Sunday, April 19, 2015

Gomel Regional Lyceum


Earlier this week I returned to Gomel, invited by the regional lyceum to present two lectures: "American Dreaming: Facts and Myths about American Culture" and "The American Academy: Practices, Challenges, and Reflections from a U.S. Professor." This trip was inspired by
Antonina Petrakova who attended my Route 66 lecture at Gomel Central Library a few weeks before. Tonya coordinated with her colleague Svetlana Genadyevna to arrange this trip and, working with other faculty and an impressive array of students, overwhelmed me with friendship and hospitality.


What do I mean by "overwhelmed"? I mean that after a quick visit with the principal and a whirlwind tour of the facilities, I was ushered into an auditorium packed with about 140 students and treated to a concert prepared solely for my visit. The show included a dance performance, poetry readings, and songs selected in large part to celebrate my home (including a stirring rendition of "California Dreaming"). At first I committed to memorizing the names of each performance, but after 40 minutes I had no chance of recalling them all - and I didn't want to slight any student; they were each so earnest and well prepared. So I simply began my remarks with the honest affirmation that I had never before been welcomed so warmly to a place.


I'd arrived with a gnarly cold and was hoping to crash pretty soon after my lecture, especially since the next day meant delivering that "American Academy" talk, which I still had yet to complete. But my desire for bed melted when I was treated to a leisurely conversation with tea and homemade treats. Then my hosts informed me that they'd arranged an informal tour of local street art, knowing my love of graffiti. At this point my head felt so stuffed that I felt like I was walking through a thick fog, but I genuinely appreciated Tonya and Svetlana's willingness to navigate us through a maze of apartment blocks to find some cool murals. Eventually a fellow joined us to point out a photography spot that we hadn't considered before, and I began to lose count of the folks who seemed determined to help me enjoy this lovely city.


For dinner my hosts recommended Staroye Vremya (transliteration of Старое Время, which means "Old Time"), a retro restaurant themed to evoke memories of Soviet-era food and ideology. I wish I had photographed (or, better yet, procured) one of the menus, which were filled with confident proclamations and paeans to the virtues of collectivist labor. But I didn't think too clearly about gathering souvenirs once Tonya and Svetlana ordered shots of vodka. I studied my хреновуха ("Hrenovuha": horseradish vodka for tough days) for a moment, marveling at someone's idea to top the glass with a sliver of pickle, and downed it in a single gulp. "Ahhh…" I was informed, "You drink like a Russian!" The meal, vodka, and conversation flowed thereafter, with me slowly forgetting my cold. Our third shot called for statements of love - after all, as Tonya taught me, "Бог любит троицу" (God loves a trinity).

An "авоська" - a string grocery bag that signifies
social "transparency" in Soviet times, hanging at "Old Time"
 
My hosts, I'm sure, had concluded that I'd consumed enough vodka to reap all the medicinal value it could offer. But by this point several new friends at a nearby table had heard my American accent and invited me over. That table was led by Stanislav, a friendly guy from Moscow who coaches a soccer team and bottles his own vodka. He poured a tall glass and passed it my way: time to really drink like a Russian! So we chatted and laughed and drank at least two more glasses before it was time to head out for the night. Stas and I shook hands and pledged the eternal friendship of our peoples, and somehow I found myself comfortably sleeping in Tonya's apartment [Note to Jenny: my host, always the epitome of grace and perfect hospitality, stayed with her mother that evening, leaving the flat to me and her kitty, Mysha - who actually claims the apartment as her own.]


