In Transit: From Vilnius to Petersburg

On September 4th, I started my long journey to St. Petersburg. The trip really should not have taken that long, but I like to have everything be complicated and take a long time. Not really, but my previous decision to get my visa in Berlin resulted in the trip being much longer than it could have been.

I got up earlier than usual Thursday morning to finish packing. I didn’t have much packing left to do because I had done most of it the day before, but I would rather have extra time to get to the bus station than not enough. I did end up having extra time. I sat around for at least an hour working on the previous blog post I wrote before I left the apartment. I didn’t finish it, in part because I didn’t have time, but I also figured I could finish it when I was sitting on the bus somewhere between 2:45 P.M. Lithuanian time, and 6:00 A.M. Berlin time. I was wrong.

My journey from Lithuania to Berlin started out with me carrying two 50 pound (23 Kilo) suitcases down a few flights of stairs in a floor length skirt with a backpack on my back and a bag on my right shoulder stuffed as full as it could be with a mix of objects that included books. I took the suitcases down the stairs one at a time for each flight of stairs because the stairway was too narrow. I think that when people see me with these two big red suitcases and my two carry-ons they must wonder how I manage. The only answer is practice. The suitcases are the same size and the same kind so I don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of dragging two different sizes of suitcases around. They also both have four wheels on the bottom so I can drag them in one hand across hard floors and hold something else in my other hand. (This, of course, doesn’t work well on carpet, and doesn’t work at all on some other surfaces, but usually airports usually have solid floors).

There are some ridiculous situations I have been in to get from one place to another with all of my luggage, and this was one of them because after I made it down the stairs, I had to drag the suitcases to a bus stop. Even carrying two suitcases, I would rather take the harder journey on public transportation with people giving me weird looks, than pay the ridiculous price for a taxi. I would be glad later that I didn’t waste money on a taxi this time around. One of the things that keeps me going in these uncomfortable situations is that usually when I do something slightly strange like this, I am not traveling where a lot of people know me. Even if I come back in a few years, or even a few months, these people will never recognize me. The other thing that helps me move forward is that I have a set goal in mind, and all I am doing is trying to get to a certain location. I do not concentrate on anything else until I have made it from point A to point B with all of my luggage. My brain is telling me to go, go, go, until I have made it where I know I need to be.

At the bus stop I had to wait a while for the next trolleybus that I needed to come by because I missed one right as I was walking up. There was another number I could have taken, but every time I saw it, it was packed with people. I left a little bit early just in case, so I didn’t mind waiting because I knew it wasn’t going to make me late.

When the bus finally did arrive, I struggled a little bit getting the suitcases on because apart from them being heavy, one of the top handles broke on one of them, and made it difficult to lift. A guy dragged one up for me, which I was thankful for because bus doors don’t wait for people. My host, Tautvydas, told me the night before that if the bus was crowded I should buy two tickets because people might get mad about the space the luggage takes up. I did this and time stamped both of the tickets because the bus was a bit crowded. Thankfully there was room for me to sit down so that I could have more solid control over my rolling luggage. The bus got more crowded during the half hour ride I was on it, and I had to strain to keep my suitcases from rolling into people as the bus quickly started and stopped. It sounds like a really uncomfortable situation, and it was, but I kept reminding myself that it was cheaper than a taxi ride.

I did finally make it to the bus station just in time to stand in line to check in and put my luggage under the bus. This long bus ride was more comfortable than the short one, but it was a lot longer, so minor irritations grew as time progressed. My seat was an aisle seat. I like window seats because people don’t feel like they can put their hand on the arm of your seat as they walk by, or the back of your chair where they end up pulling on your hair because your head is obviously right there, but I survived.

The first irritation was the man next to me. He kept doing that thing where he spread his legs, as many men do, and took up more than his own room. I don’t put up with this because first, it is not fair, I paid for my seat too, and second, I am taller than the average girl so I need my room on my seat. I think I was taller than he was. Eventually he told me (in Russian) that there was a way to move the seats apart to give each of us more space. He still took up a lot of room, but at least it was tolerable.

The second irritation was the guy sitting behind me. Every time the bus stopped, he got out to smoke. I couldn’t turn my head to the side to try to sleep because then I would smell it. I had to keep my head completely straight forward so that I would minimize the amount of time I breathed the scent in. It wasn’t just the smell of a typical smoker because that I can deal with, he reeked of the smell of smoke so strongly that I made sure to hold my breath when he walked by. He also put his hand on the back of my chair and pulled my hair every time he sat down.

The third thing that irritated me was the man sitting in front of me. The bus trip started at 2:45 in the afternoon. For the whole bus ride, he had his chair leaned all the way back, cutting off my leg room, and forcing me to lean my chair back towards the smoker behind me so that I would have room. It also made it so that I could not work on my blog, or anything else, at all. The seats in these busses lean back much further than the seats in a plane, so I don’t think I ever need to complain about people leaning back their seats in a plane again.

The last major irritation was that someone had broken the television and headphone jack for my seat. I don’t need to watch television or movies, but for a bus ride this long, it is nice to have the entertainment. I ended up listening to the story The Kite Runner because I had it on my iPod. I don’t have music on my iPod, so this was the best I could do. I haven’t finished the story yet, and I think I fell asleep during part of it, but what I heard of it definitely did not have me on the edge of my seat wanting to hear more. The beginning section was probably the most interesting part. It served to drown out the noise of the guys snoring around me though, so at least the next part of the story was useful for something.

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(This is as the sun is setting somewhere in Poland. The window of the bus obviously wasn’t very clean since there are fingerprints in the middle of the picture. I was not seated next to the window so this was a really awkward picture to take).

