Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Zdravo from Belgrade.

Our final day in Tbilisi was highlighted by a morning service at the largest orthodox church in the country (and according to some Georgians the largest in the world). The service was fascinating and beautiful both for the ritualistic ceremony and for the songs of a men’s choir which filled the cavernous spaces.

We had an early dinner and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. We awoke at 3AM Monday morning to get our 4:45 flight to Vienna. As we took off dawn had just begun to spray morning light over the hills enveloping Tbilisi. By the time we arrived to Belgrade via Vienna and Munich, the sun had already passed its apex and begun its slow descent toward the western horizon.

We are staying in the center of Belgrade at the flat of Richard Danicic - a current Kennedy School student who has just started his one year mid career program as a Kokkalis fellow. Close by is Republic Square and Mihalova street – the long pedestrian avenue along which people stroll and stop to enjoy an espresso or ice cream at one of the scores of cafes or stands.

It’s been a busy couple of days. The afternoon we arrived we met Ana Trbovich – former assistant minister of foreign economic affairs - and Vuk Jeremic – senior foreign policy to the President. We spent much of today with Katarina Veljovic, a former assistant minister of finance and who is now involved in fostering Serbia’s ongoing transition to a market economy through her work in both the private and non-profit sectors, and through her pursuit of a PHD.

Ana, Vuk and Katarina are energetic and ambitious and seem to represent a new generation of Serbs who are part of building Serbia’s governmental institutions and re-establishing Serbia’s place internationally. In spite of the progress these past years, the shadow of Milosovic and the Balkan war of the 1990s remain. Some of the buildings destroyed by the NATO bombing campaign remain in the city center, undisturbed, like some reminder of the consequences of tyranny and unbridled nationalism.

Though generally optimistic, the Serbians we met also have expressed a degree of skepticism about the political future and whether policy changes will have enough of an impact on employment and the quality of life for the current government to get re-elected in upcoming elections.

After Tbilisi, being in Belgrade feels very much like returning to Europe – the cars, the roads, the cafes, the shops, the infrastructure all feel distinctly European. Even the language, though Slavic, feels more familiar and understandable because it also uses the roman alphabet.

Last night we met up with Nina Bilandzic – a MPA-ID who is working for the European Bank this summer here in Belgrade and a few of her friends. Nina took us to Silicon Valley - an area of Belgrade renowned for its nightlife and so-named because of the scenery to be found within the street’s bars and cafes. By all appearances, there didn’t seem to be many IT professionals out and about. It was a fun night filled with interesting conversation.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Kachapuri. The local cheese and bread staple snack. Apparently that’s all I’ve been asking for the past few days and who could blame me? Georgian food is incredibly tasty.

And the Georgians are very proud, not only of their food and wine, but mostly of having preserved their language and culture after years of occupation and Soviet rule.

We spent a day at the home of Gela Bezhuasvili (the Georgian Foreign Minister and K-School grad that we are profiling) and had the chance to talk with him, among other things, about Georgian pride. The sense of freedom and liberty, he told us, is very strong in Georgians. This is a country at a crossroads he enthusiastically said, with a very ambitious reform agenda aiming to be part of NATO and a fully integrated European state. If Gela’s overflowing energy and generosity has anything to do with it, Georgia certainly seems well-equipped to get there.

Gela and his wife Olga welcomed us in their house like old friends, spent three hours with us, and even let in another unexpected visitor: journalists from the Georgian channel “The Sun” who were doing a story on us profiling Gela. An hour into our interview we were filming them, filming us, filming Gela. Things got confusing, but it all seems to be worth it as we anxiously await our Georgian TV debut this evening.

So while we have put the Lonely Planet guide under intense scrutiny while here, we can vouch for one thing the Ozzie travel writers got right: the warmness of Georgian hospitality. Our second piece of evidence - apart from the access we have been given to Gela, his home and his meetings (including meetings with foreign officials and a press briefing about the recent terrorist attack in the Georgian region of Ossetia) - is a Georgian girl named Lika.

Lika met us as we were reaching for our translation booklet in an effort to get directions. In her perfect English – and in what seemed like the same breath - she invited us to her house for dinner. We joined forces with Marissa Bohrer, a current Kennedy School student, who is doing her internship here working on women’s health issues for a USAID-funded NGO - and the next day headed to Lika’s. Little did Scott know that very soon he would be singing along to Mariah Carey so as not to offend our host, and Steve would be force-fed the third – and most deadly – kebabi while denying any knowledge of Frank Sinatra songs. I found myself spending some time talking in Greek to Lika’s grandmother, a Greek of Pontiac descent (her roots going back to ancient times when Pontiac Greeks lived along the Black Sea and were displaced at the same time the Armenian genocide occurred in the early 20th century).

After the third slice of kachapuri at Lika’s, it was time to go. The next morning, Saturday, was the first day we had a chance to get out of the city. Armed with hours of Tblisi and Gela footage, as well as a full belly, we were ready to explore the countryside. Gia, our driver courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drove us to the magnificent cave monasteries of David Gareji. We got some great footage on the way there; the agricultural landscape stretched as far as one could see with a multitude of shades of green, and no cars or houses to be seen for miles.

Potholes, on the other hand, were plentiful. Georgian driving defied any notion of the Italians being bad drivers. And then Marissa informed us of the existence of the mysterious Georgian snake.

In the cool cave churches, and while looking out to Armenia and Azerbaijan at the top of that green hill, I can’t say all that seemed to matter to any of us one bit.

