Halfway through the second semester

Time flies when you’re having fun! I cannot believe my second semester in Kaunas already reached the half way milestone. Slowly but steady the first signs of spring carefully appear. It has been a long, dark winter, but actually I expected it would be worse. I remember well how temperatures occasionally dropped till around -30 when I lived in Estonia as well as Latvia previous years. I haven’t experienced that this winter. 
I’ve not been writing too many study related blog posts lately so therefore a little update on my personal life in Lithuania right now. At university everything goes following plan. I’m still very thankful that I conquered my hesitation and simply applied for my Journalism and Media Analysis Master degree here in Kaunas. The five courses I take leave a lot of space for my own creativity and I value that a lot. These are by the way the classes I’m attending:
– Communication Cultures
– Audiovisual Journalism
– Research Project in Audiovisual Journalism
– Media Economics
– Risk and Crisis Communication
This must be the first time ever I actually like a course concerning economics. Yippee!
This semester is socially a bit differently organized than the first. I really miss the people I met during that time. Astrid from Denmark was a wonderful roommate. She’s very bright and has an awesome sense of humor. It was always good to have her around. I really hope to visit her in Copenhagen later on this summer. Melissa from Germany is also intensely missed. She shares the same passion for adventure as I do and also the ‘Sparfuchs’ syndrome is something we have in common ;-). After the upcoming summer holiday she’ll spend half a year in Sweden so there will probably be enough possibilities to finally see her again. Also without Jenny and Sofie from Sweden, Aneta from the Czech Republic, Sophie from Belgium and Simon from Denmark the dormitory lost some of its energetic spirit. The good memories remain though.
Melissa, Nienke, Jenny, Sofie, Sophie, Astrid, Aneta
Because I didn’t join the spring semester introduction week I didn’t really have the chance to easily get in touch with the new Erasmus students. Actually I’m ok with that, since I cannot identify myself at all with their ‘OMG we are Erasmus students so we HAVE TO party as much as possible’- mentality. Luckily this semester I have the opportunity to get to know two very special persons a bit better. Yi, my roommate from China, and Jun, a journalism student from South Korea. It’s so beautiful that even though our cultural backgrounds are so diverse, we still share so many views of life. Yi is a Master degree student in Social Work and that definitely shows off. She’s a great listener with a heart of gold and she’s incredibly fun too. Jun on the other hand seems to me like the most fearless and curious human being on earth. It’s wonderful how he soaks up people’s personal stories and dreams. Yeah, it’s good to have those two around.  
Calm travel companions somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Poland. Jun and Yi.
Till so far my little study update. I just finished three midterm exams so it’s time for a well deserved Easter holiday. 

Back to reality, the follow up

This is the tree in front of my window. It’s a very stubborn tree. The whole country is desperately waiting for the first signs of spring while this fellow didn’t even drop all of its leafs yet. Nevertheless, I made this collage in addition to my blog post ‘Back to reality’ (February 28, 2013) in which I criticize people on their addiction to mobile devices and the fact they just can’t ‘do nothing’ anymore. Just look at the sky once in a while. Observe it. Only then you’ll see the beauty pixels can’t replace.

Polly from Lithuania

Something related to Lithuania just popped into my mind. In fact I know this already since my childhood, but I was only reminded by it after my blog post about fat white cartoon characters. Her name is Polly McShane (incredibly non-Lithuanian name by the way), a nationalistic Lithuanian from the cartoon series The Kids from Room 402. She’s so to say the smart ass of the class and thinks she has many friends, even though nobody actually really likes her. She has a fascination for spoons and goats.
On the world wide web I found back one of the episodes in which classmate Nancy visits sick Polly at home. Lithuanian Polly had been eating a bad blynai according her mom. Polly’s aunt Nietschka is there to take care of her. During a little healing ceremony Polly states that Lithuanian foot massages are even better to cure diseases than having a goat in bed. Well… Polly is furthermore a bit upset that she couldn’t take part in the student elections. She’s asking Nancy whether Lithuanian culture is offered at school as obligatory part of the curriculum and expects that every Canadian youngster should be able to order a meal in Lithuanian in any random restaurant in Lithuania. In your dreams.
To be honest I don’t really recognize the stereotype Lithuanian in Polly’s character, besides maybe the fact that she always aims in getting the highest grades. To me, many Lithuanians also seem upset getting ‘just’ an 8 (on a scale from 1-10 in which 10 is absolutely wonderful). The ‘6 is enough, yey!’-culture I know from Dutch students definitely doesn’t show any traces here. 

