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

No comments: