A Meeting of Friends

18/05/15

I remember planning the night before planning to not take a shower the next day until I got to my friend Dani’s place, because I would be walking out in the hot sun with my luggage again. Even though it would only be for about 15-20 minutes, that much time dragging luggage around in the sun can make all the difference. I had taken one the evening before I left St. Petersburg and I try to only take one every other day because it is supposed to be better for your skin and hair, but this usually ends up being every day and a half or even every day because I hate being dirty. Unfortunately this morning I just felt so dirty that I had to take a shower. I got up early because I was still on St. Petersburg time and used to waking up at 7:30 am for class, and the first thing I did was shower (without a towel).

Throughout my travels this last year I have often not had a towel to use, or only a very small one. When I traveled in Russia, I used a hand towel, which was actually a sufficient size to serve the purpose of drying myself off. When I traveled over winter with Kenzy and Ali, Kenzy and I both did not use towels because we didn’t have them to bring with us. Drip drying was good enough. This time I still didn’t have a towel to use, but I needed a shower (I think the lack of towel was another reason I had intended to wait until I got to Dani’s to shower, because I assumed she had some that I might be able to use).

Dream Cube Hostel thankfully has breakfast included since I didn’t have any groceries. The breakfast was the typical European hostel breakfast. There was coffee, tea, and milk of course, some fruit, cornflakes, bread that you could make toast with and jams to put on the toast. I decided to take a couple of pears and an apple and cut them up to put on my cereal. This was the breakfast that we had had almost every morning while we traveled in the winter, with slight variations here and there, and this was the best I could come up with, with what I had to work with.

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(The park we visited)

After I had finished eating breakfast, I let Dani know that I was ready to come over whenever she was. She wanted to take some time to clean up after our other friend left, so I got back to work booking flights and hostels and communicating with my friend in France to see if I could come visit. As has been my intention throughout this trip, I tried to study some Russian, but everyone wants to know what you are doing so it is very difficult in the hostel environment.

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(The pond at the park)

Eventually Dani was ready for me so I headed in her direction. The street between us was on a hill, and thankfully I was headed downhill rather than up.

I found what I thought was her building, and realized that we hadn’t talked about a way for me to contact her when I got there. I managed to get in the building and stood around for a while looking at the mailboxes or for some clue as to where in the building she stayed. Eventually I decided it might be better to exit the building because anyone who came in kind of gave me a strange look since I was standing there with my luggage looking lost in a building that you had to have a key or have someone buzz you in to enter.

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(Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph)

I stood back out on the street looking at the buttons that would call each apartment (because sometimes they have names next to them), and then Dani came out probably not even five minutes later to throw some clothes away. (She was leaving Barcelona soon at this point and had to decrease the amount of possessions she owned abroad because she could not carry it all home).

After we made it inside, we started off the day (it was probably 1 or 2pm at this point so “starting” might not be the proper word) in a very relaxed manor. Dani took a nap because she was tired from having our other friend over, and talked to my friend with whom I planned to visit Istanbul until it came time for me to attend my online orientation for my summer program.

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(The arch up close)

Eventually Dani got up and decided to show me a little bit of the city. We went to a beautiful park with a pond, and spent some time walking through it and just enjoying the greenery, and catching up of course.

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(Looking for contact cleaner, or on the way)

(A little background on us. Dani and I met at my university in Pennsylvania. She was a junior (3rd year) when I was a freshman (1st year). We met on the cheer team. We both cheered that year and were both treated badly by the captains. She was also in the sorority I joined my sophomore (2nd) year, and she was a major part in me joining. Not because she tried to convince me to join or not join, she (and most of the rest of my sorority) was just the type of person I would want to call my sister. Through mutual experiences, and just having enough in common we became good friends and close sisters).

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(All of the pigeons)

After walking through the park, she showed me that Barcelona had an arch of triumph, like France (not that I have seen the one in France because I have not been there yet).

Before heading back in the direction of home, we decided to look at an optometry store to see if they had the contact solution that I needed. I had not worn my contacts for the last 2 months while I studied because I ran out of the cleaner and could not figure out how to get it in Russia. We asked a lady and thought she understood what I wanted. The bottle I was sold was weird, but I needed to wear my contacts so I thought I would give it a try.