The next morning featured a tour of a museum in the nearby village of Vetka, where we studied folk arts and religious icons. This time I traveled with Tonya, her colleague Alexander, and his daughter Darya, who I learned will soon be visiting San Francisco as part of the prestigious Minerva Program. Together we learned more about a village that had been home to Raskolniks, "Old Believers" who split from the Russian orthodox church over issues such as whether the sign of the cross should be delivered with two fingers or three - distinctions whose apparent peculiarity reflected broader debates about piety and power in 17th century Russian society. The fellow who led the tour spoke in Russian, while sharing his justifiable pride at publishing a large collection of scholarly articles on ethnography in journals published in the U.S. Tonya, Alexander, and Darya took turns translating for me, once more treating me as an esteemed guest (though I was more often a clueless outsider). I listened and learned as much as I could, all the while grateful that the previous night's celebrations had indeed helped clear up my cold. We also swung by an old house that's being refurbished, gaining entrance because, once more, they don't see many Americans here. Inside we found relics of the Soviet past lined up against the wall.


Back on campus I squeezed out about 15 minutes alone to run through my hastily scrawled notes and arrange my presentation on the U.S. educational system. As usual, I spoke as an American, a proud and enthusiastic representative of my country, but also as an individual free to share my personal views. Thus I dove into an analysis of the history and transformation of American higher education, speaking directly about contemporary problems of cost and access, and introducing folks to terms like "helicopter parent," ideals such as Berry College's "aspire to the top" slogan, and out-in-out oddities like Reed College's nude kickball league. The best part, however, was the freewheeling question and answer session that followed. When one student asked me why Americans don't generally care for "football" (which we term soccer), I spoke somewhat blandly about low scoring but then remembered a bit from The Simpsons in which Kent Brockman reports on the non-action of the game:
"Halfback passes to the Center. Back to the Wing. Back to the Center. Center holds it. Holds it. [rolling eyes] Holds it." 

In the next booth, the Channel Ocho reporter announces the same game using the same words, but delivers them with increasing passion that concludes with nearly orgasmic release. I poured my heart into the delivery of that bit but was nonetheless surprised when the audience erupted in applause.


One final memory from that presentation: A student noted that most contemporary popular culture is quite different from the music and artistry displayed during the previous day's concert, and then asked me whether I think that today's generation is regressing. Immediately I flashed back to the time when I delivered a humanities lecture on love poetry. In the section featuring one of the infamous invective pieces by Catullus, I was trying to find an example from some relatively recent music to provide an insightful parallel. My daughter recommended Nicki Minaj's "Stupid Hoe" [sic]. While I would hardly prefer Nicki Minaj to Catullus, I appreciate how today's generation isn't so far removed from those of the past. Sure, the manifestations are different, but some meanings are timeless. Anyway I was hoping to make some point about our common humanity when I found myself bursting out with my own rendition of Nicki's diss track, just like when I was presenting that "love poetry" lecture back in the U.S. And thus it came to pass that I stood there, 6,000 miles from home, adorned in a suit and tie, belting out "You a ho, you a stupid ho…" to an auditorium of Belarusian kids. Again, there was laughter and shared recognition, and a fruitful conversation. Some things, after all, can't be diss-cussed, they must be experienced! Following the lecture I enjoyed a few moments to talk with folks who seemed to really appreciate the presentation, and I felt all the more how lucky I am to be here. Before long, I was on a minivan heading west toward the setting sun and my temporary home of Minsk - hoping that I will one day return to Gomel. It's nice to have friends in Belarus!

Antonina Petrakova and Svetlana Genadyevna

Monday, April 13, 2015

Regaling about Riga


I took a trip to the Latvian capital of Riga this weekend, enjoying its old town collection of meandering cobblestone passages, drunken revelers on "beer bikes," and a nearly ubiquitous appearance of pooping cats. I'll explain that last part later. I'll begin with my wandering the town in search of the iconic House of the Blackheads, the guild landmark which had been obliterated during the Second World War but rebuilt in the late 90s. Ever impatient, I gave my map only a brief glance and wandered the historic city center, struggling to differentiate spires and discern some sense of orientation.


Eventually I came to love the bridges of the Daugava River because of their utility as guideposts. "OK, the fancy cable bridge (the Vanšu) is that way, and the iron railway bridge is that way. And if I'm facing water, the old town is that way. It's silly, I know, but sometimes navigation just comes down to the basics. Gradually I gained some more confidence and began to dispense with the map - yes, after asking a cop at one point "just where the hell am I?" Before long I realized that the rebuilt Blackheads guild house is just around the corner from my hotel. All the same, getting lost in Latvia is still mighty fun.


