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.

Video by Aliona Kirnos

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

No comments: