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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What I’ve learned, foreigner edition

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.

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Breaking news: I am still a foreigner

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.

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snowstorms, space bathrooms, and Indians, oh my!

Six months and twenty-five days in Lithuania.  One week and three days until I leave for St. Petersburg.  It seems like time is such a mess right now, I am almost halfway done with my last semester here, and it feels like it has just begun.  This is possibly due to the vagaries of my own perception of time, and possibly because I missed the first two weeks of the semester going to Paris and dealing with the bureaucratic aftermath of the international incident referenced in my previous post.

Right now, I am trying to cram as much Russian into my голово (head) as humanly possible, because going to Russia will only help my comprehension if I have a solid base.  I feel like right now I have somewhat of a base in the language, but it is nowhere near what I would like to have when I am relying on my Russian to help me get around a strange city.  Talking to locals while I am there will also be nice, and it’s something that I would be hesitant to do at my current level. (although Benny the Irish Polyglot would probably tell me to just talk to them already…  advice I think I will have to start heeding any day now)  I have been speaking to my lovely roommate I., and that has been helping, although mostly it is just illustrating the holes in my comprehension right now.

The weather here has been positively Idaho-esque in the past weeks.  It starts out sunny, then you don’t pay attention for an hour or two and you are suddenly in the midst of a blizzard.  This happened the other night after class.  I decided to take a bus up the hill to the big Rimi because I wanted to pick up a few things and they tend to have better quality produce than the Maxima.  I waited for the bus, periodically brushing snow drifts off of my coat and scarf.  It took a long time for the bus to come, in hindsight I might have taken this as a warning.  Eventually, a 14 Trolleybus arrived, and I got on.  Everything was good until we started up the hill.  We made the turn, then were creeping, creeping, stopped.  We stayed in place for a moment or two, then the doors opened and people began filing off the bus.  I was really impressed with the Lithuanians in this instance because they didn’t complain or wait for an announcement from the bus driver, they just recognized that the bus wasn’t going anywhere and got off to start walking.  When I got to the top of the hill, I looked down and it was chaos like only Lithuania in the snow could achieve.  There were three empty buses crowding the streets, a sanding truck trying like hell to get next of them to sand the streets where they were stuck, and small cars and vans careening around past the unlucky ones trying to get to the top of the hill as quickly as possible.  There was even a man standing in the trunk of one of the expensive German sports cars, ostensibly trying to give it enough traction so that they could join the masses of people trying to get up Basanavicius hill.  It was fantastic (in the surreal sense).

I walked up to Rimi, bought my groceries, used their space bathroom (blue lights throughout.  I think it might be related to germs, but I really have no idea), and was at the checkout when I saw a sight that I could have never imagined in a million years I would see in Lithuania.  It was a tall, white (very white.  Makes me look like I spend too much time in the sun), chiseled Eastern European man dressed up in full Native American regalia.  He had a warrior patch.  He had a bone necklace, fringed jacket, and bell-bottom trousers with chevron decorations.  He was wearing cowboy boots.  The only thing that differentiated this ensemble from the outfit of someone taking it too far down the cultural appropriation road in Idaho was that it was done in black leather instead of buckskin.  I really wanted to ask him if I could take his picture, but he was Lithuanian Basketball tall, and that intimidates the hell out of me.  It was nighttime, so I couldn’t even sneak a photo without the flash tipping him off.  I will look for him again, and I swear, dear readers, I will not make you miss out on a picture the next time, because it was AMAZING.

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Lazy day…

Today was a beautiful day in Vilnius.  The sun was shining, the temperature was hovering on the warm side of zero and people seemed to be almost smiling.  After six months in Lithuania I can spot an almost-smile from a hundred yards and it is as heart warming as a toothy Idaho grin.  I am not sure if it is the spring, the sun, or the holiday weekend, but people seem to be really happy right now.  I spent the day basking in the sun from my window seat (really a window sill, but I can sit in it, so it counts as a seat) doing some sewing and catching up on my readings.

I repaired my felt purse, which I love even though it lacks in durability.  Once I can find a sewing store and an iron, it will get a nice interfaced lining which should help more than the temporary fix that I hand-stitched in today.  Then I read about the American way of war, which is fascinating.  I never really considered that people might have different views of the realities of war, but it turns out that my concept of what war is and what it should accomplish are very, very American.  Although I am sure that most Americans are not quite as anti-war as I am, it is really interesting for me that I share the *concept* with pretty much all Americans.

And, finally, I took the recycling out and went to Maxima to pick up a few things (man, my life is exciting).  On the way out of Maxima, I was accosted by a tall man speaking very quick Lithuanian.  “Aš nesuprantu Lietuviškai, atsiprašau” I replied.  He made it clear that he wanted a cigarette, so I said “да, да” and gave him one.  It turns out that he spoke Russian, so he continued his monologue in Russian about how he is not an alcoholic or a drug addict (two words that I didn’t know before, but the context was clear), but he needs some money.  I seriously doubted his story, but he seemed kind and it’s not my business to judge what people need money for, so I gave him a handful of change.  He thanked me, and walked away.  It wasn’t until I was well on my way home that I realized I had forgotten to be afraid.   He was probably a foot taller than me, and a good deal broader in the shoulders, and I just spoke with him human to human.

I guess this means I feel safe here again, that I am well and truly back to the person that I have always been.  It feels better to give money because I can’t stand people to suffer rather than giving it to them simply because I am afraid of people.

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