Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life in Minsk

I went down to BelExpo today to see a back-to-school trade show. As I left, I noticed the flowers in front of the Opera House and realized I hadn’t been on their property since spring, so I went over and sat on a shady bench in front of the fountain. It was warm enough that a few kids waded in the fountain and a group of three or four girls even walked right into the plumes of water. I relaxed in the bucolic scene of families at rest and kids at play.

Suddenly very young boy with a bold stride and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth waded into the water. He carried the mannerisms and swagger of a high-school hoodlum, but when he spoke his voice confirmed that he had not yet reached maturity. His male companions in the fountain all had high voices, but the girls who hung around them already looked like women. The kid who first drew my attention seemed to be the ringleader even though he was also the smallest of the group. He strode back out of the fountain and snatched one of the girls, throwing her into the water. I watched with a little concern, but the girl didn’t seem frightened and she didn’t try to run away. She gave the impression that she didn’t want to be thrown in but that she accepted it. Soon the other boys followed and they threw the remaining girls into the water. These girls gave the same impression of resignation and acceptance.

I found the whole incident noteworthy because I’d just been talking with a friend whose cousin had chaperoned a Belarusian youth delegation to an international conference. The chaperone reported that the Belarusian kids demonstrated much greater self-control than the kids from other countries and the adults wondered if this were in some way abnormal or undesirable. As I’ve written the Belarusian school kids who invited us to Prague with them were also responsible and cooperative. They really impressed us and we found their behavior admirable. This little group at the fountain contradicted that impression.

I continued to pay attention to the small kid I described as the ringleader. A young adult came and rescued his sunglasses from getting washed away in the fountain. This led me to guess that the group came from some sort of an institution, perhaps an orphanage. Only 4% of kids who grow up in orphanages here go on to live stable adult lives, and these kids didn’t appear to be on a stable track.

When they left the fountain, they joined a group of older kids and I decided I wanted a picture for my blog. I casually walked by and snapped a picture as I walked. Most of the kids had already noticed me and they posed for my photo. I sat down on another bench and took a few pictures I imagined to be candid. Suddenly my ringleader popped up behind me and I nestled my phone into my palm so it would be hard to swipe away from me. He did not threaten me at all, however; he just asked me what I was doing. I told him that I write a blog on life in Belarus.
He thought that was hot stuff and went back to tell his friends, who then consented to pose more formally for a group photo.

I didn’t really learn anything today, except that I don’t know how to take candid photos unnoticed. And that the scary-looking kids weren’t all that scary. And that kids vary here just as, I suppose, anywhere else.

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