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14 May 2011

“I keep telling my friends to come to Minsk”

How a British man became a man of Minsk

It is always useful to anyone who would like to visit a foreign land to have a chat with someone who has been there for a while. Ian is a British, ex-military, man who settled down in Belarus and has been living in Minsk for seven years. Here he shares his experiences about his life in this country.  There are some weird and bizarre things here, he explains, but, in general, Belarus and its capital Minsk is a nice place to live in.  Information about health care, police, places to visit, Belarusian bureaucracy, driving, weather, national holidays,  the expat  community  in Belarus and many other things  he talks about will definitely help our readers to avoid problems and pitfalls, whilst enhancing the enjoyment of their stay in Minsk and Belarus
First question, as usual. When was the first time you heard about Belarus?
The first time I heard about Belarus, to be totally honest, was when I met my wife who is Belarusian. I was introduced to her and it was like “Oh, this is Inna, she is from Russia”. It wasn’t until she said: “Actually, I am from Minsk which is in Belarus”. To which my response was: “OK, I have heard about Minsk but I’ve never heard about Belarus”.  This was about eight years ago.

The same thing happened with my friends and relatives. When I first came here I was telling them:  ”I am going to Belarus” and the first question I always received was: “Where is Belarus?”.  When I replied, that you go through Poland, then you have Belarus and then Russia the response was always: “I thought it was Poland and them Russia”. This is because people of my generation learned geography when it was the Soviet Union.  It was how the map was drawn.

When was the first time you visited Minsk? Was it eight years ago?
No, I met my wife on Cyprus.  I first came here seven years ago.

Why did you decide to move here?
I was previously in the Royal Navy. My very last job in the RN was a year based in Cyprus as the second in commander of a patrol boat there.  And, actually, one of the guys who worked for me was dating my wife’s flatmate.  We met each other one day and just went from that. We started dating. To be honest, at first we both  said: “This won’t be a serious relationship. We both recently come out of long-term relationships. We just wanted some fun, to relax. Cyprus is a lovely place, very romantic. So we said, we will enjoy our time together but nothing will happen. Seven month later we got married :).

Yes, yes, it occasionally happens :)  But, in your situation most couples are, actually, moving to the UK. Why did you choose the opposite direction?
This is the question I get all the time. “The UK is the place where everyone wants to live. Why did you come here?”.  For us it was different.  I was 41, my wife was a bit younger (it’s not polite to mention a woman’s age :)). As I said, I am an ex-military so I receive a Force’s pension. It isn’t very good money for the UK but it is good money here.  Also, on Cyprus, they refused to give my wife a visa to the UK because she’s a Belarusian.  They said she had to come back to Belarus and apply for a visa here.  At the time we came here she was pregnant with our daughter.  It was an agreement – we would come here; the baby would be born here; we would stay here, maybe, for six months afterwards, certainly a maximum of a year, and then we would relocate to the UK.  However, I came here and I fell in love with the country.  I think Minsk is a fantastic city and, to be honest, we could live just on my pension without even having to work. We own our own apartment so we have no rent or mortgage to pay.  To relocate to the UK we would have to start again from the beginning whereas here.... OK, I am not wealthy but we are comfortable.

What were your first impressions about Minsk as a foreigner, as a newcomer?
The day I arrived there  was a huge thunderstorm. It was absolutely pouring with rain. The road was more like a river and I thought: “Oh, my God!  What have I done? Why did I come here?” My wife would say that, when I came to our apartment, the look on my face was one that if I could teleport myself to anywhere in the world I would disappear immediately.

The apartment itself hadn’t been redecorated, it was in the process of redecorating. It looked a bit like a bomb site when I arrived. So my very first hours were a shock.  Over the next few days I got to meet many of my wife’s  friends,  some of her  relatives and they started to show me around Minsk and I thought that Minsk is a very nice city.

The next days when the sun was shining you look from our apartment and there are just trees. You really don’t need curtains, because, it is just being in a forest, even though I live in the centre of Minsk. It’s just trees right outside the window. Very nice.

