At the end of January this year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Independence Palace, a glassy, corporate-looking building on Prospekte Pobeditelei (Winners Avenue) in central Minsk. Pompeo was the highest-ranking American official to visit Belarus in more than 20 years. They talked about gas and oil and Russia and regional dynamics, and the possibility of the US having an ambassador to Belarus for the first time since 2008, when Lukashenko expelled the prior ambassador over American criticisms of the dubious circumstances of his most recent election. Hours after Pompeo’s visit, Foreign Policy reported that the US would be appointing a new ambassador.
Two days later, I walked up Prospekte Pobeditelei, past the Independence Palace, and into the neighboring BelExpo Center, a white modernist spaceship with an undulating roofline in five petal-like sections. With Pompeo gone, I was now the USA’s most prominent, highly-promoted cultural emissary in Belarus. I took a seat in the corner booth of the only American diner in Minsk and poked the buttons of a jukebox on the table. It wouldn’t play, so instead I got my daughter’s toy bunny out of my backpack and posed it for some photos. My work of long-term diplomacy and international reporting had begun.
I was in Belarus because I’d received an email from the US Embassy in Minsk out of the blue one November day. I thought it was a scam. But no: They wanted me to come to the Minsk International Book Fair and give some talks about my travel writing. I said yes. I hadn’t been out of the US in years and was eager for an adventure. My four-year-old daughter helped me pick out some fancy clothes and gave me her little bunny and had my wife sew some fancy clothes for the bunny. Its name was Hoppy. It wore a shirt covered in butterflies and a polka-dot cape held on with a yellow button.
It’s a Tuesday, the day before the Fair opens, when I arrive at the BelExpo Center. At the US booth, embassy employees, a mix of Americans and Belarusians, confer about last-minute details. Drills whir, hammers pound, someone brings me a Styrofoam cup of green tea. The booth’s aesthetic is, basically, endearing road-trip kitsch, in keeping with the official theme of American Travel Writing. Giant photos of the United States fill the walls: a highway interchange, a life-size motel front desk, purplish mountains. Inside the entrance is a huge rug printed with a colorful map of the states, flanked by racks of books like On the Road and Blue Highways. About half the space is filled by that diner, the one where the Hoppy and I take a seat. There’s no food, but it ticks the other boxes: checkerboard floor, red padded booths, counter with stools. For the next four days, I’ll be at the BelExpo Center pretty much full-time, giving talks at a lectern with a Route 66 sign on it and chatting with fairgoers in the diner, at a designated booth marked by a small table tent that reads, MEET AN AMERICAN AUTHOR.
I’m still unsure what, exactly, I’m doing at the Book Fair and who, exactly, will be watching me, scrutinizing. The US Embassy folks? Probably, given their diplomatic successes over the weekend—they’ll want me to keep up the charm or at least not, you know, spark an incident that leads to a story in Foreign Policy headlined, “Never Mind, No New Ambassador; War Instead.” How about the Belarusian government—Are they keeping tabs on me? How closely? I’ve read a bit about Lukashenko, seen him described in many articles as “Europe’s last dictator.” I’ve heard rumors about secret police and surveillance of foreigners. My anxiety is compounded by fatigue from jet lag and the long walking tour of the city I just took with a local guide, whose name—like all others in this story—I won’t divulge, because even as I write this, I’m not sure who’s paying attention or how an offhand comment here might jeopardize people on the ground there. The guide has lived in various English-speaking countries and jokes about her mixed-up accent.
I stroll around the exhibition floor. There are about 400 booths, representing 30 countries, including China, Ukraine, Syria, and Poland. Everyone’s presenting a version of themselves. Our immediate neighbors are Germany, whose walls are covered in whimsical illustrations from children’s books, and Russia, which has a generically crisp and corporate look. Iran is just around the corner, with a booth showcasing the art of Persian lettering. One of the staffers, a middle-aged woman with a flower-pot brooch, glances at the American Embassy button I’m wearing and greets me warmly, telling me to come back later, when they’ll have a calligrapher doing demonstrations.
At the North Korea booth, my button earns considerably more apprehension, but the two women at the table sell me a page of stamps, each a photo of some monumental work of DPRK architecture. It costs more than any other single item I will buy on this trip. The Book Fair’s overall vibe is something between a literary festival, a corporate trade show, and Epcot Center, with John le Carré lurking in the background. Just inside the main entrance, a Belarusian comedian who looks like a glum Charlie Chaplin is setting out a stack of his own books. Everyone is straightening tablecloths, double-checking inventory, ready to impress.
