On the Train to Kaunas

30/08/14

The word “Kaunas” reminds me of the word “Shaurma,” only because both words have this “a” and then the “u” sound that is so strange to the American tongue. If a person were to Americanize either if these words, the “a” and the “u” would end up being a combined sound. However, the meanings of the words are very different. Kaunas is a city in Lithuania, and a Shaurma is a Middle-Eastern burrito-like food. Why am I thinking of these two things? Right now I am on a train to Kaunas for the day, and it made me think of them. Being on a train reminds me of being a child. Whenever we would sit at the tracks waiting for a train to pass after violin lessons, we would count how many cars there were. Sometimes there were over 100 train cars, but other times we only saw around 40. These were always freight trains though, in the United States one rarely sees passenger trains, much less has the opportunity to ride one. In Europe I have heard that trains are a very common form of transportation, and in following with this information the train tickets are very reasonably priced as well. It only cost 22 Litas for the train ticket to Kaunas, and usually they are only 18 Litas. This means that usually the ticket is around 7 U.S. dollars.

I rode with Guoda on the way to Kaunas so I told her about my impression of the train I rode in Lithuania compared to the trains I rode to and from Moscow when I was studying in Kazan’. On the way to Moscow, for an overnight trip that took 12 hours, my friends and I rode in what I believe was the last car of the train. The car was filled only with seats, and many of my friends said later that they had had difficulty sleeping in an upright position. It used to bother me too, but then I started flying more often. In the train on the way back, we had a better car, it had beds. In my opinion the beds were basically shelves because they were not very wide, and they were not very long. Each space had one bed over another, and the only part that indicated that they were beds was the bedding that accompanied them.

The train in Lithuania looked very modern in comparison. I don’t know how many cars were on this particular train, but from what I could tell it was a very short train for the purpose of going quickly, and each train car had a top floor and a bottom floor filled with seats so that as many people could fit as possible. Guoda told me that the train we were on was modern, and that when the universities start up again it becomes very hard to get a seat on the train so some people stand the whole hour in-between the cities. She says whenever she looks at the train schedules, there are trains that take an hour and a half to go between the two cities, but this one only takes an hour. Guoda tries to only go on the trains that take an hour, because why go on a slower train if there is a faster option?

Guoda told me to get from Vilnius to Klaipeda (another city in Lithuania) takes five hours on a train because there is no railway that goes through Kaunas, instead the train goes all the way around the city to get to the next. She said if someone was going to go to Klaipeda it would be smarter to take a bus because even if they are slightly less comfortable, a bus will take four hours instead of five.

As the train was making its way to Kaunas, I strained my neck in every direction to see out the different windows around me. As I was looking out the window behind me, I noticed a cow lying down next to the tracks, and a white speckled horse trotting about, around the cow. That reminded me that the few times I have been in a bookstore in Vilnius and I’ve found a small section with books in English, one of the few books they have is titled “Horses of Lithuania,” or something. I only opened it once, but it gave me the impression that Lithuania has a long history of breeding and training horses.

Guoda is from Kaunas and is returning for a small time over the weekend to visit her parents, so I will return to Vilnius alone tonight. Tauvydas on the other hand is on a camping trip with his father. I don’t know when they are supposed to return, but maybe he will already be back when I return. (Tauvydas was not back when I returned last night, and when I left to go find lunch today neither of them had returned. Last night copious quantities of rain fell from the sky for an extended period of time so I don’t know how Tautvydas and his father stayed out camping in such conditions. Perhaps I have just lost a bit of my taste for camping since it has been so long since I have gone).

As the train kept going, we passed through a forest which inspired Guoda to tell me about the Lithuanian people’s love of forests. She told me that this weekend she had wanted to go to the forest to pick mushrooms since it had rained a bit this last week, which I guess affects the mushroom supply. I’m told Lithuanians love going to the forest to pick mushrooms. She said she called all of her friends to see if they could go because she wanted to go in a car so they could go further into the forest, but all of her friends already had plans, some of them to pick mushrooms with their parents. Guoda said she might pick them when she got to her house because when she was younger, that’s where she used to pick them.

Guoda told me that many people who live close to the border of Lithuania will go work in one of the Scandinavian countries because there, their wages will be around three times higher than if they worked in Lithuania, so after some time working they can come back and do nothing for half a year. She says that when the Lithuanias go to the forest in these countries, there are so many berries and mushrooms to pick. The Lithuanians always ask the locals why they do not go to the forest because there is such a plentiful supply of good things to pick there, and the locals tell them that they don’t go because they can buy it in the store. Guoda says she thinks that the people from these countries probably wouldn’t recognize what is good to pick, and what is not. The more I hear about “these countries,” the more they sound like the United States. I told Guoda that Americans know how to pick mushrooms and fruit, but only from the grocery store. I think Americans for the most part would be pretty clueless picking berries and mushrooms in the forest, especially mushrooms.

I did go with my host mom in Russia once to pick berries in the forest, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the berries were cleared out before we arrived. I did spot a few leftover berries, but there weren’t enough there to pick for the purpose we wanted them. If we had found enough berries, they would have been used to make jam, but since there weren’t any there to find, we spent the time enjoying tea in the rain instead. My host mom told me that every time she goes to visit her parents there is always bad weather, but that the weather where they live isn’t normally bad in the summer. It rained just for her.

When I first arrived in Kaunas, Guoda sort of told me where to go, but I still wasn’t sure. I felt like I walked forever before I found the foot street I was looking for, but I think that it was just a combination of being hungry and walking through areas that made me a little bit uncomfortable that gave the walk to this street the feeling of being longer than it actually was. When I walked back to the train station later, I realized the walk really was not very long. It was lucky that I found the street when I did. I felt like I had been walking too long, so I pulled out my phone because I had some pictures of maps with places I wanted to go marked on them, and since I was hungry I decided to look for one of the restaurants I found online. I stopped to look at this map on a street corner, and it turned out that where I was, was marked on the map. After I realized this, I walked a few paces around the corner and ended up on the foot street I had been looking for.

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The night before I spent some time looking up various attractions in Kaunas that might be worth visiting, but I ended up abandoning those plans to experience Kaunas more as Guoda described it to me with the foot street, the old town and the rivers. The first part of the foot road is completely straight with two rows of trees down the middle that give it an illusion of being endless. At the beginning of this part of the road is an old white cathedral. I did not go to the cathedral until I was getting ready to leave Kaunas because it was on my way back to the train station, and by then it was closed. I stopped to take a few pictures of the outside, but the trees that ran down the center of the street were in the way.

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I think I have said this before, but even if I have, I will say it again. I think that Americans tend to drink more water or juice or just anything than people in these countries (by “these countries,” I think I mean European countries and Russia, but I haven’t traveled extensively enough to be sure of this). I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at my host mom’s house I was really thirsty, but I couldn’t communicate this properly because in Russian, to express thirst, they say “I want to drink.” They have a word for “thirsty,” but I am told it is generally only used when talking about actions such as watering plants. For instance, “The plants are thirsty.”

I feel like I am always thirsty here, but I can’t just go to a store and buy a bottle of water to drink because, first of all, that would get expensive (in the United States I would just find a drinking fountain or ask for a water at a Starbucks) and, secondly, they are lacking public bathrooms here. In the United States I drink water, coffee and tea all day long because I know I can always find a bathroom and it’s healthy to stay hydrated. Here I know I am definitely not drinking enough. I drink maybe four glasses of liquids a day, and that includes coffee, water and tea (I don’t really drink anything else). I was very thirsty all day in Kaunas, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I disregarded my thirst and appreciated my time there anyway.

At the end of the long, straight stretch of road for people to walk on, the road turns to the left and the texture of the street changes. When the road turns like this, it is the old town of Kaunas. I say that “the texture of the street changes” because stones were used to make up the street and they felt uneven and strange underneath my feet. If someone shuffled their feet as they walked (which unfortunately some people do), they would surely trip. Since I am not used to streets like this because most of America seems to lack that “old town” feeling, it actually takes some concentration to walk on these streets. This is not a statement coming from a generally clumsy person either, but I think that part of my difficulty comes from my tendency to walk quickly.

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The old town is very beautiful and I had a good time looking at the buildings and decorations that are so different from what are found in modern towns. Unfortunately there isn’t much to do in the old town if you aren’t planning to go out to eat or shop. I wasn’t planning to do either of these activities, so I continued through the town until I found a river. Guoda told me that if I walked far enough, there is a place in Kaunas where the two largest rivers in Lithuania combine into one. I didn’t initially find the place where one river met the other river because, at first, I only found one river. I wondered if perhaps I had ended up somewhere completely different than the area Guoda had described to me. I decided I didn’t want to worry about it, and that I would enjoy myself anyway, so I sat on the grass and watched as quite a few sets brides and grooms walked around with photographers, as well as a couple getting professional pictures taken with their toddler. I remember being very tired as I sat near the river watching the day go by (I really didn’t sit there that long, but if felt like a long time).

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Eventually I dragged myself and kept walking. It was only about ten minutes later, as I continued down the same path I had been walking down before, that I found the place where the two rivers meet. There were many couples walking around here, and I realized it was sort of symbolic. In a place where two rivers meet to become one, couples are spending their time enjoying each other’s company, and in a sense becoming one as well.

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If I had a friend with me who knew about Kaunas I would be able to write more about the city, but alas, what I saw and heard is all I have to offer. It was a nice change for me to go to another city for a day. I have been getting too comfortable in Vilnius, since I am not in school right now, slowly wandering the streets and enjoying the culture and cuisine. Since I have spent so much time walking around the streets in Vilnius, I know the area around where I am staying very well, but I know there is always more to see that is either where I haven’t thought to go yet, or out of walking distance. After going to Kaunas for one day, I think it would be easier to learn the streets there than it is in Vilnius, but Kaunas is also a smaller city than Vilnius.

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(A picture of a random couple walking away from the area where the rivers meet).

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Waiting

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I remember when I used to think I didn’t dream. It’s not that I didn’t dream, it’s just that I didn’t remember them because everyone dreams. Now I remember them, but it’s only splinters. Pieces that have broken off from the dream to imbed themselves in my memory, and like splinters are painful; it is often the painful part of my dreams that stay with me. I wake up and I think something terrible has happened that makes me have to get another HIV test. Maybe the paper was wrong again, but this time I am out of time. I can’t get another test and a new certificate. My visa haunts me in my sleep, it sits on the edge of my happiness and claws its way into my dreams. Dreams? No. These are not dreams anymore, they are nightmares.

HIV tests aren’t particularly scary. You have some blood drawn and the blood goes to the lab. The results are given back to you very quickly. One day, two days, three days if it takes a long time, and then you can hand your certificate to the lady at the visa center, you smile and you walk away because everything is finished. You have no more paperwork that is your responsibility. It’s just the waiting. The waiting is the worst. Now that you have carried that responsibility with you for months it is hard to let it go, but you have to. You have to put your trust, like another sheet, inside that stack of documents as you hand them over.

If it did not cost so much I would have processed my visa in five days just so I could avoid the waiting. But now, all I can do is find distractions. What can I do to distract myself now, I wonder. Each new day means I need a new set of distractions, but each new night I am free to think, to worry, and the most dangerous, “what if…” I lay in bed awake for a while and think, and then I fall asleep still thinking. That’s when the nightmares come. There are no more distractions while I am sleeping, and I have to let the worry come that I keep at bay during the day. It comes and usually I don’t remember, but sometimes a piece gets stuck. A splinter. The fear.

People often say, “You must be having the time of your life,” and “You must be so excited to go to St. Petersburg,” but, no I am not. All I can do is wait. I don’t live in the future and I don’t live in the past, but dwell in the present. Presently I am so grateful and happy to be where I am, but on the other side I am waiting. These people, they don’t understand that I have been working for this and waiting for this, and I am sick. I am not sick of waiting, I am sick with waiting, and now that sickness is in my dreams. They are called nightmares.

My friend once told someone I had just been introduced to, “She’s obsessed with Russia.” I knew then that my friend didn’t know me as well as she should.

When you spend so much time and energy working for one goal, when you throw yourself into everything you need to do to reach that point, that goal consumes you. It takes your time and it takes your mind. There are endless applications for scholarships, for programs, to study abroad, and you are always thinking about them. There are meetings with professors, with the Dean, with the people who run the study abroad office, with the people running the program, and you are always worrying about them. There are the complaints, the tears, smiles, feelings of being crushed and uplifted, and they are always with you.

I did not choose an easy path for myself, but I knew what I wanted to do. I remember still, walking into the study abroad office at my school. One of the women who runs the office was telling me about the study abroad website and how to apply. I don’t need this, I thought, applications are usually self-explanatory and straightforward, so why am I here.  I soon found out. “Where do you want to go?” she asked me kindly. Russia, of course Russia, that’s where I have been planning to go for years. She asked what semester I wanted to go. I was confused. Isn’t there an option to study abroad for the whole year? Not in the program to Russia. That echoes in my head, not in the program to Russia. I had to find a way to fulfill my dream of studying abroad for a year, even if it wasn’t part of the school’s typical policy. I had to. How many meetings, conversations, essays, letters of recommendation, professors, how many did it take? I don’t know because I couldn’t count. I spent so much time working on it, that now I talk about it, I think about it, I dream about it, and right now I don’t know how not to. Then someone who I thought new me, called me obsessed.

Think before you use this word please, it does not have good connotations. It is a word that young teenagers use when they are obsessed with a certain band, or obsessed with doing their hair. They use it until they realize what it really means.

This may make me sound like a sad person, or someone who is so worried that they have forgotten how to be happy, but I assure I am not either of those. I am generally a happy person, and I love to live in the present, but right now I am also a waiting person.

Chinese and Stress

Today I am so tired and I haven’t done much of anything. I think it is because I was so stressed out yesterday. August 26th is the birthday of two of my immediate family members – my father and my youngest sister. My father has been very busy, but I was going to try to Skype them both if I could. On top of trying to deal with the time difference, the fact that neither of these to family members really uses social media or replies to their email often (which are the only ways I can contact people right now) makes it so I have to coordinate everything through my mother who is also busy and I had to calculate another time difference to attend my online orientation for my upcoming study abroad program. I forgot a few pieces. As I was still attending my online orientation Guoda and Tautvydas came home and I felt very rude because I could not fully concentrate on what they were saying when they were talking to me because I had to listen to a person I could not even see on my computer. They also were preparing dinner (another delicious pumpkin) because they were inviting a friend over to eat with them. There I was, still on my online orientation and trying to figure out when I could talk to my family while all of this other stuff was a swirling mass of business around me, or maybe just in my head. I think all of these things together stressed me out too much. I have probably been stressed too much this whole trip (since I left the United States) trying to get everything to run smoothly so I would be able to go to Kazan’ and St. Petersburg, and now as soon as I get a little bit stressed I wear myself out by over stressing.

In the end I didn’t get to talk to either my father or my sister for their birthdays. I had to give up and ask my mother to say happy birthday for me. At the time I felt so defeated by having to ask someone else to say happy birthday to my own family members for me! I felt like it was such a pathetic thing to do, and I felt terrible for having done it. In reality, it was not my fault. I did try to be able to talk to them.

All of this stress from last night traveled over into the morning. This morning I did not want to get up, I did not want to eat breakfast, I did not want to work on my blog, and I did not want to start my day. I did not post anything yesterday and I told myself that because I had time in Lithuania, I have to try to post something every day to try to catch up from not posting anything while I was in Kazan’. I am working on a few posts that concern my time in Kazan’, but they aren’t finished so, I missed a day.

I did eventually drag myself up to take a shower and work on my blog. I didn’t get out of the apartment until lunch time because I was writing, but I told myself I had to go somewhere to eat lunch so I would get on my feet and start walking.

There is a small Chinese restaurant in the area that I am staying. When I was walking with Tautvydas and Guoda they told me that they had not been there because it seemed suspicious to them. It is in an old, blue wooden building that looks like a house. The paint is peeling and faded in some areas, and you can barely tell from the outside that it’s a restaurant. The only indicating factors are the smells that waft through the window every time I pass by and two Chinese lanterns hanging from the corners of the patio cover. It is probably semi-new because it does not show up on a map if you try to look it up.

When I left the apartment for lunch today I decided I wanted Chinese food so I went to look inside of this restaurant and told myself that I would find another place if this hole in the wall Chinese restaurant didn’t look appetizing enough to me. I shouldn’t have even questioned whether or not the restaurant was good. I haven’t been to other Chinese restaurants in Vilnius, but the places that are hard to spot are usually the best. Upon walking inside I discovered the restaurant was almost full. It wasn’t a very big restaurant, but it says something about a restaurant, especially when it is not easily noticeable, when it is full. I took the last table, a two person table that was situated right in front of the door, leaving about five feet for people to enter and stand in between the table and the door. During the time I sat at this table waiting for my order and eating my food, I observed many groups of people coming to the restaurant for lunch hoping there was an empty table.

I ordered fried rice and sweet and sour chicken, which are two of one of my sister’s favorite dishes when we go out to eat Chinese food. I knew they weren’t going to taste the same, but I wanted something vaguely familiar so that I could compare the different flavors with those that I remember from places at home.

