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January in Belarus

January in Belarus: Everywhere But Belarus

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In my previous Belarus update, I was in Germany celebrating Christmas with my parents. Once they left, I planned on exploring some of Poland on my way back to Belarus, then spend the rest of my January in Belarus. Instead, I realized how deeply I missed familiarity and my friends in Germany.

Ringing in the New Year in Germany

I studied in Germany six years prior and have since returned about every other year to this second home. Germany is the one of only two places in the world where I could see myself settling down. The European country feels like home as much as the U.S. does, sometimes more.

When my parents returned to the U.S., I wasn’t ready to make my way back to Belarus. So, I stayed in Germany! It was refreshing to see old friends again, drink good German beer, and feel at home.

Old friends, new friends, and I gathered on New Year’s Eve to play a murder mystery. I ran outside for the first time without feeling judged since moving to Belarus. Those couple of weeks in Germany were pure bliss.

On the first of January, I wrote in my journal that the new decade “doesn’t feel like a big deal to me. I’ve realized I can change my life whenever I want; I don’t need a New Year.” Without realizing it, this would become my motto for the year as I would change myself several more times in the wake of new obstacles, adversities, and a pandemic. Certainly there’s more change to come, too.

Additionally, I realized the definition of fluency changes as we age. I always said I was fluent in German. In 2020, I realized that may not be the case anymore. While I have lost some of German, the real barrier to fluency is that I maintain the same teenage vocabulary.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have to cook dinners, talk about the foundations of wine, go to the bank, find an apartment, or have other adult conversations.

As you age, so does life requirements, which consequently increases the level of language-ability ones needs to be fluent.

I still have a decent ability of German, but I no longer consider myself fluent. Surprisingly, this wasn’t something hard for me to let go of. It made me more determined to learn German again.

Travels Through Poland & Ukraine

After New Years, I made my way into Poland and explored the cities of Gdansk, Poznan, and Wroclaw. Then, I made my way into Ukraine to Lviv and Chernivitsi to observe the pagan festival Malanka.

It was a whirlwind few weeks, thrusting me back into the solo traveler game.

As I’ve grown older (and, yes, I chuckle as I write this since I’m only 22), I’ve learned to appreciate traveling with friends more. Many of my recent adventures have included friends joining me on the journey or at the destination waiting for me.

In Poland, no one familiar was waiting for me. I was on my own again, back to solo travel basics. It was exciting!

After several months of mixed emotions living in a new country, and then a hectic couple of weeks in Germany visiting new cities and old friends, it was nice to focus on my spontaneity again.

Admittedly, I’m far from a solo female travel expert and still need a break from it to fill myself with friends and familiarity. Thankfully I was meeting friends in Ukraine.

Additionally, I was feeling burnt out by Soviet history and European cities. Every day started to feel the same. I had lived in the post-Soviet world for several months already and every city started to look the same. While Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus are very different from each other, the small architectural similarities felt a little like something I’ve heard about from travelers in Asia–temple fever. I was experiencing Europe fever.

That was when I realized I’m not a city traveler. It took me seven years of domestic and international travels to realize it, but museum after museum is not my jam. I crave active adventures, spontaneity, small towns, and miming my way through life. Europe was growing old.

Shortly after this realization, I booked my first-ever group tour to Israel with travel blog Alex in Wanderland. The tour would start immediately after Belarus, making this expensive destination a little more affordable for me (since round-trip flights tend to cost $2,000+). It wasn’t Europe. It was all adventure. This was exactly the travel prescription I needed!

January in Belarus and Joining Politics

After 4.5 weeks of traveling “abroad” (aka, not Belarus), I was returning home. In January in Belarus, it really did feel like returning home. For the first time ever, I returned to my apartment with my name on the contract. My desk at my work place waited for me.

Even if I didn’t completely fit in, it was home.

My month living out of a backpack gave me a lot of time to reflect and look inward. I was really figuring out what my life goals were and how to prioritize my life. Basically, I have way too many hobbies and interests and needed to calm the heck down.

Instead, I decided I want to participate more in local politics when I return to the U.S.

My friends had asked about my intentions to run for government over the years, but I always said no. Politics ruins good people, I’d say. But in January, I finally felt ready. My level of anger and frustration and bewilderment towards injustices in my country rose so much that one thing that kept crossing my mind was, I can do better…I can make this better.

