Minsk, Belarus Report of what it's like to live there - 10/19/11

Personal Experiences from Minsk, Belarus

Minsk, Belarus 10/19/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is our third expat experience. We have also been in Vienna, Austria, and The Hague, Netherlands.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Northern Virginia (Washington, DC Area). It takes about 14 hours with a flight through either Frankfurt or Vienna.

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3. How long have you lived here?

One year, two months, into a two year tour.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy spouse.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Houses and apartments, some right downtown (apartments), and some on the edges of the city. We're in a huge house on the edge of town and it takes about 10-15 minutes to get to the school, and about 20-30 minutes to get to and from the embassy. Our house, and the other expat houses I've been in (both from the US Embassy and others) are pretty nice. The apartments I've been in are also fairly nice, once you get past the poorly lit, creepy, Soviet hallways. Some of the newest buildings no longer have those hallways and are much more like I've seen in Western Europe, though.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries can be relatively cheap, but some household supplies can be pretty expensive. As the Belarusian ruble has gone down in value, some groceries have become hard to find, or at least hard to find good quality versions of. If you can speak Russian, you'll have a better chance at the local markets, as opposed to the grocery stores. We've started doing almost all of our shopping up in Vilnius, as it's only about two hours and you can get almost everything you could want up there. We also have access to DPO and pouch, which enables us to ship in the stuff we can't get up there, or which is just expensive (such as peanut butter and baking powder). There's also a Marks and Spencer up in Vilnius, which has some stuff you can't find anywhere else.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

We shipped everything we wanted, or have ordered it since arriving. I would suggest good winter coats, good winter boots, and US foodstuffs you can't easily find in Europe or that tend to be expensive here (peanut butter, shortening, Mexican-style foods, etc).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's is the main fast-food restaurant. There's also a TGI Friday's here, but I hear nothing but bad things about it. Otherwise, it's primarily local restaurants, some of which are good, but tend to be smokey. With the poor value of the Belarusian ruble at the moment, it's fairly cheap.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Up in Vilnius? Lots. The grocery stores up there tend to have an organic section. Here? Not so much.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

During the winter, none. During the spring/summer/fall you can get some flies and/or spiders in the house, but that's generally about it.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We have both DPO and pouch. The DPO comes through the US Embassy in Vilnius, so how often it arrives depends on how often someone from the embassy runs up for it. It can take awhile for things to get here sometimes. Outgoing mail goes through Vilnius.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Good and affordable. We pay our housekeeper $60 a week, and she comes two days a week and would stay nearly all day if we wanted her to. She cleans, she irons, she would do laundry if we wanted her to, she would cook if we wanted her to.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The US Embassy has a small gym, and I've seen some in the city as well. I've not been into any of them, though.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

This is really a cash society. We get cash via the embassy, though expats not with the US Embassy use local banks to get cash. Generally, you need Belarusian rubles, though some places will also take US Dollars, Euros, or Russian rubles.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

From what I understand, there is a non-denominational English-language church.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

AFN. If you're in a house and can get a huge satellite dish, you can also get Sky, which with an HD package gets you almost all the channels you could ever want. The Brits seem to do Sky via the internet. The cost would depend on who you go through to get Sky, I suppose. I have not seen any English-language newspapers here.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You must know Russian unless you just plan to never go out, or plan on learning it as soon as you arrive. It's very difficult otherwise.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It sort of depends on where you are in the city and how severe the disability. Some areas are well-kept, where others are falling apart. Some buildings have elevators, and others don't, though those with elevators frequently still have a step or two to get into the building. I would say that someone with physical disabilities would probably have a hard time here.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

From what I understand they are safe and affordable. We haven't had much use for them since we have a car, but many of the other expats here use them with no issue.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

I would suggest something with either AWD or 4WD for the winter months. SUVs are very popular with the locals, but you'll also see them driving regular cars. It's amusing to see the occasional odd tiny convertible driven though the snow in the winter. (That's not common, though.)

Some roads are plowed. Many are not. And the roads are frequently not in good condition. We have an AWD Toyota Sienna, which we can easily get parts for here as well. But I've seen almost anything and everything here, and as long as you don't care about authentic parts you can probably get it taken care of here as well. Also, keep in mind that the lines on the roads here (other than on the highways) seem to be mere suggestions.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, though not everywhere. We pay $50 a month for DSL that's technically high-speed, but it's not as fast as we've had in the States before. I would say it's comparable to the DSL we had in Austria nine years ago.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

You don't necessarily have to have something fancy, but if you want it, bring it with you. Cell phones are very popular with the locals.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are some good vets located here. I'm not sure about kennels.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

No.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

The 80s are alive and well in Belarus, and not necessarily the good parts of it. Belarusians may not be some of the wealthiest people in the world, but they do frequently like clothes. Women are almost always somewhat dressed up, even if they're walking down a dusty road to work, and stiletto heels are quite popular, even when it's snowy, icy, and frigid. Men tend to be a bit less dressy and showy, but you'll still see them in acid-wash jeans occasionally. The men are more likely to be dressed in a less flashy and less 80s fashion. At work, I would say business casual, but even that seems to have an 80s bent for some of the women sometimes. That being said, you do see people here not dressed in 80s, and so you won't stand out if you don't.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

It's a fairly safe place, for the most part. Most of your security concerns are going to come from the fact that there's still a KGB here, and yes, they're watching you. I'd say it's unlikely they'd be an issue for most, though.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The water here is very hard, so people with eczema or other skin issues may have problems with that. Otherwise, none. Many things are now medevac'd out, as the Embassy no longer really has a health unit. A local doctor works with the embassy and comes in to staff the health unit, and he's great, but anything serious will be medevac'd out.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Moderate. The main issues with air quality are when people burn things (as the Belarusians are fond of doing), the dust in the air, and the diesel cars.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It's generally colder than the DC area. It occasionally gets into the 80s in the summer (June-August) and rapidly cools down in September. Snow can start as early as sometime in October, and will stick around until late March. It's pretty cold during the winters, though it's nicely temperate in September before it cools, as well as in May.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There's only one here - QSI. They are the only English-language school in the city. From what I understand, you can send your children to a local school, but they'd better speak Russian if you're going to do so.

