Thursday, February 26, 2015

Stop Doing Anything

You awaken just after midnight, feeling an electrical shock in your chest. You breathe, check your pulse, and wait. The street lights flicker through the blinds. You dream awhile. A few hours later you're up again, minutes before the alarm, wondering why you opted to teach at eight in the morning.

You remind yourself, "I've been here before," and you sort through notes. You think about every time you delivered this lecture, every time you elided important details, how you promised yourself you'd cover them better next time. You read emails that remind you how distant you've become, from writing, from friends, from family.

You take the metro, ankle it to your building, and chatter at the guard downstairs.

три, ноль, семь.

That's your room number: "307."

The old man asks questions you can't answer. Eventually he hands you a key. You welcome the class with that fixed smile, but your students figure it out quickly enough. Today is, well, it's hard to explain.

They have that look; you've seen it before.

"Is he going to pull this off?"

You do, barely.

They serenade with friendly "thank you's" as you hit the streets, remembering to return that key.

You stumble a bit, only hitting your stride as you slap a card against the scanner at the metro station. There will be no seats now, it's rush hour, but you don't care. You climb the stairs to your flat but keep walking past your floor. A bit dazed, you descend and work the lock. You'll hole up for the rest of the day.

You recall the wisdom of Homer Simpson.

"Note to self," he said. "Stop doing anything." 

Good advice. At least today.

Monday, February 23, 2015

October Square Station Murals

My "home" metro near October Square features these two murals on either side of Independence Avenue. The photos are photoshopped montages, quickly done and surely containing a number of errors on my part. Time permitting, I hope to revise these images to more correctly convey the artworks' expansive array of military and revolutionary themes. [Until then, feel free to use your mouse to zoom in and out of these draft pix.]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

One Month Down

The temperature has crept a bit above freezing here in Minsk, positively balmy weather, and I have developed a cold. I can't complain, really. My days have been spent exploring the city, developing lectures, and even experiencing some local culture (including an evening of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre). So after a month of new surroundings, new people, and new food, I'd expect my body to call a temporary time-out.

Getting to know new friends in Minsk
I first felt the onset of headache and scratchy throat just before I delivered a Route 66 lecture for a group of visiting English teachers at the U.S. Embassy's office of Public Affairs. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed that event, which included opportunities to answer and ask a wide range of questions. For example, when I wondered aloud what qualities lead me to stand out as a foreigner before I open my mouth to speak, one audience member explained that my face lacks Slavic features. Also, I smile way too much. We all got a good laugh with that one.

Getting revved up to sing "Get your kicks on Route 66"
I walked back to my flat, bearing the gift of a painted plate featuring illustrations of Belarusian towns, and collapsed into bed. After catching some sleep, the next day was dedicated to prepping a lecture for my MBA students on Google's hiring and workplace practices. My nose was stuffed, so I needed a quick trip to the pharmacy. Happily, there's one on pretty much every block here in Minsk. Before I entered, I used my trusty Google translate app to look up "nasal spray" in Russian. No way I'd stammer myself to embarrassment this time! Turn's out, it's just pronounced "Na-ZELL-ee spray." Again, thank goodness for cognates.

Winter weather gear
I finished my lecture-prep, rested up a bit, and took the metro past the train station to the building where I teach, ready to hang out with my students during our Friday evening class. Problem is, they're used to starting our meetings with a friendly handshake. And I was still nursing that cold. So when I couldn't explain my uncharacteristic reticence to shake quickly enough, I took the opportunity to introduce them to the "Obama Fist Bump" - which they all seemed to think is pretty cool.

Time and place to rest
Now at last I have a day or so to recover. Tomorrow I'm joining my fellow Fulbrighters and English Language Fellows (yeah, they're called "ELF"s) for an evening at the Chargé d'affaires' residence. And then next week I'll start planning some travel throughout the country and beyond.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Minsk: It's the Little Things - Part 2

Gazing upon all those fur hats and thinking I've wandered onto the set of Dr. Zhivago.

Placing my money on a tray to pay for things at the market, and receiving change the same way.

Getting a little weirded out if a restaurant server takes the time to ask if I enjoyed the meal.

Reading signs advertisements that attempt social engineering on metro station doors: "Don't Worry, Be happy," "A Smile Suits you," and the usefully direct, "Please Smile."

Practicing mnemonic techniques to remember Cyrillic characters ("ch" is an upside down chair… "z" is the number 3, like the three slashes of Zorro, etc.)

[Almost] never hearing an American accent.

Accepting the lack of a single Starbucks in the entire country.

Seeing signs for the currency exchange rate everywhere - and thinking much more deeply about the impact of international events on the local economy than I ever did back home.

Getting into the rhythm of collective clapping at the conclusion of an opera.

Knowing that this brand of vodka exists (and wondering just how I'll get the bottle through customs).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Route 66 in Minsk

Today I delivered my first off-campus presentation for the U.S. Embassy in Belarus. The event was the nation's International Book Fair held these past few days in the capital city. I had little idea of what to expect until I started noticing oversized posters throughout the city advertising the event. Like, really, really big posters!