We arrived at the Shoenfeld Airport somewhere around 6:00 A.M. Berlin time. This was my stop so I got off with all of my luggage. From here it should have been a straight shot to St. Petersburg after getting to the airport, with a layover in Stockholm, but it was not. I spent half an hour trying to figure out what to do and where to go because the signs weren’t clear and my flight didn’t show up on the departures board. Eventually I felt that something was wrong, and I looked at my flight itinerary more closely to try to figure out what it was. I noticed the airport code did not look correct for this airport, so I decided it was time to ask the airport information counter. At first he told me where to go for international flights, but I asked him to look at the airport code and he said that I was at the wrong airport. He said there were taxis outside and that it would cost about 55 Euros to ride from the Shoenfeld to the Teger airport. I didn’t have another option, so I took his advice and used a taxi.

When we got to the Teger airport, the final price was a little over 57 Euros. I tried to hand the taxi driver my debit card, but he said he only took cash. I have never encountered a taxi from an airport that only takes cash. That is really outdated and ridiculous. The taxi driver basically walked me to an ATM machine inside the airport so that I could withdraw money to pay him. I don’t understand why you have to tip taxi drivers, they already charge too much. I withdrew 60 Euros from the ATM machine, and gave it to him after I got my luggage. Maybe the tip was smaller than it should have been, but I felt he didn’t deserve any tip.

Not only was the taxi outdated, but the two airports I have been to in Berlin were outdated. It took me a while to find the right terminal for my flight, and it turned out to be in a completely different building than the one I was dropped off at. It was a building near the one at which I was dropped off, so that walk wasn’t too far.

Whenever checking in to an international flight, the instructions always say to arrive at least two hours in advance. I do this just to be safe, but the few times I have flown internationally, I have never found it necessary. The flight does not go up on the departures board until about two hours before departure, but the check in doesn’t open until about one hour before the plane is schedule to take off. By the time I actually check in, pay for my extra bag and get through security, there is about a 20 minute wait in the actual terminal and I am already boarding the plane. When I fly domestically I always have a longer wait than 20 minutes because they always let me check in much earlier, so I have longer to wait around.

This time as I was checking in and explained that I had two bags, I encountered another shortcoming of this Berlin airport. At every airport where I have checked an extra bag, they tell me, “You have to pay for that,” as if I don’t know.  I know, I check, and recheck the luggage allotments for every airline I take to make sure I have the information right. Again, I tried to hand the lady my debit card, and again there was no card machine, they only took cash, in an international terminal. Can I just focus on this for a minute to emphasize how ridiculous this was? In Russian airports they give you a slip of paper and you go over to another counter to pay for your extra bag, but you can still use a card. In airports in the United States, you pay at whatever counter you are already at, they all have card machines. If by some chance one doesn’t have a card scanner, the next counter over will. Even in domestic terminals. It is especially important in international terminals to have card readers because, as someone traveling in a foreign country, I always carry around cash, but as I am getting ready to leave that country I try to make sure I don’t have any cash left because I know I will no longer need that currency. So why would I have cash at the airport, and who carries that much cash with them on a daily basis anyway? (Maybe in Europe they do, I really don’t know, but in the United States most people just use their credit or debit cards).

Again, the price was 60 Euros or a steep 85 dollars. It sounded wrong to me from what I had seen online, but what can I do. I had to walk back to the other building because they didn’t have an ATM in the building I was in.

I finally made it through the luggage check-in and through security (they made me take out my laptop at this airport like they do in American airports [this reminds me on a related note of airport security, I learned while I was getting ready to leave Kazan’ this summer that airport regulations in the United States now require people to have charged electronic devices when they go through security, it seems like a strange requirement to me]), and eventually the flight left. Nothing on this flight was too eventful, so I finally got the opportunity to rest, except that I was really hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I am used to even the shortest flights offering a small bag of peanuts or pretzels, but this airline only offered free tea and coffee.

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(A picture from the plane on the way to Sweden).

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(Another airplane picture).

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(Coming closer for landing).

As the plane landed at the airport in Stockholm, I was thankful to see that the terminal I would be leaving from didn’t look to be too far from the terminal at which the plane arrived. I was right, but it was confusing to find the next gate. I was thankful I didn’t have to exit, and then reenter security like I had to in the Moscow airport when I was flying to Kazan’. I found that the passport control counters were located in the middle of the hallway separating one terminal in half for international and domestic flights. After going through the passport control part of the security process I assumed that I was done with security in Stockholm until my passport was checked before I boarded the plane to St. Petersburg. Instead, upon entering the terminal, I found that all of the seating areas for the departure gates were located behind walls of glass that rant the length of the terminal on both sides, only interrupted by columns separating gates and glass doors through which to enter. The glass doors for my gate were closed tightly when I arrived, and remained so for about twenty minutes while the passengers for the upcoming flight gathered awkwardly in the deserted hallway. I remember standing near a girl with curly blonde hair who was clearly speaking with an American-English accent to someone speaking with a Russian accent. I found out later that the blonde girl would be my program. When the door for my gate opened, airport security checked the Russian visas and passports at the glass door. In the end, the passengers of the flight, including myself, had the opportunity to sit down for about five minutes before it was time to board the plane. It made me wonder what the point of having a seating area in that terminal was at all.

