The Postcards

Whenever possible farmer’s markets are on my travel itinerary, because with few exceptions wandering them is the closest “local culture” we’ll get to experience on a holiday.  I am well accustomed to seeing entire animal heads, most common at the market in the Turkish neighborhood in Vienna; but even I was taken aback for a moment at Komarovka Market.

Entire animals being carved right. be. fore. my. eyes. In fact, there was an aisle devoted to cattle and an aisle devoted to pigs, ready for the butcher’s cleaver. Thankfully the chickens were plucked and the rabbits were skinned, with the latter’s lucky (?) furry foot still attached.

Vendors touted me in Belorussian, though I was certain the Canon around my neck was a giveaway that I neither could understand nor respond. Yet that did not stop one Babushka from insisting I sample from a bag of something wild and dried. When I looked inquisitive, she helpfully wrote the name down in cursive Belorussian.

Comparatively, the eye-popping tubs of carrot salad and plastic flowers as brightly colored as some of the shopper’s hair (that Cold War Scarlet hair color was more popular than I was expecting) were the less interesting of my visit, except for perhaps a jar of something that looked like UHT milk, but with a badger on the label.

Inside the market hall that resembled an airplane hangar was a pious pop-up, because modern Minsker women are pressed for time and need a place to grab an icon along with some beets and dill?

Going to and from the market required a subway ride. In Moscow the subways were jam packed and ran at light speed; and the only sign in English was, “Way Out.” In this regard Minsk has upped their tourist game: the stations are named and numbered, and the announcements were in English!  Too easy. Tokens are used to enter the system; and here, too, Minsk decided against using former Stasi Babushkas to stare down passengers at the turnstile a la Moscow’s subways to ensure honesty. The couple of stations I transited through were elegant; one in particular had gorgeous ceramic reliefs depicting both folk life and socialist values themes, and I snapped away without reprimand.

TSUM was the next market to visit. TSUM is the Brutalist Soviet-style department store, meaning lots of stairs, doors (and now security gates) between floors. For a moment I thought that if TSUM was the only department store I had to shop at I would be sad, but then I reminded myself that Vienna has only one (and only one, with no branches) store that is almost, but not quite, a department store; not to mention it is closed on Sundays and holidays, and then I was cheered at the notion of having Belorussian versions of everything from pens to “sanitary engineering” (plumbing) supplies, all in one place.

Along the way, an environmentally friendly flavored water vending machine. Place your bottle under the spigot, drop a couple of coins into the machine and select your fruit.

Curious about what Minsk looked like behind the grand buildings I spent an afternoon turning right at the hammers and crossing the street at the sickles just to see what I could see. I found myself face-to-face with extraordinary, and extraordinarily large propaganda art wrapped around buildings; and walking past Minsk’s John Deere HQ, the Minsk Traktor Works. Though I did not realize it at the time, the company formed in 1946; was awarded the Order of Lenin; and entered the EU trade scene in 2000. I would bet several Rubles that the Order of Lenin is still proudly displayed in the main hall; and if I had known that tours were available I could have, and definitely would have confirmed. Like the “5” on the cheese plate menu, this too shall forever remain a mystery.

A neighborhood that appeared typical of the Diplomatic ‘hoods we have seen in our travels (gated and secured and fancy homes, the likes of one for which I was reprimanded taking a snap of. I am a moth to the flame of those darned red stars) also took me past a melancholy collection of buttery yellow small estates in tidy little lanes and cocooned within a park-like setting, many of them in various states of disrepair. This would be Osmolovka, the first upmarket post-war homes in Minsk and now something much less.  The neighborhood has “UNESCO Heritage Site” written all over it, at least that’s how I interpreted the graffiti.

On my final morning I had time enough for another slow amble through the bookstore near the hotel, breathing in that wonderful old-book aroma and considering more luscious paper items to purchase, then all too soon it was time to catch the hotel driver to the airport.

And what an experience that was. The temperature a sticky 25° by this point, but all of my hand signaling could not convince the driver to roll up the windows and turn on the AC. When we reached the motorway and he exceeded the 100km per hour limit by 50 kph (!), I could not take it any longer and reached into the front and pushed on the AC button. The driver finally got the hint.

But now I was trapped in this climate-controlled Death Star as the driver veered across lanes, taking in the scenery like a passenger and not a driver. For the first time in all of my experiences in Balkan and Eastern European taxis did I ever literally hold onto my seat, believing death was imminent. At one point I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best. What I would have given for the driver with the made-from-craft-supplies lanyard and his mysterious black box.

Thirty long minutes later, the futuristic MSQ rose from the flat lands, and I calculated that even if the car had hurtled through the air and landed marginally safely at this point I would still make my flight. Inside, expediency and friendliness with check-in; “Do you like our country?” at Passport Control; and no need to remove my laptop from my tote at Security! Five Wings out of Five for MSQ!

Except. Though there were six Duty Free outlets, there was but one and only “restaurant” past security: Burger King. Upon landing in Vienna I purchased a fresh rotisserie chicken and a salad at the airport grocery (the clerk was just bringing them out!) to take home, the little package of salted snacks and cup of water on the plane not doing much to stave off hunger. If my airport driver had wondered why his vehicle effused roasted chicken as he took me home he did not say anything to me. But I knew he wouldn’t: his lanyard was laminated, so he was professional. 😂