Although the inside of the restaurant was decorated with Chinese decorations, a blonde and obviously Lithuanian, waitress took care of my order. As I started to look around and listen, I noticed the restaurant was playing old American rock music instead of something that would create an atmosphere more representative of China. I seem to experience strange music with restaurants that serve international food often though. Not only abroad, but also in the United States. It is sort of like the people running the restaurant aren’t quite sure what music would make an appropriate match with the food and the decorations to create a full picture.

I think (I am not sure though) that this restaurant was the first place I have been that hasn’t been packed with tourists. I believe I was the only one in there who was speaking English (although I immediately switched to Russian when the waitress didn’t at first understand me). Tourists from other countries normally speak English here because, as Guoda said, it is a common language between small countries. Again, when I spoke in Russian to the waitress, I realized that even though English is widely used, it is better to know another language, too so that one can have more opportunities to communicate with the rest of the world.

Sometimes I Just Think

I have written little bits here and there from the last few days, but none of them were really interesting enough to post by themselves. I still don’t know if they will capture your attention, but perhaps they will provide further insight into who I am and how I think of people and the world.

24/08/14

I wonder if you know, today is Ukraine’s Independence Day. In Vilnius’ Cathedral Square last night they had a bonfire to show support. I mentioned in another post that yesterday the Baltic countries also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the human chain.

It is really rainy today in Lithuania, but I wanted to get out of the house since I feel like I have been there every time Guoda and Tautvydas are there and perhaps they are getting tired of me. Unfortunately, because of the rain, I could not go very far so I ended up at a mall that is about a ten to fifteen minute walk from where I am staying. I am now sitting at a café and observing some teenagers below me. They are sitting on a mesh contraption shaped like a couch. There are two girls and one boy. The girls appear to be friends, and the boy is one of the girls’ boyfriends. The boy is sitting with his arm around his girlfriend’s shoulder doing nothing but occasionally looking around and even less frequently interacting with his girlfriend’s friend. Both of the girls are texting (I assume), or doing something else on their phones. The typical head bent over and slouching back of a teenager caught up in social media, has taken over their posture; I know because I was a young teenager with a new cell phone once too. The girlfriend is paying even less attention to her boyfriend then the friend is, and I can tell the boy is starting to get bored. This situation is sad to me. I have observed the children and their mothers in a park, and how free they seemed, but now I am seeing much to my disappointment that in this situation these teenagers are no different than the wired in teenagers of America.

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(Yes, if you are wondering, I do realize I am sitting here typing on my computer working on my own form of social media while I complain about what I am seeing below me, but I am also not here with anyone but myself).

25/08/14

It is now the next day from when I was sitting in a café at the mall and writing. Yesterday was very rainy. When I left earlier to go to the mall, there was only a cold drizzle that fell from the sky. As I sat at the mall looking out the window, I watched as the drizzle turned into a downpour and I wondered when I would be able to return to the apartment.

They have a restaurant at this mall called La Crepe that I decided to try since I was temporarily stuck there. La Crepe is a chain restaurant and I have seen them allover Vilnius, but chain restaurants are part of a country’s culture (unless it is McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, or any other American fast-food chain that has managed to make its way into another country). I have noticed that many restaurants here serve crepes or pizza, and of course potato dishes. Pizzerias serve crepes, and La Crepe serves pizza. It is a very strange combination, but if that is what people like, I cannot argue. I enjoy both of them myself if they are good, I just never pictured them having a place on the same menu.

An ambulance just drove by, and it reminded me that in Kazan’ my host mom had asked me why ambulances sometimes have the word “ambulance” written backwards across the front of the car. I had no idea that this happened, but we looked it up and found that it was so cars driving in front of it could read what it was in their mirror and get out of the way.

 

Today I encountered a man from Malta. When I ran into him, I did not really have a direction that I intended on going. I had plans for later in the day but right then I was just enjoying walking down the street by myself and enjoying the city.

I was about to keep walking on my way but he started talking to me. In the beginning I knew little about Malta, only that it was an island. In all honesty there are so many countries out in the world that I can’t possibly know about every single one of them, and Malta was one that I did not know. I study Russian and in accordance with this, I study mainly the history, culture and literature of countries that speak the Russian language or that were part of the former Soviet Union because they have intertwined histories.

The man and I went to a café to chat a little before he had to take off to fulfill his prior commitments. He was only in Lithuania for a few days gaining a visa to Belarus. He is leaving for Minsk tonight. The Baltic States are not only beautiful hidden pockets of culture and history, but they also serve as very useful gateways to apply for visas for surrounding countries.

We talked about a few different topics including Russian and Russia of course. These topics seem to always come up in conversations when I meet someone. Through this conversation I learned that people in Malta are bilingual speaking both Maltese and English. Later, when I looked up a bit of information about the country I found that these are both official languages of Malta. In addition to these two languages he mentioned that he learned Russian and Arabic. Perhaps another language as well, but these four are what I remember.

I don’t know the story behind his interest in Arabic, but we talked about how and why he ended up learning Russian. In Malta he used to own a restaurant and he would get a lot of Russian clientele.  A Russian woman ended up working for him and suggested that he translate the menu for his restaurant into Russian. I wasn’t very clear on this point, but I think that this was before he knew Russian so this woman probably helped him. He also spent a few months in St. Petersburg and said that while being there, hearing and seeing Russian everyday it was hard not to learn the language. At his restaurant after he learned Russian, his Russian customers would always wonder why and how he knew Russian.

From this, we moved on, to a discussion of differences in restaurant etiquette in Malta, Lithuania and America. I have discussed a few differences in education, fitness and the grammar of languages; I never thought I would end up in a conversation about the differences in customer service at restaurants. He said that in Malta if the restaurant was a good restaurant, not necessarily expensive, but good, you will always find the real owner at the restaurant. Since he has been in Lithuania he has not seen the real owner of a restaurant here, although most of the restaurants I have seen here are chains. From my experience in Lithuania when you sit down at a restaurant they give you about two minutes to look at the menu before asking if you are ready to order. Sometimes these menus are around twenty pages long (with the back section usually being beverages or dessert) so I have had a waiter or waitress come back sometimes three or four times before I am actually ready to order, or else they hover nearby ready to pounce as soon as I look up from my menu. I know that in the United States  the staff at restaurants will annoyingly return before you are obviously ready to order as well, but not in the same short intervals that they do here. In the United States sometimes people take a long time to decide what to order and this is normal. We like to slowly examine each dish, and chat about something interesting while we are doing it, so it makes going through the menu much slower. People that I know usually go to restaurants to spend time with people, catch up with old friends, or meet for the purpose of business. The point is to talk over a meal. I have never been to a restaurant in the United States just to eat. I think the only other noticeable way that restaurants in Lithuania differ from restaurants in America is that like many European restaurants, they will not give you your check unless you ask for it. In the United States, as soon as they see that people have set their forks down they walk over with the check as if they want you to leave. This man I met made a comment that we are both from more relaxed countries than Lithuania based on how quickly we choose what to order from the menu. I tend to disagree, having spent about a week in Lithuania now, and I think that the country is rather more relaxed than the high speed culture of America (I of course cannot speak for Malta), but like the exercise and education differ between countries, so do the expectations in a restaurant.

This expectancy of high speed decision making extends to cafes as well. In the United States I will stand at a Starbucks (or another coffee shop) for ten minutes deciding what drink I want to order. I of course will not stand in line while I am trying to make up my mind; I stand off to the side and let others go before me if they are ready. In Lithuania, even if I stand off to the side to examine the list of drinks, the barista stares at me, waiting. Maybe here people make quick decisions concerning their food and drink. I like to know my options and enjoy knowing that I am making the right decision for myself when it comes to what kind of food I put in my body.

I can’t say too much more about this man, most of what I know about him is information I filled in myself. He gave me only little bits of insight into who he was because he kept choosing to interrupt the conversation or stop talking. It was very frustrating for me, but some people choose to be like this and I cannot change that.

26/08/14

Over these last few days, although the sun still peaks through the mass of gray clouds on occasion, the bite of fall is in the air. Fall is my favorite time of year, but adjusting from summer clothing to those required in autumn is always difficult. As it is I seem to have forgotten to pack a pair of shoes for the time in between summer and winter, and at the moment I am left wearing my summer sandals through the rainy and windy days.

I think wearing my summer sandals in the rain and cool air yesterday took my body heat, for when I went to bed I could not easily fall asleep because I was so cold. Instead I stared out the window across the room from my bed and noticed a pale green light that slowly faded in and out, in and out. Since I had nothing better to do while I waited for sleep to take me, I started to create a story stemming from the green light. I started thinking of aliens because of the color, and thus the story began.

