Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Yesterday was a nice day, not too hot and not too cold. But there was a heavy feeling around town, heavier than usual. This was the first Monday after all of the students had finished their lessons for this year and the town could feel their absence. It could easily be said that Pinsk is a college town as there are several universities here. None of them is as big as the schools in Brest or in Minsk, but there is an agricultural school, an economic university, a performance school and a teacher's college.

Saturday was the “Lynyeska” for all of the high school students and the streets of Pinsk were filled with hundreds of young girls all wearing the same short brown dress with a white apron, white frills in their hair and a red sash diagonally across their chest with gold letters signifying that they had graduated from their high schools. The boys did not have to dress in this fashion, but they all wore their best suits and ties with hair slicked back and a sophisticated stride. The ceremony took place in the park, which is in the east central part of Pinsk and after the kids splintered off into smaller groups of friends and ambled about the town. The weather was perfect and the beached were filled with swimmers and the air was filled with the shrieks of the young girls- the whole of Pinsk having been overwhelmed with the graduates and turned into a brown, red and white street party.

I was fishing, as I do a lot of these days, near the park along the promenade along with ten or twelve other men. I was having poor luck with some hand tied flies I had made. The other men saw that I was fishing in a none Pinsk fashion, but said nothing to me about it, most probably because they were not catching anything either. Normal for Pinsk is to use a very long pole and a hard line, slightly longer than the pole. They use the smallest of weights and floats and are constantly dipping their hooks into the water and pulling it sharply out again when there is the thought that they have caught something. They generally use sticky flower and water dough, about the same consistency as toothpaste and sprinkle the water with bread to draw the attention of the fish. The dough only lasts a minute or two in the water before it has to be reapplied, and Pinsk fisherman are constantly dipping and pulling their lines in the hope of catching some small fish to be used in the soup. They back this up with a second line or two, made with a heavier weight and larger bob, and some meat on the hook, which they let sit in the hopes of catching something larger.

I prefer using worms and a bob or casting when I get bored. But the dry weather had made digging for worms difficult, and so I was trying my luck with flies made from the feathers I picked up out of the chicken house. The guy next to me was crazy, and spent his time speaking angrily to himself. His Russian was quite slurred, so it was difficult for me to understand him well, but he did seem to have some problems with Americans and the wars, with the former Soviet Union and the communists, with his former carrier as a soldier and at the fish which were no longer here in the river in such good numbers.

A small group of girls stopped to talk a few meters to my right. It was about 3:00 and I had started to grow bored with fishing. There was a breeze kicking up and the girl closest to me was trying to keep her skirt from blowing up in the wind. One of her friends handed her something and when she let go of her skirt, it blew up. She turned and caught my watching her and asked me if there was anything bad in what I had seen. I told her no, and in fact I would be thinking for quite some time that it was in fact quite good. My Russian is always a dead giveaway that I am a foreigner and they all immediately asked where I was from. I told them that I was American and one of them told me that she knew me from when I came to her school looking for a girl to play Nadia in the play. I asked them if they spoke English and two of them quickly said that they did.

They asked me what I was doing here in this country because it was so unusual to see Americans here. I agreed that this was so, but that I was sort of living here and had been around Belarus and Pinsk for a long time. She asked me what I thought of their country and I told them that I used to think much more of it than I do now, and she agreed with this, saying that she thought her people were quite bad. I told her that I didn’t think that they were bad, only that they were having a difficult time. She told me that it was all Lukeshenko’s fault and that they lived under a totalitarian (this word was difficult for her) dictatorship. I told her that I thought that this was a very common thin for people to say but that I thought that this was an over simplification of things. She told me that all of the students believed that there was no future for them here in Belarus and that all of them were planning to leave. I said that that was indeed a problem because all of the energy and enthusiasm for things that young people bring to a country or a city is also lost when the young people refused to stay. She said simply that there was no money and no way fro her to make a living. She said that in a few weeks she was going to be applying for the state linguistic institute in Minsk and that it was possible that she would never return to Pinsk. The other girls agreed with this saying that they had plans to go to Moscow or to Germany in the hopes of finding better employment. She reiterated that all of the problems were Lukeshenko’s fault and all of her friends seemed to think that this was sufficient.

