By Tom Galvin
Queues for groceries, unfathomable bus timetables, inexplicable traditions and truly bizarre soup – this is Poland in the mid-1990s, where Tom Galvin innocently went as a trainee teacher. Without a word of Polish, he is plunged into a strange and rapidly changing culture, as the country shakes off its troubled and complex past and faces the challenges of being a part of modern Europe. He spent five years dealing with long and freezing winters, lack of good food, loneliness and hardship, as he discovered the misery as well as the joy of Polish life, even meeting and marrying his wife!
I do have three other books that I’ve read between ‘the Quiet Man’ and this one but I thought I’d probably get this one written up more quickly. This was a very quick and easy read. It’s never going to be listed as a ‘great’ of travel literature, or whatever that genre is where a person moves to a new place and tries to figure it all out. It feels a little bit as if nobody read it between first draft and publishing (so a bit like this blog then…) It’s often written as if being spoken, which I know I do here too, but it feels wrong somehow and kind of irritated me (and I suppose I have that effect too, so maybe should just stop criticizing).
Leaving all that aside, I was the perfect audience for this book; reading it brought back fond memories of my time in Belarus Yes, this is another example of a book set in Eastern Europe. I bought this a few years ago as a present for my mam or dad, I can’t even remember which anymore and I’m sure neither of them read it. I do have a bad habit of that, buying books as presents for others when I want to read them myself. I used this loophole over Christmas. I’m sure some of the beneficiaries will end up reading this eventually. I apologise, but really – you knew it already!
Here I was going to list out the presents bought and received, but this post is one of the longer ones so I’ll include in the post for one of those other three books.
When I first saw this book however many years ago I knew before reading the undertitle that it was set in Poland. I’d gatecrashed part of my friend’s interrailing adventure back in 2006 and visited Krakow and Zakopane. On our arrival in Zakopane, we wandered up to the town, passed a man walking down the street with a lamb wrapped around his neck and ate zurek, the soup with the egg in it. I loved it and wanted to make it myself, but when I read the recipes and discovered that you had to leave something fermenting for a few days I dismissed the idea.
As it happens, the town where Tom Galvin taught English was called Minsk. I also taught English in Minsk, but it was Minsk, capital of Belarus, not Mińsk Mazowiecki, in Eastern Poland.
I could easily turn this post into a memoir of my time in Minsk (only one year to Tom’s five) but I’m going to try and keep it snappy and point out some of the times when I went ‘I totally get that!’ though bear in mind I went to Minsk 9 years later than when Tom first arrived in Poland. 2003, a whole 10 years ago!
‘He does his best to convince me that I have made a big mistake.’ I had a friend in Belarus from age 14. She came over to Ireland as a Chernobyl child. We became penpals. We wrote letters, sometimes more frequently than others. We went to university. We continued writing letters. She was over in Ireland as a translator that summer and I told her I planned to leave my job to teach English. ‘But…you have a good job!’ A few months later I had to dig around to find a phone number and tell her I was coming o Minsk. ‘Are you sure? I don’t know if you will like it here’. My mind was made up though and we finally made the switch to email in the weeks before I arrived.
The Grocery store. The ‘produkti’ stores with the counters. I hated those shops where you had to go and queue at each counter, ask for each thing separately, go to the cashier and pay, then return to and pick up your goods. These are a nightmare for those who don’t have a great command of the language. When I was in Minsk there were two ‘supermarkets’ where I knew I was safe, could pick up most things myself and keep the pointing and miming to a minimum. The last time I was there was in 2011. I could not believe the size of the European supermarket I visited.
Teaching articles to students who have no concept of the idea. ‘Cat walks down street’ indeed! Also, while learning Russian I thought, this is great. I don’t have to suffer through the equivalent of the German ‘der, die, das, des, dem etc.’ but believe me, Russian makes up for this in many ways. Word endings. I’ll say no more.
‘The corridor that only a few weeks ago had reminded me of “The Shining”’. This must me a common comparison across Eastern Europe, but I also had that shivery feeling in Poland. That time in Zakopane – it was after dark when we arrived. It was a last minute change of plans so nothing was booked. In that pre smart phone era I’d simply texted my sister and asked her to send me some names. We ended up paying €4 each to stay in some army barrack style hostel that we compared to The Shining. I’m sure the hostels in Zakopane now probably all have bright colours and young Australian workers.
‘For some reason you were only ever given a fork’. I’d totally forgotten that. I rarely cooked in Minsk, stocked up with cheese, kolbasa and bread at home and ate at the school canteens for a euro or so. Knives were not very commonplace.
Feeling like a fraud. I studied Business and German at university. My TEFL training took place over 4 weekends at a school in Dublin. I’m not sure if it even exists any more. Apparently somebody else going for the job had 5 years’ experience. I got it because of my certificate. Oh, and apparently also because I sent a photo with my CV and I was all happy and smiley. On such snap decisions our lives are changed.
Weight loss: Well I don’t think I ate less, but I lost two stone over the course of the year. One colleague claimed it was because the food was not as processed as at home. She had been to Cork for a month and had put on a stone. No diet has ever worked so well for me as a trip to Belarus.
‘In 2003 only 66 of the country’s 3,300 red meat plants were passed and given permits to export their produce within the rest of Europe.’ Ummm, horsemeat anybody? Also I don’t think steak tatar is common in Belarus, at least I didn’t come across it. When we told our neighbour that we were planning on going to Ethiopia for our honeymoon he almost gleefully commented ‘better watch out for the tapeworm in the raw meat!’ Ugh, I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t like turning down food just because it’s not something I’d normally eat, but I was glad when nobody offered us their raw meat speciality.
‘My hair freezes on the way to school.’ Yup, if you don’t blowdry your hair make sure you have a good hat!
‘Each date necessitates a flower for the girl.’ I have never been given as many flowers as I got when I was in Belarus. Flowers for every occasion and none. I loved it! I try to drop hints to my husband, but I guess flower buying is not the norm for Irish guys unless it’s Valentine’s Day or they’ve done something wrong.
‘Nobody travels to Bielorussia. There is nothing to see there.’ I won’t even dignify this with a comment.
The hospitality of strangers. I did find the Belarusians to be among the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. It is something they are proud of and I hope something that they don’t lose. I always find it strange how many people find Eastern Europeans cold and unfriendly. Maybe when you first meet them…and of course not everybody is the same, but us Irish can sometimes be friendly and hospitable on the surface but we don’t go out of our way. Oh that sounds really bad too, but basically I always get the impression that an invitation is never given halfheartedly, the way it sometimes is in our case.
Videos in English….ah the Saturday (or was it Sunday….my memory is failing me) markets in Minsk with the pirate videos including a small selection in English. Amazingly I bought ‘Intermission’ there.
Ryszard Kapuscinski – I really like what I’ve read of his and need to dig out ‘The Emperor’. I have to say though, while I always like to read books written by authors of countries I’ve visited I don’t think I’ve actually read any Belarusian books. People! Give me some ideas!
The British Council Library. There wasn’t a British Council in Minsk, but there had been and their library was still there. It saw a lot of me; it was a great refuge, really a lifesaver.
‘Premature band of gold’. On my first day in class the students asked me how old I was. When they found out that I was 23 the very next question was ‘are you married?’ So many people did get married (at least for the first time) at a very young age. My 21 year old friend told me that people thought she was odd because she wasn’t married. She eventually married an Irishman at the grand old age of 26. It does seem to be changing though.
I could go on, there are so many things that I remembered while reading this book and it was like a trip down memory lane. In case it isn’t clear, I loved my year in Belarus. It changed my life.