Mindful Explorations of Minsk’s Architecture

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.

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Беларусь sign near the Minsk airport (Belarus)

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.

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National Library of Belarus as seen from a bus window

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.

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Gates of the City of Minsk

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…

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Government House of Belarus

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).

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Church of Saints Simon and Helena against the clear blue sky

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.
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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 …

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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.

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The festive Old Town

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.

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A very touching monument commemorating the dead

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…

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A magnificent sunset with a statue of a crying angel on the right stirring a mix of emotions and 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.

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Palace of Republic in the distance, a venue for the concert I came here six years ago to see

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.

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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…

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A festive shopping display…

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…

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Goodbye, Minsk!

 

Linguistic Adventures in Minsk

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.

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A welcoming sign in Belarusian and English

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 languagescape. 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.

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З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым” (“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”), Independence Avenue

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.

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A street sign for Independence Avenue (in Belarusian)

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.

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A restaurant menu (in Russian)
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An advertisement sign for a chocolate factory (in Russian)

A patriotic sign that read I heart Belarus could have been both in Russian and Belarusian as these words are identical in both languages.

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I heart Belarus (the same in Belarusian and Russian)

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 explore more external and internal sources of knowledge and enlightenment. I surely don’t mind a lot more field work in the process!

 

References
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duchy_of_Lithuania
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trasianka
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/-sp-russian-belarus-reclaims-language-belarusian
https://www.rferl.org/a/shocking-belarusian-president-speaks-belarusian-lukashenka/25443432.html
https://carnegie.ru/commentary/67939
https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/linguistic-anthropology/ethnographic-methods/F8894FE65BAF468EDE14DACDC5EB06E0
Bekus, Nelly (2010): Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness.” Budapest: Central European University Press.

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.

The Last Trip of 2019 (Minsk)

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!

Budapest (Day 1)

Once you start travelling and find your comfort zone growing larger or being in your comfort zone increasingly difficult, there is one big thing you come to realize. This is how flexible your heart and mind become and how they are getting so much better at trying to accommodate, to make new connections and reinforce old ones to make you more open-minded and open-hearted to whatever transformations and manipulations they are both exposed to while that physical body where they reside gets around. Another thing you notice happening to your mind and heart is that they are growing into a magical bubble where most intricate chemical reactions occur with lots and lots of bits and pieces coming together into all sorts of mixes with its smallest atoms and molecules breaking apart or suddenly colliding. And what do you have as a result of all these enigmatic and elaborate reactions? Yes, you have you but not the one you thought you knew because you think you know yourself but some intensely alive human being that sometimes doesn’t feel too much alive at all or feels these molecules and atoms jumping with bursts of life inside them… That’s how you know you are alive. If you are still not quite sure, you will know once you hit the road again to let transformations and manipulations take over. It’s not that they ever stopped taking place inside the mind and heart of yours but it is when you realize you need fuel to keep those atoms and molecules operating to generate new bursts of life that you know you are ALIVE!

Yes, I might get confused as to what it is exactly for me that provides my mind and heart with some fuel to run on. I mean I know travelling does it all for me, but as time goes by, I find my feelings caused by all of these sorts of reactions to be more and more complex to leave me doubting, rejoicing, regretting, questioning. Is that too much to being alive…? As the longest relationship we will ever have is the one with ourselves, I get to know myself through travelling and my reactions to those reactions I have unravelling in me. One thing I can’t fail to see is how apart from falling profoundly in love with the places I get to see, I become more open to infatuations and flings where I know no profound feelings and impressions will occur or even if they do, they won’t last and I find myself strangely OK with that. Sometimes you need just a little fuel probably to keep your heart pumping with the feelings that once inflamed it without any hope there will be a new explosion, a new collision changing the chemical composition of your mind and heart. That’s how I think I felt about Budapest. I didn’t feel wanting to make a lasting connection with it but as the chance came up, I thought I would grab it. Just to see where it will take me – life is too short to be too sentimental about emotional attachment and letting go. I knew that disconnecting will probably not leave my heart torn into bits and pieces that will have strangest things happening to them when I get back home. Just a quick look, no strings attached…

