What is the meaning of life? Find out in the last blog post made by one of my multimedia journalism students http://lisarmorina.wordpress.com/
Here’s another final blog post by one of my Multimedia Journalism students. The subject is about what inspires people. She went on a truly rewarding blogging journey this semester! Read about it here and find out how Twitter can change lives. My Last Post or Why Blogging is So Inspiring.
My multimedia students are finishing up their semester. Thought I’d share some of their blogs with my readers. This one is about books and reading. Check out her videos, too. You can see what some of my students have been up to! Famous Last Words.
TODAY I MET A WOMAN MY AGE IN RUSSIA WHO ATE ONLY SUGAR CUBES AND POTATOES WHEN SHE WAS PREGNANT WITH TWINS. That’s all the food they had. Her husband had a job in a factory, but he didn’t get paid any money for several years so they got paid in sugar cubes. When I asked her how she survived that, she said she didn’t know and she doesn’t want to remember because it was “very difficult” and that she was hungry “all the time” for several years. I couldn’t help but look at this lovely woman sitting across from me drinking tea in her kitchen, surrounded by art projects her daughters made as they were growing up, and think that could have been me, if not for a twist of fate.
MY ANCESTORS ARE FROM RUSSIA. When my grandfather was a young boy, he somehow escaped the Pogroms and got on a boat to America. I have additional relatives that came to America from Russia (present-day Belarus and Poland). As a child, I would hear whispers about far away cities such as Grodno and Brezin, but no one in my family seemed to want to talk about the past. For many years, I proudly displayed the large brass Samovar my grandfather brought with him – the only thing he was allowed to carry on the ship to America- in the dining room of my home in Minnesota. It was something that connected me to my past and made me think that I came from a people who were strong and brave to cross an ocean to a land they didn’t know.
TODAY, BECAUSE OF ANOTHER TWIST OF FATE, I AM IN RUSSIA. Last year, I moved to Bulgaria with my husband to teach journalism and documentary filmmaking at the American University in Bulgaria. AUBG is the most prestigious university in the Balkan region with students from 44 countries who come to Blagoevgrad to get an American-style liberal arts education in English. (For those of you from Minnesota, AUBG is like the Macalester of the Balkans.) A few weeks ago, I was thrilled when I was notified that I was selected to help recruit high school students from Russia to our fascinating school. This is what brings me back to the land of my ancestors. Before I left, several people warned me to “be careful” and “don’t get in any trouble.” Even though the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was officially abolished in 1991, everyone has heard lately about how the Pussy Riot band members are on trial for speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. My family and friends wanted to make sure I didn’t say or do anything wrong. Few Americans have ever been to Russia, so all we have is our pre-conceived notions of what this country is really like.
TO MY SURPRISE, RUSSIA SEEMS A LOT LIKE AMERICA IN MANY WAYS. This might sound strange to people who study politics and war, but I study and observe human nature and human behavior. What I am seeing is people who look and act like Americans in many ways.
1. RUSSIANS SHOP A LOT. There are big shopping malls and American chain stores such as Adidas, Starbucks and Benetton in every major city. Large pedestrian-only streets are packed with shoppers carrying several bags, many of them from those stores. Many young women in extremely high heels are dressed like models from New York and there are children in Nikes and t-shirts with English slogans. Men in jeans and sweaters are indistinguishable from any American city. Everyone has a cell phone. I’ve also seen many young people with iPads and iPhones in schools where there are few, if any, computers for students.
2. RUSSIANS EAT ALOT. McDonalds in Saratov, a port city on the Volga River about 500 miles south of Moscow, was packed. Traditional bakeries filled with delicious sweets are jammed with families taking a break from shopping. I ate my first “Rum Baba,” which is an incredibly delicious raisin bread soaked in rum (but you can’t taste the rum) from one of the best bakeries I’ve ever visited. Tourists (if there were any in Saratov) would go crazy over this spot. Grocery stores in all cities I have visited are full of products from all over the world. One market had prepared food for take away, just like Whole Foods. The “cafeteria ladies” in the school canteens where we are recruiting proudly display the healthy food they make including borscht, kasha and stuffed cabbage rolls (all food from my childhood). In one school, I had the best cheese blini (my grandmother called them “blintzes”) I have ever eaten along with “compote,” a fabulous boiled juice drink made with fresh fruit. And Russians are obsessed with tea! Even the kids in school drink tea from a young age. The overnight train I was on from Moscow to Saratov was in poor condition, but the teacups were beautiful.
