I wrote something I am pretty proud of, it’s published here: http://balticreports.com/?p=18757
I like public transportation. I think that public transportation is one of the best things ever, it makes people walk a little so that they stay healthier, it makes the planet healthier, it’s faster than driving most of the time, and it is certainly safer than driving. The only thing that is better about having a car is that you get to choose who you ride with. I think anyone that rides the bus on a regular basis can say that people are strange.
Generally, when I am on the bus, I try not to look at anyone, listen to music, and generally pretend that there aren’t any people around me. I think that this is the most common reaction to suddenly being placed in a tiny moving room with a bunch of strangers, and most people play along. But not everyone plays along, oh no.
One sunny day I was riding the bus home, it was pretty empty and there were seats to spare after the old and the infirm sat down, so I took a seat. The girl next to me was politely staring out the window, we were all playing the game well. That lasted for exactly one stop. At the next stop, a man got on, who looked like he would smell of booze (and he did), who for some reason decided to stand next to my seat even though the bus was pretty much empty. He was leaning against my shoulder a little, and I kept inching away, trying to maintain my illusion that there weren’t any people around me. I looked out the window, I leaned over, and he kept leaning in more. If I were a little more worldly, I would have realized what was going on. When I felt the first movement, I convinced myself that it was nothing, that there was no way, that I would just lean over more and nothing would happen. I was pretty much all the way into the seat next to me, and about ten seconds later, the movements became unmistakeable, and I realized that the man was indeed masturbating on my shoulder in a trolleybus. (he kept it in his pants the entire time, otherwise I would still be in a bleach bath, I think) I was stunned for about half a second, and then I jumped up and went to the front of the bus, putting as many people between myself and him as I possibly could. I was too shocked to make a scene. I looked back at him once, and his face, oh yuck, he was looking at me with this sad sack look, like I had hurt his feelings by not allowing myself to be turned into a human sex toy.
So, after that, I walked everywhere for a week or so because I wasn’t mentally able to deal with riding the bus. Then, after a long day at school, I decided to take the bus again. I mean, I have been riding it for months without incident, what are the chances that something bad/gross/almost funny but in a terrible, terrible way would happen again? With all of my justifications firmly in mind, I got on the bus. I looked out the window, I tried with little success to decipher the Russian that the young men were speaking next to me, and I get to my stop without incident. When the doors opened and I began to move toward it, the loudest of the young men stepped in front of me, looked pointedly at my chest,and said, simply “big tits”. In English. Why he chose English, I have no idea. I am not sure if he sensed that I am an English speaker and he wanted to be sure that he was understood, or if he is in the curse words only stage of learning English and he was pretty sure that I wouldn’t understand. Either way– what. the. fuck. Can’t a woman even ride a bus without being physically or verbally assaulted by a random man?
So, now my love for public transportation is more of a love-hate thing. I still think it’s an effective way to move lots of people around with the minimum resources. I just think that every person I see on the bus now is a potential wackadoo.
I miss my bike.
I write all kinds of stuff that makes me laugh. Often, this is because I make an idiot of myself and then put the details about it on the internet. Imagine my surprise when I find out that people that I meet are reading my blog/column and then making their conclusions about me from that information. Only that information. So basically, anyone that I meet that has read the words that I put on the internet thinks that I am stupid. So awesome.
It makes me glad that I hold back on the really embarrassing stuff. (no, really, I do) To get to the good stuff you have to get a few drinks in me, and I can’t type for shit when I am drunk.
With that auspicious beginning, let’s talk about my week. I got some Very Good News that will result in me staying in Eastern Europe for much longer than I originally expected. I will still be coming home to the great state of Idaho this summer, but it will be more of an extended visit than a return home. I will get to do all kinds of exciting things, like getting Emma a doggie passport (seriously) and disposing of my worldly effects. I also plan to ride my Vespa like crazy, because I am going to miss that thing and it won’t fit into my two suitcase lifestyle. It might seem like a good decision to sell it since it will just be collecting dust back home, but that cursed hunk of metal is one of the most important things to me. I would loan it to a friend while I am gone, but I am pretty sure that they would die at its hands or be driven insane by its endless problems, and I can’t be responsible for that.
