Monday, June 30, 2008

A brief distraction from the intercontinental word war.

So let me vent for a minute. I'm in the hostel that started the year off with a bang; it was full of people and I was wide-eyed at the beauty of ancient Prague. Now, nothing's changed, but nothing's the same. The seventy-bed single-room dorm hostel is like a tomb. I have no proof that there are other people staying here. The key rack is full, all the beds are made, and I don't have to wait half an hour for the internet. The last part is decidedly a good thing, but it's just such a weird contrast to last year, where they were booked out almost every night and there was always someone to talk to in the common room. I realized so starkly today how much I'VE changed, though. I realized Prague is an amusement park. It prays on people's proclivities for novelty, decadence, and vice; it's visible in the facade of every restaurant, souvenir shop, and third-rate titty bar. This too easy, after a point. It's less a place to see and learn, more a place to get hammered and just...vedge. And the thing is this: none of this is Prague's fault. It's the fault of the people who infest this city every summer; they dictate the supply and demand system of the tourist economy, and they get what they want. But in the process, Prague has become a bizarre Disneyland with only the barest roots in reality. You walk the streets in central Prague and can go between ten and fifteen minutes without hearing a single person speaking Czech. Maybe this is only bothering me because I'm getting antsy about going home, but to be honest, the last two days or so I was in Prague all those months ago, I was starting to feel this, but I really couldn't articulate what bothered me about it because I didn't have any frame of reference.

Anyway, I get so...malaise-ridden when I walk the streets here that I have no idea what I'm going to do with myself for the next two days. Let me put it this way: these are the same quiet mysterious streets that Kafka and Dvorak used to walk...only now they're neither quiet nor mysterious. They try to affect it in places, but it's so put on it's painful. But enough about my malaise. I watched the Euro Cup final tonight on the huge tv on the main square. I ended up sitting with the homeless people by accident for most of the first half. Then the smell scared me away. But oh, the black dudes who try to lead you away to strip clubs (you might recall the Cali golden boys incident from about eleven months back)...I got accosted by like five of these guys and I was ready to deck like three of them because they didn't back off. I just wasn't to be flexed with today. But I ain't ungrateful. Prague is still one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and living on tap water and sandwiches for three days won't kill me.

Stay strong, folks. Many of you will see me soon enough.

Fond regards to all, even Lana.



Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dear Lana.

Okay, let's deconstruct this chain of events. You made a simple comment about something I said that was inaccurate (?), and I replied with a simple correction. That, according to your assumption of argumentative simplicity, (e.g. "All, (sic) I asked is for you not to put false information" and "All I did was posted a comment for a (sic) false information.") should have ended things. However, you used the whole thing as a handy opportunity to launch your little dinghy with a laundry list litany of American flaws. You keep coming back to the "irrelevance" of my points, but I'll tell you something: when you open the "grotesque generalizations about nationality" can of worms, everything becomes fair game, especially when there are serious logical holes in your polemic. If it really just was about the misinformation, this would have stopped a while ago. You, however, chose to bring the prevalence and causes of anti-Americanism to the forefront and paint my entire nationality with the same brush as you cited people like me and my father as anti-Americanism's cause. As such, I find it very hard to believe that insults are furthest from your aims. "Cowboy" is inflammatory, as are several other things you've might recall likening my father to an schoolboy. I also like being called ignorant. That's always fun. The correction was made, and I was pleased to move on. Then things got ugly, but to be frank, you instigated it with a few simple words.

"This just show how over-all Americans lack general information about world outside of border of US of A, and if they didn't your son would have researched in advance that there is no direct train link between Sofia and Budapest. You can't just show up to some country (sic), i.e. Sofia, and say "here, I have arrived, I am an American" and have them just for you (sic) build a rail link to another city. Do you (sic) research."

1) Where did I say I thought there would be a direct train connection between Sofia and Budapest? I mentioned that there wasn't one, but that was a simple acknowledgment of fact, nothing else. I did my research, thanks.

2) At what point did I express an opinion that would lead you to think that I'm of the mindset "here, I have arrived, I am an American."?

3) Whence did you infer that I expected everything (ANYTHING, for that matter) to be easy, or that I expected ANYONE to make concessions for me?

In the process of trying to read between the lines, you're hallucinating. You're seeing things that simply aren't there, and that's where the problem lies.

So now that we have a general idea of how this situation arose, let's discuss my nationality, since you have such nuanced ideas about the American national character.

