Even When You Encounter Something Unpleasant, Enjoy Yourself

27/12/14 First Full Day In Prague

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(On our way to the next hostel, the sun was shining)

I had written a couple more posts from winter break that I have not gotten around to posting, so now I am going to try.

In the morning we had breakfast with the Indian girls, who would be staying in this hostel for a few nights, and parted ways (this was the first breakfast we had eaten that had anything hot. There were scrambled eggs and beans here).

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(Also on the way to the next hostel, you can see a few stands of Christmas Markets here)

Our hostel bookings in a few locations, such as Prague, got a little mixed up causing us to have one night booked in one hostel and the rest booked in another. Walking down the hill in the morning to catch the tram at the bottom, we realized how close it was to come from this direction to get to the hostel, but that wouldn’t matter anymore because we did not have any reason to return to this hostel. Instead we went across town to another, larger hostel, and immediately wished our stay in Prague had all been in the first hostel that we stayed in. This hostel was called A and O Hostel Hotel, or something of the sort, and apparently has about six different locations. We did not feel the need to check in yet, we just wanted to drop our stuff off in their luggage storage rooms so that we would not have to carry it around as we spent the day out in the city.

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(A picture of Czech money)

The first thing we did in Prague out in the city was withdraw money of course. For some reason I decided it would be ideal if one person withdrew all of the Czech crowns so that the other two of us could pay them back in Euros. I don’t remember my reasoning at the time, but it made sense then and seemed to work out at the end of Prague. Kenzy decided she would withdraw money, and we headed into the main square, where all of the tourists go. Even though Munich had already started cleaning up their Christmas markets when we were there, Prague’s were up, and they were in full swing. It was okay with us that Munich had already shut their markets down because we had spent so many days wandering the markets of Nuremberg, but it was nice that Prague still had markets open because it offered a different selection of food and other items to look at then the ones that had been available in Nuremberg. Whereas Nuremberg has many markets seemingly all over the city, Prague only had a few concentrated in one square, which was a nice contrast to the overwhelming amount available in Nuremberg.

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(The first treat we ate from the markets. It was very good)

The day was beautiful, cloudy and a bit chilly, but no precipitation to get in our way. Old cars took tourists on rides around the city, and the smell of food wafted from nearby stands. We had no particular plan for the day as we walked up to the square. We immediately found a dessert a friend who had been to Prague described to us and suggested we try. It was dough that was wrapped around a thick metal rod and turned over coals. After it came off of the metal rod, it was rolled in cinnamon and sugar and handed to the waiting customer. It was good to eat on a cold day as the cold froze our fingers while we held them out of our pockets or our gloves while consuming the treat in front of us. Kenzy and I felt almost at home, we were back in Eastern Europe, things were cheaper again and not run on the Euro, and the language had some similar words to what we had spent our last semester studying.

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(A church in the square that we saw as we were eating our cinnamon-sugar covered treats)

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(A picture of a street in Prague, in the bottom right you can see one of the cars that one drive people on tours around the city)

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(An important church that we would be told about on our walking tour)

Eventually the dessert came to an end and we had to keep moving to stay warm, so we moved further out in the square and saw what we could and bought real lunch food from the market. Kenzy and I got chicken kebabs on a baguette while Ali opted for a bratwurst on a bun. It is sad that the mustard they have at these markets out on the square is better than the majority of the mustard people in the United States choose to spread over their food, but there is something to be said for quality over quantity and vice versa in the United States.

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(One side of the Astronomical Clock Tower)

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(In the middle of the Christmas Markets was a huge Christmas Tree)

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(Also in the square, a monument we would be told about on the walking tour as well)

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(The Astronomical Clock)

Most of our day was spent wandering around and enjoying the sites (and occasionally stepping inside where we could to warm up again). We saw an important church (which I will picture, but discuss in a later post), an important astronomical clock tower, and an important bridge. We wouldn’t know the complete importance of these places we had seen until we went on our guided tour a few days later.

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(The view from the bridge of the castle)

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(Another view from the bridge)

When it came time for dinner, we headed back to the hostel. Instead of immediately eating dinner, Ali and I took a nap while Kenzy headed to a nearby store to by dinner for herself and Ali.

In the half hour to an hour that Kenzy was gone and Ali and I were napping, two more people arrived in our room. They were two Indian guys who looked to be about our age, but dislike was almost immediately established from Ali’s and my point of view because even though we were obviously lying in bed with our eyes closed, they decided it was acceptable to try to strike up a conversation with us. Relations did not improve because they continued to be inconsiderate from then on. I remember them saying that first night that they liked to see European cities better at night because they look better. This I don’t understand in any circumstance because a European city will look like any other city at night. They all have lights, and will create a picture of a dark landscape with twinkling spots of light, The light may be in differing configurations, but this is not unique. Maybe going up to a particular building at night that is lit up is a unique experience, but in those cases I like to see the building in the day and at night.

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(Walking off of the other side of the bridge)

After Kenzy had returned with food and the two Indian guys had left to go see the city at night, we decided it was time to eat dinner. We knew the hostel had a guest kitchen, but we didn’t realize how poorly thought out much of what the hostel had to offer, was.

We went down to the guest kitchen and found it was locked, so Kenzy went up to reception to ask them to unlock it. She received a very unprofessional and rude reply that there was only one key to the guest kitchen and someone had taken it so they could not possibly open the kitchen for us because you need the key. Of course they had a master key that opened all of the doors in the hostel, the lady was “busy” flirting with some guys who had come to the bar (they had a bar at the reception desk) and couldn’t possibly spare a second to come down and open the kitchen for us. She also refused to lend us the key even if we promised to bring it right back because we are hooligans of course and would probably use it to go where we shouldn’t. When Kenzy came back and recounted her dealings with the woman at the desk, Ali, who hadn’t been feeling well, had had enough. She went up to reception too, and I don’t know exactly what happened between the lady at reception and her, but words were traded (some cursing that the person working at the desk unprofessionally brought into the conversation) with some indication that the kitchen would be unlocked once reception stopped being so busy.