In an apartment across the way lives a seemingly normal family. They have two children, as is common with families today. The young boy names Lynas and the older girl called Leanna attend school as anyone their ages should, and the parents go to work. On a normal day, when they all come home in the evening, the mother makes dinner while the father helps his children with their homework. Life went on normally for them, but for one difference. In the depths of night when they thought the city was sleeping, a green pale light throbbed from their windows admitting an eerie glow on the buildings and streets around it.

What did this light mean? No one knew. Everyone who saw it covinced themselves that their eyes were playing tricks on them and the light wasn’t real. They thought they must have just been too tired to think clearly and never mentioned the incident to anyone.

However, one day a girl in Lynas’ year was walking home with her mother. Her mother had had an evening shift working at a hotel, and her daughter had come to visit her. By the end of the evening shift, the mother was very tired, so when the green light started throbbing in front of her eyes, she didn’t think much of it until her daughter pointed it out.

 

I didn’t get very far in the story, or else I don’t remember the rest. That’s what I came up with last night though, Perhaps I will write more if I ever have interest in doing so.

Today I went back to the first restaurant I went to in Lithuania when I was staying with my first host in the hopes of trying a new traditional dish. However, when the translation on the menu reads something like “boiled,” “fried” or “stuffed pig’s ear”, it just does not sound appetizing to me, so I did not get it. After lunch I started to head in the direction of the museum I wanted to go to yesterday, but the weather was cleared up enough that I decided it was time to try another interesting flavor of ice cream. This time I tried Marzipan with fruit or something.

After I ate the ice cream I still had time to go to the museum, so I headed on my way. Unfortunately I don’t know all of the streets in Vilnius well, so I got a bit lost, but I eventually made it there. The museum was more of a story, you go from room to room reading about how different parts of the holocaust affected the Lithuanian Jewish population. There are pieces of the story told from the point of view of the those who administered the harm, and many diary entries from those who suffered. I think I was already slightly worn out when I got there because I had been walking around all day, but I planned to take my time going through the museum anyway. Unfortunately, as I started to make my way through the first room, two younger German guys started to practice as if they were giving a tour to people who spoke English, and I could not concentrate on what I was reading. They carried on like this the whole time I was in the museum (which was over an hour) and I was so frustrated by the end of it because I knew I could have gotten so much more out of the museum.

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I had to return to the apartment before 6:00 P.M. because my next program was holding its online orientation then. I sat on my bed for an hour listening to someone talk at me about St. Petersburg and the program that was about to start. Some of the information was helpful because I did not know it before, but the lady talking kept saying that if we had any further questions about this information, we would explore them in more depth later at the orientation when we got there. So, why did we talk about them during the online orientation at all? It seems like a waste of time. I was still listening to the orientation as first Guoda and then Tautvydas came home, and I felt rude having to sit on my computer, but it was mandatory for me to “attend.”

From Nature to the Baltic Chain

23/08/14

Tautvydas had asked me last night if I would like to go with them to a market, because he wanted to buy a watermelon to eat (he loves watermelon, but how can anyone not?). I was interested in going of course because I love to see new places, especially if I can’t simply walk to them from where I am staying. I also have this problem where I gave my passport to the visa agency of course, so I can’t do much traveling outside of Vilnius, such as a day trip to Kaunas. I mean maybe I could, but it would be more difficult without a passport because longer bus trips usually require you to show some sort of identification before getting on the bus and when you are  abroad, that “some sort of identification” is always your passport. Anyway, moving on from the temporary lack of passport, this market was a real rinok (рынок). The stalls were out in the open with canopies covering them. Just rows of fresh fruits and vegetables were lain out before me and I could smell the sweetness of them in the slightly warm summer air. I miss eating fruits and vegetables because I did not have many in Russia (although that’s partially my own fault since I went to the rinok almost every day there and I never bought any). I bought some bananas and some other fruits, and maybe it’s only because I have not had bananas in a while, but these are some of the sweetest bananas I have ever had.

After we finished our shopping at the rinok we drove to an area where a cliff allows looked over a small river that runs through a green valley. Tautvydas said that when he had been there before a few years ago it was less touristy, and there was less of a structure to help people climb the small hill. (By structure, I mean a set of steps and a ramp for the disabled that went up hill and ended in some balconies where people could observe the view). The view from the cliff was very nice, but there were no benches to sit on and enjoy the watermelon while looking over the valley, so we walked on a little bit and found a place to eat watermelon on a trail that followed the structure. Again, in another area of beautiful nature, I forgot to bring any form of camera, so I am sorry there are no pictures of this place. At the same time I am not sorry because I was able to enjoy our walk through the nature to an old mill at the bottom of the cliff. The area at the bottom of the cliff has also turned into a touristy area though because there is a nice restaurant, and a venue to hold parties. One of the walkways is lined with old stone wheels for grinding grains, and it was interesting to see how some were very worn while others are rather new looking. Part of the river split around a bridge. Under the bridge a short waterfall flowed, perhaps it was created to generate more power for the mill. On the other side, Tautvydas pointed out the steps that had been created for fish to be able to swim upstream.

As we walked, Guoda and Tautvydas talked a little about their secondary school experiences (the equivalent of an American high school). When I talked to Artūras about the differences between high schools in the United States and high schools in Lithuania, he told me that in Lithuania you have to pick in tenth grade what area of study you will go into, and the next year you start taking classes that relate specifically to that area of study. Gouda told me later that at the end of high school they have to take four exams (I think that relate to their area of study), and the marks for those exams probably affect their prospects for school the way our ACT or SAT scores do. We complain in the United States that we are forced to pick before we are old enough to know what field of work we want to go into, and they are forced to choose in tenth grade. Tautvydas and Guoda did not concentrate on this aspect of their secondary school education. The topic of secondary school came up because the area where we were walking was where Tautvydas’ school had held its 100 days before graduation party. Apparently in Lithuania (maybe in other countries too) they have a tradition of having a party 100 days before the class graduates. I don’t really understand why it is this early or what the point of celebrating 100 days before your graduate, rather than after, is, but you can’t argue with tradition. Perhaps it is like senior ditch day and senior prank in the United States. Who knows why we do them, we just do. I remember my senior ditch day; we all got into trouble for ditching even though it is a tradition at every high school. I guess not every school can have the same traditions though because Guoda told me that at her school they were not allowed to have parties so they did not celebrate 100 days before graduation.

Next to the trail there was a sign telling about the trail and the area, but it was only in Lithuanian. Guoda told me that it is interesting that small towns in Lithuania have information only in Lithuanian in comparison to Latvia where small towns apparently have information about each town in many different languages making it more tourist-friendly. The area we walked through was mostly wilderness, but since it is not easy to describe the beauty of wilderness without being able to experience the sounds, smells and feelings that go with it, I have concentrated more on the man-made aspects of what I saw. Just for a minute, imagine a place that is all green – green trees, green grass, green smells – where you can feel a cool breeze crawl over your skin and give you the shivers. You smell mostly fresh air and the crisp smell of evergreens mixed with the rare scent of a cigarette smoke out in the wilderness (because many people smoke here). Before you is a valley with some patches of very green grass and tall trees. As your eyes glide over the perfect landscape with a small river winding it’s way through it, you notice a discrepancy. There is a house in this valley, but it is not worn and old like the others, and it is not much of a house, it is more of a cube. A grey glass cube built around an old brick structure stands in the middle of this valley disrupting the landscape. Guoda told me that this house was built by an architect who has his own style and in her words, “many people think that this style does not fit in the context of where it is located.” I quite agree, it does not belong. Guoda also told me that the architect went to court for the placement of this house because enough people did not like it that it became a problem. Now on the signs that describe the trail, the house is depicted almost like a tourist attraction with a sign that Guoda translated for me that says something about the court allowing the house to stay where it is.

Glass Cube House

I found this picture on the internet, but this is the house probably at a different time of year that is not so green.

After the trail and the watermelon we returned to the apartment, which I was thankful of because I was worried about my precious fruit sitting in the back of the car. I need not have worried though because it has not been too hot in Lithuania this week, although yesterday was warmer than many of the other days, and the fruit was fine. We had a very late lunch (a little after 3:00 P.M.), at least it was late to me because I am used to having lunch between 12:00 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. I didn’t mind though, since we had eaten watermelon earlier. One dish we had for lunch was a salad. When I say salad, you probably think of a pile of green leaves, maybe with some tomatoes and carrots added and a very fatty Ranch or Thousand Island dressing sloppily poured on top only dripping onto a few bitter, half-wilted leaves. I don’t eat salads like this, they feign being healthy, and to me they don’t taste like they are worth eating. Tautvydas made a sauce to put on this salad from scratch. I didn’t catch everything that was in it, but I understand that he put two tomatoes, some garlic and some sunflower seeds in a blender with some other ingredients. I didn’t watch him make it, so I don’t know any other steps that were involved in this process, but the end result was delicious. The greens were completely tossed in this sauce, and I could have eaten that salad every day. Not only was it healthy, but it tasted really good. Guoda made a smoothie for dessert which was a mixture of peanuts and bananas (and maybe some other ingredients, again, I did not see). She filled cups only halfway full with this mixture, and then filled the second half of the cup with blueberries. Tautvydas and Guoda should really run some sort of vegan culinary school because the food they cook is amazing.

