Travel Essay: CITY GATES AT THE CROSSROADS OF EUROPE
From the central train depot, the massive tower-like buildings that shape the gateway to Minsk are built to impress. Like the entrance to a giant’s citadel, with miniature people and city buses and cars and taxis all scurrying into the heart of the city.
But in this moment, I have no time to be impressed. Panic creeps across me with me picking up my pace while circling wider and wider away from the entrance to the subway tunnels.
My panic has nothing to do with the Soviet history of the place. My uncertain knowledge of Belarus has planted in me some expectation that the eyes of Big Brother would be ever peering over my shoulders, but I have learned not to worry about that. And right now, I feel the searching eyes of Big Sister trying to divine my presence circling anxiously here instead of being where I had agreed to be this very hour. She is not really Big Sister but she is part of a kind of family formed by the people connected to the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. And I have promised to present some of my professional findings to Belarusian teachers of English who are gathered waiting for me with great eagerness – or, more likely, with great distrust of Americans by now. Most of the workers, even those who speak good English, are Belarusians.
And this is so unprofessional of me. I must find Big Sister’s number on my phone. But I barely know how to operate this phone. I’ve always stuck to the old flip-phones in the past, but I gave in to the smart phone craze when I realized I’d need all the help I could get in a foreign city that knows little English.
Why didn’t I come down a little earlier to make sure I knew where the building was? I’ve been here before, but that was back on the second day of my arrival in Minsk. Now I know the city a good bit better, but picking through my memory of the Public Affairs building gives me nothing to help me situate myself. Train tracks here, subway there, little shops scattered about, the glass front of a university building stretching several floors higher than most of the other buildings around and even more of those ubiquitous Soviet slabs of concrete mixed in with modern high-rises of glass and metal. In the distance are the spires of magnificent cathedrals and in front of me a line of historic-looking European buildings of unknown alloys.
I didn’t learn much Russian before arriving. And I had only discovered that Belarusian was a language after arriving in the country. Even though most of the folks in Minsk dress and act much like a modern European city, speakers of English are few and far between. I cannot just randomly walk up to someone and ask for directions. I don’t want to be that random creepy American who doesn’t know what he is doing.
I don’t know what I am doing.
I pace the streets trying to find a building I recognize around some street corner. Maybe the next one? At last I get out my phone. I can’t find Big Sister’s number, but I find the number of another worker at the Public Affairs building. This phone call will set things right.
“Where are you?”
“Umm, I’m near a tall building with big glass windows in the front.” I must be more precise. “I’m near the train station. The tracks are on the other side of the road.”
When the man at the Embassy realizes I don’t even know which direction the streets are going and I’m circling in the wrong direction, he tells me to stand still while he comes to find me.
We arrive at the specific concrete building I’d been searching for, and he whisks me through security. By this time Big Sister has graciously moved on with other events of the morning. A few self-deprecating jokes later, I am finally able to move into my presentation as shamelessly as if I hadn’t just made a fool of myself.
Later, my friend at the Embassy will tell me about the two towers across from the train station where I had been circling. I think about this when I’m looking out at this famed Gateway to Minsk while waiting inside the train station with my family for a trip to the Grodno oblast of Belarus.
Travelers receive an immediate impression of the city’s importance just by looking out the large glass windows of the train station here in the nation’s capital. There, right in front of us, these pillars stand like solid posts of a gargantuan gate into the city, walls of tall buildings stretching out on both sides of the pillars, leaving the space between the pillars open to the wind.
The outside corners of the two columns are topped with statues, but the columns do not end in statues. They are simply recessed there and extend yet further upward. The statues are not the Greek figures customary in architectural wonders in much of the Western world. I can’t quite make them out from their great height but they look proud and almost martial, undoubtedly in control of the fate of this city. The two columns themselves are too square to be columns exactly, but they resemble the columns on the front porch of an old plantation. Of course they are much larger than the columns of any human house and they are not Greek columns either. The mix of architecture in Minsk is most unusual. Historic buildings many centuries old, European and Russian-style cathedrals lining the sky around the old city center stand alongside Soviet slabs of concrete slammed down on top of everything, and modern skyscrapers shoot upward to protest that the weight of the past has not entirely displaced the present.
