Thursday, March 31, 2011


Two nights ago we stopped in Poland, in a spa town called Kudowa-Zdrój. Our tourist-class hotel, the Sans Souci, proved to be a very pleasant two-star place with cute small rooms in a classic building and pleasant environment. Now we are staying at a less-impressive place in Prague, with bigger rooms but little else to recommend it. It's clean and efficient, but has no soul.

Notwithstanding the hotel, we’ve both fallen in love with Prague. I can’t describe it as well as any number of professional travel writers, but I would like to comment on the pleasures of seeing Prague with grade-school students. I’m pretty sure these students are special, but they’re amazingly good travel companions. They arrive on schedule, clean up their messes, complain very little, appreciate the beautiful things they see, carry on conversations with adults, and generally amaze me. That’s not to say that the trip has been completely free of problems, but the only problems we’ve had would be typical of almost any large bus trip. I’m particularly glad to be traveling with a group that shows up on time, because that mitigates a whole lot of other problems.
Yesterday we took a guided walking tour of the city. The guide wore a microphone and transmitter, and the rest of us wore headsets connected to little radio receivers. We also wore yellow neckerchiefs. The combination made the walking tour really easy. We could wander about and take pictures while the guide talked, and we still heard the guide. And if we wandered a bit too far, we just had to look for a few yellow neckerchiefs in order to rejoin the nucleus of our group. I’m not sure how easy it would be to get a bunch of adults to wear anything matching, but it really simplifies a large guided tour. [Maybe our daughter should propose bright feather boas for her charges on Harvard Art Museum trips. Just a thought.]

The school group heads towards Minsk tomorrow, and Alla and I will be on our own until we get onto the train in three days. We’re looking forward to going inside some of the museums and perhaps hearing an opera or concert. We really don’t have enough time, so we’re already talking about a next trip. Prague is a really great city.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More information about “tourist class”

As I write this entry, we have not yet reached our tourist class hotel, though we have been seventeen hours on our bus trip. At one time they told us we’d reach our hotel in time for dinner at eight o’clock, which was a couple of hours ago. Now they keep telling us it’s three and a half hours more. Well, maybe they finally decided that it’s less than three and a half. It can’t stay three-and-a-half forever unless we’re going in circles and I don’t think I’ve seen anything twice yet.

For me it’s been fairly painless. The kids we’re traveling with are really nice and as far as I can tell Alla is the only one complaining. She still hasn’t mastered the subtle art of making the best of bad travel situations.

In my efforts to make the best of our present situation I apparently annoyed a few people just a little bit. It turns out that some folks wanted to sleep, and I was leading a little cluster of kids in song. I never fancied myself the underminer of sixth-grade decorum, and I was a real goody-two-shoes as a school kid. One of the advantages of growing up is one gets a better idea of what one can get away with, so I got away with my music and singing as long as I could. Now I am sitting quietly with my computer playing my goody-two-shoes role once again.

Anyway, this trip does nothing to change my general rule of thumb that bus travel should be my last choice. I’m glad I’m here, but I do look forward to the pleasures of the train ride we will take back home.

[Late breaking news: we arrived at the hotel three hours after I wrote the above post, 20 hours after we left Minsk. We are guessing that our driver took a wrong turn somewhere, but nobody is talking about it. That's life in tourist class!]

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is "tourist class?"

Tomorrow we are leaving for a week-long adventure with a grade-school group. Our friend Elena teaches 5th and 6th grade English, and she invited us along for their spring-break trip to Prague. We accepted right away, against the recommendations of all other friends who have ever been on a school trip. We figured Prague sounds like fun, and not only do we like Elena and her husband, but we also like as many of her students as we have met so far. How bad can it be?

To insure our sanity, we opted not to return with the class group on their 36-hour marathon return bus trip. OK, maybe it’s not 36 hours, but it’s enough more than 24 that I know I’m not interested. We’ll stay for a couple of extra days at a hotel of our choosing and come home on a first-class train. I’ve never been in a first-class sleeping car, so I’m excited about that.