With this information, we decided to all go up to the reception area and sit looking expectantly in their direction so that they could not forget us. Once reception was clear we finally got the hostel workers to agree to open the door. Here I ask, what is the point of having a guest kitchen if you keep it locked? All proper hostels have a kitchen for the people staying there to use, with dishes provided. People who stay in hostels need and want those dishes and that kitchen available. Usually hostel goers are traveling and want to have the option of making their own food , but are not going to steal anything because that’s not hostel culture and it is too heavy to carry dishes around.

Obviously this was not a proper hostel.

After dinner, we went back up to our room to get ready for bed. Eventually the Indian guys came back and were equally as irritating as they had been before. (I think that along with some of us not feeling well and being tired from traveling, there was a bit of culture clash in the manners and etiquette department. Usually I am okay adjusting to a new culture, but the new culture I was adjusting to here was the Czech culture since I was in the Czech Republic).

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Trains, Tickets, Errands, and Markets

22/12/14

(Again, I am late posting again because it seems that the internet at the hostel where I posted the last post only worked for one day and then could not load anything after that. I will do my best posting regularly, but all I can say is I will post when the internet permits me to).

The following day was Monday, so more stands were open and more people were in the market. After eating breakfast (which at this hostel had been a terrible option of copious quantities of bread with choice slices of meat and cheese and some substance resembling cereal) we went back down to the market area with the intention of asking someone where a post office was so that I could mail back the extra Eurail pass that the company had annoyingly sent to me. (A Eurail pass is a pass you can buy to be valid for travel by various means within the European Union in valid countries that is only valid for a certain period after you activate them, but that overall makes the cost of travel less expensive if you plan to travel that much. Unfortunately for them, citizens of countries within the European Union are unable to purchase and use them. We found a post office stand where people were mailing postcards and I frantically scribbled a postcard to my family in the few seconds before it became our turn in line. I like to send postcards and letters and anyone who knows me well enough knows this, there just aren’t very many people who seem to enjoy writing or receiving such things like this as I do, so I end up sending them to my family usually. I am also not buying souvenirs on this trip because Europe is already expensive enough to travel in, so this is my chosen form of souvenirs for my family.

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(There were strange pieces of art all over the city. We found this particular one on the way back from the post office).

We asked our question and sent our postcards (Kenzy sent one too) and went on our way to find the real post-office. I was very annoyed to find out that in Europe you can’t simply write “Return to Sender” on the outside of an unopened envelope or package and have it returned without paying another shipping fee, like in the United States. Instead you have to put it in a new envelope, rewrite all of the addresses and pay the new shipping fee. I had not sent the Eurail pass back before the journey had started because I didn’t physically have it. Since Kenzy and I had been staying in Russia and new that the Russian mail system was not the most efficient or reliable, we had made the decision to send the Eurail passes all to Ali in Aberdeen, so she ended up with my extra one but did not have the time to send it back since she had to pack everything up because she would not be returning to Aberdeen for the next semester. When all was said and done, at least that was one less thing we had to worry about on our journey, even though I had to pay for it.

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(Also on the way back from the post office, just an idea of what some of the buildings looked like in this area).

After sending the Eurail pass back, we had business to attend to at the train station. We had to activate the Eurail passes to be able to use them; this apparently just took the stamp and a signature of a European Union transport official. Our train was the next day, so we wanted to ask all of the necessary questions and make reservations for some trains if they were needed. Apparently Italy has a very messy train system, so we had to reserve all of the trains relating to places we were going in Italy. For the rest of them (hoping there was room) we could just get on in the second class area and fill out the information on our Eurail passes to be stamped when needed. Some of the reservations were much more expensive then I would have liked, but I am told that overall the price for transport done this way was still cheaper than buying each of these train tickets individually.

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(on the way back from the train station, the sun sets early at this time of the year).

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(A church we walked by many times and finally visited).

It was not very late in the day and we had already been productive getting all of this done. (Actually now that I remember this more clearly after the retelling this story, we did all of these errands the same day I got my luggage back, so the day before, but since I already posted about that day and so that I will have something to write about this day other than walking around the markets, I will continue as if it happened this day).

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(The front of the church)

On the way back into the busier parts of the markets, Kenzy bought a desert we had seen at some of the stands before. She let me try a bite and, although it looked rather intriguing, it turned out not to taste like much of anything. It was a chocolate exterior with a flavored marshmallow filling (they had different options for the flavors and Kenzy bought the mocha one). Unfortunately the flavoring of the filling was too weak so in the end it didn’t taste like anything.

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(Stained glass window)

We also happened upon a smaller market area which was located inside what looked like a small village but was all shops. It was very quaint and Christmassy and enjoyable see, but not to walk through. The part that made it unenjoyable was the crowd we faced in every direction we turned. When we left this smaller area and returned to the larger and more open areas of the market, it was even more difficult to walk anywhere because more people kept arriving.

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(Entering the throngs of the market place)

Later we returned to the children’s area of the market because they sold a dessert over there that we wanted to try. I don’t really know how to describe it except to give you the unpleasant image of a mass of dough in a bowl with a watery-textured vanilla pudding substance around it and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. It was a lot more attractive than what I just described, otherwise why would we buy it, and tastier too.

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(It became more crowded as it got darker)

I have traveled with people before who choose not to eat local food because they want to save money and I understand that, I want to save money too. However, I must say that every time I go someplace new I try to find local dishes to try because I feel like I haven’t traveled there and experienced as much as I can of the culture unless I try the food they eat. Also if I am traveling, I know perfectly well that I am spending and not saving money. I can try to spend less, but that does not mean I am saving any. There just needs to be a balance between spending money on food at a restaurant and buying groceries at a market. In addition, if I don’t have a kitchen available to me, then I have to spend money. This is why I am always buying and trying new dishes. Also, if you read any of my blog while I was in Lithaunia towards the end of this last summer and noticed that I went to an Indian restaurant, a Thai restaurant and so on, if I am staying in one location for that long I sometimes miss certain cuisine, but I also like to compare what other countries offer in the area of cuisine and their flavors to what I am used to in the United States.

