A rise of travel food shows is indicative of a renewed appreciation for culinary experiences to help visitors get in touch with a local culture. One day is not enough to treat yourself to a whole range of flavors and my Russian palette knew what to expect from the culinary scene of Minsk. Russians love the exquisite quality of the Belarusian food produce. People with a vague sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union believe that it is due to higher production standards dating back to this era -in Belarus they seem to be complied with up to this day. Along with the search for linguistic and architectural symbolism, I started craving for a more tangible piece of the Belarusian national identity, i.e., potato pancakes (драники).
Even though this is not distinctively foreign food (it is a popular dish back home), in Russia we think of it as a staple of the Belarusian cuisine. This was why I was hoping to find these potato pancakes distinctively tastier here, in their homeland. I guess in that part of the former Soviet Union, or even the whole Eastern Europe for that matter, we all love our potatoes. But it is incredible how they offer enough culinary space for our distinct national identities. For a taste of Belarusian potato pancakes I decided to go to a traditional local restaurant in Independence Avenue that I had chosen based on the largely positive reviews.
Its interior was adorned with traditional towels so I could enjoy another display of the country’s national identity. The waiters were also wearing national costumes. This place might have seemed like a tourist trap, but I could feel a genuine touch of our Slavic hospitality here. I had my драники served with мачанка(honestly I’d never heard this word before), which is a traditional Belarusian stew made with meat. On this somewhat chilly day pork ribs would be perfect for keeping me warm. I decided to wash the calorie-rich dish down with a glass of local beer. I remember tasting one of the best beers in my life here in Minsk six years ago. I have been to quite a few places since but very few beers I’ve had matched up (so far). When my perfectly Instagrammable dish arrived, I had to do what actually hurdles mindfulness – I took multiple photos of my meal to send home and posted one on my Instagram. I was on my own so the only way for me to share my excitement with a larger world was to disconnect from the one around. I couldn’t wait to give the food a try – my lunch was beautifully filling and tasty. The Belarusian national identity seemed more distinct now with those deliciously and uniquely made potatoes! The beer was OK, but I guess at that particular moment I didn’t feel like having another glass.
My elaborate architectural walk left me no time for a proper dinner – I could have tried the famous potato pancakes at another restaurant as virtually every place had them on the menu. All I had time for was to grab a coffee at a lovely place in Independence Avenue. I didn’t see as many coffee shops as I had expected in a place so close to the European Union, though. For my chocolate fix I popped out into a confectionery shop selling the produce by the Kommunarka Factory, one of the largest manufacturers of confectionery in Belarus. My Mum’s internship in Minsk was also in the food industry, but it was a bread-manufacturing enterprise. The sensual smell of freshly made chocolate made me imagine I was up for an ultimate Willy Wonka experience. I got a few bars for my family members and myself.
There was also a coffee shop here and it looked very busy and somewhat chaotic. I was hoping to sit at one of these tables overlooking the night lights of Independence Avenue and reminisce about leisurely coffee breaks on my European travels as well as numerous conversations over a steaming cup with fascinating people on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, it would be another pensive moment enjoying being alone together and contemplate our own thoughts and ideas with some other solo visitors. But it wasn’t meant to happen as before I knew it, the last vacant table got occupied. I was still clinging to the hope of grabbing a seat while I was making my order of ginger hot chocolate and an éclair. While I was watching my hot chocolate being made, I was thinking of Christmas gingerbread till I could smell actual ginger being added to the mix. It jerked me back to my first cold days in the U.S. when a roommate suggested me eating ginger for my cold. Even though I come from a country which is known for extremely cold temperatures, up until then I hadn’t been aware of the medicinal properties of ginger. But while on the other side of the Atlantic, whenever I had similar symptoms, I forced myself to have some ginger tea. Here in Minsk my coffee experience was somewhat rushed as I gulped my steaming cup standing, which I wasn’t sure was completely acceptable. It would have certainly been in numerous coffee shops in the Penn Station area in NYC where I had my long-awaited morning coffees to give me energy after a commune into the City. For my cheese fix I checked out an airport duty-free store where I got some imported cheese from France, Poland and Lithuania at a very reasonable price – I think a few Russians lining up behind me did as well. As I had some time to kill before boarding, I had my final taste of the Belarusian food at an airport café. I had a sandwich with some locally made mozzarella that I washed down with another glass of beer. I grabbed a few bottles to bring back home as well. I spent my final hour in Belarus mindfully enjoying my food and beer and toasting the Slavic food and hospitality!
Well, on this trip to Minsk I have accomplished my goals of contemplating the language(s), architecture and food, which I hope might give my travel writing a new direction. What I did fail though was to describe my adventures on a reasonable amount of pages – sorry about that! I guess at least it shows how one doesn’t have to go too far or be away for too long to come back home with a sizeable story to tell. Of course, it’s much more interesting to explore somewhere at least indistinctly different from home. The feeling of landing back in your bed after a day abroad is too surreal to miss out on!
As COVID-19 restrictions haven’t been lifted yet, a lot of us are now turning into storytellers engrossed in our own mix of memories. On May 9 I remembered Belarus again. This is when we celebrate the defeat of the Nazi Germany in the post-Soviet space. Due to the growing COVID-19 threat, the Russian government chose not to have a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the glorious victory, meanwhile the Belarusian authorities decided to go through with the Victory Day celebrations. I don’t think I am not in support of either of these moves. It might have been difficult to find a way to handle this holiday which has such a “sacred” status in this part of the world- the costs we paid for this victory were tragically immense. But I have to admit that watching this parade in central Minsk being broadcast on a Belarusian TV channel made me contemplate not only our ongoing disagreements but also the shared history. Even though it was being celebrated under the red-and-green flag, it struck an emotional chord leaving me feeling happy that regardless of the global health crisis OUR victory has been honored… Our ancestors were strong enough to rebuild the country and at times renegotiate their own identities following the unprecedented devastation of what we refer to as the Great Patriotic War. I hope now we owe it to them to find a minuscule of strength in us to get back to normality. Once we do that, more travel stories will certainly follow…
When it comes to enjoying the mix of Soviet and European architecture in Minsk, I was under no pressure of doing any prior research. With no formal training in the field, I felt that all I had to do was just to let my eyes wander and my mind process my surroundings. I have an affiliation with the subject at hand, though. My first job I’m still holding almost ten years on is with a research journal of Architecture and Construction where I’ve been working as a translator. I’ve mainly dealt with papers on construction materials and techniques, heating and ventilation, water and gas supply, and other aspects which are vital for efficient functioning of various building structures. I felt that articles on the history of architecture (every issue would normally include at least one) provided a breath of fresh air for me, a linguist and a traveler. With more travel experiences under my belt, I started realizing how beneficial mindfulness could be. So I read a book on mindful travelling (just as on travel writing). If we take a moment to pause and contemplate wherever we are, architecture will certainly be there begging to be scrutinized. The German architect Mies van der Rohe called it “the will of the epoch translated into space” and British PM Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. These two distinguished individuals with varying degrees of affiliation with the field highlighted its importance as a minefield of visual and factual information. It could indeed provoke mindfulness. Personally, I have already learned a bit more about architecture than I had ever imagined and hopefully have done my tiny bit to contribute to the existing global body of knowledge with my translations of papers by Russian scholars. Nevertheless I thought picking up a book on the history of architecture to make more sense of my surroundings wouldn’t hurt. I happened to do it just weeks before this trip – so yes, a vague attempt at prior research had been made.
Given the amount of shared history with Russia, I was certain about the kind of intersections of architectural styles would come my way in the capital of Belarus. But as that was going to be a short exercise on mindful travelling, I had to search for architectural elements that would cause me to pause. As a well-seasoned traveler and my own travel agent, I take full responsibility for my travelling experiences rather than wait for a place to deliver on my expectations. Even though travel information on Minsk is far more scarce than for some popular destinations, a bit of research helped me to come up with a tailor-made itinerary. Despite a few wrong turns I knew would have to be made, it felt reassuring to have one. So I expected most of my walks to center around Independence Avenue, the capital’s beating heart. Walking is a great physical exercise and the best way to mindfully explore the city!