Please, compare your first impressions and what you feel now about Minsk. Are there any differences?
Now, I really do feel like it’s my home. Of course, I go back to the UK once or twice a year.  But now going back to the UK... it is nice to go back to the town I was born in, where I grew up.  But I don’t recognise it, it is changing all the time. When I came back to Minsk I feel : “Yes, I’m home”. So, I do feel very comfortable here.  Despite the fact that my Russian is extremely  bad :)   I still feel comfortable here.

What kind of problems did you experienced in your first year here?  I have met quite a few people who would like to live in Belarus but got so many problems with bureaucracy, lack of information in English.  Of course, you got the support of your wife.
Yes, she is fantastic and very supportive.  Not just my wife, but her friends as well.  I have met some extremely good friends who have helped me since the day I arrived here.  I wouldn’t say I have experienced that many difficulties. The main one, of course, is the language barrier.  There are no signs in English at all.  For learning my way around I had the ‘Minsk City Info’ map on my computer, but it is just in Russian. Fortunately, I am good at reading maps and I have no problems – I am not scared to jump on a bus and see where it takes me.  You just need to get a bus with the same number when you want to go in the opposite direction. So, to learn my way around Minsk that’s what I did really - when my wife wasn’t there to tell me and show me. So I just learned the bus numbers, bus routes. The Metro, of course, is very simple, just two lines.  It is just a matter of remembering which place to get off. And if you get off in the wrong place – ok, go back the other way or go another couple of stops.  I was lucky when I came here that I didn’t come here to find work.  I didn’t work for my first few years here. My daughter was born here. That was an experience, because, here fathers aren’t allowed into the maternity hospitals. In the UK the fathers are there at the birth and, in fact, one day after the birth, sometimes on the same day, a baby and its mother go home.  My wife stayed in hospital for ten days. So, that was my first problematic time – 10 days on my own, without my wife holding my hand :).  I had to learn how to go shopping. Again, as I said, our friends are very helpful.  Fortunately, we also have very good neighbours who were also very helpful.  Even the bureaucracy.

Applying for my residency visa – again, no problem.  A friend of my wife knew the system, so she came along with us, explained everything. My wife acted as a translator for me. And I believe my residency took one month longer to process than usual because I am ex-military. Of course, I was completely upfront. And very nervous when I came here. Of course, being in the military we are told – don’t go to Russia, don’t go to any ex-Soviet countries, China or Cuba, all these places.  If you’ll go there  the first thing that will happen is the secret police will take you and question you. I was extremely nervous when  I came here. I was waiting for a knock at the door in the middle of the night to be taken away, but it didn’t happen :). Of course, they must have done checks on me and they told me they did checks. But I have never been interrogated, never experienced anything like this.

When that residence visa expired (it was for two years) I was given a 5-year one which expires this year. So now I am in process of applying for my next one, for the next five years.  So, really, I didn’t experience any great difficulties.

Have you experienced any problems with local habits or traditions? For example, my American friend was totally surprised when a car he was in had been stopped by road police and the driver got out of the car and went to the police car. In the USA you mustn’t leave the car in this case. Did you find anything about which you could say: “We do this totally different back in the UK?”

Not much. Some holidays customs, of course.  In the UK, probably, the biggest thing is Christmas, 25th of December.  Here 25th of December is a normal day, all the shops are open, and the markets are open. This is very weird and bizarre.  My wife works in Zhdanovichi market so, unfortunately, she has to work nearly all Christmas days. Fortunately,  I enjoy cooking, I do a lot of cooking at home. I still do our traditional turkey dinner. We have Christmas dinner when she comes home from work but it is not quite the same (like in the UK).

New Year, again, is another big difference. In the UK people start drinking early in the evening. Come midnight – they are drunk.  In Belarus people start drinking at 11 o’clock. “Happy New Year!”, champagne,   and then party through out the night. Completely, the other way around.

In the UK when people are celebrating, for example, birthday parties, etc, they tend to go out and socialise in pubs and bars. In Belarus it is mostly done at home with a big table of food and the food is on the table all night.  So, it is a slow progression throughout the evening.  Even if we have some food in the UK, usually, we eat and then we drink. Not eating and drinking all night. And It is really difficult to get used to drinking just shots of vodka

Actually, how do you drink vodka now? :)
Now I drink it straight, in the Russian way.  But it took me a few years to get used to this.  I soon learnt the word “Chut-chut” (“a little bit”).