At this point I think the lack of food was getting to me. When I got on the plane, a French lady was sitting in my seat because she thought it was her seat. That is understandable; I fly often so I understand the strange seating pictures that go above the seats, but I really don’t think they are difficult to figure out. I guess she didn’t, so I politely asked her to move. She willingly moved, but the whole plane ride she was elbowing me as she ate her sandwich or leaning into my personal space to see out the window. Most of the time I kept the window shade down because the sun was shining directly into my eyes. While I kept my window shade most of the way down, she was bobbing up and down next to me trying to see out of the window of the set of seats in front of us, or out of the small slit in my window that I chose to leave open. Every time I lifted it, her head would be right next to mine, craning to see anything. The windows were filthy so she should have realized there was nothing to see after her first opportunity to see out of them. I wonder if flights help bring out the worst in people because they have to sit so long in cramped seats, and not everyone gets a window seat. Either that, or after a summer in Kazan’, I am still not used to the lack of personal space that is common in Russia and some European countries

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(This picture is to illustrate how filthy the windows on this plane actual were, there really was not much I could see).

Over the period of these two flights I had two cups of coffee and a cup of tea because I wanted something; unfortunately caffeine can be very harsh on an empty stomach, so by the end of the day my hands were shaking slightly.

When I made it to passport control in Russia, all I found was a mass of people that took up the huge room, filling it from one side to the other, and I was at the back. I walked a little bit along the back of the crowd to see if there were any shorter lines, but they all looked about the same so I picked one. While I waited for 45 minutes to get my passport and visa scrutinized and stamped, I ended up temporarily befriending the people I was standing in line next to. I don’t remember how I started talking to them, but I figured out that they spoke English. They were three students from Ghana – two boys and a girl – who were studying medicine in St. Petersburg. They were a few years older than I was, and one of the guys said that he had been coming to Russia for about five years to study, and that this was his last year. It was good to have some people to talk to as I stood in line, otherwise I don’t know how I could have waited for 45 minutes as the clock ticked past the 5:00 P.M. deadline that I was supposed to be in Russia for my program to pick me up. In the end, we stood in two very short lines next to each other at passport control and joked about who would make it through first. I made it through first, and I, unfortunately, haven’t seen them since then.

I think the easiest part of my whole trip for me was getting my luggage after I made it to the luggage carrousel. Both 50 pound bags came out right after I found the correct carrousel, and I was through the green gate looking around for some sign that said CIEE. There was none. I walked around for about half an hour, tired and hungry and ready to give up because I didn’t want to deal with anymore transportation. Taxi drivers kept asking me if I wanted a ride, and I politely turned them down, but in my head I was yelling at them to leave me alone.

The CIEE program made a group on Facebook, and during the time I was walking around in the airport I found Wifi and was going to send an email to see if there was someone there to pick me up, although I didn’t know who to email. Someone else in the program posted that she was still in the luggage area with four other people in the program and they hopped someone from the program was still waiting, but one of the girls didn’t get her luggage. I saw this post and replied that I was there and looking around, but that I didn’t see anyone waiting. We had a whole conversation on Facebook before I found someone from CIEE. The representative told me she had been keeping up with the conversation, and I wondered why she didn’t say anything since I was obviously lost and looking for some representative, and the girls on the other side wanted a reply, but I guess I will never know.

In the end I made it to the hotel and ran up to my room to shower. I was confused when I first walked in because there were two beds, but the television only read a welcome with my name on it so I assumed I didn’t have a roommate. As a result of that misinformation, and me being in a hurry, I wasn’t very careful where I put my stuff. Over dinner with some other students in my program, I learned that they too thought they didn’t have a roommate but that their roommates had shown up in a later group of people.

When I returned to the room, I found another set of luggage confirming that I did, in fact, have a roommate. Her name was Helen. The two nights we were in the hotel, Helen and I became friends, and that friendship has become stronger as it lasts into the program.

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(The first night in the hotel there were fireworks outside of our window, I think in celebration of a wedding).

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Last Days in Vilnius

02/09/14    

I started my day today by withdrawing more money because I was down to change, and I needed to buy souvenirs. I tend to put buying souvenirs off for a few reasons, one of them is because I don’t like the feeling of spending that much money, but Lithuania is important to me. The whole walk from the place where I am staying, I argued with myself about the amount of Litas I should withdraw because there was one thing that I wasn’t sure I was going to buy. The walk was around 40 minutes to the bank that I used, so I was concentrating on this for a long time. When I got to the bank, I figured out that I couldn’t withdraw Litas unless they were in sets of full hundreds (I wanted to withdraw some hundred and fifty Litas) so I withdrew less than both of the amounts I had been considering because I didn’t want to withdraw too much.

After I went to the bank, I went to a Chinese café to eat lunch (a very different place than the Chinese restaurant I went to before). The menu was all in Lithuanian, which is fine, but there were no English translations, which are very common for restaurants here. I asked the waitress the typical question of, “Do you speak English, или по русски (or in Russian)?” She spoke Russian, so I had the opportunity to practice my Russian a little bit. It was sort of like a game where I narrowed down what I ordered based on different sections that were on the menu (it was a very short menu because it was just for lunchtime). It started out with the soups, salads and hot meals all being separate categories. From there I chose the hot meals, so she told me something like vegetables, chicken, or fish. I chose chicken. The last question was about two different kinds of chicken, and I didn’t understand what the two words she said were. Instead of asking to try to figure it out, I picked one. I don’t know what I ordered even now, I guess I will never know, but it was good and it had a lot of vegetables.