Riga's old town is remarkable for reconstructing its medieval past. You'll find almost no Soviet-era iconography; that stuff was largely stripped after the nation's 1991 independence. Instead, the city center is, in large part, a recreation of Riga's medieval past. Here I'll forgo theoretical questions about authenticity and simply confirm that I abandoned any hopes of seeing the "real" old town, especially when I glimpsed one medieval-themed restaurant (The Key of Riga), complete with costumed servers, paying homage not to the city's actual past but rather to a 1970 movie called Vella kalpi that the city's excellent In Your Pocket guide describes as "part Three Musketeers and part Three Stooges."


All afternoon I traipsed the cobblestone paths, winding my way around town. Eventually, though, I headed for the city's funkier environs near the Art Deco central market whose five pavilions once served as Zeppelin hangers. Further away from the river, I visited the Latvian Academy of Sciences building, one of the few obvious relics of Soviet-style monumental design, and took in a panoramic view of the city. Back near my hotel, I spotted a group of tourists descending the stairs into a dimly-lit building and figured I might as well join them.


Turns out they were entering Rozengrāls, a cavernous medieval-themed joint lit only by candles and adorned with wandering musicians. I ordered a plate of pickles, full garlic cloves, and shredded cabbage, accompanied by bread served in a sort of cheese cloth. And I treated myself to Riga Black Balsam, a potent herbal liqueur that, according to one TripAdvisor commentator, may have been "created solely as a way to torment the various foreign armies and tourists who have invaded the country over the centuries."


Later that evening I drifted into a beer garden when I heard a rockabilly band crooning a pretty solid version of "Route 66" (despite getting a few of the cities wrong). Standing outside, I sang the song out loud to myself before stepping into the seating area. Other patrons were focusing on their own conversations, so sometimes I was the only person clapping for these dudes who belted out some swell renditions of Elvis and Johnny Cash.


The next day was focused mainly on exploring the city's Art Nouveau district. I must admit that I've never been much of a fan of that style; the Fin de siècle clash of natural and mechanistic motifs strikes me as being overly fussy. I'm more a streamlined moderne fellow. But searching for sun-drenched facades in Riga, losing myself in all of that gaudy detail, I came to appreciate the style's complex artistry.


I also found myself returning several times to the Nativity of Christ cathedral, hoping to photograph some of the interior. I'd never dream of shooting pics during a service; then I'd just stand quietly with the other partitioners, enjoying the music and the wafting of incense. On my final visit, though, the congregation was departing. I spotted a nun with twinkling eyes: "нет flash," I promised. She offered a silent assent - and wouldn't you know it? The damned flash went off! "Oh my god," I stammered. "извините!" She glared for a half-second and then theatrically shook her fist in my face before admitting a big smile. All was forgiven.


One final highlight of the visit was a couple trips to the Cat's House bar. That's where a waiter introduced me to smoking absinthe, a process where you coat the inside of a wine glass with some of the Green Fairy, light the outside, and inhale the steam through a straw. Afterward you mix the rest of the beverage with whatever you prefer; this guy recommended orange juice. Outside of the bar I looked up to see one of those squatting black cats for which the town is well known. You see 'em on postcards and magnets and other trinkets. I asked a woman selling souvenirs for some background, and she told me the story of a merchant who sought entry into one of the city's guilds and was denied. Incensed, the tradesman placed two cat sculptures atop a building he'd commissioned, ensuring that their arched backs resembled two felines crapping on the guild hall. The gesture was so offensive that they took him to court. The opposing sides settled only when the guild promised to admit the merchant to their club (and once he turned the cats around). Is the story true, or was it concocted as more touristic falderal? I wouldn't hazard a guess. But as I boarded the flight back to Minsk, I determined to return to Riga one day - if only to share this city with my love and fellow cat fancier Jenny.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Vilnius and Baranovichi


