Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm Back!

What I would have given for those red shoes 48 hours ago.

I made it home, folks.  After three countries, six flights, two weeks, one delayed flight (but no luggage lost - thank goodness), my trip to Serbia is complete.  And was it ever an Earn Your Happy Ending.

The library programming itself was great.  We did a lot of work with kids and teens, which I expected.  What I did NOT expect was how discombobulated everything was on the administrative front.  I heard the phrase "Be flexible" so many times during this trip that "Flexible" is the new dirty F-word (and you shall not see it written out for the duration of this post).  There was just zero communication between us, our professors, officials at the embassy and the folks in charge of the conference.

Don't get me wrong - once we got into our discussions and library tours and programming with the kids, everything was fantastic.  Especially when none of my professors were around - I could "cut loose" and be myself with the kids and my classmates and have fun while also achieving my objective.  But when either of my professors were there, they made me nervous.  It didn't help that during a presentation to some high school students, one of the professors - rather obnoxiously, I thought - kept yelling from the back of the room for me to speak up.  That threw me off so bad and I wound up shouting my whole presentation and it was not very good.  Please note - the time to give constructive criticism to someone is NOT in the middle of their actual presentation.  Do it before or after. Don't embarrass them in front of their audience.  Whatever failings you've perceived in the speaker are automatically doubled and it ruins the entire thing (and the problem might not have been that big of a deal to begin with - but now you've totally flushed it down the crapper).  I count my blessings that I had other people presenting with me and they could back me up when I lost my thread.

But Serbian teens are a lot of fun.  One memorable thing happened when we actually visited a high school in Belgrade.  We had a wonderful discussion about libraries and studying when one of the boys asked us all what book mad us angry.  I said "Twilight" - prefacing my answer with the concern that I would make some enemies.  On the contrary - I got a rousing applause from the group.  Not just the boys, either - some of the girls joined in the clapping.  From there we had a short discussion of why they didn't like "Twilight" either and their answers were mine as well - it's poorly written and it's a bad portrayal of what a romantic relationship should be.  It did my heart good to see that, even half a world away, there were people who got it.

We did a lot of work with American Corners, which is an organization that US embassies throughout the world sponsor as an outreach and education center where people can come and learn English by reading books and watching movies in English.  They also get Americans to come visit and do presentations about American culture and talk to the people.  It's a fantastic program and I wish I'd known more about it before I got to Serbia.

One workshop we did with American Corners was a discussion with some children and teen librarians from a public library.  At first, my classmates wanted to be all deferential and insist we be the students and the professionals teach us - but the professionals were there to learn.  It was that point I realized something (well, I'd thought about it before, but this was the first time I really got it) - a country like Serbia is still trying to figure out a lot of things.  Good grief - it was only relatively recently they figured out that communism is a really bad joke.  They have to look to other countries as examples of how to do this whole democracy-republic-free market-capitalism-thing when much of their population is still looking for their free chunk of stale bread (trust me - that bread done been ate a looooong time ago. [poor grammar intended]).  So, where are they looking?  The European Union is one place they look to, which makes sense since they are on the same continent.  But they also look US - and that's just what we do.  When we have the resources and the know-how, we help people help themselves.  Whether that's in education or humanitarian aid or throwing off an asshole dictator.  Even countries that were once our enemies, once we're done fighting, we help rebuild.

I know a fair few will read that and scream at me for it (because it's sooo vogue to criticize America, even when it does something good).  To you who scream and harp, I say that you weren't there and you didn't talk to these people and you didn't see how much they admire us for the things we do have.  Good grief - when the American Corner said they would be getting ten Kindles for people to check out, the Serbian people in the audience were so happy to hear they would have access to something like that.  One girl said it best when she said "We have TV - we see your culture."  Serbia is by no means the poorest country in the world, but they don't have all the technology and the things that we do.  But they know of those things and they want them for themselves.  And this is not a bad thing.  One presentation at the conference at the University of Belgrade suggested that they wanted to be listed among the top colleges in the world for technology along with the likes of MIT and UC-Berkeley.  These people have goals - and they are asking for our help in achieving them.  The fact that I spent the last ten days in their country proves that.  Believe me - Serbia was never on my list of places to see before I die.

Back to our workshop at American Corners: Basically, these librarians wanted us to teach them.

So, I started off by sharing a few things I'd done with my students.  Nothing flashy - just a few examples and ideas to get the conversation rolling.  And boy, did it ever roll.  My classmates and I had gone in thinking we were the ones doing the studying, but we were really the teachers.  Don't get me wrong - I wasn't all "Hey, we're Americans and we're going to change your lives if you listen to us and only us."  But the whole idea behind this meeting (at least, what these librarians were told) was for us to share what we were doing.  They wanted to learn from us - they were there by choice and they were eager to listen to us.  And I was extremely honored and humbled by that.

Second Bottom Line: Despite administrative bungles and total miscommunications between parties, this was an eye-opening and rather fun experience.  I have more stories, but I will save them for another time (because I am still fighting jet lag and a head cold).  Suffice it to say that I feel truly blessed to live in the United States and I am glad that there are people in other countries working to find new ways to improve their way of life and I am glad I could contribute something.

And I am glad to be home.

Programming Note: I did get to watch "The Wedding of River Song" while I was in Belgrade (long story how that happened).  I have not written down my thoughts, but I will soon.  Look for that in the near future.

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