Have you met your compatriots, people from the UK who live in Belarus?
I know three other Englishmen who leave here permanently. One has been here five years, another one three years and the third has been here one year. The guy who has been here five years – I have known for about four of these years.  The other two I only met about three or four month ago.

So, you don’t have kind of meeting point for expats here in Minsk. But there were a few visitors for the UK.  Football supporters from Scotland, for example, a couple of years ago which totally impressed Minsk with heir kilts.

I was at that match, supporting Belarus, of course :) . And when England came, of course, I supported England.   I went on both matches.  Both times I met up with, first, the Scottish supporters – I spent two days drinking with them:) . And when England was here my father came over for that match. I was entertaining my parents and their friends who came with them. But also I met other English guys, and they all were all very impressed by Minsk.  Especially, in comparison with Moscow.  I think England had played Russia in Moscow a few months previously before they came here.

You mean, probably, Chelsea vs. Manchester United final of Champions League?
Yes, that was Chelsea vs. Manchester United. And they said, Moscow was just so busy, everything was so expensive and they were quite concerned about coming here to Minsk.  But every single one of them said how impressed they were with Minsk, how clean it was, nice, open spaces and how friendly people were. And how cheap the prices are.

Nice to hear. But it’s not that cheap now …
Yes, it is getting more expensive. But compared to Moscow or London it is still very good.  Of course, there are also some upmarket restaurants in Minsk but, generally speaking, prices are OK.

Coming back to the expat question. When I met my friend, Phil, just before Christmas (who has been here for three years and I was actually the first English person whom he had met here in that time) he said: “You would have thought that the embassy would do something for expats” And what do they do?  -- they have Queen’s Birthday Party once a year but that’s it. Actually, in this year instead of the Queen’s Birthday Party  it will be the Royal Wedding Party on April 29th.

I have  met with the Ambassador, Rosemary Thomas, a few times in the last couple of weeks.  She is a very lovely lady and I said about an ‘expat club’ she said that she has had the same idea for a while, but nothing had happened so far. We are, between us, arranging something; so we will soon start having regular expat meetings. There are so few of us, to be honest.  I am sure that there are a lot more Belarusians in London than Brits here.  Our idea is just, maybe, to have some kind of dinner every month or every other month, to have each other’s phone numbers, go and watch football, this kind of thing.

There is another Englishman who is here on a three-month visa. He was here for three month last year and he has come back for three month this year.  He works in IT and he is still working for his company in the UK. They just let him work from here for three months. And he really does want to relocate here.  He is in his thirties, single, so Minsk is an obvious choice for him :)

And I always tell my friends back in the UK that they should come to Minsk, to somewhere different.  I regularly use a football forum for my football team. We have many other sections, not just football. We talk about current affairs, sport, movies, music. And I had one person from there who wrote to me (my user name there is Minsk). Obviously, he was planning to go to Belarus and sent me a personal message: “Do you really live in Minsk?” “Yes”, I answered. “Can you give me some advice where to go?” he asked.

Actually, I went further. I met him at the railway station when he arrived.  He came through Vilnius. I met him at the station, took him to the hotel, took him out and about for the evening, met up with him on his second day, and showed him around Minsk.  His impressions were great. He was doing a tour of the Baltic States, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. I am always telling the other guys, especially the single ones. The girls here are really beautiful and friendly (but I am not saying that they are easy).

Being a teacher at Streamline there are about 100 teachers, of which only about six of us are males.  All the rest are females.  So I am surrounded by beautiful girls all the times :).  Students, I would say, 75 per cent are female.  I have a lot of female friends here and they are easy to getting on with. And far more polite, than, in general, English girls :)

Why did you decide to do teaching, by the way?
Leaving here in Belarus and not speaking Russian it is very difficult for me to do other jobs, to be honest. In the military, of course, I had a number of teaching roles so I was taught to be a teacher.  Of course, not teaching the English language, but many other different subjects. So, it seemed to me the obvious step to make.  As I said, for the first three years I didn’t work at all.  I wrote a book, a novel. It hasn’t been published, yet. I had it proof-read last year and I need to make a few changes.  I still intend to get it published one day.  But it was more for myself, my hobby.