So much for spring; this week saw a return to cold, drizzly weather. Still I enjoyed the opportunity to do some traveling out of Minsk. Following a return to the Regional Institute for Education Development on Monday, I packed my passport and tickets for a trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. Almost as soon as I got off the train, one of my shoes that had been falling apart these past few weeks finally gave up, so my first stop was a crowded market of tiny stalls. Within a few minutes I was making my way through the Old Town district with arch-killing new shoes (and a subsequent search for comfort in-soles). I needed 'em, because Vilnius is filled with street art, on seemingly every crumbling walls and building - wild style tagging, mostly, a reminder of how rare it is to find similar street art in Minsk.


The weather flirted with rain all day, though the sun revealed beautiful blue sky and ravishing orange light on the walls and cobblestones from time to time. I walked away from the city center and stopped at a panoramic viewpoint. Then I tramped down a hill, making my way toward a pedestrian bridge over the river, and imagined what it must have been like to journey to Vilnius by foot. Later I found an appetizing plate of German-style sausage at the Meat Lovers Pub and downed a liter of hard apple cider, followed by a Czech beer. By this point I could recognize enough landmarks to navigate the town without my map, but I got thoroughly lost anyway.


The weather turned more dreary on the next day, inspiring me to search out the KGB Museum, which is actually part of a larger assemblage called the Museum of Genocide Victims. The experience was sobering, particularly the displays of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation and the execution chamber. That spot showcases scenes from a film that depicts prisoners being shoved into the room, being dispatched with a bullet to the back of the head, and sluiced up a metal chute to be trucked away. Afterward I plodded through an art gallery before heading back to the train station. I've only seen small pieces of this fascinating city. I hope to return soon; there's much more to learn.


Rolling back toward Belarus, I was delighted to discover that my multi-entry visa does indeed work. Even so, the woman checking my documents subjected my passport to an impressive inspection, flipping through every page several times and paying extra close attention to the photo. I've recently shaved my beard way to nothing but stubble, which was probably not a good idea. And the three Chinese visas seemed to earn special scrutiny too. But she [sort of] smiled at my fragile Russian language attempts and let me enter Belarus anyway. Keep in mind that this happened on a train. Bad news would have meant getting tossed into some scary border outpost.


Thursday and Friday saw back to back trips to Baranovichi, a city about 150 kilometers from Minsk. Once more I joined an embassy pal to present lectures and facilitate activities about American technology and culture. The first day's talk went well enough, but there was a much more palpable sense of "otherness" to my show. Audience members were less willing to practice their English in the Q&A (though several wanted to sit for longer conversations afterward). I also did a brief interview for the local television folks. The reporter had clearly done her homework on the "Mother Road." She apologized for her halting English and, as usual, I reminded her that her mastery of my language is a heck of a lot stronger than my beginning Russian. My favorite part was the chance to visit with three young people interested in starting a club focusing on English and travel; I promised to share some swell road trip books and movies, and later received an invitation to return to town and attend one of their meetings.


The next day I dispensed with the formal lecture and built a more interactive talk that featured some autobiographical material, a few "foreign" observations about Belarus, and a Question Time component that invited participants to evaluate statements about American culture as being true or false. Because so many folks around here, especially those living in the smaller towns and villages, base their understandings of the United States on media portrayals, it's really fun (and sometimes surprising) to complicate the inevitable stereotypes that divide us.


Of course it's only fair that I also play the game, so I asked attendees to create their own statements for me to assess. The first one - the one I hear everywhere I travel: "True or false: All Belarusian dishes must include potatoes." I always reply to that prompt that, while potatoes are an important part of local agriculture and cuisine, anyone who claims that "All Belarusians eat potatoes all the time," would be just as incorrect as someone saying, "All Americans eat pizza all the time." We all seem to agree with that idea. The best moment followed soon afterward when someone offered the following prompt: "Belarusian women are the most beautiful in the world. True or false?"

