Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dinner With Visiting Russian Delegation Reminds GlobalPittsburgh Host How Small The World Can Be

GlobalPittsburgh hosts Renate and Greg Overstreet recently hosted a visiting Russian delegation for dinner in their home. Greg wrote this account of their experience.

On Saturday, June 8, we were slightly apprehensive about hosting a dinner for a delegation of three Russian visitors and their translator.

After checking websites listed on their business cards and reading some brochures they gave us before they left, I now have a better understanding of their objective for visiting various U.S. cities. They represent both governmental and non-profit groups that wish to increase eco-tourism to areas in the Southern Urals and the Udmurt Republic areas of Russia which have had very little tourism in the past. The responsible tourism results in financial gain that can be used to help conserve local cultural sites as well as to boost the welfare of local residents. Their visit is funded by the U.S. State Department and the translator traveling with them is an employee of the U.S. State Department in New York City.

The comments and reactions of the foreign visitors were very interesting. One unique moment came when I showed them an old 1970-era standard rotary dial phone that we store upstairs. As I picked it up expecting to generate a surprised reaction, I said, "I bet you haven't seen one of these in a long time." Alexander then said a few words which the translator conveyed to my own surprise: "Alexander says he was on a waiting list for years to get such a land line phone before the recent advent of cell phones and he was never able to get a connection from the State utility agency." Wow! Now I know first-hand how the President has to be careful to not put his foot in his mouth over cultural differences. But I also now appreciate more fully our own access to technology that we take for granted.

My wife, Renate, and I feel that our home is average and far from upper class, but these visitors were amazed at things like the amount of wood paneling we have upstairs, the amount of property around the house, the privacy from neighbors, the absence of traffic and city noise, the presence of so many flowers and trees, the occasional visits by ground squirrels, deer, rabbits, etc., and Alexander was even interested in checking out the heating, air conditioning, and sanitation systems. I think he also probably wondered why a single house needs not just one, but three bathrooms. My guess is that they probably live in apartments in crowded urban areas.

Guzel took a photo of me barbecuing and she said that although people in Russia also grill food outdoors with wood or charcoal, they do not have access to propane fueled grills like the one I use. But they do have access to American TV programs. Nadezhda (we called her Nadia) said the show "House" is very popular in Russia and many people even have t-shirts with the image of the star of the show. She said that I look like him, but I had to apologize that I have only heard of the show because I am a non-typical American TV viewer: I only watch certain occasional special programs on TV and no series programs.

The visitors were very warm and friendly and eager to use their limited English to compliment our home and to describe details of their own homeland and culture. We found a connection with Alexander who said that our local Penguins Hockey player, Evgeni Malkin, is a native of his hometown. Guszel explained that Tchaikovsky was from their region and also the world famous weapons designer, M.T. Kalashnikov, still lives in her hometown where there is a weapons museum that bears his name. She said he used to take regular strolls around town (like ex-President Harry Truman did in Independence, MO) until he was intercepted one day by a news reporter.

The visit was a good mutual cultural exchange and one that left me with not only a better understanding of their world, but also a better appreciation for the many American technological and cultural benefits that we tend to take for granted. "What a country!" as Soviet immigrant comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to say. And I hope you will understand when I say that I am happy that some of my tax money funds this cultural exchange and economy boosting program. How else could I have met my close neighbors ... from that distant land.

- Greg Overstreet

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