Updates

The things that have happened in the last 33 days.

I went to Moscow. I saw the circus. I rode the metro. I read the street signs (poorly). I got frozen feet at the Kremlin. I fell in love with St. Basil’s. I still sit and stare at its picture sometimes.

I went to St. Petersburg. I got lost in the Hermitage. I danced in the snow. I saw the ballet. I wrote a poem at Dostoevsky’s apartment (poorly). I read Crime and Punishment in the window over Nevsky Prospekt. I did not try the vodka. It was not delicious.

I broke my laptop. I got help from a roommate, a native and a taxi driver to get it fixed. I got cozy in the computer lab. I learned how dependent I am on electronic journals. I realized how much I appreciate Skype.

I went to Rome. I ate gelato. I ate ravioli. I cried in the Sistine Chapel. I walked to the Colosseum—but remained locked out. I wished in Trevi Fountain—and my wish came true. I rode a train, plane, bus, automobile, metro. I got very lost and very saved by three people who made me understand the word “godsend.” I apologized to everyone in Lithuanian instead of Italian.

I saw a show at Klaipeda’s theater. I bought tickets on my own, in Lithuanian. I bought intermission snacks, in Lithuanian. I explained to the usher I was in the right seat, in Lithuanian…but I told her my seat number nine was duodi. Devyni means “nine.” Duodi means “bread.”

I ate Thanksgiving dinner two days late. I had beef instead of turkey. I ate with Ukrainians instead of Americans. I had no leftovers. The meal was wonderful.

I shopped on jamam, which is Black Friday but Black Saturday and marked by the general trend of shopping rather than Thanksgiving. I bought presents…for me. I made up for it later by going to the amber market later and buying real gifts for other people.

I drank at least 20 cups of tea.

I sent at least a dozen postcards.

I felt more at home and more homesick, at different times, than I’ve felt all semester. I was blessed and humbled by the generosity of friends and strangers alike. I spent the bulk of my stipend on foods and gifts. I’ve become all the more grateful for people who care about me, and for people I care about. On this side of the world and back home.

My last half is halfway down, and it’s been the most full so far. I can see the end, and it’s exciting, but so is being here. So I will be here a little longer, and be grateful for every day I get.

Bus 15

In retrospect, I was already trying to find a coffee shop I couldn’t remember the name of on a street sorta near one I was pretty sure I knew; maybe adding a bus that that mix wasn’t the most solid idea. But the one-lita tickets were already in my wallet and Sheldon (my laptop) was getting heavy, so I figured riding a stop or five down into old town Kalipeda couldn’t hurt. I was already on the street I needed; it would save me time, and I needed all the time I could get to write this draft for Biblical Interpretation due in two-point-five hours. It wasn’t going to write itself. That’s what the previous two nights indicated, anyway.

Which buses go into old town again? Six, eight, fourteen for sure. Three comes back this way, I’m assuming then it goes out too. What other numbers have I seen coming back. Two, maybe? And fifteen? Five’s a bad bet, I’ve seen fives but five doesn’t feel right.

I check the times: six, eight and fourteen just left. Two has ten more minutes; fifteen about three. Unless it just left too? The buses are notoriously on time here; maybe it’s more so than I am.

A bus rolls up: five. I’ve seen fives heading up and down the streets I frequent, but nothing solid enough to make me take it. Five rolls off.

Another pulls up. Fifteen. I’ve seen fifteens coming out of town before. Maybe they go in too?

The people shuffling forward and the heaviness of my book bag on my shoulder convince me. Fifteen is a good bet.

Fifteen boards up and closes its doors and pulls away from the shoulder. And doesn’t squeeze into the left lanes. Normally not a problem, except the right lane just turned into an offramp with signs reading things like “Palanaga” and “Kaunus.” I just need the coffee shop downtown…to the south…somewhere…

Instead, I sit and watch my street disappear under me as fifteen loops up and around, onto the offramp and over a bridge, heading due east.

Oops.

Okay, what do I know about how buses work? The come and they go on the same routes. So that’s okay, I’ll find another shop and cross the street when I’m done with my work.

Two, three stops. I spot a café. Not bad, but three stops isn’t worth it. No use wasting a perfectly good wrong bus ride. I ride out some more.

Four, five stops. A park stretches to my right, bordering—is that a river? How come no one on campus has ever mentioned it? No comfortably distanced bus stops on the other side, though. Plus a park won’t have anything to eat. Hmm. I’ll spot something else.

Six, seven, eight stops. The city’s becoming increasingly industrial. Shops and cafés have all but disappeared; auto body shops and office buildings take their place. Maybe there are no coffee shops to be found on this side of town. Maybe I can ride until fifteen takes me back into town.

