Summer Daze in Minsk

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Minsk, Belarus – June 2014

I have found the people of Minsk. They are here, on the riverside, strolling along in defiance of the gathering storm. The air is still. Muggy. It clings to my skin. Just a few degrees more and it would be unbearable.

It is time for celebration. Music wafts from all directions. A wedding in a restaurant in Trinity Hill. A Russian song with a jubilant beat, reminiscent of those catchy songs you hear at weddings. A woman dressed in a shimmering copper-colored shift dances out to the street. Stiletto heels on cobblestone. Champagne glass in hand and not a drop spilled. I pause to stare in admiration.

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Further along, three teenagers in a pedal boat pull up next to a floating bar. The band on the patio plays a blues rock tune. The teenagers stand up and dance. They pump their arms in the air and shake their bodies with desperate enthusiasm. The girl, especially, seems full of pent-up exuberance. People gather around to watch and smile. Summers are so fleeting in this northern land.

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And then: the sweet sounds of songs shared with passersby. Not for money, but just because.

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Pedal boats glide back and forth. Couples watch the sun’s slothful sink behind the skyline. Nights are so transient now. The solstice is near. I drift off to sleep to the sound of distant thunder and laughter from the wedding. A midsummer lullaby.

In the morning all is silent again. In the early afternoon, I walk along the river, towards the big wheel on the horizon. The clouds have vanished. Just inside the gates of Gorky Park is a small stage. People have gathered to watch a little girl. Her voice screeches out of the speakers. I cringe as I walk by. Who thought it was a good idea to give her a microphone?

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The streets of Minsk all lead to Gorky Park, it seems. After days of silence and relative solitude, I’m caught off guard. I grip my camera for comfort and focus on the vintage rides. Like everything in Minsk, they have been painstakingly maintained. Such antiquated rides would be laughable to American children.

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This colorful kiddie ride goes up and down and that’s it. But the little ones don’t know when it will start and stop. Their peals of laughter are as clear as crystal. So pure. Was I ever that innocent? A boy has set up his business next to the ride. For a small price, you can have your photo taken with his rabbit.*

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In this carnival universe, I am conspicuous and ill at ease. So much sound and color and smell. Angst and happiness. The annoyed sighs of parents. Pouting teenagers. There is a distinct lack of whining, however. I shuffle from ride to ride. Sickly sweet cotton candy, squeaking balloon animals, listless clowns, sizzling sausages, ice cream oozing down hands, strollers blocking the path. A portly man tries over and over to ring the bell on the strongman game. Are these games rigged here, too?

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The haze in my brain thickens. I take refuge under the trees near the big wheel. I sit and watch its slow, hypnotic rotation.

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Look down there, honey, at all the little people. The little world. Isn’t it funny?

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Cross the road. Back down to the river. The midway din recedes. A jogger passes, and then an elderly couple, and then no one. A lone pedal boat’s silent drift. Two teenaged girls laze in the cool shade of a cement gazebo. They speak in low melodic voices. I don’t need to know the language to understand the intonation of secret yearning. Clandestine initials etched in cement. Do you think he likes me? Will you talk to him? No, don’t talk to him! What if he doesn’t like me? The tremor of an ardent heart. Or worse: what if he does?

In the distance, the wheel’s languid rotation. A motion as imperceptible as that of the sun’s.

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*I actually didn’t notice the boy and rabbit until I got home and looked at the photos. I always thought I had the world’s strongest rabbit radar. I guess that shows just how frazzled I was.

55 thoughts on “Summer Daze in Minsk

  1. I had never once in my life, not even a single time, ever thought of visiting Minsk – until now! No fair using good photography along with a surreal quality of writing 😉 Have you ever given consideration to working for a tourism agency? And I mean that in complete seriousness.

  2. Thank you! I love these–there’s something about Minsk, I’ve wanted to go there for the longest time. Don’t ask me why–I no longer remember.