Yes, Americans are not passive people. This is not a bad thing. If it is indeed a national trait, I personally believe it's an admirable one. Just because we don't react quietly or passively when we've been dealt an insult of some kind doesn't make me wrong or you right; at day's end it means that when you step on me or those close to me, I'm going to lash out. I'm not going to do it in a way that's irrational or stupid, but it's not going to be restrained, either. I am open to criticism. Things approaching abuse, however, are other matters. I will happily pick you apart if you've wronged me or those close to me. This is a simple matter of fact. American non-passivity doesn't make me and mine "cowboys," or any less civilized than you are, which, if I were to read between the lines of your comments, I'd say you are MORE than implying that you're more civilized than Americans. This presupposition is arrogant and frankly infuriating. It would be lovely to talk to you with something other than hostility so you could work on an assumption other than the fundamental ignorance of my people, but since you've borne me and mine nothing BUT hostility, I find it very difficult not to respond in kind.

Do be in touch.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Also, Sofia isn't a country, last time I checked, and I have no presuppositions about entire countries-worth of people building train tracks in front of me to accommodate my apparently ample American bulk. Not that I'm being picky or anything, but to be fair, I DO do me research.

Go ahead. I'm waiting.


I don't want to make this public, but I will. An Open Letter: Let's Spar, You and Me.

Someone decided to attack me and my father through my blog. That's fine, if only the argument were logical. Read the following and reach your own conclusions.

Response to most recent story-based entry from ANONYMOUS:

American anti-sentiment can not be found only in Serbia and the Balkans, but unfortunately everywhere on this planet. Dumping on Yugoslavia, for my mere comment on where did he heard that Serbia is mine ridden, shows why anti-Americanism is so prevalent. There was no need to go into whether Yugoslavia was a, as you say "a made up country" (I fail to understand what defines a country as being a 'made up' and as being 'real'. It did have political borders, had it not?) My opinion is of Miloshevic, Tudjam & Co. is so low that it doesn't deserve to be mentioned, yet, I again fail to see what that has to do with my side comment of where the man who wrote this article heard that Serbia is mine ridden. This just show how over-all Americans lack general information about world outside of border of US of A, and if they didn't your son would have researched in advance that there is no direct train link between Sofia and Budapest. You can't just show up to some country, i.e. Sofia, and say "here, I have arrived, I am an American" and have them just for you build a rail link to another city. Do you research.

p.s. I am not from Serbia, too avoid any possible commenting and dumping yet again on Yugoslavia (which again had nothing to do with my initial comment)

Dear Ms. (Mr.?) Anonymous:

Okay, I am a patient man. But when you make me say things I neither said nor implied, my patience wanes. John Dryden said a few hundred years ago "beware the fury of a patient man." To be honest, you don't deserve my fury. That's reserved for people I care about. But I will summarily pick you apart at any and every given opportunity when you read an entry that concerns my mother's death and the best you can do is point out an historical inaccuracy. So let me talk to you. I and my father are the reason anti-Americanism (unfortunately?) is so widespread? Let's talk about history, you and I. Facts. Yugoslavia, honest-to-god, WAS a made-up state. If the involved states weren't ethnically overlapped, then why was there genocide? The World Wars fucked things up for a lot of people, and Tito held it all together under the pretense of atheism, but it all fell apart. In the end of ends, yes, Yugoslavia was a made-up state in the same way so many other states were arbitrarily divided without consideration of ethnic or religious differences. If you're more educated than me or my father, then you have yet to demonstrate it. Yes, I'm trying to piss you off. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I dare you.

Mr. Anonymous, the fact that you directed this conspicuously anonymous blog comment against my father further shows your cowardice. I'll quote you. They're your words.

"My opinion is of Miloshevic, Tudjam & Co. is so low that it doesn't deserve to be mentioned, yet, I again fail to see what that has to do with my side comment of where the man who wrote this article heard that Serbia is mine ridden."
My father does not write this blog. If you have a grudge against him, deal with him personally. However, when you bring him into this, I get aggravated. I won't begin to pick apart your inadequacies in dealing with the English language, because, while said list would be long and satisfying to me, it would also be peripheral.

I knew very well that there was no direct train connection between Sofia and Budapest. I'm not stupid, believe it or not. The simple expectation that my train to Belgrade would be on time was a naive one, that's all. I don't know if you've been reading too much Derrida or something of the sort, but you're reading a lot between the lines that isn't actually in the text.

Furthermore, SIR, you could really refer to my dad as though he actually does have a terminal degree in his field. He's actually been quite a few places out of the U.S.of A. As for me, I've been traveling for a year. I've been through scores of transit and other miscellaneous difficuties, and I don't need to justify myself to a neophyte like you; just learn to be quiet, or at the very least quietly criticize instead of just picking on my dad and making yourself feel good. I mean, that's what EVERYTHING on the internet is about. No, but seriously, where do you get off? You're not Serbian, so you don't take national offense, and if you've read ANYTHING ELSE I've written, you'd know that I love European people and the European lifestyle; however, it's a lot easier for you to brand me and my father as ignorant southern hick Americans. If that's how you want to think about me and my family, fine. Know, however, that I will prove you wrong at every turn. The fact that I don't know who you are says much more about your cowardice than it does about anything else, but ultimately, here it is: I'll go. We'll go. We'll fight. If you want to get into a serious political/international argument, that's fine. I'll win. You don't know the basic principles of English grammar and punctuation, and your argument is faulty at best. I'm giving you time. Regroup your forces. Let's go. I'm ready.