I’m a little less excited about the hotels we’ll enjoy for the next three nights. They are “tourist class,” and I don’t actually know what that means. I’m sure it’s significantly different from first class, and I’m afraid it’s different from second class as well. How many classes are there? Elena offered to help us upgrade our hotel accommodations, but we figured we’d prefer to be with the group while we’re traveling with them. Relieved to know that we’ll have attached bathrooms, I didn’t think any further about what it might be like.

Now I have another clue. Elena called today to advise us to bring our own soap because we shouldn’t expect soap in our rooms. I can’t even remember the last time I stayed in a hotel that didn’t offer some kind of free soap. It’s going to be interesting, and I’ll be sure to post pictures whenever next I have internet access.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Issues of control

My classmate Ramazan and I like to talk. In fact, we used to annoy each other sometimes because I felt like he was monopolizing or controlling the classroom and he felt the same way about me. Fortunately, we both figured this out about each other and tempered our styles for the benefit of our class group. Our regular teacher does not have a controlling style, so we students had to work together and learn how to control ourselves. Life was good.

More recently, we added a new classmate who did not benefit from the experiences Ramazan and I shared together. As a result, it turned out that he dominated the class experience. When he wasn’t pressing his own agenda on the teacher, he was updating his Facebook page or engaging in conversation with other members of the class. In other words, his influence broke the sense of group effort that we had built and enjoyed up until that moment.

Ramazan got frustrated and announced that he wanted to move to another group. I agreed with him, and began trying to imagine how that might work and what I should ask for.

At this time, our much-beloved teacher got sent away on a business trip. The replacement teacher arrived with a much different educational style. She is fiercely protective of her lesson plan and determinedly egalitarian in how long each student is allowed to talk. We are flying through the material and learning effectively. More impressively, the new guy appears to be adapting really well. Yesterday he arrived on time, with books, and beginning Monday he promises to do his homework.

I don’t know how long this can keep up, and whether the momentum will continue after our regular teacher comes back from her business trip, but so far I am really impressed.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Another beauty pageant

We received an invitation to the city-wide beauty pageant following the recent pageant at my university. This came as a special pleasure because we had gotten to know one of the contestants. A beautiful, kind and outgoing Venezuelan girl named Silangel came in second at the Minsk State Linguistic University and joined me on the team representing our university to the Minister of Education. I like Silangel’s competitive spirit: When I congratulated her on her success, she griped about coming in second. I don’t think most of us would have griped about that, but I have some relatives who would and I understand that this sort of attitude is common among highly successful people.

At the city pageant, the first event was a test of cleverness. There’s a type of improvisational theater called KVN that’s popular in the Russian-speaking world, and the KVN player leading this segment nearly choked on her name. He decided that he’d like to do a sketch with her in which she was a teacher of Russian as a second language and explaining to him some new word or concept. My head spun as I imagined what I’d do in her place. She decided more quickly, choosing a very simple approach: She made him pronounce the word “thermometer,” which is more or less a cognate in Russian, Spanish and English. Because she carried it out with grace and authority, it worked out just fine.

We enjoyed seeing all the beautiful contestants and their talent presentations, but missed the fill-in acts that had been part of the earlier pageant at the university. Nightclub “Next” sponsored this show, and while they offered a very flashy environment they did not round up the sort of continuous stream of talent we enjoyed the first time. In fact, I got bored and hungry while waiting for the judges to make their decisions, and we decided to slip out. Our escape was aborted, however, by a radio reporter who came to interview me. He asked me lots of questions, some of which I answered satisfactorily. If I had known there would be a quiz, I suppose I would have paid more attention to the show. Anyway, he promised that I’d be on the radio tomorrow evening and I guess we’ll try to find Minskaya Volna at 7:00 tomorrow.

