Day 3 of the conference and my day to present. Up to that point, I made my way in and around the exhibition floor, sifted through presentations in Russian while listening intently to English with my simultaneous translation headpiece, and found the local coffee shop.
At my request, mom brought South Dakota picture books and Wall Drug bumper stickers for thank you gifts. Three people went above and beyond to help me and they deserved a hearty thank you and I had the great pleasure of distributing thank you gifts.
During lunch of the first day of talks, I found the coffee station with ceramic cups and saucers stacked neatly one upon the other. “It is not our custom to take [coffee cups and saucers] out of the cafe and into conference rooms.” Having observed no one taking their ceramic coffee cups out of the dining area, I asked a Muscovite if this breached protocol. My observation proved correct, if not debilitating. With this cultural difference in mind, I made my way to the ordering station at the coffee shop, trying in vain to gesticulate four shots of espresso in one 12-ounce americano to complete incomprehension.
A deep voice behind me and one foot above me asked, “may I translate?” I whipped around and looked straight up, “yes, please. I would like four shots of espresso in a 12-ounce cup, filled to the top with hot water.” And he fired off my order perfunctorily.
While I waited for my order – and ignored the barista’s censorious looks – I complimented my new best friend on his English. “Thank you!” he grinned proudly. “I am a journalist and four of my friends and I were just in America for quite some time. We went on a month long motorcycle tour.”
I laughed. Of course, you did.
My dress, my appearance, and my penchant for technical clarification in no way contributed to a low profile. In contrast to the sea of dark suits around me, I wore an apple green sweater the first day, my cheerful pastel lambswool wrap on the second, and presented in my teal dress on the third. Americans, in general, tend to be smiley, and I grin more broadly than that. There is no hiding my nationality.
Where Russians asked questions of (and spoke to) the speakers like a pneumatic rapid-fire nail gun in Russian, I stood at the mic speaking English slowly and deliberately, not entirely sure if my questions survived the translation to and from the presenter. Occasionally the speakers understood my English, other times they, too, waited for the simultaneous translators.
After three days of standing at the microphone asking my questions, the moderators started looking for me in the audience, kindly tilting their heads, “any questions?” I laughed and shook my head no. Then they closed out the session.
Halfway through the conference, a researcher approached me, “are you the American who asks all the questions?” With that dam breached, I started meeting new colleagues who were just as passionate my American counterparts about their research. This realization set me back on my four inch high heels.
Of course, there are political considerations, sanctions, perhaps even cultural suspicions on a national level. But what I found on the level of the scientists and engineers was a deep desire to do good, meaningful work. To pursue the science, to conduct the research, to forge collaborations, and to solve problems. Research budgets had been slashed to nothing and a primary concern of this conference was, “how to do research with no budget?” This overwhelming desire evidenced itself in the willingness of researchers there to invite me to panel discussions, wait for my translated questions, and listen to my very American presentation.
Attending technical talks, particularly the two sessions on geomechanics, were the highlight of the conference. The interest in geomechanics caught the conference organizers by surprise: the volume of people necessitated two separate sessions and the larger conference room to accommodate the speakers and attendees.
Presenting to a foreign language audience required a few adjustments to my kinematic presentation style. First, the translator could only hear me in his soundproof booth if I stood directly in front of the microphone.
Second, while I do not typically speak to audiences in language suffused with jargon, acronyms, or colloquialisms, I did make every effort to strip my presentation down to the studs. These translators had been working for three days using a language gymnastic skill I could not hope to achieve. I did not want to add more work to their considerable effort.
Third, I presented from two screens – one in English and one in Russian. When appropriate, I pointed and hoped that the translators put everything in the same order for the Russian edition as the English edition. If not, my audience was thoroughly confused.
The quartet of pictures above does not show me conducting Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, just trying very hard to stand in one place while presenting. The energy had to come out one way or another.
Three people, in particular, stand out from my two presentations. The two shown in the picture and an engineer who translated one of my questions to an earlier presenter. I wrote a “thank you” on my business card after her kindness, to which she replied “you’re welcome” on hers. Later, she emailed pictures of me presenting and wrote that I was very courageous for coming to present.
After my presentation ended and the conference concluded, mom took me out for a celebratory dinner. To finish our adventure in Russia, I enjoyed red caviar with mini-pancakes and a glass of wine. And then we split dessert.
We made it back to Rapid City without incident and with a lot of stories to tell.
What an adventure:
- finding and having my manuscript and presentation translated (the translator asking me, “what hiding in the Montana mountains” meant?),
- figuring out how to pay the translator (at one point my bank called me to figure out why I was wiring money to Russia… did I have family there? Was I doing this against my will?),
- not submitting the correct visa application the first go-around (down to the wire!),
- successfully navigating two connections and arriving safely,
- taking a city tour with a knowledgeable guide and questionable driver,
- attending the Bolshoi,
- visiting with a South Dakota tourist in line at the coffee shop,
- meeting research counterparts, and
- luxuriating in exotic food.