Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Eric Conway: Day 2 of 2014 Morgan State University Choir Visit to Belarus

Eric Conway, D.M.A.:

Today we had a very relaxing day in Belarus before our big independence day presentation this evening!

When we arrived in Belarus yesterday, we were surprised at the cool temperature for the first day of summer, even for a country north of the Ukraine.  We knew that it would be cooler than Baltimore, but didn't know that we would see highs in the mid 60s with lows in the low 40s.  We were told this evening that it was hot last week, but these mild temperatures are cool even for Belarus this time of the year.  The temperature could have felt okay, but with the extreme wind that we felt, it was a bit chilly.  I warned everyone that it could be at least twenty degrees cooler than home, but we still were not ready after leaving consistent temperatures in the low hundreds only weeks earlier in the Middle East.

My colleague at Morgan, Max Hilaire our political science chair, reminded me that Belarus has the distinction of being the last dictatorship in Europe.  This means that this is a police-state.  Everything that we do can be potentially recorded.  After speaking with our guide, Yuri, he said that generally-speaking the people can do as they please, however, there are some things that they just know that they cannot do.  Everyone is very polite and respectful of each other and the laws.

One other item of note was the conversion of US dollars to Belarusian rubles.  Every US dollar is equal to ten thousand rubles.  This meant that one US hundred dollars converted to one million rubles!  Many of us felt rich as we were millionaires of a sort.  Every priced item, we had to divide by 10,000 - which has became very easy by the end of the day.

We met as a group at 9:30 a.m., after breakfast, to talk with the Embassy Security Officer Andrea Gastaldo of New York giving us information to stay out of harm's way.   She mentioned that this is a much safer place than any US urban metropolis, but still take general precautions as one would do for any urban environment.

We had no commitments until this evening at 4PM. Many stayed in bed to catch on sleep lost in the travel to Belarus.  We were impressed with our hotel in giving all the guests free internet in their rooms.  The connection was quite stable given that we were in a socialist society.  Lunch was on our own.  A few went to McDonalds which was insanely crowded, everyone clamoring to taste a bit of the American life!  It happened to be right across from T.G.I.Fridays.  It was good to see American based chains in Belarus. It was also good to see life in Belarus as we walked along the the main avenue in Minsk.  We also were reminded of the poverty in this city as we saw local pan-handlers in the underground corridors under the streets.

At 4PM we travelled to the Embassy of Belarus. Due to an estranged relationship between the Belarus and United States, there is no US Ambassador to Belarus, however, the chief diplomatic officer for the United States, a step down from Ambassador, is called a Chargé d'Affaires, a French term meaning in charge of matters.   The Chargé d'Affaires in Belarus is Ethan Goldrich from New York.  He hosted an Belarus Independence day event for every VIP associated with this US Embassy.  Several ambassadors from other countries attended this event including ambassadors from South Africa, India, Great Britain to name a few that I met.  This was undeniably the biggest event of the year for the Embassy, and they asked the Morgan State Choir to sing!

Coincidentally the wife of the  Chargé d'Affaires was from Baltimore. Upon meeting her I found out that she was from Pikesville, and attended the same high school that I attended, Randallstown High School, seven years after I graduated.  We had much to talk about after the event. Her name was Randi Goldrich.  I also found out that she was a FaceBook friend of my brother Michael who graduated three years after I did.  Also coincidentally, three days after this event, Ethan and Randi Goldrich will be transferred to a city that we just left Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.  They were very interested in my impressions of the city, country and culture.  These coincidences all confirmed my suspicion that we were right were we needed at this point in time.

During the event, we opened the evening with our National Anthem.  The Charge d'Affaires gave the choir warm words of welcome sharing with the audience the special relationship of Baltimore and our National Anthem.  Of all the ambassador's residences where we have performed, this was the first where the local country's national anthem was not performed.  I asked about this matter and was told that again due to strained relations between the two countries, that their national anthem was not be played or performed.  After a short fifteen minute program by the host,  the choir was introduced and sang a three song set that was warmly received.  The entire event felt very familiar as we sang for a similar event in the summer of 2012 in Jamaica at the residence of Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater.  Without a doubt, when an Ambassador or like throws a party, you can count on the food and drink being extraordinary.  The entire choir was invited to join the guests and enjoy the party.  We had a grand time, and felt genuinely appreciated by all who came in contact with us.

Eric Conway, D.M.A.
Fine and Performing Arts Department, Chair
Morgan State University
1700 East Cold Spring Lane
Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center, Room 329C
Baltimore, MD 21251

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