Saturday, May 29, 2010

International Incident

I nearly precipitated an international incident yesterday. We were looking for an apartment to buy, and our agent brought us to a beautifully-finished place on the top floor of a new building near the river. The landlady arrived in a rush and blathered about nothing and everything. She reminded me of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

I asked her about a sliding door that closed either a closet or a pantry. Since she was in such a rush to hide her laundry and whatever it was that she’d left in the bathroom, I didn’t want to open anything without her permission. She replied using a word I’d never heard and which didn’t sound Russian. I figured she’d used some sort of a cute family word and I teased her a little, asking if that were a real Russian word.

Apparently I touched a sensitive spot with that question, and she railed on about the importance of the Belarusian language and what was I doing here anyway? I told her that I was learning Russian, but not Belarusian. That really sent her flying, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t gone to Moscow to learn Russian. She supported this suggestion with a little more information and I decided I was better off not trying to defend myself. I just went to put on my shoes so we could leave.

Once my shoes were tied, I told her that she may find me a bit strange but I love Belarus and I’m learning Russian here because it’s pleasant for me. Alla added that we were standing there speaking Russian together and that Belarus is a perfectly good place to learn the language.

Only after we got outside did I figure out that her private word for “storage area” was probably a common Belarusian word and that I had offended her by what she may have considered a taunt. Is this how wars get started?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adventure in Brest

We went to Brest on Saturday with our friend Elena Razgulina. We took a slow overnight train down by a circuitous route overnight on Friday night and arrived at a civilized hour on Saturday morning. Elena's friend Misha came to meet us at the train station. Misha is a really nice guy. He's actually a friend of a friend, and he volunteered to spend most of the day introducing us to his city. I keep thinking I've seen the best of Belarusian hospitality, and then somebody goes and does something like this. There's just no way to describe how nice people generally are here, and they set a very high standard for paying social debts forward.

We spent most of our day at the fortress, which is a moving tribute to the bravery and patriotism of its defenders on the first days of World War II. Poorly armed and expecting reinforcements that never came, the defenders held off the German invaders for a long time, retreating deeper and deeper into the fort and firing on their attackers with weapons they recovered from the dead. After this, Hitler decided it may be more efficient to leave forts as isolated autonomous zones as he pushed eastward into Russia.

We spent the whole morning at the fort, and then Misha took us to his favorite Italian restaurant for lunch. Having eaten well, we toured the city together before Misha finally took his leave and dropped us back at the fort so we could visit the museum.

Finishing our day, we walked back to the Italian restaurant and ordered dinner. Over salads, Alla asked me to show her our train tickets. She had an uneasy feeling, which a quick look at the tickets confirmed. I had misread them, and our train was about to leave. Alla gulped, "We missed our train!" Nobody understood, so she said "Our train leaves in ten minutes." This time I understood, and Alla got up and ran to the front desk. Elena still hadn't absorbed this information, and looked a little puzzled. I reviewed for her what I had finally come to understand, and she realized that we were not joking.

We gathered our stuff and went to the front desk, where Alla was paying, the head waiter was calling a taxi, and the waitress was loading our main dishes into take-out containers. Reassembled, we rushed out to the street. Not knowing how long it would take for our taxi, Alla flagged down the first car to come our way. I'm not talking about a friendly little wave: She got into the street and wouldn't let the guy drive by without talking to her.

The driver immediately understood the gravity of our situation and snapped his cell phone shut, telling his friend simply, "I'm busy." We piled into our car and shot out of the parking lot as the taxi arrived. Our man violated several rules of the road in his dedication to his mission. Cleverly, he asked us which direction we were going and he navigated us to a hole in the fence right beside our train, still in the station. We handed him a fistful of rubles and ran onto the train, past a very bemused conductor.

Here we are, about to enjoy dinner on the train. For more pictures, click here.
From 2010-05 Brest

Friday, May 21, 2010

Heart-breakingly beautiful ballet

We are at the ballet. It's intermission after the premiere of Chopiniana. I am speechless and at the point of tears, it is so beautiful. I wish all my readers could have been here to see it too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Now everybody seems to know me

We had a little performance last week, which included the results of some projects by four teams of Belarusian and foreign students broadening their horizons in some way. Since my role was that of a Belarusian KGB agent, I dressed up in a traditional outfit that I ordinarily reserve for very special occasions. When folks saw me dressed that way at the university, it created a little buzz of conversation. The administrator went into all the classrooms and invited students to the performance, saying that they'd be able to see Steve, the guy who wore the beautiful traditional garment today.

The attention was intensified by my rambunctious friends in the front row, who gave me a standing ovation when I was introduced, the first of our teammates onto the stage. 

Suddenly people I don't remember meeting have been greeting me by name as I wander the halls of the university. I wonder how long this will last.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The parade we didn't see

From 2010-05 Victory Day
Today was victory day, and everybody was dressed up in Princeton colors. The color scheme relates to the ribbons that originally hung the medals given to all those determined to have contributed significantly to victory in World War II, and this year we were especially encouraged to show the colors. I got a couple of ribbons free by buying newspapers I didn’t want to read, and Alla got a couple of them simply by being in the right place at the right time.

When it came to the parade, however, we didn’t quite coordinate time and place. My teacher told us that the parade would begin at 10:00 a.m., and we didn’t bother verifying her assertion. Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to get near the parade if we weren’t early, we took a taxi and got near the reviewing stand at about 9:00 a.m. The place was strangely empty, and the security guys had to keep asking their supervisors what to do with my water (allowed), my pocket knife (nearly confiscated, but ultimately allowed) and my nail file (allowed.) The guards were really nice about the stuff I had in my pack, and offered to hold my knife for me until I came back later. Conveniently, however, the senior officer assured the inspector after a few moments that small knives were allowed.

When we got inside, we asked a couple of security guys about where we should go to see the parade. In the course of conversation, one of them mentioned that the parade would start at noon. We initially imagined that he had been mistaken, but as ten o’clock approached we began to appreciate that there was nobody in the reviewing stand. Just as we were agonizing over what to do with ourselves for two hours, a jet fighter flew down the street at a very low elevation. Could this be the beginning of the parade? No. We decided that we could entertain ourselves better somewhere else.

It turns out that we didn’t have to go far. The vendors were competing for some sort of a prize, and they had all decked their stands out in wartime style and such detailed presentations that we weren’t sure anything was really for sale. The rest of the story is told best in pictures, which I have posted conveniently for your perusal. To continue, please click here.

From 2010-05 Victory Day

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Teacher Appreciation Day

May 4 is Teacher Appreciation day in the USA. In the spirit of the day, I want to write about something that happened in early March. We met some long-lost friends of Alla’s family, whom I will call Olga and Hans. Hans is German, and he’s lived in Belarus for ten years. He and Olga started out with a little bit of English in common, and they have taught each other their native languages. I don’t speak German, so I can’t tell you how Olga is doing in that language, but I was surprised by Hans’ Russian.

He asked me about my classes, and then explained that he hadn’t taken any classes because he wanted to learn “real” Russian. I didn’t catch the adjective he used to describe the alternative, but I think he could have used a little formal education. He has a reasonable vocabulary by now, but he knows absolutely no rules of grammar. My grammar is shaky, but I sure could identify a whole lot of problems with his, and I suspect that my vocabulary is no worse either.

Anyway, it made me feel pretty good about my choice of educational plan, and I even feel OK about my progress when I compare where I am after a few months’ classroom time to this result of several years of immersion. Let’s hear it for professional teachers!