While I was still on the bus to the city centre, the mix of red and green (the colors of the national flag) on multiple – otherwise pretty ordinary – architectural elements caught my eye. It seemed as a reminder of the country’s pursuit of national identity.
My first encounter with one of the capital’s latest architectural must-sees, the National Library of Belarus, happened through a bus window. The diamond-shaped glass building was designed to symbolize the nation’s commitment to acquiring invaluable knowledge through reading. As a linguist, I think it is a beautiful architectural nod to the love of written words. The building was mentioned on the list of the world’s best libraries and internationally acclaimed works. In the attempt to seek out a more informal professional opinion, I mentioned my mindful adventures in Minsk to my student who is an architect. According to her, even though Minsk is a thriving but yet somewhat restraining playground for young talents, the quality of the construction materials used in the city’s latest buildings including that of the National Library is disputable. Well, architecture is an artistic and yet economic endeavor. After all, knowledge is certainly of indisputable value in the knowledge-processing stage when we attempt to make sense of somewhat conflicting pieces of information.
When I got off the bus in front of the train station, I was greeted by the sight of the Gates of the City of Minsk – another photo the 31-year-old me took to trigger my Mum’s memories of a few months of her very early 20s here. I think this particular architectural ensemble was powerful enough to take her back to her own adventures in the city. I wish people back in the Soviet era had had more chances to travel around, though. During my first visit to Minsk in my mid-20s the city felt frozen in that era that our parents are still vaguely nostalgic about.
This time as I was taking a few wrong turns on my way to Independence Avenue, I could see a visual clash of Moscow and smaller Russian cities and towns. Minsk seemed a crossover of both – dynamic and yet quiet influenced by the common Soviet past that is still sweeping across the whole post-Soviet space. I was happy to be finally standing in Independence Avenue and staring at its enormity. I knew I wouldn’t physically walk those 15 km on this trip! After a few steps I snapped a quick photo of the Government House with the national flag hoisted on top. I knew it was forbidden, but bending the rules a bit seems part of the Soviet and Russian heritage – and mindful explorations as well! I didn’t feel like lingering in this familiar-looking but yet admittedly blatant display of power…
So I approached a spot that seemed so much more appealing and in no way evocative of the Soviet times. The red bricks of the Church of Saints Simon and Helena contrasted beautifully with the clear blue skies – the most spectacular framing for any piece of architecture! The first half of December 2019 was rather dull in my part of Russia, so I hadn’t seen blue for what seemed like eternity. The construction of the church was funded by a Belarusian Polish landowner and named after his two deceased children. The Roman Catholic Church in central Minsk was closed down a few times and used as a cinema and a theatre till it became an important religious site of the Belarus capital. The sad narrative of the building made me contemplate my geographical location – I was right between Russia and Poland, the first foreign country I’d visited (after Belarus).
Even though I’m not at all religious and even far from spiritual, Catholic churches give me reassurance that architectural prowess is capable of creating a sense of serenity and retreat that is painfully missing in our daily lives. I think that was a proper moment I was craving to experience on my architectural pursuit of Minsk – I now felt significantly closer to Europe (or the European Union, to be more precise). I know as a nation, Russia is marginalized from this economic, social and political space. Now that I have hopefully advanced on my way to well-roundedness, various kind of divides plaguing this part of the world seem more discernible. Nevertheless, it is partly in celebration of my romance with it that I sneak into churches for a moment of solemn solitude. Purple ribbons stretching between the sides of the ceiling, intricate vaults, Latin alphabet, Catholic artwork and images of Pope Francis transported me to the sensual and intellectual overload of my European travels. It is usually my gut telling me when it is proper time to exit a church.
While I took another moment to appreciate the sunshine, there was something begging me to linger to examine the church from more angles.
If buildings truly shape us, what can one’s mind make of the neo-Romanesque Catholic church against the backdrop of the House of Government with a Christmas/New Year tree in the middle of it..? I took my final photo to capture a pensive moment, crossed to the other side of the street and gave the red church on the opposite side of the busy central road another lingering gaze …
Through an array of more Stalinist architectural pieces, I made my way to the Old Town. To add some vitality to my architectural pursuit, I also noted a few fashionably dressed strangers crossing an intersection along Nemiga Street. Standing between the Holy Spirit Cathedral and Town Hall with a riverfront view stretching ahead felt magical. A few charming decorations made me reminisce about Christmas markets in Europe. This uphill spot was perfect for pausing and contemplating the Polish and Lithuanian influences in Belarus as the cathedral was built in the 17th century, at times of the Commonwealth of the two states.
After a short walk amidst cozy cafes and quaint buildings, I ended up on the Svislach River embankment where I paused for a bit more. There seemed to be some construction works going on further uphill.
Before rethinking my itinerary, I watched a few swans swimming in the river and enjoyed some unobstructed views of the sky turning grayish. I backtracked to cross a footbridge to get to the Island of Tears. Here one can find a very moving architectural ensemble that commemorates the Belarusian soldiers killed in the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war. Profound somberness of such memorials causes one to lament and resent wars. This is when architectural prowess is capable of striking the most profound chord.
Engrossed in a mix of pensive sadness and contemplation, I was looking at a statue of a crying angel against the sky which was turning spectacularly pink. Suddenly, a thought of my two dear friends from Afghanistan I met back in the U.S. brought a smile to my face as well as profound vitality to the scene. It might sound corny, but I hope that the warmth of human bonding is capable of making us forget countless pieces of contradictory information of war conflicts between our nations and come together to empower each other instead… The sunrise over the Minsk skyline with only one visibly tall building somehow reminded me of my pensive walks around Manhattan and a memorable promenade along a New Jersey bay– a lovely crossover of memories…
As the evening had magically arrived, past a little park I made my way to a shop selling local linen that I had promised to get for Mum. During the preliminary investigative stage I had certain doubts about whether I would be able to get to this place as it seemed a bit too remote. A pensive walk through past countless facades of buildings on both sides distracted me, so I got a bit lost. I decided to backtrack to the city’s beating heart, Independence Avenue. Street lights and festive illumination added more charm to this wide avenue which seemed somewhat busier now as people were crowding at a metro station. I took a moment to pause and rest my feet at a bus stop overlooking another example of Stalinist architecture, the Palace of Republic.
That was a venue for the concert of my favourite British boyband I came here six years ago to see. I was sitting looking at its officially-looking façade and reminiscing about how awkward it was watching a pop concert in its interior adorned with Soviet-era symbols. Enough for the memories – I still had to buy some linen. For that I had to get lost in a maze of an underground passage to cross to the other side to the imposing building of the GUM Department Store, the largest one in Minsk. It caused another crossover of memories – the scale of the building reminded me of Macy’s in New York City and its style brought me back to my post-Soviet childhood and to a much more humble but similarly shaped store in my home town in central Russia. As I entered the first floor, I was astonished by a lavish display of traditional Belarus folk embroidery.
Belarus is a largely rural country and these towels convey a somewhat romanticized image of a village. It looked like another pursuit of the country’s national identity which radiated a sense of coziness and homeliness. I got a few traditional linen towels (рушник) which have their own distinct pattern depending on a region where they were made. My late grandmother who lived in a village very close to the Ukrainian border used to have a similar one on display in her house as well…
This whole shopping experience offered a sense of nostalgia instead of habitual impersonality of modern shopping centers. On my way back to the bus station a few lovely shopping displays caught my eye. For a moment I wished it were snowing to add extra magic to my walk along the avenue…
I rested my feet one last time facing the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. Against the dark sky it had a slightly Gothic vibe – it had to be one of the highlights of my mindful exploration of the city. The final brushstroke to my architectural pursuit of Minsk were the Gates of the City – I took another picture for Mum. The timetable at the bus station once again reminded me of how closer I was to the European Union – there were buses coming from or going to different places in Poland and Lithuania. I took one last look at mostly Stalinist architecture on my way to the airport…
Arriving in the capital city of Belarus about 90 minutes later was really a breeze as there was no passport control or anything else I could see or hear to make me feel that I was somewhere even remotely foreign. Well, except for that welcoming sign reading Мiнск (in Belarusian). A photo I took of it got my Mum excited. She asked me to say hello to the city for her.