Nyet, nyet, nyet," I replied.

A beat of awkward silence...

"...Because Jenny, my wife, is not Belarusian." Another half-beat, and then the group erupted with laughter and applause.

I quickly added: "Belarusian women, of course, earn second place!"

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Head-banging in Belarus


Despite a few cold snaps and the occasional coating of snow, my friends in Belarus tell me that we must have somehow skipped winter this year. As temperatures raced past the freezing mark and hovered at a balmy 5 to 10 degrees Celsius, I began to contemplate plans to ship some of my heavier cold weather gear back home. I'm told that spring brings mosquitos to most parts of this boggy region (though my landlady swears that none will bother us here in Minsk). Otherwise I loved the clear blue skies that started the week.

Last Sunday I celebrated the pleasant weather by joining some of my BSU colleagues for a concert in Upper Town. The event featured piano medleys and choral renderings of famous film scores and songs. The first half of the concert focused on American and French cinema; the second half was devoted almost solely to Soviet-era films. Thus I was introduced to the 1964 movie, "Walking the Streets of Moscow." Near the end, though, the singers joyfully abandoned the theme and performed the "humorous duet for two cats." But this crew transformed the piece into a cacophony of many cats lusting after a tom. Still, the highlight of the night for me was a performance of "Un Homme et Une Femme" ("мужчина и женщина" in these parts). It really was beautiful. The rest of the audience agreed, because it was the first piece that earned the ever-wonderful Belarusian Collective Clap.


On Monday I visited the Minsk Regional Institute for Education Development, which allowed me to explore part of the city I've not yet seen and meet some really nice folks. Getting to the site entailed a few metro stops and a quick bus ride further into the outskirts of town (in an area informally known "sleepy town" - a nickname similar to the American concept of a "bedroom community"). Thus the Institute resides amid a large cluster of Soviet-style block apartments. The program chair met me at the metro and helped me navigate the local bus system to the site. Right away we commenced a high-speed tour of the facility (including its medical spaces for visiting teachers), a pop-in meet and greet with the rector and vice rectors, and as much tea or coffee as I could consume.


I delivered two presentations, separated by a ten minute break. The participants teach English at nearby schools and are visiting Minsk for a week to improve their skills. There were about 20 (with a few more set to join the group in the afternoon). Since the attendees had just arrived, they had not yet gotten to know each other. So it was somewhat of an "ice-breaking" day. Even so, they seemed to enjoy our two and a half hours of lecture, activities, and conversation. Normally I like to facilitate a sort of "Question Time" component during these visits, inviting folks to pose queries about American culture and society. One of the participants stumped me by asking why I wear my wedding ring on my left hand. Aside from it being a tradition, I honestly didn't know. Afterward my hosts invited me to linger for more coffee/tea. In that final chat, we discussed the complexities of the Ukrainian situation in light of the historical, cultural, and linguistic ties shared by the nations in this region. I found our conversation to be illuminating (and a bit surprising). We then said our goodbyes and I made my way back to the station.

Over the next couple days I hunkered down in my flat to prepare an evening lecture for BSU faculty and students on the subject of gamification (while also finding time to prepare a final exam for my MBA crew and a semiotics lecture for my undergraduate students). Looking out the window from my bedroom, I could see the golden orange facade of the apartment building opposite my own, and I wished I could chuck my work and enjoy a walk around town. But there was simply too much work to be done. Then - right around the time I was wrestling with my Prezi software that suddenly decided that my account was no longer active and opted to lock my files - I received an invitation to help interview a group of high school students at the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section on Friday afternoon.