Dani had spent all of her money while our other friend was with her, so she did not have much to spend with me. On that first night she showed me a small restaurant that she said was very local, and the plan was for me to eat there and her to eat back at her apartment since I wanted to try something local.

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(Modern Art)

At first I sat outside because the weather was nice, but the waiter immediately asked me what I wanted, and when I asked for a menu, he said they didn’t have any and beckoned me inside. He sat me at a table and handed me a menu in English and one in Spanish. I was supposed to find what I wanted in English then find it on the menu in Spanish because the man did not speak a word of English. Unfortunately the menus were slightly different. I wanted some sort of sausage with mushroom sauce, and instead ended up with sausages with fries. At least the fries were real, and the meal was only about 6 euros, which is very inexpensive for a bigger city like Barcelona.

That night, after I returned, we broke out the vodka. Dani apologetically mentioned that she did not have shot glasses, but funnily and fittingly enough (because I had been in Russia), I did. We definitely did not finish the bottle that night. We only got about a third of the way through it, and then we decided to head to a bar. The bar we were planning to go to was called the Dow-Jones Bar or something. The idea was that the price of drinks would go up if someone bought one, but if one had not been sold in a while then the price would start dropping. I thought it was a really cool idea, so I wanted to see it.

The night did not really go as planned and we left the bar almost as soon as we arrived and returned home to watch a movie or something. I want to ask my friend before I put additional information about the night and Barcelona in general in my blog.

A Christmas Day Walk in the Park

25/12/14

On Christmas day we also had a late morning, but this did not affect our plans for the day. We had decided that we would go out to eat some local cuisine in every country and what day was better than Christmas Day? In the United States restaurants would probably be closed, but we had read online from multiple sources that here, places opened up for dinner and we wouldn’t have trouble finding a place to eat.

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(On the way to the park)

We had looked up a couple of places online just to have options, but we did not know if they would be open or not. With this information and having eaten breakfast and finished getting ready for the day, we decided to head out on our Christmas journey.

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(Our rainy Christmas)

It was not a white Christmas in Munich. Although it had been sunny the day before, I woke up at about two in the morning and listened as the rain started to fall. The rain was still coming down when we got up in the morning, but when we left the hostel it had already stopped, leaving a damp and gray day. It is a good thing that I enjoy gray and stormy weather, especially since I am studying abroad in St. Petersburg.

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(We found the park!)

We headed to a park we planned to walk in and enjoy the afternoon in (since there wasn’t much morning left by the time we got there). After getting out of the metro station and wandering around for a bit we found the park (the street setup made it a little hard to find the park), and along with it we found many people also spending part of their Christmas Day walking in the park with their families and dogs. I think the park was called the English Gardens, or something along those lines, although it was really a park. It was beautiful, but there were no gardens.

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(There were no gardens, but there were lots of trees and a small river)

The first part of the gardens we encountered was a small creek at the edge of a neighborhood. We found a bridge to cross into the park and walked to a nearby lake from there. Mostly we just wandered across the different paths of the park in the direction of the old town. At one point we ran across a small stand that sold such food items as we had encountered in the Nuremberg Markets. Kenzy decided she was hungry and bought a sausage on bread like they sold in the markets, I think I just did not want to pay for food so I didn’t get anything. After Kenzy had already purchased her lunch, she spotted peppermint chocolate. They only had one small bar of the peppermint in the whole box of chocolate, but it was enough to satisfy Kenzy and Ali on their quest for peppermint, at least for a short time.

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(The lake with many geese and ducks)

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(I liked the light colored duck because it was different, but it did not want to cooperate with me so I could take its picture).

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As we continued on in the park, the story of our day becomes more difficult to tell.  Many of the families had dogs with them and Kenzy loves dogs so she enjoyed this immensely. Even though we passed by many people walking their dogs and many of the dogs were very cute, I forgot to take any pictures of the people with their dogs. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a significant mistake, but their were so many dogs in the park that it can’t not be significant. Regardless, it was interesting to see so many different types of dogs in one place.