I’m running late on Wednesday morning. When I get to the BelExpo Center, the aisle outside the US diner is full of people straining to see a stage where some dignitaries are giving opening remarks, followed by a Belarusian singer crooning a power ballad. Other fairgoers are already lined up outside our booth’s roped-off main entrance. Some of the embassy’s Belarusian staffers play a states-themed card game and I try my hand at an American trivia quiz on a laptop at the diner counter. I know which state has a royal palace (Hawaii) but not which state has one of the world’s most romantic hotels (Ohio). The German ambassador stops by to say hello.
The ballad ends, the fair is open.
Soon, it’s time for my first talk. I stand at the lectern with the Route 66 sign, a bison cutout lurking behind me and about thirty or forty people in the folding chairs in front of me. After some Power Point issues (quickly resolved by a dapper, smiling Belarusian in a gray suit), I introduce myself and show photos of my hometown of Minneapolis, which elicits blank stares that turn into smiles of recognition when I add that it’s also where Prince is from. In my years of travel, I’ve found that Prince is the only thing people reliably know about my city, and they give me far too much credit for this geographic association. It’s started conversations, gotten strangers to buy me drinks, and led to one enduring friendship. It’s my ace, the one thing in this talk I know nearly everyone will like.
My main topic is the US territories. You know: Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. They’re the subject of my most recent book. Before accepting the US Embassy’s invitation, I told them I would be frank about how these scattered islands are actually colonies. “Of course,” they said, to my surprise. “That would be refreshing.” So I go deep on manifest destiny, the lack of voting rights and basic constitutional protections, the long tail of colonialism. I have a translator, who also provides cultural context as necessary—when I mention health insurance, she adds, briefly, that in the US health care isn’t a universal thing covered by the government. I talk about lighter stuff, too: food, music, culture, getting lost on backroads, the rum bar on St. Croix that has beer-drinking pigs out back. I show photos of people I met on each island: a National Park trail maintenance crew in American Samoa, a man in the Northern Marianas who still sails by the stars, members of the Guam Military Veterans Motorcycle Club, folk musicians in Puerto Rico. The audience is engaged, at least as much as American audiences are when I discuss the same subject, which is to say there’s a lot of lingering confusion at the end.
After the talk, I head to the diner, where a line awaits. A man in a cowboy hat shows me the scrapbook of his recent family road trip around the USA, hitting all 50 states in 50 days. A middle-aged couple nudge their son in front of me to practice his English. A bit later, two women who look to be in their early twenties sit down. One’s in a black sweater and speaks confidently; one’s wearing white and blushes whenever she has a question. “Is it true,” she asks, “that there’s an American holiday when children put on costumes and go around to houses asking for candy?” Do kids really go to school on large yellow buses? Why do Americans always have red plastic cups at parties?
I answer as best I can. Halloween is complicated. Red cups are confusing (I don’t know any American who would consider them a socializing essential) until I remember I’ve gotten this question before while traveling, and it turns out to come entirely from party scenes in Hollywood movies—the distorting lens of pop culture.
Then I ask them about Belarus. Before I arrived, I knew it strictly as a former Soviet republic that most Americans think of—when they think of it at all—as basically a joke, all the old unkind Soviet stereotypes (stoic people, grim streetscapes, Bond-flick villains with thick accents) minus any cosmopolitanism. I’m trying to be polite, though, so I skip most of that and tell them I was expecting lots of Eastern Bloc architecture. They chuckle and there’s a pause as they wait for me to say more. They clearly know the rest. Finally, the woman in black nods and says, “People think we’re boring and always serious. We’re not! And we are not Russian, even though most Americans think we are.”All I can think is: What the hell am I doing here? It’s not that I don’t belong here—though I surely don’t—but that none of this belongs.
Then they tell me something I’ll hear over and over: Belarus is caught between two worlds. It was briefly independent from 1918, then forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union for nearly a century—a colony, depending on your view of things—before becoming independent again in 1991, although plenty of ties to Russia have remained. The language of daily use here, promoted by Lukashenko, is Russian, not Belarusian. But it’s also close to, and influenced by, Western Europe. Belarus is pulled in both directions. The woman in black shrugs and says, “If you ask two people about our cultural identity, you will get two answers.”
