Monday, October 13, 2008

Where are the foreigners in Minsk?

Three young Belarusian guys, in their 20s, chatted me up outside the theatre lobby of the Belarusian State University. Two remarked that although the love New Y0rk City, it is very difficult for them to visit the U.S. "You can't just go" one said. "You need an invitation before the government gives a visa.

I reply that the opposite is true as well. That if they thought the U.S. is too off-limits to them, Belarus has also reciprocated by effectively keeping Americans away. I, too, had to get a visa, which in turn could only be gotten if there is a specific letter of invitation from someone inside Belarus. And even then the visa dates are strictly controlled. It's not as if I could simply extend my stay in Minsk even on a whim; the dates are pretty specific. I wouldn't know how I could have visited Minsk in any other capacity other than being invited by the Belarusian State University.

And that quid pro quo between Belarus and Westerners is reflected on the streets. There simply aren't many Western visitors here, much less from the U.S. The usual visitors from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other Eastern European countries where Russian is spoken as a language. Almost everyone I met at the places of business (restaurants, shopping stores, the subway, and so forth) don't speak English. At least in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, signs in Cyrillic letters are accompanied by their Latin translation. Bilingual signs pretty much end after the airport. In Minsk, everything is in Cyrillic. If you want to know what's inside the big buildings, you literally have to open the door or look through the windows. In the evening, the streets of Minsk are largely bare and empty. Except for several bars or nightclubs, where lots of people congregate, most Belarusian streets are wide and empty. No Westerners, much less Americans, stroll by.

Jean-Marc Larrue, the Quebecois man who heads the jury of our theatre festival, has been invited to Minsk several times. He says, "Nobody comes to Minsk without a special reason."
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