the Kamenets Tower. It was our first glimpse into Belarus’s rich history, one as equally grand as any of its European counterparts, filled with castles, knights, princesses, and, as we would be seeing at Kamenets, medieval watchtowers. The tower, whose name translates to “White Tower” in English, though its red brick facade suggests nothing of the sort, was built in the 13th century. Spotting it from afar, it looked like any other brick building in that it appeared to be the whole of many parts and thus, like a puzzle, we didn’t have to do too much imagining when picturing how to dismantle it. Looks can be deceiving though, and the tower, as we would find out, is more akin to a column of solid stone than a column of Jenga pieces, with each brick being impossible to remove; as evidenced by the generations of frustrated peasants who have tried to do just that in order to use the bricks for their own construction projects only to fail time and time again. Luckily, we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a way to penetrate the impenetrable as the front door was standing open upon arriving, signifying the tower’s transition from a closed-door establishment as the essential component of an kingdom to an open-door one as the essential component of the tourism industry. We were happy for the change as we roamed its levels and heard its stories.

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Slots where the latches of a ladder would have been inserted to allow for safe passage in and out of the tower

After touring the tower, we spotted an Eastern Orthodox Church nearby and decided to check it out. On the stairways leading up to the church, beautiful displays of flowers were laid strewn across the ground, a kaleidoscope of colors and dimensions seemingly exploding from the crevices of the steps. Almost immediately after entering the church, we ran into the backs of a large congregation assembled inside of it. Having lost track of what day of the week it was, we just thought it must be a popular day for worship, like a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. Soft, beautiful music filled the church’s interiors and paintings and decorations unlike anything we had ever seen before were hung about its walls. As our eyes trailed about, feeding our voracious appetites to take in our new surroundings, they were met with a most unfortunate sight: a gray, expressionless body lying in an open wooden box. “Corpse!” popped into our heads first, followed shortly after by an, “Oh no.” Suddenly the plethora of flower displays, groups of children playing outside the church, somber music, and, most notably, the sad faces that looked at us questionably as we entered the church, all made sense, we were at a funeral and we were crashing it. Like a dog who’s just been discovered having a snack from the family garbage can, we put our metaphorical tail between our legs and slinked out of the church as quickly as possible.

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Unwittingly on our way to a funeral at the church in the distance

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One of our last experiences before leaving our friends’ guesthouse and exploring the wider Belarus was to head back to Puscha Forest and visit Ded Moroz, the Slavic world’s equivalent of Santa Claus. Bearded, wearing bright colors, giving gifts to children at year’s end and delivering those gifts from a flying sleigh, Ded Moroz, or Father Frost as we would come to know him, bore many resemblances to his Western counterpart. However, he is slender not rotund, wears blue instead of red, gives gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, and has a sleigh pulled by moose rather than reindeer. If you are thinking,  “Hey, Father Frost just sounds like a cheap, copyright infringed version of Santa,” you should know that the two are equally ancient and that many of the modifications to Ded Moroz’s character came with the dawn of Communism in the Slavic world as the U.S.S.R. tried to distance it’s cultural icons and holiday festivities from those celebrated in the West.

While on the topic of modifications, it’s worth noting that Ded Moroz has gone through one of the more miraculous transformations in history, making the incredible leap from snow demon who lurked in forests and kidnapped children for ransom to heroic gift-giver bringing joy to children most in need of it during the holidays. Somewhere in that transition, he also experienced a brief foray into Communism where he lectured the benefits of the ideology to children, encouraged all of them to work hard for the good of the country, and reminded them that Stalin was the ultimate good in the world.

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Father Frost welcoming us to his palace

There would be no discussions about Stalin during our trip to Father Frost’s woodland hideaway. Instead, we would be given a tour of the grounds by none other than Ded Moroz himself. Throughout the tour, we were offered tidbits of information about the legends associated with him in a monotone, deadpan fashion (he had also missed out on inheriting Santa Claus’s jolliness) that was apparently infused with humor as the Russian speaking people huddled around us would occasionally giggle gleefully. Most of the people in our privileged tour group were adults, with only a few children amongst them, though at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Like going to Disneyland, everyone is made a child again in front of Santa Claus or Father Frost, and it was fun watching all of the adults in the group, us included, act just as giddily as the children when being asked to partake in certain parts of the tour.

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There is something significantly more appealing about the thought of a flying moose pulling a sleigh as opposed to reindeer.
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The moment we were anxiously waiting, a picture with Father Frost. Apparently, one of his incarnations is notorious for strongly encouraging people, particularly women, to hold his staff during pictures with him. This one did not, though for some reason, I still chose to do so.

As we got to Father Frost’s residence we were handed off to Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper. The family lineage that takes us from Father Frost to Snegurochka travels through some pretty murky genealogical waters. Among the many stories about her, the one we were told was that she is the offspring of the personification of January and a snowman…or woman…? How Father Frost came into play with all of this was a mystery to us and we left it at that. A bit more enthusiastic than her grandfather, Snegurochka continued taking us around the grounds, letting us partake in different traditions like…

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At this mill, you are supposed to place your hand on the stone whose size corresponds to how many lies you have told throughout the year. The stone is then ground to dust and the lies forgiven.
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In this area, there were statues representing each month of the year. You could make one wish for the upcoming year to your birth month’s statue, but only by whispering it in its ear.
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On this bridge, you could make a wish for every log that you stepped on while crossing the bridge. We were ill-prepared and ran out of wishes by the end.