There’s a lot to say about Lukashenko, none of it good. He was elected as the first president of newly-independent Belarus back in 1994. Since then—for now, up to the moment this story was published—he’s held onto power through a series of sham elections, a general lack of a free press, suppression of free speech, rampant cronyism, and the occasional imprisonment and, reportedly, torture of dissidents.
One Belarusian I meet tells me there’s a prison near the center of town where various people she knows have ended up after protesting Lukashenko. It’s a historic building with no heating in the cells, she says, absolutely unbearable in the winter. In the Economist’s most recent Democracy Index, Belarus held the 150th spot, in the “Authoritarian” category, directly above Iran and a few ticks below Cuba.
After the 2006 election, which the US State Department said “violated international norms and was neither free nor fair,” the US and the European Union instituted economic sanctions and travel restrictions. That’s when Lukashenko expelled the American ambassador, along with and 30 of the 35 American diplomats in the country. The relationship started to improve, slowly, starting in 2015, when Belarus released six political prisoners and the US ended sanctions. Since then, Belarus’s formidable ties to Russia started to fray—there was even speculation that Vladimir Putin wants to annex Belarus like he did Crimea. Just before Pompeo’s visit, Russia cut off its oil supply to Belarus, which comprised 80 percent of the nation’s energy supply. All of this was on Pompeo’s agenda for the meeting in January: sell American oil, forge a new political partnership, establish a stronger role in the region.
The Embassy has booked me at the Renaissance Hotel outside the city center. It’s a slightly curved building less than a decade old, white with large expanses of bluish windows and a restaurant with an artful chalkboard menu, in English. My first couple of nights, exhausted, I order room-service pizza and sit on the balcony of my tenth-floor room. Directly across the street is a construction site with a sign advertising the apartment building to come, the name spelled out in a crisp sans serif: MOD House. It all feels familiar, placeless—I could be in a thousand different cities around the world, aside from the Russian hockey channel on the TV and the outside possibility that my room’s being monitored by the Belarusian KGB.
During World War II, the Nazis occupied Belarus—which was then part of the Soviet Union—for more than three years, killing hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Jews. The lives lost and culture destroyed and history upended are still a constant presence, a hauntedness that creeps into conversations. One woman starts telling me about the general look of small towns outside Minsk, whose central squares historically had both a Russian Orthodox church and a synagogue, and her voice trails off as she adds that the synagogues aren’t used as much as they were years ago. You also see the war’s mark in the monuments and in the architecture. The Nazis reduced nearly all of Minsk to rubble, and the rebuilding efforts brought about the Soviet modernist look you see around the city. There’s the BelExpo Center, but also more than a few gargantuan apartment blocks and bulky, Brutalist landmarks, including a three-story building whose front façade is a dominated by a bas relief of workers marching directly over the ground-floor storefront, a KFC.
In recent years, the landscape has evolved again. While there are still plenty of those quintessential Eastern Bloc structures, every third corner seems to have a construction site like the one across the street from my hotel or a recently-completed building that fits a sort of Global Corporate aesthetic.
Part of the change, I learn on my walking tour, came from a push to spruce things up before Minsk hosted the 2019 European Games. The government has also recently begun promoting itself more to tourists, including allowing foreign nationals to visit Belarus for 30 days visa-free. Part of the change is Belarus’s slow economic rise, including an influx of tech companies. In central Minsk, there’s a clever virtual monument to the IT professional, an empty pedestal with a statue visible on your phone when you scan a QR code. And part of the change it is a simple matter of globalization and the spread of trends and the blurring of culture in a hyper-connected age. Lukashenko’s regime is repressive, but the flow of culture and ideas goes on.
During the walking tour, we pass a men’s hair salon with a refined American West theme, a chic Peruvian restaurant called AYA restobar, and two separate tiki bars. We stop for a snack in a historic department store with elaborate window displays featuring oversized cartoons of kids, all wonder and delight. Inside, the front corridor has a snack bar with chandeliers and a little bakery section with fancy cakes. I get a slice with pink frosting and pose Hoppy the bunny with it. We keep walking. There are museums and a small Russian Orthodox church whose interior is positively stuffed with paintings and all manner of ornamentation. There are casinos and plenty of places to get a craft cocktail. I keep an eye out for a taco truck I’ve seen on Instagram. I can’t stop thinking that Minsk fits the template of an up-and-coming city profiled in a glossy travel magazine, with the phrase “tradition with a twist” in the second paragraph. Of course, none of those articles contains more than a sentence or two about the governance and institutions that shape daily life, the long tails of colonialism, the dissidents freezing in prison, the possibility of revolution on the horizon.