By the way, in case you're afraid of me and would prefer to direct your words toward my father, he's offered his email: Have fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Brief Correction/Note

Yes, I suppose it was perhaps a little silly of me to misremember the particular details of the Yugoslav wars in the nineties. I'm sorry(?) I offended your historical sensibilities, Mr. Anonymous, but there was a fair degree more in the entry than a factual inaccuracy. This isn't Encyclopaedia Britannica, and I was going on the way I felt and what I (admittedly mis)remembered. Something more substantial would be lovely in the future. Do you expect a correction? An apology? Is this a grudge? I'm fine with criticism, I just don't like it when people, instead of criticism, only want to make nice distinctions and in so doing, choose to hide behind the merciful facelessness that the internet gives us all. Keep reading, everyone, just please know that I've got an awful lot of shit on my plate at present.

Best regards.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Selected Anecdotes from Eastern Europe

Dear Readership:

I'm more than aware that I've been a far less-than-informative tour guide to the wilds of Eastern Europe in recent months, but a lot has come up. Most of the stories are funny. Some are irritating. Some are sad af first but uplifting overall. Instead of devoting myself to what would doubtless be a twelve-hour storytelling grind of recounting the past few months, I'll instead hit the highlight stories and spare you the details of museums and histories and minutiae. If you really want to know those things, then good; it gives me something to talk about without repeating myself when I see you in person. Stories are not presented chronologically.

Tony from Liverpool (L'viv, UKR, sometime in late April)

You meet the most unusual melange of people in hostels. You meet really interesting people, crazy people, narrow-minded people, stag party people, really good-hearted people, thieves, drunks, people running from their pasts, people putting off their conclusion, abnormal is the norm, and Tony from Liverpool was among the abnormalest of the abnormal. Sparing you the absurdly complicated details of my lovelife in the months of March, April and May, suffice to say at this point I was dating a lovely Polish girl, Ania. I was trying to achieve a gradual break-up, since I found my return to Poland in the next few years rather unlikely. We were traveling together around Ukraine as I tried to build the foundations for a friendly separation. The hostel I frequented in L'viv, Ukraine, (each of my three visits) is The Kosmonaut. Not to plug it or anything, but if you're ever in the area, it has great facilities, staff, owner, and an ideal location. But I digress, albeit briefly. Whenever I first arrive at a hostel, I try to get to know everyone who's staying there. There was the normal assortment of students, travellers, and expatriates. I didn't have to introduce myself to Tony--he introduced himself amply.

I use all capital letters because volume control wasn't his forte.


"err, I'm from Tennessee, thanks, nice to meet you."


"I am from Warsaw, in Poland."


"I...I do understand English."

"Oh, okay, I'm sorry" He kisses us both on the cheek. "My wife died two years ago. Can I play a song for you?"

By this point I was taken aback, so I said with hollow voice, "...sure..." It was a mix CD consisting of "Hey Jude," "Yesterday," "Lady in Red," and a few other songs that escape me because they were all of the selfsamesentimental drivel...sorry to all you Beatles and Chris de Burgh fans out there. It was made worse when I was engaged in a conversation about the Soviet role in WWII with an Englishman and Tony comes up, puts a hand on each of our shoulders and, while we're midsentence and "Yesterday" is playing in the background, he says to both of us:

(sotto voice): "do you know why Paul McCartney wrote this song?...He wrote it...because he lost his MOMMY. HE LOST HIS MOMMY. This ABOUT LOVE. TRUE LOVE FOR YOUR MOMMY." He walked away, only to wedge himself in one of the other group conversations in the room.

At another juncture it was quite late and I was contemplating going to get some late-night snacks from the 24-hour store. Ania was talking to her sister back in Warsaw. Tony comes in and I say "oh god...". He asks Ania "who are you talking to?", and Ania responds that she's catching up with her sister. Tony takes the phone out of Ania's hand as he says "I'll talk to her"

"Hello? Hello, my name is TONY. That's T-O-N-Y. I'm from LIVERPOOL, in ENGLAND. Do you know where that is? Do you speak English?"

Agnieszka does.


Whether Aga said yes or not is immaterial, because Tony broke into a completely wretched rendition of "Lady in Red." Some time later, he gave the phone back and proceeded to follow me to the all night shop, insisting that the streets were DANGEROUS.


