The Day of Expiration

17/05/15

On the 17th my Russian visa, which had been extended the previous semester, expired. After something like this you cannot feel physically different, but the mental realization was kind of shocking. Russia, and specifically St. Petersburg, had been my home for so long and for such a significant time in my life, and I was leaving the city behind without a notion of when I would be able to return. Who knows when I will be back? But I promised everyone that I would return, including myself.

I had a few rubles leftover, so I decided to buy a bottle of good vodka (0.5 liters) to take to my friend who I would see in Barcelona. The first night in Barcelona I stayed in a hostel because my friend had another friend visiting her and could not host two people at once.

I arrived in Barcelona at the airport at about 8 am. As I was going through passport control, I was stopped because they asked my for my return flight information. At that point I did not have any flight beyond Barcelona booked, so I could tell them when I was leaving the European Union, but I could not give them documents confirming what I said. Normally this is not a problem when flying into the EU, but there are certain cities that are more interested in such information. We all know the rules concerning travel, so it really should not be a problem, but after getting to know more about Barcelona I understood why. At passport control they took my passport and made me sit off to the side for about 10 minutes, then someone came to talk to me and give my passport back, but I was immediately let through. They did stamp my passport, but it makes me wonder if they put a flag on my passport or something, although I doubt it. I have never broken the law, so they would have no reason to. I don’t know why they needed it for so long, but at least it was returned to me.

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(Coming in for landing)

After entering the luggage carrousel area of the airport and picking up my checked bag, the first thing I did was try to withdraw money because I needed cash for transportation as well as paying for the hostel upon my arrival. There were two ATMs right next to each other, so I tried one a couple times, then the other and was a little worried that they didn’t work. I decided to go online to try to check my bank account to see if there was a problem, but this was easier said than done. My phone had updated a few weeks before and ever since the update it has trouble connecting to free wifi, which has proved to be very frustrating because I have no data plan abroad and internet is pretty important when trying to find your way around another city, much less another country. (But, of course, people managed this before wifi as well)

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(Not the most beautiful area of the coastline)

Finally I did manage to connect to the internet, only to receive an email warning that there was unusual activity on my card. I realized I had forgotten to tell the bank I was traveling after I completed my program in Russia. I had only warned them I would be abroad until May 17th, and then the plan was for me to go home (the plan that had been created before I left the United States in June). I quickly let the bank know that the attempts to use my card were not due to fraud, and then set a travel alert on my bank account to let them know where else I was planning to travel. After I overcame this headache, I was immediately able to withdraw money and move onto the next headache of trying to find my way to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I had purposely booked a hostel located about a 15 minute walk from where my friend had told me she lived in Barcelona so that I would not have to struggle to get my bags onto additional transportation to get there.

The directions the hostel gave if one wanted to use public transportation and not pay for a taxi required a person to make two transfers on the transportation. First, from bus to metro, and then from metro to tram. I decided before I started my journey that this was a bit excessive, so I went to ask information how to get to the hostel to see if they had another option. It seemed that they did – a transfer simply from one bus to another.

I went on my way (paying the bus driver with a 20 euro note. In Russia he probably would not have let me ride the bus, but I didn’t have anything smaller because I had just withdrawn money) and found myself at the main plaza (sort of a giant roundabout) where I would make a transfer to the next bus. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as the lady at information had described. The plaza had bus stops on every connecting street, so I went around in a circle from street to street, with all of my luggage, checking the bus stops and trying to figure out the map of transportation to see if my bus would be there. (In addition to walking around with my luggage, I was still wearing the jeans and light jacket I had donned the night before when I was headed to the airport in St. Petersburg, so I was very warm). The bus stop I wanted was not there as far as I could tell. In the end I decided to try the metro. I am used to using the metro in Russia. I know the one in St. Petersburg very well, and I can get around on the one in Moscow too, and after traveling on so many in the winter I thought it wouldn’t be a problem for me to take this one. What I found was a mess. The entrances weren’t clear, so I ended up carrying (not rolling) my luggage through a mess of underground passageways, up and down stairs, that were supposed to be “convenient connections.” I did eventually make it to the right area and found my way to the tram. Getting on the tram was pretty straightforward, but after getting off, I got lost again.

