After seven months of teaching with Fulbright in Belarus, I was told to leave. It was March in Belarus, year 2020.
I was living in an adorable 1950s apartment in a small town in Belarus, where I was trying my best to immerse into the local community and help locals learn English. This was all possible through the Fulbright program, a prestigious fellowship awarded by the U.S. State Department to help people around the world study English and learn more about the U.S.
One of my closest friends in the Belarusian town, a teacher from China, warned me about the severity of a strange new virus and how quickly it was spreading in her country. I wasn’t worried about it since the U.S.’ CDC and the World Health Organization weren’t sharing anything about it. Honestly, I thought it was Chinese propaganda.
Until, suddenly, the world shut down.
As I watched the world around me shut down, life continued as normal in Belarus. Many of my local friends, colleagues, and students were convinced the world was overreacting.
On March 13th, 2022, Fulbright emailed us stating we could elect to end our Fulbright program early and return home. Of course they sent the email on a Friday evening, so it was impossible to contact anyone to understand what their letter meant.
Finally, Monday morning, I spoke with the people in charge of the Fulbright program at the embassy. They informed me of the measures the Belarusian government had taken to protect citizens and residents. Free testing was made available to anyone who wanted it, there was contact tracing personnel to interview and medically assess everyone that was in contact with the only two cases present in Belarus. Additionally, not many Belarusians travel outside of Belarus and not many visitors enter Belarus. My home of residence seemed like a safe place.
I decided to stay in Belarus, thinking I felt safest there, and continued living my normal life in Belarus while, outside its borders, the world imploded. I remember sitting on the bus and reading the news of travelers scrambling to get home, numerous flight cancellations and delays, and everyone’s fear of what a pandemic meant.
Life felt normal for me–teaching, meeting friends for coffee, riding public transportation, and shopping at the farmer’s market. Yet, I felt uncomfortable. How could I go on as normal while the world seemingly exploded around me? Was I really safe, or was the Last Dictatorship in Europe lying about the health of its population?
My journal entry from March 15, 2020 summarizes it best:
“I don’t get proper good-byes. I was supposed to visit friends in Ukraine next month, but they’ve all returned to the United States. Lisa and I still have so many plans to explore Belarus, but she is going home soon too. It’s times like these that I wish someone could give me the answer. I have a feeling in my gut that I’m sure is trying to guide me one way or another, but I can’t decipher it.”
I questioned if my decision to stay in Belarus was the best choice. Then, it no longer became a choice. The American embassy was pulling everyone–including Fulbrighters–out of the country. I had 72 hours to pack up my Belarusian life, end rental and internet contracts, and say goodbye to my friends, coworkers and students.
Feeling Lonely Abroad
Let’s jump back to the beginning of March. After two months of traveling, I returned to my community feeling alone. I wrote in my journal on March 9, 2020:
“I’m feeling very alone and unwanted. It’s upsetting to think no one cares about you or that I haven’t made any serious connections here..
Here’s brutal honesty–the Instagram photos showing life abroad as fun and desirable hide the true loneliness that is moving abroad. It’s painstakingly trivial to adapt to a new culture and also remain your authentic self, which inherently brings cultural practices from your home country that don’t mesh with your new culture.
I lived in a dark, cold, and gray-skied country that didn’t seem to share hobbies or interests with me. I tried finding community at my gym, but instead was greeted with a gym trainer telling me I fat…again. My body craved movement, but I mentally couldn’t go back after this repeat offense. I tried befriending some of my students, since they were similar in age, but many of them didn’t seem interested in befriending someone who would leave them eventually anyway. Many didn’t have any common interests with me. I wanted to climb mountains, get messy, and sleep outdoors. They (generally-speaking) wanted to dress up, drink all night, and spend hours getting their nails manicured.
I had to open myself up to new possibilities and different kinds of friendships. I also had to realize there were already people in my corner, but for some reason I failed to see were standing right in front of me. Slowly, I started to feel a sense of community and belonging again.
Moving abroad is lonely sometimes, especially that first year. It’s also incredibly empowering when you get to the other side of it and realize how mentally and emotionally strong you are for persevering. I cried in bed several times and felt sorry for myself. Then I picked myself up, showered, went for a walk in the park, took a risk and texted someone asking to hang out, and picked out a coffee place to meet up. You keep moving forward. You find a way, because you have to.