That tiny trip was already becoming one of a kind – neither had I ever got to see my Mum and another country on the same day nor had she ever had any connection with the place I had visited on any of my overseas travels. Well, unlike my Mum who spent a few months in Minsk as a student, I had to remember I was actually abroad as I had to get some local money… That seemed quite an easy thing to do as the language barrier didn’t even exist in reading (so far). On my way to the city centre I started studying some billboards as the first visual cues to give me some feel for the city’s character and identity. They were all in Russian (so far)…
Through the course of that short day I chose to pretend I was a researcher on a mission to investigate the capital city’s linguascape. I expected ethnographic methods would be suited for the task. Before embarking on field work, I found myself grappling with a dilemma facing a lot of researchers. Should I weed through a great amount of scientific data to gain a wide range of perspectives on the issue? Should I simply go with my gut? Or finally, should I strive to strike a balance between the two and make a well-informed judgment relying on a variety of available internal and external sources? After all, I chose to examine some studies on Belarus’s language use and policies as well as resulting linguistic identities prior to my trip.
It is a common belief that every sovereign state claims its own identity largely by means of its national language. It is definitely not so straightforward for a lot of nations including Belarus. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was the last former Soviet state to pass on the language legislation. According to the controversial 1995 referendum sponsored by President Lukashenko, Belarusian and Russian are its official languages. Does that mean the country is bilingual? Belarus is referred to as the most “Russified” former Soviet state and its language policy as “quasi-bilingual” as the Belarusian language mostly serves a symbolic function. For instance, most legal documents are published in Russian and since the 1990s Russian has been gaining growing recognition in the Republic of Belarus. Some scientists refer to this scenario as “post-imperial” , i.e., when the language of the former dominating political power remains significant but is no longer a language of political allegiance. It seems obvious that Belarusians no longer want to be seen as “Russia’s younger brother”. As some poll data suggests, there has been less support for the Belarus-Russia union state in the last decade. Currently there are three distinct political movements in the country: Belarusophones, Russophones and official Belarusian State Nationalism that emphasizes the importance of maintaining the relations with Russia as well as the other CIS countries. According to the Republic’s President Lukashenko, Belarusians own Russian just as much as Russians. There was no reason why any attempt had to be made to suppress it, which might essentially involve Belarusians rejecting a part of their “soul”. Besides, Lukashenko still seems nostalgic about the former Soviet Union and the Russian language has been a linguistic glue holding its nations together. Despite a strong emphasis on state nationalism, Lukashenko has been consistently reported to diminish the role of Belarusian as associated with the language of the opposition. Thus, when in 2014 on the Republic’s Independence Day President chose to deliver a part of his speech in Belarusian (what he hadn’t done since 1994), he truly “stunned” the nation. Some political commentators argue that this speech might have been indicative of Lukashenko’s urge to claim autonomy from Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea.
In the recent decades there have also been a few studies exploring linguistic identities and language attitudes of around 10 million people living in the country. In contrast to the 1990s census data, some independent poll data from 2009 revealed that even though an overwhelming majority identified themselves as Belarusians, a more significant proportion reported Russian as their native language. Also, only a third of those who identified Belarusian as their native language claimed to use it at home while the majority reported speaking predominantly Russian. Interestingly, in some other surveys that offered the option “mixed language” a sizeable proportion of the participants reported to use it. However, the younger cohort seemed to prefer Russian. It must be noted that the surveys were conducted in Minsk. The numbers could have been somewhat different in smaller cities. A mixed use of Russian and Belarusian had to be adopted by former rural residents moving to bigger cities for career opportunities following the World War II. It is called as “trasianka” (“low quality hay” in Belarusian). This term has been a subject of scholarly debate as it has a certain negative connotation and is largely associated with a low social status and education level both by Russian and Belarusian speakers. President Lukashenko has been criticized by the opposition for using “trasianka”. It is argued that it is for fear of speaking this stigmatized language variation that Belarusians refrain from speaking pure Belarusian.
An early version of Belarusian was utilized in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This formerly largest state in Europe comprised Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, some parts of Ukraine and what is today the Republic of Belarus. In the 17th century Polish started gaining momentum. While being ruled by Russia, the area continued to be dominated by the Polish culture up until 19th century. It was around the same time when the western borders of the Russian empire were being russified that the standard Belarusian was considered a dialect of Russian. In terms of linguistic proximity Belarusian and Russian are compared with Scots and English, Wallon and French, Low German and High German. The knowledge of Belarusian is barely mentioned as essential to “Belarusianness”. Belarusian classes are rarely offered as part of a school curriculum and 85% of books are published in Russian. However, a sizeable proportion of Belarusians are willing to improve their knowledge of Belarusian culture and history.
When it comes to Belarusian Russian, some linguists believe that its “nativisation” in Belarus led to a new variety as was the case for different versions of English. Due to the extensive influence the Russian media has had on it, Belarusian Russian has not been recognized as a “legitimate national variety of Russian”. More than 40% of print media is in Russian and no more than 15% of airtime is devoted to Belarusian-language programs. The view of Russian having a “homogeneous standard variety”, which was customary back in the Soviet Union, seems to be another stumbling block for this variation. Obviously, it has its own distinct phonological and lexical features. Lexicographers insisted on including forms that had previously been regarded as “substandard” in dictionaries, which sparked a debate on the literary norm in the post-Soviet era. Now that a large proportion of media is Internet-based, Moscow-based scholars have less control over standard Russian use. The Belarusian Russian has fewer English borrowings and some variations in political and legal terminology.
As can be seen, people of Belarus seem divided on what it means to be Belarusian and which language or variation defines them as a nation. Therefore language does not straightforwardly fit into the intricate tapestry of the Belarusian identity. Overall, Belarus presents a remarkably new phenomenon in the recent history of the Russian language in the CIS countries. This country also serves as a unique example of how contingent issues of language policies and emerging linguistic identities are.
So what kind of discoveries did I make through the course of my field work in Belarus? I believe that doing a bit of research on the country’s linguistic, political and cultural landscape enabled me to reevaluate my own attitude to it. I hate to admit that in a way as a Russian I used to patronize this small neighboring state as they sometimes do younger siblings. I would even describe my attitude as somehow inspired by despicable colonial policies of the past. Before my second short trip to Belarus, I was mainly interested in the way MY language was spoken there. As non-native teachers, we often resent natives claiming ownership of languages we teach for a living. In this line of work some of us have to renegotiate our professional and even personal identities again and again. At some point, we might start (un)consciously distancing ourselves from our first languages. But there is someone/something constantly reminding us of where we come from. A simple conservation starter “Where are you from?” sometimes dampens the excitement of interacting with native speakers making us, non-natives, feel that we are trodding on THEIR land. Even though some professionals manage to train themselves to gracefully stay afloat in the ocean of a foreign language, our (hopefully not so distinct) spoken and writing accents will always be there as a badge of otherness. Both natives and non-natives are contemplating their identities as English is gaining an unprecedented momentum as an international language. It is thus no longer surprising to hear conversations between non-native speakers that are anything to each other (passers-by, colleagues, friends, spouses, parents, etc.) in diverse corners of the world. Even though these polyphonies of sound as well as at times bizarre wording and phrasing might still make some natives cringe, I believe our “Englishes” are as legitimate as our unique identities. All I know is that after spending almost a year in an English-speaking country and engaging in countless conversations, I am back with at least an elusive sense of global citizenship as well as a renewed appreciation of my native language that I grew up speaking.
So is the way my first language is spoken in Russia different from the one in Belarus? I wish I had asked myself this on my first visit here. But I don’t think at that point of my career I was up for the challenge. That trip had a totally different agenda as I came to Minsk to see my favourite British boyband in concert. Those lads were responsible for fuelling my passion for English which back then I had no idea would enable me to do so much more than just understand their song lyrics. Here I was six years later doing some eavesdropping in the streets of this same city on a mission to observe actual linguistic behavior of Belarusians. Before ever coming to this neighboring country, I knew that there was one very famous Belarusian –the Republic’s President Lukashenko – who sounded remotely different to me. Even though I was listening hard throughout my day in Minsk, on the phonological level nothing stood out for me. Besides, unlike during ten months away from home, not even once had I been asked “Where are you from?” Could it be because my interactions were limited to a money-exchange kiosk, a restaurant, a Soviet-style department store, a café and a bus station and the airport? Or is Russian truly a pass beyond the national borders? Finally, was I too focused on the differences or were the samples and research environment too random and uncontrolled? It was only content analysis of those snippets of conversations that revealed the word “Belarus” and a few references to its different regions. Other than that, there wasn’t anything about what I heard to make me aware I wasn’t actually in Russia.
