Don's Diary

November 3, 1995

SATURDAY. Fly from Heathrow at 7am with a brief stopover at Frankfurt and then by Ukraine Air International to Simferopol, capital of the Crimea. The flight is remarkably pleasant, as is the wine with the meal. The Crimea is on the same latitude as the south of France and produces prize-winning wines and champagnski. It is a land of great, but mostly unrealised, potential. A stranded country, with a population of mostly Russian origin, it is governed from the Ukraine and has its own, ineffectual, parliament.

I have been invited to co-chair the first international Conference on Spoken and Written Communication. Svetlana, the local conference chair meets me at Simferopol Airport. Two other delegates are with her: a Japanese phonetician and an American. They look shell-shocked. The reason is that they had taken a Crimean Airlines flight from Kiev. As they boarded they noticed that the plane had a bald tyre and had told the attendant who just shrugged. The tyre shredded on landing.

SUNDAY. Look out from my balcony over the Black Sea. I am in a sanatorium along the coast from Yalta. It is an ugly tower block, but is surrounded by wooded gardens leading down to the beach. The conference will make a loss. The proceedings contain 80 papers, but only 40 people have turned up. Just the three of us have made it from outside the former Soviet Union. The sea is warm, the sky blue, and I regret not having packed sun tan lotion. Our hosts hold the first of the nightly parties, and around midnight reveal that they want me to open the conference with a few words in Russian.

MONDAY. Awake early and try to rehearse speech which has been written out for me in phonetic spelling. I cannot pronounce what I had been able to read fluently at 1am. Stumble through the opening address and am received with polite applause. I was scheduled to present my paper on the first morning, but it is postponed. Although I had checked all the arrangements with the organisers in advance, I had not thought to ask whether the overhead projector would be compatible with my transparencies. The standard Crimean OHP has a transparency area of less than half A4 and gives off the glow of a magic lantern. The Russian lecturing style is to read out a written paper, with no visual aids. An OHP is brought from Simferopol and I give my talk in the afternoon, pausing at the end of each sentence for it to be repeated in Russian.

TUESDAY. A conference trip to Yalta. The Black Sea is the prime holiday spot for the whole of Russia. The town has a large harbour and it could rival Cannes. But the Crimea's economy is in tatters. The local Mafia controls anything profitable. Try to buy a Yalta T-shirt but they all have American slogans or Disney characters. At the evening party the Japanese colleague teaches everyone to make origami cranes. We discover that the only song everyone knows is Yesterday by the Beatles.

WEDNESDAY. The session is enlivened by the arrival of a gang of psychotherapists. One of them gives an impassioned plea for the linguists to join him in an investigation of the psycho-linguistics of abnormal behaviour. The interpreter sits with our little group of non-Russian speakers. She is a student who has studied for a year in the United States and she translates the language of Russian psychology into fluent English. Many of the Russian presentations seem like dirigibles: grand inspiring structures, floating in the air.

THURSDAY. A session on cognition and computing. Most of the contributors are in regular email communication with the West, sharing one terminal attached to a modem. One presenter has carried out a study of email interactions with her English-speaking colleagues.

I ask my host for the best route to Gurzuf, a nearby town that was a home of Chekhov and a haven for artists at the turn of the century. She tries to convince me that the only sensible way to get there is by tourist boat accompanied by a guide. I sneak away and take a walk through a stunning Provencal countryside of vineyards and olive groves with a backdrop of forested mountains. Return via the longest trolleybus line in the world. It runs from Simferopol in the centre of the Crimea to the coast and is one of the more useful legacies of Stalin.

FRIDAY. Go to Simferopol to speak about my research with a small group of students from the language department. On the way I am asked to also give a 40-minute presentation on cognitive linguistics. Try to prepare a few notes on the bumpy mountain road. Taken into a classroom of about 60 people. Give what I think is a surprisingly coherent talk. I later learn that most of those in the room are first-year English students and have understood very little.

The university is starved of teaching materials. There are no academic publishers in the Crimea, and no more books from Russia. On my first visit last September I left a copy of The Guardian and they have used it all year as a main teaching text. The department has written to the British embassy in Kiev asking for English texts such as cast-off magazines. The embassy said it could only help once the political situation is more stable. Invited for a last-night meal by the English teachers. Many toasts are drunk to Anglo-Crimean friendship.

Senior lecturer in the school of cognitive and computing sciences, University of Sussex.

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