3. RUSSIANS TALK A LOT, except on the tram, in subways and in train stations where everyone is stone-faced and extremely quiet. My traveling partner, AUBG recruiter Svetlana Bondar, calls that look “the wall.” But get Russians in the lobby of a theater after a play, and you will hear them chatting and debating what they just saw. Every city I visited had multiple theaters that are full every night of the week. While in Yekaterinburg, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov as well as an engaging performance of “ Squaring the Circle “ by a famous Russian playwright Valentin Kataev, courtesy an AUBG parent. Even though it was in Russian, I understood both performances and I especially enjoyed the Kataev play because it was a funny story about two married couples sharing the same apartment. Best of all, one of the lead actors was the father of an AUBG student, which made the evening very special. Both shows were packed with people of all ages. No one on cell phones, no one tweeting, no one sleeping. The entire audience was riveted. It made me wish that American young people were equally engaged in the arts instead of their video games and sports teams. This love for theater also explains why so many of our AUBG students wouldn’t miss the end-of-the semester school plays, even when they are performed at midnight during finals week.
4. RUSSIAN TV PROGRAMS LOOK LIKE OURS. Last night I saw a Russian version of “American Idol,” several old war movies, a boxing match, an Oprah-like makeover show of hefty women, various news programs, talk shows, cartoons and even the “Disney Channel” on Sunday morning. If I turned off the sound, I wouldn’t know where I was.
Now, here is where we are not alike:
1. THE FREE SPEECH ISSUE: This is a big one. Since I have been here, the Pussy Riot case has been in the news and one of the Pussy Riot members was freed but the rest are still in prison. Not one single Russian person I have met has talked about this issue with me in public. In private, some Russians have explained to me that you can speak out about anything here except for few sacred things: Putin and religion. Yesterday I saw this on CNN:
“The government has introduced numerous new restrictions to freedom of expression in recent months. As this decision demonstrates, Russia’s judiciary is unlikely to offer much protection to those who fall foul of them.”
In private, I have heard concerns about the direction this country is heading under President Putin, whose recent election stirred protests and accusations of fraudulent voting. Anti-Putin protesters were arrested and jailed along with Pussy Riot band members. One thing for sure: no one here wants to go back to the way things were in the days of the Gulag or sugar cubes for a salary.
2. THE LACK OF DIVERSITY: There are few, if any, people of color or obvious ethnicity in the cities where I visited (except for Moscow). This is strange, especially coming from the melting pot of the United States. In Russia, I am one of the few “foreigners.” When I speak English in cities such as Saratov and Yekaterinburg, everyone wants to know where I am from and why I am here. Sveta has advised me to not speak so much in public because “you never know what people will want from you.” The cafeteria lady at one of the schools told me how nice it was to “see a foreigner.” She kept smiling at me and wanted to make sure that I liked her food. I was asked to sign a guest book in another school cafeteria. Because the U.S. is country that is filled with so many people of every kind of ethnicity and religion one can imagine, it is strange to be somewhere where I am considered unique.
3. SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR Don’t talk to strangers. That’s the advice I got from many people when I told them I was coming here. When I am alone (which is rare), I am careful to keep to myself and not look anyone in the eye. One of my favorite activities when I travel is to go to grocery stores, something I can do alone and feel like a local. One can tell a lot about any culture by seeing the food they eat, the products they sell and buy. So yesterday I went for a walk in a nearby park in Saratov and then stopped in the neighborhood market. I spent about an hour wandering around looking at products, smelling things (dried fish!) and deciding what to buy. Then I noticed that I was being followed. After smelling some Russian shampoos, I turned around to see a woman in a security guard uniform staring at me. Fortunately, she didn’t speak to me but just shot me a glowering look. Again, about ten minutes later, the same thing happened with a different guard in the liquor aisle as I was checking out two aisles of beer and vodka. Mind you, I didn’t even have a purse and I wasn’t carrying any bags, so I could not have been shoplifting and I couldn’t understand why I was being watched. Quickly, I decided to check out at the cashier and bought a few things and rushed back to my hotel. When I told my traveling partner Sveta this story, she said that shopping that way was not normal. Most Russians just go into the store and buy what they need and leave. The guards might have thought I was casing the place, possibly planning something in the future. This was a strange experience for me, but a good reminder that there is general distrust of strangers or anything that even appears different, such as leisurely strolling around a grocery store.