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(At the first plaza)

The directions after getting off the tram seemed pretty straightforward. Normally I think I am pretty capable of getting around alone and reading a map, since I have had to do this multiple times without a GPS, but I have to get lost sometimes, otherwise I won’t learn. At the end of the tram was another roundabout that I ended up walking around, with all of my luggage with me as well. I finally did find the correct street I was looking for and made it to the hostel where I would be staying for the night. I walked in the front door and found, as with many European hostels, the hostel was on the second floor, so I had to walk up the stairs with all of my luggage. I don’t like taking multiple trips if I don’t have to, so backpack on my back, 50 pounds in one hand and the carry-on in the other; I made my way up the narrow stairs. They heard me coming as the bag occasionally hit the wall, but I made it.

I found reception at the top. A man was working there at the time when I arrived (in his late 20’s); he took one look at me and understood that I was tired (after staying up all night for the plane ride, and then walking around for a while with my luggage, how could I not be). Unfortunately the beds weren’t ready because they were still cleaning the rooms and changing the sheets, but at least I was able to sit in one place.

As I mentioned before, I was stopped at passport control, so I decided that since I could not sleep, that this would be a good time to start booking the rest of my trip. At this point (one May 17th) I only had my trip figured out until May 26th.

Finally the bed was ready, so the rest of my day was spent taking a long nap. The hostel I stayed at was called “Dream Cube.” The beds were such that we basically slept in our own cubes. The room I was in probably had 6 beds, but each bed had a curtain that shut out the light and separated you from the rest of the people in the room. It was very nice to have these curtains since I wanted to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The hostel was very comfortable, and I would recommend it if you choose to travel to Barcelona.

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(My shadow in the hot sun with my luggage and light jacket)

When I finally woke up, it was much later. This was my first time staying in a hostel by myself because when I traveled alone in Lithuania, I chose to stay with hosts. People traveling in groups bigger than 2 are intimidating to people who choose to travel alone, because I have been in those groups, and unless you approach others, people won’t bother you. Traveling alone you make your friends along the way and go see sights with people from the hostel if you choose. Since I was only in the Barcelona hostel for one night, the social aspect was not as important, but I ended up speaking with fellow hostel-stayers as well as the man working there, for hours. The man was Catalan – the cultural group that is native to Barcelona. He was very nice, so I did not get the initial experience of the Catalan people that I later understood them to be.

The man working there offered me some of his soup, which I decided to try because I think at this point in the day the only thing I had eaten was a bag of peanuts, and it was also too late to go out and buy groceries, not that I really wanted to because I was only there for one night. It was apparently a traditional Catalan summer soup. It was cold and really good in the heat. Although I am from California and warm weather is usually very normal for me, I was not used to the heat anymore because in Russia it had still been cool enough that I often needed a light jacket, and I had not even been out of Russia for 24 hours at this point.

I did end up meeting some very interesting people at this hostel and really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately I will not stay in touch with them because it was a brief meeting, and you cannot stay in touch with everyone. One conversation I remember having was with a guy, who I believe was from Chile. He was studying in Holland and traveling with a friend he met there. We had a conversation about South American names and how they tend to use both last names from their parents, as well as remembering a few names back on the father’s side of the family. He said if you did not do this, you would never know that you might be related to someone. This is part of the reason why in films from this area of the world the names are so long, but not the only reason. He mentioned that in these films, often a person would add a religious phrase, which would make their name even longer and sound more complicated or interesting.

We had many interesting conversations, but unfortunately it was too long ago now for me to remember.

Since I had slept earlier I ended up staying up later than most people there, but at least without people to talk to I got some work done.

It’s Never Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.