As the Belarusian language still seemed nowhere to be heard, I kept scrutinizing random billboards around me in the attempt to at least see some. Unlike those on my way from the airport which were all in Russian, a few in the city centre were in a mix of Belarusian and Russian (in that particular order). The symbolic significance of the former struck me in Independence Avenue (Minsk’s most central street). There I saw an imposing building of the House of Government with a Belarusian flag on top and a massive sign only in Belarusian that read “З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым”(“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”). In Russian that would have been “С Новым Годом и Рождеством Христовым”, which is not significantly different and thus easy to decipher for a Russian.
Further along the avenue I could see more Belarusian on numerous plaques. Their language was becoming more challenging to decipher. I failed to understand what exactly distinguished individuals who used to live in those buildings were famous for. Their names were clearly prominent in the Belarusian culture but totally unknown to me.
Continuing down the avenue after a few wrong turns, I sent a photo of the Minsk Circus building (Цырк) to an amazing American lexicographer and a teacher of Russian and French I met back in the U.S. I am sure on her future trip to Belarus she will have an engaging linguistic adventure of her own. Actually, a little glimpse of French also caught my eye as my promenade took me to the Svislach River Embankment just a bit off Independence Avenue. The French flair of a billboard that read “Minsk vous attend” (Minsk is waiting for you) might help in promoting international tourism here in Belarus. I saw a few billboards in English as well that were probably from the 2nd European Games held here earlier in 2019. Everything else I encountered – from restaurant and café menus and other billboards – was in the language we and Belarusians call our own.
A patriotic sign that read I heart Belarus could have been both in Russian and Belarusian as these words are identical in both languages.
The last final brushstroke to my version of the Minsk linguascape were a few airport announcements in Belarusian, Russian and English. That was once that I had got to hear the former being spoken, even if in such a dry and impersonal tone. I caught myself thinking that it sounded like a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. In spite of multiple misunderstandings of varying scale, we still seem historically and linguistically intertwined in this part of the world. I concluded my field work with an eavesdropping session at an airport café – two waitresses at the bar spoke just the way their counterparts would back home…
On this trip what I realized was that the Belarusian identity was tangibly there in visual symbols. The Russian language was living and breathing as an essential part of it.
I think that living in such a vast country we might sometimes overlook the fact that Russian is a lingua franca in such an expansive area of the globe. It is truly fascinating how we don’t have to go too far beyond our enormous home country to be able to find engaging playgrounds for our eyes, ears and minds. As much as we crave for novelty while travelling, trips like this with no major linguistic misunderstandings are somewhat comforting. I must concur that “Belarusianness” is a blurred term to define indeed. Should I set out on conducting a full-scale study of my own, I will have to dive deeper into research data and probably go on another trip here. I am not sure about it yet – my own identity as a language teacher and a researcher is still evolving and so are my travelling motives and agendas. It was my teenage crush on a member of that British band that first brought me to Minsk. Now this feeling that had been feeding my curiosity for English is long gone. What remains is a much more profound feeling towards languages and my curiosity about how they shape our identities. I realize I might have to negotiate mine again and again as I hopefully channel to more external and internal sources of knowledge and enlightenment. I surely don’t mind a lot more field work in the process!
Crystal, David (2003). English as a global language. (2n d ed. First ed., 1997), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Giger, Markus and Sloboda, Marián (2008): Language Management and Language Problems in Belarus: Education and Beyond. In Multilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries, ed. Pavlenko, Aneta. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 41-65.
Norman, Boris (2010): Russkij jazyk v sovremennoj Belarusi: praktika i norma. Russkij jazyk (6), 8-15.
Woolhiser, Curt (2011) “Belarusian Russian”: Sociolinguistic Status and Discursive Representations. In: Rudolf Muhr (ed.): Non-dominating Varieties of Pluricentric Languages. Getting the Picture. In memory of Prof. Michael Clyne. Wien et. al., Peter Lang Verlag
Woolhiser, Curt (2014) “The Russian Language in Belarus: Language Use, Speaker Identities and Metalinguistic Discourse”. In The Russian Language Outside the Nation, ed. by Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, 81-116. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Could someone like me – a linguist and a traveler– have asked for a better way to wave goodbye to 2019 than suddenly getting a chance to go on a little trip? With only one day at my disposal, I could have chosen to enjoy a quick break exploring more of the beauty and glory of our capital city. Sounds pretty amazing, right? There are tons of absolutely wonderful things you can do in Moscow. But too much work and self-reflection pushed me into being a bit more adventurous. That was when I remembered my quick trip in 2013. Have you ever travelled abroad for a day and got back home a little over 24 hours later? That was exactly what I did back then. Instead of taking two trains and spending a total of 20 hours on the road, this time two short flights were all it took me to get to a neighboring country – not foreign enough for a Russian to have to get a visa, but still different enough from Moscow to please both a linguist and a traveler.
As someone teaching and attempting to do language research, I knew on this trip I would be able to reflect on the uniting and divisive power of Russian (my mother tongue) as well as to ponder on emerging national identities in what used to be the immense Soviet Union (my country of birth). In the attempt to become a more mindful traveler, I was also hoping to treat my eyes to an engaging mix of the Soviet and European architecture and my palette to familiar but remotely foreign food. Sounds like too much for a day, right? Well, in a nutshell, that was exactly what I had enough time to do in mid-December in the capital city of Belarus. That trip was also short enough for an aspiring writer to describe on a reasonable number of pages. Also, with this story I am going to wrap up 2019 hoping for more work, self-reflection and a few engaging trips in 2020!
That was how I conceived the beginning of my Minsk story if I had got to write it in 2019. I’ve read a few books on travel writing telling me how powerful those opening lines and paragraphs should be to draw my readers in. This hook wasn’t meant to come about in 2019… So, as I am writing this in 2020 already, I am being reminded of how life has a way of changing our agendas, travelling plans, story beginnings and so much more. About two months ago those first news reports on the rapidly spreading virus didn’t disrupt my life at all. A few weeks later, scaremongering in the media culminated into a mix of confusion and despair. Finally, it all seemed disturbingly real as so many trips (including my own) had got called off and whole countries (including those I was hoping to travel to later this year) had gone into lockdown. As reports of growing numbers of people affected by the virus kept coming in, travelling was already the last thing on almost everyone’s minds. I think the moment I knew I had to start this travel piece was when my own country had got shut down. Amidst the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, I am starting to realize that my own quick trip to Belarus would be off the table now. Sadly, we have been isolated not only inside our national borders but also inside our own homes for a while now. Anyway, I would like to think of that last trip of 2019 as only my latest one. I just don’t want to give in to panic and call it the last opportunity I’ve ever had to travel!
Of course, like a drug that one can never go off, travelling has a way of giving us withdrawal symptoms. As it is no longer our choice whether to go anywhere or not, it might feel as if we had never set foot too far from our homes. With this story I am also going to remind myself (and a few readers if I am lucky) that travelling is a privilege. In order to celebrate the fact I’ve had it multiple times, I might finally get to write about all those trips I’d had before the day I boarded a plane for Minsk, Belarus. Just about 20 hours later I was to land back into the comfort on my own bed…
Unlike a lot of places in the world, travelling to Belarus is a breeze for a Russian thanks to the Commonwealth between our countries launched in 1996. Even though you are actually travelling outside Russia, there is no need to worry about getting a visa or forgetting your foreign passport at home. Well, in Russia we all have a “domestic” passport and a “foreign” one for travelling overseas. The only issue I had on my way was finding the security-check point (there is a special entrance for those travelling to Belarus which took me a while to locate). After I had finally made it to my gate, there was some time to do what any traveler loves – people-watching. As crowds of passengers around me were lining up for their flights, without even looking at the flashing flight information screens, I could see and hear that a lot of people weren’t probably going anywhere outside of what used to be the immense Soviet Union. In fact, my country of birth only lasted till I was around 3 years old. In 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as if in the attempt to piece together whatever was left of that shattered glass. Certainly over the years there have been disputes about the membership in the organization as some states were not willing to join or withdrew their participation later. Despite a few wedges between all of our nations that are still tangible to this day, there is some sense of commonality that explains why people from the CIS countries who might look and sound different are quite familiar rather than foreign to a Russian. I might get to one of these countries one day as most of them don’t require a visa either – that for sure would make for another story!
One more sunny start to our final “regular” morning here in the capital of Hungary. I was now aware of how much I would miss this lovely breakfast of a tasty selection of sausages, cheeses, and not to forget that divine-tasting triangle-shaped pastry that went down so well with the visitors that the waiters kept bringing more and more fresh supplies of those. My taste of our Budapest mornings is largely composed of this delicate sweet crispiness…
Before we headed out all the way to the conference venue where we were to participate in the poster session, we had some time for a morning stroll along the familiar area in the city centre. That was when it hit me obviously I hadn’t had enough pictures of me taken in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica around which there were preparations for what looked like a wine festival, and the Parliament of course. When does a point come when you actually get tired of this building that is imposed by your vision…?
The walk we were embarking on took me back to our first day here. It’s amazing how time takes on a different dimension while travelling and you don’t look that much at your watch (unless there is another activity on your schedule) but rather measure it with the level of connection you have developed with a particular piece of architecture, street or its corner… I felt if I had had more time on my hands to stay, it could be the right time to take my relationship with the city up to the next level, but there wasn’t much time either to keep reflecting as we had two hours left to get to the conference venue. This time we hoped the walk would be a bit more pleasurable, because we would be walking on the other side of the Danube along the Margaret Island (Margitsziget). It didn’t quite look like an island, rather an oasis of greenery amidst Hungary’s capital city.
Budapest’s largest park offered a great refreshing change of the scenery from our first walk along a row of dull residential buildings. Parks haven’t yet captured my heart entirely, as I am more fond of architecture and little electrifications of the heart and mind it sometimes provides. I can’t say I found something particularly extraordinary about this park, but I would say it was a relaxed and calm one to walk. People basking in the sun, children having fun, a water tower at a distance, some fountains in a few conspicuous places as well.
This walk felt considerably shorter and it wasn’t long before we reached the Árpád Bridge that was empty of any pedestrians as the sun was beating down. When we saw the conference venue, we knew we were already desperate for some shade.
The poster session was quite relaxed and low-key. Our poster featuring a photo of our country’s president captured some attention and being able to speak with a few native speakers and some more people from around the world was fulfilling. One lady from Malaysia wearing a burka was particularly friendly and that got me amazed at how much more there is we can learn from these casual encounters with people coming from cultural backgrounds that we are sometimes too scared to even embark on exploring. Speaking with a few Russians showing off about how they weren’t too happy with the hotel where we were staying wasn’t anything much to learn from.
We left the conference venue about two hours later knowing that our mission had been accomplished and there was no more need to look at our watch till the day was over! We decided to take a slightly different route back to the city centre and were exposed to some parts of the city that were a bit more upbeat than those residential areas we saw on our first afternoon but certainly less vivid and lively than the city centre. I wasn’t sure there were any more tourists walking along this neighbourhood. These streets aren’t something a tourist would particularly come for, but they make for a nice change of scene that you think you only arrive here for.
We even saw a couple of old-fashioned shoe shops as we were approaching the Margaret Bridge with a very clear and distinctive view of the Parliament. Just after we quickly walked past it was when it was decided we would let time take on another dimension and just pause here on a bench overlooking the Parliament that left no room for anything else except the clear blue sky and the Danube. Tomorrow we were to get on another flight back to Russia but for another adventure. I was so right to take time to get a visual memory of what clear blues skies look like… That had been great three days here in Budapest and it was about time we had started picking the memories back up expecting nothing new to come our way. Just to ponder on the sketchy memory of the country, the city and the conference… I felt I had reinforced my connection with the Parliament building as I was sitting gazing at it from across the Danube embankment.
What followed was more like a summary of the memories we had made up to that point. The grandeur of the Chain Bridge and the massive lions guarding it at both sides, a few posh houses overlooking the Danube on our right, a few advertisements featuring the national flag…
I was starting saying my goodbyes now as we were crossing the Chain Bridge – to the emerald blue Danube, to the Buda Castle on the right, to the Parliament that was growing smaller but no less spectacular on the left.
The evening was slowly setting in and it was time for our farewell dinner at one of the restaurants just steps away from the magnificent St. Stephen’s Basilica. The place was quite easy to find and the waiters wearing national clothes were very friendly and efficient despite seemingly limited command of English. The food was a bit too pricey and the choice not so wide-ranging, but the evening was the one to remember. A group of Americans at the next table were very vocal and assertive and kept questioning the waiter about the ingredients in one of the dishes pushing his linguistic skills to the limit as he showed up a few minutes later showing them some photos from the Internet. Poor Hungarian waiter! I ruled out that the first goulash soup I had here was the best and the one I was having at the moment had to be second best. What was equally divine was the Tokaj wine! Cheers to Hungary! Seeing the back of the shirt of one of the waiters that read something like “Are you hungary? I will help” made me chuckle. “Hungary” and “hungry” are too shamelessly similar not to feature that in an advertising campaign. There is something inherently primeval and not quite refine to the feeling of hunger but if you are, Hungary will get you covered for sure with its steamy soups and pickles! It was nice to watch a group of local young visitors and the same waiter at linguistic ease. Another American at the other side asked for help figuring out how much Hungarian money he had on him. Yes, these banknotes are tricky at first! We were taking it slowly so we walked leisurely back to the Chain Bridge to see the buildings lining up the Danube embankment lit up. There were even some chairs you could take and that reminded me of a beach. They were all occupied it being a warm summer night, but I didn’t mind sitting on the pavement getting my last night views of the spectacular Budapest. It felt comfortable and beautiful here.
We made a slow walk back to our hotel through the familiar streets to stop for a final round of drinks at the same place we did the night before. The waiter that miraculously caught my eye the other evening wasn’t working and that was a tiny bit disappointing, but the drinks were cheap and good. What would that be like to frequent a lovely bar like this in a modern European capital like this one… It was our last sleep here in Budapest. Our last morning here was serene and slow as we had enough time not to be in a hurry but not enough to go out any more. Exchanging a few glances and a quick chat with one of the cute waiters I had seen through my other breakfasts here gave me something extra to smile and to miss about this trip. My humble “köszönöm” as he took my plate got him thinking I was Hungarian. There has to be something magical about this word indeed! We spent the remaining forints on a few more souvenirs at the hotel lobby and made an elderly couple we encountered in the elevator a bit jealous. I kept smiling through our peaceful morning ride to the airport and at one point I saw a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio and his mother featured in one of the advertisement boards in a deserted field and that gave me a light-hearted chuckle. We were bound for Moscow, but that wasn’t it yet and that felt a bit strange.
It all seemed to have gone too quick but reasonably slow to realize it had happened to me – Hungary and its capital city of Budapest. I had no idea if I would ever return at any point. For all I knew, I was very highly unlikely to ever ponder on starting learning any Hungarian. But I didn’t fail to find what I came here for – a few more brisk memories to nurture my heart and mind. Köszönöm!
Our second morning in Hungary started off very sunny and bright and that day was going to culminate with us heading to one of Budapest’s thermal baths for a very relaxing afternoon, a big steamy kiss of life to the mind and heart that is. We were in the city of spas after all and that was essential to get some physical evidence of that. Of course every place has something extraordinary to offer, it is all about how far you have to go in search for it. There was this steaming hot something dating back to the Ottoman rule here in Budapest that definitely added to a variety of things that tourists flock here for. In combination with the taste of goulash generously seasoned with red-hot paprika, the steam I was going to feel land elegantly on my skin would contribute to the magic of the flavour of Hungary that was in progress in my mind and heart.