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(Some examples of what was sold in the market)

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There were a few cathedrals we had passed the previous day in the markets, usually churches are free to visit, but occasionally (in touristy locations) they will charge you. These were free though so we did visit one. It was beautiful and spacious with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. However, it was obviously so spacious, done in an old gothic style, that there was no possible way the building could be heated. A few decorations had been set up around the church for Christmas, but no major decorations could be placed because the ceilings were too high to be useful for decorating.

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(The high ceilings of the church)

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(Inside the church)

One beautiful part of this particular church was what looked like a square filled with white sand, in the center of the square was a small nativity and around the edge of the square, people had placed small candles and drawn designs in the sand with their hands.

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At the end of the day, we really had spent time trying new food and enjoying the Christmas lights and the Christmas markets. Maybe this would not be interesting for some people, but the markets had such a variety of goods to buy and even a section where different stalls represented different countries (the United States was represented by Jack Daniel’s and other ridiculous paraphernalia), that it kept us entertained just looking at many of these stalls. Perhaps I will return to these markets in the future, when I am not already bogged down by a year abroad in Russia, and actually buy something representative of these markets or Christmas. It won’t be the Jack Daniel’s though.

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(More ornaments from the market)

One part of a day can define the memory of that day…

07/11/14   

It is interesting that the definition of a crowded bus in Russia changes between a big city like St. Petersburg and a smaller city like Vladimir.

I will explain this, but let me tell my story first.

As an introduction, at the beginning of the program during orientation we were told that Russians don’t have the same sense of personal space as people from the United States, and this has proven to be very true. Even when each person is pushed up against the person next to them, more people will try to enter the bus because they don’t want to wait for the next one.

Now I will get to the story.

It was Friday, our second to last day traveling before we returned to our host city. We had planned a trip to a neighboring city called Suzdal’ for the day (which is only about an hour bus ride), but both of us felt ill that morning and changed our plans as we were waiting at the bus stop.

We went back into the center of Vladimir instead and had a calm day first visiting the inside of a church we had gone to the night before, only to discover that it was a poorly put together museum.

We took more pictures of the church with the spire that hid itself in the fog the day before as the air was more clear, and noticed a gathering of people near the church. The people carried red flags with yellow writing and symbols (think the colors of the flag of the Soviet Union). The flags read the initials КПРФ, which I believe stands for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, one of the very active political parties in Russia. Christina didn’t notice them, so I was glad I did, that way we avoided any unwanted attention from them.

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(A clearer picture of this church)

We moved on to a nearby cafe to rest a little because although we hadn’t done much, we still both weren’t feeling ourselves. I ordered a coffee and a macaroon, while Christina ordered something I had never heard of. It looked like dry oatmeal oats that she simply poured milk over, but I am not sure that this is actually what it was.

As we sat at the cafe I continue to feel worse and more exhausted, so eventually we left and went back to the hostel. We both took a two or three hour nap and I woke up feeling much better, but rather hungry.

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(My coffee was pretty)

We decided to go out of the hostel and look for a place to eat instead of eating the food we had. The map had showed us that there was an Italian place nearby, however the map to this restaurant didn’t take into account the gates and fences that barred our ability to get there. We walked around for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get there and after we finally did find the restaurant, it turned out to be closed. We decided to look for another place since the map had shown other restaurants near enough to us, but as we were walking, the street started to look empty. Christina insisted that we keep going because other people were walking on this street so it must lead somewhere. I had a guess of where it lead because of the direction we were headed in, but I wasn’t sure. We ended up on a very dark sidewalk set back from the road next to a bunch of trees in an area that looked like it had a river or a creek, but it was too dark to tell. The only comfort was that it was beautiful, but there were also quite a few pedestrians walking on the same sidewalk.

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(They always seem to arrange napkins in this flowery formation in cafes and restaurants in Russia)

We ended up where I had expected we would, in the city center which we normally took the trolleybus to get to. As we walked along the street looking for a place to eat, we passed the Golden Gate again and saw that it lit up at night. Shortly after that we found a restaurant that looked popular because it had many people inside, so we decided to try it. For me, one way to judge a restaurant on whether the food is good and if it is reasonably priced is by the amount of people in it.

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(The Golden Gate lit up)

The restaurant was split into a few separate areas instead of being one large open room like many restaurants in the United States tend to be. After we had sat down and ordered our food and a glass of wine to accompany it, a young man showed up and was seated near us. He was obviously already intoxicated, and all he ordered was vodka and what looked like a chaser of some sort. A little while later he stumbled over to us uninvited pulled up a chair at our table and promptly sat down. Apparently he became interested because he heard us speaking English. He asked the waitress for a bottle of champagne for us, which I tried to signal her that we did not want it, but he was a big drunk man and we couldn’t really do anything.

He asked us our names, so I told him my name was Masha and that Christina’s was Krysta because it was the first name I thought of. I did most of the talking since Christina didn’t understand much, but we both wanted to get out of there. Christina’s food had already come, but she wasn’t eating it. Her choosing not to eat it wasn’t going to help us get out of there, but she seemed too distressed. After my food came, I told her to eat because I wanted to get the check and leave as soon as we could.

The champagne came and the guy (I never asked his name) made us stand up to toast. After we sat, he proceeded to ask us about American politics since the midterm elections had just happened and Republicans had gained the majority in both houses. I have no interest in getting into a discussion about American politics with a Russian much less a drunken Russian man, so I told him that we were more interested in international politics and didn’t know much about what’s going on in the United States since we were not there, so we can’t say anything about it. He kept trying to ask, but it was lucky in this instance that he was intoxicated because I didn’t have to say much to get off of the subject. After some time he wanted to have a cigarette break with us, but neither of us smoke or have ever smoked. We had to tell him this over and over again because he kept trying to get us to come with him even to keep him company, but apart from not liking cigarette smoke, we had no interest in going out of the crowded restaurant with him. As he was getting up to leave, he asked one of the people at another table in the room if they wanted to smoke with him, but they declined as well. His presence was making everyone’s experience unpleasant.