I tell him neither of these things had occurred to me. Truthfully, neither of them had. We go to the 24-hour shop, and I get some sausage, bread, cheese...the basics. Tony's milling around and he comes behind me, grabs my shoulder and solicits me for 10 Ukrainian Hrivna (the Ukrainian currency. 10 UAH=$2). I ask him why, and he says "I buy...your girlfriend...a PRESENT." Despite my assurances that this wasn't necessary, he kept insisting otherwise, and finally I asked him what he was going to buy.

"I want to buy ice cream."

At this point I tried to think of something provocative to say, something to make him go away.

"I want to get something straight, Tony: to the best of my knowledge, Ania doesn't like dessert. She likes cigarettes, sex, and alcohol. Not ice cream"


I see. He got his ten hrivna, and I was waiting on him to leave. I left ahead of him and when I looked back thirty seconds later and saw he wasn't behind me, I went to check on him. I walked in during the last verse of his heart (ear) breaking rendition of "Yesterday," which he was singing to the bewildered and irritated-looking Englishless staff. After I barked a stream of Russian unrepeatables at him, the staff started stifling chuckles and he got distracted enough that he stopped. He was about to leave when he saw a security guard dressed in solid black trying to buy a pack of cigarettes to get him through the night. It was 4:00 am. The guard looked like he had a lot on his mind. Before I can stop him, Tony goes up to the guy, claps him on the shoulder, pulls him close and says "HEY, MAN, LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED. JUST RELAX, IT'S OKAY."

The gentleman in black wasn't amused. He responded in perfect, if thickly-accented, English: "Mister, I work for the state security. If you knew my job, you would know it is not possible for me to relax. Please get your hand off of me."

This story doesn't end with much of a bang; Tony got kicked out of the hostel two mornings later for being drunkenly verbally abusive to the staff. After our foray to the convenience store, however, I couldn't help but think that he had the scar on his lip coming to him.

The Chairrail Incident (Kiev, Ukraine, April 2008)

It was a rainy day near Independence Square in Kiev. I was done there, so I was headed down the metro. My mood was especially good, so I thought I'd attempt a slide down the shiny silver chairrail. It was too wet to allow anything but friction, so I hopped off. The four cops at the bottom of the stairway looked at me in grim amusement and crowded around me.
"That's not legal. There's going to be a fine"
I processed this information and decided it might be in my best interests to plead ignorance. "Shto?"
The leader repeated himself.
I repeated myself. Apparently my...well, I've heard, anyway...Ukrainian accent almost worked against me here.
He said "what are you, stupid?"
I was a little flattered. He thought I should have understood him because of the way looked and said "shto?". I'm better at blending in than I thought, I guess. I answered him "izvinitye, ya nie govoryu po-Russkii."
He looked startled and said "inostranyets?" (foreigner?)
"Da, Amerikanyets."
"ah, Amerikanyets......o.k. good-bye." I showed my passport, he saluted me, and leader & posse walked away.

Another bullet dodged.

The Worst Day Ever. (Sofia, BG; Beograd, SB; Budapest, HU)

Transit has bred more conflict and problems than any other circumstances over the year. I suppose it's fitting that I cap the year with a fittingly expensive and involved fiasco. Here goes.