One of the things I had been thinking about buying today was shoes for the fall because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I brought shoes for the summer and for the winter, but I guess I forgot that there was a season in between. Well, since I had been debating whether or not I would end up buying those shoes today since I had gone to a few stores and looked the day before, and I had time to look at more today, my mind was on shoes. I ended up going to more shoe stores today, and I did buy a pair of shoes even though I had withdrawn the amount of Litas I planned on taking out, were I not going to buy shoes. Because of the charges on bank accounts for withdrawing money at any ATM that doesn’t belong to that particular bank, I didn’t want to withdraw more money, so I thought I would try to make it on what I had. By this, I mean not withdrawing any more Litas for the few days that I have left here.

There were two towers I had been planning on going to today, and one must pay to climb them, but I decided I wasn’t going to change my plans about climbing them just because I had an unsure amount of Litas for my future. It doesn’t cost that much to climb the towers anyway and I enjoyed doing it.

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The first tower I climbed was the bell tower outside of the big white church on Cathedral Square (I will include a picture of the outside and some of the inside for clarification). When I first entered the tower to buy the ticket to climb up, I encountered some people who were speaking English. They were considering doing the tour of the crypts that I had done, and climbing the tower. I told them I had enjoyed the tour, because I had, and proceeded on my way up the narrow stone steps. I must also mention that I was wearing a floor length skirt, carrying a bag with a shoe box in it in one hand, and carrying my purse and a camera in the other hand. I said in a previous post that I don’t like to wear jeans because they are restrictive, so I ended up in this skirt. On the next level of the bell tower, I was taking my time taking pictures and looking around, but the two people I had seen below had decided to climb the tower too. There was a guy who looked to be around my own age, and his mother. I was curious so I asked where they were from, and they told me they were from Toronto, Canada. I never asked their names, but the guy apparently had Lithuanian heritage from his grandmother too. He said that he knew a little bit of Lithuanian, but that because he hadn’t lived with his grandmother, he wasn’t fluent. When he was younger he used to go to Lithuanian school, and of course because he was a young child, he didn’t realize the value of this experience. This was only their second day in Lithuania, so they had gotten a late start due to jetlag.

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As I continued up the tower, I kept talking to these two people, mostly the guy, and found that they were headed to Tallinn next because he also had Estonian heritage. Like I skipped over Poland to get to Lithuania, they were planning to take a bus through Latvia to get to Estonia.

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One of the things I was told on the bottom floor of the tower was to not ring the bells. I laughed, but of course the lady was serious. It was the same lady who had given me the tour of the crypts, and she has a very entertaining way of presenting what she is saying.

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My first host had mentioned that climbing the tower includes climbing up rickety wooden stairs while the wind is blowing through the windows and it is not very fun. That sounded fun to me, so I decided to climb anyway. At first I saw no wooden stairs. There were only narrow stone steps with closed walls, and no way for wind to get through. Later I found the wooden steps. The only difficult part of climbing them was my choice of clothing and everything I was carrying, but I actually didn’t have much trouble. The wooden steps came in sets. The first set was very long, and I didn’t realize how long and steep it was until I decided to climb back down. On the way down I realized it was more of a wooden latter than a set of steps because it was so steep. I enjoyed the climb nonetheless.

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(It had a good view)

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(More than one good view)

Immediately after I had climbed up and down the bell tower, I headed towards Castle Hill (I found out this is the name of the hill with the ruins on it that the tale of the Iron Wolf is about). I continually climbed the hill until I got to the top, and although it is not a very tall hill in comparison to mountains, some parts of it are very steep to climb. When I reached the top of the hill, I couldn’t figure out if the tower was open, but I saw an elderly couple walk out, so I figured that they just kept the door shut to keep the cold out.

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The first set of stairs I climbed in this tower lead to a large round room with a map of some parts of Vilnius on a table in the center telling about key areas. There were also pictures of buildings during various stages in history. I, unfortunately, didn’t take as long studying these pieces as I should have because I was very confused. I didn’t see another set of steps that lead to the top, so I wondered if this was it. I knew I had seen people on the top though, so I continued to be confused. Everyone has mistaken me for being able to speak Lithuanian here for as long as I have been here, so the old man who was sitting in a chair to keep an eye on the room told me in Lithuanian to go down the steps and that there was another set of steps to go to the top of the tower. I only understood because of the context and gestures.

The next set of steps was a tightly winding spiral staircase. It first leads to another circular room, but thankfully this room wasn’t confusing because the set of stairs that came after, was attached to the last. This room had old armor, swords and shields from Lithuania’s history. I did spend longer there, but it was a little odd being in the room because an elderly woman came out of a random room, looked at me, and went back in the room.

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When I climbed the rest of the way up to the top, there were a few people up there, but most of them left shortly after I got up there, so I had the top to myself for a short while. I realized at this point that I had no pictures of myself in Lithuania, so I decided to take a few selfies. A little while later a girl and her brother came up and were taking selfies together, then she asked in Lithuanian if I would take a picture of them, and they could take a picture of me. Somehow I understood, so I nodded my head. I got through the process without actually saying anything but “thank you,” in Lithuanian at the end, which Guoda had taught me a while before.

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Instead of taking a break after walking around and trying on shoes, then climbing two towers in a row, I immediately went to amber shops. Amber and linens are the biggest things in Lithuania that one should buy if they visit. I walked around a few amber shops, and bought earrings from two of them. In one of the souvenir shops I went to I found some beautiful scarves, and I saw the prices were 45 Litas. I remembered some other scarves I had seen up the street a ways, so I headed over there to compare prices. These scarves were sold at a street stand, so I knew the price would be either a lot more expensive, or a lot cheaper. 45 Litas is not very much in the first place, it is around 20 dollars, which is the typical price for scarves in the United States. I always thought scarves in the United States were overpriced, because they are really just solid pieces of fabric being sold for 20 dollars. These scarves were much prettier, so it would have been worth it to buy one for that price, but I decided I would check the other scarves I had seen just in case.