The tour guide leads me through a short passageway and into a courtyard formed by an angular jumble of buildings. It’s a cozy place that hosts concerts in the summer. Every façade is red, but the shade varies slightly from wall to wall. They’re all old buildings, the guide says, and the intent is to use the historically accurate paint color; over the years, various preservationists have scraped back different layers of paint to try to determine the original, authentic shade. Every time someone thinks they’ve found the truth, someone else comes along and points to another layer, or a scraping from another spot, which tells a different story.
Belarusians come to the diner booth to get free copies of my book, to tell me about their own experiences in the US or their dreams of visiting, and, occasionally, to give me things. A man in a loose red shirt says he is “a physicist and a lyricist”—a man of science and art, my translator explains—and gives me a CD of guitar music he wrote and recorded. A woman with her hair in a tight bun shows me the prototype of a word-association card game intended to give kids lessons in morality. I get many business cards—writers, university professors, a Jewish cultural organization. I show people Hoppy and tell them about my family, my country, my city, and I find, as ever, that it’s these little things, even the goofy things, that break the ice and forge a fleeting moment of kinship (“Prince!”). One afternoon, a college student sits down heavily on the chair across from me, her face and body language all exasperation. She needs help with an English test. “Why do you have so many tenses? Russian is past, present, future, but English has others, like this future perfect continuous. What is that?” I search my brain and turn red and confess I really don’t know. It’s just, like, how I talk—I can’t explain the rules because that’s now how I learned. The language has always been there, around me. She starts to explain what she’s heard in class, and we simultaneously realize she’s teaching the American Author how words work and we both double over in laughter.
I do interviews—so many interviews. Interviews with TV stations and with radio stations and with magazines. I do eight interviews one day, three or four most other days. During one, with a Russian TV station, I keep getting distracted by the danceable sounds of “U Can’t Touch This” from a nearby booth. A volunteer group that seems like a sort of Belarusian Up With People asks me some questions for a YouTube video they’re making as part of an event called “Last Chance for Humanity.” I’m also always at the ready to greet whatever important people stop by. At one point, I signal to someone from the embassy that I’ll be right back, but he asks me to hold on, because the head of the Belarusian KGB is coming and he won’t wait for me to use the toilet. (In the end, it’s a quick visit and embassy officials decide he doesn’t need to meet me after all.)
Beyond me, the attractions at the US booth include the diner itself, where even Belarusian soldiers in uniform come to sit and chat, and movie screenings, including “Into the Wild” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” There’s an American trivia contest, hotly contested (the third-place team calls itself “NoTravelBanPlz”). A Fulbright Scholar gives a presentation on beer tourism in the USA. An American who lives in Belarus goes over best practices for teaching English, and an American diplomat talks about the process of getting a visa to visit the USA. The underlying message, at all times, is: Come visit us!
Getting to the USA, though, is not so easy. The median monthly wage in Belarus is about $400 (my tour guide estimates it to be more like $500 in Minsk), and though many consumer goods are considerably cheaper than in the USA, the guide tells me that the average two-room—not two-bedroom, just two-room—apartment in Minsk costs about $500. (She also says that employment is mandated by law—if you don’t have a job, you have to pay a fine.) There’s also the visa issue. While American tourists can just show up in Belarus and stay for 30 days without a visa, travel in the other direction is considerably more complicated. Belarusians tell me, with frustration, about the paperwork, costs, and various starts and stops and dead ends and general headache. The man who saw all 50 states in 50 days gives a presentation at the US booth about his experience and mentions that the tight schedule was dictated by his visa—he wanted to show his kids as much as possible in the time they had. On the screen, he pulls up a photo of them on Route 66, with their heads poking through one of those boards with cartoon character bodies, grinning with a palpable, blissful sense of arrival, as if to say, We have arrived in the land of milk and honey and jackalopes.
In my mind, cynically, I want to temper everyone’s enthusiasm and remind them of my talk on American colonialism and give a shout-out to my nation’s many flaws, including foundational problems built into the whole enterprise from the beginning. But it’s also hard not to feel homesick and to appreciate his giddy embrace of tourist kitschiness, to lean into the ideals and possibilities of the USA, the unquantifiable amount of genuinely good stuff. He wants to believe. So, it seems, does nearly everyone who stops by my diner table to chat, asking questions, sharing stories, shy but open, forever telling me, “I hope to go there.”
