Saturday, January 31, 2015

Minsk: It's the Little Things - Part 1

Struggling to find the perfect combination of open-window cold and overly-toasty warmth in my apartment.

Adding pins to the map of Minsk hanging in my bedroom to remind me of places I've visited.

Thrilling to discover a dude selling keychain flashlights in the Instytut Kuĺtury metro station, knowing that I can now climb the four flights of stairs to my flat in something other than total darkness.

Weaving my way into a spot at the long table outside the market near my apartment, sipping an espresso with cognac and wishing I'd remembered to bring a plastic bag for my groceries.

Searching for a 20,000 Belarusian Ruble note to share my (admittedly modest) appreciation for the young woman belting out a romantic song in a cold underpass.

Thanking the good lord that the underground mall includes a guy who sells (and installs) zipper handles.

Getting used to the fact that the check-out lady at my local market will fish through my wallet in search of smaller bills when I try to pay with a 100,000 Ruble note.

Feeling guilty that I bought a pipe and some cherry tobacco - but really enjoying the warmth they provide while I walk the snowy boulevard home.

Wondering when I will accept the kind invitation of the office manager to make me some tea or coffee while taking a break from class.

Asking the heavens above who on earth thought it'd be a good idea to swirl Mayonnaise all over my otherwise hot and tasty pizza.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Soviet-Era Iconography in Minsk - Part 1

During my four-month stay in Belarus, I plan to explore and photograph as much Soviet-era iconography as I can. Here are some highlights from my first week.

Lenin metro station
Fashion House "Solidarity" relief
October Square metro station
Victory monument
Near railway station

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wandering Minsk

I'm getting to know my new hometown. Indeed today was my first opportunity to practice some solo wandering. Friends know that I joyfully anticipate the moment when I get lost in a new city. Losing my direction can be scary, of course, but it's the best way to orient myself.

In that moment, the need to remember landmarks, recognize patterns, and understand signage - particularly those Cyrillic characters - renders a place less "exotic," less a series of touristic snapshots, and more a matter of practical living. Such wandering attunes me first to the physicality of a place.

"так," ["So"] I say to myself, "the land grows more steep this way… the river is over there… the sun is moving in that direction." Then I come to recognize the logic of why people walk they way they do. "Sure, I might try to cross the street here, but… Oh yeah, that tall building offers no passage… the 'long way" is actually the faster path…"

I walk southwest toward Independence Square where a statue of Lenin, leaning against a sculpted podium to harangue his grand socialist future into being, stands near the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. I've read somewhere that folks aren't allowed to photograph this statue, most likely because of its proximity to the "Government House." So for now I forgo the opportunity.

Turning toward a construction zone, searching for street art, I notice that I'm the only person wearing light colored pants; the attire outside today tends toward more somber hues. Subject to typical touristic paranoia, I presume that everyone knows I'm an outsider. Still, I'm working to learn phrases that allow me some entrance to the courtesies of Minsk life: "Здравствуйте" [Formal "Hello"], "извините" ["Excuse me"], "спасибо" ["Thank you"]…

Later in the afternoon, I check out "My English Granny," a comfy restaurant decked out like (as one TripAdvisor reviewer put it) a "low-budget Sherlock Holmes film." A woman in the cloakroom, supposedly a "real" grandmother, gives me a plush toy keychain in exchange for my hat and coat. A nice meal and drinks comes to about 24 USD.

Sun sets early this time of year, and I end my day in Minsk's Upper Town, a refuge for pre-Soviet architecture near the frozen-over lake. Fat, fluffy birds wait for folks to throw bread near the Vilnius baroque-style church and convent that attracts strolling photographers. I spot A. Artimovich's "Solidarity" relief outside the "Haus of Fashion" - and commit to returning the next day when the light improves.

I wonder when the sun will finally appear.

My apartment facade at night

Saturday, January 24, 2015

First Day: Teaching in Minsk

At last: my first day of teaching in Minsk!

I'd been thinking about this moment for almost a year, planning, anticipating, and stressing. And even now I'm still working to whip the course into shape. But today I would begin - though not without some awkwardness.

I'd collapsed in my bed the previous day and slept through dinnertime, only to awaken at about two in the morning. I commenced to arranging all the loose ends of my course materials into some semblance of a Prezi and felt more or less prepared by about seven. I had a throbbing headache and a rumbling tummy. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be), there's a McDonald's across the street from my flat.

I grabbed a coke and a cherry pie - and promptly squirted red goo onto my pants.

Yes, on the first day of class with a group of MBA students waiting to learn about Silicon Valley start-up culture, I'd look like I'd missed a few days of kindergarten. Only when I started walking toward the metro did I notice how extensively I'd managed to splatter myself. No time to change, I cleaned up with a liberal heaping of fresh snow. Class began at nine; I wanted to arrive by eight, and it was still pitch black outside.

Finding a seat on the metro, I (unadvisedly) napped two stops to my destination.

Entering the BSU building, I reminded myself to anticipate that nothing would work. I brought my laptop, even though we weren't able to connect my device to their flat screen monitor the previous afternoon. Just in case I also packed a portable hard drive and had uploaded the Prezi, but I presumed that I'd have to go Old School and teach without tech. It worked for Plato, after all!

Yet, sure enough, they'd scrounged up a cable that worked. They'd also set up name-signs for each of my students, and someone even offered to make me some coffee. These folks are pros, and I knew at once that things would go well.