My Russian is… well, it’s still coming along. This morning I had a whole conversation with someone in Russian, and I think that I got most of the gist of what was being said when I wasn’t having an internal meltdown about not understanding every word. I am finding myself in more situations where English is not an option. I am also memorizing vocabulary like it’s my job, so that is probably helping a little too.
If you would like to read my column on Baltic Pride 2010, go to
If you came from Baltic Reports, then welcome. Only the stories that I feel are fit to print make it to the paper, here you get it all, even the boring stuff. Especially the boring stuff.
I sat this evening as the sun went down on a 22 degree day in Vilnius on Kalno Parkas hill (mountain to some). I. and I talked about life, families, the city… in short, we talked about our lives. We were surrounded by the muted sounds of people chatting, enjoying the warmth, sliding into that summer calm. I realized that I really do love this city, I will miss it terribly when I am forced to leave it. As much as I am an Idaho girl at heart, I think that my place will end up being somewhere very like Vilnius.
There were cyclists everywhere. There was a critical mass event this afternoon that I missed because I am bikeless, which makes me feel like I am ready to renew the search for a bicycle that was called off last fall after weeks of wandering the city following different tips on where to get good used bikes and constantly being disappointed. My bicycle wishlist is a little weird, apparently, because I want a bike just like the old racing bike that I have at home. When we were on the bicycle odyssey last fall, all we could find were cheap mountain bikes for way too much money or obviously-stolen mountain bikes for way way too much money. I don’t think I saw a single street bike, and I am firmly against riding a mountain bike in the city because I think it is silly to carry all kinds of weighty extras on a bike that will never, ever see the mountains as long as I am the one riding it.
This week I had a “small surgery” on my tooth, where they had to cut some of my gums back and do something to the bone that I didn’t think merited too much curiosity on my part because I get a little squeamish when I think about people doing things to my skull. The small surgery wasn’t so bad, although I spent a great deal of time cursing my small mouth because he had to pull my jaw out of joint in order to get the drill in to do whatever nefarious things he needed to do to my bones. The pain mostly laid me out for a day or so; I had forgotten how much tooth pain sucks. I watched the third season of Deadwood, though, and made it through a Very Important Meeting, so the day wasn’t a total loss. All in the name of getting a brand new tooth straight from the factory, I guess.
My desk faces out onto some sort of fancy office building. It is this concrete and glass monstrosity that is useful when I am telling people how to get to my apartment, “we are in the shitty building next to the fancy new building”, but until recently I hadn’t really given it much thought. The last few weeks, in the office directly across from my desk, there have been a parade of women coming in to try on fur coats. They strut back and forth, and allow one or both of the men that work in the office day-to-day to put the coats on them. I will admit that my initial reaction, as a single twenty something, was “man, I want a burly man in all black to put fur coats on me!” I don’t like it, but there it was.
Over the last few days, I have begun thinking about how that urge totally conflicts with the woman that I am, and how living here has affected the ways in which I see myself, most notably when I am indulging in weird, voyeuristic capitalist fantasies. I have been pretty down on myself lately, because I do not fit the way women should look, especially here. Being a t-shirt and jeans girl in a heels and skirts country is tough. Being a big girl in a country where the thinnest one wins is a little discouraging. Having to hear women valuated daily based on their “hotness” by the men that I live with is fucking annoying. These things range from totally within my control to totally outside of it, and they should be evaluated as such, and I really should know by now not to let them get into my head and make me think stupid shit about myself.