Besides the often eaten blynai I don’t really consider Lithuania to be the country of spoons and goats. Where is the potatoe fun? Furthermore, the accent which the Lithuanian characters in the cartoon series are given sound rather Polish. Auwch. To conclude, Polly’s stop-word is ‘Fabiola!’ (like in ‘oh my goodness!’). Nice try. It was a very enjoyable series though!

Sunday 10 March: Lazy Sunday in Bialystok

Oh what a night. I woke up more tired than I was when going to bed last evening. Our room was crowded with around seven Polish female students and they were all somehow very busy with plastic bags (brr, that sound), getting in and out the bed, shining with lights in our faces and styling themselves to the max. Not to mention the mix of sweat aroma’s seamlessly accompanied by the smell of cheap sweet perfume. Interesting, since they were all asleep when Yi and I entered the room around 23.30. Not sure why they were doing all this around 02.00. Maybe I don’t want to know. It continued the whole night and it didn’t really seem they were going out for a party or so. At least around 06.30 they were all gone so I enjoyed 10 minutes of sleep and a long shower in the only shower available for over 25 people. 
Outside it was extremely cold, snowy and windy. We ended up in yet another church where at thatmoment a service was taking place. I felt like the only one not knowing what to do when but nevertheless it was quite fascinating to see what was all going on. Once we were ready for another few hundred meters in the cold we headed towards the bus/train station. In Kaunas we weren’t able to buy a ticket back home so we had to arrange that in Bialystok. Unfortunately we are a bit spoiled by the Lithuanian opening hours and forgot about the fact that in Poland most places are closed on Sundays. A few friendly locals tried to help us out, but no, there were no bus tickets to Kaunas to be sold today. We gave it a try at the train station where we had some more luck, even though the lady behind the glass had difficulties understanding what we wanted. A young Polish woman tried to help us but she started to articulate every single word of her Polish explanation thinking we would understand in that way. No. When the railway employee finally got we wanted to go to Lithuania Jun desperately started to ask for student discount by showing all his student cards (and even his Maxima shopping card) like a wizard. He didn’t succeed in getting any though. 
With the knowledge there would be a Decathlon (nice sports store) a few blocks away from the railway station we decided to skip visiting some more special buildings because of the cold. It was such a delight. It felt like being in France with a huge complex of hypermarché’s like Auchan, Leroy Merlin and Decathlon. I guess we spent at least 1,5 hours in the sports shop having a lot of fun. Jun found himself a nice red jacket and at a certain moment we were walking through Decathlon like models showing the nicely colored outdoor clothes on a catwalk. The locals seemed to enjoy it. I found a nice orange pullover which I decided to buy. No spring in sight here with temperatures around -15.

Also in the supermarket Auchan we had a good time. The prices are so extremely low. It was hard to withstand the temptation to buy a huge amount of chocolate bars. ‘I can satisfy my chocolate hunger for three months with this’, knowing that honestly the stock would disappear within one week already. So, I’m happy I bought only three small bars (which I finished in two days already by the way). Chocolate stocks don’t work with me. I did find some tasty ‘knäckebröd’, ‘beschuit’ and Dutch peanut butter though. I gladly took that home with me. Packed with tasty food we entered one of Bialystok’s suburbs were obviously not a lot was going on. It was getting dark already a bit and I didn’t feel too good about this little adventure. Hindsight it was definitely worth it since nothing bad happened and we visited a magnificent looking orthodox church. That was a good way to end our little trip.