On the other hand: one afternoon in the diner, a Belarusian man sees me trying to get a tabletop jukebox to play—it’s out of order again. He chuckles and pulls out his phone to take a picture and I hear the word “American” as he speaks to the translator in Russian. She acknowledges him but doesn’t translate. After he’s gone, I ask if he was saying something sarcastic about the jukebox. Yes, she replies. “He was saying that it’s a very American thing and it’s very American that it’s broken, because ‘All they do is break things and start wars so they can take oil.’”
In the basement of the BelExpo Center, past the smoking lounge and the brightly-colored mosaic of book covers spread across tables occupied by educational publishers, there’s a small theater space hosting a writers’ symposium, which opens on Thursday. The American Embassy has asked me to give a short greeting during the first program: introduce myself, invite them to come hear my talks at the US booth. Nice and simple.
But when the embassy officials and I get to the check-in desk, there’s a problem. Because it turns out, as the woman at the desk casually mentions while handing me a swag bag, I’m actually scheduled to give the symposium’s official opening remarks, a full-fledged talk, on the subject of “A Writer and Time: Literature as Part of Cultural Dialogue.”
The program begins in 25 minutes.
We rush into the theater to reserve seats with my newly-acquired swag, and the US embassy employee with me quietly points out three large men in large suits, all Belarusian government officials. Then it’s back upstairs, pushing through the crowds, to the diner. I find a pen and a piece of scrap paper. I’m not great at writing quickly, and time is especially tight because not only do I have to draft a whole damn talk, but I’ll also need to hand it off to a translator so she can use different scrap paper to write it out in Russian. Given the people in that room, every word needs to be right.
My mind races: What’s my message? In one sense, I’m just another author at just another literary event, but I’m also fully aware that things are a bit different here. At no other book fair have I been asked to hold my pee for the KGB. Am I speaking as a diplomat, a pawn, or just a writer telling the same stories he’s told plenty of times back home? Also, should I be quoting other writers here? Tolstoy’s big in this part of the world, right? Should I get out my phone and search the internet for something from Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian who won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years ago? I know nothing about her—is she too political to mention here? Should I use the one Proust quote I can recite verbatim? I’ll just need to, like, quickly tie it in with Belarusian culture, regional literature, centuries of history, and also something about my own country, making it all profound and searing but also light and clever, while also speaking truth to power but keeping it subtle so I don’t have to be evacuated from the country in an armored vehicle. (Just your basic tight-deadline assignment!)I’m a nobody at home but I’m big in Minsk, and how fun is it to say that?
Happy fairgoers wander into the diner, arms full of books, eyes full of intrigue as they watch the American Author at work. I can hear the seconds tick by as I wave at them meekly and wonder WHAT DO I SAY, HOW CAN I OFFER INSIGHT until finally I give up and decide my only option is the tried-and-true cop-out of the confused writer on deadline: I keep it vague. I think about all the cliché-packed travel stories I’ve read—and written. The traditions with a twist, the endless platitudes about “connection,” the sort of thing that feels like the writer cranked it out in twenty-five minutes. In other words, a useful template. The translator scribbles her translation and we head back downstairs.
The room is full now, about a hundred people. A man in a navy blue suit with a Syrian flag lapel pin leans over us to shake someone’s hand. One of the Belarusian officials, wearing a fat watch and a boxy pinstripe suit, is giving a TV interview. A minute later, he’s on the stage, with the two other men we saw earlier, one of whom gives a bland welcome. Then it’s pinstripe guy’s turn and the mood shifts. He’s talking fast and so is the translator, but I catch something about the glories of Belarusian independence and a long riff on some long-ago battle—maybe World War II, but I’m not certain—followed by a rant against same-sex marriage. And then, suddenly, he says my name and all eyes turn toward me.
My paper is wet from my palms. I cross the stage in front of the three men, who sit at a long desk. I’m not sure if I should shake hands, but none are offered. I get to the podium and all I can think is: What the hell am I doing here? It’s not that I don’t belong here—though I surely don’t—but that none of this belongs. I look at Mr. Pinstripes and then at my own outfit, which features an untucked polka-dot shirt selected by my four-year-old daughter.
Cribbing from the title of the symposium, I say that the writer creates stories that transcend time and culture, creating a dialogue from literature. I say we take the noise of the world and form it into beautiful music that crosses borders. It all feels so cheesy that it just might resonate with someone.