Once I finished that, and my daughter started to go to the kindergarten,  I was sat around at home for most of the day, with not much to do.  I was getting bored.  I wanted to get out, meet new people, and when my friend and neighbour saw an advert for Streamline, and recommended I apply for a job there, I had to try it. I sent them my CV, was invited in for the interview and took it from there, really.  I started off just teaching on Friday evenings, one or two lessons, and now pretty much all my time is taken up with teaching there.

What do you think about Belarusian students?
The students are fantastic.  Of course, it does help that this is a private language school so they are paying to be there.  Although, having said that, for my lessons (or the majority of my lessons) they get them for free. If you study at Streamline you get one hour with a native speaker for free.  He can be a British guy or an American guy, if you want to practice your English, or we have a French native speaker, Spanish, German, Italian. So, for example, if somebody already speaks English but now wants to learn Czech, he can learn Czech but can come back and have an hour of English with me for free.  It doesn’t matter what language you study you can go to any of these native speakers and have an hour for free.  This is an extra hour which I am always trying to make fun.  If I hear lots of talking and lots of laughter I think I have done a good job for these lessons.  Some of my lessons are more informative where I am talking. In others I put them into small groups, give them a whole list of questions to discuss among themselves and walk around amongst them. I am pretty fully booked up for these lessons, so I think I am doing something right. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it. But the students do make it worthwhile.  Maybe, when I deliver the same lessons twelve times a week, it sounds a bit monotonous but in every lesson there are different students so the topic can go in different directions, talking about different things.

There are some very articulate students and others who struggle a bit because I have various levels from elementary all the way up to proficiency level.  I love their sense of humour.  I think the Belarusian sense of humour is very similar to the English one.

Let me ask you couple of direct questions about life in Belarus. Do you drive here?
No, I don’t.

OK, as a pedestrian here what do you think about traffic and road rules in Belarus? Are, for example, drivers here as polite as in Britain?
I think it is the same as anywhere. Some are and some aren’t.  Some of them I have seen driving like lunatics but, generally speaking, within Minsk itself, most drivers are good because there are so many police around. You don’t know which corner the police will be on.  And there are a lot of police with radar guns. I see them all the time travelling around. I do see the police out and about a lot.  I would say, as a pedestrian, to anybody who wants to come here – follow the traffic signals; only cross at a crossing! I have never seen anything bad happen, but I now people who have.  Don’t take chances, be careful, follow the rules.

Hopefully, you have never encountered crimes here, haven’t you. What do you think about police here?
I haven’t had any problems with the police. As I have just mentioned, I see a lot of police walking around.  I live quite near the centre and every evening, when school is finishing, you can see them. There will be three policemen walking down our road, which is a dead end by the way, then go around by the school.  Then another three will come down. Ten minutes later another three will come down. There are a lot of police walking around.  It seems to me that in general people are respectful of the police, more so than in the UK.  In the UK I think, unfortunately, not so many people do respect the police and their job. But I have heard here, when people said: “OK, we are gonna call the police”, they would rather the police were not involved; whether this is because they are so strict or not I don’t know. It seems to me the threat of having the police involved will usually quell any problem, and they will work it out nicely.

I do know, probably, half a dozen policemen that I’ve met. They have either been my students or  parents of children in my daughter’s kindergarten and they all seem very nice and  approachable people. But that’s in their daily life.  How they are in uniform, when they do their job? Hopefully, the same.  But not many of them speak good English.

So, if you get lost...
If I get lost and I need help anywhere I always look for somebody who looks maybe about twenty, of university age. Because the majority of them speak some English. Some speak very good English. Even those who don’t  will know some English words. There are always people to ask.

One slightly amusing thing I saw about  the police was at a bus stop. At about 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening a guy, obviously completely drunk, was sleeping on the bench. Then three policemen, doing their patrol, came up....