Moving on from the dogs that we encountered, the difficult part of the story included such events as the quest for the chalice of “Immortality or Whatever,” which they had fresh run out of so this quest would prove very difficult. (I don’t know who they were and I not sure how to tell the story of how this came up to you, so I will leave it at this). It also included climbing the hill to reach the “temple” where the chalice of “Immortality and Shit Like That” was to be found. I think that somewhere along the way we were having trouble finding the area we were looking for and a conversation comparing this search to those of the Holy Grail came up somehow prompting the search for these chalices.

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(Houses across the lake)

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(The “temple” wasn’t so much of a temple)

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(The view from up on the hill with the “temple”)

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(Looking back)

After spending many hours walking through the park, we headed back to the old town to find a place to eat Christmas dinner. Despite what sources online had told us, it was very difficult to find a place to eat dinner, open or closed. This would be the first of our dinners where we chose a restaurant for the sake of eating “local cuisine,” but it was the only one that would be for the sake of Christmas dinner.

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(A river near the end of the park)

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Our dinners consisted of a couple of different types of bratwurst, schnitzel and potatoes done in various fashions of course. Although much of it was good food, the schnitzel, which Kenzy ordered, was not done correctly. This being my first encounter with schnitzel, put me off of the dish for some time, but I would have another opportunity to try it later.

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(The sky was so beautiful)

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Promptly after finishing dinner, we headed back to the hostel. I skyped my family very briefly, on the awful hostel wifi that barely worked. It was so bad that their faces showed up in large boxy (pixilated) images like people used to when skype was a newer form of communication. I skyped them to wish them a Merry Christmas, so other than packing so that we could leave the next day, with that, our day had come to an end.

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(Going back by a church we had passed the previous day)

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(Our German dinner)

My first week in St. Petersburg

05/09/14 – 12/09/14

I arrived in the St. Petersburg on Friday the 5th of September, but it didn’t feel like I was actually here until that following Sunday night. Friday night through Sunday afternoon were spent in a hotel that made us all feel like we were in the United States. There was no delving into the culture or language there, but the program coordinators used this opportunity, while we were all together, for hours of orientation before we met our host families. I don’t remember much of the orientation because it is the third orientation I have attended to get ready for Russia. The orientations have included a lot of the same information, but even though I know it is annoying for me to go through this information over and over again, each city is different, and every orientation will make someone make a better choice as they spend their semester in a Russian city. That person it helps could even be me.

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(Another picture of fireworks from the first night in the hotel)

I remember a few specific pieces of my orientation while staying at the hotel, such as stories of unfortunate situations experienced by past program participants, and the three hour city bus-tour we took on that first Saturday. Being at this orientation was like being freshmen in college again. Everyone was awkwardly meeting as many people as we could so that we would know at least a few familiar faces when the program started. I was lucky because my roommate and I got along right away, but of course, neither of us wanted to know only one other person when the program started, so we spent our time in uncomfortable introductions and awkward conversations just like everyone else.

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(One of the buildings we were shown on the bus tour, I don’t know if they said what the significance of this church was on that tour, but we learned more about it in a later week)

The bus-tour was rather unpleasant for me. I seem often to have trouble with the people I end up sitting next to. In this case I had been standing with my roommate inside the hotel lobby waiting for the bus, but my roommate ran back upstairs to our room to get a coat. I didn’t wait for her when we were called out to the bus, and initially I was sitting alone with some people I sort of knew sitting around me. Much to my displeasure, a guy walked up to where I was seated, said hello to the people around me, asked if he could sit in the seat next to me, and sat down. That part was normal, and expected, it was a new program and everyone was looking for a familiar face to sit near. I like to at least try to be friendly so I went through all the typical questions of where he was from, what school he goes to, if he was studying language or culture (through the program I am doing, there are Russian Language Studies and Russian Area Studies students), and so on. He answered just fine, and it seemed as though our chatter could launch into a more interesting conversation, but I was sadly mistaken. He didn’t even have the manners to return the favor of asking these questions, he just quit talking. Even feigned interest would have been better than what I received. As I continued to sit next to him for an hour until we stopped to take pictures, I grew more and more uncomfortable. He sat the way some guys will, with his knees at an outward angle spreading over more space than they should, and his elbows at his sides, spilling over onto my seat, instead of being kept in his own space. As I scooted closer and closer to the window so that I could have some personal space (yes I know I’m in Russia and they don’t have the same investment in personal space that Americans do, but he is American and could have afforded me that luxury for the last few days I would be able to enjoy it), he spread himself out even further.

