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19 Dec 2011

A Mexican in Minsk: Minsk is a great city


But it is also very restricted for a real Latino American guy. Guillermo Hernandez is a young man from Mexico who has been living in Minsk for more than a year. Now he shares his experience about life in Belarus and gives some advice to anyone who is planning to visit this country.

From the very beginning, could tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Guillermo Hernandez. I am originally from Mexico and I am 27 years old. I graduated in Physical Engineering in Mexico. When I was a child I wanted to become a cosmonaut. And I knew that Yuri Gagarin was a Russian. So I wanted to study in Moscow and because of this I wanted to speak some Russian. After graduation I had been working as an engineer and a French teacher.


When was the first time you have heard about Belarus?
There is very little information I knew about your country  or your president, for example. Only that It was USSR before. And the capital is Minsk. But four or five years ago I studied in Latvia, in Daugavpils and  so I knew that there is a border between Latvia and Belarus. So, it was the very first time 5 years ago. I studied Russian there but it seemed to me that the city is too little. I wanted to live in a bigger place.  The reception clerk in the hotel where I was staying told me that in Belarus people are speaking fluent Russian and Russian is the main language. I didn’t believe this though but decided to have a look first
I came to Belarus first time with some friends. And I fell in love with Belarus, really liked this country and decided to stay over.

You said, it was year and a half ago, right?
I arrived here in summer 2010. But as a guest first. Then I needed to come back to Daugavpils and had been waiting for an invitation letter there for three month. And then I came again in September and am staying here till now.

Was it difficult to get a student visa? Was it a problem with documents or just waiting time was so long?
It is complicated. For people from Europe and America it was difficult. Because in Department of International Relationship in BGU (BSU – Belarusian State University) there was no people who can speak English. Yes, there is a girl but it’s only one girl. Sometimes you think that they really do not care whether you are coming or not.

But I was lucky enough to have a friend who was calling them and bothering them every day to send me an invitation letter and finally I got all the papers and after that the rest was easy. Belarusian consulate in Daugavpils issued a visa immidiately.

What was your first impression about Minsk when you had arrived?
When I decided to move to Minsk I didn’t check any photos or maps or whatever in order not to spoil this first impression. And when I arrived the very first building I saw was the National Library.

Really?  Not the Minsk 2 airport?
No, I arrived by bus from Daugavpils. And Minsk seemed to me very modern, attractive and clean. The cleanest city I have ever been to. And everyone speaks Russian.

Yes, as the guy from Daugavpils promised you.
Yes, and then I met my other friends, there turned out to be nice, interesting, charming people.

Now you have been living in Minsk for more than a year. What do you think about the city now? Is it different?

Yes, a little bit different. I still like modernity and cleanness of the city. But also, maybe, because of this strict order, I feel a little bit restricted. There is very little freedom around. I am from Mexico and I need things to be more lively and vivid. In Mexico I remember I was playing football on the streets, people may cry, shout, laugh on the streets. Here it’s different. I don’t know why it is like this here but I miss emotions and a little bit of chaos.

Let us come back to basic issues which could be interesting to people who are coming over. 
Accommodation. Was it difficult for you to find a decent place to live? Did your friends help you?

First year I had lived in dormitory of Belarusian State University. This summer as I am not a student anymore I needed to find an apartment. And it was hard. In other countries if you are trying to find anything such as accommodation you’ll never pay for that. Here it’s the other way round – you have to pay to a real estate agent. That’s really weird. So, I decided to use the Internet, the web sites such as kvartira.by, irr.by. A lot of strange things happened. When I phoned to a landlady or landlord sometimes they refused to speak as they didn’t want to rent their property for foreigners, or they wanted only students or only girls and so on. Certainly, it was complicated. But with a little help from my friend I first found a room near Kamennaya Gorka metro station and then a decent apartment right in the center of the city, not far from Victory Square.
Kamennaya Gorka, by the way, is a popular area among foreigners. I personally know a German guy and an American who live in that area. They are pretty much happy as rent is cheat and metro is not far.

Yes, rent is cheap there but for me it’s too far. 40 minutes to the center. So what I want you to tell that it’s easier to find a good place when you have friends.