Was it during the winter?
No, It was summer or autumn, no danger of hypothermia.  He was completely drunk, a bottle of vodka by his side, so it wasn’t like a heart attack. You could smell it standing close to him. So, they picked him up and shook him. Nothing. Picked him up and slapped him around his face couple of times. Nothing.  Called for a van, I guess. I didn’t see it as my bus had come, but I would imagine that they put him in an inexpensive hotel for the night to sober up :)

Of course, in the UK...  going back into the 60s and 70s, the police would have probably done the same. Now they are not allowed to pick someone up, shake them or slap them. They have to be so very respectful.
I heard you have had surgery here. My next question is about the health service here.

Of course, I have the experience of my daughter being born here. My daughter went to hospital twice when she was a baby first because she burnt herself. Another time it was an infection and we later discovered that she is allergic to nuts. From my own point of view, yes, last year I needed to go for surgery for my appendix. I’ve always been one of these who never wants to see a doctor, never wants to go to hospital. In fact, it was the first time I have ever been in hospital. My appendix was extremely enlarged. I kept telling to my wife: “Yes, there’s a bit of pain but I am sure this is nothing. It’s probably indigestion”.  But she said: “It has been there for three days now, this is not indigestion”.  Our neighbour, who lives in apartment opposite us, is a doctor at the military hospital. My wife just said: “OK, I am gonna go to get Irina to come and have a look at you”. Irina came and said: “Yes, it can be an appendix”. But, usually, your appendix is low down whereas mine was higher, under my liver. So, my appendix was actually in the wrong place and extremely enlarged.  So, she took me to see one of her colleagues who checked me over and, with wry grin on his face, said: ”You need to be operated on now! Do you agree?” I said: “Do I have a choice?” :)  Within an hour I was on the operating table, being opened up. Unfortunately, I guess, this was in clinic No 2 which is, as I have been told, the oldest clinic in Minsk and is soon to be demolished.  It is opposite the Opera House.  It is going to be demolished this year and they are going to build a hotel there or something.  So, obviously, it is in very ill-repair, because they don’t want to spend money on it. I would say this unequivocally, that the doctors were excellent, absolutely superb, first class. The surgeon who operated on me would, every single day, twice a day, come and check on me. Maybe, he was treating me a bit nicer than the other people. There were four people to a ward. No curtains, no privacy around the beds. Each of the wards are opposite others, across the corridor and, strangely, you’d have a men’s ward opposite a women’s ward. And this continued all along the corridor, why they didn’t have male and female wards opposite each other I don’t know. Anyway, the nurses would leave the doors wide open, so there was no privacy at all. So, my bed was the first one inside the door and I had two old ladies in the room opposite mine. Just after I had come around from the operation I couldn’t get off the bed  to go to urinate, I had to use bottles. So, I am laying on the bed urinating into a bottle when the door is opened wide, and left that way, and these old ladies laying opposite were watching me intently. All I could do was just wave them and smile :) From that point of view, that particular hospital wasn’t comfortable. But the doctors were excellent, the nurses were good and they did look after me very well.

As for my daughter.... As I said my daughter was born here and here it’s like it was in the UK back to the 60s. It is seen here as not the father’s job to be there at the birth, and the mothers and babies are kept in the hospitals for 10 days.  So, all the fathers can see of their babies for the first ten days is it being held up at the window.

Do you think this practice is good or bad?
I think it’s bad. Fathers need to be with their children as well, to bond with them.

And about staying in the hospital for ten days?
Actually, from that side it’s good. They make sure, 100%, that there is no problem with the mother or child. In the UK, as I mentioned earlier, they have the baby and they are out next day. Of course, if there are complications then the mother and the baby will stay. But if everything is OK they are released from the hospital because it needs the bed.  It’s all about money.

I think it would be nice if the father could go and visit the mother and their baby.  To be honest, I did manage to get inside and hold my daughter. There are ways and means.

