Austria meets Belarus  

The Smorgon Experience 2010


Already in autumn 2009 Valdimir and I made plans to meet again in person. As the necessary financial resources were available, I decided to travel to Belarus at the beginning of the school year 2010/11, from September 13-19, 2010. Vladimir asked me to bring some information about: my own school, the Austrian school system, the ENIS network, European projects in general, and training firms in Austrian business schools.


Before travelling, I had to apply for a visa at the Belarusian embassy in Vienna. This visa was granted within a week, and on  September 13 I left from Vienna airport and arrived in Minsk after one and a half hours. There I was welcomed warmly by Vladimir, who had managed to get a car from the local educational authorities in Smorgon. Thanks to this generosity, we had not only a car but also a driver, who safely brought us to Smorgon in another one and a half hours.


After having checked in at the Hotel Smorgon and after having unpacked my luggage, we went to a very nice Belarusian restaurant, where we had Babka for dinner. 


On September 14 in the morning, Vladimir picked me up at the hotel. We first went to a bank, in order to exchange Euros into Belarusian Rubles, which cannot be bought in Austria, as the money must not be imported into Belarus or exported from there. The building of the bank itself is of some importance in Smorgon. During WW II, it was the place of the entrance into the Smorgon Ghetto. Therefore, we can now find a memorial here.


From the bank we continued our way ...

... to the Lenin Monument in front of the City Hall ...

... and to the 500 Years Anniversary Memorial of the city of Smorgon.
We then went to the Gymnasium N4, where I was heartily welcomed by Iryna Dureiko, the headmistress of the school. She gave me a lot of information about the Belarusian school system in general and about her school in particular. After having talked to her and Vladimir, who translated everything, for about half an hour, Iryna introduced my to her deputy Ludmila, who speaks perfect English and who took me around the building.
She explained to me, that the lower classes have their own classrooms, while the higher classes move from room to room while they are at school, according to their itinerary. In this case, the teachers stay in special rooms, like a maths room, a geography room etc.
Ludmila then introduced me to Julia, a student from the 11th grade, who had spent one school year in Germany. She speaks perfect German, and she gave me a very interesting tour of the Museum of the History of Smorgon, which was arranged by teachers of the school and is supervised by Larisa, a history teacher, who has already retired, but is still in charge of the museum. Part of the uniforms, which are exhibited here, were donated to the museum by Vladimir.
Now it was time for lunch, and Vladimir took me to a very nice state owned restaurant, where we had roasted pork with mashed potatoes and vegetables. It was not called Schnitzel, but it looked and tasted like Schnitzel.
In the afternoon, more than 70 teachers came together in the theater hall of the Gymnasium N4 to listen first to a presentation of a biology teacher called Irina, who had been elected teacher of the year and had got the opportunity to participate in an educational conference in Kazakhstan, where various possibilities for e-learning and cooperations between the countries of the CIS had been discussed.
Afterwards, I was invited to present some ideas for small as well as big Europe related projects to the colleagues. They also wanted to learn more about the Austrian school system and how we implement projects in our curriculum.

Registration House
After the presentations, Iryna Dureiko, the headmistress of Gymnasium N4, took us around town in her car. Our first destination was the so-called Registration House, a very interesting building, where not only the "zivile" wedding ceremonies are held, but also people have their new born babies registered. It is a brand new building, and we were informed, that it is the most beautiful Registration House of the Republic of Belarus.
Of course, many Belarusians - like people all over the world - also want to get married in a religious ceremony. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral is just opposite the Registration House. This was the next attraction we visited.

From here we walked across an beautiful park, which is home to a monument for the Belarusian author Francisak Bahusevic and to an amphitheater, to the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was originally built as a Calvinist Church.

Orthodox Cathedral

Catholic Cathedral
There a young Salesian monk took us around, explained the various functions the church had had over the centuries, and
also showed us the Youth Center next to the church, where children can attend lessons of religious instruction, and where they can also meet for various spare time activities.

After having been brought back to the hotel by Iryna and Vladimir, I had some rest and was later picked up again by Vladimir, who took me out to dinner.
This time we had roasted pork with cheese, mashed potatoes and vegetables. The Belarusian cuisine is rich in potato recipes and all in all very delicious!

September 15
was a long and also very interesting day. Vladimir picked me up at the hotel in the morning, and we first went to the Gymnasium N4. In the garden next to the school, I could see the tree Vladimir and his students had planted in 2004 as a symbol of the friendship between our schools. It has grown very well!
At 10am we got on a bus together with 9 students from the 10th and 11th grade and with Galina, the teacher who organizes all the theater performances at the school. Our first destination was the Stalin Line, a very impressive open air museum near Zaslavl, 35km north of Minsk.
The whole Stalin Line, which ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea, consisted of 23 fortified zones. Four of them were located in today's Belarus, and the one near Zaslavl was restored and opened as a military museum in 2005.