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(During the first photo break. The sun was too bright to capture any good images, so this is one of the few pictures I took during that break)

When we exited the bus for a photo break, instead of spending the time taking pictures, I spent the time asking my new friends if they had any open seat near them. The program has about 70 people, and we were all on one bus, so I wasn’t very optimistic. I was lucky, and found there was one open seat on the bus which was also next to a guy (who was larger than the last), but at least this time I had an aisle seat to give myself personal space if I felt the need to. I sat next to him for the rest of the bus tour, and it was a better location than I had originally been in, but it still wasn’t great. At one point he started talking to me about how he already bought a bottle of vodka the night before (our first night in the city) and had met some people who gave him really disgusting sounding food to try. I am supportive of anyone trying new food, but I draw the line in a practical area of what actually has the potential to be appetizing. He had mentioned that the food looked and smelled bad in the first place, but that he decided to try it anyway. He proceeded to tell me that I was lame and boring because I had failed to already get drunk the first night we were there. If someone wants to waste their time in Russia and do that, that’s their own personal choice, but that’s not what I am here to do. I remember deciding after that conversation that although a male figure out on the streets of St. Petersburg could be safer, especially at night; his company was not one I wanted to keep. After learning how reckless of a person he seemed to be (based off of this conversation and other stories he decided I needed to know) I decided he would probably make a situation more dangerous, rather than making it safer.

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(The Church of Spilled Blood – only one of it’s names, I don’t remember the other name. Another church we were shown during this first bus tour)

It is disappointing to me that I spent so much time on this first bus tour letting myself be bothered by the people I was sitting next to, and not enjoying the city, but at least I am here for a while and I will have time to see what I have already been shown. I remember seeing a lot of different buildings from the bus, but they drove us around in circles and seemingly random directions so that afterward I had no idea where anything was.

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On that Saturday evening, after dinner, we were supposed to receive our simcards for Russian phone plans. Some people had phones they had unlocked and wanted to see the simcard would work, but the rest of the people were being taken to a store to buy the cheapest phone they could find to use while they are here. I used one of these phones while I was in Kazan’ because they were provided by my program, but I know I will be in Russia for a while, and anything I can avoid buying, I will. So, I brought a phone from home. They phone hadn’t been unlocked yet, but, since I couldn’t call internationally and didn’t have internet at my homestay, my mother had contacted the phone company while I was in Kazan’ with phone information and they had given me information to unlock it once I had a foreign simcard. Apparently with iPhones, one unlocks the phone before putting the simcard in, but that wasn’t the case with this phone. I bring this up because I remember someone standing near me, arguing with me that I was supposed to have the phone unlocked before putting the simcard in, and that I became very frustrated repeating that it wasn’t an iPhone and why was he arguing with me if I had instructions from the phone company about how to unlock it. As I have continued in the program, I have found that this is how his personality is. He has to be right, or if it’s not a conversation to be right or wrong in, he has to insert his opinion wherever he can.

The simcards we were given are attached to very basic plans. In most countries, there are no phone contracts binding the purchaser to a company for a couple of years. Here, they have machines that look like ATM machines. After we received a simcard, we had to go to these machines to put money on our phones. It costs 300 rubles to activate the card, which is about 10 dollars, and then that money is used to pay for texts and calls. When the phone runs out of money, more can be added when it is needed, but there are no monthly payments. Since there were 70 of us who all had to activate our phone plans, the machine in the hotel ran out if money. The program coordinators assured us that there was a machine at the institute, but when we got there on Monday, of course it was broken.

On Sunday, before we met our host families, we had one more session of orientation. The orientation didn’t seem like it had quite ended, but  it appeared as though some of the host families had arrive early because they were excited to meet us.