The next is question is rather difficult for you I think as you are a man. What do you think about shopping in Minsk? Are there any good places to do it?
Actually, I do most of the shopping in our family because my wife works six days a week in a market.  I mostly teach in the evenings, with very few lessons in the mornings and afternoons. If my daughter is ill I will stay with her because it is easier for me to cancel lessons than for my wife to get time off work. Certainly,  on the weekends, usually on Saturdays, I go to do my weekly meat and vegetables  shopping in Komarovski rynok, the big food market. That’s pretty much where I get to practise my Russian. I know the names of different produce, numbers and those kind of things. You can always find chicken, pork, beef, lamb, turkey even, and all the off-cuts of these. Not proper British sausages and bacon though, but you can find things close. There is another good food shop chain called Gurman, they do very good meat.  For fruits and vegetables – there are very seasonal here, especially the fruits. That is the big difference to the UK.  In England I can walk to the supermarket  if I want strawberries any time of the year. There are fresh strawberries and they are quite cheap. In Belarus you can find strawberries but they will be either very expensive or frozen. At the end of June and beginning of July you will find strawberries everywhere, then the strawberries will disappear and you will have watermelons everywhere. So, get it while you can:).

Actually, in Minsk I eat a lot more fresh-produced than in the UK. People in the UK tend to eat a lot of frozen meals. When I was a single guy, in my 30s living on my own it was the easiest way. Pizza --  in the microwave!  Frozen pie – in the microwave!  :)  So, I do actually eat healthier here despite the fact that the thing are more difficult to buy. That is the big problem, the choices here are very limited compared with the UK.

As for electrical items, for home: televisions, fridges, freezers, washing machines, notebooks, computers, etc, if you buy the local make, “Atlant” or “Horizont” they are reasonably cheap whereas if you get the German-made, French-made, or British-made appliances they are more expensive than in the UK. I don’t think the quality of the local makes is as good as the European-made ones, so I tend to pay a bit more and get something that is worthwhile.

If you are talking about food shopping there is still an issue we need to remember. I mean the Chernobyl disaster and the possibility to get contaminated products from the territories which have been heavily affected? Do you take any precautions when do your food shopping? Asking, for example, which region it comes from?

No, I have never thought to ask where it comes from. But I have one woman in the market I always buy my pork from. Another one I buy my beef from. Another one I buy my poultry products from. Etc. Because I go to them all the time maybe I’ll say, something like, I want a fillet today and she might answer: “No, not today. We don’t have good things”. As I am a regular customer they look after me.

What advices can you give to anyone who comes to Belarus?
I would say that my biggest impression when you are out and about, especially on public transport – Belarusians do not like to smile.  In England everybody smiles to everybody.  But they are forced smiles in a way.  Here people will smile at you when they know you and if they are friendly. However, Belarusians are very approachable people.

The friends I have made here are true friends. They will do anything for me, anytime I ask, if it’s in their capability.  They would give their last slice of bread if I asked for it.  Some of them might not have much but they are willing to give everything. Belarusian people are very nice. Go out, make friends, trust your friends, and ask them for advice. Also, if you come here for anything more than just a few days, register with your embassy. Certainly, in the British embassy, the people there are very helpful. Try to get in touch with some of the British or American people living here. Talk to them; because there are so few expats here we are always very willing to help to others.  As I mentioned earlier, we are trying to get an expat community going here. If you get to meet one of us, and here for any length of time, we will soon introduce you to our friends. There is a very old saying, ‘In this world it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’  I think in Belarus it is as true as anywhere else.

Again, people here are very nice and approachable. Of course, there are “a few bad apples in the cart” as there are everywhere. Fortunately, I haven’t come across many of these. My friends are either former students, or colleagues, or friends of friends, or my wife’s friends. Don’t be afraid to come here. It is a nice place.

You are a family man now, so, probably, there is not so much of an opportunity for going out. But, maybe, you would recommend some of your favourite places to visit?
Yes, you are right. I do rarely go out.  My wife is tells me that I am becoming more and more Russian the longer I stay here :)  I now drink vodka the Russian way, we entertain more at home than going out. When I do go out it tends to be with some friends to go and watch football.  I am a big football fan. Or just for a few beers after evening lessons with some of my friends.

You are from Southampton, right? Is Southampton FC in the Premiership?
They were when I came to Belarus. They got relegated the first year I was here, and then relegated again.  But we will hopefully be promoted  this year back to the Championship, and within a couple of years to the Premier League.  Fingers crossed.

I normally go to watch football in Inter-pub, near Riga shopping centre.  I believe it is now being renamed “Drozhi”. There is a good atmosphere in there, the staff are friendly and nice, but you can sometimes have to wait quite a while to get your beer.

