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Detour in Belarus: Part 1
one from the archive
This is a text I wrote in the fall of 2017, on my way home from a particularly nasty travel misadventure. I’ve decided to not edit it, which makes me feel vulnerable. My writing has changed, my career shifted, and my approach to describing inter-cultural exchange has (hopefully) become more refined. Growth is non-linear and lovely, of course, and I want to honor that by sharing this tale, which has cycled back around and is rearing its head.
This is a true story, and I hope you enjoy it. Another important truth that cannot go unmentioned is that the Belorussian/Polish border, at which much of this story takes place, has become a site of intense violence. Briefly, misinformation is disseminated to attract migrants to Belarus, portraying it as a convenient and illegal gateway into Europe. Once there, the migrants are abused and mistreated, then forcibly displaced into Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as a political tactic intended to threaten the European Union, Germany in particular. The migrants are denied access to shelter, warm clothing, food, medicine, and other basic necessities, are sometimes forced to cross the border at gunpoint and denied re-entry, or told to destroy their passports.
The naïveté with which I brandish my US American passport in this story, and how I anticipated being treated because of it, only to learn a different lesson — an experience that cannot be compared to the violence that migrants experience — is the main factor that gives me pause before pressing “publish.” I am exposing a lack of awareness around my passport privilege. Yet I believe in the value of sharing stories that expose learning and navigating this complex world, in hopes that some will recognize themselves and feel inspired to continue to bravely apprehend life’s lessons. Your thoughts and responses are ALWAYS welcome, and you can share them simply by replying to this email.
Farkle – a dice game – kept me and my colleagues entertained on our 24-hour Moscow-Berlin train home. At the game table were Andrew (UK), Desha (US/DE), Davide (Italy), Dragana (Serbia), and spirits were high. After a month-long job dancing for Tino Sehgal, an artist who choreographs constructed situations through movement and voice in museums, we were enjoying some rest from the exhausting task of being artwork. In the name of the immateriality of his art and the environmental footprint of air travel, Tino requires that we take trains to get from museum to museum. All twenty of us have no choice but to agree to long journeys in cramped compartments, jostled between each other’s egos, need for attention, and suitcases stuffed with body-maintenance gear and souvenirs.
We rushed the game to get back to our rooms for border control. On the way to Moscow, the check had been an aggressive but seamless hour-and-a-half-long two-step process. The people in my compartment for the return ride, Louise (Sweden), Iaci (Italy/Brazil), and Chris (Australia), marveled at my thick passport containing almost ten years of character-shaping travel. Around 2010-2011, I managed to enter and exit twelve countries over the course of thirteen months – nine of which I had never been to before. Recently, travel had been for work rather than pleasure. I’d lost touch with the exhilaration of being somewhere foreign and piecing together fragments of history, language, and interactions with strangers, but being in Moscow changed that.
An Austrian curator invited me to participate in a lectures series of public conversations between foreign artists and Russian ones. I was paired with Russian artist Sasha Pirogova, who had shown her work at the Venice biennale that year in the Russian pavilion. Our first meeting was at a hipster coffee shop, of which there are many in central Moscow nowadays, and we had a wonderful conversation that threaded through abstract art concepts at a pace dictated by her dreamy way of speaking broken English. She talked at length about Moscow artists emulating trendy European forms and tropes, and the vapidity that lay beneath it. She had grown cynical of the art world over that summer of 2017, from Venice to Athens to Kassel, and lamented how the refugee crisis, Brexit, climate change, or other current affairs had become sexy enough things to make art about. The structure of her thoughts – loving art, hating the art market, being upset by the unfortunate conflict of interest that arises when artists use trends as material instead of the stuff of the soul’s core – were on the same page as mine in many ways. As I rushed off, I said we should speak again because there was ground yet to cover, like feminism. She said she didn’t know much about it and would rather not go there. I was shocked. That moment began the inquiry that guided me through the rest of my time in Moscow.