Back in the hostel we finally prepared the pasta we wanted to make already the day before. Furthermore there we met some Polish guys having a business in devotional pictures (you could absolutely not have guessed that by their looks) and a Polish girl working on the farm of her parents, never having been outside of Poland. The nice thing of these kind of random trips is that if you want, you can meet so many diverse people. If there is one thing I’ve realized once again during my stay in Poland is that people can’t be judged by the way they look. Everybody has its own life story accompanied by some inspiring motives and good characteristics. But… some healthy suspicion might also be quite useful from time to time.

Saturday 9 March 2013: Sightseeing in Bialystok

What an early morning! Around 06.00 all people in the hostel started to prepare themselves for a long day of weekend school. At least it made us wide awake as well so we could enjoy Bialystok to the fullest amount of daylight, even accompanied by the sun. Even though I was a little too tall for my bunk bed I slept well. After a breakfast consisting of some Lithuanian pre-packed sweet bread and a small bottle of very tasty kefir we headed towards the city center. We took the same route like the day before but were amazed only now by the intense color of some uniquely colored houses, garage boxes and street art. Two years ago during my first trip to Poland the first thing that caught my attention was the enormous amount of commercials on the streets and screwed down onto basically all buildings. Also now during my second Polish trip I became aware of that. Another thing which amazed me is that there are so many banks to be found. On every corner of the street there are some Polish and even Dutch, Belgian and French banks located. The city center in Bialystok was quite calm on this Saturday morning.

The main street doesn’t really consist out of a long row of clothing, shoes and accessories shops like which is common in the Netherlands. Here they have huge malls for that, just like in the Baltic States. Jun, Yi and I took the time to observe the many churches around the main square and once finished visiting the last cathedral of the lane we were awarded with a dose of sunshine. At the same time it started to snow, not in a disturbing way but rather like millions of glitters surrounding us. This made me think of my first gasballoon flight above Germany during which I was baptized at the moment the sun was shining so bright and when we were flying through some star dust-like snow. That was a very special moment. 
Besides the churches Bialystok also has a beautiful palace to offer, the Branicki Palace. Back in the days it was called the Versailles de la Polonge. A well deserved title, It was a pity there was no trace to be seen from the blooming flowers in the impressive gardens yet. Everything was covered in snow. On the other hand, the soft winter sun also always shines a little special light on beautiful places abandoned from tourists during that time of the year. A black gazebo with golden details made a fantastic contrast with the blue sky that had appeared. Perfect for some nice pictures. Now we were quite curious what was to be found inside this majestic building.
One of the things I like so much about my South Korean friend Jun is that he is a very curious guy knowing that behind every door there is a story to be discovered. Without any fear he opens practically every door in order to meet people and to hear about their stories in places which normally stay closed for the masses. He has all the assets a journalist needs for a fruitful career. Also this time our curiosity was awarded after opening a difficult to open huge door. The medical faculty of Bialystok. The receptionist didn’t speak any word of English but understood we were more than willing to take a look in this palace. He nodded and let us go where we wanted to. Everything just seemed so freshly decorated. The whole building was in a good shape and even all the details had been taken care of. 

Suddenly the receptionist came upstairs and without any word he unlocked a door and let us in. It was a beautifully decorated room probably used for lectures or official ceremonies concerning medicine students. Back downstairs he pointed out we could also have a look behind the door stating ‘library’. There some smiling employees made some gestures just to continue walking and discover the small library being in a perfect shape. There were cute little reading lamps on the tables and the bookshelves were made out of dark, fancy looking wood. Also the other reading rooms looked like fairy tales for bookworms. Everything just looked so clean and fresh and even the handful of students walking around there were as handsome as the rest of the interior of this building. 