4. CORRUPTION IS NORMAL There’s not much to say about this except that it is a normal part of daily life here (also in Bulgaria). Imagine my surprise to find out that grades can be bought. Even college degrees have a price tag! Everyone knows. It’s normal.
SO… what have I learned on this trip? Well, it’s not over yet, but from what I have seen so far I can say that I am proud to have Russian blood. How can I say this after my ancestors were forced to flee this country? Because I think that knowing that you are connected to a country that goes back to, oh, the year 862, helps one understand that human beings are actually more predictable than we think. There will always be war. There will always be rulers and followers. There will always be rich and poor. There will always be times of freedom, repression and corruption. There will always be discrimination of somebody or something. And because of that cycle of life, there will always be people who develop courage. Some are heroes that you can read about in history books who are immortalized for their grand feats. Others are quiet heroes, like the Russian mother who learned to deal with her hunger while eating only sugar cubes. It made her a stronger person, knowing she could survive that. She gave that to her daughters. It’s a gift they don’t know they have.
I realize now that my grandfather’s journey to America gave me an inner strength that I never understood until today.I think that’s why I kept the Samovar he carried with him in my dining room for so many years. His courage is his gift to me. Now that I’ve been to Russia, at least I understand where this comes from.
SPEECHLESS IN BLAGOEVGRAD
Quite possibly for the first time in my life I was speechless. I was standing on a stage in a basement bar in front of hundreds of college students. My name had been called and I was urged to the front of the room where students in the journalism department (known here as JMC) honored me at their annual “JMC Rocks” party for being an inspiration to many journalism students this year at AUBG. There I was, the teacher who pretty much talks non-stop with my students, but at this moment I couldn’t think of one thing to say. I was stunned. I think I said something like, “It’s been a wonderful year” and “keep making documentaries” and then I held the large basket of flowers over my head and posed for pictures as if I had won an Oscar. It has been a wonderful year.
I tell you this story not to brag, but to share with you the generous spirit of the students here at the American University in Bulgaria. They are so appreciative and they aren’t afraid to show it. Many come from countries where professors are distant and scary and discouraging. One student from Russia told me that the authoritative professors are constantly berating students by telling them that they will amount to nothing. So they skimp and save and do what they can (including working summer jobs in the U.S. as housekeepers and pizza makers) to be able come to AUBG and pay for an American-style liberal arts education. It’s the sort of education that includes talking with professors over a cup of coffee, or in my case, tagging along to film festivals. This means so much to these students who often come from so far (Albania, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Armenia, etc.) from so little (parents who are honey bee farmers, small shopkeepers and sometimes unemployed) and have big dreams (journalist, economist, CEO).
A few days after the “JMC Rocks”event, we attended the “More Honors” show. This is a spectacular event that resembles that Academy Awards in format and is put on by a group of about 20 students known as the “More Honors Academy.” Their “Oscar” is a statue with a very large and extended body part (see video from opening ceremony here) so you get the idea of the tone of the event. Students can nominate and vote in various categories such as Hipster, Public Enemy, Casanova and Lick-a-fessor (you can guess what that one is) and Coolest Non-Student (I was nominated in this category along with the “kitchen ladies” and a few others). Throughout the year, the More Honors students spend most of their time producing, shooting and editing short films to introduce each category. They are often quite elaborate productions made by a group of students who just like making films and having fun. Winners are announced that night and come up to the stage for a snarky Q & A with the show host. I didn’t win that night, but I still feel like I won just for being nominated.
