Dancing with a Green Troll in Belarus

I am already finding myself missing this place called Braslav (a picturesque small town in northwestern Belarus) with its beautiful lakes and beautiful, kindhearted people.

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On Friday afternoon, my American colleague Kieran and I arrived at the Braslav bus station and were greeted by some of the most outgoing teachers that I have ever met, headed by my dear friend Maya. We were taken immediately to the Gymnasium (an elite school for high-performing adolescents) for a dinner and then a teacher’s workshop. It was well-received and followed by more fun, food, and friends. Dinner at the local restaurant was delicious and large and our rainy walk to the lakes with students was lovely. Picture colorful umbrellas held out by grinning, well-dressed teenagers with a backdrop of evergreen forests and cold waves on the shore of the lake.

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On Saturday, we went by van for 2 hours with two colleagues to Polotsk, which is the oldest city in Belarus and a cultural hub. The weather: perfect. The itinerary: visiting Saint Sofia Cathedral (Safijski sabor – first built in 1044), the Monastery, and more food, including soup, salad, potatoes and some cleverly baked carrot fillets for me as the vegetarian in the group. In the evening we attended Braslav’s Night at the Museum concert, a fishing themed exhibit, and local artist’s painting exhibit. The highlight of the night: dancing with a man dressed in a green troll’s costume.

braslav2Sunday was full of nature. A group of 2 teachers and 8 students greeted us in the morning to go on a bicycle ride. We went a total of 20 km by bicycle and hiked 5 km to Slobodka. In between, we got to meet Maya’s mother, go inside and exquisitely decorated Catholic Church, and picnic by the lake in the National Park. After washing up in the calm, cool lake water and eating again, we visited the cultural museum where we learned how to make Belarussian dolls from fabric. It was cute trick that I’m so pleased to add to my crafting repertoire! We went by van with two wonderful students later to visit “Mayak (lighthouse)” hill where it is possible to look out on many of the regions lakes for miles and miles all around.

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At night Kieran and I were treated to more food (getting rounder by the hour), Banya (Belarusian sauna complete with a soft flagellation of soaked birch branches) at Maya’s house, and the lovely singing and strumming duo of Maya and her husband Alek. This is my home away from home in the ways that really matter. Heart = warmed.

braslav3The next day, we ate breakfast #1 at Maya’s and then rode our weekend Russian Aist bicycles back to the school. At school we had breakfast #2 before taking a tour of the school’s different rooms and departments. In every hallway and at every turn, we met with sophisticated and darling pupils of the Gymnasium (high schoolers), who were eager to tell us about their school and meet with us.

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We conducted a workshop featuring geography, music and poetry of the US, but more than all that, we were danced with, entertained with music, presented with extremely eloquent speakers, and basically treated like celebrities. I love this school and would really like to know more about the pupils. I have no doubt that their talents and bright outlooks will take them far in this world.

Surely I gained 20 pounds this weekend: 10 in my belly, 10 in my heart.

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Katie has been working in an Intensive English Program in Minnesota since 2010, where she teaches ESL courses, designs curriculum, and is in charge of proficiency test writing and proctoring. She also organizes and leads cultural field trips for the international students.  During the 2013-2014 academic year, she was an English Language Fellow in Minsk, Belarus, conducting teacher training, English lessons and cultural workshops in the capital and around the country.  While there, she also took every available opportunity to travel to cultural hubs in Belarus and Eastern Europe in general, interacting with English teachers and students from various schools and organizations. Read Katie’s Q & A!
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