So today was the big day. I arrived at about 10 a.m. to set up and noticed... that the event center was almost empty.

"This doesn't look good," I whispered to myself.

My presentation was part of a series of talks commissioned by the embassy on the theme of Undiscovered America. I'd fretted for a couple days, trying to dream up a topic that would fit that vision. At first I went overly historical: "Little known facts about the Constitutional Convention," stuff like that. Then I heard about my colleagues' topics. They were talking about national parks, Native Americans, southern music. At once I knew what to do.

I built my talk around Route 66, discussing the Mother Road as a lens upon an America not often seen in Hollywood movies and reality TV shows. Many folks in Belarus presume that all Americans are wealthy and, let's admit it, spoiled. Few have met an American or heard an excerpt from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath about the Dust Bowl:
"66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what  little richness is there. From all of these, the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."
The presentation included a discussion of how highway travel represents that quality of the American Dream that enables people to reinvent themselves far from home, unconstrained by our backgrounds or our histories. It also included highlights of tourist traps, motel architecture, and wonderful people like the recently departed Gary Turner who stuck around the breathe life into the highway, even after its replacement by the interstate system. And naturally I included my video of Route 66 neon.

As I walked around the expo center to settle my jangled nerves, I wondered if anyone would show. To attract interest to the slide announcing the time of my talk, I hooked my roadtrip playlist to the speakers. Owing to the interesting acoustics of the site, with its undulating roof that resembles a jellyfish sweeping through the water, I'd sometimes hear echoes of my favorite highway songs far away.

Tom Petty's Runnin' Down a Dream alongside the Chinese display. Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere past the Russian tables. Simon and Garfunkel's America near the Iranian exhibit.

Five minutes before my talk was scheduled to begin, there were about four people milling nearby. Then with one minute to go, dozens of folks roared in and grabbed seats. I launched into my remarks, focusing on the people sitting nearby, only then to notice that another dozen or so were listening from outside the exhibit. I never did get a full tally, but I'd estimate that about 50 people saw the talk.


• Seeing two of my BSU students who'd taken the bus so they could catch my presentation.

• Diving into an a cappella rendition of "Get your kicks on Route 66" and hearing the audience clap along.

• Getting a laugh when I explained the meaning of a "No-Tel Motel."

After the talk and a rollocking question and answer session, several folks stayed to chat a bit more. And I've already received invitations to present my Route 66 speech two more times, once at the Embassy for visiting teachers and elsewhere at a software company in Minsk. And I've gotten a tip to check out a song about the road from Moscow to Brest, Belarus.

So many new highways to explore!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soviet-Era Iconography in Minsk - Part 2

Following up on an earlier post, here is some more Soviet-era imagery found in Minsk.

Lenin statue in front of Government House
Belarusian partisan righter
(and Hero of the Soviet Union) Marat Kazei
Mural near Frunzenskaya metro station
Lenin statue at Lenin metro station
Mural near October Square metro station

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Imitation Game

Remember the Simpsons episode when Mr. Burns lost all his money and was forced to fend for himself for the first time? Though he couldn't quite figure out the difference between condiments ("Ketchup ... Catsup. Ketchup ... Catsup. Cats... K... K... uh... I'm in way over my head!"), he just had to exclaim to nearby strangers:

"I'm shopping!" 

Similarly, once Mr. Burns managed to understand the mysteries of mass transit, he announced his growing confidence to a new friend:

"I'm riding a bus!" 

That's me these days. Sometimes when I'm shopping, I'll hear some toddler shrieking about something, and I'll think to myself, "Yeah, but at least he can shriek in Russian." All I can do is point and hope that someone will take pity on me.

Well, no more.

First I found an app that provides real-time route-planning for buses and trams, so I can stop hiking so much and just get where I want to go (without being so metro-bound).

Better yet, I'm starting to recognize and pronounce names in Cyrillic.

It started last night when I was waiting for my pizza to arrive, and I noticed an interesting item on the menu: "тирамису."

"Lessee," I thought. "I can figure this out."

"т..." thank goodness, is just like "t" in the States.

"и…," I paused. The dreaded Reverse N. But I'd been working on that character earlier in the day, so I was able to figure it out. It sounds like "ee."

"Tee," I said to myself.

"р…" Uh huh. I won't get fooled by the Russian "р." That sounds like "r" in English.

"а…" Another easy one. Just like "a" in English. [Well, that depends on the syllable-stress, but... OK, stick with the basics.]

"м…" Yep, same as English.

There are five letters that are interchangeable between our languages, and I lucked out and got three of them in one word. "Tee-ra-m…"

I should be playing Wheel of Fortune!


"и…" A repeat. Another "ee." So "Tee-ra-mee…"

"с…" That's a tricky one, but I remembered that "c" sounds like "s" in English. Makes sense, I guess.