We had another German-style breakfast at the cozy café with a distinct modern feel and some more news from Italy that we saw being watched by two male Italian friends and I was wondering what it felt like for them to see this tragedy caused by the recent earthquake unfolding in their beautiful country. In some ways their response must have been different from mine. We were in no rush that morning and could size up the streets surrounding our hotel, take a moment to look into the motionless but piercingly emotional eyes of the statues that found their permanent residence on all those graceful facades that were broadcasting a breath of Austria to the curious me.
We walked to the adjacent Elizabeth Bridge and could watch the sleepy yet sun-kissed Danube filling with boats carrying a few early birds. A few more grand buildings were stretching on our left and I could hear the sounds of waltz reverberating in my ears. It was nice to get a more intimate encounter with Budapest’s bridges now as we were making our way past the white Elizabeth Bridge to the green Liberty Bridge that we were to cross to get to the Art-Nouveau Gellert Spa that opened in 1918.
I could see it at a distance and on par with the emerald green Gellert Hill it looked like a setting for a futuristic film. I love the feeling that standing on a bridge gives me – seemingly rockety, perceivably free, free to observe the city stretching in front of my enchanted vision. In a way I loved having no view of the Parliament from where I was standing but only the Buda Castle on my left, there just seemed a bit too much domination for me.
I felt like pausing for a tiny moment to imagine I was in that music video I had watched the night before my departure. The walk seemed very short and pleasurable and we reached the hotel that radiated a graceful hint of the old-time Europe that we could get in touch with in nostalgic films.
Of course as someone who didn’t frequent baths, I was a bit nervous about how things were going to work out, where to drop off our things, etc. The lobby of the hotel with a magnificent cupola in the centre took my mind off these anxieties as I felt I was in a movie this time round.
We followed the queue, got our microchipped keys and eventually got inside the spa area to get changed first. Everything was pretty well organized so there was no hustle at all. We got stuck in a queue to rent a swimming-suit for my sister with a bunch of Italians that seemed to be frequent guests here as the signs here were translated into Italian as well. They certainly have more authority to compare the experience they were about to get with others they must have had back home. Do there have to be Italians whenever anything sensual is involved…? I was feeling the anticipation for something of this nature building up as water grants us this primeval yet uplifting feeling we get when we feel it touch our skin to produce a range of sensations. You really take to the whole experience like a duck to water as you go along and become less and less aware of walking around surrounded by a large number of half-naked bodies. There must have been something ancient and Roman about this scene, could that be something Italians gravitated to at the end of the day…? Here at the Gellert Baths it’s not just about the water that feels amazing as it comes in gentle contact with your skin, but it is the interior that lends the experience the opulent Ottoman feel. The walls, the statues, the mosaic flooring and the way they alternated as we went from one pool to another kept us focusing on nothing more than this particular gem of Budapest. A subtle smell of chlorine didn’t get much in the way of my mind and heart interpreting what I saw as sweetly romantic and sensually intimate as there were a few couples enjoying their getaway here. That must have been a nice choice as water has a certain bonding and spell-binding power as well. I was rejoicing and simply loving the atoms and molecules in my body relaxing into a serene calmness I could distinctively sense going down my limbs whenever I got out of another pool. The one with the water kept at the soothing and comforting 36.6 C0 seemed to be most popular but we didn’t mind it being crowded. That was another opportunity for people-watching and speculating about where someone might be from just to turn it down a bit the moment another someone close by started speaking the same language as you do. It was funny to see those seemed male visitors who were really worried about getting their freshly styled hair messed up with the water. That was such a cute scene that you wouldn’t see back home. As the water temperatures changed from one room to another, the feeling of being blissfully relaxed and invincible to any stress the world has a way of putting us under was invariable. I felt mine being invasively cut into by knives that seemed to be piercing into my skin as I dipped into a cold small pool where I didn’t get much time on my own. To give a newly emerging sensation another twist, I got into a room with steam straight afterwards. Experimenting with one’s sensations is such an enticing game to play. Time does fly by when you are having fun and we decided we would round off our soothing afternoon by visiting an outdoor wave pool this place is famous for. The fact that there were too many people in there trying to get on top of waves that kept appearing from time to time seemed a bit of an issue now. But being inside this water under the endlessly sunny sky of Budapest showing its refined yet proud Art Nouveau side was marvelous and we might have been wise for choosing to have Budapest seem as a sensual resort to us that afternoon. We didn’t seem to want to change back into our clothes before leaving.
A few final photos in the imposing hotel lobby later, we bid farewell to the steamy Gellert baths and stepped outside to take a very relaxed walk along the Liberty Bridge again and get a few perspectives on it standing close to the Gellert hill. Even though there were signs that seemed to warn against trying to climb the top of the bridge, some people were trying a bit too hard for a few perfect photos. Rebellious nature in progress!
A few marvelous late afternoon views of the Danube later, we headed to the Great Hall Market, which was a very engaging object from the architectural perspective as well. What I’ve been learning through the course of my travels is that it is absolutely essential to experience markets to get a virtual or at least a mental taste of a new land. The market building had a certain Ottoman flavour and I imagined handfuls of the typical Hungarian paprika generously sprinkled all over it. It wasn’t long after we entered that we saw this product in abundance of packages on sale everywhere we could see. It was rather chaotic and full of things for tourists to take photos of. Tourism brings in great profits but what it obviously takes away is the authenticity of places and turns them into a sort of artificial showrooms. Too many people have been let on the “secret” of how to experience authenticity and that is what is almost gone as a result… It was actually great to walk here without thinking of what food to buy and what to cook with but just let your mind and heart do the work for you producing an idea of the taste of Hungary. After the steamy few hours at the Gellert Baths, what we needed badly was something to use to recharge our batteries with and we headed to the upper level where there seemed to be lots of places to eat. A typical eating experience here appeared to be more about filling your stomach with substantial food and you could expect the process to get a bit messy as well. Goulash, potatoes, a typical local sausage and a glass of beer were to happily fill my stomach in this quite rural setting that had black and white photos of senior Hungarian women dressed in national costumes going about their daily routine in what looked like a Hungarian village. In a way they reminded me of our “babushkas” that are hard-working, excessively caring, intrusive – either or all of these. But at the same time I should admit there was something “foreign” about those Hungarian ladies for me as I was staring at their faces munching on my food. On my right I could watch a group of elderly tourists being given a very entertaining cooking class by one of the employees whose limited command of English didn’t stand much in the way of everyone having fun. It seemed a bit like a circus show but can anyone think of a better way to let people experience authenticity…? The goulash we had the previous night seemed a bit more tasty than the one I was having but it was still good. We did some souvenir shopping afterwards of course and the rural feel was still here as I saw lots of dolls wearing bright national costumes among stripes of paprika. For the moment Hungary and Bulgaria seemed to have something in common to me and that might the shared communist past or was there something more that dated back much longer…? Another question my mind posed for me to try to ponder and possibly figure out someday. A Budapest-themed jar of paprika for Mum was purchased and that meant we could leave now.
As we had plans to go on a Danube cruise in the evening, we thought walking the entire Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út) full of the Neo-Renaissance buildings, to get to the famous Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) with the imposing statue complex featuring important figures in the country’s past. What it looked like in pictures render a Soviet feel with this vast space dominated by a massive statue shooting into the boundless celestial vacuum. Power, control paralyzing the view… We gave up on getting to arrange a visit here without missing the latest cruise. We walked a few backstreets being looked at by some rough male workers having a break. It would be too much to refer that to the Soviet era of course but the way they looked reminded me of home…
As we started making our way to the Danube embankment, we couldn’t finally help find ourselves in a street adjacent to our hotel. It didn’t quite make sense why we hadn’t got round to exploring those places that were really close by. Travellers might feel like taking pains to venture out a bit too far. A quite extraordinary fountain caught my eye. We could sit in front of it and watch pages of a massive book being turned by sprays of water – something I’d never seen before!