Finally he left and as soon as he did we asked for the check. Christina was still eating, but we wanted to ask for it at a time when the guy wasn’t in the room. I also moved his chair back to the proper table, but it didn’t do much to prevent him from joining us again.

When he returned, he picked up my glass of champagne and drank it in one gulp. The champagne wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want it so I didn’t really care. He pulled his chair back up and brought his vodka with him this time. He was already very drunk, having knocked over one of the champagne glasses, but I guess he wanted to take more shots. I kept having to move the glasses and the bottle further and further back from him as he became drunker and started having less precise motor control of his movements.

He was very caught up on my name because I had told him it was Masha. He didn’t understand why I had a Russian name and wasn’t Russian. He kept asking me to explain it, but I just asked him why I shouldn’t have a Russian name.

When he got tired of asking about my name, he picked up Christina’s hand and kissed it, at which point she told him she had a boyfriend. He took this as information that both of us had boyfriends, which I don’t, but he proceeded to ask their names. Christina’s boyfriend’s name is very American and he could not understand it, so he moved on to me. I scrambled around for a guy’s name and told him that my boyfriend’s name is Tyler, which was the name of my first boyfriend. I made sure to say the name in a very American way, instead of Russianizing it. Luckily with how drunk he was he didn’t notice my delay as I tried to think of a name.

After Christina scrambled to finish her dinner, I told him we were going to use the bathroom. We did go to the bathroom, but there we talked about what our next plan of action should be. Christina had been messaging her boyfriend, who said that we should either take a taxi back to the hostel so he couldn’t follow us, or we could tell the waitress or manager he made us uncomfortable. I thought this would be great advice for the United States, but we were in another country where things don’t work quite the same. The chances of a taxi being nearby were not very high and I thought that it would be unnecessary to take a taxi. As to the advice about telling the manager or waitress, I don’t know the word for manager in Russian, although I do know how to tell them that he scared us. I had also been measuring their physical states in my head. The guy who had been talking to us obviously had some muscle on him; he was not a small man and just because he was drunk did not mean that that muscle wouldn’t be used. The only male staff member I had seen in the restaurant was very scrawny and the rest were small females. I decided our best option would be to get our coats from the coat check and slip out.

We did just that and it worked. We speed walked to the bus stop, but there was no sign of him following us. Even though we didn’t see him we wanted to get out of the area. Even if he had followed us I don’t know if he would have been able to keep up because he was so drunk that he was knocking things over and stumbling around, however I know that a really determined drunk person can accomplish a lot so it was good that we didn’t have to take any chances. As we got on the bus, I realized that it was more crowded then I had seen a bus in one of these smaller cities, but compared to crowded busses in St. Petersburg, there was definitely enough room on it for 10 or 15 more people. We got on the bus, but it seemed that other people who had been waiting for the same bus decided it was too crowded, so they continued to wait.

When we got back to the hostel I told Christina that I thought he had been married and was probably a relatively new husband who isn’t enjoying marriage. He was wearing a gold band on his ring finger on his right hand. I think I have mentioned before that Russian’s wear wedding rings on their right hand because there is an artery or vein or something that runs from your heart to that finger.

We were both very disappointed about this experience because it could have been a very good meal and an enjoyable dinner, but instead it had all been ruined by a drunk man.

It Wasn’t So Straightforward

06/11/14

When I arrived in Vladimir the night before, the first thing I noticed were the hills. St. Petersburg is a very flat city and since we had only traveled to other flat cities from there, I hadn’t realized that I missed uneven terrain.

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(Another example of poor understanding of painting buildings)

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(But they also have beautiful buildings – the blue one on the corner)

Christina and I had a late morning. Unfortunately the lady below me snored very loudly so I could not sleep well. I listened to rock music to drown out all of the noise she made and although that worked, I also know music interrupts peoples’ circadian rhythms when they are trying to sleep, so perhaps it wasn’t the best answer to my problems. That morning again we realized we didn’t have food for breakfast, so we decided to go in search of a café for brunch.

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(A random brick church we found on our wanderings)

We picked the café because it said it had a vegan option on the menu, which I was really looking forward to. When we actually looked at the menu we couldn’t find the vegan food, which was very disappointing, but I suppose I could have asked. At the café we both ordered blini and fruit, the blini was very good, but the waitress forgot about the fruit. When we reminded her, she apologized, but proceeded to only bring fruit for one person. We decided to share that fruit instead of asking again for more fruit, so although the situation worked out, but it was still very frustrating. To make the situation more unsatisfying, the waitress of course heard that we had accents and tried to speak to us in English instead. I guess this was her way of trying to be kind and make it easier for us, but I am here to learn Russian so I want to talk to the waitress and order my food in Russian, I don’t want her to talk to me in English. This caused me to later go on a rant to Christina (in Russian) of what I would say to someone if the try to speak to me in English at a restaurant again because I am tired of people always trying to speak to me in English when I am trying to practice my Russian. I said I would tell the waitress or waiter that I am trying to learn Russian and if they don’t speak to me in Russian and let me practice than I will go find a different restaurant at which to eat.

When we left the café, we spent the day wandering where we pleased in order to see the city, but making sure we saw a few key churches and other pieces that were important to Vladimir. The day started out misty, but as it went on, it turned into fog so that our wanderings were smothered in a pool of milky obscurity.

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(The Golden Gate)

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(The church off to the left of the gate)

The first place we went was to something called the “Golden Gate,” which we actually happened on by accident shortly after leaving the café. Only the top was gold, so I am still mystified as to why it was called the Golden Gate, but places don’t always have logical names. The gate was located in the middle of the street, and there didn’t seem to be a way to actually walk up to it since I didn’t see any crosswalks leading up to it, but I also felt that if I were able to walk up to it, I don’t know what I would do there because it was really just something to look at. Next to the Golden Gate was an unattractive dirt mound that we assumed served as an observation deck, so we took the opportunity and went up there. It gave a view of the side of the Golden Gate and the road below, so I didn’t really understand the point of it. The one building it did give a good view of was a brick church off to the left of the gate.