It was getting late in the day, and some of the stands were already packing up, but thankfully the one with the scarves was not. The seller at this stand was an old woman. She talked to me in Russian and was very kind. She asked me about where I studied Russian, and let me try on different scarves to see how they looked on me. She also gave me her opinion on which scarves she liked on me, and which ones weren’t as flattering. In addition to getting a scarf for myself, I was looking for one for one of my sisters. Her coloring is slightly different than mine, but I hope it is close enough to make a good decision. I spent long enough chatting with the woman and trying on her scarves that she gave me a small discount, so I think she liked me. I quite enjoyed spending time talking with her as well.

After I had finished buying a few souvenirs, I realized I had been continuously walking, climbing and standing for at least four hours, and I was tired. On the way back to the apartment, I knew of one more souvenir store that I had passed a few times that I wanted to look at because I still hadn’t bought a souvenir for my father. I didn’t spend very long in the store, but I noticed they had these ships made out of amber that were really interesting. The biggest one I saw cost 20,000 Litas because it was completely made out of amber, and amber can be expensive.

When Tautvydas and Guoda came home, and we were eating dinner, we got on the subject of words in English that are spelled differently, have different meanings, but are pronounced the same. Maybe this isn’t the most important memory to mention, but the whole conversation turned into a game over dinner where we tried to think of different words like this. It is little memories like this for me, that just add to my experience and that I want to remember because we had a really fun time doing it.

The Next Day

The next day I didn’t do much because I had to buy some snacks for the long bus ride that was in my future, and start getting my things together so I wouldn’t have much to do before I left for the bus. I returned to the shop with the amber ships, and spent longer there this time talking to the guy who worked there. I had the opportunity to ask some questions about amber, and I found out a little bit about the different colors of amber.

White colored amber is the rarest form of amber that is sold in shops. Pure white amber is actually a nice creamy off-white color that is more expensive than regular amber. It is solid colored, and not glassy like one usually imagines amber. Sometimes white amber is sold when it looks yellow and not white. It is still solid colored, but it is not as pure, and can’t be sold for as much.

The next rarest color of amber is green. It is glassy like regular amber, but when I have seen it, it always had a lot of bubbles in it, and the color of green is very dark, and not very pretty to me. After green amber is black amber. The black is solid like the white amber. So solid and shiny when it is cut correctly, that it looks like plastic. Again, I don’t like this as much.

The most common amber is the honey-colored amber that is the most widely found. There is the darker one, maybe like fall honey colored, and the lighter one that might be more like the honey that is from the spring. I don’t know if there are any differences in the rarity of these, or if they are just both considered honey-colored. Even though it is the most common, I think the honey-colored amber is my favorite because the color is beautiful, and it looks really good in a silver piece of jewelry.

The guy told me that the actual rarest color of amber is blue amber. I had heard of the term blue amber, but it never struck me that it was a real color for amber. Although, I really did not know much of anything about amber before I talked to this guy. I think I still could learn more if I want to look into buying more of it.

In the end, when I got around to asking about the ship that I was interested in buying, I found that it was 625 Litas. I have no bartering skills at this point because it is one of the shortcomings of the culture of the United States. I left shortly after so that I could get food for the bus ride, and pack.

Indian Food and a Prison

I don’t think I ever reread this post, so please excuse any awkward sentences, or areas that don’t quite flow.

I decided that this post needed to go up before it became irrelevant, so I am posting it now.  

29/08/14

I have to add a little bit more to what I said about the differences between service in restaurants in an earlier post. At times I really like the service in Lithuania. I was misguided by the service at chain restaurants. I went to the small Chinese restaurant, and I am currently at an Indian restaurant that is situated halfway underground. The service at places like this has been great. The waiters and waitresses don’t seem to come until you are really ready to order. This particular restaurant is not the most noticeable from the outside. It has some dishes posted outside the door on a poster that is lower than eye level because one must walk down steps to get to the door. I passed this restaurant many times and could never tell whether or not it was popular enough for me to try it. I was not disappointed. I think that this restaurant is vegetarian restaurant too because I don’t remember seeing any meat on the menu. It is a very nice place with the deep oranges purples and blues of Indian decorations and subtle background music that matches the theme. The waitresses are dressed in Indian saris, adding further to the atmosphere.

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Whenever I go to a restaurant in Lithuania, I have noticed that their translations into English are not great, but they are understandable. The dish I ordered was called something like “soy in tomato sauce.” The “soy” in this case means tofu, which many of the dishes had instead of meat. No, it was not just tofu in tomato sauce. Maybe the sauce had tomatoes in it, but it tasted like the nicely spiced sauces that go over many Indian dishes. Basmati rice and a side salad came with the main dish, which I was very happy about because I love basmati rice. I ordered some “spicy sauces” to go with my dish; it was really only one sauce. The sauce was a transparent, light amber color, sort of like the color of oil. At first I wasn’t sure if it would be spicy at all, but I was not disappointed. The sauce went nicely with the food, not smothering the flavor, but serving to enhance it.

The whole restaurant was very decently priced so I decided to order a drink to go with my meal. They had a selection of fresh juices, so I asked for carrot juice. I know that sounds strange to some people, but I love carrot juice. Carrots are naturally so sweet that carrot juice doesn’t need any added ingredients to make it delicious. I remember in Kazan’ during the first week I was there, many of the students in the program and I went to the mall to look for things like dictionaries and internet sticks. While we were waiting for some of the people to finish making their purchases, my friend Katie and I found a juice stand. We didn’t know all of the names of fruits and vegetables but I ended up ordering apple-carrot juice. They made the juice right in front of us and the combination turned out to be some of the best juice I have ever had.

