I crossed the border between Russia and Belarus at a tumultuous time. I had a lot to worry about – and to be excited about. I’m amazed at how, some 19 years later, what stands out in my memory isn’t the dramatic backdrop. It’s an ordinary moment with a student whose name I don’t remember, but whose heart I will never forget.
As a visiting university lecturer, I was based in Russia for two years. A friend had invited me to travel to her university in Belarus and give a guest lecture. I was always excited to see a new place, and I was so passionate to teach on human rights, anywhere I was invited.
I was struggling with visa issues – nothing I had done wrong, just a mix-up on paperwork. This train journey was supposed to provide a chance to get a new exit/entry stamp that would clear up all my problems. Little did I know, the tension between Russia and Belarus meant that the borders were “removed.”
While the border confusion might have inconvenienced me, the tension affected a whole nation far worse. The country’s leader canceled elections and the value of currency plummeted the day I arrived. My friend who had invited me was married to the American consul. When he met me at the train station in Minsk, he just shook his head by way of explanation, and we went to McDonald’s for a burger. He expressed sympathy over my visa situation but there was nothing he could have done.
I was to speak that evening, and again the next day, as part of a weekend conference. Meanwhile, I had a few hours with nothing to do. A student from the university in Minsk had been assigned to help with whatever I needed. She was willing to take me on any official errand or to any of the famous tourist sites in the city.
After a moment’s thought, I said with a laugh, “What I’d really like to do is buy some eye liner.” I also asked where I could find a CD of my favorite Russian pop singer.
She smiled. “I know where we can go.”
We spent the afternoon at a shopping mall, looking for makeup and CDs. This was an old-style Soviet-era shopping mall – not what probably comes to mind when you read those words. The arrival of Western items was still fairly new. But this student knew where to find the things I needed. We could barely communicate but we had so much fun. Eye makeup and music doesn’t require translation to be enjoyed together.
I’ve never forgotten that day. It stands out as one of my favorite moments living overseas. Forgotten were all the politics, border patrols, visa problems, and even the excitement of presenting my work at the conference. We were just two kids having fun at a shopping mall. An ordinary moment that brought such familiarity and peace in an otherwise tumultuous world. I am thankful for that student spending the afternoon with me.
When you travel or live abroad, these are the moments not to miss. They are the memories that will last far longer than the bigger dramas. Be fully present in those ordinary moments. Enjoy the company of the people who cross your path. Then write about those experiences, as an encouragement to others.
Have you encountered an ordinary moment in an extraordinary situation? I’d love to hear about it.