Do they have Sky package?
No, they usually show the Russian channels.  I go there to watch Champions League football and internationals. Quite often they show Premier League matches, but I also I have satellite TV at home.
As for restaurants, I don’t often go to them.  There was a time when a group of us, and this really was an international group made up of myself, an American girl, a Colombian guy,  a French guy and a Belarusian girl, plus occasional others of various nationalities, would every other Friday go to different restaurants and try their meals.  My favourite one was a Nepalese restaurant “Jomolungma” on Gikalo street near TSUM universal store. The food in there is very good.

There are many nice pizza places. There is a small bar near my apartment called City Bar. Actually, it is just a tiny bar. Nobody would notice if they didn’t know it was there.  The food there is actually pretty good, their pizzas are very good, as is the draniki (potato pancakes) with chicken, etc and the beer and service as well. I am local in there, so I can walk in and say: “My usual please” :)

As for drinking beer I would recommend Rakauski Brovar, the beer there is fantastic. Another one I quite like is People’s, near Frunzenskaya metro station.  The food there is quite nice and prices are reasonable.

How about other places? Have you been in “0.5”, a pub near Nemiga station?
Yes, I have been there couple of times. My parents and their friends liked the place very much.
But Minsk still lacks a good  English or Irish bar. It is difficult to find proper British beer here.

Yes, we don’t have English beer here. You can get Guinness in few places though.
I wouldn’t recommend it. It is brewed in Russia.  Under licence, of course, but still it’s not the same.
Yes, it’s not the same. There is a so-called Irish bar near the Red Cathedral, that’s “Drozhi” as well.  They claim to be an Irish bar but I went in there once with some of my students and asked: “OK, can we have some Irish music?”.  To which the barmen said: “Chto? (What?)”.  My student asked again, in Russian,  and he answered: “No, we don’t have Irish music here”. The only Irish bar in the city does not have Irish music! It does look like an Irish pub with dark tables and Russian Guinness and but that’s as much Irish you can get here. So, yes, we need a good Irish or British pub in Minsk.

You are a proud father now and your daughter goes to the kindergarten.  Is it difficult to raise children here?
No, they do make it quite easy. They have state, full-time, kindergartens.  My wife takes my daughter at 8 o’clock in the morning and collects her at 6 o’clock in the evenings most days. My daughter is 6 and she will go to school next year.  I have now started to take her to an English club twice a week in the afternoons, so those days I collect her at midday. So, she goes at 8.00 in the morning, has her breakfast, has lessons, does physical exercises, plays outside in the playground - even in the snow (of course, when it was – 20 they don’t go outside), then the children go back inside, have lunch, have an afternoon sleep, a light tea and then play again until you are ready to collect them.  So, five days a week and all this for only  around 60 thousand roubles (approximately 12 pounds) per month. Twelve pounds per month! You can only get one hour in Britain for such money.

The kindergarten she goes to is excellent. As for the schools the situation is similar to the UK. It depends where you live. We actually live right to an English gymnasium which means they concentrate on teaching the English language. My daughter is 6 and she is bi-lingual in English and Russian. So while she should go to this school I don’t want her to.  I have been discussing this with my wife for a long time, whether to send her to a music gymnasium or a French gymnasium.  If children learn music it helps in the development of their memory and other different things. But we also have a French gymnasium close to us. Two stops on a bus, and the bus come every six minutes.  We are going to aim at the French gymnasium, so she can learn a third language.  By the time she is 11, hopefully, she will speak fluently four languages: English, Russian, Belarusian and French.  After four languages, the fifth or sixth should be even easier to learn. She wants to become a vet, it’s her dream.  Which I really hope she does attain but, even if she doesn’t, with all these languages behind her she will always find employment somewhere.  She has both passports at the moment. By the law at the moment she is allowed dual nationality only until she is 16 and then she has to choose.  Hopefully, this law will be changed within the next ten years.

As far as I know, now, under Belarusian laws you can keep both passports.
Can you? I know it is OK for children but I don’t think this is true for adults.