There is no such thing as a direct train from Sofia to Budapest. They all go via Belgrade, Serbia. My train left on time at 21:20. It was due to arrive in Belgrade at 04:45 the next morning. The ride was uneventful; I had a cabin to myself and there wasn't much to do but read and write in my journal, and I eventually drifted off to sleep and woke up around 4:15. At 4:30, there were no visible signs of civilization (factories, churches, houses, Burger King, Walgreen's) in any direction. When there were still none of said signs at 5:30, I started to get worried. I anticipated a two-hour layover in Belgrade before my train to Budapest was to depart at 6:45. When civilization was still conspicuously absent at 6:30, I started to get worried. the train from Sofia arrived two hours and eight minutes late. The train to Budapest departed on time. You can see my dilemma. I went to the information office and found out that the next train to Budapest was...two days later. I prepared to saddle my luggage at the train station storage area when a smiling little man approached me. He looked good-natured enough, and he said "you missed train to Budapest? Vienna?" Generally I give these people the walk-on-by, but this guy seemed to know something. I stopped and said I did indeed. He said "I drive you to another station; if you hurry, we can make it very soon." It sounded good to me, even as I saw the taxi that was presumably his looming in front of me. I assumed, silly me, that since the train hadn't left so long ago, it would be stopping in Belgrade suburbian stations. I couldn't have possibly anticipated a cabride halfway across Serbia. That, however, is what I got. After the meter had reached some very, very high numbers, I asked my driver how much...this would cost. He wouldn't give me a straight answer, but when I told him that I had 5 Bulgarian Leva ($4), 4,000 Hungarian Forints ($24), and $39 US, he looked...discouraged. He asked me if I had an ATM card, and though it occurred to me that it might be in my best interests to say no and try to bargain with my collected assets to get to this other station, I also realized he was completely within his power to throw me out on the side of the road in land-mine-ridden Serbia. Not my idea of a good time. I erred on the side of wisdom and answered yes. The town from which I was to attempt my second departure, Vrbas, was 140 kilometers from Belgrade, and time was running VERY short. The train was due to depart at 8:53 from Vrbas. We entered Vrbas city limits at 8:42. We still had to stop at the ATM. The driver pulled us into the central square of Vrbas, and I ran over to the ATM. It did not take Mastercard. Neither did the second or the third. By this time I was sprinting to the fourth, making the poor old chainsmoking dude keep up with me the whole way. I found one that took Mastercard, I got the money, and off we went; I got a great deal of satisfaction out of how much longer it took my cabby to catch his breath than I did. At least I was making him work for his money. We pulled in to Vrbas train station at 8:51, and the train wasn't there. He asked an employee to which platform the train was coming, and he said "3, but it's half an hour late." I didn't actually understand the conversation, so for all I know he could have said "it's left already." The driver relayed the delay to me and offered to buy me a drink with a fraction of the massive sum I'd just handed him. I accepted heartily. I'd neither eaten or drunk anything from soup to nuts in the past 16 hours, so I was parched. He said ciao and drove off into the distance, and I still had 20 minutes to wait. Then it occurred to me: "what if he lied to me? What if the train already left? What if I'm stuck in this awful little Serbian town, not knowing the language and without another train to Budapest for two days?" I calmed myself with the assurance that the guy did seem honest, even if he'd just taken 100 Euro off of me, and that he'd really have to be some kind of sociopath to leave a random American stranded in Vrbas, Serbia for two days. Fortunately my paranoid side was just paranoid. The train rolled in and on I got. I had luggage difficulties in Budapest that made the whole experience feel a lot worse, but they're not worth explication. Suffice to say it was one of the worst days of the trip.

As I'm sure most, if not all, of my readership knows, the defining moment of the last year came in late May, when my mother passed away. I won't endeavor to explain my feelings on this medium because it would be at once maudlin and inadequate. Suffice to say that, even though the last month has been the most emotionally difficult time of my life, my mother's spirit has given me the courage to carry on and indeed has been the singlehanded force breathing down my throat to pursue this thing to the very end and keep noticing, keep writing, keep experiencing new things and finding new stories to tell. She's even the reason I'm writing this. Many (most) of you have offered me your support, and you have my sincere thanks in this difficult time. The time I've spent on my job searches throughout the southeast has supplanted the time I would spend writing this, but that just means you have to buy the book ;-). If any of you have any ideas of places to look for employment, please contact me at If it helps, I've pasted my resume.

Joshua B. Harris

Permanent Address: 460 22nd St., Batesville, AR, 72501.

Home: (870)-307-0781. Mobile: 870-834-7552. Email:

OBJECTIVE: employment utilizing strong writing, editing, and interpersonal skills

• Dean’s List, 8/8 semesters at Sewanee (requires GPA over 3.625)
• Hard-working, versatile, quick study with experience in many fields
• Proficient in advanced Russian and English, intermediate Polish, and basic Slovak

Sewanee: The University of the South, Sewanee, TN (2003-2007)
• Double major: Russian and English
• Final GPA 3.91 on a 4.0 scale

• Final Class Ranking 10/354
• Comprehensive Examinations (Both Passed with Distinction, October 2006, March 2007)
• Graduated Summa Cum Laude, May 2007

Lyon College, Batesville, AR (2001-2003)
• Fifteen hours of coursework

• Final GPA 4.0 on a 4.0 scale

Contributing Writer, The Sewanee Purple (2006-2007)

• Wrote articles about campus life for one of the nation’s oldest student publications

• Attended meetings and gained knowledge of publication processes

Part-Time Secretary and Departmental Aide, Sewanee English Department (2005-2007)
• Assisted in departmental library research

• Compiled bibliographic information and proofread for faculty

• Gained familiarity with office machines

• Administered tests and supervised writing workshops for first-year English classes

Writing Tutor, Sewanee Writing Lab (2005-2007)
• Edited papers and theses
• Helped students improve writing skills

Thomas J. Watson Fellow (7/2007-7/2008)

• Travelled in fourteen Eastern European countries over one year playing hockey

• Gained intermediate proficiency in Polish in five months

• Learned regional variations in Eastern European attitudes, cultures and traditions

President, Sewanee Russian Club (2004-2005)
• Opened cultural opportunities through field trips
• Served as liaison between Russian students and Russian Department