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(A church near the stone cherries and observation deck)

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(Looking out from the observation deck)

After some more wandering and finding another observation deck (upon which we found a large sculpture of stone cherries that I did not get a picture of because there was always a crowd around it), Christina and I approached this brick church to go inside. Inside it turned out to be a museum we had read about that we decided we would be interested in seeing if we found it, but that we didn’t want to specifically seek it out. I guess we found it. I am glad we found it too because it had some beautiful pieces inside. The museum was of lacquered boxes, embroidery and glass. There weren’t very many embroidered pieces in the museum, but I was okay with that because I had seen more beautiful embroidery in Lithuania. We were allowed to take pictures anywhere in the museum, but it was very hard to take pictures of the glass work because the displays had lighting that continuously changed. We probably spent half an hour in the museum, and it was beautiful but the tour groups made the experience very frustrating because it was a small museum trying to fit too many people.

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(Some examples of lacquered boxes at the museum)

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(This one reminded me of Swan Lake)

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(Some examples of the glass work follow)

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(It was very hard to take pictures of the glass because of the changing lighting and the mirrors placed behind the pieces)

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(Trying to not be in the picture here, but the mirrors make it difficult)

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By the end of the daylight hours, Vladimir became so foggy that we could not see the top of a church we visited clearly, and we could not see anything beyond another sightseeing platform we visited. We finished visiting all of the areas that we wanted to for the day and decided that trying to see anything at night would be almost useless because the fog was too thick.

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(A monument, I am not sure what to, but it had a different person on all three sides)

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(Notice as the pictures get progressively foggier)

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(We could only see clearly the objects that were within a few yards of us)

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(It made taking pictures very difficult – this is a church)

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(The front spire of the church after they lit it up for the night, the inside of this church was poorly lit, but very beautiful)

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(This is a different church. We went inside of this church the next day and it turned out to be a very poorly constructed museum)

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(The same church from a distance)

For dinner we went to a Russian restaurant that apparently brews its own beer. The menu was a bit confusing because it had the beer list as a list of dishes that apparently were supposed to go with the beer. In the end I ended up with a plate of shrimp off of this menu. I enjoyed the shrimp except that they still had everything on, so for each one I had to go through the same process of taking their shells off and it got very tiring towards the end.

Walking Free and Meat Me

03/11/14

I remember my host mom in Kazan’ telling me that in the Golden Ring, most of the tours are of churches. The Golden Ring is a group of old cities located not far from Moscow that are situated in a sort of ring, thus the name the Golden Ring. Yaroslavl’ is one of the cities located in the Golden Ring, so during my time in the city I had the opportunity to see many churches.

Christina and I had a slow start to our day. We finally had time to relax and take a break from CIEE’s activities, so we took advantage of it and decided to take our time doing what we wanted to do. After I showered, I was able to have a nice conversation with the woman who was working at the front desk of the hostel when we arrived the night before. I like conversations like these because it helps me practice my Russian, but I also get to learn a little bit about someone who I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. It turns out this woman was a professor, and now she has a son around the age of 35 who already has five diplomas in different areas of study and works in Moscow.

After Christina and I had finished getting ready we realized we didn’t have breakfast food, so we made a sort of makeshift breakfast with some apples that Christina had and peanuts that I had, and decided we should buy some food before we returned to the hostel later that day.

Christina had looked up directions on how to take the public transportation to the city center, but even with directions, navigating a new city can be confusing. We turned right from the hostel and walked until we found a bus stop. We knew the number of bus we were supposed to take; we just had to make sure we got on one going the right direction. Unfortunately it was difficult to tell what the right direction was because we didn’t know the city. I remembered the taxi trip the night before, when the driver told us that we were driving through the city center to get to the hostel and I thought we had come from the other direction to get to the hostel but I wasn’t the one who had taken the initiative to look up the directions so I decided to go with what Christina said.

We got on a trolleybus and passed quite a few stops before we decided the scenery was looking wilder and less populated. We decided eventually to get off and get on a bus going the other direction, and thankfully before we did this we were able to find a café with wifi to look up what busses would bring us to the city center. It turned out that only Marshrutka’s could take us from where we had ended up to where we wanted to go. (Marshrutkas are sort of minivans that you pay a flat rate to go on whatever route they drive. It is like any regular transportation except I believe they are privately run and they don’t have to stop at every stop. They only stop when passengers ask them to, or if someone from the road flags them down).

We decided that it hadn’t been a waste of time to go in the wrong direction because it was enjoyable to see a less populated area of the city. We didn’t have a set schedule anyway, so spending some of our time somewhere else did not interfere with any plans we had. Yaroslavl’ is a small city so we decided the first day that we would just walk around and go to any place that struck our interest.

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(The first church we visited)

The first place we ended up was a beautiful brick Orthodox Church. The outside was magnificent, but the inside was nothing special. The icons looked like a different quality than the ones I had seen in Moscow, Kazan’ and St. Petersburg, but Yaroslavl’ is a less known city so that could be a reason why their icons and ornaments were not as impressive.  Although my friend Christina did mention to me later that she had seen an icon with a dog’s head, which we had not seen in an Orthodox Church before, and looking it up later, she concluded that it was probably St. Christopher, but could have been St. Andrew or St. Bartholomew. The lure behind it is that when the city was a city of cannibals, the people had dog’s heads, but after they were baptized, the baptism cured them of this. Apparently it is very rare to find icons with dog’s heads so this was a lucky find on Christina’s part. I am sorry I didn’t see it myself. The other interesting piece that Christina saw in the church was a stone with a carving of a crucifix on it. Christina has not looked this up yet, but it is interesting because it is not something we commonly see in Orthodox Churches.

