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.

Waiting

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I remember when I used to think I didn’t dream. It’s not that I didn’t dream, it’s just that I didn’t remember them because everyone dreams. Now I remember them, but it’s only splinters. Pieces that have broken off from the dream to imbed themselves in my memory, and like splinters are painful; it is often the painful part of my dreams that stay with me. I wake up and I think something terrible has happened that makes me have to get another HIV test. Maybe the paper was wrong again, but this time I am out of time. I can’t get another test and a new certificate. My visa haunts me in my sleep, it sits on the edge of my happiness and claws its way into my dreams. Dreams? No. These are not dreams anymore, they are nightmares.

HIV tests aren’t particularly scary. You have some blood drawn and the blood goes to the lab. The results are given back to you very quickly. One day, two days, three days if it takes a long time, and then you can hand your certificate to the lady at the visa center, you smile and you walk away because everything is finished. You have no more paperwork that is your responsibility. It’s just the waiting. The waiting is the worst. Now that you have carried that responsibility with you for months it is hard to let it go, but you have to. You have to put your trust, like another sheet, inside that stack of documents as you hand them over.

If it did not cost so much I would have processed my visa in five days just so I could avoid the waiting. But now, all I can do is find distractions. What can I do to distract myself now, I wonder. Each new day means I need a new set of distractions, but each new night I am free to think, to worry, and the most dangerous, “what if…” I lay in bed awake for a while and think, and then I fall asleep still thinking. That’s when the nightmares come. There are no more distractions while I am sleeping, and I have to let the worry come that I keep at bay during the day. It comes and usually I don’t remember, but sometimes a piece gets stuck. A splinter. The fear.

People often say, “You must be having the time of your life,” and “You must be so excited to go to St. Petersburg,” but, no I am not. All I can do is wait. I don’t live in the future and I don’t live in the past, but dwell in the present. Presently I am so grateful and happy to be where I am, but on the other side I am waiting. These people, they don’t understand that I have been working for this and waiting for this, and I am sick. I am not sick of waiting, I am sick with waiting, and now that sickness is in my dreams. They are called nightmares.

My friend once told someone I had just been introduced to, “She’s obsessed with Russia.” I knew then that my friend didn’t know me as well as she should.

When you spend so much time and energy working for one goal, when you throw yourself into everything you need to do to reach that point, that goal consumes you. It takes your time and it takes your mind. There are endless applications for scholarships, for programs, to study abroad, and you are always thinking about them. There are meetings with professors, with the Dean, with the people who run the study abroad office, with the people running the program, and you are always worrying about them. There are the complaints, the tears, smiles, feelings of being crushed and uplifted, and they are always with you.

I did not choose an easy path for myself, but I knew what I wanted to do. I remember still, walking into the study abroad office at my school. One of the women who runs the office was telling me about the study abroad website and how to apply. I don’t need this, I thought, applications are usually self-explanatory and straightforward, so why am I here.  I soon found out. “Where do you want to go?” she asked me kindly. Russia, of course Russia, that’s where I have been planning to go for years. She asked what semester I wanted to go. I was confused. Isn’t there an option to study abroad for the whole year? Not in the program to Russia. That echoes in my head, not in the program to Russia. I had to find a way to fulfill my dream of studying abroad for a year, even if it wasn’t part of the school’s typical policy. I had to. How many meetings, conversations, essays, letters of recommendation, professors, how many did it take? I don’t know because I couldn’t count. I spent so much time working on it, that now I talk about it, I think about it, I dream about it, and right now I don’t know how not to. Then someone who I thought new me, called me obsessed.

Think before you use this word please, it does not have good connotations. It is a word that young teenagers use when they are obsessed with a certain band, or obsessed with doing their hair. They use it until they realize what it really means.

This may make me sound like a sad person, or someone who is so worried that they have forgotten how to be happy, but I assure I am not either of those. I am generally a happy person, and I love to live in the present, but right now I am also a waiting person.

An Attempt with More Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First Visa Attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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