Our experience with QSI has been mixed. On the one hand, it's very small (60-some odd students from preschool to 12th grade), so your children can easily get attention. On the other hand, they're not likely to listen to you (the parent) a whole lot, either. They have a program which is apparently used by all of the QSI schools, and it's not quite as robust as we'd like. My oldest has frequently complained about being bored, something he's never done elsewhere. My daughter loves it, though. But then, she thrives with a lot of attention from a teacher, and he gets bored if the subject matter is repetitive or slow for him, no matter what attention he's getting. When we approached them about my son, they said the material they were offering was completely appropriate for him and he didn't need anything else. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been way too repetitive for him.

We were also excited to find out they offered Russian for the non-Russian speaking students, only to discover that below the high school level it's only once or twice a week. And they seem to be taught random words or phrases. The most useful thing they've learned is how to say, "My name is..." in Russian, otherwise it seems to be things like "watermelon" and "I like cats/dogs".

I have heard comments about how they don't really have enough books or other materials at the high school level, either. My kids aren't in high school yet though, so that's just what I've heard.

Just like anywhere, there are some good teachers there, and some not-so-good teachers. The teachers tend to be there on two to three year contracts, though there are a few locals who have taught there for a very long time. We have met some nice people through the school, though, and it's enabled us to meet some of the other English-speaking expats that we might not otherwise have met. I will say I will be grateful to have my children out of this school at the end of this school year though, and we seriously considered homeschooling them instead. (Several of the people who have come here have done so.)

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I'm not really sure. QSI is small enough that they can certainly give children extra attention, but I'm not sure if they have anyone on staff with special education training. They seem pretty stuck on the program they use, in my experience, though mine is from the other side of having a child who doesn't feel like they're getting anything new and interesting.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

QSI has a preschool starting at age three, though I did hear of an exception they made for a two-and-a-half year old. It's a half-day program, and they eat lunch there. We haven't bothered to send our three-and-a-half year old, so I can't comment on it. There are also some local ones, but like the local schools, they're in Russian.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not really. QSI has some after-school activities, and sometimes they involve a sport (so far for us, it's generally soccer), but it's not really a sports program such as you'd find in the States or even at some other posts. I have heard of some local things for kids, but they'd definitely need Russian to do them and I'm not even sure how you'd get into them.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small.

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2. Morale among expats:

Mid to good, depending on the expat you speak with. If you can make a few friends here, or have a family to hang out with, you'll probably be fine.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

If you don't make friends with anyone else in the expat community (or don't speak Russian well), it's likely to be non-existent. However, it's really dependent upon you. We have made some friends here and make an effort to get together with them on a somewhat regular basis, which helps. Given how small the expat community is here, especially with how few US employees the embassy has, you have to make an effort. You can't sit back and wait for a social life here.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It's a good hardship tour for families because the city is safe. It's okay for couples, but obviously better if you find some of the other expats or even some locals to befriend and hang out with. It can apparently be a good city for single (straight) men, and less so for single (straight) women. From what I understand for singles, it can depend a lot on whether you speak Russian and/or how much you've managed to get out into the expat community. It's easier for a guy to find a woman here than a woman to find a man, from what I've heard.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I have heard of the government giving gay expats a hard time here. I've yet to meet a lesbian expat. I haven't seen any overt hostility towards them, but I have heard of them being harassed in subtly ways.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

The majority of the people here are caucasian, but I do occasionally see minorities. Asians or those with an asian appearance are the most likely to be seen. I have not heard of any prejudice issues in regards to race, religion, or gender. I will say that they are very proud of people who have two or more children. We have five, and have had people stop us on the street to ask if they're all ours and then congratulate us and call us heroes.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

My kids love the snow in the winter; last year, snow started in October and was here through March. They're eagerly awaiting the snow this year. We've also been able to see Vilnius in Lithuania, as it's a two to two-and-a-half hour drive. We have a really good-sized house with a huge yard too, which is great for the kids.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

The Ballet, spending time with family either at home or in the parks, spending time with other expats you meet here, driving up to Vilnius to take advantage of all the stuff up there.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Vodka. Trips to other places in Europe.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The ability to save money; a hardship tour which is relatively safe (it's a hardship for other reasons); if you really like snow they get a fair amount here.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, it's been very easy for to do so here.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Fears of radiation. Most stuff here is fine at this point in time.

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3. But don't forget your:

Winter coats, winter boots, snow shovels, Russian language skills.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

We needed to do a hardship tour, and wanted something that was safe for the kids. Minsk fits that very well. Yes, there are some issues here, as what makes this a hardship post isn't one big thing but lots of little things. All those little things can wear on you at times. However, it has been a relatively good tour for the most part. You can easily save money, and we've been able to get a lot of things either shipped in, or up in Vilnius.

Russian is not an easy language to learn, but my husband has gotten quite good at it and many of the locals are generally very happy when you try to speak it to them, even if you make mistakes. The local staff at the US Embassy is the best local staff I have dealt with yet. They are extremely helpful, and will bend over backwards to make things good for people here. We've also met some other great people in the expat community here. That being said, there is a reason this post comes with R&Rs and while I don't regret doing this and would consider it (or something similar) again, it would only be after a tour in either the States or a more Western posting.

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