Time for a little break in one of the shopping malls. Since it was international women’s day the day before I got a nice discount on my food order. For 1.20 euro I got one chicken tortilla, some French fries and a coke which I could refill as often as desired. The shops themselves were not so interesting for the rest, apart from the fact a H&M could be found there, something which is not present in Lithuania yet. We didn’t buy anything though. Besides a lot of well known brands there were also many typical Polish shops selling cheap shoes with unfortunately not the best quality. In one of the supermarkets there was a little stand of Douwe Egberts (Dutch coffee brand) where we could taste some coffee for free. It was very tasty, of course. When I told the young man behind the stand that the coffee is produced not far from where I come from he started to talk about his Dutch friends and his wish to find a summer job in the Netherlands. I couldn’t resist asking him how Dutch people look at Poles from his perspective. He stated that Dutchmen always think Polish people are drunk, fight a lot and steal. Actually he could laugh about these prejudices. He didn’t seem to be bothered by it. I was however able to surprise him a bit when telling him about the ‘Polenmeldpunt’ (telephone line through which complaints are collected when trouble is caused by Poles in the Netherlands). 

One last tourist attraction left for that day. The zoo. Well, it wasn’t really a zoo but just a small park with some random animals like an owl, some bisons and a bear. On forehand I read that this zoo would look like a concentration camp for animals. In fact the animals didn’t look too pleased, however, the living circumstances looked a little better than seen on pictures found on the internet before. 

After a long day outside we decided to go back to the hostel and take a little well deserved nap. We were actually planning to prepare some pasta in the hostel kitchen and just take it slow during the evening. We are not the kind of travelers who have to party. Our plans were changed a bit when we were suddenly not the only foreigners amongst all Polish weekend students anymore. Two guys from Spain arrived that evening. They study journalism and medicine in Warsaw and just started their Baltic trip. Later that week they would go to Kaunas, Riga, Tallinn and Tartu. So, there we went again, into the cold in search of a hamburger and a Polish beer. For 3.60 euro my hunger was satisfied again, just as my daily dose of social activities. It was very pleasant to talk about traveling and cultural differences with the Spanish guys. Before 0.00 I was in dream land already again. One full other day in Bialystok to go.

Soon more…

Friday 8 March 2013: Kaunas – Bialystok

Bialystok. That would be the destination for our spontaneous trip. Since a few free days were ahead of us, Jun, Yi and I decided to take the train to Bialystok. We had been to all large cities in the neighborhood already and this Polish city close to Belarus seemed like it could offer us something new and exciting. We took the afternoon train on Friday and crossed many small Lithuanian villages. I recognized some of the venues near Marijampole and Kalvarija since I had been there last summer during the hot air junior world championship. It looked totally different now though. It was around -10 and the soil was covered with a blanket of shiny snow. In Sestokai we had to change trains since the size of the railway in Poland is different from that in the Baltics. We were wondering how it must be to live in such a small place with around 750 inhabitants. It seemed nothing was going on there, except a lively transport in wood. I wonder how people who live there and who never travel look at the world. Do they form a proper world image through the TV series they watch or do they just mind what’s going on locally, in Southern Lithuania? When thinking about this I always feel privileged to have the opportunity to travel and discover new places, cultures and people. 