Running for an official, high-level government position still scares me. While my International Relations degree certainly taught me a lot about politics, I knew there was a lot of intricacies to American politics I didn’t learn about in my college textbooks and research. Still, I recognized how easy it is for good people to be lost in the political machine that is national government.

Local government seemed like the best solution.

This is still many years away. Heck, I don’t even know which community I want to call home!

Until I’m ready for politics, I plan to participate in my local community, wherever that is, and impact as much positive change as possible. As you might expect, most of what I want to focus on is environmental issues.

Belovezhskaya Pushcha in January in Belarus

Finally, I made my way back into Belarus and met with Lisa at Belovezhskaya Pushcha, one of the national parks in Belarus.

I had written about this park in my Fulbright application, stating my desire to visit. Lisa wrote about it too.

Lisa and I wanted to wait until the weather was warmer to visit, but we figured we could return again in spring. I’m so glad we visited when we did because the looming pandemic quickly ruined our spring travel plans. Plus, by visiting in January, we shared the entire park with only two other couples!

For a January day, the air felt warmer than usual and the skies were bright blue. Lisa and I hiked, ate great food, talked for hours, soaked in a traditional hot tub, and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a perfect weekend getaway.

This park is usually skipped over by English-speaking travelers because most information is in Russian, so I plan to write a whole post about it in the future. Until then, feel free to send me any messages with questions if you’re about to visit and I’ll gladly answer!

Gomel in January in Belarus

My last adventure in January was to Gomel, a city near the border to Ukraine. I held two events at the public library in partnership with the U.S. Embassy Minsk and InfoUSA. One event was for students of English and the other for teachers of English.

Many people know the Chernobyl nuclear disaster affected Ukraine, but many don’t know that about 80% of Belarus was affected, more than any other country (even Ukraine).

To this day, dairy produced in the Gomel region cannot be consumed due to potential nuclear contamination. To this day, the exclusion zone near Gomel tests with too-high nuclear radiation for tourism.

For me, Gomel fulfilled an important gap to understanding Belarus’ history (even long before Chernobyl), an opportunity to meet more people and further my impact on Belarusians, as well as visit the final major Belarusian city I had yet to visit.

Gomel’s public library is the only public library in Belarus with a public museum attached, known for its collection of small books. The museum director personally invited me to tea in her office and on a private tour of the one-room museum. The museum curator even pulled out pieces for me to photograph and touch!

Additionally, the museum director shared with me books sent by Americans to their library during the Soviet Union. I hadn’t known this prior, but apparently Americans to sent books to Belarus and other Soviet countries after WWII through a program. Most libraries had been destroyed, including their book collections, so these book donations helped replenish education!

After WWII, the U.S. and Soviet Union were sworn enemies. Our two countries were entering a Cold War. Yet, people found unity and connection with books. Kind Americans sent millions of books across the Soviet Union, hundreds of which ended up in the Gomel public library.

They knew knowledge and kindness was far more important than anything else. They unified over the power of education.

The museum director made it her personal mission to find the American families who had donated these books, thank them, and share the story of the book. I shared ways she could communicate with local newspapers in the U.S. to hopefully get the message out more!

Final Thoughts on My January in Belarus

There were many small moments I hadn’t written about, but I must say my January in Belarus was one of my favorite months in the country. I had spent about two weeks in January in Belarus, and they were an active and adventure-filled two weeks.

In addition to these adventures, I made more connections, deepened other local connections, noticed an improvement in my Russian, and finally felt fully open to everything Belarus was and is.

Living abroad is hard. No matter how prepared you feel, or other similar experiences you had, each time you move abroad is a completely new experience. Thankfully my previous times I had lived abroad prepared me to better adjust to a new life in Belarus. I’m even more grateful that I did adjust and was able to enjoy some time in Belarus without every day being a struggle.

Additionally, I was nervous for January in Belarus. It’s supposed to be the coldest and darkest month of the year. Although I experienced an abnormally warm (but still below 20 degrees) and non-white winter, in my opinion, January in Belarus isn’t terrible if you’re interested in visiting! Of course, spring and summer are more ideal, but I also don’t think you should be scared of visiting in January! There’s nothing a thick coat can’t help.

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