Castles of Belarus
Two people who were always in my corner were Lisa and Kat. I’ve shared stories about travels with Lisa before, a fellow Fulbright ETA in Belarus. Kat was a Fulbright ETA in Ukraine, who also wrote a book about her experience! They visited me for a weekend in March in Belarus to explore the nearby castles. One of my coworkers graciously organized a private taxi driver for us. The taxi driver was waiting outside of my apartment the next morning and off we went. Well, he first ensured to briefly scold us for being a few minutes late to the car, in typical style of three young women on vacation.
Our first stop was Mir Castle, located in Mir, Belarus. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a remnant of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was built in the 16th Century and passed ownership as the land surrounding it also passed hands between kingdoms and countries. It was privately sold in 1895 and remained in the Sviatapolk-Mirski family’s estate until 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded the Eastern part of Poland–which included Mir at that time–and claimed the castle as its own. When Nazi German forces invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they claimed Mir Castle and turned it into a Jewish ghetto. From 1944 to 1956, the castle was used as a housing facility, which greatly aged the interiors. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and has since been renovated, to include signage (mostly in Russian) of its history.
In 2020, the cost of entry was 16 BYN to Mir Castle.
Our second stop of the day was Nesvizh Castle, located in Nesvizh, Belarus. This castle was also built in the 16th Century, but remained part of the Radziwill family estate until 1792 when Russian forces expelled the family during the Polish-Russian war. It formally became Russian in 1793 due to the Second Partition of Poland. However, the Russian empire abandoned the castle and it fell into repair. The Radziwill family repaired it starting in 1881. After the Polish-Soviet War, the castle became part of the Second Polish Republic in 1920. The Radziwill family was yet again expelled from the castle in 1939, this time by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. The Soviet Union used the castle as a sanatorium. It continued to fall into disrepair until 1993, when it was recognized as a cultural and historical site at a national level. The castle was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and underwent extensive renovations. Throughout history and today, it’s considered one of the most beautiful castles in the region.
In 2020, the costy of entry was 14 BYN to Nesvizh Castle.
It was a pleasant day of Belarusian history and culture. All three of us wished there was more signage so we could’ve learned more about the castles’ histories. The minimal signs gave general history overviews and only a few of those signs were in English.
I was especially grateful to have Kat with me, not only as a friend but as a visitor experiencing Belarus through new eyes. She helped me feel the spark of seeing Belarus for the first time again. We also shared several laughs about adjusting to a new culture and new language, such as a replay of a conversation on a train (video above).
That evening, we went to an “underground” punk rock concert in Baranovichi to raise money for the town’s first women’s domestic violence shelter. I learned about the concert from an adult student at my library. I’m not a fan of the music, but I was committed to putting myself out there and trying new things…even if it meant destroying my earbuds for a night. I can genuinely say punk rock is not my music genre of choice. Yet, we made it a fun evening…our last fun evening in March in Belarus.
I remember Lisa and I sitting with Kat as she packed her bag. She would return to her host city in Ukraine the next morning. We were all reading news stories on our phones of a virus quickly infiltrating our world. We couldn’t understand what it meant or how it would impact us, but a few days later we’d text each other questioning our choice to stay or leave the homes we created abroad. At least we had one last moment of travel-filled-joy before the end of the world as we knew it.
Final Hours in March in Belarus
In my last 72 hours in Belarus, I spent the little remaining time I had sitting on a snowy bench outside of my apartment to take in the sights, smells, and sounds, hoping to engrain them into my memory forever.
I felt grateful for the lessons Belarus taught me. One, environmentalism looks different for everyone and every country. Two, there’s beauty in a slow and simple life. I would miss my routine–cook, work, coffee break, clean, walk in the park, repeat. I made a promise with myself to add slow and simple moments into my American life, although I was sure it’d be lost in translation in the fast-paced, workaholic American lifestyle.
As my taxi pulled away from my apartment one last time, I noticed the pink and orange morning sun glistening off the frost from the previous night. The day felt so beautiful, like a gift from God. How could leaving be a gift? I accepted the idea that maybe the universe was telling me it was time to go and start a new phase of life. At least I left knowing the sun still existed in this gray, potato-filled part of the world.
I flew from normalcy and arrived into a pandemic. And I kept moving forward.