It was another conference but this time I knew it would be quick and as yes, I am opening myself up to fast-paced and quick relationships, I thought it would be very engaging for my mind and heart to get to go where I hadn’t thought think I’d ever be. Is Hungary (Magyarország) a country to inspire a whole string of associations the way some places that end up on lots of bucket lists do? Probably not, I thought. That was why I decided it would be a good place to make a quick connection with and to see if there is any connection at all in the first place. Of course as it was the case for me with the more familiar Bulgaria, we tend to dismiss some places as dull and not worthy of any proper touristiс attention and never care to attend to them as life is really too short and there are all kinds of places that set the magical processes in our minds and hearts running. Therefore we find it reasonable to avoid the places that might fail to float our boat and take away from that precious time we have here some of which we can spend exploring if we are lucky enough. But even though it might seem more challenging while building relationships with other humans, but I’m a believer of giving places chances even if they are far from being appealing to whatever of our senses. I did have one good reason to want to go to Budapest in particular as it was one of the few places my Mum got to visit in her Soviet-time youth when travelling outside the country was a lot more of a big deal than it is now. In this respect I sometimes find myself older than my own Mum as my idea of getting around seemed to have travelled further than hers as I can enjoy the luxury of actually being able to take in a place I am visiting rather than being too overwhelmed by being somewhere new and trying to get hold of things you don’t have back home. I can travel for impressions that nurture my mind and heart, not for things only. So my Mum’s idea of the Hungarian capital was that it was an endless array of underground kiosks where they were rushing around to get some bargains and things we would end up wearing for years and years after… Instinctively and rationally, I knew mine was going to be a different impression and I was ready to write my own story of Budapest and as I always do, I will get to write twice – with my mind and my heart.

I had to cut down on the time I could set aside to do some research as I knew there wouldn’t be much of it to make any proper connection with the city, let alone the country. But I did remember what the American professor we got a chance to meet back in Nice said about Budapest being one of the most incredible European capitals he’d ever seen and he said in that very enigmatic voice of his while munching on some magnifique French food under the sun of the French Riviera. So I made a conscious choice to take a quick dip into the Hungarian life without much prior investigation with the sound of that American voice ringing distantly in my mind. We will just see how it turns out. That was going to be a long trip as straight after Budapest we were to head to St. Petersburg, our capital of the North. So my touristic lense would have to go into two opposite directions to produce what I hope would be a comprehensive image to my mind and an endearing stray of memories for my heart to behold. I did download a few travel guides on Budapest to scan through on my trip to Moscow from home to give me a quick introduction into some of the major sights and their history. As I said above, as with any formerly communist state, we do tend to get too negligent of any of their prior history focusing more on their relatively recent past instead, which is a huge shame indeed. As I was aware of that, I took time to learn a few facts about the country’s Ottoman past and Habsburg rule that preceded what would be just a few decades that for us came to define the whole country casting it into a group of a few more that comprise what is known as the Soviet block. As much as I expected Hungary to bear a somewhat dull and tedious imprint of its Soviet past as the rest of the places ultimately have, I wanted to get a taste of its unique flavor and its even more unique varieties, something I have grown to believe through my travelling experiences every country and even all the places in it have on a varying scale. Of course with me being me, I did have a sneak at some videos teaching elementary Hungarian and watched a few videos showcasing the capital’s main attractions because yes, it is not just about the impressive Neo-classical Parliament building after all. To wrap this all up, on the final night before my ten-day trip I watched a video of the lovely song that represented Hungary at the Eurovision and tried to get my ears around the sound of the language and feast my eyes on the romantic views of the city. Something for the mind and heart and Budapest, here I come!

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Just as we normally do, we had some time in Moscow before our flight and this time we got to spend two days here exploring the places we grew to love in the course of letting all the transformations and manipulations happen to us and two nights at a hotel in a quite sketchy area. Someday I might be able to go on a proper trip to our capital city and write about it. Twice – with my mind and heart as I usually do.

The more you travel by planes, the less of a big deal this kind of travelling becomes and this comes as a surprise for me to think that I don’t actually have much of a recollection of my flight to Budapest apart from a few Hungarians I saw on board and some final reading of my travel guide before I ditch it to experience the actual city. Of course I had some images of the streets as I was reading and through the course of my flight, Budapest seemed to be losing its Soviet flavor to it more and more. As someone who is not a student any longer but deeply engaged into this realm for a living, I know that yearning desire to get out and experience something rather than spending days on end swatting and reading about it, in the end you can’t possibly read up for life, it is going to throw you lessons that you would feel you haven’t read up for anyway.