When I went to Kazan’ over the summer, we only had an online orientation. As soon as I left the airport, I was driven to the residence where I was to stay. In this way, after hours of traveling from the other side of the world, I had no time or energy to build up nerves when I went to meet my family. I was dragged through a dinner in a state of travel exhaustion (I don’t know why traveling makes me tired, all there is to do is rest. Perhaps it is the stress that accompanies it), and I vaguely remembered being very uncomfortable speaking Russian but trying to struggle through a few sentences anyway.
I am telling about my experience meeting my host family in Kazan’ as a contrast to meeting my family in St. Petersburg. Since we had a weekend in a hotel before we met our host families, we had the opportunity to adjust to the time (although, since I was in Lithuania before I went there, I was only an hour behind) and to start anticipating the meeting of our host families. I remember as the program coordinators were walking around with the papers of the families that had already arrived, I felt my heart start beating faster as I waited to be handed a paper that told me my host family was waiting for me. We hadn’t even been allowed to know the names of our host families until we arrived in St. Petersburg that Friday, so it was very soon after learning their names that we had to meet them.

In the car on the way to where my host parents live, my new host-mother seemed to call everyone she knew and tell them that I had arrived. She probably didn’t call very many people, but having just met her it seemed like a lot to me.

I wrote in a previous post about the amount of luggage I have been carrying around (thankfully it now will sit in one place for a few months). When we arrived at the apartment building where my host parents live, I of course was not allowed to carry either of my suitcases upstairs. I am very thankful for the help when I get it, especially when I have been traveling for a while, but this is my luggage to carry around, and it is sort of awkward when other people insist on helping. I am the one who brought this much stuff (although I had to since I didn’t go home in between the summer and fall programs). The part that makes it even more uncomfortable for me is that while I have been abroad, the top handle on one of my suitcases broke, so I always pick it up from the side handle whenever it needs to be lifted, but other people obviously don’t know to do this.

The first night I was there, they had a huge dinner set out on the table. All of the typical dishes that appear at a Russian meal were included, such as salad, soup and bread, but the table was full of food. There was barely room to set the dishes that we would actually eat from. Of course this was a welcome dinner, and I knew I wouldn’t be eating dinners like this every night, but it was nice of them to start with that. My host mom served me champagne (I had the choice of champagne, wine and vodka, and I had class the next morning), I chose champagne.

In the United States it is typical to toast maybe only once or twice while sitting at the table with people. Otherwise it is common to just slowly sip a glass of wine independently from what other people are doing.  In Russia, it is very strange for anyone to drink alcohol alone, especially a female. We were told that when people drink with their friends, the reason is always to be social. It is common to cheer before every drink taken from a glass. Russian toasts are also different. In the United States it is common for people to clink their glasses and say something like, “cheers,” or, “to friendship,” but in Russia this won’t work. Toasts can be as long or short as they want to be, but they are often more meaningful than the short statements said in the United States.

These are how the toasts went the first night there. At first I didn’t have another drink to drink with my food, so I had to wait every time until my host mom decided it was time for another toast to take a sip of my champagne. Thankfully they eventually offered me another drink, which I didn’t hesitate to accept. Russian women, especially mothers, like to be good hostesses and make sure people are well fed. By the end of the dinner I had no interest even in drinking a cup of tea. I almost never refuse tea, but in this instance I decided it was better to wait until the next day to drink tea.

The next morning, after breakfast, my host dad took me to my institute. There is one trolleybus that runs directly from where I am staying to near enough to where the institute is located, for me to walk. There are others that run close enough to walk if I want to walk for 40 minutes, which I wouldn’t mind, but as it is, it takes me an hour to get to the institute by trolleybus on a good day. I have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to make it to my 10:00 classes on time. I am a morning person, so I don’t mind getting up early, but since I live in an apartment with thin walls, and the bathroom and shower room are located down the hall, I can’t really get up earlier than 7:30 because I don’t want to wake my host parents up.

