Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT)
Posted on June 29, 2000
By Melissa Pionzio
A gynecologist, radio announcer, therapist, women's rights activist, monk, computer programmer and vice mayor toured the Mark Twain House Tuesday, individuals from a group of 15 Russians who were visiting the Hartford area.
Between stops at political, civic and governmental agencies and organizations, the Russians are experiencing daily life here through the hospitality of host families in the state.
Friendship Force of Connecticut was one of 20 American groups selected by the Friendship Force International exchange organization to participate in the Open World Russian Leadership Program.
At the Twain House, the Russians marveled at the lavish architecture and interior design of the famous author's home, while hearing about his penchant for cigars, his dislike for his modern telephone and his practice of sleeping with his head at the foot of his bed so he could see his elaborately carved headboard.
Tour guide Chris Bernhard fielded questions about why the house is so dark and the authenticity of its furnishings and decorations. When Bernhard named the titles of novels Twain completed while living in Hartford, the Russians nodded in recognition.
"They told me Twain is required reading in school," said Gail Meyers-Jaworski, who has hosted Friendship Force visitors in her Manchester home for several years. Meyers-Jaworski joined Friendship Force through a family she met while vacationing in Germany. Experiencing another country through the eyes of its natives was so enjoyable, she said, that she wanted to offer the same hospitality to others.
"It's a wonderful way in Friendship Force to meet people from other cultures and find out how much in common we have," she said. "We all want to have a better life and help others that are less fortunate."
She took her guests, Valery Mitrofanenko and Yuriy Bubnov, to the Talcott Mountain Music Festival in Simsbury, to dinner with two of her daughters and on a day trip to Newport, R.I., where they tasted their first lobster. In the evening, her guests entertained her with Russian folk songs and shared stories of home and work.
"They really loved the music festival," Meyers-Jaworski said. "And in Newport, at one of the mansions, there was a tomb that was inscribed in Russian."
Mitrofanenko, a coordinator and associate professor of social work at Northern Caucasus Technical University, said he was very interested in learning about the American social system.
He said he had the opportunity to talk about all the programs in the United States, and nonprofit organizations, and was surprised to learn of the number of Russians living in the Hartford area.
"We visited the Salvation Army, and this was very good," Mitrofanenko said. "Everywhere, all people are so kind, and they knew a lot about Russia."
The group's daily schedule was jammed from morning to night, with tours of many sites, including Wallingford's city hall, Bristol Hospital, the state elections commission, local museums, Hartford's Metropolitan District Commission, the Legislative Office Building and Salvation Army headquarters in Hartford, not to mention a day in New York City. They also met and spoke to civic leaders, elected officials, fire department chiefs, police officers, tax collectors and many others.
The eight-day visit, which will conclude Friday, is under the direction of the Library of Congress, which matches Russian participants with host communities and professional counterparts.
"I'm so tired, I'm numb," laughed Simsbury resident Martha Schwartz, who, along with her husband, Lorry Schwartz, has been a member of Friendship Force since 1978. She said their ongoing participation stems from a desire to bridge the gap between cultures and to create stronger, more positive relationships.
"We believe in the concept that if we sit and break bread together, there would be no more war," Martha Schwartz said. "It's just a drop in the bucket, but if everyone would do it, the bucket would be full."
Bubnov, who heads the environmental protection agency in the city of Samara, commented on how green Hartford is. He said he enjoyed every experience during his visit, especially American sandwiches, beer and California chardonnay, but said the best part was the way he was treated by Friendship Force and his host family.
Russians and Americans are not so different, he said.
"There is a mutual desire to learn more about our cultures," he said. "We wanted to know more about how Americans live, inside and out, and they wanted to know about our culture, as well."
[Used by permission of the Hartford Courant Company.]
[Reprinted with Permission]