Another Sasha (Sasha 2) was organizing an informal “sharing” event in which I wanted to present the queer feminist collective I’m a part of, COVEN BERLIN. She said I should go first, but thinking of Sasha 1’s reaction, I reminded her that I planned to present a queer feminist thing. Kindly, she said that was fine but, “I don’t know anyone who is openly feminist”, and “that’s not what’s most important to us here”. Later, I asked which things were important; “whether or not to vote,” “what is the opposition and where is it,” and “corruption” topped the list. Fair enough. Sasha 2 also said Russian contemporary art scene folks are “tired” of hearing about feminism and queerness from foreigners. As she explained this she was interrupted several times by a drunk man who wanted her to translate something to Nikima (US). “I’m sorry,” she said to Nik, “but he likes you.” Later in the evening, a woman was sharing Russian folk singing techniques. Another drunk man got on stage, blocking her from view, and loudly and unintelligibly made fun of her by imitating a choir director. She laughed and continued, leaning to one side so we could still see her hand and hear her voice. Thomas (Austria), eventually led him off the stage so she could continue.
Feminism still has a bad name here in many ways, said Sasha 3 (the daughter of my mother’s colleague), but because of soviet gender parity it also has nothing to do with women being incapable of work or needing to stay in the home. She, eloquently used examples from Russian poetry and history, and her experience growing up in Moscow as a Russian-American, asserting that a feminism does exist here, and I knew what she was talking about. Talking to her made me realize the extent to which I, who grew up with American parents who were children during the Cold War, have been isolated from the Russian narrative my entire life. The jokes my family made on Skype about guys selling blue jeans out of suitcases, asking if I’d seen any fedora-topped spies, or whether or not you can get fresh produce in Moscow is just the beginning.
Sasha 3 and I continued; Russians are constantly blasted with either Western media or nationalist propaganda, and the space there would need to be for a new Russian progressive agenda to grow, a space in which folks could imagine “what else is there for us and where else can we go from here” is either buried or already lost. When Sasha one and two said, “back off with your feminism,” I now hear them saying, “don’t remind me.” And if my feathers were ruffled (to say the least) at the dismissal of a school of thought that shaped me, at the refusal of my invitation to gentrify their minds, a deeper hurt also emerged: my identity as a French-American woman is built on knowing. Knowing what I’m talking about. Knowing what is the most intelligent, progressive, cutting edge. Knowing best. These Russian women made it clear that I don’t know what’s best, and that it’s not a big deal.
After Farkle, we hurried back to our cabins, and the Belarusian border control came around and as always, they took a long time rifling through my thick document. She said where is the visa. I said it’s there. She said the dates are for August. I said it’s a transit visa and those dates are for the first leg of my travel. She said the dates on your transit visa are not for today’s date and you will need to get off the train. I said I’m sorry I didn’t realize I had made this mistake. She said she didn’t care that I was sorry. She said she would go talk to her manager. The manager said I needed to get off the train. I said can I give you money. He said no. I said you want me to get off the train even though I am with a group and I clearly just made a mistake and I will be alone at night in a place where I don’t speak the language, separated from my group who all have valid visas. He said yes you have ten minutes to get your luggage together.
My friends were all shocked and I was also shocked and I was packing my bags. They said wow you are being so strong right now, I would be bawling, and I said, yeah, well. I was really scared, but I couldn’t waste energy and was kind of in survival mode. As I write I tear up occasionally as the fear I felt in that moment lets itself out in short bursts.
I got off the train, jumping down onto grass because we were at a border, not a station. The group of border police were smoking cigarettes as they waited for their colleagues. We marched to a bus and the manager carried my roller suitcase. The feminist in me thought “fuck you” and the exhausted dancer in me thought, “well at least I don’t have to carry my suitcase.” We all got into a bus, Evanescence blasting. A soft teasing laughter at my presence, which would continue all night, began here. The officer who had originally found the mistake in my visa said, “next time, you fly.” As in take an airplane. I said, “I’m not allowed” and I don’t think either of us understood why. The music changed to dark Russian classical and then to yogic music. I wanted to turn to my captors and joke “yoga music?!” but I didn’t.
We got to a train station crawling with more border police, around midnight, and entered a giant gilded lobby with a closed Duty Free shop. They said wait here. I waited, and 45 minutes later a 21-year-old soldier appeared and said I should wait here an hour. I said ok. I started “Americanah” by Chimimando Ngozi Adiche and it was really good. I wrote to my American friends on Instagram asking for entertainment and sympathy. They obliged. 21 returned and said we would start soon. I asked questions about safety, hotels, the train tomorrow, when could I get my passport back, etc. I was told that I couldn’t go to one of the hotels across the street because I didn’t have a visa so I would be spending the night in the lobby, effectively detained, until the train at 7am the next day. I asked if I was safe here and he said yes of course and I asked if there would be women sticking around tonight in a way that made it clear that I was not comfortable with being in this situation because of the risks of sexual violence more than anything else and he looked at me with shock, like I had deeply wounded him and his country and that such a thing was unthinkable and that of course I would be safe. He said, “yes woman there and there and everything fine.” I stayed paranoid about that moment for hours afterwards, wishing I’d never brought it up.
