Watching for Fellows

On my trips for UNU/IIST, I was often picked up at the airport. I turned out to be much more relaxed if I knew that I was picked up. So I greatly appreciated it if someone picked me up.

When I visited Bucharest, I was picked up at the airport of Bucharest by one of my hosts, namely Gheorghe Stefanescu. Because I had a busy schedule on the day of arrival, it has gone clear out of my mind whether he brought me immediately to the student flat where I would stay the nights in Bucharest. What I remember about the student flat was that there were a lot of stray dogs in its neighbourhood. This was a growing problem that started during the Romanian revolution of 1989, when many dogs lost their master. It was a little bit scary.

The institutes of the United Nations University were financially independent from the United Nations to prevent political interference. UNU/IIST’s source of income was the yield of an endowment fund, which did not give much financial headroom. Therefore, UNU/IIST asked an institute who hosted a UNU/IIST course to provide accommodation and meals for the course instructor. That is the reason why I seldom ended up in a fancy hotel. This is an advantage if you want to learn the most about people and culture of a country.

Like on many future trips for UNU/IIST, I had little time for sightseeing in Romania. I visited instead a nice open-air museum in Bucharest with buildings from all over the country copied in their original settings. It gave at least a fine impression of the rural areas of Romania. I did some sightseeing in Bucharest. It struck me that awful pompous buildings had been put straight in front of beautiful historical buildings during the regime of Ceausescu. My hosts were not keen to say much about this regime and the revolution of 1989. It seemed as if the wounds caused by the regime were still too deep and there was a lot of shame about the course of the revolution.

On my last day in Bucharest, I had dinner with my hosts, their partners and their superiors. A while after we arrived in the restaurant, I thought that they were quarrelling. It turned out that I was responsible for the rather heated discussion. On the question what I would like to eat, I had answered that I always prefer to eat specialities of the country that I am visiting. The discussion was about what were the best culinary specialities of Romania on the menu.

I identified several potential UNU/IIST fellows in Bucharest. Among them were Radu Soricut and Bogdan Warinschi, who both became a UNU/IIST fellow four months later. Eventually, Radu and Bogdan took a Ph.D. degree in computer science at the University of Southern California and the University of California, San Diego, respectively.

I flew in a plane that was not inspiring confidence in a safe flight from Bucharest to Kiev, where I was picked up at the airport by my host, Nikolaj Nikitchenko. It was Friday at about noon. After almost two weeks full of travelling, meeting and lecturing, I felt extremely tired. So I had decided to take a rest during the coming weekend. However, Nikolaj had arranged a full agenda for me from my arrival.

On Friday afternoon, he had included sightseeing in Kiev, and on Friday evening, he had included attending an Ukrainian opera performance. On Saturday and Sunday, he had included visiting various groups of computer scientists and more sightseeing. The computer scientists that I met were still quite isolated from Western colleagues due to lack of the necessary facilities. Often their salaries were not paid for months. Nikolaj introduced me to them mainly to bring this state of affairs extensively to the attention of a Western colleague.

Nikolaj is notable for his broad cultural interest. For example, when he was linking up the work of Ukranian painters and the work of Dutch painters, it became clear that he knew as much about Dutch painters from the Dutch Golden Age as I did — whereas I knew nothing about Ukranian painters. What impressed me most during the sightseeing were Babi Yar, which was the scene of possibly the largest shooting massacre during the Holocaust, the magnificent monastery known as the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and the many magnificent cathedrals in Kiev.

At the opera, I met Nikolaj’s wife Tatyana for the first time. She came across as a cheerful person, even though she had not got her salary for many months and had difficulties to get pregnant for many years. On my last evening in Kiev, I had dinner with Nikolaj and Tatyana at their appartment, which was not much larger than the largest bedroom in my house in Voorschoten. We had a pleasant evening, partly because we drank a lot of vodka. The bottles of Ukranian vodka were at that time closed by caps that must be destroyed to open the bottles. As a consequence of this, Ukrainians usually did not stop drinking vodka before an opened bottle was empty.

I gave my lectures in an impressive historical room in the Ukranian Academy of Science. After the lectures, there were dozens of students who wanted to be interviewed for the position of fellow at UNU/IIST. Owing to the large number of students that I had to interview, the interviews could not be in-depth. However, there was one student, Yaroslav Usenko by name, who made an excellent impression by consistently managing to find the proper words at the right moment. Without going into details of his competences, I decided intuitively that he should certainly become a UNU/IIST fellow. He became a UNU/IIST fellow four months later.

When my colleague Jan Bergstra from the University of Amsterdam visited UNU/IIST and worked with the fellows that I supervised, he said that Yaroslav had a clearer insight into the subject that he was working on than each of his past and current Ph.D. students. Eventually, Yaroslav took a Ph.D. degree in computer science at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. The issues treated in his Ph.D. thesis were exactly the issues that he mentioned during the interview as the issues that he wanted to work on. When Yaroslav was a Ph.D. student in Eindhoven, he set up a software company in Ukraine. I am still happy with my decision then in Kiev that Yaroslav should become a UNU/IIST fellow.

© Kees Middelburg, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kees Middelburg with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Kees Middelburg

Retired computer scientist
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