I just loved this little corner and the feeling of little and simple happiness it succeeded in providing. There was something else waiting to fascinate me as we kept walking this beautiful street and that’s how I knew where we would have our late-night dinner. Budapest didn’t seem too rich in male beauty (should I blame the communist past for that as well? Probably not!), but a waiter at a place across the road that I felt I was far enough from to take picture of was quite nice and I had no idea why he happened to catch my eye being so far. We had some time on our hands to pay a visit to the famous Café Gerbeaud launched by a confectionary dynasty in the late 19th century. I ordered a wonderful icecream topped with waffles and caramel and a coffee here. It was another quintisential European experience to be sitting here people-watching and sipping on my coffee. We agreed it hadn’t been anything extraordinary but we can say we have been to this legendary European coffeehouse and even got a peak into the imposing interior. We passed by a few more restaurants on our way to the Danube that featured a few more nice waiters. We succeeded in buying our cruise tickets and had to hang around before our boat was ready to be boarded. It was 10 p.m. and Budapest started radiated rays of spectacular nocturnal beauty that myself as a night person was explicitly drawn to. There was a group of typically vocal and assertive Americans on board and before the tour started, I thought I had heard everything about how their first day in Budapest had been. The views of the Buda Castle with the funicular we had seen the day before were the starting point of the tour and I couldn’t wait to see the Parliament majestically sparkling its night lights on my right and I had a dim recollection of my feelings in the run up to seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It wasn’t obviously going to be my first time seeing it after two days in Budapest, but I hadn’t seen it exposed to me like this yet. It didn’t disappoint when it forced itself into our enchanted views! It had one of the Americans in awe when they said “I can’t believe Hungarians could have made this!” “Why not?”, I thought. The feeling of global supremacy Americans might show is sometimes irritating. All nations have had something to contribute to the world and Hungarians had the Parliament to show off of course. A bit further the boat turned back to enable us to get a view of the same attractions from another angle. The audioguide seemed a bit repetitive, but I loved the night and me being embracing it with my heart and mind the way I did.
About an hour later we got off the boat to walk back to the direction of our street where we could have our dinner. The riverside was lined up with posh restaurants with folk music played by people in bright national costumes. The view got me thinking about the red-hot paprika again. It was surprising to find the two Italian friends from our hotel posing for photos against the Danube in a crowd of other tourists. It was a funny encounter indeed! We finished the night with a few shots of pálinka at the low-key place with the handsome waiter that seemed to be frequented by locals. English wasn’t understood much, but miraculously we ended up getting what we ordered after both the handsome waiter and his colleague had a discussion about what it could have been we wanted. The place was cheap and again not touristy at all, and I thought we were genuinely lucky to wrap up the day that started off really steamy here next to a few locals. Cheers to that! We had no trouble falling asleep back at the hotel. Our final full day in Budapest was one sleep away…
Jó reggelt! That was my first morning in Hungary and it started with the view of the beautiful clear sky I saw through my hotel window. There is this sultry yet sensual element of carelessness to mornings spent at hotels as you expect to get things done rather than do them yourself as part of your daily morning ritual. As our TV was on to give us a quick update on the international news, before I put my contact lenses on, I had to squint my eyes to see a very tragic footage coming from the central Italy that had just been hit by a horrible earthquake that had left over two hundred people dead. The rescue operations were ongoing and it was really devastating to see those medieval streets, which would normally have this dolce feel about them beckoning you to come for sun-kissed skin, full of rubble instead. So many holidays have to have a flavor of Italy to them somehow, but that was one that wasn’t meant to be savoured at all. It was so bizarre to be leaving behind this bello country which is an epitomy of felicita and allegria, to enjoy this day in the sunny Budapest and being here in Europe made the news feel more acute and urgent. Down at the café where we were to have our breakfast, there were already people that seemed to come from all over the globe occasionally looking up from their plates to see the TV screen bringing the same news program. That was a nice substantial breakfast with a vague German feel to it as we were welcomed to treat ourselves to some sausages and eggs. Attempting to listen in on a conversation in German being had at the next table caused this flavor to be yet more pronounced.
That was going to be a day of exploring the city and we set out to get a comprehensive introduction to it by doing a free walking tour. It was getting really hot as we were making our way to St.Stephen’s Basilica picking up from the beautiful memories of sitting in front of it the night before. I love seeing major tourist sites transforming throughout the day and this place did seem to have a more brisk and vibrant feel to it as there were people crowding in front of the cathedral obviously for their tours as well. We weren’t the only having this day all to ourselves and not having to be suffocated by the same weight of the daily routine. We had some time to spare before our tour was scheduled to begin and to watch people creating a beautiful sense of the Italian “piazza” just basking in the sun and sitting on the stairs of St.Stephen’s Basilica. Our guide, an energetic young lady, introduced herself briefly telling about how the city that originally consisted of Buda and Pest and united in 1837. We were currently in the more modern Pest from where getting to Buda where this girl was working for an air company took her around 20 minutes. It is actually great to hear stories of ordinary locals to give you a quick reality check. I think being a tour guide is an amazing thing these people volunteer to do beyond their main jobs. Then we were asked to turn back to see the Fat Policeman Statue inspired by someone who was said to have had love for food and women (it’s a quite universal kind of love I think) and you need to rub his belly for luck in love and in finding hearty food to nourish your stomach with. None of us seemed to have any trouble with the latter as we were all in the city known for its hearty substantial food.
It wasn’t too long before we reached the spectacular Danube Promenade spanning from the Chain Bridge to Elizabeth Bridge offering views of Buda after we got some tips on the nicest bars to go to, things to try, etc. To me the view lent the city a subtle charm of a sea resort with lots of emerald green spaces dominated by the tall Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill, the castle looming at the top and the Danube to match of course. Even with the Liberty Statue, an indication of the turbulent relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary, in sight, there was no way a thought about the Soviet past we shared would have crossed my mind. A few luxurious hotels were lining up the embankment as well giving a perspective into the Budapest of the rich and famous who had stayed there at some point of their glorious careers. Now what I was mainly thinking of was soaking up in traditional baths, the smoldering hot heritage of the Ottoman rule, taking advantage of the city’s vivid and diverse history. Sitting on the railway here amidst all this royal-like beauty and splendour in the hot sun of Budapest was the Little Princess that is said to be one of the most photographed statues in the city. The sculptor got inspired by his daughter who used to love to dress up as a princess. That in a way summed up the way I for one felt walking here with the crown of knowledge and enlightenment that travelling gloriously poises on us leaving us with a dreamy-like sense of empowerment. The views of the Chain Bridge massaged my dreamy side with another gentle touch taking me to London for a tiny second. We were to cross it to get to Buda to see the castle.
It was getting scorching hot and we knew that might not be the most comfortable time to visit but as the summer was about to bid its farewell, being here amidst that Hungarian heat won us some more time before we eventually said our goodbyes to this season that invariably has a dreamy-like feel to it. We found ourselves at the other side of the Danube watching funiculars taking people all the way up to the castle hill. No thoughts of the Soviet past yet again… The sun was beating down as we were standing in front of the Sándor Palace, the official residence of the President. The Buda Castle with its amazing reconstructed dome matching the emerald shade gloriously painted by the Danube wasn’t given much attention to as it now merely housed the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. I thought the castle wasn’t much part of the national pride or that was me who expected it would be as I’m hugely drawn to castles in general for this sentimental yet grand feel of the past they provide. We could enjoy a majestic view of the symbol of the country, which is the Turul, a large bird of prey, spreading its wings against the capital’s clearest sky. A legend has it that this bird came to a woman in her dream and made her pregnant with a baby that went on to lead the Hungarian tribes to their new home. This having been said right here at this moment did seem a bit funny as “making love” to this bird was a bit too much even for a dream…
Anyway, I believe that the postcard views of the Parliament from up here made all of us stop questioning the credibility of the legend and let what we saw in front of us flirt and eventually seduce our vision to make us succumb to its charms. You want to take a while enjoying moments like this one when all the illuminating rays of knowledge and your expectations of it come together making it a moment to last in your memory.