In the evening, a little after 7:00 P.M. we walked out to Cathedral Square for a concert the city was holding for the 25th anniversary of the human chain. Earlier in the evening we had been eating young (or raw) hazelnuts. They were still green and in the shell, and you have to crack the shell to get the soft white part out. At first Tautvydas was the only one cracking them because Guoda and I could not figure out how to do it. You have to take two and place them on top of each other in-between your palms and squeeze. Usually only one will crack when you do it this way, and to get them lined up correctly makes for very slow progress. Another way to crack them is by placing the nut on a hard surface and applying pressure until it cracks. Guoda could not crack them so Tautvydas was joking around about her needing to eat meat so she could gain the strength to crack them. He told her he would buy her a big sausage when we got to the festival (in case you don’t remember, they are vegan) but they weren’t even selling sausage there. (Sorry Tautvydas, your plan was foiled). The origin of this joke came from a video that Guoda showed us at lunch. There is a show called Everything is Illuminated and this particular scene features a vegetarian at a restaurant in Ukraine. If you would like some insight into how difficult and uncommon being a vegetarian in this part of the world is, or if you just want to laugh, it is definitely worth watching this clip.

On the way down to the festival Guoda and Tautvydas were joking about me buying different sweets such as cotton candy or muffins that they might sell. Tautvydas especially likes to joke around, and he kept asking me if I would buy various things. When it came to asking me about muffins (or cupcakes, I am still not sure which one he meant) they described it as a mushroom cake, because it is shaped like a mushroom. At first I did not understand because I don’t think of them as shaped like a mushroom, but I guess they are. It is interesting if you don’t know the name of something in another language what words you will use to describe them. I know I struggled with this in Russia at times.

When we got to the square, Guoda told me they invited contemporary bands from the three nations to come up and play a song, so there were songs in Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian. The common language that most people speak in these three nations is English, so if a band was from one of the other Baltic States, they would address the audience in English.

When we were riding to the market earlier, Guoda told me that her friend designed a collector’s coin for this anniversary. Her friend apparently didn’t even get to buy the coin that she designed because they sold out so fast. They look really interesting so I will include a picture.

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When we first arrived at the festival I saw an old lady in a traditional Lithuanian outfit, and it reminded me of the outfit that my father bought years ago that he gave to my oldest sister and then each next sister as the last grew out of it. I also was interested that at first I saw more Ukrainian flags then I could spot of flags from any of the other countries that the festival was actually honoring, and I wondered why this was. Guoda told me that these flags were to show support for Ukraine against the pro-Russian fighters in the current conflict. They had a fire pit that would be lit at midnight for support of Ukraine as well, and this is how I found out that the 24th of August is Ukraine’s Independence Day.

Ukrainian Flag Man

(I saw quite a few people with the Ukrainian Flag draped over their shoulders like a cape).

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(In this picture you can see that along with the flags from all of the Baltic Countries, the person also has the Ukrainian flag).

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(This picture depicts myself when I was young, wearing the Lithuanian outfit).

The hill with the red brick tower and ruins on top that is talked about in the tale of the Iron Wolf was covered from top to bottom with three big flags of the Baltic nations. This night there was also a women’s 5k run called “We Run the Night,” but I am not really sure what it was supporting. It must have been a big deal because there were a lot of spectators.

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Tautvydas and Guoda ran into their friend Adomas at the festival. Guoda told me later that he was actually the person who had introduced the two of them. When we went back to the apartment for dinner, he was invited. He seemed to have an in-your-face type of personality and wanted to be everywhere at once. He asked me about why I was learning Russian, why I was in Vilnius and every other question I get when I meet someone here, but it seemed strange for me to answer because I guess I was half expecting him not to pay me any attention since he was there to spend time with his friends. I remember he told me he used to not like the word “awesome.” He said he had a bad beginning with it because it was always exaggerated, like “AWESOME!” but sorry Adomas, it is an exclamation, that is how it’s supposed to be used. His English was not as good as Tauvydas and Guoda’s so sometimes I would not understand what he was trying to say, or he would not understand what I said. In the end we would always figure it out. I am not much of an animal person, but he did have a rather cute dog (I think it was a puppy) that ran around the apartment and wanted to eat everything. Tautvydas was getting a carrot ready to use for some soup they were making and the next thing we knew, half of the carrot was gone in the puppy’s mouth.

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Lithuanian Flag People

(These are some pictures of the concert and the stage).

Guoda told me that Adomas is in a band, and that some of their other friends who are in a band we had just seen play on stage for the anniversary celebration. As we were walking and talking a guy rode by us very quickly on a unicycle, which prompted a discussion about people we know who ride unicycles, specifically Adomas. Apparently Adomas can ride a unicycle and play the accordion at the same time and he entered into a talent contest in Peru with this talent. He was picked to go on to the next round but he had to return to Lithuania instead. I am told there is a video on YouTube of this event that you can find if you type in “Adomas Peru.” Adomas and Tauvydas are very goofy together, they are apparently best friends and they went to school for economics together, although neither of them look like economics students. When they took Adomas and his puppy home I decided I was too tired to come because there was talk of going back to the festival to see the bonfire lit. In the end, no one went back to the festival and we all just went to bed.

A little more information about Adomas. He traveled to Peru as you now know from the comment about his entrance into the competition. He lived there for a year or two and now speaks Spanish rather well. He was influenced by the South-American music and now his Lithuanian band plays music that resembles this. From my point of view he has a sort of South-American look about him. I am not trying to stereotype, but the way he chooses to style his mustache and hair is definitely not typical of how I usually see Europeans choose to wear their hair.

A Few Stories From My Hosts

I don’t know if you have noticed that quite a few of the pictures I have posted of churches, the outside of the churches have been pastel peach in coloring. (I will include some pictures just in case you missed this).  My current hosts told me there is a reason for this. Lithuanians apparently love the color peach for houses. They want the inside and the outside of their houses painted peach because it is a warm color and they live in a cold country. My hostess, Guoda, is an architect. She told me that once the company she works for was building three houses that were exactly the same, but they were going to paint them different colors. The colors were going to be green, yellow and blue. However, the agency that would sell the houses told Guoda’s company that they could not paint the house blue because Lithuanians won’t buy blue things; it is too dark of a color.

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I returned to the apartment around 7:00 P.M. this first Friday because I was meeting with some friends. At first I thought I was at the apartment alone this first weekend because Tautvydas and Guoda told me that they were going to do an experiment where each of them would write fifteen things they could do on different slips of paper and put them all into a hat. They would pick one out of the hat and leave right after work to do whatever activity was chosen. I don’t know why I didn’t think of doing something like this with my friends in California because Sacramento does not have much to do, but with many of us driving now, this experiment could solve our problems. Guoda told me when they got back that they had gone on their first date. Apparently they skipped the whole dating stage and just became boyfriend and girlfriend. I am glad they had the opportunity to go on their first date because it is my opinion that if you are in a relationship you should never stop dating. My parents have been married for 25 or more years, and they still occasionally go on dates.

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Some information I have learned from Tautvydas and Guoda. Vilnius is one of the only cities where you can still take off from inside the city in a hot-air balloon. They apparently have done this because it is an attraction that is available in a park not far from where they live. The attraction is obviously expensive for an attraction, but they said it is inexpensive for a hot-air balloon ride because to fly in other places costs much more. I would do it if it weren’t so expensive, but I feel that I am already spending so much money on this trip that I can’t put that burden on my parents too (since I have not had the opportunity to work much yet at this time in my life, they are funding my trip and I am very thankful to them for it).

Tautvydas and Guoda like to go for walks sometimes, just wander around and get a little bit of exercise, and maybe even a little bit lost while enjoying the outdoors before it gets too cold to enjoy them anymore. There is a very tall TV tower that I can see if I walk out of the building where I am staying and onto the street. A person can spot it from many different locations though, where I stay does not have a unique view of this tower. They said on one of their walks they walked in a forest next to this TV tower, and found an animal cemetery hidden in the forest. In Lithuania, animal cemeteries are illegal. They said that some of the graves were simple, with just a picture of the animal next to the headstone. However, other graves were much more elaborate. Guoda said they saw headstones that were obviously quite expensive with pictures of the pets’ heads engraved into the stone, with information such as their breed written on the stones as well. People have evidently spent quite a bit of time and money on their pets and ensuring that this cemetery was hidden.