Carpentry Internship, Heritage Repertory Theatre, University of Virginia (2004, 2005)
• Worked 60+ hours per week, under strict deadlines, for two summers
• Developed leadership skills and proficiency with rough and finish carpentry

DJ, WUTS Sewanee Radio (2003-2004, 2006-2007)

• Hosted music variety show

• Hosted The James Joyce Radio Hour, a self-designed show featuring a weekly live reading of Ulysses and guest student authors

• Member, Order of Gownsmen (Sewanee’s Academic Honor Society)
• Chairman, Student Activities Fee Committee (2005-2007)
• Technical Director, Dionysus Theatre Company (2003-2006)
• Treasurer and Academic Chair, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at Sewanee
• Student Liaison, Library Affairs Committee, (2004-2007)
• Chairman, Order of Gownsmen Grievances Committee (2007)
• Personal research and bibliographic assistant for Dr. Elizabeth Outka
• Vice President of Recruitment and Intramural Athletics, Interfraternity
Council (2006-2007)
• Dormitory Representative, Student Assembly (2006-2007)
• Team Captain, Central Arkansas Chaos Ice Hockey Club (2002-2003)
• Member, Omicron Delta Kappa, International Leadership Honor Society (2007-present)
• Member, Phi Beta Kappa, International Academic Honor Society (2007-present)
• Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Recipient, 2007 (declined in favor of Watson Fellowship)

Dr. William Clarkson

Professor, Sewanee English Department

735 University Avenue

Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383


Dr. Elizabeth Skomp
Assistant Professor of Russian, Sewanee Russian Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383

Dr. Pamela Royston Macfie
Samuel R. Williamson Distinguished University Professor, Sewanee English Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383

Thanks very much and do keep me in the loop; I'll do my best to do the same.

Fondest regards in my final week of la vie hostel,


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Yeah, yeah, I know.

I sincerely hope I haven't bored my readership into submission with my two months of silence. Despite an extremely productive and educational quarter, suffice to say my personal life has become something of a nightmare in recent weeks, thus hindering my...capacities, such as they are. The details of this aren't especially fit for blog material, as some of you know. Please accept my quarterly report as a sort of amends, that we may all be a community again. For those of you who're still reading, thank you. To those who aren't, I'm very sorry, though if you're not reading, you're not reading the apology. Let's begin--again.

Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:

While it would be unfair to say I’ve lost my way in this quarter, it would be likewise unfair to say that the last three months abroad have been teeming with new teams and hockey possibilities. Instead I’ve had a substantial number of cultural excursions and encounters with bizarre circumstances and continuing healthy doses of Slavic hospitality.

Many kilometers of railway and road have passed behind me since my last report. From Tallinn I headed back through Riga and Vilnius, and the stage from Vilnius to Warsaw involved an unconscionably bumpy ten-hour bus ride and a stubborn driver who wouldn’t relenquish the key to the locked onboard bathroom. Suffice to say the ending of that story was not a happy one.

I returned to Gdansk to a warm welcome mixed with good-natured Polish profanity and numerous “where the hell have you beens?”. I decided to do all the Baltics instead of the five-day tour of duty I’d initially planned in Lithuania largely because, even though my Gdansk team wanted me to stay on for the whole season, certain league regulations barred my participation. So though I had a lot of great cultural experiences in the Baltics, my Baltic tour was, on retrospect and chiefly from a hockey perspective, a failed scouting mission.

In my many miscellaneous trips back and forth between Krakow and Gdansk to play for my respective old teams, I realized at some point that it was time for me to leave Poland. To this day I’m not sure if this came to me as epiphany or by gradual enlightenment, but I became aware that Poland had become something of a second home to me. The food was good, the people were generous and hospitable, I had people I considered my friends in five cities, I’d played ample hockey, I’d learned a substantial bit of the language—I’d even managed to find Ania, my Polish girlfriend. In conclusion, I was far, far too comfortable to consider myself any kind of hardcore Watson fellow. Something had to be done about this predicament. After getting some travel arrangements in order, only a few connection voyages between Poland, Belarus, and points south lay between me and resuming the great journey. So I got my visa and accommodation paperwork in order for Belarus and took a sidetrip to Poznan, Poland with Ania.

