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 UK/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.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Weekend in Brest

St. Nicholas Church
Minsk contains many charms and opportunities for exploration, but after more than six weeks I've gotten a little stir crazy. There's just too much in Belarus to see! So you can imagine my excitement at the chance to hop a train for another city, even if only for the weekend. Better yet, I joined a fun and convivial group: Heidi and Erich (fellow Fulbrighters), Clark (an English Language Fellow), and her husband and son, Will and Ace. We took the train to Baranovichi to pick up Heidi and completed the four-hour trip together to Brest near the Polish border.

Entrance to Brest Fortress
I've learned to never take weather forecasts too seriously around here, so I wasn't shocked when promises of blue skies and sunshine were met with realities of fog and mist. Undeterred, we found a nice cafe to enjoy some local cuisine, which meant a hot pot of meat, potatoes, and veggies for me - along with a bolshoi-sized beer. Afterward we hoofed it down the boulevard to visit the Brest Fortress. To understand the meaning of this place, one must remember that Belarus suffered a higher percentage of deaths in World War II (known as The Great Patriotic War here) than any other country on earth.

Kholm Gate
While specific numbers remain subject to debate, at least one in four Belarusians were killed during that conflict - either in combat or in Nazi extermination programs that included the torching of entire villages [most Belarusians say the actual number is closer to one in three]. For that reason, Russians and Belarusians take great pride in the soldiers who defended the Brest Fortress in the fierce assault of Operation Barbarossa and continued the fight as partisans in the bloody years that followed. For Americans who might only know about this place from CNN's ill-conceived mockery of its mammoth Courage Monument, the Brest Fortress is a sobering experience.

Courage Monument 
Given the drizzle (and our tired feet) we hunkered down in a shared apartment after our excursion and chatted into the night. The next morning produced some of the sun that the forecast had promised for the previous day. Most of my pals were still sleeping, so I headed out for a quick return jaunt to the Fortress. There might have been about ten other folks wandering about, lost in their own revelries. Once more I ambled around the fortifications, pausing to gaze upon statues and thinking about horrific violence hurled against this place.

Courage Monument and Bayonet Obelisk
Occasionally I'd hear a snatch of audio from the massive star-shaped entrance - sounds of battle, songs of heroic deeds - and I thought about the stories my grandfather told me about his service in the Second World War. Eventually I had to fast-walk back to our apartment; I didn't want to delay my friends. Our plan was to enjoy breakfast before getting back onto the train for Minsk, but International Women's Day meant that most cafes were closed, which seemed fair enough. We settled for a quick lunch at the station and then, back onboard the train, chatted, played games, and eased into the pleasant rhythms of a slow journey home.

Friday, March 6, 2015

No Opera Tonight

I missed the opera tonight, but I got to know my neighbors a whole bunch more.

My flat - on the corner of Lenin and Independence - has a metal door at the downstairs entrance, which requires a chip-based key fob to open. Only, a few days ago I noted that the locking mechanism had been replaced and the door lock deactivated. No problem. The door to my apartment is protected by its own tough locks. So I paid my new situation no mind - until this evening when I was dressed up to attend a concert in town. Hunching my jacket closer in preparation for the evening chill, I noticed that the outer door was locked again; I needed to press a button to release the latch. As the door shut behind me, I figured I'd better double-check that the fob still works.

Nope. Locked up tight.

I stood around for a while, fumbling to find the number to Natalya, my landlady, and wondering if someone would enter or exit. About 15 minutes later another tenant came by and explained (in English, mercifully) that everyone is having the same problem. We waited and shivered, making phone calls and gathering up more neighbors. Finally someone opened the door from the inside. My new friend announced that she'd set out to find a duplicate of a new working fob she found; she'd call me in about a half hour. Sure enough, she returned a bit later and shared a keypad code that would now work for all of us.

By this point my landlady had showed up, wearing her fur as always. "Only in my country," she muttered. I assured her that this sort of hassle happens everywhere. Certainly in the U.S. as well. Then another neighbor, clearly unaware of our collective adventures, attempted to use an old fob. When it didn't work I showed her the new system. Repeating the numbers in Russian, I helped another new friend get inside. By this point I was a half hour late for the opera and really didn't care. I've been in Belarus for more than a month and haven't spent so much time with my neighbors until tonight.

And, heck, this is Minsk. There will always be another concert.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Everybody Up!

After my lecture at ScienceSoft
Teaching in Belarus presents plenty of opportunity for improvisation. Take today, for example. This morning I asked my Communication and Cultures students to prepare skits that will enable them to demonstrate their understanding of "contexts" by which we attempt to coordinate meaning: episode, identity, relationship, and culture.

The scenario calls for one participant to be the professor, the other to be a student who seeks an extension on a late assignment. The context is "episode" - in this case, the episode we commonly label "office hours." In our scenario, the professor is leaving her office. Problem is, the student expects the prof to answer her question in the hallway, outside of office hours. How will they coordinate their meanings of the event?

Both students are stuck in abstraction: "So, the professor would say this… Then the student would say this." They can't quite get into the scene. And neither seem to have grasped the notion of "episode." The meaning isn't attached to the words but rather where and when those words are uttered.

Both students are frustrated. "What in the hell is this guy asking us to do?" I imagine them whispering. The rest of the class awaits some clarity too. This is a smart group, all of them. Smart and interesting and willing to take chances. But the way I've set this up is just too theoretical. I'm edging near the doorway.

"OK, friends, everybody up, we're going outside to the hallway. Yep, really, everyone up."

We're outside of the classroom now, lined up along the radiator under the windows. It's sleeting and cold outside. It's warm here, though.

"Now, you two," I say to my increasingly nervous players: "You're the professor; you're trying to leave." I point to the door through which we just departed the room. "You're trying to walk out of this door."

Shifting my gaze, I adopt a conspiratorial tone: "And you're trying to convince the professor that she ought to hold office hours here. You're the student; you need help, and this is the place. For you, at least."

Back to the professor: "So how do you feel about this, right now?"

She gets it.

My students dive into their roles and soon master the concept of "episode." I wonder if another prof will bust out of their class and cast me a dirty look; the dialogue gets loud. But, hey, we're learning out here!

Eventually we return to the classroom. I don't want to annoy my colleagues. But my favorite moment is outside that door. Once more the lesson is for all of us, professors and students: Sometimes the best learning takes place when our old tricks fail us.