From St. Petersburg
8:39 am
Fri April 25, 2014

During a Conflict & Debate

Credit Helen Ward

My journalist friend Neil told me two things before leaving for Russia. First, it is often the best time to visit a country when we are embroiled in conflict. He is a war correspondent for the New York Times so he has a certain proclivity for conflict, but his point was that when tensions are escalating and both sides are being fed exaggerated points of view, remembering that we are all human and want essentially the same things; peace, prosperity, health, a better world for the next generation, beauty, poetry, music and dance -- is important. Reaching out to people we met, smiling and being friendly goes a long way towards calming tensions. It was very apparent to us on our last day in St. P that this is what the people we met want too, everyone was so welcoming and wanted to try and communicate. The second piece of valuable information he imparted was that St P is the world’s most beautiful walking city. We spent the entire day walking from bridge to bridge, park to park. I have to agree with Neil. They say St P is the Venice of the North. It is really a city of hundreds of Islands connected by bridges and lined with pastel colored buildings, most of grand size. The boulevards are wide and sunny and there are parks and vast squares everywhere. We are early for the official White Nights celebrations, but the sun barely set and it felt like everyone was out walking and enjoying the parks. We walked, sought out small local coffee shops (by the way, superb coffee everywhere - thick black and rich mmmmmm ) took in the scene, walked some more, more coffee - on and on for 6 hours. No guide, no agenda, a perfect last day. Since living in London, my daughter Kyra has fond memories of high tea so our last meal back at the hotel, while we rested our burning feet,  was high tea Russian style complete with blini and caviar. Nice !

The Debaters
Credit Helen Ward
Team Choate
Credit Helen Ward

We are now in Lithuania at the WIDPSC (World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships - hereafter referred to as WID)  the ostensible reason for our trip. Kids who have spent the year competing to earn the honor of representing their countries have all arrived in Druskininkai 2 hours south of the capital Vilnius and right at the southern corner of Lithuania, next to Belarus and Poland. There are delegations from Australia, Botswana, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Lithuania, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea and the US.  The kids compete in English  in four areas; first is dramatic reading of a text of their choice, Kyra chose Erma Bombeck's piece from The New Yorker, "Buzzed" which has certainly created a buzz. We will see if it delighted or appalled the judges soon ! Next is Persuasive or Toast style presentation of 7-13 minutes that is committed to memory as you have only a 3 x 5 size card of notes to rely on. The third area is Impromptu Speaking where you are presented with a topic related to current events given 5 minutes by yourself at the front of the room to prepare and then present a point of view relative to this topic for anywhere from 7-10 minutes. The fourth area of competition is classic Parliamentary Debate and unlike the competitions leading up to this event where you have been practicing with a partner,  you are paired with someone you don't know from another country and given a day to prepare together.  Every student competes twice in each of the four areas in front of 3 judges, so they will have 6 scores in each category.  The finalists will present on the last day back in Vilnius in the grand hall of the Parliament with a reception after in the Palace of the grand Dukes of Lithuania. The Lithuanians have rolled out the red carpet for these kids with presentations by various government officials, tours and entertainment every night.

I realize this is way too much information but it is exciting to see such engaged bright kids all competing so seriously but then relaxing and having so much fun interacting afterwards. When they introduced each of the teams at the opening ceremonies they brought them on stage against a back drop of a popular rock video from that country. The US got teased mercilessly for Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" -- so funny.

Druskininkai is a spa town. Wally and I hopped on bikes and rode for a few hours through forests and along a beautiful river ending up at a gigantic structure on the outskirts that houses of all things,  an indoor ski hill. We left the 70 degree flower filled mid-afternoon sun to wander around an indoor ski resort, complete with ski school, ski and snowboard rental, alpine village facade, ski lodge and chairlift accessed ski hill and terrain park.

Indoor Ski Slope and Chair Lift
Credit Helen Ward

Alpine Village Facade
Credit Helen Ward

It is the most surreal thing I've ever seen!!!! Crazy ! The Aspen of Lithuania. We then biked back to the hotel stopping in at the 5 acre ropes and zip line course. We have both done multiple Outward Bound and Nols programs but have never seen anything as intense as this ropes course. We then got back just in time to see the hourly dancing fountain display choreographed to Michael Jackson's thriller being blasted throughout the town on huge loudspeakers - Vegas has nothing on Druskininkai !!!!!  Clearly lots to explore here and all of it pretty insane. It's actually so refreshing to be in a place that is so completely different in every way. Nothing here, from the language, to stores, to food, to the friendly but unsmiling, rather gruff people feels familiar.

Coffee House
Credit Helen Ward

More to come tomorrow . . .

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Helen Ward Obermeyer

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

I share a love of travel with my husband Wally and daughters Kyra and Catherine. I believe It is only through meeting people and sharing common interests that we can break down barriers and prevent fascism. I grew up in New York in the country and the city,  have lived in London and currently embrace Colorado as home. There is nothing more important than learning both through formal education and experiences. When I can't be on the road I travel through books and journalism which is why I am such a big supporter of public radio. Through its unbiased reporting and global reach it reminds us everyday to look beyond our small self interests and be aware of all the world has to offer.