On this fateful trip I had what was only the first of many forms of hijinx or hooplah (read: adversity) this quarter. While in Poznan, I received a rather alarming email about the pending termination of my debit card due to “suspicious transactions.” I sent panicked emails to all applicable parties, but my pleas were largely ignored, since my card stopped working at ATMs the next day. Ania was also travelling on a budget, and though she subsidized my existence for a couple of days, the money ran out. We realized our collective destitution on the morning we were planning to return to Warszawa, at the train station. When Ania tried to withdraw money from the ATM for our tickets, it wouldn’t even give her a scant 20 zloty and kept making dreadful beeping noises and flashing bright “insufficient funds” screens at us. It was at that moment I realized we were screwed. With a whopping eight zloty of collected wealth, we went to the internet cafĂ© and I had a tiny last resort idea, since I’d tried every conceivable pin code on my backup bank card (the pin for which I’d smartly forgotten). I tried the Polish train service’s website, and they’d just recently introduced online ticket purchasing. On a whim, I tried my card number, even though I didn’t have the physical object with me. I had melted it, cut it to pieces, and threw the pieces in five different trashcans out of frustration the previous day. Thanks to my mother’s capacity to remember important random numbers, which I mercifully inherited, I recalled my debit card number and hoped against hope I could buy a ticket online. For reasons that defied explanation, it worked. We got back to Warszawa with little incident, and in the process I discovered it’s a weird sort of rush to be stuck in a strange city in a foreign country with absolutely no accessible liquid assets to my name. Rush though it was, it wasn't something I especially want to repeat.

After a lovely few days with Ania's family, I headed to the wilds of Belarus. I don't think I could have possibly anticipated exactly how wild it would be, though. The border crossing was hijink-free, and my first impressions of Belarus were snow-covered and poorly lit. The first thing I noticed were how empty and spotlessly clean the streets of Brest were, even at 22:00 on a Saturday night. I found my hotel with relatively little incident and turned on the television just in time for the compulsory airing of the national anthem that begins and ends the broadcast day. This was only the first manifestation of the rampant nationalist propaganda which comprises about 55% of advertising in Belarus. Lukashenko's iron fist was glaringly apparent from the very first. The view from my room in Brest was so post-Soviet it hurt; a beautiful green orthodox church in the foreground and a looming, graceless hot water production station, smokestack and all, looming in the background. And it was still snowing. Though I had plenty of observations about Belarus in general and Brest in particular, they're lengthy and ill-suited for something of quarterly report length. The most succinct one I can recall with immediacy is the following:

This place is too entrenched in its old lifestyle to move truly forward, and too heavily invested in new things for the old, decayed vestiges to be objects of actual belief. And yet it's all still there: the statue of Lenin, the “glory to heroes” war monument, the red star on the front gate of the army depot, the nationalist billboards, the compulsory sign-off airing of the national's like trying to make a complete, sensible, single image with pieces from three different puzzles. It's like Russia, only without as much bloodthirsty venture capitalism and an (un?)healthy dose of pre-Glasnost USSR. It's poverty-stricken, polluted, perplexing, and completely fascinating. (Journal, v.II, p. 65)

Needless to say with only a one-week visa, finding a hockey team wasn't even on the menu. But Belarus was easily the strangest and most compelling of any country on my journey so far, even though I only spent a week there. The perplexing contrast between Belarus' communist past, its dictatorial present, and its continuing efforts to compete in a capitalist market were even beyond my experiences in Moscow. Although I had to pay through the nose to go ($130 for the visa, 30 Euro/night in the cheapest hotel available), it was incredibly rewarding. At this point in the quarter, perhaps moreso than at any point prior, I realized that even though this trip is hockey-oriented, if I spend one hundred and twenty percent of my energies seeking available teams and thereby skip a destination simply because there's no hockey there, I'll miss out on really once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences. Such was the case with Belarus. When I learned that I could only afford a week in Belarus, I considered not going since I wouldn't be...fulfilling the one-year plan, as it were. But now, especially considering recently depreciating diplomatic relations between the United States and Belarus, I realize I did the right thing. News indicates that Belarus is not an exceptionally safe place for Americans anymore, and the State Department is seriously considering moving Belarus from its “be careful” list to its “you can't go here without permission” list. No more than three weeks after I departed Minsk, news started coming in and I realized that it might be a very long time before things cool off, so I was ostensibly one of the last few American tourists in Belarus before things got bad.

What would seem to be my final return to Krakow (this year, at least) was built around the arrival of two friends from the states, Cris and Whitney. In my year of expatriation, I've gotten remarkably okay with being by myself in odd situations and just making friends as I go along. Cris and Whitney, however, reminded me that there are a substantial number of people back home who still miss and care about me. Though this reminder was helpful to have, it gave me the first tiny twinges of longing for home since my first baby steps in Prague, practically, with the exception of a couple of bad hair days. I was frankly a little worried I'd return to the US and be disillusioned with my surroundings and have some inverse culture shock. It could still happen, but the more I think about my “touchstones” from home, the things I think about from time to time (e.g. Dr. Pepper, Waffle House, and the million other small things that comprise my quaint southern sensibilities), the more I'm looking forward to going back home. But this feeling is likewise accompanied by an increasing sense of urgency here in Eastern Europe; with each passing day I become more aware of how little time I have left and the utter necessity of seeing and soaking in as much as I can in the time given me. I think it really hit home when I rescheduled my plane ticket. Last July I thought this year would be essentially interminable (in a good way). Now, however, I'm in an emotionally exalted state that lies somewhere between frantic desire to play more hockey and complete the rest of my itinerary in two months, nostalgia for everywhere I've been and everyone I've met, and a growing hunger for home.