Can I just say, I hate jeans. I know, “hate” is a strong word, but I’m serious, I really don’t like jeans. Especially jeans they make for girls today, how can anyone stand wearing them. To me jeans are not very useful, they are too hot in the summer and too cold when it is cold out, so when are people ever comfortable wearing them? They are also really constricting, like you can barely stretch your legs in them. I don’t like the feeling of being constricted, I like to be able to have free movement of my legs since I am an ex gymnast. I mean I can barely do a handstand in jeans, how awful is that? That’s probably why leggings are becoming so popular these days. I don’t really wear leggings because I have been perfectly comfortable in skirts and dresses and leggings look a little bit strange to me. This thought of jeans came about because today I am wearing jeans. I was thinking of climbing this bell tower they have outside the big white church on Cathedral Square. I don’t know for sure, but I heard that it’s a bunch of steps to get up to the top, and I love climbing stairs. I decided I would wait until another day when I am wearing clothes that are more comfortable to me.

I walked around for a bit and ended up going to a café instead. While I was walking around I noticed a few interesting things. First, I saw a group of guys wearing coffee colored pants. I don’t mean coffee colored like black coffee; I mean the lighter, almost caramel color that it turns when you add a tiny bit of milk or cream to it. I wondered why so many people wanted this color of pants, and now in front of me sits a guy wearing a jacket that is the same color. It hasn’t just been these few people though, because the more I took notice of this particular color, the more people I saw wearing it. The second thing I noticed was a girl with bright violet hair, and when I say “bright,” I am not exaggerating. It was like her hair had something shining on it to make it so vibrantly violet. I have never seen violet or purple hair die that works that well. This reminded me of when I was staying with my first host and we were walking through Cathedral Square and we saw a guy with blue hair. If you decide to dye your hair blue or green, please be careful. When the color fades, the dye job looks terrible. Instead of looking like you died your hair, you end up looking like you swam too much and the chlorine stained your hair. As I was walking back to the apartment today, I saw someone with exactly this effect occurring to her hair and it was not pretty. I don’t often see people with hair dyed strange colors here, so it is very memorable when I do.

Sitting in a coffee shop today I noticed that there always seems to be a group of people in a coffee shop that speak a little too loudly or laugh too crazily for the general coffee shop atmosphere, disturbing everyone else’s enjoyable coffee drinking experience. If you buy coffee from a coffee shop, you probably want to take the time to enjoy it because it’s more expensive than putting a pot on at home. Well sorry you can’t, there are people here to disturb you.

I remember the disturbing group when I was in a coffee shop here before writing. It could almost be told as the beginning of a joke. Once there was an American, an Irishman and a local… the American was really loud like Americans often are, but he was so audible over the rest of the chatter that I just wanted to tell him how rude he was being and to shut up.

On a brighter or darker note, depending on how you choose to look at it, I went to another museum yesterday. Yes, it was another holocaust museum. I liked this one better than the last, probably because my experience excluded the two boys practicing a tour. Although, there was one unfortunately memorable incident in this museum, with an old man who kept showing up in the same room as me, chewing his gum really loudy. It was awful, and the sound drove me crazy.

Again, I spent over an hour in this museum, and I really enjoyed it. Any Holocaust museum or history of the Holocaust taught in the United States doesn’t take into account small countries like Lithuania. The history is always about how terrible Auschwitz was, and Nazi Germany. I am not saying those weren’t terrible, they were, but after spending some of my time in Lithuania in these museums, I see how much history our educational facilities and museums leave out. The Lithuanian people suffered from the Holocaust plowing right into them, and the Soviet Union claiming the country as its own, all in the space of a few years. People from Lithuania ended up all over the place, and over 90% of the Lithuanian-Jewish population was wiped out during the course of the Holocaust. The only reason those other people were left behind were because they were skilled laborers and it was decided that they were needed. There were plans to wipe them all out in the end, but thankfully someone stepped in and said that these people were still useful. The “cleanse” of Jews from Lithuania was considered the most successful to the Nazi’s.

In the prison:

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(This is the first room one encounters as they descend into the prison. They had two of these rooms next to each other that were used to hold new prisoners for up to three hours while their paperwork was being processed. Originally the cells didn’t have seats so the people had to stand. The seats were added later). 

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(This is the strip room. It is pretty self descriptive, but it is where prisoners had to strip down to make sure they had nothing that wasn’t allowed on them. Originally prisoners were than only given one set of clothes that they wore both during waking and sleeping hours. Later this changed).

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(There are a few of these rooms open for viewers as they make their ways down the long hallway. This is what a prison cell with basic furnishings looked like. The furnishings only came later though. Originally the cells that they held prisoners in had no furniture, so the prisoners would sit on the floors of the very damp cells, crammed together with many other prisoners. This room has four beds, but I remember reading that before there was furniture, I think somewhere between 20 and 30 people would be held in one room).

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(While walking down the hall, there are comforting signs that lead the viewer into another hall to view the execution chamber).

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(This is descending even further down than the prison, I think, into the execution chamber. The execution chamber is interesting, but also unfortunately, very redone to be more of an exhibit than what it used to be. The whole floor is glass and it has little remains – maybe a comb, maybe a nail, etc. – of people who had been executed, placed under the glass).

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(This is a room that has bags of shredded paper. The shredded paper is some of the remains of thousands of documents that the KGB attempted to destroy before they were forced to stop operations in the country).