Tautvydas works in a start-up company where people can sell and buy used clothes; I think the company’s name is Vinted. They have expanded to America, so Tautvydas had the opportunity to visit San Francisco to take some classes concerning business at an American University. It is very expensive to live in San Francisco and Tautvydas was looking for the cheapest housing possible since he would be located in San Francisco while he was there. Well, he found cheap housing for San Francisco standards, but he told me that he ended up living in very cramped quarters with a Mexican roommate who hated the cold. Tautvydas basically had a bed and the area around his bed for his stuff. Keep in mind; he is also from Lithuania, a country that gets very cold in the winter. He said that his roommate told him that he got cold very quickly, so he needed to close the windows before he went to bed so he wouldn’t be cold at night. Tautvydas said he would be laying there sweating because obviously he was more used to the cold than the other guy, but he never said anything about being too hot for some reason. He said that for the price of that tiny space he lived in in San Francisco, he can rent an apartment in Vilnius for less. I think that you could rent an apartment almost anywhere for less than you can rent one in San Francisco.

(As I continue to stay with Tautvydas and Guoda in Vilnius, I will write more information about my experiences that relate to them or stories they have told me).

A Swedish Man in Vilnius

Today (I say “today,” but I wrote this yesterday) I was out in the city having lunch at some sort of Greek food restaurant, and realized I was running out of Litas. I had a flat-bread filled with some sort of vegetables (I think – it was called something like Hot, Spicy and Crispy. It was not spicy, but it was good) and a drink. I used some internet from a café across the street because I realized that on Couchsurfing I had told this guy we could get together and talk a little in Vilnius since I had found other housing options in Vilnius, and I had not contacted him. It turns out that tomorrow he is going to Venice because he has a rich friend who basically bought his airplane ticket and didn’t give him much of an option. Not that he complained much either. So we got together for coffee and a walk today, and I spent about two hours with him just talking about whatever came to mind.

Muezz is from Sweden. Often when I tell people I am part Swedish, their first response is, “That’s where the blonde hair comes from isn’t it?” I mean, that probably does have something to do with it, but it is not the only determining factor of my blonde hair. Also, I don’t see why people feel like they need to say this because it is literally said every time I mention anything about being Swedish. I mean, EVERY TIME. Does it make people feel smart if you tell them you are part Swedish, they see you have blonde hair, and immediately make an assumption? I really don’t understand. Let me tell you what Muezz looks like. He is about my height, and very dark. I mean black hair and darker skin than you would expect from most European countries. I know he is only one person and could be an exception, but I had the opportunity to meet his friend from Sweden too. His friend was shorter than me with hair as dark as Muezz’s but with lighter skin. My father, who has traveled extensively, said that when he went to Sweden he found that yes, the children are very blonde. However, he said that what he saw and learned was that most Swedish people only have blonde hair probably until they reach their mid-teens. (I am not sure of the exact age). Then their hair starts to turn dark, and it gets very dark. So, next time you look at a blonde who is twenty or older, and they tell you they are part Swedish, it is probably safe to assume they are probably part something else too for the blonde to stick. This is not to say that no Swedish people are tall and blonde because there definitely are, I think I am saying this more to make a point that people jump to conclusions rather quickly.

After speaking with Muezz and his friend, it sounds like there are quite a few Swedish people who come to Lithuania to study. Many of them are located in Kaunas, and apparently the guys are very concerned with the other Swedish men stealing their girlfriends or ex-girlfriends. In Sweden they have a sort of student loan that I don’t really understand. It gives the student funding for six years (I don’t think an excessive amount of funding), and for six years the student can travel to another country to learn languages or study whatever their faculty (like a major) requires, within reason. I was told also that if there was a country in Europe that has a language as their official language, that they cannot study this language in another country, they have to study it in Europe. For example, if a person wants to study English, they have to study it in the United Kingdom; they can’t go to the United States.

We also tried to understand from each other the differences between Swedish, Lithuanian and American universities, but each one is slightly different from the last, and I have the feeling that unless we talked to someone who had experienced all three, we will not fully understand how the universities from the other’s country worked. They have credit hours they have to fulfill each semester. It is not done in classes like ours, but they have to fulfill these hours to get the credit. I don’t understand it because they don’t have to go to the lectures; it is that the administration thought they needed to study that many hours to pass the exam, so those are the hours. In addition, their area of study takes up all four years because the amount of credit they receive in four years is the amount they need to complete study in one faculty. Muezz said that in Lithuania the lectures you have to take for your faculty are already set. There is no leeway to choose something that is still in the faculty but might interest you more (like in American universities when you have some elective courses in your major). In Swedish universities, I understand that they still run on this faculty system, but they have the leeway of the American universities that allow students to pick some of their classes.

Muezz said to me that whenever he talks to an American, he feels like they are trying to sell him something. The way we choose our words where something is a certain way, or someone has to do something, I guess it just sounds like a sale. He said that maybe it has something to do with our consumer culture because we are sort of wired to buy and sell. Maybe it does have something to do with this, I don’t know, but it is also probably a difference in intonation. Muezz mentioned to me that there a videos online that have come up recently that make fun of Americans. He told me an example that someone would ask an American where Afghanistan was located and the American, instead of admitting that they don’t know, would point to an area that was completely wrong, like Australia. The point of these videos is not so much that Americans don’t know geography, but also that they don’t want to admit that they don’t know. It is back to that old belief where America is such a strong and leading country that the people from it can’t look like they don’t know something. I don’t know how prevalent this mentality was, or still is in America, but from my point of view this is a mentality that existed more before 9/11.

When Muezz saw his friend from Sweden across the street, we went over and said hello. That’s the first time I have ever heard the Swedish language spoken and I am sorry to say I don’t know anything about it. It sounds complicated enough, although I don’t think there are any cases. Muezz’s friend was up from Kaunas with his Lithuanian girlfriend. His girlfriend is apparently a quarter Russian with both friends and immediate family living in Russia, but she does not know Russian at all. They are both in Kaunas for Med-School, but it seems that this city does not interest people as much so they wanted to get away for the day and come to Vilnius.

Muezz has been going to the gym twice a day for the past month apparently. He said it is because he has time, and he is also in-between jobs. He is also writing a fitness blog. He says many people come up to him on the street and ask him what he does to look like he does, and they are not satisfied with his answer that in fact he still eats meat and potatoes together, and that he eats late at night. He told me his opinion on the fitness level of Lithuanians in comparison to his own country. People in Lithuania are not fat like Americans or Swedish people when they get fat. (He has not yet been to the United States, but he says parts of the exercise culture and mentality seem rather similar). He says that many Lithuanians  in his opinion are “skinny-fat,” a term you may know if you enjoy going to the gym and see skinny people who don’t. In Muezz’s words, when Lithuanians are young they think they look good so they don’t feel the need to work out, but soon they start “sagging” because they don’t have muscles to hold anything in place and then they want to work out. If you are driving down the street in Sacramento, California for example, there are huge box gyms that you can see standing next to the road. When these gyms are open, there are always people in them because American food makes people fat, and then all of our commercials tell us we should be skinny and work out. In Sweden it is apparently the same way. There are gyms everywhere, and they are always full. Walking down the streets of Vilnius, I have not seen one gym. They do have gyms, but Muezz tells me they are really expensive in comparison to the income that these people earn.

Edit: I spoke with my host Guoda after she read this post. She disagrees with what Muezz has told me, and I would like to go out on a limb here and say that I believe her more since she has lived in Lithuania her whole life, and he has only lived here a year or so. Guoda says that many people in Lithuania like to work out. Maybe not in the gym (for example I see many people jogging or riding bikes). In every culture there are people who like to get exercise and people who are not as interested. I think that Muezz, perhaps like myself, must be used to a culture that advertises exercise and having in shape bodies so much that it is hard to adjust to see the values of a different culture.

I understand that Muezz has at least three brothers. I did not ask him how many siblings he has, but he spoke of three. They lived in Beijing when Muezz was in high school, so when Muezz graduated high school he decided to move there for a while. I think he lived there for six months. When he moved there, his brothers moved away. I know one moved to Tokyo, and one moved to Ukraine. He didn’t say much about his time in Beijing, but afterwards he moved to Tokyo for a year as well too. He said that he really enjoyed Japan, but the biggest problem he had with their culture was their bad communication. He said this is one reason he likes Americans because we don’t take a year to know someone before we are comfortable opening up and talking about something more interesting than surface information. Now after Japan, Muezz is in Lithuania. He told me that he plans to stay here for three years and I believe he has already been here for about a year and a half.  He is trying to learn Lithuanian because he said he will not live in a place for three years without at least trying to learn the language.