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(Another church)

After we left the church, we wandered through the city a little more until we came upon a foot street like they seem to have in every Russian city. We walked down it hoping to find something interesting, but the only part we found interesting was an antique shop which was located a little beyond the foot street. The shop had very beautiful and ornate pieces, but of course they all had painfully high prices accompanying them, so we continued on down the street only to find another cathedral.

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(The church we found down the street)

This cathedral was located on one side of a square. It seemed to be closed so we only took pictures of the outside, but it was interesting because the church was only two or three colors except the arch over what seemed to be the main entrance. The arch was very colorful and didn’t seem to fit with the design of the church at all, but I find with Orthodox churches that their designs don’t usually make sense.

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(The colorful archway)

On the other three sides of this square were three other large buildings. One that was gray and obviously Soviet style with the hammer and sickle represented on its corners, while the others were imperial style with brighter colors and baroque-style white trim. The combination of multiple periods and styles of architecture in one square was really beautiful, and it was pleasant to look at even though the change from the bright white and yellow building to the solid gray building was sort of shocking at first glance.

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(The yellow and white building)

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(The Soviet building)

After we visited this square we had been out for a few hours walking around, so we decided to take a break. We went to an anti-café, which is a café where you pay by the hour instead of paying for each cup of coffee or tea separately. Even after spending a couple of hours there, the bill was very small, and the experience had been enjoyable. I remember when I was in Kazan’, one of my peer tutors had wanted to take me to an anti-café, but we had not gone because at the time I was out of money. I am glad that in Yaroslavl’ I finally had the chance to experience what it was like.

From the anti-café we continued to wander the streets of Yaroslavl’ and take in the fresh air and new sights. We made our way into a second-hand store where we found full-length fur coats for a little over 3000 rubles. Fur coats are very popular in Russia, but they are also very expensive, even at second hand shops. At first when we read the price tag, I thought I had misread it and that the price was 32,000 rubles, which would have been closer to the normal price of a fur coat, but the coats were in fact just very inexpensive.

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(Some random buildings, pay attention to the color scheme here. I don’t think they quite understand the concept of paint)

When the light started disappearing from the sky, we decided it was time to look for an actual meal. Christina had found a restaurant online that appealed to her interest, so the search for that began. The restaurant was called “Meat Me,” and although I am not generally a big meat eater I hadn’t done the work of looking up a restaurant so I was willing to give this one a try.

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(And more oddly colored buildings)

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(Cool brick apartment buildings)

The interior of the restaurant reminded me of a hipster-lumberjack, if that was a thing. The waiters and waitresses were dressed in red and black plaid shirts, and the tables and other woodwork seemed to be made of freshly cut wood. On the wall behind where I sat, was a large map of a seemingly random chunk of Europe with stickers from the various countries placed inside. On my right-hand side was an old motorcycle propped in the window, which seemed a little random to me and yet, it seemed to fit somehow with the rest of the décor. The taste of the food went with the interior design of the restaurant too, so all in all it was a good meal.

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(The bike – looks sort of like a Vespa – in Meat Me)

On the way to the restaurant we had passed many product stores that kept reminding me that we needed to go shopping so that we would have something to eat the next morning. We thought it would be easy to find a store again once we left the restaurant since there had been so many, unfortunately we were mistaken. We probably walked for another half an hour before we found a store that had what we were looking for, which than allowed us to finally head back in the direction of the hostel.

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(Food from Meat Me)

Our day ended with us practicing our Russian by talking to whoever chose to speak to us, and watching movies in Russian that we had already seen in English, so we could better understand what was going on.

When you want to go to a Monastery, but you end up in a Kremlin you didn’t know existed

04/11/14 I guess I should have researched Yaroslavl’ better.

(It makes me wonder if the Kremlin used to house the monastery, or at least had something to do with it, although I am still not sure).

Christina hadn’t been feeling well the night before, so I didn’t rush her to get up in the morning, which caused us to have an even later start to our morning than we had had the day before. After we were finally done getting ready in the morning we decided it was finally time to ask about our train tickets. The next day we were scheduled to take a train out of Yaroslavl’, but the train station on our arrival tickets and the train station on our departure tickets looked different so we decided it was best if we asked someone about it. I had been hoping to ask the lady who I had talked to the day before, but she didn’t seem to be working at this time so I was forced to ask someone else. The two ladies at the front desk who were there when I asked informed us in no uncertain terms that the two stations were the same, which made traveling more convenient for Christina and me, but I also decided it would be best to get to the train station a little bit early in order to leave extra time for any possible complications.

The day before, we had decided we wanted to visit a monastery that seemed to have some importance to Yaroslavl’. (We tended to leave a lot of the mystery of places in the dark until we got there and could see it for ourselves, only looking up general information. If we didn’t understand something, of course we would look it up later when we had access to the internet). When we made it to the area where we thought the monastery was located, we became sidetracked by another beautiful brick church. The inside of this one seemed to be closed, so we only took pictures of the outside. The sidewalks and crosswalks to make it over to this church from where we were had been very inconvenient and poorly designed, but the journey to the other side where we thought the entrance of the monastery was, was even worse.

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(The church that sidetracked us)

Once we made it inside the walls of the enclosed area, we found a ticket stand. The stand sold tickets that granted one access to a variety of historical attractions within the walls, and we decided that it seemed interesting, so we took the time to see a few. A lot of our time was taken up trying to find the attractions we had paid for because there was no map that let us know where we were going within the walls of the Kremlin.

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(Near the church and Kremlin)

The first exhibit we went to was a historical one, at which time I realized we were inside the Yaroslavl’ Kremlin, a place I didn’t even know existed. The exhibit had artifacts dating back to the thirteenth century that ranged from old jewelry and tools to old armor, so it kept us entertained for a while.

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(Another picture of the church that distracted us)

The next exhibit we had tickets to that we stumbled upon was called “The Treasures of Yaroslavl’.” We hadn’t actually intended to buy tickets for this one, but the lady at the ticket booth gave them to us. They weren’t very expensive so we didn’t complain. The treasures consisted of pieces mostly related to Orthodoxy, which makes sense since orthodox churches can be very elaborate. My favorite pieces that I remember were small pendants that had bright pictures painted onto them in detail. All of the colors stood out from one another, but they all worked together to form a beautiful image. The most elaborate pieces, perhaps, were ones covered in tiny pearls. Due to their age, they had to have been hand made because there would not have been the technology to make them with a machine. I can’t imagine being able to see properly after finishing a piece of work like that.