Yeah, the week was spinning amazingly, wonderfully, out of control. But I've learned never to doubt the Fulbright mantra: "When in doubt, say yes." So I fixed the Prezi problem, delivered the lectures, graded the exams, celebrated the conclusion of the MBA seminar an after-class meal with my students, and started churning through student applications to participate in a program that involves travel to the United States. And then on Friday I met some truly remarkable kids. Some were nervous, some were almost alarmingly self-assured, but all conveyed the earnestness and complexity of Belarusian young people. My embassy colleagues and I dedicated about five hours to the interview process, and we entered a friendly (though spirited) debate afterward. Ultimately we selected a top candidate who, I'm sure, will amaze everyone she meets in the U.S.


That evening I met with a BSU colleague and her friend to attend a concert at the "Red Church" (of Saints Simon and Helena). The baroque music was undeniably gorgeous, but afterward we spoke even more gleefully about the sight of a little boy sitting on the hard wood pew in front of us. While his twin brother seemed satisfied to stare ahead, this kid - all of about three years old, clad in the blue and white stripes of a sailer suit - stared wistfully behind, often at the stained glass windows above us. He wanted to be anywhere than here. And when his eye caught mine, I smiled. I remember what it was like to be so small, locked into the unfamiliar rhythms of other people. He never made a sound, but his watery eyes left no doubt of his feelings on the subject. Eventually his parents scooped him up, along with his brother, and departed - I hope - for an even more kid-friendly activity.


The week concluded yesterday when I met up with Eugene Karmyzau to visit the towns of Mir and Nesvizh - about 120 kilometers from Minsk. First, a bit of background: Eugene had attended my Epam lecture and stuck around afterward to chat share his enthusiasm for Southern culture. Then a couple days later he emailed an invitation for us to hang out and see some of the countryside. Sure, I'll admit, I was somewhat skeptical. I mean, who is this guy? But once more I recalled the Fulbright mantra and stifled my nerves:  Sure, Person I Just Met, let's hit the road!


Eugene has a seemingly endless fascination with American small town life and country-fried rock and roll. So we had a blast chatting about movies, music, and politics. And I was reminded that for every cliche one has about a Belarusian perspective on the world, there is always someone who brings a different framework. We toured the castles and snapped some pictures, but Eugene was most especially interested in showing me the details of small town life away from the tourist spots. My favorite part of the trip: Barreling down the two-lane in his Jeep, racing alongside the empty potato fields, and head-banging to Lithuanian and Latvian folk-metal. Today I'm committed to sending Eugene a link to Austin Lounge Lizards' "Old Blevins" (he'll love that song). I can only hope he remembers to send me the name of that kick-ass Skyforger tune!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Two Months in Belarus


Today marks two months in Belarus and concludes an adventuresome week. The highlight was a two-day opportunity to visit the city of Gomel, about four hours east by car, where I was invited to deliver my Route 66 lecture at the regional library. I joined a small contingent from the embassy and presumed that I'd present on the first day, leaving much of the second day for the sorts of random wandering that is my preference. But our friends at the library had other plans, which meant formal meet-and-greets, an introduction to their rare book collection, an interview with the local television station, and a fast-paced tour of Gomel's beautiful park - led by a local guide who was determined to show me everything she could in two hours. After figuring that I'm somewhat of a shutterbug, my new friend encouraged me to take a photograph of pretty much every statue and building in downtown Gomel.


Returning to the library to deliver my talk, I was so breathless that I had to sneak off for a moment just to compose myself. A few seconds later, one of my embassy friends found me. "Are you OK?," he asked. "Someone saw you here and thought you were lost." Once more I steadied myself with the quiet mantra: "You've been here before" and then launched into the lecture. I was amazed and delighted at how the jokes landed and the references connected. Best of all, the audience snapped their fingers in perfect percussion as I belted out the immortal "[Get your kicks on] Route 66." Afterward I joined an embassy pal in search for dinner and felt some pride that I was able to recall some of the orientation lessons provided by my guide. "Well, the streets radiate outward from the Lenin statue, you see. So I figure we should head that way, toward Sovietskaya!"


