During my Fulbright semester in Belarus, I saw a little bit of street art in Minsk.
Sunday, July 5, 2015
Saturday, July 4, 2015
Friday, July 3, 2015
Jenny and I are back in the U.S. after meeting in Finland, taking a quick tour of St. Petersburg, and spending a week in Morocco. Yeah, it was a bit disjointed - and for now I'll focus on the later part of the trip. We flew into Marrakesh in late afternoon, checked into our riad (a traditional home notable for its relatively unadorned exterior that hides an indoor courtyard), exchanged some currency, and enjoyed a sunset stroll through Jemaa el-Fna Square. This gave us a chance to practice our kindest but most determined la shukran to ward off the dudes trying to foist monkeys on our shoulders or pitch some other unwanted product or "service." That evening we savored a rooftop meal overlooking the square and then found our way back home through the narrow alleys of the medina, sounding off landmarks and looking sharp for the rush of oncoming motorbikes.
The next day saw us once again getting pleasurably lost in the souk's seemingly endless labyrinth. Highlights included the siren song of the snake charmer, buying glass after glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, saving extra table scraps to feed the stray kitties, practicing the art of "walking away" as part of the haggling ritual, and smiling every time some dude called me "Ali Baba." Following an afternoon nap we returned to the square, figuring we'd take a "direct route" through the souk rather than follow our typical route around the main road. Yeah, great plan. So we wandered narrow passages that seem to bend into some sort of trans-dimensional warp. "Guides" appeared in search of dirham, but we made our way to the square - just in time to celebrate the sunset with some mint tea. Jenny insisted on street food, so we dined on Moroccan salad, kefta, chicken skewers, and orange juice. Back at the hotel, we climbed up to the roof to check out the stars. First song on our playlist: Midnight in the Oasis.
Our last day in Marrakesh meant sleeping in, followed by packing. For Jenny, that also meant a visit to Henna Cafe where she partook in the artistic ritual (and I enjoyed some mint tea). We then ambled back to Jemaa el-Fna Square, climbing the steps to take our seats on a rooftop restaurant that sprays cool blasts of mist to beat the heat. Afterward we plunged into the souk in search of the Ben Youssef Madrasa and, later, an art museum. Thus an endless array of invitations and announcements ("Excuse me." "Are you lost?" "Hey Ali Baba, good price for you!" "What are you looking for?" "This way is closed." "Bonjour." "Hola." "Hello!"). We laughed at our foolish hope ("OK, we head straight that way") but somehow made our way back in time to collect our bags, grab a cab to the station, and board the night train to Tangier.
We arrived the next morning, found our lodging, and began the explore the medina, which features lots of hills, narrow passages, and stairways that seemingly lead nowhere. We strolled to the Casbah, trying to politely dissuade would-be guides and wondering whether we could make our way back to the waypoint without a map. Happily, it's true: Not all who wander are lost. Thereafter we shared breakfast on the roof of our riad: Moroccan coffee, mint tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, crepes, corn meal bread, and melon. Then we washed a few days' worth of sweaty, stinky clothes, and celebrated a slow, lazy day. Afternoon concluded atop the roof, awaiting the sunset call to prayer. It's such a lovely sound, the rising call to reverence pouring forth from minarets and speakers around the hilltop.
The next day in Tangier we meandered to the American Legation, which I first toured back in '88 or so, only to find it is closed on Saturday. No worries, though. We simply had more time to get lost in the medina. There were few touts today, and those up this early weren't especially persistent. Eventually we climbed to the Casbah and learned a bit about the region's placement as crossroads for Berber, Roman, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, and French travelers. For lunch we sat atop Le Salon Bleu, where watermelon juice is a speciality. Early afternoon brought us back to the alleyways to pet stray cats and photograph arched doorways. At one point we were sprinkled with water that seemed to drop from the blue skies. It took us a moment to realize we were standing under a carpet hung to dry in the sun.