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(This is a picture of the hallway. It is underground so it is cold, and the colors obviously don’t make it very inviting).

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(This is a padded room with a straight jacket against the back wall. Sometimes prisoners would be held here after “active interrogations,” one of the terms they used to refer to torture, because the prisoners mental states were not always in tact).

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(This is the door to the padded room. I took it so that people could see how thick the padding is).

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(I think this is a room they used to hold people in before interrogations so that they could not communicate with other prisoners. I think that the placard said that sometimes they would be held here for up to ten days, just being fed bread and warm water. There is a toilet of sorts in another corner of the room). 

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(This is a chamber where they put people who wouldn’t cooperate during interrogations, to make them cooperate. The floor would be filled with water up to the white line, so thee prisoner could either stand directly in the water, or they could stand on the circular plate in the middle of the floor that was raised above the water, and every time they fell off, they would have to get back on).

I am not going to go on about the museum and the Holocaust in Lithuania because there was too much information to recount. I will just say that one of my favorite parts of the museum (the building was a center for KGB agents with a very active prison underneath it during the Soviet Union) was being able to go down to the prison, and basically explore. It wasn’t like a maze or anything, it was a straight hallway, but to me, being able to walk in a place like that without a tour guide, and read the signs and experiences of people down there for myself, and just take the time to image it without having my thoughts interrupted, is one of the most memorable ways to experience something.

It’s Never Easier

Last night it took what felt like forever to fall asleep. I spent a lot of time staring out the window and thinking. I knew that the next day was the day I was supposed to get my passport back with my new Russian Visa, so of course I was worrying. This morning I woke up too early, but I eventually got myself to fall back asleep for a small time. When 9:00 A.M. rolled around, I waited for a bit, but I quickly checked my email to see if the visa center had emailed me. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to just walk in and assume they had my passport already, or if they were supposed to contact me and let me know somehow. Why else was the lady at the desk so persistent about seeing if I had a working phone in Lithuania or not? It made no sense. Time passed and I still received no email. I ate breakfast and showered, worked on writing a little and waited. When 12:00 came and went I decided it was time for me to email the visa center to see what I was expected to do. I immediately got a response and was told I could just walk in and pick up my passport. Of course, things are never that simple. It took me about 45 minutes to walk to the center, but I enjoyed a new view of Vilnius since I decided to take a new route.

When I got to the center, at first I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to ask to get my passport back. When I did find someone, they asked me if I had the agreement that I apparently signed when I gave them my documents in the first place. My immediate thoughts were I signed what? What agreement is she talking about? I vaguely remembered signing something, but everything has been so stressful, how am I supposed to remember one piece of paper? Thankfully when they gave me the papers, I put them inside a book inside of my bag so that they would stay in decent condition, and they hadn’t moved since then so I had the agreement with me. It just took some shuffling through papers before I found it. The second hiccup in the process of getting my passport back was in part because the lady I dealt with today was different from the one I had been communicating and meeting with at every other point in the process. I had turned in my AIDS Certificate as I was supposed to about five days ago, honoring another agreement I signed that said I would turn it in before I received my passport back. Apparently the AIDS Certificate was not attached to the rest of the papers that accompanied my passport, so the lady helping me today at first thought I hadn’t turned it in. Thankfully she found the copy of the certificate, but I never go places like this unprepared. I had made an extra copy of the certificate just in case I needed it. One thing I have learned on this trip is just to have two or three copies of every important document, because you honestly don’t know if or when you will need it. It has been very helpful to me since I had to turn a copy of my passport (the identification page) in to the visa center with my other documents, and when I went to get my HIV test, I had to use my other copy of my passport as a form of identification. Now I am left with only one copy of the passport since the visa center took one, but one copy can be so useful.

I am happy to say I have my passport in hand with my new visa pasted inside. However, I will also say this, after so much time of not having my passport, or preparing for this time, I literally have my passport for about five days before I will give it to people running my program in St. Petersburg so they can start the process for the visa extension. Right now though, I am not going to worry about that. I am going to concentrate on having a grand time during my last few days in Vilnius, and then the process of my return trip to Russia (back through Poland and Germany).

When I got my passport back, it was around 2:00 P.M., so afterward I realized I was really hungry. I returned to a street for lunch that I had been to before, but I knew this street had a few souvenir shops, and I decided it was time for me to start my souvenir purchases. I like to go into shops and look around some days before I actually buy any souvenirs, if I have time, so I already knew where one particular shop was that I wanted to visit. I ate at a restaurant close to this shop, and one of the things I decided to order today was a glass of beer in celebration of my getting my passport and visa back. I found out much later (after the next series of events occurred) that September 1st is a holiday in Lithuania as well as the United States, but they are two very different holidays. Apparently in Lithuania on September 1st, it is a law that they will not sell alcohol. I think that this is just in stores though because I saw many people at the restaurant I went to, with a beer, so it must be okay at restaurants because they can moderate how much a person gets. The reason for them not selling alcohol is because September 1st marks the start of a new school year, and it is a huge celebration where (I am told) all of the students dress up and carry flowers or something, and they don’t want the students to get drunk. (These are not just elementary school students; they are secondary school students and university students as well). Guoda told me that of course this ban on selling alcohol doesn’t work, because the students will just buy it the day before since they know they won’t be able to get it the next day. I had no idea about this holiday when I was out today, so the next series of events ensued.