After my final, final, final game in Krakow, hockey dried up. I returned to L'viv as a stopover on the way to Kiev to spend Ukrainian Easter with Ania's Polish relatives. It was great, although vodka with dinner (a Ukrainian staple) struck me as a little odd. The similarities Ukrainian Easter shares with Polish Christmas really surprised me. The cakey pre-meal good luck bread, the chicken in gelatin, and the soups were nearly identical to their Polish Christmas counterparts. I'd be curious to know if the Easter customs are different further east in Ukraine, since L'viv was once a Polish city. I suppose I'll just have to go back to Ukraine in the future and find out.

Kiev is a beautiful city; it's also the most expensive place I've been on this trip. The cheapest accommodation was twenty Euros per night, and though I'd been having an email dialog with a team, I chose the fiscally conservative route and moved on, since my daily expenditures in Kiev were approximately two and a half to three times my per diem.

Before my arrival in Bucharest this morning, my most recent stop had been Chisinau, Moldova, which I only planned as an intermittent stay. It's the poorest country in Europe, though life in the center of Chisinau is normal enough, with the chickens walking main sidestreets excepted. It gave the city a certain quirky charm. Though hockey was absent, I skated twice in the inflatable temporary dome rink and taught people how to stop, which was interesting since I didn't really know the correct Russian verbs. I gestured a lot and filled in the blanks with what Russian I could provide. I drew a little crowd, even. And now I'm in Bucharest, home of the first reliable internet I've had in weeks—hence the tardiness of the report. I have several emails in hockey limbo presently, so I'll hopefully have upcoming opportunities to play in Romania and then Bulgaria. In the meantime, I've started teaching myself Romanian and seeing the same regiment of museums and concerts to make the most of my time and maximize cultural absorption.

So how to sum up a quarter that has been an objective disappointment on the bases of my initial hockey-oriented goals? I summarize it thus: I knew going into the year that there would be more hockey some places than others. The season is winding down and now, as I head south, I'll have to reprioritize and seek roller hockey with stronger emphasis. Again, rule number one: flexibility is the key to a successful Watson year. Furthermore, though the hockey was lacking this quarter, the conversations and international bonds I've developed have continued to flourish. As mentioned, a maniacal focus on “the game and only the game” would cause me to miss a hoard of valuable cultural opportunities (e.g. Belarus, Ukrainian easter). So the disappointment...isn't, really.

With nine months gone, I am beginning to draw comparisons between who I was when I left and who I am now, analyzing what's changed and what's remained the same. For instance, I've shed a lot of my ideas of “necessary” amenity. The first time I had to stay up all night waiting for a train, to describe me as “irritated” would have been a grotesque understatement. By contrast, due to delays, cancellations, or simply to save money, I've done it seven times this quarter. I suppose from a different perspective, I've realized the patience, tolerance, and strength being alone in strange and inconvenient circumstances requires. Obviously I've acquired some things as well--not the least of which are my broadened Slavic language skills.

From a wider viewpoint, I've also acquired a deepened sense of pride for my origins and a more nuanced understanding of my role not just as a citizen of the world, but as a miniature American ambassador. I've never received as much vituperation for my nationality as I have this year, but under this intense international scrutiny I've acquired a deepened love for my country and the principles on which it was founded. Please don't read the above statement as some brand of rabid nationalism; in my interactions with people from all over the world, I've come to understand America's role in the international sphere in much greater detail. Finally, despite my language acquisitions, hockey/cultural adventures, and growing comprehension of my role not just as a traveler but as a potential future diplomat, these three quarters so far have shaped me into something approaching a completely self-reliant individual who can deal with most given circumstances, no matter how off-the-wall they may be. I suppose that's been an overarching personal goal for my proposal from the very beginning, but I don't think I could have ever thought far enough ahead to write it down as such from the inception of the Blades and Rails project. So through transit hassles, sickness, money problems, and hockey droughts, I'm still reaching, still learning about lands, peoples, and languages. And I know if I keep sending the emails, laying siege on the rinks and barging into the locker rooms, fortune will find me. In the meantime, I can't waste a moment. And on that note, I'll see you on the Mountain in July, because Bucharest beckons.

Best wishes and sincerest thanks to all involved.

Fond Regards,

Joshua Brandon Harris, V.9.MMVIII