We're off to Belgrade tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Our flight to Tbilisi, Georgia landed in the middle of the night. And so after 29 hours of traveling, which included a 10 hour stopover in Munich, 6 German sausages, 2 delicious airplane meals, and 17 glasses of orange juice consumed by Eleni, we arrived in the Tbilisi airport at 3:30 am. Much to our joy, there was a tired-looking man with a “Harvard University” sign waiting for us at the gate. His name was Zurad, and he negotiated with customs officials to get us in the Diplomat line to have our passports stamped. Already, we were feeling like royalty.

That is, until we discovered that my green army rucksack hadn’t made it on the plane with us. Fortunately, it didn’t have any vital equipment inside (unless you consider things like “soap” or “deodorant” to be “vital”). After reporting the lost bag, we grabbed our equipment – a Cannon gL2 video camera, a tripod, 2 lavaliere microphones, a Sony handy-cam, and 60 mini-DV tapes – and hopped in a taxi for our hotel.

Tbilisi is a city with some real character. Fifteen years of independence from the Soviets have begun to put the city on course towards economic progress, but the predominant feel of the infrastructure is utilitarian and worn-down. That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. Old stone walls line the Mtkavri river, which cuts through an “old town” marked by cobblestone streets, cement archways that lead to private homes, and gorgeous cathedrals. Last night, a Tuesday, we wandered into 2 different cathedrals that were bustling with activity: Priests in long, silk robes shook strings of gold bells and burnt incense, as women covered in head scarves sung prayers in beautiful soprano. Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Before exploring the city and these churches, we had the chance to meet with Gela Bezhuasvili, our profile here in Tbilisi. Gela did an executive education program at the KSG a few years back, and started an MPA before being called by Georgia’s President to return at the Minister of Defense. He is now the Minister of Foreign affairs, and his demeanor is perfect for a diplomat: kind, welcoming, and downright jolly, he made us feel very at home in his office after we’d filmed him welcoming the newest Ambassador from Iran.

This will be an interesting week in Tbilisi. Georgia is a budding democracy in a critical region, the central caucuses. Nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia contains a vital oil pipeline and represents the promise of post-cold war Eurasia. Georgia is taking its place in line to eventually join the EU: everywhere you see the Georgian flag, it is accompanied by the EU flag. Georgia’s crawl towards democracy was marked by the Rose Revolution in 2003, in which the current president, Michel Saakashvili, peacefully kicked out the country’s post-communist leader, Shevardnadze, with promises to fight corruption. The country’s interest in democracy has not been lost on the Bush Administration – the President’s visit here a few years ago is documented in T-shirts, posters, and even a street named called “George W. Bush Street.” Gela’s office was plastered in 8X10 photographs of his meetings with Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Collin Powell, and Senator Dick Lugar.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pictures from our first profile -- Marie Nelson, KSG class of 1998.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

a couple of weeks before the end of school i sat on the top floor of the forum, sipping coffee, being nostalgic, thinking about the final days of school...and my pending unemployment.
rather than actually do something about the job situation, i composed a quick email to joe mccarthy and dean ellwood, proposing that steve, eleni and i spend the summer traveling around the world with a couple of video cameras, profiling what ksg grads are doing.
the idea being that prospective students, alums, donors and the broader ksg community would be excited and interested to see profiles of ksg grads who are doing important and impactful work and that telling their stories through video could be more compelling than the written word.
i hit the send button and figured that would be the end of it. another pipe dream dreamt.
back to the career services site.
within seconds, a reply came back from dean mccarthy..."i'm on it" was all he wrote.
fast forward to july 8.
a lot has happened.
with the incredible support and hard work of joe, melodie jackson and sam piggot from the ksg communications office, steve, eleni and i are off on a a six week tour to four countries to profile some fascinating ksg grads. we're heading to tbilisi, georgia...belgrade, serbia,... darjeeling, india and ...ho chi minh, vietnam.
this past week we've been in dc, preparing for the trip - visas, innoculations, logistics, etc. we've also done our first profile - on marie nelson - a 1998 ksg grad who is a producer at npr.
marie has an incredilbe personal story - fleeing from civil war in liberia, moving to maryland where she lived in a house with more than 20 other women and children, going to duke at age 16, getting a call from the office of jesse jackson the day after she handed in her pae with an offer to work for him when he was appointed as a special envoy to africa under pres. clinton, and producing for nightline.
we spent a couple of days with marie in dc, including filming her and michele martin as they recorded a pilot of their forthcoming radio program for npr on african american issues.
in addition to filming and steve's ordeal with the surly visa woman at the indian consulate, we also managed to catch some world cup and see a few other ksg folks around town including james crabtree, jonathan phillips, dallas boyd, mark linton, mary abdo, caryn marks, nate fick.
tonight we're off to tbilisi via munich.
we'll be profiling the foreign minister of georgia - gela bezhuashvili - who completed an executive education program and was in the midst of his mpa when the rose revolution occurred in 2003, drawing him back to georgia to join the new government.
gela and the president of georgia - mikheil saakashvili - were just in dc this past week meeting with president bush and condi rice. check out this link for more info on their meetings and agenda.
undoubtedly gela will have a fascinating story to tell and we're excited to meet with him.
we also plan to meet up with marissa bohrer, mpp1 now 2, who's spending her summer in georgia to hear more about her experience and share a glass of georgia's famous wine.
lowlights of our time in dc - england losing on penalties.
next stop, tbilisi.