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17 Dec 2010

"Better than expected"

Despite bad press, lack of advertising and difficulties with visas the Europeans go to Belarus. They can be tourists, teachers or  businessmen  and their number in Minsk is growing. has asked some of them to tell about their impressions about this country.
Two Spaniards, Victor Belenguer and Francisco Sanchez de Mora, share their experience about living in Minsk. Victor have been in Minsk for more than two years, Francisco just came over.  Both teach Spanish language and literature in Minsk Linguistic University.

How did you get here? What was the reason for you to go to Minsk?

Victor. I studied Russian and more than two years ago I was planning to go to Moscow, to The Pushkin Institute but friend of mind advised me to consider Belarus and Minsk as a place to carry on my study of Russian. I agreed and in August 2008 came over here and since then I am here doing both learning Russian and teaching Spanish.

Francisco. Contrary to Victor I just arrived in Minsk. I have been in this country for only two weeks.  Initially, I was planning to go to Zagreb in Croatia to teach Spanish literature at the Linguistic University but then the situation changed and I ended up here.

What did you know about Belarus before you come over?

Francisco. My friends and relatives still know only two things about Belarus. It is a cold place and girls there are beautiful. Do not know why they think so. Maybe because this country is close to Russia and there is always cold in Russia :) . But, honestly speaking, our people know very little about this part of Europe. Everything behind Poland is kind of "grey area".

What were your first impressions about Belarus?

Victor. My first impression was that life is very slow here. People are not hurrying up and they are more relaxed comparing with other European cities’ dwellers.  And Minsk is very spacious, very wide streets, large parks.

Francisco. I have to admit the difference in the way people here look and behave comparing, for example, with the United Stated. Rarely can you see here people who are smiling on the streets.  But as I see it does not mean they are all angry or frustrated. They are just normal. And I like it as it seems more natural.

What kind of problems have you experienced in Belarus?

Victor. First and foremost, language issue. All signs in Minsk are either in Russian or Belarusian. Mix of two state languages, Belarusian and Russian, which are in use here, can be confusing for foreigners as well. In public transport stops are being announced in Belarusian but people mainly speak Russian. For them, there is no real difference they can understand both languages but for foreign guests it is. Besides this there are very few booklets in English and other foreign languages about Minsk and Belarus.
Another problem is street planning. Position of buildings is quiet chaotic, sometimes it is very difficult to find a place or building we are looking for.

Francisco. I agree. For me language is a main issue now. As Victor said very few people speak English. It is difficult to find someone to talk with. Now I understand foreigners in Spain who can not speak Spanish how it is hard for them to communicate to others.

What your impressions about Belarusian students and teachers?

Victor. The main difference is number of students in a group. In Spain normally we have around 100 students who are listening to a professor. Here it is much smaller, 14, maybe 20. The students are really good. It has surprised me that some of them finish their lessons almost at midnight.
The teachers, at least the ones who teach Spanish, have some problems with the language. They are good, maybe, in academic language but they lack knowledge of modern spoken language.

Minsk transport system. What do you think about it? Can you compare it with, for example, Madrid or other Spanish cities?

Victor. Public transport in Minsk work more or less OK. There is a problem with metro – two lines are definitely not enough for a big city.  Buses, trams are a bit outdated but still OK.  During “rush hours” public transport is too packed, especially on central routes such as Bus 100 which goes by Independence Avenue.

How do you spend your spare time? What are your impressions about night life in Minsk comparing with other European cities?

Victor. There is not much difference if we are talking about city centre. Everything is pretty much the same. Clubs, discos, restaurants are OK. Prices are definitely lower than in Europe.  Problems are in other areas of the city -- bars, restaurants are very rare there.  It is hard to find a place just to have a cup of tea or coffee.

Dealing with officials -- how is it? Hard? Is it getting better or worse?

Victor.  Regarding doing business in Belarus things are actually getting worse. There are a lot of limits and “red tape” which are difficult to overcome. Some currency control has been implemented recently so you need to find the way to solve these problems.

Francisco. It was really difficult and time-consuming to get a Belarusian visa. There is no Belarusian embassy in Spain so I needed to deal with consulate in France which represents Belarus in Spain and Portugal. Fist I had to translate all documents onto Russian and send them to the consulate. Then I had to send my passport and only after this, finally, got my visa.  The whole process took almost a month. Really frustrating.

Any special occasions you would like to mention.

Francisco. As I said I am in Minsk for only two weeks but, unfortunately, I got sick almost immediately after arrival.  Kind of contamination or something. So, I needed to go to a doctor. Health care is officially free here but foreigners had to have a medical insurance. My colleagues were really helpful so I got all necessary information where to go.  My impressions are mixed. The building and medical equipment are really old and staff seemed to be not really friendly, preoccupied with their own duties. But quality of medical aid was good. Physicians were really professional, advised me what diet to follow, and prescribed medicine.  So now I feel much better.

Thanks, guys, for your time and enjoy your staying in Belarus


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