It seems to be going well, based on the expressions in the audience, but I’m not really sure. My mind is in another place, viewing this whole thing from afar, already reminiscing about what’s happening right now (seriously, what the hell) and thinking about that red courtyard, trying to figure out what layers I should be focusing on.
In the embassy SUV on the way back to my hotel one evening, the driver translates a radio ad promoting my appearance at the Book Fair: “That’s you!” he says, beaming. I’m a nobody at home but I’m big in Minsk, and how fun is it to say that?
But even as I give two talks on what it means to be a travel writer, I’m not sure it’s a job I still want. I don’t tell the audience that before flying to Minsk, I hadn’t been out of the US at all in more than three years, and it’s been more than five years since my last overseas trip for work.It’s jarring that an industry ostensibly built on understanding the world’s complexity is so basic and unvarying in the stories it tells and the perspectives it considers.
Part of it is the inherent tricksiness of work-life balance when you jet all over. I miss my wife and daughters so much. One day at the US booth, a group of elementary-school kids from an international school performs classic American songs and I almost break down when they sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I pull out Hoppy and take more pictures. There’s also the whole frequent-lack-of-work thing. In the last few years, most of my onetime editors at magazines and newspaper travel sections have been laid off or left the industry on their own, and some of the publications have closed entirely. Belarusian writers come to the diner a few times and they immediately see through the weird façade of micro-celebrity, asking just how much I’m scraping by. We commiserate with dark humor and swap stories that turn out to be strikingly—reassuringly, dispiritingly—similar.
The big reason I haven’t done much travel writing—as that genre is usually defined—lately is that I’m simply not sure the industry is up to the task of documenting the world as it really is. Too often, it’s the same predictable story, with cultures as interchangeable backdrops and constant gaps, Grand Canyon-wide, in the form of what’s missing: local voices, self-reflection, discussion of systemic problems that affect this place (authoritarianism, colonialism, environmental degradation, what-have-you). There’s a constant feeling that you’ve stepped into either a misguided attempt at amateur anthropology—in conclusion, culture is complex—or a bullshit hero’s journey, with a ten-minute detour serving as the greatest ordeal and a denouement involving a glass of pinot noir on a sun-dappled terrace and a cheery resolution to return someday.
It’s jarring that an industry ostensibly built on understanding the world’s complexity is so basic and unvarying in the stories it tells and the perspectives it considers. Include too many of the bigger, weightier issues and suddenly you’re in the realm of hard-news journalism, which is filed in its own separate category with its own separate publications and its own separate faults—including, in a reversal of the gaps in travel writing, an all-too-common lack of cultural context and individual human stories and the specific everyday joys that exist even in the most troubled places.
The most true, interesting published pieces are those that pull from both realms, illuminating a place beyond the hard-news headlines and the history textbooks, shifting and complicating a reader’s understanding of the world. But those stories are hard to sell, especially these days.
I still see an intrinsic value in sharing stories and lives, in connecting across cultures, even when things get awkward. But I also wonder if that’s a naïve perspective, if what travel writers present as “connection” is often mere delusion, a fleeting encounter unmoored from any genuine human bonding, from which they forcibly extract a narrative, often contorted to their own ends. A request for a meet-and-greet with the KGB seems like a fun, weird story to tell, but only once you’re out of the country, and only as a quick-hit anecdote strip-mined from context and stakes—it’s actually a pretty horrifying thing to encounter, or to laugh about, once you think for a moment about the history and the political situation in Belarus. Time for a selfie with the head of human-rights abuses!
I wonder if it’s actually possible to do justice to the highs and lows of a place within the confines of a page or a conversation. And I wonder if I should even keep trying, knowing the difficulties of getting published at all right now. Do I want to be, at best, a rising star in a dying field?
I ask one of the American diplomats about the purpose of cultural programming like this booth. He shrugs. It’s not a clear-cut thing. “If we have a jazz concert, does that really give people a taste for American culture? Down the line, does it make them more supportive of American policy? Or is it just something to do one night?” It’s like steering a ship, he says: you’re just trying to change course two degrees over a long distance.
What’s the point of a travel story? To shift a course toward understanding and compassion, in a way that transcends politics? Or is it just something entertaining to read one night?