  3. That first photo made me gasp a bit. The colors are all so vibrant…even on those antiquated amusement rides. Lovely pics and text, Julie. You make every place look magical. 💕

    p.s. Minsk…I always think of the fictitious play “Rochelle, Rochelle” featuring Bette Midler…sorry for another Seinfeld reference. ☺ Van

  4. I’ve actually been looking at flights and hotels for Minsk today, but think the visa application will put me off going. Is it definitely worth the hassle?

    • The visa process is intimidating and, depending on the embassy you go through, frustrating. I got the feeling they’re told to make it difficult – unclear instructions, “problems” with your hotel invitation, etc. I’ve lived in former communist countries for 8 years now, so I know how to mentally prepare myself for bureaucratic situations. I looked at it as part of the whole experience of traveling to an authoritarian country. However, for someone who isn’t familiar with the attitude, it could be horrible and cast a pall over yout trip. For me, it was totally worth it, but I like going to WAY off the beaten path places.

      I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now, so I’ve got an idea what type of trip you like. You’re adventurous, but you just came back from a fabulous trip to Iceland, where everything is well-organized and there’s a lot of tourist action. Minsk is not going to be like that. It’s a very pleasant city, but sleepy. There are great cafes and the architecture is really unique. You will most likely not run into any other Western tourists. There is no tourist infrastructure. Everything is written in cyrillic, and very few people on the street speak any English, though I found them to be very helpful anyway. You can hire a private guide (I know a good one who did my airport transfers), but it’s expensive. I don’t want to make your decision for you, but you might want to wait a bit until they chill out and a little more of a tourist infrastructure appears.

      Here’s a good website done by locals so you can get an idea of the atmosphere – http://34mag.net/en There’s a section for tourists (click on “Minsk”) that’s really helpful.

      • Thanks for the helpful and comprehensive response. I think you’re right – the bureaucracy might be too much to handle, especially as it’s a birthday trip and my wife’s passport is still in her maiden name. Perhaps we could do without the stress and wait a few years until the visas have been scrapped.

        • You’re very welcome. If you decide to go there one day, feel free to contact me. I can give you some recommendations on cafes, things to see, etc.

  5. Wonderful photos, particularly the first. And an interesting slice of life you’ve presented.
    As you say, you must weally have been wonky to not have your wabbit wadar on. If it were on, would you have had your photo taken?

    • I was very disappointed in myself, LD. 🐰 I probably wouldn’t have had my photo taken with the wabbit, but I totally would have paid the boy to let me photograph him with his bunny and his whole enterprising setup. 🐇

  6. Beautiful photos, Julie. The young lad with the rabbit was very enterprising. Outside of the Park, there seem to be few people out and about. Is that the reality or your clever photography?

  7. I love these pictures. Reminds me that there are beautiful places all over the world. We become inundated with bad news all the time here in the west. It’s refreshing to see people going about their lives in a beautiful city. Thank you.

    • There is so much talk of Belarus being an oppressive dictatorship, and yet the scenes in these photos are what I saw. I can’t make a judgement from just a few days, but it sure didn’t seem any worse than anywhere else. Even so, I’m not saying I want to live under such a system. Thanks a lot for dropping by.

  8. The magical clouds, pedal boats on placid waters, lazy guitarists on riverside, merry-go-rounds and the giant wheel which I just perched on to, to say honey it is a ‘minsk-ule’ world out there…thanks, julie…

  9. I love your ” summer daze ” dear Julie …I can hear those ” stiletto heels on cobblestone ” walking past me … Why is it that you bring me along on such wondrous journeys as if I was holding hands with a beautiful ghost ? I love your flowing writing … it’s stylish like bare feet and blue jeans , so natural that the winds smell of sweetness . Hugs and always thankfulness and love , megxxx

  10. I liked your comment on Rajagolal,s post so thought I would look at your about page and cruse around your blog. I have been rewarded with enjoyable photography and writing.

  11. I love this colourful Minsk presented by you with sizzling sausages or the old merry go round full of people enjoying themselves on this midsummer lullaby which shows to me a city I would not have imagined in this way. It’s very special, as always, to read your stories and I am sending you a big thank you.

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