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(Some friends and I stopped by a park on one of the first days because we wanted to see it while it was still green)

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(Another picture from the park)

As I have continued to use this trolleybus and other forms of transportation in St. Petersburg, I have found that this trolleybus, unfortunately, runs on a very irregular schedule. I have waited for it for 40 minutes sometimes (after class, I wouldn’t have time to wait this long in the morning). In the morning, I leave my apartment around 8:30 so that I have time to wait, but if the trolleybus I want still doesn’t come, I take the other one that passes through the same bus station because it shows up more frequently, and then have to make a transfer to another trolleybus when I am halfway to the institute. One of the reasons I am willing to wait so long for this one trolleybus is because public transportation in Russia does not work the same as it does where I live. Every time I make a transfer (for example, from one bus to another, or from the metro to a bus) I have to pay separately for each new leg of the journey, and even though one ride on a bus does not cost much, riding public transportation every day at least twice a day quickly adds up.

On the first day at the institute, I don’t think we actually had any classes. We had a meeting, although, the meeting was not very important and the only purpose it served was as an introduction to the institute and to introduce some of the people who work with CIEE who we had not met before. After the meeting, we were all ushered into various rooms to take our placement tests. I remember sitting there, trying to at least make an educated guess concerning the questions I didn’t know, and the people taking the test around me, talking. I was too distracted, so for a while I just sat there with my test open, waiting for people to finish so they would leave. This of course meant that it took me longer to finish my test, but I never like to rush through tests, if I read each question carefully, I am less likely to make unnecessary mistakes.

That first morning before I left for the institute, my host parents wrote down which metro line I should use, what stop the apartment is closest to and which forms of transportation will take me from the metro to the apartment since I live all the way out on the edge of the island and the metro doesn’t actually go there. Of course I forgot about it during the whirlwind of that first day. After the test they rushed us through a short tour of the institute and on to a metro station to buy transportation cards and activate phones for those who had not yet been able to. By the time we finished with all of the necessary activities, we were all very hungry so we went to a Georgian food café. (In Russia, places with food are not called “restaurants” unless they are really fancy and expensive. I have made the mistake of telling my host mom I was at a restaurant with friends, when it would have been considered a café by Russian standards).

I decided to take the metro that day because we were too far from where my bus was for me to walk back to it. I got off at the wrong metro stop of course, and walked around for at least half an hour trying to figure out what my next step was. I had decided to get off at this metro station because google maps told me there was a bus stop not far from there, but I couldn’t seem to find it. Although I was tired and frustrated by getting lost on the first real day in the city, the experience has continued to help me orient myself whenever I venture into this area of the city because the area where I got lost is on a very well-known and popular street. I told my host parents that I had gotten lost because I forgot about the paper they gave me, so my host mom decided she would take the metro with me the next day so I could see how it worked. I was pretty sure I had it figured out by then, but she insisted and I couldn’t refuse.

That night, one of the program coordinators texted us with the groups we had tested into. Even with the group information, we were confused because the levels were named in the opposite order than they would be in the United States, and the program coordinators did not tell us the equivalents of the class levels in terms of universities at home.

Tuesday was our first day of classes, but I only had one class that day because we started language classes the first week and electives were introduced in the second week. The whole first week had a completely irregular schedule, so none of us knew what the full class load would be like until a couple of weeks into the program. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that my second friend from the bus tour had tested into the same level that I did. On Wednesday we didn’t have class because only electives take place on Wednesdays. As the week progressed and we attended our various language classes, the class of 9 people was able to hear the various levels of effort put into properly pronouncing Russian words. (Those of us in the language program are split up into groups of about 10 people. Within those groups we take Grammar, Conversation and Phonetics classes together, so I rotate to these three classes within that group of 9 students). My friend from the bus probably has the worst pronunciation of Russian I have ever heard. He sounds like he is trying to speak Russian with an American-English accent, so it is very difficult to understand him. I know my pronunciation isn’t perfect, but I do try to put some effort into it, and improve. He doesn’t even try to improve.

The first week was filled with fumbling around in a new city, getting adjusted to one and a half hour long classes, and figuring out who one wants to spend their time with outside of classes. Although I was in Russia over the summer, my experience this first week was still very disorienting. St. Petersburg is a very different city than Kazan’, which means it has the potential to hold vastly different experiences. I am looking forward to these experiences, and I will try my hardest to keep my blog updated as I enter into another busy program.

Ice Cream and Rinoks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.