On the Train to Kaunas

30/08/14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Nature to the Baltic Chain

23/08/14

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

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

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

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

Glass Cube House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian Flag Man

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

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

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

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

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

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Lithuanian Flag People

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

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

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

A Few Stories From My Hosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Host-Mom in Kazan’

Aygul’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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