As I was looking around in the shop again, and collecting a few things I wanted to buy, some loud noises coming from the open street started penetrating the peace of the shop. I stepped outside to see what was going on, and viewed what appeared to be some sort of parade. In the beginning it was typical, just a group of girls in the front in a uniform, and a marching band following them. I didn’t see any uniforms after them, so I was confused because there were still a lot of people walking in the same direction as the band. As I continued to watch I started to see people with the German flag draped around their shoulders, or painted on their faces. The Ukrainian flag, French flag, Latvian flag, Italian flag, and so many more were all there, including some that I did not recognize. After a short time, I decided it would be safer if I went back in the shop and continued my browsing of souvenirs for the duration of the parade because some of the people had started walking on the sidewalk, and one guy decided it would be funny if he shoved his flag in my face. It was not funny, and I thought later that I should have just taken it out of his hand because it was a very rude action on his part.

The parade continued past the people cloaked in flags from various countries onto what I later figured out were groups of people in different specializations because the parade was of university students from Vilnius University. Maybe the flags represented some sort of international studies specialization, I don’t know. I only recognized a few of the specializations because the words sounded similar either to those in English, or in Russian, or because their costumes gave it away. A few of the specializations I recognized included psychology, chemistry, and what I could only assume was premed. As the groups passed, they were all chanting. Of course I have no idea what they were saying, except that it was about their specializations, because it was all in Lithuanian. It was an interesting event to witness nonetheless, even though I watched the majority of it from the inside of a souvenir shop.

Now, returning back to the topic of my visa, I think I can say this safely since I have my passport and visa back. I am happy to say that it can be done; a U.S. citizen can successfully apply for a Russian visa outside of the United States. However, if I never have to go through this process again, I will be very happy. If I do have to go through this process again, I got through it successfully this time, so I know I can not only physically getting the paperwork together and carry it with me for months before I actually have to submit it, but I can mentally endure the strain and stress that the whole process can put on someone.

Yesterday

Yesterday was Sunday. I didn’t really make plans for Sunday, partly because I assumed that most things would be closed, which was for the most part true (since I had been considering looking for shoes, but I thought another day would be better for shoe-shopping because more stores would probably be open on a day that wasn’t a Sunday), and partly because I only have a few days left that are not planned. Pretty soon my schedule will be as full as it ever was, with classes and excursions that I must attend. I did, however, decide to go to a restaurant that had some good reviews on Trip Advisor. When I read reviews on Trip Advisor, I usually look for information concerning whether or not the food is good and decently priced. I don’t look passed that because I want the general atmosphere of the restaurant to be a surprise, and I don’t want to have preconceived expectations based off of what other people have written, to ruin my experience.

The restaurant I went to yesterday, reportedly had a combination of foods from various countries, including Thai food, and I felt like eating Thai food, so that’s what I went for. The restaurant was called “Briusly,” in Lithuanian, and I didn’t realize until later what that meant. Guoda had taught me how to read in Lithuanian, but it was just such an odd name for a restaurant that I didn’t initially make the connection. Another problem was that for the name if this restaurant, the name used had been combined into one word, when it is usually two. In English, the name I am referring to, and that the name of the restaurant translates to, is Bruce Lee.

My whole experience with the place was rather strange, and not very pleasant. When I entered, the inside of the restaurant smelled like stale cigarette smoke, but I could barely concentrate on the smell because the music was so loud. For the most part, people came in groups, as people often do when they go to restaurants, but I don’t know how they managed to hear each others voices over the sound of the music. The music wasn’t necessarily bad, it was interesting, it was just too loud for what I would expect to be played in a restaurant because it didn’t encourage communication and conversation.

In Lithuania, from my experience, people always seat themselves, and a waiter or a waitress will bring them a menu once a new person’s presence is realized and acknowledged. So, once I sat down, I started to look around. The first thing I noticed was that the tables already had menus on them, thus eliminating one of the steps I have become accustomed to in Lithuanian restaurants. The second thing I noticed was that the walls were adorned with pictures of Bruce Lee. I don’t know why anyone would open a restaurant and decide that the decorations should all be pictures of Bruce Lee, but I guess that someone must really like him. I wonder if the photographs were chosen because of the name of the restaurant, or if the name of the restaurant was chosen because of the interesting decorations. I won’t wonder for too much longer about it though, because I think it is just another case of the chicken and the egg. If you don’t know what I am talking about, ask yourself; what came first, the chicken or the egg?

When I first arrived, there weren’t many people in the restaurant, but as I ordered and waited for my food, the restaurant filled. I noticed that most of the people who chose to eat there were around my age, maybe they were university students or people who had recently graduated. I guess with the music, the smell and the decorations, the restaurant seemed to be geared towards a certain age group. There was one family with very young children that I saw come in to eat there, but that was it. Another piece that contributed to the restaurant’s atmosphere, that I didn’t like, was that the waiters kept walking around so quickly, and not close enough to my table, that I couldn’t stop one to ask for a check for about ten minutes. I just sat there drowning in the commotion, and I know they saw me there waiting, they could have come over and asked if I wanted anything else. I mean, maybe if I had yelled “CHECK,” they would have heard me, but I was trying not to be rude. I made a note to myself never to return to this restaurant again if I ever had the opportunity to go on another trip to Lithuania. I still feel the same about my experience at this restaurant today. I slept on the story for a night to let my thoughts cool down a little bit, but I think the only difference is that I am not mad today, I am just disappointed. But, what would life be if we didn’t have disappointing experiences to compare our good experiences to?

I am sure that I had other experiences, in addition to this one, yesterday. I am just currently not recalling what those might have been. As my time in Lithuania draws to a close, the days have started speeding by, and I think my memories are blurring together. That is part of the reason I started this blog though, to keep my memories sorted out because I don’t want to forget this year.