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The Long Way Home to Belarus… Literally

  1. Idiots Abroad: Taking Small Kids on a Whirlwind Tour of Europe
  2. I Flew Ryanair and I loved it!
  3. Challenges of Vacationing With a Large Family in Europe, and More!
  4. German Castles, Ausfahrt Jokes and the Sound of Music
  5. Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Pizza Galore 
  6. The Long Way Home to Belarus… Literally (this post)
  7. Searching for Bono and Licking Donuts in Ireland

After booking our detour to Italy, I had to find  a way to get my family from Naples to Belarus. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy! You see, Belarus is a small country ruled by a dictator, so foreign airlines are reluctant to do business due to exorbitant taxes and archaic Soviet rules. Few exceptions of ones  that fly from Naples to Minsk (the capital) are Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa. Obviously, a connection is involved.

Lufthansa wasn’t a good option, but Turkish route was intriguing. We could spend a night in Istanbul and continue on to Minsk the following day, all for $230 per person. Hmm, I’ve always wanted to visit Istanbul.

There was a third option. We could fly on Wizzair to Katowice (KTW), Poland, spend the night in Warsaw and have someone pick us up  and cross the border to Belarus the following day. The tickets were $100 each, by far the cheapest option. Or so it seemed. Here is the map of our adventures:

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Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Needless to say, not the most direct route, but hey, at least the ticket was cheap! And then the expenses started piling up. My mom couldn’t find anyone who would be willing to pick us up since it meant a day off work. Obviously, we were planning to pay the driver, but there were no takers. And train route involved multiple connections and a lot of potential nuisance. At the eleventh  hour, she did find someone.

Since my mom and sister were also coming to meet us, I had to find two rooms for two nights to accomodate  them. After all, they had to break up the journey on the way to Katowice. Fortunately, that part actually worked out nicely. At the time, Club Carlson and US Bank were running a promo to make folks feel better about the gutting of the program. You could get 30,000 points after one night stay, and between my in-laws and us, we had four credit cards. Boom.

I prepaid four hotel nights at only $50 each (required some back and forth), and we got around 125,000  points in exchange for $200. Of course, as it tends to happen with these things, there was a hotel in Warsaw on IHG PointBreaks list around the same time. Isn’t it ironic? Our hotel was prepaid beforehand and cost us only $13 due to $100 Orbitz coupon. At least that part had some silver lining.

Landing in Katowice airport, plus toilet paper galore

Katowice is a tiny backwater airport and ours’ was the only flight that day. But security was everywhere. There were dogs sniffing bags for drugs, and a bunch of armed security guys meticulously examining  the arrivals area. Clearly, they have a lot of time on their hands.

After some formalities we finally saw my mom and the entourage. All of a sudden, the driver (who I’ve never met before) starts taking photos of my family from different angles, paparazzi style.  Apparently, he is a professional photographer. It was time to make way to our chariot… and it turns out to be a tiny minivan.

No, I’m not talking about a Toyota Sienna, but a small contraption from the eighties. And there are seven of us, plus luggage. I’m looking at my mom and say: “How will we all fit?” She just shrugs it off. And then they open the doors, and I notice that the minivan is already full of toilet paper and laundry detergent. Say what?

Just like I was excited to kill two birds with one stone by maximizing Club Carlson promo, my mom decided to load up on cheaper supplies in Poland while picking us up. Where do you think I got my affinity for good deals? But once again, there were seven of us, and we had two days of driving ahead!

Somehow, we stuffed the kids and buckled them up in barely working seat belts made in the eighties. I had to hold a bag of supplies on my lap the entire time. At one point, we stopped at a gas station, and I see my mom carrying several additional containers of laundry detergent. I almost lost it.

We did make it to Warsaw and I was so happy to get a break from the van and all the toilet paper rolls. Ahh! We stayed at H15 hotel, which was super nice. Apparently, it used to house a Soviet embassy, so signs of former over-the-top splendor were everywhere. It even had an orange tree in a glass enclosed courtyard. Fancy hotel trying to survive in a struggling Polish economy.

Returning to my old house

Crossing the border was a long, stressful ordeal, as it usually is when it involves Belarus and Poland. You see, that particular checkpoint  is  a major funnel between Eastern and Western Europe. It’s very common for  drivers to smuggle Chinese workers to the West. So, every vehicle is thoroughly searched.

In our particular case, it took five hours, but it could have been worse. One time my sister was stuck at the border for two days. Once we added all the expenses, it would have been cheaper for us to fly via Istanbul. Not to mention, less frustrating. Take note, all of you cheapskates who are willing to jump through hoops in order to save money.

