(Or Alana is no longer anonymous and has held pigeons IN HER HANDS)
My presence in Vitebsk cannot be described as one of the city’s best kept secrets. From the moment that I stepped foot in the university building, I was photographed, and my work was described at length on the University’s website. Little did I know, but that was just the first step in an extensive list of publicity garnering experiences.
During one of many conversations I had on my first day at the university, someone mentioned that a Belarusian newspaper would want to write an article about me and what I will be doing. This made sense. I imagine that my own hometown newspaper would do the same if a foreign teacher came to the local high school to teach a foreign language.
However, on the day of my interview, I quickly realized that the Lewistown Sentinel’s methods and those of the local newspaper were vastly different. On September 4, I arrived at the university prepared to have my photo taken and a few questions asked. I dressed professionally – pencil skirt and blazer finished off with U.S. Embassy in Belarus pins – and made sure that my wild curly hair was in a more domesticated state than usual.
When I arrived at the university, I was ushered into a classroom with about 20 first year students staring at me with curiosity and surprise. After a few of us introduced ourselves, the door opened yet again and in rushed a man in a leather jacket toting a camera. His lips moved at the pace of a machine gun (in Russian), and he zipped around the room moving chairs and students all the while giving me directions. Somehow, I managed to keep up and enthusiastically waved my arms, pretending to be teaching something absolutely fascinating. I sat where he told me, wielded the textbooks he handed me, and all the while prayed that my new students wouldn’t think I was insane.
The students were wonderfully tolerant of the disruption all the while looking about a bit startled by the situation that had been plopped into their laps. Suddenly, the journalist decided that he had had enough of me in the classroom and asked for a stack of books. Unfortunately, all of the textbooks in Russian and English in the classroom were locked behind glass doors. What remained was a stack of Polish textbooks. Unfazed, the journalist snatched the books, put them in my arms and directed me in the hall where I was photographed in a dozen different positions in the middle of the hallway as my new students looked on in amusement.
We then proceeded to the dean’s office where yet again everything was shuffled and rearranged. Some pens were deemed acceptable (the gold, shiny ones, of course) while others were tucked away in a drawer, their plastic bodies better left unseen. Laying on the dean’s desk were children’s books written in both Russian and English. The dean presented these to me and the journalist asked me to show the deans these books as he photographed us. I was a bit bewildered but proceeded to grin widely and gestured at the pictures of princesses as if they were important theories of American pedagogy.
We left the dean to his administrative work and proceeded to the front of the university building where I and two of my fellow teachers had action shots taken of us strutting toward the camera. By the end of it all, I was thoroughly exhausted and massaging my tired smile muscles but was tickled by all of the excitement so early in my adventure.
Just a few days later, a local journalist called me to do another feature about me, this time in the local Vitebsk newspaper. We agreed to meet near my apartment which was just a block away from the newspaper’s main office. We sat in the office and she asked me all kinds of questions ranging from my interest in Russian to my taste in Belarusian food. The resulting article was a very fun little depiction of me and my culinary tastes.
At this point I thought that my media appearances had ended only to receive a surprising call yesterday (September 17) from a Belarusian television station, ONT.by. I was trying to get my first-year discussion class set up and things were not going well. I had planned to make a hotspot for my computer using my Belarusian phone, but things weren’t quite working. In the middle of my fretting, I was beckoned to the department’s main office to answer a phone call. I rushed over, trying to imagine who would want to talk to me and was surprised to hear a voice asking if I would be ok with being filmed during my class. I nervously agreed, praying that things would shape up before their arrival.
Rushing back to the classroom where my equally confused students sat waiting for me, I tried to push aside any nerves I was feeling about being filmed. Luckily, the hotspot connected, and we were off. In the middle of my class, a man walked in with a large camera and he bounced around the room filming me from different angles as well as my students’ reactions and the silly phrases I was writing on the board (one of which was “I love cats”). The students were wonderfully tolerant, but I could tell that it was unnerving for them to have a cameraman filming them as they gathered the courage to speak a foreign language.
After class ended I was filmed in my department’s office, dramatically walking down the hallway and again in front of the university building. As I did my catwalk from the university doors to the sidewalk I noticed two unfamiliar students standing behind the camera watching my little performance with amusement. I gave them a wry look and raised my eyebrows trying to convey that I was just as surprised and amused as they were. When the journalist joined me one of the students asked if he could take a picture holding the journalist’s microphone (the kind with the news emblem on it). I assumed that he would want to be photographed with his friend but instead he asked to be photographed with me as if he was interviewing me. So, somewhere out there floating in the Instagram universe is a photo of me standing with a bright yellow microphone before my face.
The adventure was nowhere near over. The journalist and cameraman (both named Oleg) drove me to the center of the city, near my apartment, to film me on the brick streets of the city’s historic area. As we walked to the old city, we passed by a place where the city’s pigeons congregate to be fed by locals. The journalist came to a halt and gave me a mischievous look. “Have you ever fed pigeons before?” he asked. Looking at him with surprise (and a bit of terror) I answered that I had not, and before I could say another word he asked the woman to pour some of her seeds in my hands so that “the American guest” could feed the pigeons.
Within seconds I was SWARMED. They were on my arms and shoulders and flapping their wings around my face and ears. Not wanting to betray my utter shock on national television, I instead channeled all energy and emotion in laughter (although this may have just made me look crazy). As one handful of seeds disappeared the kind lady, who seemed quite amused by my experience, dumped more in my hands.
Suddenly, the pigeons launched into a jealous attack on one another in my hands. I watched with horror as one pigeon began pecking and pulling the feathers out of another’s neck. One pigeon alighted on me with a large tumor above his eye, and I suspect it was from a battle like the one happening in my palms. When just a few more seeds remained, I chucked them to the ground and looked at my hands as if they were not my own. They had become a feathered battleground and to my horror there was evidence of the battle left behind: a bloody smudge. I frantically felt around in my bag for the hand sanitizer I had brought with me (thanks, mom!) and scrubbed away the red mark all the while trying to remember what the symptoms of bird flu are, so I could monitor my health over the next few days.
Oleg and Oleg walked me around a bit more, asked me a few more questions and eventually dropped me off at my apartment where I plopped on my sofa trying to understand what had just happened to me. I devoured the pelmeni (dumplings with meat) sitting in my fridge and set off on my next task trying not to think about what it would be like to see my face blurred by pigeons on Belarusian television. (Here is a link to the video.)
Between errands, I stopped at my favorite little café where I sat to begin drafting this post. I sat and sipped on my citrus-berry tea when I noticed someone walking towards me. It was one of the young baristas who work at the café. I remembered him because the last time he asked me where I was from (I still can’t shake my American accent). He plunked a cup of coffee in front of me and I looked at him smiling but puzzled because I had not ordered any coffee. He smiled sheepishly and shuffling his feet said that it was an Americano for me, the American. I grinned (and am sure that I also blushed a deep shade of red) not sure what to say except a cheery “спасибо!” (thank you!). He retreated back to the kitchen as I smiled after him, still unsure of what to say and trying to hold in my flattered giggles. There is no way he could have known how much I needed that act of kindness, but he certainly made my day. That hot cup of Americano erased all fears of bird flu and reminded me of just how lucky I am to be in Vitebsk.