"у…" Just a matter of memory. In Russian, "y" sounds like "oo." So…


"Tiramisu!" I announced to the restaurant.

Thank goodness for cognates. Now if only I actually liked the stuff.

Outside looking in
Anyway, that was last night. Today, I went to Minsk's new Zamak shopping mall, practicing the bus system and double-checking the location of the nearby Expo building where I'll be presenting a talk next week. And I spotted a movie theater.

A few days ago, I went to another theater and discovered that you can't just "sound out" Cyrillic words as if they're English words. I stood there in front of the ticket-seller, flummoxed and embarrassed. The woman at the window pushed a list of movies in front of me and I pointed at one randomly.

That's how I ended up seeing an execrable bank robbery flick starring Hayden Christensen and Adrien Brody that had been dubbed into Russian (no subtitles, of course). Later that evening, IMDB revealed that I'd seen a 2014 direct-to-video-quality movie called American Heist.

Oh, and no, I don't recommend it, in any language.

Today, though, would be different. They're still playing The Imitation Game at the Zamak. I've seen it already, so I presume that I'll have a better chance of following the Russian version. But there was that poster...

... And that name:


Once again, I heard Burns' voice: "I'm in way over my head!"

So I snapped a pic and moved off to a corner, sounding out the letters and feeling like a child.

Little by little I figured it out.

It didn't take long for "ИГРА" to become "egra." That word means nothing to me. Still, I had hope. If only…

"Lessee… ee-m-ee-ta-dz-ee-u…" Another cognate...

Imitation. The Imitation Game!

I mean, sure, I would presume that it'd be the same name, just translated from English to Russian. But The Imitation Game in English hardly sounds like "eg-ra ee-mee-tadz-ee-u" in Russian. Hell, it sounds better in Russian!

I slapped down 60,000 Belarusian Rubles (a little less that four bucks for an evening show) and smiled.

"eg-ra ee-mee-ta-dz-ee-u!"

Now I'm about to put on my warm clothes and catch the next bus heading northwest on Pobediteley Avenue. And as God is my witness, I'm seeing a decent movie tonight!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Learning to be less Metro-Bound

Ploshchad Yakuba Kolasa
One of my new pals here in Minsk made an interesting reference to folks who are "Metro-bound" - that is, people who rely on the limited options provided by underground metro stops when learning to navigate the city. On the one hand, the metro is clean, safe, and relatively fast, and learning to master the buses and trams can be a real hassle.

Yet reading Minsk through its metro stops produces an omnitopian dislocation of distinct portals ("my office is here... I live here...") that are surrounded by yawning chasms of nothingness. The city seems to shrink, to fit itself into a continuum of passages that lead to the same constellation. The only way to grasp the city's complex but logical relationship of people and places is to walk the streets, to see how landmarks knit together into a coherent whole. Learning to communicate here requires a similar perspective.

Until now, I've concentrated on discrete words like "spasibo," and even a few phrases, without trying to understand the connective tissues of the Cyrillic alphabet (which spells the word "спасибо") - which has been fine. There's a pleasant rhythm when one learns to respond with "pozhaluysta" when someone says, "thank you." But having no understanding of the alphabet - treating each word like a discrete metro stop - is no longer tenable.

I learned this when I tried to take a train this morning. So far I've felt pretty good about my ability to navigate Minsk. The metro is easy enough, and I finally took a tram last night. Why not buy a train ticket to some nearby city to expand my horizons a bit? At the train station, I managed to sputter out a Latinized version of the town I hoped to see, but I was utterly adrift thereafter. And, as is common around here, the ticket-person spoke absolutely no English (though she found a way to sell me a ticket).

At first I figured I'd spot the number that most likely correlated with a track or car and hope for the best. Yet nothing about my ticket made sense. So I sat down and studied my little scrap of confusion more closely. I've taken trains in Western Europe and Asia, but could not make sense of this thing. Is that a ticket number? A track number? A car number? Is this one way or a round-trip? Hell, what city was I visiting anyway?

I put the ticket in my wallet and walked back to my apartment. I played around with some websites promising to explain the rules and rituals of Belarusian rail-travel. Then I decided that my afternoon would be better spent starting to work my way through Cyrillic. So far I've learned to be grateful for letters like "K" and "M" and "T" that sound the same in both languages. And I'm learning to tell the difference between "б" and "в." And tomorrow I hope to get my head around "э," "ю," and "я."

No, I won't "learn" Russian (at least not anytime soon). But I want to develop a more coherent understanding of how things work - and that includes paying closer attention to the language. Not just a few phrases but a more general grasp of how characters and words fit together. Afterward I will return to the train station and figure out where I want to go - and how I'm going to get there. With some time and patience, I plan to be less Metro-bound.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Snowy Minsk

Minsk up this morning to a soft falling blanket of snow. This city is really beautiful in the winter.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Minsk Video: National Library of Belarus

Any piece of architecture that allows me to learn the word rhombicuboctahedron is a place I want to visit! So here it is: the National Library of Belarus.