Overall Muezz was a very interesting person to spend some time with, and I always love meeting new people with their own life experiences. I think we will meet again for coffee or for a walk or just to hang out when he returns from his short jaunt to Venice.

My Host-Mom in Kazan’

Aygul’

The name does not translate now, but in Russian her name looks like this: Айгуль. Aygul’ was my host-mom in Kazan’, although she is not very old so maybe she was more like a host sister, or a host cousin, I don’t know. Aygul’ is Tatar. (Kazan’ is the capitol of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia). She said that when she was young, she only knew the Tatar language until she was three, and then she started learning Russian. Now she knows Russian better than she knows Tatar. She told me a bit about the Tatar language and that it is similar to English because adjectives and nouns don’t really have genders. However, I think that is the extent of their similarities. In the Tatar language, my host mom says they change the meaning of a sentence not by changing the ends of adjectives and verbs for cases, but by adding prepositions on the end. So if you had a sentence that you wanted to say something about undoing something, you would have a preposition for doing, and then another one for undoing that would change the meaning of the sentence.

Aygul’ also studies English and Arabic. She is doing very well with her English I must say, I used to help her with her English homework while I was there. She said that in Russia if you want a good job, you need to know English as well as a language from the Middle East, and that is why she is studying these languages. She told me a bit about the Arabic language. Apparently for every letter of the alphabet there are four ways to write it, and how you write it depends on where it is located in the word. For example, a letter written at the beginning of the word will be written differently from the same letter located close to the end of the word. Aygul’ said that she wants to move somewhere warmer someday, and that is another reason she is learning Arabic.

I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at Aygul’s house, and I was tired, the first thing she taught me was Russian slang. I am sure my professor would have been thrilled had she known. One conversation I had with Aygul’ either over tea or at the dinner table was about stereotypes. One stereotype that Russians know about themselves is that bears walk around on the streets in Russia. Of course this is not something that actually happens. The Russian’s response to this is that they don’t have streets for the bears to walk around on. The bears just walk. It is really hard to keep streets in good condition in Russia. When I was there for two months in the summer, I saw the fastest road construction I have ever seen in my life. I mean I know our road workers dawdle around in the United States, but this was ridiculous. The workers try to get everything done in the summer because the winter is too cold and the ground is too frozen to accomplish anything. The joke that Russia doesn’t have roads for the bears to walk on has an element of truth in it. The roads used to be just areas of dirt that cars would drive on. When I was studying in Kazan’ I went with my host mom to her parents’ house on other side of Tatarstan, and on the way we passed by some road construction. The cars drove around all over these dirt hills to avoid the road construction because at the time there was no road to drive on.

Another interesting thing that can be seen when driving on the roads in Russia outside of the city, that my host mom pointed out to me are the trees. On the sides of roads in Russia, (probably in other countries too) they plant a row of trees on each side of the road because the tall trees help prevent the wind from blowing the snow onto the road, since their winters get really snowy. I will study abroad in St. Petersburg this coming year, and my host mom said that I should come visit her because St. Petersburg doesn’t have real Russian winters. The city of St. Petersburg is built on a swamp, and it is right by some water, so the winter is more wet than snowy. Apparently in Kazan it gets colder and snowier than St. Petersburg even though it is further south, probably because Kazan’ is not located by water (although it does have a few rivers).

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I did a few activities with my host mom that I believe were unique from activities that other people in the program had access to. One weekend my host mom took me to her parents’ house as I already mentioned. I know some of my friends got to go to their family’s Dachas. Aygul’ doesn’t have a Dacha, but I think going to her parents’ house was more interesting for me. Her mother has a garden, and in this garden I had the opportunity to try three berries I had never had before, at least in their original berry form. The first berries I tried were gooseberries. They are sort of an almost transparent light-green berry with bright green veins in them. Most people don’t like them because they are a bit sour, but the once I had were very good. The second berries I tried were currents. Currents come in red, black and white, and I had the opportunity to try the red and the black ones. In the garden they grew the black ones and used them to make jam. I tried the red ones because their neighbor grew them close enough to the fence that Aygul’ was able to pick some for me to try. Apparently the red ones are more popular than the black, but I liked the black better. Both tasted strange to me since I had not had them before. Currents are very popular in Russia because they are easy to grow, and I believe cheap to buy. In addition, people like to use the berries to make compote. Compote is a juice that is made by boiling berries in water to extract their juices, and adding sugar (or not) to taste. I believe most people just grow them at their Dachas. The third berry I tried I did not like at all. I don’t know what it was called because the name did not sound familiar, even when translated to English. I just know that it was small and red and grew on a tree. My host mom’s mother makes jam from these berries, and it is actually very difficult because each one has a small pit. The jam is also very health for you (or maybe the berries are, and the jam is too as a result) and has many vitamins in it. I had the chance to try the jam too, and although I did not mind the flavor, I could not stand the small when the container was sitting open on the table while I was trying to enjoy my tea.

(If you don’t know, a Dacha is a sort of Russian summer home. Usually families will spend some weekends there in the summer when the weather is nice. I heard from my friends who visited their family’s dachas that most of the time spent there is in the garden, so it is not the most interesting place to be. The name Dacha comes from the Russian verb dat’, which means to give. These houses were given this name because the pieces of land that are used for Dachas were gifted to families from the government during the Soviet period).

At Aygul’s parent’s house I had the occasion to try Russian Banya for the first time. Her parents have a private Banya, so it was a very nice first experience. It is their version of a sauna. Usually people do it naked, but I chose to wear a swimsuit for my first try. Let me say first, when I have been in saunas before, I absolutely hate them. You can barely breathe, and all you do is sweat while you sit on a bench that someone definitely sweated on before you. Banya is different. Part of the Banya experience is to hit each other with wet branches that have been placed over very hot stones. You do it quickly so as not to burn the other person of course and there is also a technique to it. I remember sometimes the branch would be used to sprinkle water over me, and other times water would just be dumped over me. I don’t know how to use the branches in Russian Banya properly, my host mom did it for me, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Another thing I did when I stayed with Aygul’s Parents, was to visit a Russian forest with them. We went with the intention of picking wild strawberries to make jam with, but in the place we ended up the berries were picked clean. Instead we sat under a tree on a blanket as it began to rain, and ate slices of a melon that they brought with them. The forest was so beautiful. I didn’t bring my camera with me there, but I don’t think a camera could have captured its beauty.

The weekend before I went with my host mom to her parents’ house, some of her friends came over to her flat and we sewed dolls. It has been a while since I have sewn that much by hand because usually I only sew when I am at home, so I was definitely a bit rusty and slow. My host mom said that we would make this doll together and it could be one of my souvenirs from Kazan’. My host mom had me choose the hair color from a few different balls of yarn. My options were orange, bright pink and coral. My host mom hand a ball of blonde colored yarn sitting right next to her, but she did not offer it to me as an option for hair. I was very confused why my doll could not have natural colored hair. In the end I chose the coral colored yarn, and it actually looks okay. My doll travels with me, but I have not named her yet. When I do, I will give her a Tatar name since I made her in Tatarstan.

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Ice Cream and Rinoks

If you go in the summer to Russia or another country that is usually very cold, like Lithuania where I am now, they have ice cream stands everywhere. In my personal opinion it is always the season for ice cream, but I have heard from a reliable source that these stands are only around in the summer. I guess when it gets as cold as it does in Russia they don’t want a cold desert in winter. I always like hot food and hot coffee in summer and the opposite in winter. Regardless, today I decided I would see if they had any interesting ice cream flavors because I remember when I went to Ireland I found honeycomb ice cream. Well, luckily for me, they did have interesting flavors. Flavors like kiwi, watermelon, mango, blueberry, and so on. Some of these flavors you can find in the United States but, if you see watermelon or kiwi it would probably be a sorbet and not actual ice cream

Right now I am sitting at a park writing this blog post on my phone. I don’t know if anyone remembers when they used to have merry-go-rounds, tire swings and other play-structures at parks that used to be more fun than what they have now because now they are considered too dangerous so the structures have all been removed from the parks in the United States. It is always the things that children have the most fun with that they consider too dangerous. Children need to learn safety on their own somehow; we can’t keep them in sterile boxes. In Lithuania they still have these merry-go-rounds, and I am very jealous. I wish I was still a child so I could go play on them. I am also glad to see that this park is full; there are children and their parents everywhere spending time and enjoying the outdoors. In my opinion, this is how childhood should be. Too often in the United States today I see a parent hand a crying child their phone or their iPad to play with. When I see this, I think what a pity it is that these children are missing out on the rest of the world from such a young age.

As I sit in the park, I am sitting near an elderly woman who is speaking on the phone. She is speaking in Russian but it sounds strange to me and it is a little hard for me to understand because she has a Lithuanian accent. It is interesting being in this country right now, because the older generations usually speak only Russian and Lithuanian as a result of the Soviet Union. The younger generations speak Lithuanian and English. Some of them occasionally speak Russian, and many of them understand it even if they don’t speak it. Either way, I can speak in English to the younger people, and practice my Russian with the older.

