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.

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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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With Artūras in Vilnius

The first person I will write about is Artūras. If you ever want a real tour of a city, meet someone like Artūras who knows so much about the city they live in. This way you can walk and talk with just the two of you, and you don’t need to try to listen over the chatter of the people around you, or listen to the unnecessarily long and drawn out descriptions of monuments and historic sites that are commonly heard on regular group tours. Artūras is fluent in Lithuanian and Russian. He says he is lucky he has Russian relatives, because then he didn’t have to study Russian, he knows it from growing up with Russian speakers in his family. He also speaks English rather well. One of the many topics I discussed with him was the grammatical components of the Lithuanian language. One of the first pieces of information he told me about the Lithuanian language is that Lithuanian probably has every type of grammar there is found in languages. In other words, it is a very complicated language. I already knew it was a complicated language, but knowing it is, and learning about the various components that make it so, are very different. Lithuanian has seven cases (English has three which are not actually significant to learning the language since they don’t cause changes in the adjective and noun endings as they do in other languages, so most English speakers do not know what cases are unless they try to learn a language that has them). Lithuanian also has tenses that are just as complicated as the set of tenses found in English. Artūras told me that English speakers tend to find Lithuanian tenses easier to learn because we have complicated ones ourselves, but I can’t personally imagine coupling our ridiculous tenses with a set of Russian cases (this is what I am comparing it to because of these two languages I have the most knowledge). He also said that the only language that Lithuanian is related to is Latvian, but the languages are not mutually intelligible. I believe Lithuanian is the oldest (still spoken) European language, and many of its words have obviously Latin or Sanskrit roots.

Maybe this will be more interesting than the grammar of a foreign language. The name of Lithuania in Lithuanian is “Lietuva.” My host told me this word is similar to the word is similar to the Lithuanian word for rain, which is something like “lietus.” He said that the name “Lietuva” actually comes from the word for rain, and the name basically translates to “Rainland.” So Lithuania’s name is actually “Rainland.”

Artūras went to Minsk, I believe, last spring (this is the capitol of Belarus, a country that right now I think would be very difficult for a citizen of the United States to visit) and said it was the cleanest city he had ever visited because everywhere he looked, he could not find garbage. He said that while he was there he looked around specifically to try to find garbage maybe under a stairwell, or hidden by a bush, but there was none. The reason for this, he said, is that the current Belorussian regime promotes cleanliness. They have propaganda about cleanliness in the country that the country should be clean on the streets, but also you should keep your living space clean as well. I think this is a very interesting value to be promoted with the use of propaganda. In addition, there are no homeless or drunk people on the streets. My host said that if a drunk person stumbled out onto the street, that police would come out of nowhere within five minutes of the person appearing on the street, and the person would be taken away. He said the country has many police.

Artūras also hitchhiked with a friend across Europe. He said when they were trying to get out of Lithuania and Poland it was harder because hitchhiking is not as common, but once they got to Germany for example, they would barely have to stick out their hands and they would have a ride to the next stop. While Artūras and his friend were hitchhiking, he said they had a tent that they would set up at truck stops and just sleep in the parking lot. In the morning they would make food in their tent,  and then clean everything up. After that, all they had to do was go to the side of the road to catch a ride. I think this is so interesting because I don’t think it would be very simple to do this in the United States.