By the time I had finished my radio interview, the judges were returning so we returned as well. Celanngel ranked among the winners, and she will defend her title at another contest next week. We are grateful that we’ve been invited, but doubt that we will go since it comes just before we will leave for Prague. That, of course, will be a whole other story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Performing for the minister of education

Now I know what yesterday’s rehearsals were all about. A college expo opened today, with much fanfare. All or most of the Belarusian institutions of higher education set up booths
and exhibits at BelExpo, and I was part of the team representing the Minsk State Linguistic University.

The expo center boiled with activity as teams from various universities poured in. Cadets from a military college marched down the main aisle with their swords unsheathed, kids from the railroad school milled about in their super-cute uniforms, a dance crew strutted in wearing sequin-lame jumpsuits, and lots of people swarmed about wearing traditional Belarusian outfits. I was a member of this latter group, since traditional American clothes aren’t terribly interesting.

Presently, the minister of education came in like a kindly general inspecting his troops. He took his time with us, taking special note of the fact that even Americans come to MSLU. He also kidded me at the end of the presentation, for the fact that I had crib notes in my hand because I hadn’t memorized the song we sang to him. Finally, we presented him still-warm piroshky made in the University’s kitchen. He broke one open with great ceremony, showed everybody the abundant filling, and ate it with obvious pleasure.

We also ate piroshky with pleasure, as soon as he left. Our team had ordered a hundred of these little darlings, in three flavors. I was happy to try all three flavors, and agree with the general consensus that the mushroom variety was the best. Alla was disappointed that I didn’t have a bag with me so I could sneak one home to her, but with any luck I will figure out how to order a batch of these things from the stolovaya. They’d make great party food if I can get them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mission creep

I got a call yesterday from “Katya.” She didn’t say which Katya, but it turns out that I guessed correctly. She wanted me to show up this morning to help out with a little project at the university, calling for an international cluster of students who worked on a project together last year to make a short presentation at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

At this morning’s meeting we got our assignments. I was to play the part of a student from England. I was not allowed to play the part of an American because they couldn’t find any American flags anywhere in Minsk. We would have a rehearsal after our morning classes.

At the rehearsal I learned that the new gathering time would be 9:45 tomorrow morning, which meant that I wouldn’t get to any part of my classes. Fine. I came home and memorized my line, with pronunciation help and guidance from Alla. I also downloaded a picture of an American flag and got it printed two-sided on photo paper so I could regain my nationality.

Next thing I knew, the gathering time would be 8:30 a.m. and we will take a bus to I-don’t-know-where, and the line I learned has been completely revised. The new line included a word in Belarusian which even Alla didn’t know how to pronounce. I’ll at least take sufficient control to substitute the Russian version of the word. Now not only will I miss my entire class, I’ll miss my early-morning workout at the gym.

What do you think will be next? Will they let me go home for lunch? Dinner?

Note from the next day
I am unwilling to change the above text, but I'm sorry I let my petty frustration show through. The event turned out to be a whole lot of fun, and I am really glad I was invited to participate.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

That was different

Yesterday I led an English class. I wanted to say that I “taught” the class, but couldn’t bring myself even here on the internet to make such an outlandish claim. To be truthful, it wasn’t even a class. I responded to a call from a company that runs a private English-language program, asking me to lead an English-language conversation group. Practically the only specific information I got from the program director related to the time and place.

I lost my enthusiasm for this adventure when I found out that the “Miss MSLU” pageant would begin at the exact moment that my conversation group should end a kilometer or two away from my university’s beauty contest. I managed to get tickets to the pageant, and I called the private language school to see if they really wanted me to come. Yes, unfortunately they did.

Bound by my promise, I headed off to the private school and asked Alla to try to save me a seat at the beauty pageant. I arrived a little early and sat in a hot and crowded corridor with the gathering students. I chatted up as many as were willing to talk, and figured I had a pretty good head start on a pleasant hour of conversation with a manageably-small group. Finally, six o’clock rolled around and the program director sent us into a newly-vacated classroom. Simultaneously, students poured out of another classroom into ours, and more people walked in from the street. I had a full house.