The 9 students, who came with us, were very nice and well-behaved. Of course, they were a little bit shy to talk to a foreigner, but during the day they became more and more talkative. Especially one of them, Dima, had a wide range of questions for me. He wants to study economics after having graduated from the Gymnasium.

National Academic Bolshoi Ballet and Great Opera Theater
At noon time we arrived in Minsk, where we had about two hours to walk around. The youngsters were extremely interested in going to a McDonald's restaurant. But before, we passed by the National Academic Bolshoi Ballet and Great Opera Theater. Next to the Opera, we saw the monument of the author Maksim Bahdanovic.

We also visited the very impressive memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in the Afghanistan War: the so-called Island of Tears.

After having had meat, mushrooms and carrots wrapped in a pancake in a tiny self-service restaurant, we walked back to the place, where our bus driver had dropped us off.

Island of Tears
From there we continued our way to the National Memorial Complex at Khatyn. The village of Khatyn , like more than 600 villages all over the Soviet Union, were burnt to the ground by soldiers of the Third Reich during WWII. More than 186 of them have disappeared from the map: they were never rebuilt.

The very impressive Memorial Complex at Khatyn, where we first could visit a small museum, stands as a remembrance for all the victims.
It is dominated by the 6m high sculpture The Unconquered Man, symbolizing the only adult survivor of the Khatyn massacre, the blacksmith Joseph Kaminsky: hours after the fire, he had found his badly wounded son, who died soon afterwards.

We arrived in Smorgon rather late, and together with Vladimir I had again a very delicious dinner, this time at a private restaurant: meat wrapped in potatoes, similar to what we call potato pancakes.
The next day, September 16, I was picked up by Vladimir at the hotel at 8.30. From here we walked to the Gymnasium N4. At 8.45 I was invited by two English teachers and their students of the 11th grade to talk to them. They all had a lot of questions about my school, the way we hold our lessons, how I liked Belarus and their home town etc. The time was far too short!
I spent the next lesson with 8 students of the 5th grade. Their English teacher Natalya practiced talking about travelling with them. They reported on their summer trips, they danced, played a travel game and defined the most important rules people should observe when travelling. We all had a lot of fun in this lesson.

At the end, Natalya encouraged her students to ask me some questions - and we had a very lively discussion about my favourite food, day, color etc. and about our two countries.
After a short break, I was invited by the English teachers of the Gymnasium N4 to stay with them for an hour. They had marvellously arranged tea and cakes in a classroom. It was very interesting for me to learn more about the projects carried out by these teachers and their students. Of course, they also wanted to hear more about my school.

At the end of this very interesting discussion, in which we could all learn from each other, Irina, a former student of the Gymnasium N4, who works as a journalist for a Smorgon newspaper, asked me some questions and took some photos. Here you can read her report.
I spent the last lesson of this morning with the biology teacher Irina and her students from the 7th grade in the school garden. She had prepared a very lively and active lessons for her students about trees, bushes and their seeds in the school garden. The class was divided in four groups. Each group had to mark their "territory", find at least four different kinds of trees or bushes, draw a map and collect samples of leaves and seeds.

Later they were invited by their teacher to present their findings to the whole class. Finally, they could prove in a short contest, what they had learned in this lesson.
Now it was time for lunch again. Valdimir and I went to the restaurant we had already visited two days before at noon. After lunch, we all had some time to rest. Vladimir picked me up again at the hotel at 4pm. Iryna Dureiko, the headmistress of Gymnasium N4, and Vladimir then took me to the countryside to a small village called Vojnidenjati, where Vicenci Mahnac runs an eco-farm.
On his premises, he has arranged eco-tourism facilities for guests. You can walk through the woods, collect mushrooms, ride a horse play some ball games, and finally also cook your own meal over open fire in a big tent. We did exactly this after having been taken around first by Vicenci's son Oleg and then by the father himself.
He knows a lot about his region and has a wide collection of photos in the tent.

In the attic of his house, Vicenci has arranged a nice little museum of farm equipments for producing milk, schnapps and flax. He collects these things in the villages of the Grodno region. Here we also met his two younger sons, and one of them, Sergej, explained some steps of the flax production to us.
While Iryna and Vicenci started preparing the barbecue in the tent, Valdimir and I walked to the nearby Vilnia River, which not only flows through Smorgon, but also through the village of Vojnidenjati.

Later, while we had a delicious dinner prepared by Iryna and roasted over the open fire, a thunderstorm brought some rain. Vicenci just closed the tent with some canvas and we could stay in there and wait until the weather had improved again.