A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE LAST MONTH AT AUBG
– A screening of a documentary made about the Miss AUBG beauty pageant (see previous post about it) that was made as part of my documentary class. These students did the impossible—they shot and edited a feature-length documentary in less than three weeks. We had a “sneak preview” screening of the rough cut and got great feedback (link to blog here). A couple of exceptionally dedicated students plan to finish the editing this summer so we can send it out to film festivals and/or post on YouTube for all to see. The same class made short docs during the first half of the semester – check out the YT page HERE (right now only one doc is there called “Boxing Father” but the rest will be there soon). The top docs (audience and jury award) were screened on Bulgarian National Television (see pics).
– I taught a one-week “Documentary Boot Camp” in Sofia that was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy as part of the Swan Art Academy. Some of the participants were film students and others were first time filmmakers. They worked really hard to make a short documentary in one week and we had a public screening that blew people away. You can see all the shorts that were made as part of the master class here. Topics included a lady tram driver, old projectionists, a BMX bike rider, an artist who lives with his installations and more.
– The last days of classes were packed with so much! Final presentations in my multimedia journalism classes were fun (and this is when I show my students my embarrassing old TV news resume reel from Wausau, Wisconsin, which always gets a good laugh-see pic in slide show). Check out some of the blogs and videos the students made and how appreciative the students are. Here are links to a few of the blogs: Melody’s Bloggers, Couchsurfing, Alternative Fashion in Bulgaria, What to be when you grow up. Young, Smart and Hot .
– I was host of the first TedX event at AUBG (pics).
– The Senior Prom (professors were invited and we went and it was lovely). At midnight, when that party ended, Mark and I went to a Chalga club to check it out. If you don’t know what Chalga is, you can check out one of the blogs of my students that explains this phenomenon– http://ivaivaiva.wordpress.com (love the post about Chalga hair!).
-Graduation (the former King and Prime Minister of Bulgaria and his sister, Princess Maria Luisa, were there) — see the picture of me casually chatting with the King (in slide show). Meeting the parents of graduating students. Going to lunch with students whose parents couldn’t make it.
Last year at this time, we were in Madison, Wisconsin, attending our daughter’s college graduation. It was a weekend full of fun and parties and relatives and memories. Since that time, we packed up and moved out of our house of 20 years, said goodbye to friends and family and moved across the ocean to this unknown place called Bulgaria. My husband, Mark Wollemann, who had never taught before, went on a leave of absence from the newspaper and started teaching writing and reporting classes (students say he is “awesome”). We would make much less money than we are used to. We had no idea what we were in for.
Before we left, when people asked us why we were chucking it all and moving to Bulgaria, we told them about our motto, which was posted on our refrigerator back in Minnesota: Try to project years ahead and then look back and ask yourself what you wished you had done and then go do it.
Now that this first year in Bulgaria is over, Mark and I have a new motto that is posted on our refrigerator in Blagoevgrad, where we will be returning in August for the next two years: We may not be rich, but we feel like we won the lottery.
Saw a double rainbow in Bulgaria today. It was only there for a few minutes taunting me from our window but I ran to get my camera and managed to get a few shots before it disappeared. What does it mean? Wish I knew. Check out the photos.
Last night, at midnight, I went to a Bulgarian Orthodox Easter service in our city. Seems like everyone in Blagoevgrad was there to get a candle lit from the “holy flame.” The faithful wait patiently for a chance to get a light directly from the flame that has special powers. Some walk around the outside of the church for extra good luck from 3 to 7 times while shielding their candlewicks from the wind. Then they rush home–on feet, in cars- with the candle that will keep them blessed for the following year. The church and the city were glowing. Even though I am not a believer, I really enjoyed the experience. Beautiful stuff. Check out the photos.
Last weekend, when we were in Sofia with our daughter Jenna (who had surprised me for my birthday by coming all the way from Chicago for 4 days, which was the best birthday present ever–you can read more about it on Mark’s blog), we went to see an All-Star basketball game. The big draw was Dennis Rodman, who didn’t seem too interested in the proceedings and spent most of the time slumped in a leather recliner. Even the cheerleaders couldn’t get his attention. But he did manage to dye his hair and paint his eyebrows the colors of the Bulgarian flag. Check out the photos.
