Mikita Volkau: A Few Days in Belgium

Mikita Volkau, winner of "My favourite town in Belarus" competition

Mikita Volkau, author of the best essay in "My favourite town in Belarus" competition held during the 2nd European Intercultural Festival, was awarded a trip to Belgium as his prize. The lucky winner went on to describe the atmosphere of Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp in his travel notes. These tell us why the main Belgian city is called "Bruksela", which languages "Minsk is speaking" and which songs Belgian street musicians play the cymbalo. The trip to Belgium was organized by the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels, Belgium) with the support from Pact and USAID.


Non-fiction story

The plane was flying over Poland and then over Germany at about 36 000 feet while I was thinking that Charlotte Brontë in her "Villette" had very aptly described Lucy Snowe's feelings on the road ("Villette" is a novel by Charlotte Brontë, a well-known resident of Brussels - author's note). In the book, a young girl is travelling to Villette by sea in search of her future. My situation was a bit different: I was flying to my holiday destination, but the same uncertainty and doubt were waiting for me in the very heart of Europe.

Below me fluffy clouds, so much like heaps of snow that I've been missing for the past couple Belarusian winters, were sparkling under the blazing sun overhead. Area of turbulence, loss of balance, jolts to both sides, and finally – rectangular hayfields and farmsteads, neat little houses powdered with snow. This is Warsaw. The city free of the hateful Minsk dampness and drizzle. A couple of hours in Chopin airport – and then again: take-off, ascent and we’re soaring over Poznań, Düsseldorf, Berlin. There it is: Villette, Brussels or Bruksela (I’d heard my Grandma call it "Bruksela" in Belarusian, and that’s how it’s also called in Polish – author’s note).

At the New Place

I was aware of how friendly Europeans are through my previous experience of travelling in Europe. This trip only strengthened and reinforced this idea. An empty bus stop at the airport. A young girl with a speckled suitcase was heading for the ticket machine. Seeing as I was fumbling around with it in confusion, the girl anticipated my question and kindly explained that I could buy a ticket from the machine using a card or metallic money. I only had paper cash with me, so I politely refused to buy a ticket as I could pay neither with coins or a card. The girl added that I also had the option of buying a ticket directly from the driver. That’s what I did. However, when I was handing my 6 euros to the smiling gray-haired man, he squinted his eyes in the direction of the machine. I told him I didn’t have any coins. He then swiftly snatched my notes and gave me a handful of change. He patiently waited for me the whole time as I was slowly pushing buttons, trying to figure out the reasons for such generosity of spirit, and finally got my ticket (40 % cheaper than I would have bought directly  from the driver). Thirty minutes later I was already at Arts-Loi.

On Sunday I went into the city, as they say, before the crowing of the rooster – even though there are really no roosters crowing here. Walking along Avenue Louise I was gawking at shop and hotel windows. The city was sleeping. A delicate scent of coffee and fresh pastry was coming from somewhere on the hill. "And on the Lord’s Day since the crack of dawn hot pancakes were piling on" (Lines from The New Land, a seminal poem by Yakub Kolas, one of the most highly-regarded Belarusian authors – translator’s note). It seemed like the universal human law of recreation was in operation here as well. Recreation for hard-working Europeans after a tough week. I had no map with me, so I just wandered around aimlessly. I could hear the church bells strike steadily, calling everyone to join the mass. I swerved and went towards the sound. A Baroque church was towering ahead of me. After a while, small shops opened one after another, rustling with the morning papers tucked in their door slits. Suddenly doors swung open, and a bareheaded woman emptied a bucket of soap water right onto the cobblestone road. I had read about this somewhere. Having returned to the Louise and walking past the metro station I saw a stele monument and a grand palace on the left. The space behind the stele opened to a panoramic view of the city. The fleeting-looking city hall tower seemed insignificant in comparison with the colossus created in a very different period of the XX century. Further in the distance I could see Atomium.

Atomium, Brussels (Belgium)

Closer to me, down below there lay a motley of red roofs. So they also have dull grey buildings and "Chizh houses" here (a large block of flats sprawled over one of the oldest, most picturesque parts of Minsk; unliked by many Minsk residents – translator’s note). I took the transparent elevator down and headed left. Somehow, circling and roaming about, I got to the Grand Place. I barely had time to feast my eyes on the gothic-style architecture when I heard somebody nearby speaking Russian. I just stood there quietly and listened. The Russians brought me to the Manneken Pis, or the "peeing boy" as it is commonly known. Later I found out that it is a real tourist brand and that there is also a peeing girl, a peeing dog, etc. Traders at the St. Hubert Gallery deal in chocolate peeing boys, touristic shops have souvenir figurines of him on their shelves. It would be fun to have something of this sort spring up in Minsk to lure tourists. A pooping chicken could probably become a brand – a symbol of Belarusian people’s country roots – or something else. Although, how could I have forgotten about the national library? Kamunarka should be making diamond-shaped sweets, and the Stalin Line should be selling polyhedral knick-knacks in their military tents...


On the second day I decided to visit Flanders – Bruges and Antwerp, to be more precise. The route to Bruges seemed to me infinitely long and filled with adventures. To start with, I was surprised to see a black boy in the local underground who, presumably to save himself some time, simply jumped over the ticket gate. At the Gare de Midi a man was playing Russian Kalinka and These Eyes Opposite on the cymbalo (a truly rare coincidence). And a Belgian lady on the train asked me if I was Finnish (that’s probably because of my high cheekbones).
Nikita Volkau, winner of "My favourite town in Belarus" competition.

Mikita Volkau, winner of "My favourite town in Belarus" competition


Bruges and Antwerp are two geographically close Belgian cities which offer different occupations to occasional tourists. In Bruges, which is sometimes referred to as "The Venice of the North", one needs to walk for a long time and be very observant to notice all the local curiosities. Even better if you sail through it, which is exactly what I did after a light lunch at a café: I ordered a water tour.  Holy Saviour Cathedral, Basilica of the Holy Blood, Watchtower. – In Antwerp, after taking a quick look around and a peek at Rubens paintings, you’d better go shopping. Formerly rivals in trade, today the cities are no longer in competition. Both of them are large tourist centers.

In Conclusion

It all came to a close abruptly, when I understood I had just one day left. The magic circle closed at that very church and house where the woman was pouring water out into the street. After an evening mélange I warned a hotel employee of my early morning flight. I could not sleep for a long time and just lay in bed. I was dreaming of a Minsk once described to me by someone I knew, a very old man. Minsk of the 30s, where they would announce on the radio: "Attention, attention, Minsk is speaking!" in three languages in addition to Belarusian: Yiddish, Polish and Russian. The city of narrow streets and cobbled roads. The city with Niamiha river. The city with the Thomas Aquinas church (now replaced by the Palace of Republic – author's note) and the Jesuit College. The city that does not exist anymore.

The plane headed for take-off, Bruksela was moving away from me for an as-yet-unknown time and distance.

Mikita Volkau, winner of the essay competition of the 2nd European Intercultural Festival - you can read "Byaroza: the City at Crossroads" essay here (in Belarusian).