Monday, April 27, 2015

Brest Friends

During a weekend of warm weather and clear skies, I joined Erich Barganier and Clark Erwin-Billones for a trip to Brest where we presented lectures for My Baby Educational Centre and one of its partners, Gymnasium Number 2. ["My Baby?" you might ask… The program, which offers co-curricular courses that range from English to Chess, was so named by its founder who envisioned an ideal learning environment fit for her own child.]

Since we Americans hadn't seen each other in a while, the three of us enjoyed the leisurely train ride and found ourselves in pretty much an ongoing conversation throughout our days together. Of course, our hosts - always kind, friendly, and thoughtful - packed those days with lectures, presentations, special meals, and tourist outings, ensuring that we made the most of every minute in Brest and the surrounding region.

Erich, Clark, and I shared an apartment, which the My Baby folks provided. There, after our first evening meal and walk through town - stopping to enjoy the sight of a lamplighter illuminating the city's pedestrian walkway, one ladder-climb at a time - we figured out the sleeping arrangements and fell into a rollicking game of Blackjack, augmented with plenty of spirits of conviviality (and the like). The next day we got to work: delivering lectures for faculty and students and crafting an impromptu round-table talk, meeting with folks until eight in the evening.

One of my favorite memories of that day was when my faculty-gamification lecture wrapped up. I figured that participants would head for the exits. But when Maria Demenchuk, the coordinator of our visit, asked me to reflect on my experiences these past three months, our group launched into an extended conversation that touched on autobiography, pedagogy, and Belarusian culture. Finally when we wrapped up for the day, our hosts treated us to dinner at Korova, a fine dining restaurant that also happened to feature a kick-ass band that covered The Ramones and other slam-dance-worthy tunes.

The next morning we dragged ourselves off of couches and piles of pillows, brewed coffee and tea, and checked in on the nesting bird who was caring for a hatchling on our balcony. Then we set off for Gymnasium Number 2 where we met the headmaster and chowed down on a tasty cafeteria lunch of borscht, cucumber salad, mashed potatoes, breaded chicken, and juice. [Considering the simple, fresh ingredients of the meal, I was embarrassed to remember when the Reagan administration tried to label ketchup a vegetable!] Afterward, Clark presented an outstanding lecture on methods to teach vocabulary, followed by the three of us doing another roundtable conversation for an auditorium filled with friendly, energetic kids. This was, I should add, a Saturday.

At this point, I imagine that we all wouldn't have minded taking the afternoon off. But our hosts weren't through with us yet! Thus we joined several My Baby faculty members and their kids for a drive to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, a remnant of a primeval forest that also happens to be the Belarusian home of Grandfather Frost. We visited his "village" where we met the patriarch of these woods, were invited to hold hands and dance around a Christmas tree, collected gifts of sweets and souvenirs for being good, and shared a snack of blini - and a powerful gulp of a no-kidding-around formidable local spirit.

Then we toured a zoo whose enclosures house bison, bears, lynxes, and other critters. The kids were especially amazed by the wild boar who snorted and charged at us, inspiring them to leap at each other for the rest of the afternoon, baring their own invisibly deadly claws. With the sunset we drove to nearby Kamenets Tower, which has stood in one form or another since the thirteenth century, before stopping at the home of one of our hosts (Zhanna) whose mother proceeded to fill us with Draniki, wine, and vodka. Back in our apartment, we stayed up for hours chatting about the practical dimensions of intercultural communication in Belarus.

During the train ride back to Minsk, Erich, Clark, and I marveled at how these trips seem to magically appear before us, stemming from chance conversations that transform into kind invitations to see more of this amazing country. At the same time we agreed that our new friends in Brest worked hard to ensure a productive, educational, and engaging visit. More than ever I am reminded of the warmth and generosity of the people I have met in Belarus. And I feel such gratitude for every day I've spent here.

Clark, Erich, and Andy

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

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!"