The next morning, our friends at the library requested that I present my Route 66 lecture again - this time for a large group of visiting students. Before the lecture our hosts offered me a tour of the larger library complex, and I was bemused (and a little embarrassed) by the sight of employees standing at attention as I'd come into the room. I wanted to say, "Relax folks, it's just me!" Before too long I was back in the lecture room, ready to greet a new audience. Many of the kids were less confident in their English than the folks I met the previous day, but they were unfailingly courteous and engaged. I am constantly amazed to consider that for many folks in Belarus, I'm the first American they have ever met. Toward the end of our visit, I was invited to take another tour, and thus enjoyed an opportunity to visit the palace that is the centerpiece of the park. Then came another formal coffee, with many kind words and some lovely parting gifts.


One day later I was at Epam, a Belarusian IT company, delivering another talk. This time, though, the topic was new: "American Dreaming: Facts and Myths about American Culture." My host had worked with me for the previous couple weeks to develop this idea. She'd seen my lecture at the Minsk Book Fair and dug my approach, so she set the whole thing up. Her goal was to introduce her colleagues to an insider's look at American business practices. During our deliberations, she asked what kind of food might help set the scene. Because she asked me to integrate a small portion of my Route 66 talk into the program, I recommended (only somewhat in jest) what seemed like a quintessential delicacy: "Pigs in a Blanket" and Cokes. Well, I'll be darned: She made 'em, and they tasted really good! They also inspired the line of the night, uttered by our host to convince attendees to try the meal: "Eat a piece of American culture while it's still warm!"


The talk was anchored with a discussion of various statements - some true and some false - about American culture. Examples include "Americans prefer direct eye contact when speaking with each other," "Americans maintain a strict divide between their work life and home life," and "Americans expect to give and receive gifts in their business relationships." Then attendees had a chance to turn the tables and pose statements about Belarus for me to evaluate as either true or false. Some of their statements include the claim that "Belarus only has one national language," "Belarusian families are expected to have three children," and "Belarusians never smile." It felt good to confirm that I've learned a fair amount in the two months since I arrived. The only surreal portion of the night was the door prize for attendees: a chance to take a selfie with me!

Would you take a selfie with this man?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Signs of the Times

One of my favorite hobbies in Belarus is to study its signage, particularly when it employs some playful adaptation of Soviet era iconography.

The topic image is Alexander Rodchenko's famous 1925 poster that epitomizes Soviet Constructivism. It reads, "Leningrad State Publishing: Books! In all Branches of Knowledge." The version below comes from a market I visited in Brest. It offers a somewhat different vision: "Discounts! Find a yellow price tag… Get a discount!!"


This next one adds a tech-hipster vibe to traditional Soviet imagery. The advertisement is for programmers.


Frankly I'm not sure what to make of this next image, except to say that these breath mints may be a bit "advanced" for me.


Thanks to Maxim Saplin for his translation expertise.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Minsk: It's the Little Things - Part 3

Negotiating some small item, working through a few differences, and settling into a happy "да, да, да" I love the sound of "da-da-da" in the morning; it reminds me of agreement.

Feeling guilty every time I toss a used napkin on the table at a restaurant, because a server will swoop in within seconds and snatch it away.

Thinking that the ability to produce exact change at the market may be the best form of American diplomacy there is.

Watching with amazement that Belarusians never rarely seem to complain about things in public. A rolled eye? Yeah, maybe. But I [almost] never see people freaking out over a small inconvenience. Folks here roll with the punches.

Watching the strings of lights hung over Lenin street wave in the breeze, and hoping they will be turned on some night before I leave.

Spotting random snippets of American pop culture in signs and advertisements. Simon's Cat. Cartman. Darth Vader: I'm pretty sure they're not licensed to pitch for restaurants, night clubs, and plumbing supplies. At least not in Minsk.

Loving the opportunity to smile and say пожалуйста when an elderly passenger says спасибо after I give up a seat on the bus.

Never, ever seeing a local eat something while they're walking in public; I'm pretty sure this is part of a broader assumption that "private things should be kept private."

Contemplating whether dogs bark in Russian or Belarusian.

Wondering whether I will ever actually eat these chips.