I don’t want to wear skirts and heels, mostly because I would put myself in the hospital if I attempted to wear them on the Vilnius streets, but also because I don’t think that a woman should have to make herself uncomfortable in order to be seen as attractive. I know that I could stand to lose a few pounds, but not because some arbitrary asshole decided that certain curves are good and certain curves are bad. And the valuation based on hotness thing, well, that’s here to stay. There isn’t anything that I can do to change the reasons that people find women attractive. I can let it turn me into a self-hating misanthrope, or I can just accept it as a given and move on with my life. I keep hearing that there are men out there that are actually attracted to women because they are intelligent or interesting, and although proof of their existence is lacking, I continue to believe. I am the cryptozoologist to their bigfoot.
I went with my flatmate I to the opera on Friday. It wasn’t planned, and I only had fifteen minutes to get ready, so I threw on a skirt and some flats, which I sincerely hoped would make up for the fact that I had spent all night on the train from St. Petersburg and hadn’t washed my hair. I am not sure that the other patrons felt like my dressing efforts were up to par, as they all looked effortlessly elegant and I sort of felt like a fraud, like a little girl pretending to be cultured. Next time I will wear a scarf and some bracelets, I think that will make a much more convincing disguise.
If only the other opera partons milling around the lobby knew that not only was I under dressed but I also know absolutely nothing about the opera, I might have been removed for sheer ignorance. Americans are not known for their devotion to high culture, and Idahoans even less, so I haven’t had a lot of exposure to such things until I came to Europe. (note to Americans: high culture is pretty interesting, we should start to care about it more). It was only after it was over that I found out that Pasia Pagal Joną is not an opera at all, but something else entirely. Having admitted my ignorance, I can see why people like to go to the opera or the theatre, and I am going to try to take advantage of the opportunity to do so while I am in a place with so much going on.
Back to the opera: the costuming and the set design was really minimalistic, with the differences between men and women obscured under baggy dresses (and man dresses, what would one call those?). It was all very monochromatic, done in shades of white, black, and grey, with the odd (and oddly shocking) bit of purple. It was done in the original German, with subtitles in Lithuanian. I could get the occasional word from the subtitles, but all in all, I am really lucky that I went to Lutheran school, so I was able to follow the story.
Attending Pasia Pagal Joną at the Opera Theatre constituted the entirety of my Easter celebration in Lithuania, and I think it was a good celebration at that. I would have liked to have seen a church service, but all of my Catholic roommates were out of town doing family things, and I know significantly less about attending Mass than I do about attending the opera.
I have been and gone from Russia, and now I finally feel comfortable saying that nothing bad happened. If anything, it is the best week I have spent since I have been in Europe. I got to see about half of what I wanted to see, and I somehow managed to lose four kilos, which I think means I am winning.
Language-wise, I could have done better. I was pretty good at basic interaction, as long as people were very forgiving about my declension. Everyone I talked to was super helpful, and they seemed to be less insulted by my wanton butchery of their language than other places I have been (I am looking at you, France). I only got totally derailed twice, once in the grocery store when the cashier had a question about a pear and I responded with “atsiprašau, aš nesuprantu rusiškai” and once in a fast food blynai place when the guy at the counter was asking questions so fast that I could only respond with a stunned silence and one of the other customers was forced to come to my rescue.
I saw some of the most beautiful spots in the city, I think, although I am sure that a person with more St. Petersburg experience could contradict me on that. Our hostel was right across the street from the Admiralty, so I got to fall asleep each night looking at it and I had a genuine literary nerd moment when I sat in the window and read “The Bronze Horseman”. There were others, including actually seeing the Bronze Horseman, going to the jail that Dostoyevsky was kept in (although I didn’t go in), seeing Nabokov’s childhood home, and taking a picture of one of the houses from War and Peace. Unfortunately, I missed the many house museums to the literary greats because there is only so much nerdiness that you can force onto another person, and I pretty much punched that ticket by insisting that we go to at least one museum per day.