Finally we made it to our last exhibit of the day. This one translated to something roughly along the lines of “The Word about the Campaign of Igor,” which we didn’t find out until later that it was an epic based off of an unsuccessful campaign that happened in the time of Kievan Rus. We decided we would both have to look it up later to better understand it since the exhibit was completely in Russian, and I found quite a bit of information (which I haven’t had time to fully sort through), but the general idea seems to be that this manuscript is sort of the life story of Prince Igor from 1185, focusing mostly on his unsuccessful campaign, but covering other topics too.

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(The only picture I took inside the Kremlin because I didn’t feel like paying the 100 rubles to use my camera inside exhibits, even though 100 rubles is like $2.50)

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(The Kremlin from the outside)

By the time we finished looking at the exhibits in the Kremlin it was around 4:00 p.m. However, since the sun has started to set around 4:00 p.m. it felt much later. We were leaving the Kremlin to find someplace to eat. Instead of immediately finding a place to eat, we noticed how beautiful the sky was, causing us to spend at least another 30 minutes taking pictures of another church we found and strolling along the back of the Kremlin until we found a river. Near the river were four metal trees that had padlocks all over them. They reminded me of those bridges all over Europe that have the padlocks for couples on them, except they were trees that seemed to have been specifically placed there for the purpose of having lovers’ padlocks hung from them.

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(The church we took pictures of)

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(The river from a distance)

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(The lovers’ trees)

We walked closer to the river and found that it was partially frozen, since large, jagged pieces of ice were floating on the surface. It was very interesting to me because seeing a frozen lake is one thing, lakes don’t generally have flowing water, but I have only ever heard of the concept of a frozen river before. No, it was not completely frozen, but it was frozen enough to make me think that it was a very odd sight for me since I had not seen any such thing before.

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(A bell tower near the river)

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(The partially frozen river)

After we spent enough time enjoying the river and the surrounding scenery, we finally dragged ourselves back to the city center to try to find something to eat. I made it very difficult to find something to eat since I have already been in Russia for four months. Although I love Russian food, I have unfortunately started to associate it with what my host mom in St. Petersburg feeds me, which isn’t always appetizing to me and is often repetitive. That is not to say it is bad, it is just tiring for me since I eat it every day. Therefore, while I have been on vacation from St. Petersburg I have insisted on finding cuisine that is not Russian, which can be difficult in cities that are not as well known.

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(Another picture of the river and sunset)

Eventually we found a restaurant that claimed to be Chinese, but also served sushi and some other suspiciously non-Chinese dishes. I would say the food was mediocre for me at best since I have had some really great Chinese food in the past, but it wasn’t Russian food so I was satisfied. In addition, I knew going into the restaurant that finding real Chinese food in a small city in Russia was unlikely. One of the dishes Christina and I ordered was calamari. It was supposed to be an appetizer, but as I mentioned before, Russian’s don’t quite understand the concept of appetizers. The waitress made sure it was delivered after we had finished our actual meal. The calamari was good, not great, but it was also different from any Calamari I had tried before. With it came an odd spiced powder that looked garlicky to me. Christina said it was a little garlicky, but was flavored with other spices as well. I don’t like garlic so I decided to refrain from trying it. Even if it wasn’t the best meal for me, I am glad we both came away satisfied, at least having eaten.

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(Inside of the restaurant)

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(Painted on the ceiling of the restaurant were some fish)

When we returned to the hostel, I realized that we needed a taxi to take us to the train station in the morning and that we didn’t have a number to call to ask for one. I decided to ask the lady at the front desk about it and I was a little confused by her answer at first, but I understood that she would take care of it. All of the women who worked at the hostel turned out to be very sweet and very helpful. Even if the other people our age didn’t speak to us because they heard us speaking English, I still had very pleasant interactions with the staff who tirelessly tried to help us with everything we asked.

I think one of the most frustrating parts of this hostel were the other people who stayed there. They felt the need to stay up really late and speak to each other in the room when other people were obviously trying to go to bed. Of course this was not the hostel’s fault; it was the fault of the inconsiderate people who we had the misfortune of staying in the same room with.

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.

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).

An Attempt with More Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First Visa Attempt

Today, I wandered the city of Vilnius by myself. This morning I was supposed to apply for my visa, and my new host helped me find the center (we walked around some buildings for at least ten minutes before we actually found it). When I went inside and sat down, I started to take out all of the documents they need for the visa, only to realize I had forgotten the visa survey and the HIV certification (this is what they call it. Also, everyone who goes to Russia to study has to get an HIV test, so it’s not something to worry about). I asked if I could reschedule the appointment for the next day at the same time, and luckily there was time! I was so mad at myself for preparing for this for months only to forget a few pieces of paper! However, I don’t think it is healthy to be negative for an extended period of time, and I don’t like how I feel when I have a negative attitude about something, so I decided to examine the situation under a more positive light. I don’t think that this method always works, but it is always worth a try! This time it did work, and this is along the lines of what I thought: I am in Lithuania, and I have wanted to visit this country my whole life. I have another 14 or so days here, and it takes 5 to 10 days to process a visa depending on how much you want to pay (and I still have time for both). Since I searched for the visa center this morning now I know where it is, hidden behind an office building, waiting patiently for me to visit it tomorrow!

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After I went to the visa center I walked along a small river that runs through Vilnius so that I could clear my head and continue with my day. In the end I had a rather enjoyable day. I visited some of the churches my first host had shown me, and spent some more time in them, really appreciating the unique architecture and art in each one. This time I was able to go inside the small Gothic-style church because it was open.