During a lull on Thursday afternoon, I go back to the Iran booth. The woman who greeted me the last time beams when she spots me, and offers soft cookies with a fruit filling as I wait for the calligrapher. He arrives, a presence: a tall man in his mid-20s, dressed all in black, with swept-back black hair and an impeccably trimmed beard and, dangling on a long necklace, what appears to be a small gold calligrapher’s pen. The Iranian woman translates for us. The calligrapher says pleased to meet an American—his fiancée lives in Arizona. He gestures me to his table and tells me he had been studying medicine in school, but kept getting distracted by calligraphy and dropped out. The woman asks him to write my name and my wife’s name in Persian. He nods.
“On separate paper or the same?” he asks.
“The same, please,” I tell him.
He laughs. “You are a real man!”
I watch as he writes, his script careful and flowing and beautiful. A crowd gathers, watching. He finishes and looks at his work approvingly. “I wish I could keep this one,” he says, via the translator. Then he hands me the paper, along with his business card and says, in English, “Find me on Instagram!”My last talk, on Saturday, is about diners. They’re a particular obsession of mine, and it’s an unplanned convenience that the US booth has its own faux-diner.
I sign a copy of my book for him and we take pictures together. The Iranian woman tells me, “Despite the differences in the politics, we can come together as people.”
I catch myself silently chuckling and thinking, She must say that all the time. But she sounds sincere, and the calligrapher is beaming, a magnetic warmth and earnestness, and I tell myself to temper my cynicism. The longer I’m here, the more people I talk to in this strange spaceship-like building, the more I remember what I’ve missed in the years I’ve stayed at home.
I want to believe.
My notebook is full of things I write down because they’re surprising. This is one of the points I tell the audience at my travel-writing talks: when you’re on the road, look around and take note of the things that surprise you. Most days, I join other people from the US booth for lunch at a giant mall across the street from the BelExpo Center, and I start compiling a running list of stores: Adidas, Bang & Olufsen, a French pastry shop called Paul, a food-court stand called SUSHI WOK. We eat at a traditional Belarusian cafeteria on the fourth floor, with a smoking section at one end and a full-size ice rink a few feet away, where families skate and teenagers practice jumps. I write it down and take a picture of Hoppy by the rink. There are ham-and-cheese crepes and mounds of buckwheat and salads that are variations on a theme of beet. On Thursday, the mall speakers play a Russian version of the early-90s hit “Informer”; on Friday, it’s more current, with “The Shape of You.” I write it all down. In the elevator, there’s an English poster advertising a MEAT FEST and another for a dissident band that was banned from Belarus for several years, before being allowed to perform again in 2017. Outside, on Prospekte Pobeditelei, I ask one of my lunch companions about a billboard featuring a young man in a military uniform. It’s for the Belarusian Army she says, translating the words: “The Real Man.” It’s a cold, blustery winter day and everyone’s bundled up; between the parkas and the giant mall and even the message of that billboard, it feels like I could be back home in Minnesota. Down the street, there’s a bus stop with a monitor showing a real-time list of what routes are arriving when, and it’s sleeker and more impressive than anything I’ve seen. I write it down.
But something else I say in my talk, and which has taken me far too long to understand myself, is that it’s important to ask people in a new-to-you place if the things that surprise you are also surprising to them. The answer, usually, is not just “No” but a confused “No,” with a subtext of Why would you even ask the question? Like school buses or Halloween in the USA, most of these things are entirely normal to them or, like Hollywood’s red cups, reflect everyday realities only in a distorted, funhouse-mirror sense.
When I mention the more recent changes, the rising-destination-in-a-travel-magazine data points, to Belarusians, it’s clear that what they see isn’t a place somehow doing things “right.” It’s something more predictable, more routine, a local manifestation of globalization’s influence everywhere, and the longstanding presence of various push-pull tensions—here, between Russia and Western Europe—that affect daily life in ways both subtle and overt. It’s just life, in all its mundanity. No place is static. We should expect change; we should expect complexity; we should understand that there are always more layers and shades of color than meet the eye. And if it feels surprising, we should ask ourselves what that reveals about our own understanding of the world.
When I check the headlines from the US while I’m in Minsk, the major stories are the impeachment trial in the Senate and a new virus starting to make its way around the world. On Wednesday, the Senate votes to acquit President Trump. In the coming weeks, as the coronavirus leaves a global trail of lockdowns, respirators, and body bags, both Trump and Lukashenko will spectacularly bungle their respective national responses, being willfully deceitful about its spread and dangers (at one point in the spring, Belarusian soccer will be the world’s only professional sports league still playing in front of fans). Stephen Colbert, among others, others will crack jokes about the common ground between United States and Belarus—Belarus! Isn’t that crazy?