The thing I was looking forward to most when we arrived was to get my first look at some quirky Hungarian words. I’m always on the lookout for linguistic signs of being somewhere away from home and I didn’t have to look far to see a few graphic images of the Uralic language that is a very distinctive spot on the vivid linguistic landscape of Europe. I was actually relaxed about the linguistic prospects of the next few days as I knew for sure there was no point in even attempting to understand the language and the beautiful thing about it was that being unable to do so wasn’t going to do any harm to my self-image as a professional. I’m making a lot of progress in acknowledging things I have no idea about and getting better about feeling good about it as well. Venturing out into the known is becoming fun now! What we had to do first was to find the taxi that we had booked beforehand, which we realized might be a bit too tricky. It took me surprisingly little to see a man holding a paper with my sister’s name written both in English and Russian on it (I was instinctively more drawn to the Russian image I guess). I took a moment to be proud of how our Cyrillic alphabet sets us apart from people using Latin letters and lends us that enigmatic charm that so many people pursue to get hold of while travelling. We were welcomed to Budapest but didn’t get much further in our conversation from there as the taxi-driver seemed to be really struggling with English after he attempted to tell us something about his family I guess. I wonder how many more stories we would have available to our minds and hearts if we didn’t have languages tearing us apart. I don’t advocate for the common language for all because that would obviously leave me without a job and inspiration but at that particular moment on that hot August afternoon outside the Ferenc Liszt International Airport I do think I wished we had one… Not to get confused by the silence that was due to the linguistic barriers, I took time to look around to get my first glimpses of Hungary keeping in mind that I might never come here again. During such rides from the airport to the city is when you get this very complex feeling of collision of mind and heart when the mental image of home gets outlandishly interrupted by the visual image of a new land that had been here long before you knew you would ever come. We will never have the privilege to know exactly how Columbus felt through the course of his discovery of the American continent but we might feel the tentative Columbus arising in us at moments like those… It was through linguistic signs (phonetic and written ones) that I got in touch with what is home to at least about 2 million people. How can you help falling in love with languages and this way they have to stimulate minds and hearts…?

The central part of Budapest where we arrived some thirty minutes later seemed a bit different from that quick image I got of it and yes, the legendary Hungarian Parliament on the bank of the Danube was nowhere to be seen! Károlyi utca where our hotel was located looked packed with beautiful and very imposing buildings that mentally took me back to Vienne. They seemed a bit rundown but also erased the thoughts I’d been having of Budapest as the capital of a former communist state. I seemed to be enamored with seeing faces on facades peering into the infinite space we are physically sharing with them. I saw some scars on them as if the past had its sharpest knife in its hands and brutally cut through their medieval beauty but I felt no hint of pain but just some sublime breeze of lots of lives lived accompanied by a faint sound of a classical violin piece. Our hotel looked quite chic and we were greeted at the entrance by a porter and I was the first to start the conversation with my humble “Jó napot!” (Good afternoon). Recently I’ve been feeling drawn by some magical spell to move beyond the increasingly international horizons of English that feels like my comfort zone so I knew this very phrase would be said there and then… We were able to check in quite easily. We made our way to the elevator to take us to the third floor accompanied by the porter carrying my suitcase. That sweet young man attempted some small talk and complimented my accent. I said “Thank you!” but explained that I teach English for a living and I’m paid to have a sort of a decent accent after all. But it turned out it wasn’t my English accent that he complimented but my Hungarian accent that caused him to think I was Hungarian first! How on earth could it impress a native speaker? Well, if that was something they were trained to say to anyone attempting to say a few words in Hungarian, it certainly worked well for me as any compliments pertaining to linguistics to me seemed to go a longer way than any relating to the physical appearance. He also told us that not much English was spoken around here but according to him as well, that was “enough” to get by at least. I found myself thinking a moment after the porter had left about whether we were supposed to give him a tip but we had no Hungarian money on us yet so, well… Tipping culture is not what we are big on anyway. A new country, a hotel room – another blissful day in the life of a traveler! As we looked at the map of the city to estimate how far we would be walking from the hotel to the conference venue, we got a bit appalled as they seemed to be at the opposite ends of the map. Well, we considered we were still physically fit for this after all.

