Food… and Some Aftertaste of Belarus

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.

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This is where I had my potato pancakes (драники). By the way, the name of the restaurant is written in Belarusian, which makes sense

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.

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An Instagram moment

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.

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I had to make sure I got this chocolate. It is a Belarusian twist on the legendary Soviet Alenka chocolate that every Russian knows well

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!

 

 

P.S.

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…

Arrivederci, Roma!

It was our final day here in Rome. We packed our things and checked if there was anything we had left behind. I did leave my spare pair of shoes behind – I didn’t want to leave! That was it – our beautiful hotel room will become someone else’s beautiful retreat a few hours later. I was already jealous of them! There is something personal and impersonal about hotel rooms at the same time – it might feel as home in a place you are coming to love but it might be baffling just thinking about the number of people who had resided here before. Anyway, whoever they would be, I wished them a great time in the magnificent Eternal City! We arranged with the lovely lady at the reception desk who checked us in on our first day to leave our bags that had grown heavy at the luggage room. It caused us a bit of a laugh as this room looked more like a renovated bathroom but we didn’t mind that much as long as our suitcases were safe in here.
We didn’t have a hotel room but we could have Rome till the late afternoon. My sister suggested we picked up on what we hadn’t got to do the day before – see the mysterious St.Teresa in Ecstasy in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Well, I thought that would be something I would have to leave till I probably came again as I might not find my way there but my sister was in the mood to go so we went! It was a short walk from our hotel. It was early so there were few people in the church. I had been really fascinated by the story behind this sculpture by Bernini. It was in the opening scene of the BBC documentary about about him. It depicts a Spanish nun stabbed with God’s arrow and the state she is in is so intense and it really shows in her face. It’s stunningly sensual and to me it reveals another astonishing aspect of religion taking it out of the traditional context. There are so-called “theatre boxes” on either side showing people watching Teresa as she is getting increasingly aroused by this sensation. It is really extraordinary how Bernini seemed to have challenged the way religion is seen as something shying away from anything explicitly sensual. Staying in this back-door church with a great view of this sensual sculpture was wonderful! We had done that!
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We headed along the familiar streets to Piazza della Republica and enjoyed some more of the morning Rome. A part of us was still here and another part knew we would be leaving a few hours later… We checked out a little market and got some things at the staggering 1 Euro! We walked to Piazza del Quirinale and admired some last views of the Dome from up here. Did I really have to leave? It felt more like piecing the memories together now rather than making them…
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We owed a visit to the Pantheon and that was what we did passing by the snow white monument again… Piazza della Rotunda was just as a few days ago – bustling and busy.When you enter this extraordinary ancient building, all you feel an urge to do is to look up. Yes, this dome! Only the Dome that we had previously admired can compare to it! Just look at the light coming through! It was nothing like I’d seen so far! It wasn’t a church, neither did it feel like a public building. There were tombs of some famous Italians – Vittorio Emanuele II, Raphael… I felt the significance of experiencing this most famous ancient building. It made for a perfect last sight to explore…
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We went to the famous Tazza D’Oro coffee shop for our final coffees. We didn’t expect to be able to afford much but the prices were surprisingly reasonable and the service provided was amazing! Coffees were served from a bar and that’s how Italians prefer it. The staff were very efficient, I have to find out how they pull all of this off – being quick, having a chit-chat with each other, smiling at you, stopping the cutlery from almost falling down and looking drop dead gorgeous! Italian men, I salute you again! The coffee was the best I’d ever tried, by the way! And we got some to take back home. Italians and coffee certainly mix!
A walk back from the Pantheon through the familiar streets till we were back to the crossroad of ages – Via dei Fori Imperiale – to get final views of the snow white Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument where we used to sit almost every night watching the sun go down to give it a pinkish shade. One night right here facing this landmark monument, I got to chatting with a middle-aged Italian and he asked me where I was from and I wished I had been able to scrape my limited Italian together for this but he spoke fluent English and he assumed I had been walking all day (and he used the tense correctly!) and suggested it would be a good idea to come back next summer to see some more. I was sure I had to take his advice on board and come back right here to have a longer conversation and probably in Italian! Yes, it is like music to the ears! I had been in Italy before once but I didn’t really get to hear much of it but now I felt I HAD been in Italy! With my heart, my mind, my eyes, my ears and my palate. More views of the Forum and we were back to our hotel to get our suitcases.
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We had a sweaty walk to the railway station to catch a bus to the airport. That was it now… Arrivederci, Roma! A few hours later after standing in line of mostly grumpy countrymen we got on our plane home and there back in Moscow early in the morning. I felt like in a dream oblivious of where I am and who I am… I was experiencing Rome withdrawal symptoms.

One of the things I learnt on this trip was that travelling on your own is amazing and it offers you a whole lot more than being with a group. Doing things at our own pace, walking the streets of Rome enjoying its surprisingly changing weather patterns, resting your feet whenever they take you (usually they were these “public living-rooms” – piazzas), people-watching letting your eyes feast on the world-famous Italian beauty and style just to get inspired to live, to love, to create… Italians seem to take it all to another level. Yes, Rome might not be the cleanest city and the reason behind smiles and charm might have to do with people trying to make a living in tough economic condition but that doesn’t take away from the pure joy of being in the Eternal City and getting your idea of what dolce vita is… It’s there – in the resilience of incredibly ancient buildings, the sun going up and down the Roman sky, a steaming cup of espresso, an irresistable stare of a handsome Italian’s eyes, the overwhelming amount of beauty per square meter… It’s all the art, the art of living life and you want to come again and again to learn more. Italy is a summertime romance I will never forget and I hope I will get infatuated again and again! Bellissima!