Leaving the mixed architecture of Minsk with my family, we enjoy a night of sleep on the train as we make our way to the western city of Grodno. The kids have been waiting for this moment, excited at the prospect of sleeper cars. At their young ages, all less than ten years old, I had never even heard of sleeper cars. I had heard the whistles of the freight trains and seen them sometimes passing through my little rural town in the countryside of Maryland, far away from Minsk or any large city. My kids have a very different life.
In Grodno, we make our way around castles and cathedrals and enjoy gorgeous skies and brilliant autumn leaves. Grodno remembers its days as part of Poland almost until the arrival of the Nazis. Here almost all the streets look European. Neither the Soviets nor the Nazis seem to have left their marks here as strongly as elsewhere in the country. Jews were killed here too, of course, as in all Nazi-infested cities (and if we are honest, as in many Soviet-infested cities), but some Jews survived. Their descendants are still here. The beautiful choral synagogue is still active here.
When we return from Grodno, we are dazzled by the display of lights around the so-called gates of Minsk. The lights create an even stronger impression of a gateway, the nation’s life streaming from the tracks behind us pausing to gaze at the entrance to the life bustling within the city. Standing there again, returned from one of our many excursions out of the city, I realize that Minsk has become a home for us, even if only for a few months.
Not too long ago, I had wondered if we would feel forever like foreigners. I had discovered the blog of an American rushing from country to country to visit the high points of all the countries of Europe. His account of coming to Minsk to find Belarus’s high point in the middle of the night made me shake my head. He could barely find the elusive point, even with help from a Belarusian taxi driver and GPS, and it made little impression on him before he rushed off to the next country. He cannot say he knows the country. Most likely, he has no idea that the capital of this nation has a gateway that he missed. Most likely, he has no idea that this land has been the site of many struggles, serving for many as the crossroads of the continent.
I wonder what purpose city gates serve today. In the old days, city gates served as the place where news entered and left, where trade entered and left, where people entered and left. So the history books say. City gates served as the place to announce your triumph over your enemies. Even today, the city gates of Minsk serve such a function by showing off the clock or perhaps something else taken from the Germans they defeated. The clock on the left tower is said to be the largest in Belarus, and my friend from the Embassy tells me that the clock or some other part of the tower was taken from somewhere in Germany and reassembled here as a sign of their victory over the Nazis.
City gates tell us about the past, about the things that made a city. But they tell also tell me about the present, the contemporary city of Minsk as a place that values this piece of its past enough to preserve it. There is something strangely compelling about this gateway in the middle of a city that does not fit snugly within the stories told by other countries. Neither Russia nor Western Europe, neither China nor the United States, neither Africa nor South America can tell its story. Yet I have seen the signs of all of these cultures in the streets and structures of this city. And Minsk itself is a gateway, a place to pass from the past into a future still to be unfolded.
If you ask the people milling about the busy traffic about the city gates, they are not likely to tell you about the nation’s friends and foes. They may tell you about the city’s revived traditions or about its modern amenities. They may tell you about the city’s institutions or about its restaurants. They may tell you about places of commerce or – if you are very lucky – about their hopes for the nation’s future. All of this and more is found here near these city gates wrapped in the garb of bygone empires.
In a moment of personal hubris, I see myself standing as a giant, one foot atop each column, announcing to the oblivious world, that here is a city. Here is a city worth exploring for its alternative visions to the cold war shadow stories that refuse to die. Here is a city worth feeling for the pulse of its lifeblood that has ever stayed alive even between the crush of vying powers in all directions. Here is a city worth noting in the annals of a world never at peace with itself yet ever pushing forward to the next phase of existence.
And then I climb down suddenly off my imaginary pedestal, abashed to realize that I have attempted to speak for a people I have only started to know. I know not everyone here or anywhere is content only with existence. If it were a virtue simply to exist, perhaps I must conclude that all bygone ages and peoples were unvirtuous and that today’s age too will one day be without virtue. Even a man living happily in a cave with a family or even with a few unrelated loved ones may have as much or more virtue than I. If we grant to Robinson Crusoe’s animal fence the status of city gates, even he opened a dialogue with the island around his door and the world that finally came to his island shore. Robinson Crusoe did more than survive; he made a life. So too many Belarusians have done and are doing. So too I hope to have done when my days of roaming are ended.
BIO: Steven Petersheim is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University East, where he teaches literature and writing. His creative work has been published in Wilderness House Literary Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and elsewhere. Currently, he is at work on a memoir of his Amish childhood.