Around 2am, he came back with a colleague and they took me through several doors, outside, and back into the building through a different door. As I paid the 21-euro fine (!!) at the counter, his colleague asked the 21-year-old to translate some of the sentences printed at the top of the pages in my US passport. They both laughed out loud at what was presumably some bullshit about the land of the free and purple mountains. I wanted to say, “yeah I know it’s ridiculous,” but instead I decided to let them enjoy it. The woman behind the glass gave me change in Belarusian money and the 21-year-old said “souvenir.”
They advised I buy snacks for the next morning and took me to a cafe. There was much laughter here, as there was confusion around a dairy product I was curious about. “Is not yogurt, but is good,” said 21. I also bought a piece of cellophane-wrapped white bread with salami on it, and a large bottle of sparkling water. I tried to buy a beer but they said no. The lady at the counter gave me a kind look. I also bought a ticket to Poland for about fourteen euros, and from there I was to make my own way to Berlin because they said they didn’t know anything about European train schedules. The Belarusian side (as opposed to the international limbo lobby side where I was detained) of the building was sprinkled with drunks, lone travelers, families with all their stuff wrapped in sheets, most were sleeping. I started to feel happy about my safely empty detainment lobby, which they brought me back to after smoking a cigarette outside and asking me if I could show them some of my dance moves, to which I am well practiced at replying, “no.”
Back in my enormous gilded cell, 21 sat next to me and I signed a lot of papers saying that I had broken Belarusian law, that I shouldn’t do it again, and these are my rights, and that all of this had been translated to me by 21, and so forth. Having forgotten some, 21 came back twice, sheepishly grinning, with extra things for me to sign. When it was over he said, “good luck.” I called Igor (IS) and we had a nice chat. It was 3am, and he advised I make a bed out of all my stuff. I did, with clothing, but it was a hard, cold, floor and the lights stayed on.
At 5 I couldn’t stand the cold so I went to the bathroom to put on another pair of pants under my pants and I pulled a dirty hoodie, to top the sweater I was wearing, from the depths of my suitcase.
At 6 someone banged on the table I was sleeping under to wake me up. Seconds later, the lobby was full of travelers—everyone from the other side I suppose. A loud cranking of metal grillages coiling into themselves for the day signaled the opening of the Duty Free. In a hurry I packed back up, and waited, heart pounding, for 21 to show up with my passport. He arrived, said “let’s go,” walked me to the train and said “goodbye” without looking me in the eye. I found it weird because we had actually done some talking during the signing. I’d been all “ok, ok, cool, got it, great, thank you,” and he had smiled a lot then.
Rickety is one way to describe the thing that brought me over the border to Poland. Moscow-Brest, Brest-Teresepol, Teresepol-Warsaw, Warsaw-Berlin, due to arrive at 19:15 on Sunday September 17th, twelve hours after my colleagues. It took a twelve hour detour to remind me how something like being queer and feminist can be so easy in Berlin and so complex elsewhere. Brashly forcing my ideas on the Sashas, realizing me and my ideas needed to take a step back, then believing, until the last second, that my privileges as a white American were enough to spare me from detainment by Belarusian border control, and then fearing for my physical safety, only to realize how tangibly I’d built a relationship with the soldier who took care of me - all are tied into the same web of a world in which seemingly opposing things can coexist. A detour reveals how the idea of opposition, or of being “here” or “there” or “able to travel” is no simple matter. I’m broke even though I just worked a job, but when my train pulls into Berlin Hauptbahnhof I take a cab home.
Thank you to LK Shaw for originally publishing this in Profound Experience of Earth, an online travel magazine. Profound Experience is affiliated with Shabby Doll House, an online publisher of Art & Literature. SDH also publishes print books and magazines and runs a poetry book club.
Thank you to Melanie Jame Wolf for her advice on the introductory paragraphs.