Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Minsk Journal: Who Wants to Go To...

Wednesday, September 21
Minsk, Belarus

Random quote for the day: “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.” - VI Lenin (surely its OK to drop a Lenin quote now and again)

Given the world of 12 months ago and the one of today it seems appropriate insofar as everything is turning upside down as the quest for something vaguely approximating fairness keeps surfacing. And, no, that's not a political statement (or if it is it has the legs of a millipede).

Random image of the day: Alexandra Shpartova in rehearsal for "America" from "West Side Story."

I find, as is so often the case, that the imbalance between the world I encounter and the world about which I read is at war in my head. The macro world seems bent on splitting itself into a thousand pieces, and more often than not for completely reasonable reasons. Greece the entity is plunging towards default -- and some economists are recommending that path as the lesser of two extraordinary evils. Day-by-day we whittle away at our sense and sensibility about the planet and become mired in the semantics of climate change and lose our way with the simple fact that, whether you believe its a man-made thing or not its happening and we have the power to do something about it -- and in so doing to tackle issues of ecological justice in our stewardship of the planet, our economic situation vis a vis job growth and sustainability, our responsibility to our own health (have yet to find anyone who will tell you that breathing China's air these days is actually GOOD for you) and so much more.

It leads you too easily towards the metaphorical bottle of little blue pills on the nightstand.

Yet every time that comes at me -- which is typically every time I read the New York Times online -- its countered by a daily reality -- one profoundly grounded in art now -- that counters it so forcefully that I don't know how to reconcile the opposites. Perhaps they attract, but if so its a dysfunctional attraction. Day-by-day I encounter more people whose vision, grace, humor and talent make me believe that anything is possible -- and that anything we imagine can be made real. I see it every single day all over the world.

In the past six months I've been in Israel twice, the West Bank twice, Kazakhstan twice, Belarus twice Peru, Switzerland, Iceland, the Czech Republic and China. In a few days I'll be in Spain for a week and then in Kyrgyzstan and possibly Russia for a week at a time. And in each of those places I've been confounded and comforted by the simple kindness of people and the talent they evoke in their art, their daily lives and their perseverance.

Tonight at a reception at the US Embassy for the incoming Public Affairs Officer here, Carrie Lee, I watched a lawn fill up with arts and cultural leaders in a country whose diplomatic relations with the US suck (sorry, its the right word) and for whom the entrance through the gates is an act of courage. Yet there was nothing political about the evening -- or there was everything political about it. That's the point, I suppose -- how do we look things? There was an evening of quiet comfort and of people talking gently, sincerely and eagerly about ways that things can be made better through the simple acts of engagement that are the centerpiece of everything we hope to do at Company E. I'm not suggesting we were a significant part of the evening. We weren't and we weren't meant to be. But in being here at all we are a part of a discussion about enrichment and that, to quote JFK, "makes all the difference."

Late in the course of the reception, as the sky grew that strangely magical deep blue it does here after sunset but before dark, I had the chance to talk briefly with two Fullbrighters on the lawn hard by the wine-bar. The Chargé was off to the side doing what he does so well - making people feel at home in a diplomatically estranged environment (not an easy feat and I know no one who does it better than Mike). They've both only been here a week or two, and they're teaching English at two of the major universities. I'd met one when we shared a ride upon arrival a week and a half ago. Exactly what you hope for in a person coming into a new environment -- curious, wickedly bright, capable and gracious. I asked her how the week had been and what she said was so utterly true of every encounter I've had in these past months -- "I can't get over how nice people are here." And its utterly true of Minsk. This is a deeply affectionate country, for lack of a better way to put it. People feel so at ease with each other -- far more than we seem at home most of the time. There is a gentle physicality that conveys ease and reassurance and comfort which I think underpins the strength of the people to take on what for us would be enormous hardships.

The conversation turned to the idea that here, in a country we don't know, lay the endless possibilities of discovery. That, as I have written about "West Side Story" the old saw that there is nothing new in the world is not true at all. There is. And you find it by putting your finger on the map in places which aren't "destinations." You find it in Huancayo and Piura in Peru. You find it in a walk down the nervous streets of Algiers. You find it in Minsk and Almaty and I suspect in Bishkek. I remember so clearly that sense in Venice -- but not on the Rialto. It was in the old squares where Kelly and I found our way into a part of the city that lived in the bubble of community.

For me, in so many ways, this is where the magic of cultural engagement lies. As powerfully as I want us to perform in London and Berlin, the impact of a "very long engagement" in Belarus and Kazakhstan is the place where, I think, the impact lasts.

We talked about the idea that there is no Belarus guidebook. In a day when there are guidebooks to everything that idea was both funny and perplexing. And yet its so needed, because this is a place of endless beauty, grace, kindness and nature at work with the population. The news, when it talks about Belarus at all, is terrible -- deservedly so in the sense that there is enormous injustice here.

Yet, just when the lights go dim in your head about the possibilities of the world, you find two young Americans on an Embassy lawn in deepening twilight, or Anastasiya, the dancer who has made me see the possibilities of "West Side" in ways I would never have done without her, and you are reminded that we have it in us to make it work.

I hope that, a year or two hence, a new generation of tour books might emerge, beginning with one from Belarus -- "Who Wants to Go To...." The first title could easily be "Belarus." The answer -- "You Do."

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