When you joined Belarusian State University what did you study. Russian for foreigners?
It was a kind of preparation course. We had been studying 3 hours daily 5 days a week and it was only Russian language.

No subjects such as math or chemistry?
No. There was a special course for people who are going to enter the BSU and they have been studying math or other subjects but I decided to learn only Russian.

Are you happy with your teachers? Can you say that your Russian got improved significantly after that course?
When I was in Mexico I expected a lot from the Soviet type of educational system. I thought I would learn Russian very, very fast. But here I am a little bit disappointed with quality of education. But I managed to improve my Russian because I wanted to.

What did you do in your spare time when you were a student?
I didn’t do a lot of things because I didn’t have a lot of money. I went to the cinema, I spent time with my roommates in the dormitory. Besides as I said I arrived in late autumn so it was quite cold so there was no reason to go out often:)).

My next question is exactly about it. How did you survive in Minsk in winter? I assume Mexico is really hot country so you don’t get used to frost.

It was OK as I lived in Daugavpils and I knew how real winter will look like here. I spent much time with my class mates as my level of Russian didn’t allow me to communicate with Belarusian people freely.

Did you manage to find other people from Spanish-speaking countries such as Spain, Venezuela. Did you meet them?
No

No? I thought there are plenty of people from Venezuela in Minsk nowadays?
I know. But I really tried in the beginning to study Russian hard and I knew that if I will hang out with other Spanish-speaking people it would be difficult to switch between the languages. Now I know some of them. I know a Mexican guy who is a chef here. I know a Cuban guy. But I do not communicate with them often.
What is your experience with, for example, with public transport.

It’s really good. In Mexico we have rather chaotic transport system. In Belarus public transport is much more efficient. I love The Metro. Other transport is also good. You can be in any place in Minsk in one hour.

Do you drive here?
No, I don’t. I have a Mexican driving license but I do not drive here.

Have you ever thought about renting a car and driving around?
No, not now

You rent an apartment now, don’t you? What do you think about communal service such as heating, water, gas, rubbish collection and so on?
The thing I really hate here is that in the middle of summer there is no hot water for two weeks. The communal services say that they need time to check the pipeline and fix any problems. It’s really annoying. But everything else is more or less OK.


Hopefully, you have never encountered it but what do you think about quality of medical service here?
I didn’t use it thankfully, but… When I arrived first time as a student I had to pass a medical check in Poliklinika 33. It was horrible, very bad experience. First you need to take all kind of tests: blood test, urine test and so on. There are so many of them. Secondly, the staff is a bit unfriendly. The nurse, for example, who did the blood test, caused pain.

As for usual medical service I just didn’t use it.  I got sick, of course, but I just stayed at home and took medications. I noticed that like in Mexico people need to wait a lot to get to a doctor.

What is your impression about crime and security situation?
As for security in Minsk is really safe. You can work any time at night and you are safe. I think it’s a really good thing. But once I was drinking beer in a place where you are not allowed to drink and police patrol came to us. They found out that we are foreigners and gave just a warning.

When you are in public transport, for example, how will people react when they find out that you are a foreigner? Are they amused, surprised, trying to start conversation?
Not really. In the beginning I was traveling around Minks with my class mates: Chinese, Turkish people. There were a lot of us. Sometimes there were more us in a bus than Belarusians. But as for reaction. I don’t want to say that Belarusian people are not interested in you. For them it’s just the same whether you are Chinese, Turkish or whoever. They just don’t care, to be honest.  And when I am in the metro or in a bus I feel like I am part of these people, part of the crowd. Two or three times I myself started conversation in public transport but it was my initiative, not people who I was talking to.

Let us talk about your current job. As I understood you are a language teacher now?
Yes, I am a teacher of Spanish in a private language school “LingvaLand”.

So, you are on work permit now?
Yes, correct

How did you get a work permit in Belarus?
I have a friend from America who was in the same class with me. He started to work to LingvaLand. I told him that I wanted to stay in Belarus but not as a student but to work here. Later on he called to a director of this school and asked about me and possibility for me to work for them. She accepted me and since then I have been working at LingvaLand.