Oginski Estate in Zalesye
The morning of September 17 brought bright sunshine and thus perfect weather conditions for another excursion. Iryna and Ludmila picked me up at the hotel at 9am and we drove to Zalesye, a tiny village not far from Smorgon, which is home to an old estate, which was owned by the diplomat and musician Michael Kleophas Oginski, the composer of the famous polonaise Farewell to the Fatherland.
Sergej, a painter and musician, who came to this place in 1989 and has organized a theater group for the students of the local school, explained the history of the estate and the life of Oginski to us. Sergej knows everthing about the estate, which would need renovation. The people, who use it for music and theater performances, hope very much, that UNESCO will declare the estate a cultural heritage site, when Oginski's 250th birthday is celebrated in 2015.

Sergej also took us around the park, and finally invited us to come into the Orangery of the building and listen to the polonaise, which he performed on the flute.
Back to Smorgon, we visited the Secondary Schools N5 and N7. Alena I. Montschak teaches German and English at the Secondary School N5. She has chosen a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci as the motto for her work: The only weak student is the one, who is unable to outperform his teacher.
She puts special stress on a mutual trust between teacher and student, because this is the key to the best results in learning and teaching. She always says, that being intelligent is not the only important quality for students. They still need the relevant support by the teacher, if they want to be successful.
Secondary School N7 was only opened in 2005. Alexander, the headmaster, welcomed us warmly.

He not only showed us the manifold sports facilities of the school, he also took us to the library and finally invited us to his office and treated us to some delicious sweets called Zephyr and some tea.

Gervjati Church
I had lunch with Valdimir, and in the afternoon, Iryna and Ludmila went on a second excursion with me. This time we took a road northwards, towards the Lithuanian border to the district of Astraviec.

In the village of Gervyati, we visited a very interesting church, where the renovation of the floor had just been finished, and afterwards also explored the local school. The headmistress there is a teacher of English and welcomed as warmly to her school.
Soon after having returned to Smorgon, I was picked up again by Vladimir, who invited me to his home. His wife Olga had prepared a delicious dinner for us, consisting of mixed Lithuanian salad and another Lithuanian speciality called Cepelinai.

I not only enjoyed the food, but also the company of Olga and Vladimir very much. The Belarusian hospitality is really exceptional. Although I had read about it before I travelled, I was nevertheless very much impressed, by how friendly I was welcomed by all my hosts.
In the morning of September 18, Iryna and Vladimir picked me up at the hotel at 8.15. We drove to the railway station, and there Vladimir and I took a train to Minsk.

One of the English teachers of Gymnasium N4 has a daughter, who works at the Hotel Planeta in Minsk. She had booked a room for me there, and after having checked in at the hotel, Vladimir and I started our sightseeing tour by walking to the Hotel Belarus.
This hotel is home to the Panorama Restaurant. From our table  on the 22nd floor we had a marvellous view of the city - and we also very much enjoyed our lunch.

Now we were well fed and ready for a city walking tour. First we walked to the banks of the Svislach River. On Nemiga Street we crossed the river and first visited the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, a wonderful Orthodox church, which dates back to 1642.

From here, we continued our way to the Town Hall and the Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Walking down Lenin Street, we finally reached the famous Gum department store. There and at a book store nearby on Independence Avenue I bought some souvenirs.

On Independence Square, where the Belarusian State University is located, we had some rest and admired the new fountain dedicated to all 6 Belarusian regions as well as the Church of St. Simeon and St. Helena.

Minsk, Independence Square

Maxim Gorki Monument
We returned to Independence Avenue and walked eastwards to Gorky Park, past the Palace of the Republic, the President's Palace and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. After having crossed the park, we reached Victory Square. But before we continued our sightseeing tour, we enjoyed tea and cakes in a very cosy coffee house next to the park entrance.

The Victory Monument in the centre of the square is highly impressive. From here we took the tube, which is called Metro in Minsk, as Vladimir had to return to the train station.
I accompanied him there, and after having said good bye to Vladimir, I took the Metro alone. At the railway station, the name of the Metro station is still Lenin Square, although the square itself has been re-named Independence Square. So you can imagine, that finding my way back by having to read everything in Belarusian, was a real challenge! At October Square I had to change to another line, in order to reach Nemiga Street. From there I could walk to the Hotel Planeta.
On September 19, after a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went for a walk to get a little bit more acquainted with the most important sights of Minsk. The walk along the Svislach River was very refreshing. I also had the occasion to explore the Yanka Kupala Park, and on my way to the Victory Square I even found the house, where Lee Harvey Oswald had stayed while living in Minsk.
In the early afternoon, it was time to take a taxi to Minsk International Airport, which is located appr. 40km north of the city. I arrived safely at the airport and after a 90min flights arrived back home in Vienna.
Dr. Susanne Pratscher and Vladimir Kalinin



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