Today I finished editing a short documentary about a Bulgarian female singing group called Svetlina. These fourteen women from the school where I teach (www.aubg.bg) sing traditional female folk songs. Did I mention that they sing acapella and that the group was founded by an American student who is from the Midwest and has not even an ounce of Bulgarian blood in her? Check out the video here:
A few other things of interest that we’ve done since I last blogged (or before):
– We reconnected with our Bulgarian “daughter” Ekaterina Petrova (Kate) from Macalester in Sofia when Jenna was here. She’s been living in France for much of the past year, so it was good timing. What fun to see them together. They really are like sisters. And now Kate and I will be doing some work together on the Documentary Boot Camp Master Class that I’ll be teaching in Sofia next weekend (sponsored by the American Embassy).
– Went to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, and saw an old amphitheater from the, oh, 2nd century. We were alone there. Virtually no tourists. A guy asked us for 3 leva (about $1.50) to get in and we weren’t even sure he worked there. This is a special place. Forget Rome. Come to Plovdiv.
– I spoke to film students at “NATFIZ” (the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts) in Sofia a few weeks ago. The students were great and one of them took a picture of me while I was showing them some shooting techniques. I am pointing (see pic). I hope I didn’t scare them too much.
-Had a great screening of NUMB, the documentary I am executive producing, at the Sofia International Film Festival. (Read about it here ). I also taught a workshop on “backpack filmmaking.” Had a great time there. The Q and A was fantastic.
-Did I mention that we went to Zagreb for ZagrebDox film fest and then to Greece for spring break to the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival with AUBG Documentary Movie Club members? I brought 16 students there to see how the film festival world really works and we had an amazing time. Life-changing stuff, meeting with filmmakers and distributors, etc. Here is a nice story written by a freshman from Georgia (the country) who had her passport and wallet stolen on the first day but still loved the festival.
– For the honors ceremony last week, all faculty had to be present so Mark put on a cap and gown for the first time in, oh, 30 years. There is group picture of our journalism colleagues (hint: they have nicer regalia than us).
– We went to annual meeting of Blagoevgrad officials and AUBG faculty and administration. It was a very serious meeting with mostly men in suits that wrapped up fairly early. When it did, the guy who was in charge of the microphones all of a sudden threw off his blazer and morphed into a D.J. and started blasting traditional Bulgarian music. Barely a minute passed before the cafeteria and cleaning ladies all stopped what they were doing and started dancing along with the few people who were still there. Of course I had to jump in, but more interesting is that Mark did, too! There is a blurry pic for proof in the slide show. Now, whenever we see the cafeteria ladies, we have a special bond with them from this night.
Whew. So I started out this post only to talk about the double rainbow. Here it is a few hours later but now I realize that I have many adventures, stories and news to share! Every day it’s something new, but I don’t always think that it’s blog-worthy. But today I think it’s probably good to remember and reflect more often, at least when I have the time 🙂
There are just a few more weeks left of school. My students are working hard to finish the MISS AUBG documentary that I mentioned in the previous post. The top 3 short documentaries from that class will soon be broadcast on Bulgarian National Television. The last multimedia journalism blog posts are due in less than two weeks ( I will post links later so you can check out their blogs – many are very interesting!). The TV News class will soon have its last show of AUBG-TV. . After graduation, we will be back to the U.S. for the summer. It’s hard to believe that this school year, our first year in Bulgaria, is almost done. I’ve still got more videos to shoot and edit and more pictures to take, but I feel like I’m the luckiest girl in the world to see the things I’ve seen and do the things I’ve done. Lucille Ball once said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t done.” Agreed.
When I was a kid, I remember being excited to watch the annual “Miss America” pageant. My father owned a chain of women’s clothing stores and he would sometimes sponsor the local “Miss Maryland” contest by donating clothes to contestants (he said it was great publicity for the stories). When it came time for the “Miss America” pageant, my family would gather round the TV set in our living room and watch the live event together. We all had a great time trying to guess who would win. We each had our own ballots and took notes and it was always exciting when “Miss Maryland” would place in some category (usually talent, to my father’s disappointment). So I certainly understand the pleasure of watching a pageant.