With our view of Belarus a bit clearer after our time in and around Pushcha Forest, we eagerly awaited to find out what else the country had to offer as we loaded our belonging’s into Emmet and Olga’s van the next morning and pushed through the fog towards the far-off places still obscured.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Ded Moroz

Deep in the Pushcha Forest
Father Frost greets us,
clad in flowing
white and golden robes,
his snowy beard
nearly sweeping the floor.
We succumb to the magic
of the legend,
the trees,
and the faces lit up around us
as he and Snegurochka
lead us around
their wintry, wooden palace.
Passing gardens for wishes
and letters from children,
we forget for an hour
that we are adults.

Santiago de Compostela

The day began like any other. We gingerly made our way out of our sleep sacks, exposing our bodies bit by bit to the frigid albergue air much like a toe to cold water. After layering on clothes that felt as if they had just been plucked from the freezer, we warmed up with a hot breakfast, loaded up our belongings, secured our rain gear (for it was sure to be another rainy Galician day), and headed out the door. While the day’s destination seemed to resemble all the others we had visited, with it’s impractically long and syllable-packed name whose very utterance seemed to suggest antiquity (we had already passed the likes of Castilblanco de los Arroyos, Villafranca de los Barros, Embalse de Alcántara, Calzada de Valdunciel, and Fuenterroble de la Salvatierra), it was different. Unlike the aforementioned, amnesia-inducing towns that had left us pulling out our guide books every 30 minutes to check their names over and over, this one was impossible to forget as it had been on our minds for almost fifty days: Santiago de Compostela. Despite knowing that our Camino would end that day, it didn’t feel real until, in the very ordinary moment of gazing around our surroundings to try and find a yellow arrow to make sure we were on the right path, we had the very unordinary experience of seeing the cathedral steeples rising like a triumphant finish line in the distance. 

Like a dog who spends every waking hour trying to devise a way to escape over the fence, only to finally do it and then realize that she has no idea what to do with her newfound freedom, so did we arrive at Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the cathedral, the destination of every pilgrim on El Camino. We had walked for the better part of two months to arrive at that point, but once we were there, we weren’t quite sure what to do or how to feel. At least we had company. All around us pilgrims entered the plaza to the fanfare of their own internal rejoicing, their unbreaking smiles evidence of a journey completed. Amidst the echo of lively bagpipe music throughout the plaza, bottles of wine were opened, strangers hugged and high-fived each other, and loads both literal and figurative were unburdened as their bearers gazed in wonder at the front of the cathedral that had been a focus of joy for centuries. As we looked around at these scenes, we knew exactly what was to be done, which was, quite simply, to enjoy our hard-earned accomplishment. So, we sat down on the cool surface of the cobbled plaza, under the uncharacteristically blue Galician skies, and took everything in for we knew that the second we strapped on our backpacks and left the plaza, we would be crossing the far too thin and sudden line from pilgrim to tourist, and that was something we just weren’t, nor ever really would be, ready for.

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After beginning our journey with 1,000 kilometers to go, it was a surreal moment once we began seeing signs for the city in the single digits.
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Catching our first glimpse of the cathedral, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to quicken our pace or slow it down.
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We made it!
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A pilgrim sitting in front of the cathedral taking it in.
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Once at Plaza del Obradoiro, it’s common to come across people you’ve met along the way that you thought you’d never see again. The man wearing the red backpack on the left is someone we had walked with and parted ways with nearly a month prior to arriving in Santiago. We both entered the plaza at about the same time.

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After finishing El Camino, you can go to an office to get a Compostela, a document saying that you’ve walked and completed the pilgrimage. While it was exciting to receive it, we knew that it meant we were no longer pilgrims.
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Nighttime in Santiago

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A statue of St. James atop the cathedral
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Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel built for pilgrims by Isabel and Ferdinand after they walked El Camino. Sadly, it’s now a luxury hotel that most pilgrims can’t even come close to affording.

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While the cathedral was under construction during our time in Santiago, we were still able to see its magnificent altar.
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Lit candles inside the cathedral

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Winding staircases at the Museo de Pobo Galego

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A view of the cathedral through the rain

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In Santiago, it’s not uncommon to be served wine in saucers. On our last night in the city, we sipped on many-a-saucer while reminiscing about our walk, a great end to a great journey.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

El Camino

Thud
goes the satchel
as it sinks down
into the dirt,
narrowly avoiding
the mud from that morning’s
Galician rain.
The pilgrim follows,
crossing his feet,
one leather shoe
over the other,
a hole worn through
the heel, exposing
his skin to the elements.
He looks up
at the stone and wood shrine
in front of him.
He made it.
Murmuring a prayer
of thanks
and sorting through thoughts,
he idles,
knowing when he picks himself up,
a journey has ended.

So it goes
for a millennia,
sole after soul
arriving to a place
physically transformed through centuries,
yet as a symbol remains
as solid and unbreaking
as a scallop shell.

Smack
sounds the Osprey
as it makes contact
with pavement,
just missing
the puddle from the rainstorm
hours earlier.
I follow,
sitting cross-legged,
one North Face shoe
over the other,
the rubber soles wearing down.
Soon I’ll need
to buy another pair.
I look up
at the mammoth structure of stone
towering above the plaza.
I’m here.
I begin to whisper a prayer
of thanks,
but my breath falters,
not able to find words.
I linger,
when I leave, I will no longer be a pilgrim,
a chapter will end.