Our first day in St. Petersburg, I made straight for the Hermitage as soon as I had traded my dollars for roubles. The line was short, admission was free, and I got to see an exhibit of Rembrandt and his students and all of the rooms dedicated to Russian Culture. We also somehow ended up in the Flemish and Netherlandish (there is a better word for this I am sure, but I will stick with theirs because I can’t think of it at the moment). The rooms that they had done up with the furniture of the Tsars were really interesting; they were less crazy-opulent than the ones at the Louvre, but more interesting for it. They also had a section filled with Peter I’s tools that made me really wish I had paid the money for a photo pass because my father would have loved it more than I did, and I loved it a lot. I will admit that I hadn’t really thought much about Flemish art before I entered the exhibit, and I found it really interesting. That first day was a really nice contrast to my time at the museums in France because it was less “holy shit, I am seeing a masterpiece that I have seen in books a thousand times” and more “wow, I never knew about that”. Also, the inlay work on the floors in the palace is amazing! I spent more of my time just looking down at them than I should probably admit, since I was in an art museum.
Next, we did a mini walking tour of the old town, where I found lots of things to take pictures of. The Kazan Cathedral is this run down masterpiece, and all the more beautiful because of it. I think they are doing renovation on the building, and I sort of hope that they don’t get far with it because I think it looks really stunning the way it is. It is pretty much overshadowed by the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, which is this insane onion-domed church that looks like it belongs in a video game from certain angles. I don’t know how to do it justice with words, but it got the same amount of camera time that the Eiffel Tower did, which is saying something.
I will continue with the play by play in a new post tomorrow, as I am still trying to put into words the experience that was the Kunstkamera.
Okay, I feel like in order to really close the book on the whole skinhead debacle, I really feel like I need to talk a little about what it’s taught me. I don’t think I would go so far as to thank the bastards, but I really think I have learned things that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone through such an experience.
First is that I can’t just assume that I know the threat that people pose based on my previous experience. To paraphrase Jamie Fraser, I come from a place where things aren’t quite so serious. I was applying Idaho standards, under which they would have postured, given us dirty looks, then went home and played video games or whatever it is that they do in their spare time. Now I know that violence lives a lot closer to the surface in some places, I can act accordingly.
I have learned that many Lithuanians appreciate us foreigners, even when we are naive and don’t behave according to the rules because we don’t know what they are. People who realize that it’s just as hard for me to step outside my cultural system as it is for then to deal with me being a dumbass. It’s not something that comes naturally.
Finally, I have learned a little about fear and about caution, and how those two things are related but not necessarily the same thing. Those first few weeks, I was scared. I barely went out after dark, when I did I was jumping at shadows and paying bums well just to leave me alone. Now, I think I have learned to just be cautious, more or less. I think I am slightly hyperaware of my surroundings, but it’s not exhausting like being afraid all the time.
I am learning, or trying to, as quickly as a stubborn Idaho woman can. I really hope that next time I can wake up to the reality that is being shown to me without literally being beaten over the head with it.
I published my post about the skinhead attack on some Lithuanian news portals. The internet comments battle lines are being drawn, and it seems that the internet wants me to go home. I am also a self-important whiny tourist who lacks the moral fortitude to live in Lithuania. I was even given the old American maxim: toughen up, get used to it or get the hell out of our country. So there’s that.
One interesting comment told me that the police are equally as ineffectual for the Lithuanians who need their help. I have heard this from Lithuanian acquaintances a lot over the past few weeks. I totally believe this, since the only reason I was taken even a little bit seriously by the police was the fact that I was there with representatives from the Embassy. It makes me sad that the people who are charged with the protection of people and their rights are not being held accountable. I wish that there was a way to effect change within such bureaucracies in order to make them more effective. I don’t know how to begin to do that in America, let alone in a country that is not my own.
Just a few minutes ago, I was standing outside the Political Science faculty with a friend, and we were approached by a group of young men, maybe high school age. The tallest one asked me where I was from, and my gut reaction was “oh, hell, here we go”. What really happened was that the students were on a scavenger hunt where they needed to get pictures with foreigners and find out the name of the main street in their town. (how convenient for me that it’s called Main Street). They were really nice kids, and I thank them for coming into my life on a day when my view of Lithuanian-Foreigner relations was in very real danger of becoming shockingly one-sided.