How much time does it take to get a Belarusian work permit?
To work in Belarus first you need to find a job. It’s the most complicated part of the process. Your future employer should ask for a special permission from the state. It takes normally two weeks, maybe more. With this paper, contact with the schools and rental agreement (proof of address where you live in Minsk) you apply for a work permit.

The whole process of getting a work permit in Belarus will take around a month then?
Maybe, more.

Did you pass any interview?
Yes, when you bring all these papers to the authorities they will ask you standard questions like where do you live, who is your employer and so on.  Just normal check out. I should say that nothing was unusual or intimidating. The immigration officer was very kind and I had no problems.

What is your impression about being a language teacher in Minsk? What do think about your students? Are they clever enough?
I had some experience as a language teacher back in Mexico and I had to say that for Russian-speaking people learning Spanish is not that hard. Especially for generations who watch soap opera from Mexico or Columbia. And phonetically Spanish is not so hard to learn. A lot of sounds in both languages are the same.
How about your family back in Mexico? Do you call them often? How do you normally communicate with them?
At first it was difficult as we did not have Internet connection in the dorm. I need to go to the hotel next to the street. Now I have Internet in my apartment and it’s much easier. I have Facebook, vKontakte, Skype and it helps a lot in communications. I am calling my family every weekend, normally, on Sundays.

What does your family think about you being in Belarus? What was their reaction when you told that you are moving to this country?
I still have such problems. Some of my relatives still think that I am living in Russia. But my father and my mother already know that I live in Belarus. At the beginning it was hard for them because I have long-term plans here in Belarus. To accept it for them was hard but in the same time they are happy that I am doing what I dreamed about. For them, probably, it’s contradictory feelings.

Do you miss them?
Of course, I do miss them. At the same time I am glad that I am doing here what I want. But yes, I miss my mom and my dad.

Have you heard about other cities and towns in Belarus? Have you been there?
Yes, of course, I heard about Brest or Grodno. But, you know, to travel there alone is not very exciting. You need friends to make the trip interesting. And, please, remember, I am not a tourist here )). I need to work to earn my living.

I was invited once to a wedding ceremony in Maryina Gorka. My friend’s sister got married and I got an invitation. It was interesting. But apart from it, no, I didn’t go anywhere. It was only Minsk and Maryiana Gorka.

2011 was a really difficult year for Belarusian economy. Did that currency crisis in Belarus affect you?
I have to say that I belong to a crisis generation. In Mexico we had exactly the same situation a couple of years ago. One day a US dollar costs 3 peso (Mexican currency unit) and the next day it is 6 peso. Now it is 13 peso. So, that’s not new for me. But it’s also shows that situation in Belarus in nearest future will be hard. A lot of course will depend on Russia, Europe, China, how will they behave in this situation. And it seems that it will be very hard to find a job that I want.

Did you manage to negotiate your rent down because of this currency crisis?
No. I moved in two month ago. I think I took an apartment by relatively good price.

How much do you pay, by the way?
I pay 350 USD for a two-room apartment.

It’s a bit expensive. You need to talk it over with your landlord.
I understand. But I share the apartment with a friend so it’s not that expensive. And the apartment is right in the center of Minsk so it’s very convenient for me. View is just marvelous. I like it.

What do you do in your free time now? You are a working professional now, not a student anymore. Where do you normally go out? Clubs, discos, museums?
It would be better if I just describe you my average working day. Normally I wake up at 8 or 9 pm and then have 3 hours lessons of Russian with the students of MGLU (Minsk State Linguistic Universisty). Kind of language exchange. Then I prepare to my teaching job. I  teach Spanish from 6 till 8 a.m. usually. So, not much free time actually.

I like dancing. Sometimes I go to Casa Augistin Lopes or Alkatraz to salsa parties. Zhuravinka sometimes. Also I just walking down on the streets of Minsk with my friends

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone who is coming over to Minsk for a while?
Advice? Try to use the Internet. Sites as VKontakte, Coachserfing. Like everywhere in the world it is easier to do anything if you have friends. Learn basic Russian. In Belarus people over 25 do not normally speak any English.  Be prepared that people are a bit emotional and you may think that they are angry at you when in fact they are just talking to you.

Thank a lot, Guillermo and good luck.

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