Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Home from Luhansk

Since I made it home I have been constantly on the go, so I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss how the Summer Institute and the trip home went, so here goes, albeit late.

The Summer Institute did go very well this year. We had a much larger group of students this year and their skill levels varied considerably. To keep things sane and to make sure all the students got something out of class, Irina, my Ukrainian teaching colleague split the students into two mixed sections, and making sure we had students of different skill levels in each section. Over the course of the 4 weeks, we went over (besides English) US business culture, US history, American Literature, and American Cinema. The students really seemed to like the curriculum and worked very hard. I can honestly say that we made some real progress. Dr. Kurylo, the Luhansk University President, who came to graduation and knows some of the students, noted the improvement in his speech as well.

This year’s students were a very social bunch. On the third Saturday, they organized a “sashlik” or traditional barbeque at the University farm. I felt kind of bad as they were all working like demons to prepare the food while Mary and I just hung out and chatted. I did help find some firewood, which was the least I could do. There is a cool little river (the border with Russia) and some “frolicking” ensued. The weather was perfect for a swim and we made a few trips there during the day. We also went target shooting in the woods. I am apparently a pretty good shot; I won my first round. Dr. Shevchenko, the acting rector, and my dear friend Victor showed up so the “adults” had a little side get together. Mary and I rode home in one of our students Nissan Armada, which he bought in New York and shipped to Ukraine.

On the last Thursday, we held a combined class in the morning, leaving the afternoon for a trip to the champagne factory near Donetz. This place was pretty neat. It was built into an old gypsum mine, so you have to travel through the old mine shafts to get around. All the while, trucks and other vehicles speed past you moving product or equipment around. It was definitely pretty impressive. Everywhere you look, you see stacks of bottles of sparkling wine (since working on EU membership they can no longer call it champagne) in various stages of aging and fermentation. In the caverns carved out of the mountain, these aging racks go on as far as the eye can see. The tour ended with a tasting, where we sampled various types of their products and I have to say I am a fan of the “brut.” Most Ukrainians seem to like the semi-sweet.

On the way home our van died. Gennady, our Georgian driver, and I tinkered with the thing, but the pulley that held the belt for the cooling system seized up and there was nothing to be done with it but wait the two hours while other cars showed up from Luhansk. We took the opportunity to relax and have a little picnic on the side of the road. I learned a little about Georgia from Gennady (which has come in handy since Russia invaded them last week) and talked shop with Irina. If I had to be stuck on the side of the road, hours from home, in a place where I only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language, that was the place and those were the people to do it with.

Graduation went off the next day without a hitch. The student presentations were great and everybody had a good time. A lot of us just hung out afterwards because we just didn’t want to say goodbye. Eventually, we were shooed out of the hall because Mary and I had an appointment with the CEO of the Luga-Nova Vodka factory.

I had met their CEO, Leonid, at a party in New Hampshire a few months earlier, so after exchanging greetings he took us on a tour of the facilities. The factory is very impressive and an interesting combination of old and new technology. The factory makes many varieties of vodka and each had its own infusion process for flavor. The factory was shut down for the week as all of the workers were sent on vacation in Crimea. The tour ended with a delicious lunch in the worker’s cafeteria, which is probably the nicest one I have ever seen. Leonid takes very good care of his workers and the US could learn a lot from him. After a generous sampling of Luga-Nova’s latest brands, Mary and I went back to the hotel for a well deserved nap.

Saturday morning was spent packing and cleaning up the hotel room. It is truly amazing how much junk accumulates after a month! Mary and I had a lunch date with some of our students, so we met them and walked to the restaurant, which was across the street from the library. I hadn’t been down that street this trip to Luhansk, so I was pretty impressed with the renovations to the library building. Since we had troubles saying goodbye again, the lunch lasted about 5 hours (!) which was fine for me as I was in very pleasant company. No sooner was lunch over than the teaching team went out for a quiet dinner in a very cool Uzbek restaurant.

The next morning, Mary and I flew into Kiev without incident but all of the plans we had made to explore and go to the Buddha Bar were dashed against the rocks of our own exhaustion. We managed to get some dinner in before completely dying for the night in the Hotel Lybid.
The real drama started when we tried to get out of Kiev. Our ride showed up early, which was great, and the ride to the airport was without incident. We got in line to check in, but this guy about three people in front of us took about ½ hour to get checked in. My blood pressure continued to rise as the minutes ticked past. Finally he got out of the way and the two people in front of us breezed past, lowering my blood pressure. Then Mary and I got to the front of the line. The woman takes one look at us and starts talking away in Russian or Ukrainian and everyone around us starts to get angry. Luckily it was not us that they were angry with; Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) had overbooked our flight; not by one or two, but by, as it appeared, close to 40 people. They finally found someone who spoke English to explain this to us, which means I was number 40 in line when I hit the ticket counter to make new arrangements.

There were a few ways this could have been handled. The best way would have been to have five or six people gather our information and figure out who needed to get to Amsterdam and who did not. Those of us going elsewhere could then find new connections and move on quickly. The second best way would have been to have five or six people deal only with us who got bumped. Then there was option number three- have two people available to deal with an increasingly hostile mob around the kiosk, one of whom was dealing exclusively with a party of 14 French people trying to stay together, and one person who took lots of breaks and seemed incapable of making any decision without first consulting the woman dealing with the French people. And then there were the people who had regular business at the kiosk.

After an hour and a half of jostling for a place in line, I finally got to the woman not dealing with the French people and in pretty amazing time got a flight to Boston via Frankfurt. The best part was that the flight was on Lufthansa in Business Class. I have never had the money to fly business class, so this was a real treat. Business class has big seats, amazing food and drinks, and a pre-flight lounge, which was pretty sweet. The best part was actually getting in two hours earlier than expected. My wife and I had plans for dinner that night and we were concerned that those would be disrupted by our friends at KLM. Susan was a real trooper, rearranging Mary’s limo service back to New Hampshire and staying awake late into the night to stay informed of the situation.

The flight into Boston, after the drama in Kiev, went pretty well. Susan and I had a wonderful early dinner at The Burren in Somerville and within a few hours I settled in my own bedfor a well deserved rest.

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