I asked the students how other visiting native speakers had run things to best advantage, but none of them had been in any such situation. So next I asked them if they’d like me to try to lead this large group in a two-way dialog or if they’d just like me to tell them stories. One student asked for stories and everybody else remained silent. I tried to locate any dissenting opinions, but the only other people to speak allowed as how stories would be fine, so that’s what they got.

I actually did have a good time, and I did succeed in getting some audience interaction. If I do it again, I’ll come prepared with more of the kinds of stories that they appeared to like best. My role felt more like that of entertainer than teacher, but I enjoy attention so that was fine with me. It’s really about all I’d know how to do with such a large and diverse group with no lesson plan anyway.

At seven o’clock I brought the festivities to an abrupt close and shot out of the building and straight over to MSLU, where I squeezed down a virtual birth canal of people standing in the aisle until I reached Alla, miraculously saving me a seat in the third row. I enjoyed the beauty pageant even more than I enjoyed the language school, and I’m strongly tempted to go to the city-wide pageant next month. Our event featured not only the talented and beautiful contestants, but other talented performers between competitions. City-wide should be even better, right?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is this repeatable?

I am taking salsa dance lessons, something Alla and I have been intending to do for a long time. Unfortunately, Alla was not feeling up to dancing when the class started, so I went to the first two lessons alone last week. Wanting to practice and solidify what I learned, I agreed to meet some of my fellow students at a dance club this evening.

I showed up just after seven p.m. and saw a few people already dancing and others mingling at tables. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize anybody from my class and I felt awkward about patrolling around and peering at everybody sitting in the cozy booths at the side of the room. So I sat down on a stool near the dance floor and decided that at least I could watch people dance and try to absorb a sense of style and a few moves. I did notice a few unattached women in the area, but felt decidedly uneasy about foisting myself on any of them. In the first place, I don’t know many steps and I felt pretty confident that I’d be a boring partner after a few moments. And in the second place, I doubted that any of these women would really want to be taken out of circulation when a more age-appropriate and availability-appropriate partner might come along.

After a while, a young woman sat down across the room and looked at me like she wouldn’t be offended if I came to talk. So I did. I told her that I felt odd there because I don’t know many steps at all, and that I was sorry that none of my dance-classmates had arrived. She said that she didn’t know a whole lot of steps either, and the guy she wanted to dance with hadn’t shown up yet. “So,” I asked, “do you want to dance with me?”

She said yes. But when I tried to dance with her, she asked me what I was doing. It turns out that the only steps I know are for a different style of music, and I needed to know a whole new set of steps for this music. So she taught me, very patiently, until I got it. I mean, she was REALLY patient. So we danced until I could more-or-less repeat everything she taught me without coaching and we both agreed that we needed a break. She stayed with me, with no apparent embarrassment, to sit down over mineral water and have a chat.

Ultimately we had a new problem when her guy came in. He came over and introduced himself, and then went off to dance with another girl. My kind new friend suggested that we should go out and lock down what she’d taught me, so we danced a bit longer. Then I told her that I felt bad about keeping her away from her young man. She said that it was traditional for the guy to do the asking, and I pointed out that this might be difficult for him while I was dancing with her, so I took her over to his table and we both sat down with him. After a few minutes’ pleasantries, I headed home and left my young lady with the guy she was hoping to see.

What really tickles me about this is the openness of this young woman to spend an hour with me while she was waiting for her friend to arrive. It’s really hard to imagine that this would have happened in the U.S. Maybe that’s just because I’ve never been in such a situation before, but I suspect I am here the beneficiary of a culture where families do more things together. We’ll see. And I’m curious if it will work for Alla next time as well. It’s great spending a little while with a partner who knows some new steps.