After a while we set out on our walk, which we hoped would take us two hours or so with a little break to get something to eat. I love those first moments of being in a new place on your own feet not just in a taxi. I knew I would have to disconnect long before I might even consider connecting so I was just living the moment peering at the imposing facades without even bothering too much about not knowing what they housed. There were lots of places with traditional Hungarian food in the area and I loved being exposed to this superficial feel of the country that tourism marketing specialists are working so hard at creating in a way appropriate to generate more profit and draw more visitors. These Hungarians working in these dining places might not know or even care to know what kind of thoughts we as tourists were having in our heads as fuel to inspire our feelings that will still be shaping up when we get back home… We got a glimpse of the first attraction on our right, which was St.Stephen Basilica. At that moment all we knew was that it seemed a bit too expensive and touristy to eat here (we already had some local forints on us). We kept walking as my sister reassured me that we were approaching the Danube and the Parliament.

We saw a place offering a nice view of what I learned later on was Liberty Square (Szabadság tér) and a new monument commemorating German Occupation of Hungary with splashes of fountains and some messages with what might be some attempts to address important social issues facing the country. We come and go while all these places and their people are dealing with their lives sometimes in languages we can’t even dare to make sense of. On the left we had the building of the former Stock Exchange Palace and somehow this area had a bit of a sentimentally gruesome edge to it and matched the salty taste of pickled cucumbers that looked like fresh ones unlike those back home as no vinegar is used for them that we had served to us after quite a bit of waiting together with some local variation of pasta and chicken. There was some lonely deserted feeling in the air and people weren’t smiling too much but some happy couples walking by or people with cute dogs did bring back memories of the squares I’d had inspire my feeling of happiness and a desire to belong there. I had to refer back to my knowledge of the place as being the capital of a communist state again and switch back on to its aspirations of the European future. That had to be a bit hurried meal as we didn’t want to be late for the conference opening. Stepping a bit into the square, we felt a breath of home on us as we saw the last monument dating back to the Soviet era in the middle. It felt like a mix of the Austrian influence of the imposing buildings and the Soviet one that wouldn’t let go (for us anyway as we had brought chunks of it on us all the way from Russia) was here.

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We kept walking squeezed between arrays of enigmatic and rather deserted buildings featuring a few memorial tables on their rather dull facades. The Hungarian history was attempting to murmur something vaguely to me but just as back at the airport, the conversation was really happening as all I could see were some images of words I couldn’t make out at all for the reasons I stated above. It seemed like a really foreign place and the feeling is always more acute when you are in a non-touristy area like this with people going about their daily routine and working while you are out here travelling. One or two crossroads later, I got reminded what exactly I was here for when I saw a part of the Hungarian Parliament Building on the left! Just like this! How come it is here and no one is pushing their way to get a couple of breathtaking photos? Will it be just me standing here in sheer awe with this rather unexpected first encounter with this marvelous Hungarian landmark piece of architecture? I felt as if it had been abandoned by the rest of the tourists and I was giving it its due attention there and then. I just couldn’t believe I could have this building I’d seen countless times in photos all to myself!

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We knew we had to keep walking a bit further to get to the Danube bank and get better views from there on our left. There were a few casual eating places, flower kiosks here – nothing to impress a traveler. The first of Budapest’s seven bridges we got to walk was Margaret Bridge (Margit híd)  built between 1872 and 1876. From here we could see Margaret Island, a popular recreational zone right in the city center, spanning on our right. Of course still on my left I could take in the iconic view of the Parliament. That was a real “moment of truth” every tourist gets to experience at some point as my mind got busy matching the actual view right in front of me and what I’d seen in photos. There is invariably a bit of an element of disappointment to such experiences as these two images rarely match. The real Parliament looked a bit smaller but its architectural details looked a lot more majestic against the humble Danube that looked even smaller. I had to mind where I was going as the bridge was very busy with people moving in both directions and it was quite hot up here. None of these people seemed to be bothered much with the Parliament and I felt I was the only one who kept looking back to get another look.