In the end, though, “I can’t believe our governance looks kinda like Belarus!” is the same thing as “I can’t believe these streetscapes and businesses in Belarus look like ours!” It misreads circumstances and history in both places, and sees the fun stuff and the bleak stuff as a divide of contradictions and opposites, rather than interlocking gears that turn together. It’s easy to take the wrong message from the landscape around you, to imagine that malls and cocktail bars are an indication of continuous progress and underlying function, that everything is fine as long as there are on-trend shoes, global pop stars, and MEAT FESTS to be had.
My last talk, on Saturday, is about diners. They’re a particular obsession of mine, and it’s an unplanned convenience that the US booth has its own faux-diner (although, midway through the Book Fair, someone notices that one of the retro-script menus posted as wall décor is actually from a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia). In conversations with Belarusians at my corner table, I ask if they know about diners. Many have seen them in movies and TV, citing “Pulp Fiction,” “A Cinderella Story,” and “Twin Peaks”—“All this weird stuff was happening, but this was their safe place,” one woman says. But few have been inside one themselves. There are diners all over the world, including a 24/7 spot in Moscow that one of the American diplomats recommends to me, but none in Belarus, other than the fake one at the US booth.
So in my presentation, I start from the beginning. What a diner is, what kind of food it serves, the 19th-century origins in late-night lunch wagons outside factories. Then I go deeper: the evolution into the streamlined cultural mainstay we know today, the stories of segregation and sit-ins, the ways that immigrant owners have added their own marks to the standard diner menu.
This shiny but seemingly plain object is actually a prism once you look closely, scattering stories and refracting disparate versions of the American experience—and, yes, this is our safe place, where people come together and connect, forced to share a space even if they don’t necessarily get along.
There’s a value in finding a common place and a collective story, in carving out these havens from the weirdness around us. It’s useful to understand how these little things are tethered to the larger issues, but there’s a joy, too, in enjoying the moments without obsessing about the deeper meaning. It’s really not about forming beautiful music from the noise of the world so much as taking note of the murmured conversations. Listening, bearing witness to moments both serious and silly.
Partway through my diner talk, I look up and see the Iranian calligrapher standing to the side of the audience, recording me on his iPhone. He smiles and gives a small wave. Afterward, we spot each other through the crowd, make our way to each other, embrace, and wish each other well, hoping our paths cross again someday. Soon enough, we will indeed connect on Instagram. Using Google Translate, we’ll exchange direct messages of concern as the coronavirus upends our respective countries; using the universal language of emojis, we’ll also reply to the lighthearted photos we each post.
In the months ahead, I’ll keep in touch with a few other people meet at the Book Fair, trading notes on pandemic, families, random things. One Belarusian will email me after a Minneapolis police officer murders George Floyd and protests in my neighborhood become international headline news. I’ll send my own check-in on the day of the latest Belarusian presidential election, in early August. The official results, reported on some of the same state media channels that interviewed me, show that Lukashenko won with 80 percent of the vote, although other observers, and tallies from polling places posted on social media, indicate that challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the true victor, in a landslide. For months, Belarusians will protest in the streets of Minsk and other cities; Prospekte Pobeditelei, between the BelExpo Center and the giant mall, will become, at times, a flowing river of dissent, with hundreds of thousands of marchers. Even after Lukashenko effectively shuts down internet access the country, social media feeds will fill with videos showing police arresting or attacking protestors. For the first time, my Belarusian pen pal won’t write back.
One of the most common questions I get in my interviews and conversations at the diner is whether I’ve enjoyed my stay in Minsk. It’s been great, I always tell them, which is true. The interviewers have a palpable sense of relief, actual exhales of tension resolving. I usually add, reflexively, that I’ll come back sometime. It’s probably a lie.
Then they ask what story I’ll be writing about Minsk, and I freeze. I’ve been here less than a week, and almost all of that has been in this building, at the mall, or at the Renaissance Hotel; I and feel inadequate as both a travel writer and an unofficial diplomat. I stammer and say I haven’t seen much, but it sure is lovely. After I’ve given this answer one too many times, my translator tells me, with slight frustration, that I can’t be so vague—I need to pick something specific and tell them what I might end up writing about that. It doesn’t really matter what it is, she says. “They just want to know you’ve been paying attention.”