But when I got old enough to really understand what was really going on, I started refusing to watch the pageants. I argued with my parents about this because I didn’t think it was a good idea to objectify women like that. Why should women be judged on beauty and not on brains? I also wondered about these women. Why would they even want to be judged like that? I haven’t watched a pageant since.
So when I heard about the Miss AUBG pageant, I immediately thought it had to be a joke or a spoof of some kind. Yes, we are in the Balkans where women are very beautiful and beauty is valued, but we are also at an American University with American values. If this were a pageant happening at university in the States, I would imagine there would be huge protests against such a thing. I couldn’t imagine anyone here would want be involved. Boy, was I wrong. It appears that feminism skipped the Balkans. Here is the official description of the event:
<<Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant is a magnificent annual event where beautiful AUBG girls present themselves in front of the audience wearing various styles, dancing and demonstrating their individual talents. All the contestants are evaluated by the professional jury members on the basis of their charm and talent. The girls undergo extensive training in catwalk, dance and other skills in order to present themselves the best way. At the end of the Miss AUBG show, jury announces Miss AUBG of the year, Miss Audience, Miss Charm, Miss Talent and other awards granted by our sponsors and honorable guests>>
After reading this synopsis, I decided that I wanted to make a documentary about this subject. I thought it would be interesting to select a couple of the contestants and find out more about them (click here to see the contestants .http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.292408380833052.68504.287315831342307&type=1 . What was their motivation for participating? How did they think this would change their lives? What do their families and friends think about this?
As luck would have it, I’m also teaching a documentary production class this semester so I asked my students if they wanted to work with me as a team to make this documentary as a class project. They agreed (some reluctantly) and they spent the week leading up to the pageant doing interviews with students, faculty, administration, previous participants and founders as well as documenting 5 contestants as they prepared for the competition (see the class blog about the making of the documentary here: http://missaubgdoc.wordpress.com ). From rehearsals to classes to hanging out with boyfriends and friends to selecting their gowns and getting their hair done, my students were there every step of the way with the university’s trusty Nikon, Sony and Kodak cameras along with a couple of brand new wireless microphones. Some secrets were revealed… stories were shared…and many hours of footage was captured and backed up on a hard drive. One universal truth came from these interviews: these girls are not ashamed of their beauty or their sexuality and they don’t see a problem with sharing both on a stage for the world to see.
The night of the pageant, Club Xtreme was packed with men and women at 11 p.m. waiting for the show to start. My students were in position in several locations (including the dressing room) ready to capture all the action. The pageant opened with previous Miss AUBG participants, called “AUBG Angels,” doing a sexy dance in white short shorts and pink tank tops that said “I heart Miss AUBG.” (see video from that dance here: http://bit.ly/HFMybp ). From there, things got more outrageous as the contestants sashayed down the runway in skimpy bathing suits and showcased their talent (ballet, singing, dancing) and modeled skin-tight gowns. It was honestly shocking for me and it was the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to Bulgaria last year. But clearly I was in the minority because the rest of the audience was enjoying it.
Groups of guys drinking heavily chanted and cheered for their favorite contestants. Judges (ie; sponsors) with serious faces kept track of scores on their ballots (one was even snapping pictures of each girl as he “judged” them). And the show hosts kept the action going by asking questions to contestants like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?”
In the end, the “Miss This” and “Miss That” was announced while the previous “Miss AUBG” stood waiting in the wings to give her crown to the new winner. The room was filled with anticipation as the new Miss AUBG was announced. Cheers erupted and there were hugs all around when the winner was crowned. That moment felt like a loss for feminism, but a win for the documentary because one of the girls we were following is now wearing that crown.
The “Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant” exposes the vast gulf between what would be unacceptable at an American school and what is generally acceptable at the American University in Bulgaria. But filming the contestants also forced me to look at this competition from a new perspective within the cultural context of this region. These young women are not even a little bit ashamed as I would have expected. In fact, they are actually proud to participate in a beauty pageant. I hope our film will explore the complexities of this issue and reveal the inner beauty and brains of the contestants, something that was lost in the alcohol-fueled proceedings on pageant night.