The End of the Semester

19/12/14

Today is actually the 24th that I am writing this. I figure I am already four days into my winter break trip, and the days are flying by so I need to start writing my blog before I fall behind. I know, I know, it’s Christmas Eve, but what better present to give you, than to share my adventures with you because I cannot give you anything else at this point.

I am going to start from the beginning, back when I was still in St. Petersburg.

The night of the 19th, some good friends, who I had met over this last semester, and I went out for a rather fancy goodbye meal at a restaurant called “Gogol,” named after the famous Ukrainian writer. The whole restaurant was set up in the theme of a flat from the 19th century, with each room having a different theme. Pieces from his stories were also pulled into the restaurant as added decoration. The menu was even in the form of a book and although we used the English version where the translation did not hold the same charm, the waitress explained that often customers would keep the menu during the meal just to read it from cover to cover. We ate in the dining room I think, but there was also a library as well as some other rooms. The meal included a variety of dishes, differing slightly for every person. We started with drinks, splitting a large bottle of water (because you have to pay for water in Russia) and ordering some of their homemade, flavored vodka to try. The two flavors of vodka we tried were something like raspberry and buckthorn. I don’t remember completely now because it was five days ago and so much has happened since then. I definitely liked the raspberry one better, but most people preferred the buckthorn. For our first course, many of us ordered salads. It was actual dark green leaves, sort of like a spring mix (hard to come by in Russia for a salad from my experience), with some sort of cheese, tomato and a smoked meet of some sort that they said they smoked in the kitchen of the restaurant. The meat on the salad was something new, but it was actually very good and very worth it. Other first courses that were ordered included borscht and pelmeni. For the main course most of the people in attendance decided on a dish called Chicken Kiev, which I, not being a very fond of chicken, had never tried. I had the opportunity to try a bite from one of my friend’s plates and I can see where other people might enjoy it, but it is definitely not a dish I will order for myself. Another one of my friends ordered Beef Stroganoff, which I also got to try. It was actually pretty good and, of course, dill was used in the dish. Personally, I ordered venison with apples and some sort of sauce (I don’t recall what it was) that was very good and purple. My meal was delicious, although not everyone enjoyed their meals as much. I was too full for dessert so I did not order anything, but among my friends such dishes as chocolate cake with sorbet, strawberry soup and another kind of sorbet from something none of us had ever tried.

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(The salad)

I mentioned dill was in the beef stroganoff, accompanied by the phrase “of course.” It is common knowledge, at least from my point of view, that foreigners, who spend enough time in Russia, realize that Russian’s put dill on everything. For example, one of our program directors, Liz, told us a story about when she made a grilled cheese sandwich and let some of her Russian friends try it. It had been after a long time of just having Russian food and she finally made a grilled cheese sandwich and was so excited to have something familiar and share it with her Russian friends. They tried it and agreed that it was good, but said, “Liz, this is good, but you know what would make it so much better? Dill!” Her reaction was of course immediate disappointment and sadness that her friends would want to taint something like a grilled cheese sandwich with dill.

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(My venison)

Back to my story on Friday night. I over think things and get anxious about what needs to be done sometimes and I had not packed for the impending journey that started the next day, so as the meal went on and it got later, I enjoyed every bit of it, but I started feeling the need to get home. I did not want to rush my friends, but I knew I needed to leave so that I could pack and have some peace of mind before I left my current home (in St. Petersburg) for another adventure. The bill came out to 10,000 rubles for 7 people, which was maybe $170 at the time. Definitely a bit above the price range I would normally pay for a meal.

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(Pretty lights on my way home)

That night while all of my friends spent their last night out enjoying each other’s company, I stayed in and packed. I wasn’t concerned about saying goodbye to my host-parents because I know I will be staying with them again come spring semester. They had company over on my last night in St. Petersburg for that semester anyway, so obviously they weren’t concerned. However, once they found out that I had finished finals (5 finals in 2 days), which I had actually finished the day before, my host mom quickly went and got something. It turned out to be a small bag of socks and underwear, which she presented to me in front of her guests. I did not quite understand, but she said it was some sort of tradition to give these gifts when someone finishes finals. I have tried to look it up online with no luck, so maybe it is a joke? When I have better internet I will message my host-mom in Kazan’ since she speaks English too, to ask her if she knows, although she is Tatar, so we will see.

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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.

50litas

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).

Picture

(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.