I told them that what they said might be true, but that the argument was an oversimplification. Lukeshenko was in fact voted for by Belarus and that he probably does indeed represent the interests of the majority. The girls did not agree to this, saying that the election was a fake. I had heard that Lukeshenko’s party claimed an 80% majority, though the opposition claimed barely more that 50% was the more accurate count. I told them though that who really wanted and backed Lukeshenko was the retirees who were on a pension and the farmers. I told them that the extreme degree of socialism, and/or government control did actually allow for an extremely poor state to pay for those who can no longer work. That there is in fact no real sources of income in Belarus, no large manufacturing, no sea port, no tourism or oil, and that the state had in fact so little money, that to allow for the resources to be in the hands of the entrepreneurs would lead to large scale starvation because of the number of people who had lived understate control for all of their lives. To this the girls only pointed out that they were all starving now, and I said that I knew this as well.

I asked them if they thought that I could help as a teacher of English in Pinsk, working privately because I could not work without papers for the state schools. They told me that all of the students had private teachers but that it might be difficult for me. I asked why and was told that it was because I really do speak English and that most of the kids would be ashamed to see how poorly they really spoke. I said that that seemed to be against reason and that I was probably the only native speaker of English in all of Pinsk. She only shrugged and said that it was normal this way.

There is heaviness to life here. I think that when I contemplate why this is so, I come to the conclusion that there is no answer. It is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg: Are people depressed because the situation is so horrible or, did depressed people create the horrible situation. At the borders the line to cross is very long and the wait is always about two hours as the guards at the borders check all of the incoming cars for goods being brought into the country. There are regulations as to the amounts that can be brought in. Documents must be correct and getting caught means fines and/or confiscation.

Contraband goods are also an issue. There are thousands of Belarussian’s who make some small living from the buying of vodka and cigarettes in Belarus where the state sponsored prices keep the cost of a pack at about a quarter and a bottle of vodka at about two dollars and selling them in Poland for a small profit. Such an average day of work can begin early in the morning with a ride on the train to Brest. When the train is between stations, the passengers burst into activity cramming cigarettes and plastic bags of vodka into their trousers and behind the panels of the walls of the train. It is very common for one to be handed a bottle of Vodka and a carton of cigarettes while riding the train of the bus because there are restrictions as to the amount that one person can bring in. a good amount of money that can be made in a twelve or fourteen hour day with two such train rides might be twenty dollars though a more normal number is 10. People working at the markets have their papers checked daily by the police who can also legally ask for a count of the money made. The bureaucracy of complaints is long and fruitless and all papers must be paid for and approved by the state.

The average working wage here for a state company is about $4 a day. There are some rich people, but they are not the norm, and the reality of life is that the food that is grown in the dachas is considered a necessity for survival. Connections to those who live in the villages are essential and it is very difficult to save money in a place where a single ruble right now has a value of 1/2000th of a dollar and 1/2400th of a euro.

One cannot blame the young and the energetic and talented for leaving. On my last trip to Poland, I sat next to a Russian military scientist who was interviewing with a firm from the west. His specialty, though he referred to himself only as a dedicated rock climber, was as a designer of things that flew very fast and then made a big boom. So without resources, and without even the hope of youth, with a difficult to impossible political system and a severe division in agreement as to policy, what hope is there for this little country who must also contend with the prejudices of the western world against it’s communist past.

My fishing spot on Saturday offered a beautiful view of the River Prypet. With the sun shining and the beaches full and the streets full of beautiful girls all dressed alike in brown dresses, it is hard not to feel warm for such a place. Yesterday, with the energy of the party only a memory, and no students in the classrooms, grim reality returns and the faces of people sink back to the known and practiced places. There is no extra and there are no seconds. This has been going on since 1989 and wages have not gone up in tem years. Nothing is new, and what is new and hopeful and bright, is taught to leave and not to look back. And Belarussian’s never forget. It is simply not enough.