Yes, the law was changed in 2001, I think. OK, next question is about the weather. One of the main things to remember when travelling to a foreign country.  How do you cope with the Belarusian weather? Is it difficult to get used to it? 
Last summer was very hot.  The best time to visit Belarus is spring or autumn. Having said that, spring is really April, May, June and then it starts to be very hot in July. August and September last year were extremely hot.  I survived the heat by going to an open-air swimming pool most afternoons. I try not to work very much in the summertime.  So, I took my daughter to the open-air swimming pool. It did get very busy at that time but it was OK. They have a bar there where you can have beer and shashlyk (barbeque). Or I travelled out to the lakes. I would not recommend Minsk Sea (an artificial lake near the city) for swimming in – it was very green last year and had dead fish, simply, because it was too hot.

The winter in Belarus is OK. It only gets really harsh for about two or three weeks, where the temperature goes down below – 20.  The one thing I would recommend is to get good boots. I bought myself some nice Columbia boots and I didn’t have cold feet for the whole winter.  Good boots, a jacket and, a hat and a pair of gloves – wrap up and you will be OK.  The winter is not so scary.

In the centre they clear the roads and pavements from snow very quickly, but the same cannot be said for all the suburbs. However, in times of heavy snowfalls you might have difficulties. The paths can be very slippery underfoot, so you do need to be very careful of that. I would say that if you have problems walking then you should avoid coming here in winter.

Have you visited other places in Belarus apart from Minsk?
I have been to a few other places. Bobruysk – one of my friends has lived there for five years.  I have been there – a small town, not so much to do.  I went to Grodno for a weekend with a group of my friends.  It’s on the Polish border and is a very beautiful city. I think it is one of the oldest cities and, as it didn’t get destroyed during the Second World War, there are a lot of very old courtyards. Again, the people there were very nice. We took a driver and he brought us to the border region to see the Augustovsky river channel. We went to an in-door aqua-park.  We had a great time there.

I have been to Brest and have visited Mir Castle and Dudutky.  Yes, I have got around but not as much as I should have done within these seven years.

What about your hobbies? Do you go fishing, for example?
No, I don’t. But my brother is a very fond fisherman. Every time I speak to him on the phone he says: “ I want to go to Belarus to go fishing”. Nearly all my neighbours go fishing so I could hook him up with the best places, but I find fishing quite boring. My main hobby is my daughter.  My second hobby is, I guess, football. After that, I like to read and write – when I have the time to do so. It is very difficult to find books printed in English here, so I tend to buy quite a few to bring back with me whenever I visit the UK.
Do you play football here, by the way?

I do occasionally.  When I first arrived here I played mini-football with my wife’s cousin and his friends.  We would go and play in-door football for an hour, then go to sauna for an hour or two and then drink vodka for a couple of hours :) But then, after my wife started working, I couldn’t join the fun anymore :)

I then started playing some evenings, when I wasn’t working, with some of my former students. Three of them, whom I taught Advanced Business English to, worked for the same company. They invited me along and I played with them.  And I have an open invitation from other students – anytime I am free on Wednesdays or Fridays, I can give them a call, go along and play.  I have gone along, from time to time, but I am getting on towards 50 now and I can no longer run around as 20s year olds do. My brain knows what it wants to do, but my legs are not always up to it!

As for other activities, I like swimming and occasionally go to a good swimming pool at the Palace of Water Sports.  The cinema? Unfortunately I do not go there, because of the language barrier. I like to go to the ballet with my wife, but do not go as often as I would like due to work commitments, etc. We have been to some concerts and shows such as Elton John and Lord of the Dance. Most months there is a world famous performer doing a show here. Sting will soon be returning for his second appearance in six months; Shakira, Chris De Burg and Toni Braxton , to name just a few, have all been here recently.

Are there any last words you would like to say before we finish?
Yes. Don’t be afraid to come here. As with going anywhere else in the world, use your common sense when you do come and especially when out and about. If you are not staying in a hotel, don’t forget to register at the local police within 3 days of your arrival to avoid receiving a fine. (If you are staying in a hotel they will do this for you.)

Talk to the locals, get to know them; they are very friendly and approachable. And, of course, try to make contact with locals or expats living here before you come over. Their help and advice could be invaluable to you.

Ian, thanks a lot for your time 



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