Without any sign we crossed the Polish border. It was Yi’s first time to be in another European country than Lithuania. Still, everything seemed to look the same. The only difference was that the number plates of the cars turned from LT into PL. At Trakiski, the first stop after the border, two policemen stepped in the train. They were walking through the wagons but didn’t check our passports. What a difference with only a few decades ago. Crossing European borders is a delight nowadays. Suddenly two men showed up in our wagon. They were both a bit fat and looked like construction workers. Both carried a small bottle of soda in their hands and they really could have been random travelers going from one deserted village to another. They looked at us and stopped walking. Our passports. They didn’t speak any English but it was clear they wanted to check our identities. Hindsight we should have asked them to identify themselves too but we were so stupid and overwhelmed not to. Especially the passports of Yi (from China) and Jun (from South Korea) were inspected carefully. Luckily we all got our passports back right away but we were left a bit confused when we were the only ones being checked. A friendly Lithuanian woman who happened to be a teacher in Klaipeda showed her sorrow. She said that it looked quite mysterious why these men without any signs of authority only asked us to identify ourselves and stressed we should stay alert and watch out. After this I couldn’t sleep anymore and observed every movement in our wagon. At least all our belongings were still there.

After a six hour train ride we arrived in Bialystok where it was already dark and where we realized we travelled into another time zone. It felt good to walk on the streets there. I honestly expected I would feel a bit more unsafe. Without too many problems we managed to find our hostel, a sweet little house in the middle of some Sovietic looking living blocs. We were welcomed by an old men with glasses like jam jar bottoms. Since we didn’t withdraw Polish zloty’s yet he send us away again. No check in without paying. Ok. After we had taken out the desired amount the receptionist had to go through all of his paper work to check us in. It was almost like he was reinventing the wheel every single time another one of us had to be subscribed in the big, sticky, old hostel book. Furthermore his thick glasses obviously didn’t provide enough help, since his eyes had to be supported with a supplementary magnifying glass as well. His English was not that wonderful so he didn’t understand any of our questions posed out of interest or little jokes which were meant well. When discovering my last name he looked at me through his glasses with enlarged eyes stating ‘Bos… like in chief?’. No, like in forest. Even though I tried to explain, he didn’t understand. When I handed over my money to pay for the three nights we would stay at the hostel he investigated the 100 zloty bill (less than 25 euro) extensively. ‘Hm, nice job you did’. As if I faked it. At least we managed to confuse the man one more time by the similar birth dates of Jun and me. We are born on exactly the same day in the same year. When the man gave us a wondering look I told him Jun and I are twins. Then the registration fun was finally over and we left the man alone to think about his three new, strange, foreign guests. 

Jun slept on the first floor while Yi and I occupied some space on the second floor in a room with 16 beds. There were a few Polish girls already there and it smelled like ‘the day after the big drinking alcohol day’. Beeeh. We prepared our beds and then set off to the inner city in search of a place where we couldeat something. Each time we left or arrived at the hostel we said hello and goodbye to a poor white dove frozen to the ground with its back. The little fellow didn’t survive this winter. At a place called Hokus Pokus I ordered a plate of French fries and ‘chicken fingers’. It was quite tasty but a little bit too greasy. It was at least a good preparation for my stomach to handle some more unhealthy food that weekend. On our way back to the hostel we quickly dropped by at a small supermarket where we were amazed by the low prices. Poland seems to be even more affordable than Lithuania. The wind was freezing cold and we decided to put on all the clothes we brought the next day to keep ourselves warm. After seeing a taxi driver driving backwards against a tree and not even caring about the damage we finally set off for a good night sleep. Sleep well white dove. 

Soon more…

Fat white cartoon characters

Apart from my blog post about Swedish tea towels in Lithuania the next article might be one of the most random to be found here on my website. Out of the blue I discovered I really like white, fat, cartoon figures. Don’t ask me how that suddenly came into my mind, it’s a mystery for me too. Want to see them?

The Moomintrolls from Finland
Nijntje (also known as Miffy) from the Netherlands
 Lars, the little polar bear, also from the Netherlands
 Seabert, an adorable creation from France
And last but not least, Dommel from Belgium
Till so far the cartoon characters. Do you know them all? Next week some more serious stuff again. I’ll be on an adventurous little trip with my friends from China and South Korea this weekend. It won’t be too far from Kaunas but it will for sure bring a different, exciting atmosphere. More stories and pictures next week, so stay tuned!