We wrapped up our Morocco visit in Casablanca, a five-hour train ride from Tangier. By this point we'd gotten fairly used to the medina routine, but our brief wandering revealed a remarkable assemblage of street art. We also stopped at a stand to fill up a liter bottle with fresh squeezed orange juice. Given the Ramadan period, we tried to never eat or drink in (too) public a place - even sneaking into quiet alleys to quench our thirsts - but our foreignness, our obviously touristic demeanors, earned plenty of attention wherever we went. As the sun began to set we walked to the grand (Hassan II) mosque to enjoy the towering architecture and cool sea breezes, and later to our inevitable visit to Rick's. Of course we knew that the "actual" Rick's Cafe Americain was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. Still, we enjoyed the chance to dress up, sip fancy drinks, and reflect on the adventures we've shared.
Friday, May 22, 2015
I've been back in the U.S. since Tuesday afternoon, reconnecting with my family, dealing with jet lag, and learning that my injured finger is healing pretty well. And now I'm reflecting on the experience. I'm happy to report that despite the complications of near daily medical visits in my last two weeks in Belarus, I kept myself joyfully busy.
This included a chance to enjoy a front-row viewing of Madame Butterfly with Clark, Will, and Ace; and an invitation to present a new lecture, "Critiquing the American Technological Sublime: Alternate Futures Beyond The Gernsback Continuum," at the American Studies conference hosted by Minsk State Linguistic University as a plenary speaker. Even more importantly, I shared celebratory meals with friends from Epam, Belarus State University, and the Fulbright/English Language Fellow community before departing for home.
A highlight of those last two weeks was the chance to join Katya Sadovskaya and a large group of BSU students and faculty for a bus tour around northern Belarus. We visited towns and villages, stopping at monuments, churches, and ruins, and I got a chance to see northern parts of the country that had so far eluded me.
Along with a delightful ongoing conversation with Katya, I suppose my favorite part of the day was a brief breakdown near a small faming community, which afforded us a chance to walk through fields and small windy roads, photographing colorful village homes and joining some brave students determined to pet a cow.
I remember thinking, "It's just this sort of silliness that nearly cost me a finger on Victory Day," but I felt compelled to offer my healthy hand in hopes that the creature would be friendly. She was wary, of course, wisely so. But she allowed us to gently pet her, and then followed us a while before we boarded the bus. You never know how a new friendship can begin.
With all the final meetings, packing, and logistics, I was amazed at how fast the last days went. And then suddenly it was 4 a.m., and I was awaiting the embassy driver who would offer my final Belarusian handshake. I still feel somewhat guilty that I was so affixed on my phone that morning, sending a few more goodbyes and plucking some other weeds from my email, that I barely noticed our trip through Minsk on the way to the airport. I'd become so familiar with the road out of town, having taken it for so many occasions, that I nearly forgot to focus on the unfolding scene outside my windows. I'm glad I took lots of pictures!
Back in the States, one of my first tasks was to prepare a report of my Fulbright experiences. Here's some of what I wrote: Living in Belarus for four months provided me an opportunity to develop new curricula, travel to dozens of cities and villages throughout the country, and rethink what it is to be both an American and a citizen of the world. I presented courses and lectures for over 1,000 people, and I made many new friends along the way.
This experience boils down to an unofficial motto that guided me these past four months: "Always Say Yes." In other words, when the embassy asked me to develop workshops or prepare talks, I opened my calendar. And when representatives of schools, libraries, and businesses asked me to drop by, I did my best to oblige them. Because with every new conversation, I discovered new opportunities to improve my intercultural competence and learn something new about the world.
Living in Belarus was challenging, exhilarating, and surprising. I saw the limitations of regional and national stereotypes - and I hope to have complicated a few assumptions that Belarusians have about Americans. And now I look forward to a range of burgeoning collaborations. I plan to do some writing with at least one colleague at Belarus State University, and I will certainly keep in touch with my new pals. Best of all, I will return to this country if at all possible. I enjoyed Belarus so much, but left so much yet to see!