Nine, stops—or is it ten now? We’re still heading east? This road just sprouted a divider—how am I going to cross? When does this bus turn around?

Eleven stops. Uh oh.

Twelve stops and finally—I spot a Pica Express on the other side. Not a coffee shop, but pizza and a place to sit can do. Also it looks like—a thrift store? And letters on the building listing it as some a shopping center, I think. Is my Lithuanian right? It looks like old apartments, but the number of people coming in and out of the buildings suggest otherwise.

I look across the street: a returning bus stop and a crosswalk to get to it.

Sold.

I got off fifteen, and got much more than just a place to sit and grab some food. The old apartment buildings have been turned into its own little hodgepodge shopping center, with various fast food-ish restaurants, tons of thrift stores and a tiny street market lining the main area into the place. Walk through and there’s a little sunny square full of very old people and very young people, walking and talking and enjoying their sunny Tuesday afternoon.

I browsed the thrift shops and stuck my head into all the restaurants, delis and bakeries I could find. I checked out the fruit and homebrewed honey at the street market—might have to return for some of that. I wandered up stairs, trying to find the weird old apartment entrances to the stores I could see through the windows.

I abandoned studying and Pica Express for a kebabas stand and a Coke. I ate it in the square, in the sun, eavesdropping on two old women. (They spoke Lithuanian, but whomever they were talking about was clearly quite interesting.) I never did break out Sheldon: my lessons for that afternoon would be in navigation, apparently.

I got the wrong bus, the wrong lunch, the wrong things accomplished. Now I have a coffee shop and a kebabas stand to revisit. Plus perhaps a park, a street market and a plethora of thrift shops. And they’re accessible by bus stop…so long as that bus stop includes bus fifteen.

Not bad for a failed afternoon.

Privyet

(This is weird. I don’t usually write poetry and I sure as heck don’t usually share poetry but I came up with this when I was supposed to be studying for my trip to Moscow(!) next week and I donno, when you’re all lovesick-crazy you get ideas like Hey Putting This On My Blog Would Be Good so that’s what I’m doing. If you like it, great, and if you don’t, well, it’s not written for you anyway.)

***
Privyet, spaciba, pazhalista

Ya ne ponimayo why I got here without you.

Study the Russian, they say,

Quiz on Monday

You get in what you put out

So put out and learn the Russian

Fail to fail this cultural experience

But how can I study Russian

When all the phrases in my head

are spoken

by

you

And all the synapses I try to make

are reset

towards

you

And why fill spots

with something like vocab

When they could be filled

with your voice

and hands

and name and face and future

This world is full of important things

And right now

Russian isn’t one of them.

Mopey Posts

Considering what blogging habits were before coming here, I guess 15 days between posts isn’t that bad. But considering how bad I am at posting pictures of my time abroad and how Thinking and Talking About Things often feels like the only way I can process or share this experience, I’m frustrated at myself. Both for not posting and for the reasons I didn’t post.

I haven’t felt very present in Lithuania these last two weeks. I graduate next semester and have a lot to do and some very big changes to look forward to once that happens, and those changes have been on my mind a lot since October started. As such, I’ve been going through my routine here with one (or both) eyes always focused on home.

Knowing this experience is temporary, that my next steps (and many of the significant players in it) lie somewhere else, makes me want to simultaneously squeeze all I can out of this semester and avoid (or maybe just not bother) getting too attached. I’m not sure how to best handle my time abroad—am I a student? A tourist? A part of this community, however temporary?—and in my confusion, I often feel like I’m squandering it. (Another study abroad, Buddy Hocutt, wrote a much more eloquent post about this the second week we were here. I don’t know if he’s still as confused as I am, but he explains the question on how to interact here well.)

Yet at the same time, I feel extremely blessed to have something to return to. I’m not having a hard time here because I don’t like it here; I’m having a hard time here because my identity isn’t here. If I were staying in Klaipeda, I’d throw myself into it the way I threw myself into Fox. It’s tough, because adjusting to a new environment is always tough, but it’s not miserable. LCC’s classes, company and city are all pretty good. But my friends, my family, my future are (currently) in the United States…and honestly, I’m eager to get back to them.

I’m glad I came, but I’m equally glad I didn’t know how it would feel before I got here. I don’t know if I’d have mustered the guts to do it then. But then, that in and of itself has taught me a little more about who I am and what I care about and how I might best handle the rest of my living in this crazy world.

If only I can figure out what how to best handle these next two-point-five months.

