Friday, July 13, 2007

They just don't understand…

A map of Pinsk, Belarus,
my... uh... home town?
One of the comments in the previous post hit home with me. My friend Yuri from Kiev wrote a comment saying that people here were not afraid of me because I was American, they just didn't understand what I was doing here.

I guess this is an obvious question really. Sometimes I can get complacent with my situation out here and forget that I wasn't born here or that I don't work for a specific local company- the two most obvious reasons to be here. I forget that I came here out of the blue, not quite on a whim but as close to that as is possible, I guess. And I also forget that tourists, legitimate or not, do not stick around for half a decade without an apparent physical purpose. I am speaking here about what this all looks like to people who don't know me, not what it looks like from my own perspective.

So without getting too specific, I guess I could try and explain what I am doing so as to make it clear. It's not all that big a secret really.

My first thought is that I am simply living my life here. There are lots of ways to define one's existence. There is no law that says that what one does for money is the soul definition of their lives. Of course there is also the Pulp Fiction quote on the subject that says that a man without a job is a bum regardless of the level of spiritual enlightenment he might attain. But probably what I mean by this is that I have a family here; there are children and their futures to worry about. I consider it my duty to try and help them to find the best paths or opportunities that might be available for them. We also have our house and dacha to keep up and I have my daily chores to accomplish. I mean, just being a man means you have responsibilities to uphold, right?

You could also attack this question by focusing on the here, as in location: Why am I, an American specifically, living in the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus? Well, I have often said that I had a familial attachment to the region and that I associated Belarusians as being "native people", as Tanya would put it. I am a little past the nostalgia phase but I still have a little bit of the "air smells right" going on inside of me. I am comfortable here. It could be that America has an inherent feeling of displacement about it because of the mixed races and culture that is not here. Belarus is pretty homogenous so the level of how people understand each other is much different. And then there are the basic cultural differences. I guess I should say cultural/economic differences to be more accurate. But said briefly, there is such a thing as "The Life" here and simply being here and trying to live it has its own satisfactions in a way.

But obviously the question referred to what I do for money. And really: What do people see? I am not heading off to work to a specific location every day and, as I was today, I am often on the busses out to the villages on weekdays. Obviously this adds to the illusion as if I have nothing to do- or that what I do is illegitimate.

One way to answer this question of what I do here is to say that I am doing this. I don't necessarily mean that I am writing blogs, I mean that I am maintaining my presence here, via the internet, for the purposes of both being available to help folks who wish to have something to do with Belarus and to keep the issue of why I am without my original plans to simply be involved and have a little business here. There was no reason for me not to have had the chance to try and do what I wanted; there was nothing bad or inherently wrong in what I wanted to do. I was simply and unlawfully prevented from doing this and my name was so badly slandered that this, this ongoing, five-year harrasment became the only viable choice. Well, I know I could have left, but I wanted to be here so i worked with what I had to work with.

Before you get to criticizing this last statement or saying that I am simply bullshitting, you have to take a step back and look at the perspective.

When I came here, I was interested in trying to stay. The actual choice of coming here, and I am speaking specifically of moving to Pinsk, came from five years before this when I got to come and see my grandfather's home town for the first time. At that time I had met some unbelievably wonderful people with excellent manners, endless social graces and kindness for each other. The actual choice of coming back (in 2002) had to do with my bike business getting wiped out from the 9/11 attack and deciding that if I was ever going to give Belarus a real try, something I had regretted not doing five years earlier, I might as well take advantage of the post attack economic catastrophe and go for it. My goal was to write a Russian language play for the local theatre and to make a bike shop with friends I had met from the bike racing team. The business was to support several relationships, it was doing what I loved which was putting people on bikes and keeping those bikes running and the playwriting was a way to allow myself a chance for social relationships with some intelligent and creative people.

But then of course there was Poland- and that was a year sitting there getting my head played with and my available funds depleted. After I finally got out of there I tried to come back to Pinsk but after a year away, and all the money gone, nobody wanted to believe my story or work with me any more; nobody wanted to listen. When I went to the universities and offered to teach English, I was denied a chance to do so. When I went to the theatre to try and at least get the play going, I no longer carried the sort of face which inspired people to wish to work with me, (I was no longer an American with a vision of living in and doing something for Belarus, I was just a con man who could just as easily disappear for a year at a time after breaking everybody's heart) so they all just decided to try and take what they could get and get rid of me. So in effect I went from a situation in which people wished to be friends with me to a situation in which I was a pariah. Funny how that worked.

But rather than leaving, I had already by now waited six years to try living here, I decided to stay and try and do something about the problem. If they wouldn't allow me to simply work (The school, the bike school or the theater), I could at least try and use the situation to do something constructive. So I wrote the book and then tried to market it, and then I made this blog and tried to keep it public. And now, because of all of that work a lot of people know me or my story or my writing and I have something of a face. Unfortunately, not a whole lot of those people are in Belarus.

So ok, I know I haven't answered the question yet. Basically, business-wise I get calls to do services for people. These services are for people outside of belarus who need things done indide Belarus. I have also gotten a few web contracts from time to time. There have been also a few opportunities to make some money because of my association with Poland and Belarus and also I have had some people invest in The hope there is that I might finally get through to people that I have a legitimate claim against Poland, that fighting that case would require a certain amount of… of… capitulation as to what exactly they had done to me. This is probably true for the Americans as well, but at the bottom line, I don't know too many people who have done what I have done. So you know, any success: The book sells, we get a settlement- anything like that at least this is the dream.

Anyway, you know all of this; it's all over on the website. The problem is that not a whole hell of a lot of this gets through to Pinsk. I do have some people who read this site from here. Several students I met through speaking at the colleges read me and know what is going on here but generally, regardless of the output, people simply do not see any of this. For sure they don't see the writing but also, they don't see the phone calls, the letter writing, the translations, the people searches or the document transferring. They don't see the private teaching either. They just see me heading off to the dacha with my black Chrome messenger bag and my dog-eared Hemingway; they're not scared of me, they just don't understand what I am doing here.

Hopefully things will change this September. After years of not being able to acquire one due to extreme and on-going financial incapacity, I have finally had the chance to study for a teaching certificate and hopefully will join the faculty of one of the schools here come the next term. You know, like a real job. This possibly will open the doors to a more normal lifestyle with a better social life, a bit more financial stability and perhaps with that, perhaps a chance to do some playwriting again. That would be nice. If success leads to more success, maybe there is even a little bike shop in it for me somewhere down the line. And who knows, maybe by that time people will understand what I am doing here: Working to make things better for a place where I decided I wanted to live.

Hope this clears things up. Have a good weekend. Be back Sunday.

More soon…