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What followed as we crossed the bridge was a very long sweaty walk across a rather dull residential part of Budapest. We were not sensible enough to estimate how long this walk would actually take us as the Árpád Bridge (the longest one in Hungary), which was just near the conference venue, seemed so close but oddly enough, we never seemed to approach it. Even though that wasn’t definitely a touristy walk and a myriad of the city’s attractions was right there behind our increasingly tired backs, as I go through manipulations and transformations travelling generously awards me with, I find myself being content to have to have a few walks like this. Just an ordinary life, yes, the Soviet feel is there despite being extinguished for a while by my travel book back on the plane a few hours before. It is fascinating to be trying to see if there is anything that would catch a tourist’s eye here and I have to conclude there wasn’t much. But at the end of the day, isn’t that a taste of life that we travel for? In combination with an array of touristic stuff selling in shops and experiences that locals might never cared about, these walks make for a spell-bounding substance that keeps the zest for travelling beckoning us back on the road again and again. Some two (!) hours later (they felt even longer than that), we finally reached the hotel after mistaking it for a few other hotels on our way. Yes, we had just reached from one end of the map to the other! The five-star Aquincum Hotel is set where there are now ruins of ancient city of the Roman Empire. As one of the luxuries offered by the Roman civilization, local people could enjoy public baths and that would be another highlight of Budapest that we would get us completely soaked a bit later on this trip!

The interior of the hotel looked very impressive and took us a few decades back with its chick décor all around that splendid extravagant massive space that had the air of luxury and opulence lingering in there. We were just in time for the conference opening and even had some time to spare to stay in the lounge and watch some of the hotel residents. It’s a very different lifestyle we adopt once we check in at a hotel and it’s interesting to think that we wouldn’t have all ended up in this space together otherwise. The opening was a bit hasty and rushed with some quick speeches in a really bad English… We stuck around for a bit more for the reception and had our first try of the local wines and snacks at least watching some people we could see through the glass enjoying their spa sessions. Our stomachs were in need of some fuel after that long sweaty walk, even more so than our minds and hearts.

In spite of going out of her way to convince me we did need to try to overcome a few possible linguistic barriers and try to get a taxi back to the hotel, my sister agreed it would be good to have a more relaxed walk back as it hadn’t got dark yet. Or was that the effect the wine had had on us…? The area seemed to have lost its dull and depressing edge and I felt more like a local headed somewhere past these residential buildings. But unlike one, I was also more relaxed to stop for a tiny bit longer to see through the lights coming through some of the windows contemplating how lives behind them were different from those back home. The first difference that I could think of was that the evening news someone was probably watching was in the enigmatic language of that country – linguists would be linguists, I say…

It was really extraordinary to see the Parliament building again just like this somewhere in the distance while we were still surrounded by these residential buildings. That felt like two contradicting echoes attempting to merge into one to make where we were now – Budapest. We started our way along the Margaret Bridge again and were able to do some more relaxed evening-time people-watching. The views of the Parliament lit up in the distance were a far more delicious treat to our senses than the wine! I get some moments when I develop a quick fondness of photography and spend a while just playing around with my camera. There was too much to play around with in this surreal view, surreal enough to build up beautiful expectations about the next few days!

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The streets were getting deserted even though it was just a bit past nine. It was really odd and made Budapest feel like an abandoned destination altogether. The same buildings we walked by earlier that day were now like a part of a silent numb jungle that didn’t even bother to break its crunchy silence for us. Where were any people at all…? That was a puzzle we knew we might not get enough time to work on solving.

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After a while, we did find ourselves outside the silent jungle as we reached St.Stephen’s Basilica celebrating the Hungarian king who founded the country in 896. We decided it would be nice to stay in this square in front of the church and ponder on our first night here in Budapest. We got some coffee at one of the places and I found the girl at the checkout so delighted when I said “Köszönöm!” (“Thank you!”). She smiled and said something sounding very complicated that must have been “You are welcome!”. It’s how one little word can make you part of a regular everyday conversation… As my sister left to find a bathroom, I had a moment all to myself sitting in the corner of this square sipping on my coffee looking at the gorgeous façade of the basilica and I needed nothing more to tell my mind and heart that I was in this part of the world that I probably need nothing else to compare with to know I love best! Just this combination of people, a string of sounds they make as they speak their languages (or trying to use other ones), this saturated nocturnal air, this church and me in this cozy straw chair with a chocolate muffin on the table…

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We found our way back to the hotel safely and really loved the area around it even though it didn’t seem too busy. I had a few glances at the Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd) named after Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” (the one we encountered on our brief trip to Vienne) just on the right as we were approaching the hotel. I loved its white cables against the capital’s starry sky. We walked for a little bit more to find some small bakeries right across the corner closing for the night. There was a lot to want to wake up to see the next morning. We were ready to experience our quiet first night in Hungary. Of course I couldn’t resist browsing a few tourist magazines I had lying on my bedside table. I love that comforting and yet empowering feeling they give me to inspire me to want to pursue my dreams and keep on writing. Good night, Budapest!