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My first host had said that it wasn’t as impressive on the inside as the larger church that stands next to it, maybe it is not as large, but it is definitely as impressive inside, just in a different way. I don’t think I took any good pictures of the inside (I only took a few) because I was not sure at the time if photography was permitted, and I did not want to disturb how peaceful the .P1010871  

There is a nice garden near these churches that I spent some time walking through. Artūras told me that when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the area where the garden is now, was a very Soviet-style park. All of the pathways were straight and precise like many other structures or designs that come from the Soviet Union. The park was redone, Artūras said, only about five years ago. Now all of the plants have name plates next to them, and the white paths curve in soft arcs in between small fountains and ponds. So, they decided to call it a garden instead. It would have been a nice calm place to sit or slowly walk around, but today there were many tour groups in this area, and tour groups are always noisy. Yes, I have spent my fair share of time inside a tour group, contributing to that noise and disturbance, but they still bother me if I want to spend some quiet time thinking as I stroll through a Lithuanian garden.

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If you are abroad, and you are not sure where a good place to eat is, look for a crowd. Today I was walking on a small foot street in Vilnius around lunch time, looking for a place to eat, and I ended up at the back of a small group that was making its way into an already full restaurant (or maybe it was considered a café, I am not sure). Since I am just one person, I was able to find a small table next to a window with just one chair. The other chair, or chairs, for this table had been stripped away to be for larger parties. The moral of this story is the restaurant was good, and not too pricey. I don’t need to be like that one book that they make you read in elementary school that describes food all of the time. I can’t even remember what the book is called; I just know it usually has a green and white checkered cover and belongs in a set of about seven books.

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My host had told me that I probably should not walk back from the old part of the city, but I decided I wanted to know the city better, and that I wanted the exercise, even though I was not completely sure where I was going. The clouds threatened rain, but they held off as I found my way to the apartment. The night before my hosts needed to by some food from the grocery store, and offered for me to accompany them. I thought this was a good idea since I would need to buy food for myself. They feed me dinner, but I have to provide myself with breakfast and lunch. When I returned to the apartment today, I could not remember where these stores were that they showed me, but instead of going inside, I decided to wonder around and see if I could find one. I had no recollection of where to go, and I remembered very few landmarks, in part because it was dark when they showed me, but also because we took a meandering walk through some parks and around some embassy buildings before they actually decided to go shopping. I guess my instincts are better than I thought because I recognized the few landmarks that I knew, and made it to the store.

In Lithuania, they have this sort of desert that they don’t have anywhere else as far as I know unless they import it. My hostess told me that when Lithuanians immigrate to another country, they always miss this desert. My host suggested I try one, so I bought one to try when I went to the grocery store. They are sort of a sweetened cottage cheese with a chocolate covering. They have many different flavors, and some with fruit fillings. It was really good, and my hostess is right, I don’t think I have had anything really like this before. I will definitely miss them as well when I leave Lithuania.

I have to tell you about the dinner my host and hostess made today! If I was ever going to become Vegan, I would want to learn how to become so from the people I am currently staying with because they know how to make it interesting, and delicious. Maybe I am speaking too soon, but I don’t think so. I don’t know if reading descriptions of food is always boring, but this was just so different for me. My hosts made a stuffed pumpkin, and it was actually really good. First they cooked the inside in a frying pan. I am not sure exactly how or everything that was included, but they found a vegetarian recipe online (the original recipe had cheese, they made it without cheese) and adjusted it to be Vegan. The inside included, but I think was not limited to, quinoa, mushrooms, almonds, cranberries, and… I don’t know what else. After the inside was done cooking, they cut the top of the pumpkin open like you would if you were going to carve it for Halloween, and cleaned out the inside so that they could put the filling in. Then they stuck the whole thing in the oven. When it came out, it was really good. That’s all I can say since I don’t want to bore you by going into a long description of how it tasted.

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The pumpkin took a while to cook in the oven, so while dinner was cooking we went to the park. My current hosts name is Tautvydas. He told me that he went to a music festival, and they had a slack-line there. He said he tried it over and over again, and when it was time to go over and watch a performance, he didn’t want to go. He just wanted to keep trying to do the slack-line. He went to another concert a day, or a few days, later, and he said he was very sore from the slack-line, but, he liked it so much, he bought one himself. At the park today, we set up the slack-line, and the three of us took turns trying out the slack-line. Tautvydas’ previous practice with the slack-line showed because he could walk across the whole thing, even if it was a bit shaky. My hostess, Guoda, was able to walk a little over halfway across before she fell off. I was definitely the worst at slack-lining. You would think after six years of being a gymnast and doing ridiculous tricks on the balance beam that I would be able to simply walk across a slack-line. However, I cannot. I tried to walk on a slack-line once before in my life when I was in high school, and much to my embarrassment, I failed then too. By the end of the time we spent in the park, I was able to walk about three real steps before I would fall off. Let me tell you a little about why I cannot yet walk across the slack-line. First, a slack-line is, well slack. Balance beams are very hard. As a gymnast on a balance beam, you are told over and over again to keep your legs straight, don’t flap your arms, pull up in your core, stand on your toes, keep your head up, and so much more. You have to remember all of these little details to correctly walk across a balance beam. I mean seriously, it is just a balance beam, how hard can it be right? Well, after six years of having this drilled into my head, when I stand on something that resembles a balance beam in some way, it is natural for me to stand as I described above. When you walk on a slack-line, don’t do these things. You have to bend your knees and carry your weight on your back leg. There is a lot of teetering that occurs with each step (unless you are really good at it like my math teacher in high school was), and the adjustment to walking this way is very awkward for me, but while I am here, I have the opportunity to keep working on it.

While we were talking turns slack-lining, Tautvydas and I took turns doing some handstands in the grass. Tautvydas now wants to learn how to do them better, I want to practice more because I am definitely very rusty. I don’t think I have done a handstand since before last semester of school got out (Spring 2014 semester), because of hurting my back in Pennsylvania. I definitely didn’t do any handstands in Russia, and I have missed them. Doing only these little acts of movement and walking around the city has helped me feel so much better tonight since it has been months since I have been able to work out.