Idaho: just like always, but not.

Coming home, for a person who has been away for a while carries with it all kinds of assumptions about how things will be, what people will say when they see you, how you will feel in various situations.  These ideas are nice, and for me they helped me not to worry too much about what life would be like when I got home.  The problem is that they are essentially bullshit.  Much like when you decide to come to a new country, it’s always the things that you don’t expect that are the weirdest.

Figuring out where I fit was easy.  I grew up in this town; when I ride my Vespa down the street, it feels like nothing has changed.  I can still time my ride to my favorite coffee shop within a few minutes, and the cars that line a street that I used to live on are pretty much the same.  Sometimes, if I let my mind wander a little, I feel like I never left, that my time in Lithuania was only a dream.  My third day here I actually had to call someone and have them verify that I had, in fact, been gone.

When I saw my best friend for the first time, I walked into her office and she just looked at me, smiled, and went back to the computer to finish what she was working on.  It was a little shocking, because I am used to the effusive, European way of greeting, where even a weekend away is justification for hugging and a kiss (or three) on the cheek. For me, it was infinitely more comfortable to be greeted like it was just a normal day than to be forced into hugging and kissing just to prove our affection.  The reactions since I tried to slip into town without people noticing have ranged from stunned silence to yelling, but I have yet to be hugged by anyone outside of my family and very, very close friends.  I am sure it seems like I was raised by wolves, but I appreciate a nice punch in the shoulder so much more than a hug.

The strangest thing, so far, has been going to shops.  People here are friendly.  They want to talk, about your purchases, the weather, or the vehicle you drive. The entire time I was in Vilnius, I missed people talking to each other and generally showing that they recognize you as a fellow human being. It was impossible for me to understand why a person wouldn’t smile back at you on the street. I can’t tell you the number of times that we exchange students commiserated about  the lack of friendliness in official settings in Vilnius.  Upon arriving home, I discovered that not only had I gotten used to the way it was done in Vilnius, I actually like the Lithuanian way better.  I just want to buy my pack of cigarettes or my coat hangers and go on my way.  I don’t want to chat, to discuss my clothes, to talk about the weather.  It certainly shocked the hell out of me the first time that someone tried to strike up a conversation in line and I found myself trying to make an excuse to get out of talking to them because it felt like he was intruding on my life.

It’s been a week since I arrived home.  I have seen all the friends I wanted to see, every ex boyfriend I have had in ten years,  and I have begun to adjust to the fact that people want to talk to you all the time, no matter what.  I’ve only had two  minor meltdowns, and neither of them have been public.  All in all, I think I am adjusting well.  The differences are subtle: listening to people discuss a person that I haven’t met while drinking a beer on the porch, finding out my favorite jewelry shop is a grocery store.  My reactions are different, marked by my time in Vilnius in a way that maybe no one but me notices.  Well, me and my hippie friend who told me that I smell like a different place.

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I wrote something I am pretty proud of, it’s published here: http://balticreports.com/?p=18757

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a week and a day, five cities and I am home.

I keep opening my widgets screen just to make sure that it is really only eight days until I return to Idaho.  I keep wanting to say going home, and I think that I am in many ways, but it also feels a lot like leaving home.  I have built a tidy little life here, I have a comfortable place to write my nonsense, I know which coffee shops I like and which ones are full of people who annoy me (teenagers.  I know, this means I am getting old.  I just want to tell them things like “be quiet” and “in ten years you won’t give a shit about any of this stuff”)  I know when the mosquitoes are out, and how to behave when I am accosted by people wanting a cigarette.  I’ve learned where to buy apples, and black bread, and maple syrup (when it feels important enough to pay the price they ask at the one store I can find it in).

People have already started their exodus back to the various places they come from and are going to.  We put Audrey on a plane to France and Lucas on a plane to Budapest.  Tomorrow, the other Brazilian will leave to his fancier apartment in Uzupis, and Ieva will continue to move her things to her mother’s, piece by piece.  Tomorrow, I will clean all traces of myself out of my bedroom, and start putting things in storage in the room I will come back to.  Then I will get on a train, cry when I tell Ieva goodbye, and it will be Warsaw and then home, where I will sleep off the dream of the last nine months and come into a reality that might very well include a job selling tools and electronics at Sears.  It will be weird, to say the least.

The nice thing about this process is that I am not saying goodbye.  I am saying, “see you later, I’ll keep my key because I will need it”.  For the others the change might be more permanent, more like a return to the lives they walked out on when they decided to come to Lithuania, of all places.

Who would have thought I would want to build my life in Lithuania, of all places?  Life is a journey without a map, for sure.  I think the most apt experience I could ever have to sum up what life is like is when I got off the bus in Paris, no map, no real idea where I was, and decided that I would just walk in a direction until I decided that I had gone far enough, and turn when it felt right, and eventually the hostel would appear in front of me.  All the time, we are making choices without a clear view of the consequences, and we end up somewhere, almost never where we’ve planned.  A million little choices, and here I am, looking at another big change.

When it was almost time to go to Lithuania, I made up lists in my mind of the things that might be different, the things I might need to know to get through life in Lithuania without making a big fool of myself. The things that were different weren’t on any of the lists, and I found that I will always make a fool of myself, and I just need to be okay with that.  Now that I am going home, I am making lists again.  I wonder how it will feel to understand all of the small conversations around me.  I wonder what it will be like to be able to ask for just what I want in any situation, without that moment where I freeze and panic, muttering unintelligible phrases at people.  What will people think when they see that I managed to gain weight in Europe, rather than the miraculous loss that was universally predicted?  Will my friendships be the same?

I guess I will just have to get on the plane.  It is the same as coming here, I just need to get on my way and trust that I will be able to survive whatever is thrown at me in the process.  I hope that the hamburgers are really as perfect as I remember, and I can’t wait to get a plain old American coffee on the porch of the College Market.  I can’t wait to see my family, to sit at Grandma’s table and watch television shows.  To have dinner with the family, and listen to my father laugh.  I want very badly to use a washer and a dryer, and to see the mountains again.  I want to drink a crappy beer with friends, and hear all about what has happened when I was gone.  I want, I want, I want.  Now let’s see what I get.

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Trolleybuses can be terrifying.

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.

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I’m an idiot, or Very Good News

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.

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Baltic Pride 2010

If you would like to read my column on Baltic Pride 2010, go to

http://balticreports.com/?cat=8

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.

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Aš tikrai myliu Lietuva

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.

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In which I tie body image to cryptozoology.

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.

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My first opera… or not-opera, as the case may be

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.

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From Russia, With Love

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.

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