But as we were in a group, we didn’t get a proper chance to as it was time to make our way further up to the Fisherman’s Bastion. Before we reached the snow white neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque beauty that I was sure had to do with the Ottoman rule here in Hungary, after enjoying some views from more angles and walking an array of houses that rendered Budapest a bit different feel, we made a quick stop in front of the Statue of Andras Hadik, Hungary’s most famous hussar. They believe you have to climb up to rub the testicles of his horse for good luck and according to the guide, this is what a lot of students come here to do. This is truly what we need to grab our chances by indeed. The guide seemed a bit ashamed to be showing us how it is normally done and looked around her to make sure no one was trying to take a picture, but I can’t see why she had to.
We found the area to be home to a few lovely cafes and restaurants that seemed to offer a retreat from the more touristy part of the city. I felt part of something quintessentially international when I saw an Italian restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver, a famous British chef that I happened to see during another session of watching the British TV channels while embracing my innermost passion for media and journalism. I assumed that place would be a bit too “posh” and expensive to visit but it was nice to see it up and running here in Budapest. Another thing the city takes pride in is its confectionery traditions owing to the Habsburg rule. We were said that the cake that we saw displayed at the Ruszwurm pastry shop offering a new form of seduction to sweet tooths was the winner of “Cake of Hungary” competition that annually takes place on the state’s birthday on August 20 (just a few days before we arrived). That was a beautiful sweet representation of the national flag that we thought we might want to savour after our tour was over.
Straight up in front of us our eyes were treated to a marvelous view of the Matthias Church that seemed to have a bit of paprika sprinkled on its imposing Gothic façade. There are things we think we might get desensitized to while travelling and being repeatedly exposed to but churches will hardly ever make it to this list even for someone non-religious as myself. I love seeing the decorative representation of religion as an integral part of culture displayed to generate feelings and sensations of a varying nature. Some atoms and molecules were working their magic at that moment for me as well.
I could still feel them in progress as we made it further to get a closer look at the Fisherman’s Bastion that to me seemed to have a distinctive Turkish flavour to it even though in fact it didn’t. It’s a good thing I had no idea about that at the time because who knows if there had been magic happening otherwise… I felt as if I was a part of some Eastern fairytale invited to join the action climbing up and down to get the views of the city from different angles as were hundreds of other visitors. That was where our tour was to come to an end and that had been a really enjoyable one with a reasonable amount of walking and talking and there’s not much to satisfy a traveler. Well done to our guide!
As it was getting increasingly hot, we thought we might want to take a seat in the shade to take in the view of the Parliament that we were in a way becoming desensitized to. Or maybe we weren’t. That had to be part of the magic anyway. I remember getting a bit manic with my camera zooming in and out trying to find that perfect angle for my touristic lens. The views in front of my eyes and my camera were colliding into what would inadvertently be a beautiful and endearing memory of Budapest’s most iconic view. As we were enjoying our break, we got saluted by a cute fellow traveler who had just been on the walking tour with us.
We thought it was now time to recharge our batteries and get some lunch at one of the cafes where we could get a view of the Matthias Church as going all the way down to the Danube would take a while. We had a beautiful chicken and vermicelli served with the traditional Hungarian pickled cucumbers but the most incredible thing about that lunch was the famous Tokaji wine. I was getting increasingly aware and accepting of the preoccupation with this drink in some of the countries I had visited but none of the wines I’d had and was learning to keep a palate memory of would compare to what I was sipping on that sunny clear late afternoon taking in the view of the Matthias Church and people coming and going on my right. Here is a sweet toast to a lot more memories to make and treasure and to my new favourite! Having a favourite wine brand even if not being able to get hold of it at any time is comforting and anchoring against stress. A perfect meal has to finish with a dessert and for that we headed back to that pastry shop that had the nation’s best cake. Well, it was challenging and not really of any luck trying to explain what exactly we were after but I think we got something that looked like it after all. The Austrian feel was in the air and well steaming in our elegant coffee cups. Owned by a famous Hungarian confectionery dynasty, that place was very authentic and old in an endearing and romantic sense. I was definitely in need of more of that in my life. That’s one of these subtle little things that keeps me falling in love with Europe over and over again.
Having had our confectionery cravings gratified in that very refined manner, we started our way down to the Danube through rather deserted streets. The views of the Chain Bridge we had as we descended were the ones to let linger in our vision so we took a seat on a bench facing all the touristy action and guarded by two majestic lions peering in front of them at both ends of the bridge, I was having a refreshing drink. “Can I be in London just like that?” That thought was nothing of a surprise as this first permanent bridge across the Danube was designed by a group of British engineers. I had my travelling dream and ambition replicated for me and that was heavenly in all ways!
The walk across the bridge was yet even more impressive as we had the majestic views of the Buda Castle and its gorgeous dome on the right and the Parliament on the left. The Pest side was just as we left it a few hours ago bustling with people and a few luxurious hotel building lining the Danube embankment.
We walked left to get a closer look at the Parliament and soon found the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial paying a touching tribute to the Jews who were made to take off their shoes before they were shot and eventually fell into the Danube… That was a moment of grim silence and that was that tiny little bit we could do to stay connected with the past we weren’t in control of…
It was now time to take countless photos of the Parliament while properly marveling at its grandeur and beauty. The building designed to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 was splendid and arrested our views for impressively long. A talented architect does have some superpowers to enchant, mesmerize and fascinate. I was held in sheer awe trying to compare what I had gorgeously spreading in front of me and those pictures I’d seen of it. Some cars driving by seemed a bit out of place amidst this glorious piece of architecture that appeared like one from all different angles. On our left we had something no less mesmerizing to watch – the sunset over the Danube, a subtly romantic and charming scene.
It would have been even more so if we hadn’t had a pushy senior gentleman following us and saying something obviously incomprehensible to us. I had to have a little thought of the Soviet past we had to share somehow and I guess that only had to do with his age as he seemed someone who had had a fair share of communism in his life. Anyway, I thought right there in this spot with the lovely sunset and the side of the Parliament in front of us was the right place to call home and speak a bit in another language incomprehensible to some strangers here. For some reason we had the same nasty man approaching us again after it had been a while since our first encounter. That really agitated my sister and we crossed into the square in front of the Parliament happily with no sight of this horrible man. As perfect as the place seemed to be, our judgments of people can’t be so clear-cut at all. I tried to focus more on this beautiful area surrounding the Parliament with large flowerbeds. I couldn’t help noticing a couple walking by and a man cheekily picking up one of the flowers and presenting it to his female companion. I had no idea why but I thought about Italy the second time round that day… For all I know, he might have been Italian for bringing this charming bit of romance and spontaneity to this evening in Budapest. Transformations, manipulations in our minds and hearts – that is where they are sure to originate…
As if I hadn’t had enough, I had a few more photos in front of the Parliament to round off my time with it for that day because I felt a sinister Parliament overdose was impending!
We had a familiar walk through semi-deserted streets towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral and thought we might want to grab our drinks at one of the places recommended by the tour guide earlier today but the area was really bustling with people having fun as opposed to the one surrounding the Parliament.
That’s really the case with Budapest where you would find streets going from slightly uncomfortably deserted to incredibly and perhaps annoyingly bustling. My sister insisted we found somewhere quieter for our late dinner and that is how we ended up at a lovely place where we thought we could be offered a selection of local dishes. We just had to keep a bit off Váci utca, one of the main tourist streets in the city that we assumed would be overpriced. There weren’t too many people here and neither was the place empty. Looking for a place to eat has to be a bit intuitive after all. The famous Hungarian goulash soup had to be tried along with a shot of pálinka, a fruit brandy. It was amazing that we had our goulash served in a large paprika-red pan that was designed to look slightly overused. Some group of men having reasonably loud conversations and not worthy of giving any extra attention to while enjoying our unreasonably nourishing dinner matched the ambiance of this night filled with the juicy smell of paprika-rich goulash and the drink leaving the burning sensation in my stomach. That summed up my current feel of the country – a bit rough, spicy and conspicuous (inspired by the location of the eating place). We had a bit of a melting pot feel as well as we saw a man working at a currency exchange place putting a sign that read something like “It’s time for a prayer, I’ll be back soon”. Happily filled with food, we walked slowly back to our hotel where we took very little time to fall asleep after the wonderful substantial meal. There had been so much we’d done and as much as we are craving for more magic to unravel, sleep is an essential element to help it along. Jó éjszakát.