Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Summer Institute 2009

I returned to Luhansk for the fourth time in as many years, to teach for Franklin Pierce University’s Summer Language Institute. Despite the short time between when my day job ended and my flight, I arrived in the city reasonably well rested and ready to go.
The flight from Boston to Amsterdam went well, with no major drama in the air, although I lost my phone either on the plane or in Schiphol airport. The loss of the phone was problematic, as it meant that I had lost my address book, with all of my Ukrainian contacts in it. I spent most of my 6 hour layover in Amsterdam trying to track the thing down; I finally gave up and found a place to hunker down with a cup or two of coffee.

The four hour in Kiev was mostly pleasant. It took forever to get past Immigration, for reasons that I could not quite understand. There were plenty of people working in the Foreign Desk and they seemed to moving with some speed. I spent an hour playing peek-a-boo with an adorable little boy, who was behaving excellently in such a crowded, hot, line. Besides the peek-a-boo, we also “flew” some action figures around. Finally, I was waved to the Domestic Desk and was out of there in two minutes.

While making my way past the frenzied sharks that are the Kiev taxi corps, I had to lug my luggage around the airport to the outdoor cafй between the international and domestic terminals. I had a few grivnas left over from last year, enough to get an order of fries and a beer. I was starting to get worried, as they kept announcing in Ukrainian, Russian, and English that many of the domestic flights were being delayed. Without my phone, I would have no way of making new arrangements with my Luhansk University contacts.

As it turned out, the delayed flights were all going to the Crimea. Crimea is a major tourist destination and I was traveling on a Ukrainian holiday weekend. That Sunday was Constitution Day and many people were going to Sevastpol and Yalta for a long weekend. My flight to Donets went without incident, except for having to pay 77grivnas ($10) for an extra 5 kilos of luggage; that was a shocker, as I had packed very light this year.

I arrived in Donetz at 11pm and my colleague Irina and our driver found me pretty quickly. The luggage retrieval in Donetz is the most efficient system I have ever seen. The luggage is taken from the plan and put on a truck. The truck follows the bus carrying the passengers from the runway to the terminal and when we get off the bus, we unload our suitcase and are free to go. Retrieving a suitcase in the domestic terminal in Kiev is a nightmare; the room where you pick up the suitcase is very small (20x30 feet) and suitcases for all of the incoming flights are run past a slow moving, short conveyor. Getting a cart anywhere near the conveyor is out of the question and the queue is more akin to a mosh pit.

The drive to Luhansk is two hours, and I did catnap in the car. Irina and I made plans to meet at breakfast and planned out the week. Because Sunday and Monday were a national holiday, the ladies of the university cafй only had to feed me brunch and I was free to explore the city and fend for myself (and they were free to rejoin their families). I took the opportunity to see how the recession is affecting the city.

I was expecting many more obvious signs of economic distress, but was glad to be wrong. The most obvious change is the closure of the ubiquitous casinos. I latter learned from one of my students that this was a change in the government policy; the national government revoked the licenses for the casinos and is reimbursing the license owners for their cost. The decision seems to be loved or hated along party lines. Supporters of the current government seem to support the decision. Everyone, however, seems to believe that the system needed reform and that too many licenses were issued.

The construction that was ever-present on the Soviet and Defense Streets axes has come to a close, but the projects are completed. The multiplex movie theater is finally finished and seems to be doing a brisk business. One of my students and her mother invited me to view a showing of African violets which is going on in the theater. It was quite nice; my mom used to raise African violets when I was a boy, but these were fancy varieties and quite pretty. The new office buildings have not gotten any tenants, as far as I can tell (although they are still working on the interiors), but the stores seem to be doing a brisk business, even the high end ones.

We started class on Tuesday with the traditional ceremonies. I had an opportunity to meet with Acting Rector Savchenko for a chat and a cup coffee before the ceremonies. He is always quite interested in the workings of the Summer Institute and we caught up on news from both Universities.

Dr. Savchenko then offered to organize a trip to the University’s archeological dig at Olvia (Olbia) on the Black Sea. Olvia was a Greek colony of the Melanesians, founded in the 5th century BC, and went through various incarnations until being abandoned during the early Byzantine period. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. I will not only be visiting, but told I will participate as well. Since I was not expecting to be doing “dirty work,” I will have to buy a few t-shirts and another pair of shorts. But this is a dream come true for me and I would not miss it for the world.

Irina and I decided a few months ago that we would spend more time dealing with business topics, so I had some preparation to do before class. This week was spent looking at the economic crisis and the US government’s response. The students were quite interested in the causes of the crisis and had some interesting ideas about how Ukraine should be handling the situation. Like any group of people, my students could not agree to a solution.

On Saturday, I spent the Fourth of July playing baseball with my students. Teaching about baseball is a tradition in the Summer Institute and one of my old students even joined us for the game. We were almost rained out, but as nine o’clock rolled around, the rain stopped. The field we normally play at was going to be a muddy disaster, but one of the students knew about an artificial turf field behind the university. It turns out this was the perfect field for a game of baseball; level, clean, and clear marks where we could set our bases. An apartment block stood over the field, and soon we had a bit of an audience. Several sat on the benches around the field, while many watched from their balconies and windows.

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