I have been in Lithuania for almost a week now, and have had some time to observe this culture versus American culture or Russian culture. I know in Russia, people like to get married young. They get married right out of college and start a family. Friday is wedding day in Russia. I remember the first Friday I was there; I was walking around with my peer tutor for about an hour and a half. In that hour and a half I counted seven weddings. The following Fridays I decided not to count. After getting married, the women stay at home and cook and clean, and the men go off to work. People only seek a higher education (past our equivalent of undergraduate education I believe) if they are interested in becoming a teacher. Since many young people rush into marriage, there is also a very high divorce rate. People will then remarry to someone else who has a family from before as well, thus creating a sort of mess. In the United States, people are waiting until they are older and older to get married and start a family because people are caught up in their jobs and education. Another factor that I will mention that contributes to having late families, but I won’t discuss due to its controversial tendencies, is women in the work place and how having a child impacts their job positions. In Lithuania, I understand that in the city people tend to wait a bit to get married. They finish their education, maybe start some work and then decide to get married. However, I was told that in the country, people tend to have marriage patterns more like Russia. They get married right out of school, and the woman immediately goes home to work and start a family. I wonder how true this is though since today is Friday, and as I was walking around the streets I definitely spotted a few sets of brides and grooms. Perhaps they kept the regular day for weddings, and just get married at a slightly older age. If this is the case, it’s interesting to see how the Lithuanian culture has broken away from the Soviet Union over the past 25 year. It has been 25 years this year I believe since Lithuania regained its independence. They will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the human chain that ran from Lithuania through Latvia and to Estonia that was created at the end of the Soviet Union, with a bike race and some other festivities. I am glad I will be here for that.

Earlier today, I was walking up a street in Vilnius that I have walked through a few times now. The street splits in two and in the middle there is a sort if triangle of land. Usually this is empty with maybe only some chairs and canopies for people who want to sit outside restaurants and eat. Today the triangle had a sort of festival. It was like a Lithuanian version of a Renaissance Fair, but on a much smaller scale. The people at the shops were dressed up in costume, and everything looked hand made. One booth had food that I considered eating for lunch, but there was a group of rambunctious travelers that would not move out of the way of the sign so I could read it.

I returned to this area with the Lithuanian Renaissance Fair, and in the few hours I had been exploring other parts of the city, the festival had grown to cover some streets. If it is there again next weekend, or even tomorrow, perhaps I will return and examine their goods more closely. I am reluctant to buy anything from a place like this, because the products sold are often overpriced, or not really useful. I definitely want to buy some souvenirs in Lithuania, but I barely have more space in my luggage to carry much else. I am luck that my flight to St. Petersburg allows suitcases to be 23 kilos, instead of just 20 because this will allow me to have a little extra room for the souvenirs I intend to buy.

Again, I spent time individually drifting around the streets of Vilnius, and I stumbled upon a Russian Rinok. Rinok is a word in Russian that sort of means farmer’s market, but it is actually an open air market that we don’t have anything like in the United States. That is why I call it a rinok, and not a farmer’s market. When I was studying in Kazan’, the two guys who were in my class and I would often go to a rinok during our breaks because there was one right next to the institute where we studied. The rinok there and the one I found here are only partially open air. The majority of the paraphernalia that is being sold is sold inside. In a rinok you can find anything from clothes to butchered meat and raw fish to sweets and honey and other more practical items you might need to live. The first room in the rinok in Kazan’ was the meat room, and in the summer this is awful. I hated this room, not because of the sight; it doesn’t bother me to look at raw cuts of meat. The smell of raw meat sitting in a hot room in the summer, though, was one of the worst smells I have ever encountered. As I walked through this room with Hank and Peter, I would always hold my breath. Whenever Peter walked in front (it was not wide enough to walk side by side) he liked to dawdle a bit as I was trying to hold my breath to not smell the meat. We would go through the meat room, to the rinok almost every day so the guys could buy water, and just for an excuse to walk around in the middle of a four hour lesson. Sometimes we would go there for lunch because they had a very good Central Asian Cafe, and thankfully by the end of the program we would usually walk in through one of the side entrances, and avoid the meat room altogether. In Kazan’, most of the stands at the rinok were run by people from Central Asia. Here, in Vilnius, I say the rinok is Russian because as I was walking through it, all I heard were people speaking in Russian. No Lithuanian. Probably because it is a Russian thing, so that’s where all of the Russians in Vilnius do their shopping. It would have been exactly like being back in Kazan’ if Hank and Peter had been there with me. The only thing I bought in there was a chocolate bar from a vending machine (there were no vending machines in the rinok in Kazan’).

An Attempt with More Success

What a day, and it is only 10:30 in the morning. I remembered all of my documents for my visa today, but it still wasn’t good enough for the visa center. Although, I understand since paperwork for visas needs to be correct. The lady at the counter told me I had to fill out one visa survey by hand and have one printed, so I had printed two for no reason and ended up filling out the second one by hand at the desk while she was talking to me. Then she told me that my HIV test documentation was not good enough, so she gave me the address of a place to get a new one. I have emailed them because I couldn’t find a place to make an appointment on their website.

This whole ordeal with the visa abroad has been a huge headache, and it just keeps getting bigger. I thought after today I would just submit everything and be done with it until I had to go pick up my passport with my new visa. On the positive side, they did accept my paperwork and will process my visa. I will have it back by September first, but the catch is that I have to submit this HIV certificate in the next ten days. It doesn’t take very long to complete an HIV test and receive the results, but I am just so tired. I want to relax and enjoy Lithuania. If I didn’t have to deal with this visa stuff, I would be able to take a day trip to Kaunas, or even just be happier to be in a place I have wanted to go my whole life.

My friend Kate who did the same intensive language program that I did last year, and then this year, except that she was in Georgia due to Russian visa problems of her own, wrote a post that I can very easily relate to today especially. The link is this: http://roamingnole.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-hardest-thing-i-ever-had-to-do.html. When the person at the visa center gave me the address of the clinic to get yet another HIV test (my third, but who’s counting?) I didn’t know what to do. I was supposed to find this place in Lithuania that was about a half hour walk from the visa center by myself. I mean the lady did not even give me the name of the place, just the address and phone number after I had told her multiple times that I currently do not have a working phone because I am abroad. I wonder what use she thought the phone number would be for me. So, I had to wonder through the streets of Vilnius to find this place and then get blood work done in a foreign country. Before I embarked on this journey, I emailed the visa center with one more hope that I would not have to get this HIV test. I asked if I could have my doctor reformat the test to be a certificate, but of course, the answer was no. The lab where I got the blood work done was not as hard to find as I expected, and the whole process was very quick, not to mention cheap. I have to walk all the way back out there to pick up my test results at 3:00 P.M. tomorrow, the place is about an hour walk from where I am staying. Yes, there is public transportation at my disposal here, but it is cheaper, healthier and more interesting to walk. When a person sits in a car or in public transportation, they miss all of the little things that are only noticeable when you are walking.

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After the lab, I stopped by a Catholic Church I had seen on the way up to the lab, and then proceeded to get a rather American lunch. On the way to lunch I passed a park that I had not noticed on the way to the lab because I had been walking with strong purpose. I have seen one other park with these features in Vilnius, but if there are two, I am sure there are more. They have yellow exercise equipment stuck into the ground that anyone can use. I wish they had this in the United States; it would be much cheaper than buying a gym membership. You could go on a jog in the park, and then stop by the equipment to do some more localized training.

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After another annoying morning I wanted to have some spicy food, and that is exactly what I did… spicy pizza.

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When I was staying with my first host, we had talked about stopping by the main Catholic Church located in Cathedral Square to see the catacombs, but we found out you could only take guided tours through there, and they had ended for the day. Today when I asked, they said they were going to have a tour in about an hour and a half. The tour was interesting, but I always feel after a limited tour that the area the tour guide is showing could be more interesting if I was allowed to explore it on my own. I know this is wishful thinking, but there are 27 crypts below this church. How many did we get to see? Only three, so it could have been much more interesting. Despite my complaints, I am still glad I went. Unlike many tour guides, the guide for this tour was interesting because she added a bit of humor to what she said. She also kept her information short and to the point, or added a legend to it to make it more of a story. I can’t tell you much about the crypts myself because I might bore you, but I will include a couple of pictures.

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In Lithuania at this time of year, I can definitely tell that autumn is right around the corner. Yesterday only threatened rain, but today I had to get out my umbrella to even start walking back to the apartment from the church with the catacombs. It is a wet day.  

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