Tourist Lessons

This weekend gave the Study Abroad students at LCC a reprieve from being students and a chance to be tourists again for three days. And it felt pretty dang good. All 29 of us got on a bus and spent two days in Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia; I also managed to ride the coattails of master planner and fellow study abroad Abby Korthals to squeeze in a day trip to Helsinki, Finland on the side.

It was exhausting, it was fleeting, it was fun, and like every other event this semester, it taught me a lot. Unlike daily life at the LCC, however, this trip had less to do with the serious, relationship- and culture-driven aspects of travel and more to do with the whiz-bang tourist level of travel. Some of those tourist lessons are jotted here.

1)    Your study abroad advisor may suggest an amount of money to bring. If you just need to stay alive, that amount is fine. If you want to do anything besides that (like shop, visit a museum or eat a real lunch), you might want to bring a little more.

2)    Some hostels are for resting. Some are for partying. If you can figure out which one yours is beforehand, do so and plan accordingly. There’s sure as heck nothing wrong with a hostel that sits right above a salsa club, enticing you to party all night. It’s just nice to know it’s coming, if only so you can get some sleep beforehand and go party all night.

3)    Passport stamps aren’t really a thing anymore. Sorry. Dry your eyes and move on.

4)    Unless you want dozens (or hundreds) of strangers with passports and cameras crashing your wedding, don’t get married at a public landmark. Cathedrals are beautiful, but they’re also on all the tourists’ maps.

5)    Speaking of cathedrals, if you’re going to take pictures, do it discreetly. For the love of God. Or at least for the love of the other people around you. Because God may love you no matter what, but some of his all-too-human worshipers think you’re freaking. annoying.

6)    The only creatures castle walls attract more than tourists are pigeons. Move slowly, lest there be a lot of mutual panicking going on.

7)    Read the travel guides you’re given, especially if you’re in Eastern Europe. They’re hilarious. And they’ll tell you about every night club in the city, in case you’re interested in making that your scene.

8)    Yes, you will look like a maniac if you bolt off the ferry the second it reaches port. But if it helps you snag the first taxi out of the port at 18:30 to catch your international bus at 19:00, swallow your pride and run like mad.

9)    Pancakes are the cheapest food.

10) Go to the top of every tower. Their views are the best reminders of why you just endured hours and hours of travel and trekking to see this part of the world.

American President, Ukrainian President

Nothing makes me want to vote less than doing research on this season’s American candidates.

Nothing makes me want to vote more than talking to my Ukrainian roommates.

One of them caught up with me on my way back from putting my absentee ballot application in the mail. “You’re voting from outside the country?” My brief explanation of the American ballot system evolved into a conversation about what little about American politics we both knew. She asked my impressions of the candidates and shared her own; I described what I could out of my own (incomplete) observations and opinions.

The extent of my cynicism became clear even to me as I explained: “I think most Americans are voting for one candidate or the other not because they like them, but because they don’t like the other even more.”

She nodded, and mentioned no one is happy with the government in Ukraine either. But no one is going to vote, because voting isn’t going to change it.

The power structure in Ukraine is corrupt. About a week before putting my ballot in the mail, I and one other American student had sat stunned as we listened to my roommates describe the scandals, deceit and death knolls that plague Ukraine’s election season. The men in power have been in power for a long time, and will probably remain that way.

It’s dangerous to be a political newcomer in Ukraine. At best, your opponents will set you up to look foolish, then use their own paparazzi and media sources to condemn you in the papers. Serving drinks at a party, then leading guests into staged situations where they can’t react as sharply is a common strategy.

At worst, if you still don’t go away, accidents might happen. Car accidents, specifically: “They’re hard to prove it was intentional.” And even if someone did go seeking proof, legal cooperation would be hard to find: The KGB lives on in Ukraine. Under a different name, but with the same sort of relationship with the government—and the people.

And of course, the ballot box is more a prop than a tool for democracy.

“The people are hopeless,” my roommate reiterated. “They have no hope. They know their voting won’t change anything, and they don’t feel like they can change anything.”

I asked her what she thought it would take to change something in Ukraine. She explained the last revolution was in 2005, but it didn’t get very far and with such a “hopeless” population, it would take awhile before anyone could be rallied into stirring things up again.

The phrase “your vote counts” is a popular one in the States. But that phrase never clicked with me until I talked to someone whose vote doesn’t.

The men vying to become America’s new president are not stellar candidates. They’re both tweaking statements to appeal to whatever majority they think they’ve found. They’re both making promises they can’t keep. They’re both making a mess and inheriting a mess, and no matter who wins, they’ll remain entrenched in the power plays and politics that make up running a country (whether in the leading role or as a supporting character).