My class is small, five students only (well, six at first - but I'll tell that story another time). They are professional, polite, and quite interesting. At the beginning of class, I assumed a formal "lecturing" position at the head of the room, but by the end of our three-hour period, we'd arranged ourselves into a much more comfortable manner, forming an irregular square of seats and enjoying a conversation punctuated by story-telling and laughter: my favorite kind of classroom experience.

As is customary around here, we shook hands at the beginning of class, and we repeated that ritual at the end. One of my students then offered to drive me back to my apartment, but I live nearby and didn't want to inconvenience him.

I was so pleased (and so relieved) that I decided to treat myself to lunch at Friday's.

The place looks like any other restaurant in that chain. The music is a mixture of 80s pop, hip-hop, and Christmas tunes (really!). At first, I stumbled my way through some introductory Russian, but there was no hiding my nationality. I've noticed, by the way, that even when I say the right word, folks tend to giggle at my efforts. Nothing mean spirited - merely a reminder that I carry my foreignness like a neon sign.

Once the waiter sussed out my nationality, he brought over a translator who asked me, "Is it a secret where you work?" I told them what I'm doing here, and she replied, "You are a great teacher. Your voice is lovely."

I answered that I find Russian to be a lovely language, one I hope to learn. They smiled at each other and then she teased: "Belarusian is even more lovely." Then they taught me a couple phrases, which I diligently practiced (though by the end of the meal, my brain had begun to shut down).

The food, if you're curious, looked nothing like what the menu promised. The steak had the consistency of something I saw in The Walking Dead. But I didn't care. I'd survived my first day of teaching without embarrassing myself too much. That was all the sustenance I'd need for awhile.

Walking back to the apartment, I noticed that my pants showed no sign of that errant cherry filling. Sitting on my bed, I decided that I'd hold off on arranging the apartment for a while. Just a bit of rest first…

I fell asleep almost immediately.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Getting to Belarus

Here are some gently edited Facebook posts from my first days in Belarus...

Jan 21

Greetings from Frankfurt International Airport: my home for the next seven hours. I walked by the nicest group of comfy, comfy chairs. Just walked on by because - as anyone who knows me can attest - I'm a "trust but verify" [Доверя́й, но проверя́й] kinda guy. So naturally I had to go through security first, just so I could triple check my Minsk departure gate. So I got through security - after enduring a 15-minute unraveling and inspection of every cable and gadget I packed - only to discover that there are no such nice seats on the other side. Just row after row of rigid chairs (and no outlets that I can see). I have no interest in going back through security right now. So this is where I'll stay. Oh well. At least they have free wifi. Oh, and the cafe three feet away from my seat is doing brisk business selling something called, lessee... "bier," I think. It's a lovely amber, golden colored drink served in tall glasses. Yes, yes. I think I will try some of this "bier."


Minsk from my hotel room! I'm staying here for the next couple days until I can get into an apartment. I'll be attending meetings and orientations through Friday. My first class is scheduled for Saturday (though I've been reminded how the best laid itineraries can melt like snowflakes). No matter. I'm thrilled to be here. Time to get this adventure started! Well, after I get some much needed sleep. Including the Frankfurt layover, I've been flying for about 24 hours!

My first glimpse of Minsk was the sight of snow reflecting on the aircraft lights. A few minutes later we landed and I was trundling my way through the "obligatory" insurance line, baggage check, and customs. No hassles, no delays. Well, a slight delay as the customs agent scrutinized my passport with the eagle eye of an art historian searching for a potential forgery. She studied each line, sometimes shook her head, and asked her colleague some questions. Then she stamped the doc and sent me on my way.

Jan 22

An exhausting, exhilarating day. Thanks to the masterful (and patient) guidance of Elena X. Karpovich, I selected a swell apartment on Ulitsa Lenina in the heart of Minsk, configured my phone to work with the local system, got a metro/bus pass, and met with U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Scott Rauland. Throughout the day I began to glimpse a much more nuanced picture of life in this country, particularly the complex relationship between Belarus and Russia [There's so much to learn!]. Lunch was a warm bowl of Borscht and some mashed potatoes. The jet lag is really kicking in now, so I will be crashing soon. Tomorrow I move into my apartment and meet some of my new colleagues at Belarusian State University. I'll post pictures thereafter.

Highlight of the day: Sitting in a parked car with Elena, the real estate agent, and my new landlord, figuring the total cost of the rent. I do a quick calculation - and end up overcharging myself by $400. Elena says that the total seems excessive, so the landlord whips out her calculator. She smiles; I can tell she doesn't want to embarrass me (though she's also sure that my math is wrong). "No problem," I say. "Доверяй, но проверяй!" Though my pronunciation of the phrase "trust, but verify" is just as rusty as Ronald Reagan's (from whom I first heard this perfect proverb), we all laugh together anyway.

Jan 23

I'm so totally jet lagged, it's kinda funny. Like I'm drifting through invisible water currents. Still, I genuinely appreciated today's security briefing at the embassy and the chance to meet my BSU colleagues in person. They asked me to start my first MBA class (Silicon Valley Business Culture) tomorrow at 9 a.m. That's right: Saturday morning. I just want to sleep, but now that the internet's been switched on in my flat, I've got my third wind! Even better, my fridge has a huge bottle of beer in it. So far, I think I've stumbled onto the world's coolest landlord. Heck, I might take a walk in the bracing cold to clear my head and think about tomorrow's class. I love the sight of big heaps of snow falling from the roof and crashing on the sidewalk [at least until some lands on me!]. PS: I'll hold off on posting pix of my apartment until I get my stuff organized. But they are coming.