None of my first days of school can compare to the first day of school for the philological department at Vitebsk State University. During our meeting the day before, the dean had asked me to say a little something at the first day of school opening ceremony. I nodded my head in agreement with a smile. He then suggested that I speak not only in my native English but also in Russian. Hiding my nerves, I smiled broadly and agreed all the while trying to convince myself that I do indeed speak Russian and wasn’t just making it up. Before having left the U.S., I had promised myself that I would say yes to everything asked of me (excepting anything dangerous or illegal), and I decided to hold myself to it.
At VSU, Saturday is a working day and the university was not going to postpone first day festivities just because September 1 fell on a weekend. I got up that morning with much excitement and trepidation as well as the remaining effects of jetlag. I put on a brand new, bright blue dress for courage and stepped out of my new apartment. L, who I had met the night before, met me at the entrance to my apartment and we took a marshrutka (a van that is a type of public transport that is a bit more expensive than others but much faster) to the university. It was dark inside the little van and surrounded by new people and a still rather foreign language, I bent my neck to peer out of the curtained windows to see my new city.
L called out to the driver to stop at the next bus stop and we got out. We then made the long climb up twelve flights of stairs to the sixth floor, home to the philological department. There I was given a brief tour and introduced to some of my new colleagues (I still feel strange calling them my colleagues as I am not anywhere near their level of experience). Again, I was greeted with smiles and warm welcomes that bolstered my courage for my quickly approaching public introduction.
L, O, and I descended the stairs to the first floor and walked towards the auditorium. It suddenly hit me just how many people would see me trip through my mixture of English and Russian. By that point, my new shoes had begun to rub my heels and I was a bit uncomfortable. I wobbled my way into the auditorium where people hustled about trying to sit with their classmates. Some of the details leading up to my introduction are fuzzy in my memory as I was very focused on trying to remember what I wanted to say. The dean walked onto the stage and announced that an American guest would be part of the faculty for the year. It took me a moment to realize he was talking about me, but when I realized I wobbled my way on stage and stood next to the dean.
I took the microphone and began my little speech in English. I do not really remember what I said. What I do remember is that the first words I said in Russian were greeted by rather loud applause by the nearly 1,000 people in the room. After I retired the microphone, the Dean gifted me with a mug from the department along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
The rest of the ceremony consisted of several dance numbers of different styles from ballet to hip hop as well as several song performances and poetry readings. I was very impressed by the organization of the event as well as the students’ overall excitement on the very first day (remember, this was a Saturday).
After the ceremony ended, I with O, L, and another teacher, V, walked to collect my registered passport from the police station. This happened without the bureaucratic rigors of the previous day, and I happily went on a walk with my new friend V as O and L dutifully went back to work. V showed me around some parts of the city that I had not yet visited, including a large monument to the soldiers lost during World War II. The square on which it is located is the biggest in Belarus and may even be the largest in Europe. We then had a light lunch of draniki (potato pancakes) for me and pasta for her. We finished up our outing with a walk along the Dvina river.
Later that evening, O texted me and invited me to go see a movie. She asked me if I was up for an experimental type of Belarusian movie. I was so excited to see what that could be. On our way to see the film, we ran into a few of O’s students and had a lovely chat on the sidewalk. I really do love the students here. They are all so curious and excited to study languages!
After our serendipitous meeting with the students we made our way to the movie theater. The film is called Crystal Swan (Хрусталь, in Russian). For any of my friends interested in contemporary cinema, especially related to Slavic culture, it’s a must see! The movie takes place in the 1990s and tells the story of a girl in her twenties who is obsessed with house music and is trying to get a visa to go to the US to see where house music began – Chicago. Unfortunately, her visa application, submitted with a falsified document about her employment, include the phone number of a woman living in a region outside of Minsk. She goes to Minsk to try to catch the call and much drama ensues. The film’s style reminds me a bit of Lady Bird. Fun fact: Crystal Swan was selected as the Belarusian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The following day was a very relaxed Sunday for me. I met up with L and we went for a jog around a lovely creek. I hadn’t had a running buddy since high school, and I was so glad she invited me. The camaraderie was nice even though I huffed and puffed my out-of-shape body along. Later that day, I had tea with O and L and two of their lovely students. It was a pleasant weekend indeed.
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