But they are not tyrants either. American voters are not afraid of their leaders. Our presidents don’t use force to keep the control they’ve seized once their contract is up (and despite the alarmist rhetoric out there, I don’t think they’re about to start). Our candidates are eliminated by primaries, not car crashes.

Our system isn’t changing, but it’s for reasons very different than the ones in Ukraine.

I can’t say I feel optimistic about casting a ballot this season, but I’m certainly more grateful and humble than I was when I arrived in Eastern Europe. Whoever wins this election, it’s at least going to a candidate aware of his limitations, accountability and responsibility to the people.

Not every citizen is that lucky.

Eastern European Hair Talk

New rule: new friends aren’t allowed to look at pictures of me that are more than two years old. More specifically, new friends aren’t allowed to look at prom pictures. Prom pictures, as it turns out, give a very inaccurate picture of who I actually am. Or at least what I actually look like.

I looked great at my prom. I probably looked better on my prom night than I have during any other point in my 20-year-old life. I don’t claim this out of conceit; I claim it because it’s true. A bittersweet truth, because I never looked that good beforehand, and I certainly haven’t looked that good since. I have neither the motivation nor the know-how to create my prom-self again.

But my Ukrainian suitemate didn’t know that the night she came into my room to talk. I was asking her about her travel experiences and her impressions of American culture, and she mentioned how much she loves “American prom.” We talked about the dresses and the dances, and I decided to pull up an old Facebook album of my own prom to show off a bit (and clarify some descriptions I was shooting for, because while my vocabulary is decent, Dress Terminology isn’t one of my strong suits). The gushing commenced, then a comment was made:

“Your hair—it used to be long? It’s beautiful! Why did you cut it short? Have you grown it back out? You should grow it back out. Seriously.”

“Seriously,” the word used over and over again. It wasn’t a suggestion: she was insistent. There was, apparently, no reason for me to cut my hair short and keep it short when I could have it long.

“Not that you don’t look fine now, but seriously, it’s like a Before and After picture,” she went on, gesturing towards the screen at my 18-year-old self as the after part of the equation.

“Thanks…I think.”

I tried to explain it only looked nice in that picture because that was the one time I bothered making it nice for a special event; more often than not it looks boring and unkempt when it’s long because I never style it.

“Well then start styling it!” was her response. “You’re a woman, you’re supposed to like doing things with your hair.”

For most of that evening, her comments rolled around in my head. They were good-natured, I have no doubt of that, and also pretty amusing. But they also made me a bit shakey about how I’m “perceived” here—because I’ve recognized I’m way behind the curve when it comes to feminine aesthetics in eastern Europe. The women here take great care in their appearance, even if it’s just to head to class for a few hours. Heels, hairstyles, and make-up are commonplace, five days a week. Even jeans are usually dressed up with a blouse and some jewelry. I’ve been doing my best to dress up my own jeans with the few blouses and pieces of jewelry I’ve packed, but most of the stuff with me (heck, most of the stuff I own) has more to do with convenience, travel and comfort than style.

My hair is no exception. Here’s the problem: I give, and have always given, zero shits about my hair. I’m not even sure where to get shits to give about my hair. A best friend haranguing me in high school didn’t work. Two boyfriends didn’t work. Secretly wishing I looked like Tina Fey (and/or the short-haired version of Rapunzel) didn’t work. The desire is there, but it’s a desire the way wishing I knew how to sword fight is a desire. It would be awesome, but I don’t care enough to put any sort of effort into it.

But here I am in eastern Europe being challenged to break stereotypes, both my own about them and theirs about me. But what if the stereotype I fit—in this case, a chronic case of American informality—is one I don’t really care about breaking? The idea of dressing up just to go out in public isn’t one of my priorities. But my priorities aren’t the point here. I’m supposed to be challenging myself to step back from the reflexes and habits I’ve created and give a new culture a chance, perhaps especially when it seems strange.

My hair is a trivial example, but it’s one that’s gotten to me. What if it isn’t as silly as it seems? Okay, it is, but what if something more important arose, something I care about as little as my hair, but that meant much more to the people around me? Would I be able to let put my own opinions aside and at least act the part? Should I?

I guess I should at least try, as long as I’m trying my hand at this cross-cultural thing. It still seems strange to me, especially growing up with an individualistic, “Just be yourself” attitude preached everywhere from Sesame Street to Community. I do think it’s a valuable mentality, on a grand scale. But I think I’m starting to realize a little respect, a little flexibility, a little compromise towards the locals’ way of doing things can go a long way. With just four months to play around with, at least I’ve got a safe place to start.

And upon some consideration (and finding some pretty dang easy-looking style tips online), I might try growing my hair out a bit. I still don’t personally give any shits about it, but that also means I don’t mind indulging the few people who do.