My house and yard didn’t change much since I’ve left  many years ago. My mom was still growing cucumbers to save money on food. There were pretty roses, but no poppies ever since a drug addict climbed the fence and dug them all up. True story!


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There was the same bench outside, painted over a number of times.

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My dad set up a tent in the backyard, and the kids had  a blast.

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As it usually goes with these types of reunions, all of the relatives from neighboring cities came down to see my family. Yup, there  was alcohol galore. What did you expect? My family is part Russian.

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My mom is sitting at a bus station with two tired kids.

To keep it real, we took public transportation rather than taxi even though the latter is dirt cheap. When in Rome…and you know the rest.

Lyrics from the song “Mama said” by Lukas Graham that reminds me of my childhood:

“Remember asking both my mom and dad
Why we never travelled to exotic lands
We only ever really visit friends
Nothing to tell when the summer ends

We never really went buying clothes
Folks were passing on the stuff in plenty loads
New shoes once a year and then
Out to play ball so we could ruin them

Mama said that it was okay
Mama said that it was quite alright
Our kind of people had a bed for the night
And it was okay.”

 

A tour of beautiful city of Grodno

My mom told me she would watch the kids one evening so my husband and I would go out to eat and explore the city. Come along for this short tour of Grodno so you can see where I grew up. There is much more, but the post is already getting too long.

The city of Grodno was officially founded in 1127 AD, though the first reference actually dates to 1005. River Neman splits it in half, and I happened to live on the outskirts (the rundown part of town). In true Soviet tradition, most of the money is usually spent on making the center looking nice and polished, to keep up the appearances.

Grodno has  a lot of colorful history, and was controlled by Lithuania, Poland and Russia, in that order, before becoming part of Soviet Republic. Throughout centuries, people of Belarus have been known as tolerant and welcoming towards immigrants. The city of Grodno became  home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.

In fact, before World War II, almost half of population was of Jewish descent. Few years ago, my dad found out that apparently, he is half Jewish. And it only took him sixty years! Speaking of, did you know that former Israeli president Shimon Peres grew up not too far from city of Grodno? Kirk Douglas’ parents are also from Belarus, and so are Harrison Ford’s maternal grandparents.

Grodno has two castles, and they are referred to as “Old” and “New”:

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I feel like I’m now officially the “old castle,” figuratively speaking.

fullsizeoutput_1872I have probably walked up and down those stairs a hundred times. This is where I had my first date. The guy ended up being  a jerk, though. 
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Main city square looks largely as it did twenty years ago, except for the inflatable slide.

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I used to take dance classes in that building.

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Rather than go to a nice restaurant, I decided to take my husband to an old hangout, a bistro still owned  by the state. It’s located in a centuries-old cellar, and in my youth one could buy cheap food and just sit around with friends for hours at a time. Many years later, the cashiers were still surly and the food  still cheap. Love it.

I remember it like it was yesterday: three sixteen year old girls (including yours truly) coming here after school and discussing stuff like bad boyfriends and which college  we would end up going to after graduating.  I told them as soon as I’m out of school, I’m leaving this provincial town behind. On to the capital of Minsk and beyond! FYI, I now live in a tiny US city in the middle of nowhere.

I didn’t realize at the time just how much I would miss my “provincial” town twenty years later…

P.S. I will be out of my current town till Monday, so there  won’t be a news round-up on Friday. Instead, I’ve scheduled a post written by Nancy. I probably won’t be able to respond to emails or comments till I get back. Sorry!

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

13 thoughts on “The Long Way Home to Belarus… Literally

  1. Ha! I love how your mom load up the mini van with Polish toilet paper. Reminds me of how when we were little, my mom said that my sister needs to marry a rich guy when she tear off a large piece of paper towel to sniff into it. Mom said paper towels were expensive ($1 per roll, $5 for 6 rolls)!.

  2. Just came across your blog. I am originally from Gomel, Belarus, but have lived in LA for over 20 years. Have never been back: can’t believe about toilet paper still being a “prize.” Definitely remember the lines for toilet paper, green peas, and mayo. Thanks for the report!

    • @Zhenya Welcome to my blog! Oh man, I remember those long lines. Fortunately, all those things are easily available now, but they are quite expensive compared to what you would pay in Poland. So, being a deal lover, my mom just couldn’t resist picking up some supplies. Nevermind the fact that we were stuffed like sardines in that van!

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