Some random observations in Lithuania…

It has been a while since I’ve been in Lithuania. If I’m not mistaking I left the country the end of May 2013. After that I spent a summer in the Netherlands and a fruitful study semester in Estonia. I noticed a couple of things when walking around in Kaunas once again.
– It almost seems like a national sport: spitting on the streets. Especially young guys do it, but unfortunately sometimes I also spot some heavily smoking elderly men spitting a not so transparent rather yellowish blob out of their mouth, right in front of my feet. Ieeew. This is just so disgusting.
– In the supermarket I noticed a lot of ‘made in EU’ labels. To me, these claims always look a little poor. When stating a product is made in the EU, it’s most certainly not made in Sweden, the Netherlands or Germany (or countries alike), but rather in slightly Eastern located new EU countries, as shown when further investigating the packages.
– On first sight my new bathroom looked rather fresh and clean… until I looked up. Seems my roommate Yi and I will do a great job building up our immune systems the upcoming semester!
  Hello mold.
– The first few days in Kaunas were quite cold, around -18. I’m so pleased I brought my ski pants. Interestingly, I noticed a lot of young girls checking my not so charming (but oh so delightfully warm) pants out. I wonder which thoughts in their heads win. The “That girl is smart! And she must be very warm too” or “That pants look ridiculous and I’m so sexy with my see-through tights. Beauty before comfort and health!”-ideas?
– Normally I need around one week to get acclimatized when starting another half year long adventure. I didn’t feel this at all this week, so that’s a good sign I guess. I was quite surprised I managed to leave Tallinn without feeling too sad actually. Probably because I got the best out of my time there, and if I could do all the activities over again, I would do it just the way I did it.
– I must admit that, after having heard the Lithuanian language once again, I prefer listening to Latvian over Lithuanian. I strangely only noticed now that some Lithuanians have a very distinct way of saying words with ‘aaaa’. It makes me think of the ruined Jesus fresco pronouncing ‘aaaa’ in combination with a sheep saying ‘beeeeh’. Nothing against Lithuanians though. You guys are welcome to make fun of my Dutch ‘gggg’ sound.
 Ruined Jesus fresco: ‘aaeeh!’
– Hello yellow old Dutch busses which I remember from my childhood! They’re still happily driving around here, having a long second life. The cheese commercials can sometimes still vaguely be spotted. 
– Bureaucracy. So many different people responsible for too many small things being all related. When wanting to arrange my living contract and obtain my internet code Monday morning at 09.00 I was told to come back next week. I just can’t imagine the reason why this stuff should take so long. Result: only internet in the reading room a few floors higher, where I noticed I’m in need of warming gloves with which I could still use my keypad. But still, I may not weep. Better to have internet in a freezing cold room than having no internet at all. *Edit: Thursday the sweet administration lady knocked on my door, holding my living contract and a note with the internet code, great!*
– For the ones interested in my ‘world chick’ articles, please check out lindanieuws.nl/wereldwijven/nienkebos/ Also from Kaunas I’ll be reporting on what’s going on in the Baltics (often with a little hint of Russia). Unfortunately the articles are only available in Dutch.
 My area.
– Last but not least, I wouldn’t be a proper Dutchman if I wouldn’t 1. talk about the weather once more, 2. complain once again. So, it has been very sunny here since the day I’ve arrived. Lovely. The sun seems to set 1,5 hours later than I was used to in Tallinn, so the bright days feel like lasting pretty long. Nevertheless, it is very cold. During the nights it easily got close to -20 the past few days. That is actually not such a problem, since I like the winter a lot. Yet, it’s not so comfortable to feel this cold inside my room all the time as well. When laying in bed I feel the cold wind blowing over my face because of the improper isolation material used (or better: not used at all) in my little room. I wear a hat, a wool sweater and two pants in order to keep myself warm. I furthermore wrap my face with two scarves. A little trick I discovered yesterday: covering the worst holes by putting my beloved Haglöfs windstopper summer jacket in front of it to stop the cold wind stream blowing over my face.

All the best from Kaunas, Lithuania, where Yi and I have been eating chocolate covered pancakes as brunch and for diner in order to distract us from our thesis-writing-self-pity.

From Tallinn to Kaunas by bus and about homosexuality and pornography with a random stranger from Ukraine

Time for an update on where on earth I’m located now again. Yesterday I woke up at 04.00 in order to catch my bus which departed from Tallinn’s ‘bussijaam’ at 06.30. It was quite a challenge to get there with one suitcase, one heavily filled backpack, one huge shopper with kitchen utensils and an overfilled cotton bag with all random remains. A retractable wardrobe and some coat hangers were creatively fixed to my little orange suitcase. Oh what an adventure. It had been snowing pretty heavily in Estonia the last few days, so that was another challenge to overcome. Luckily the early trams filled with pensioner-aged travelers (where were those people going?) brought me to the bus station perfectly nice on time. I was asked to enter a bus which had a St. Petersburg destination sign behind its window shield. I shared a worrisome look with another foreign traveller but then just surrendered to the uncertainty. 
Riga it was. Good. It was lovely weather over there and it had obviously not been snowing that much. The new library seems pretty finished, finally. A little further I saw the Z-Towers still being in the middle of their construction phase. Time to change the bus. When showing my ticket and ID-card to the stewardess she frowned. “You’re not on my list. This is the bus to Stuttgart”. After some seconds of silence she luckily discovered a free place in the bus. “Seat 26 is yours, upstairs, oh, and we’ll stop in Kaunas”. Aiii, hardly being able to view the road ahead of me I already had visions of my worst case scenario car sickness happenings. Luckily it went surprisingly well this time. No sickness, so a lot of time to eat cookies and listen to music and my audio book of Roald Dahl’s the BFG. Loved it. When driving through Vilnius I thought about how different Tallinn actually is from Lithuania’s capital. This Nordic vibe is surely missing out here, but yet, this raw edge also has something mysteriously attractive. 
When in Vilnius a middle-aged man from Ukraine was appointed a seat next to me. It was very nice talking to him. He learned English by himself, because during Soviet times everybody declared him as a fool stating he’d anyways never need that language. Not true, luckily! He told me that he’s from an industrial city which is proclaimed the most dirty one in the entire country, and that his dream is to live in other places for some months, like Prague. After some minutes of silence he whispered “Can I ask you something? The people sitting behind us are discussing politics. To me it seems like a typical thing for this region. Could you maybe tell me how it is in your country, do middle aged men sitting in busses discuss these kind of heavy topics as well?”. I answered him that if it would already happen, it would never really be in such a fanatic way as it happens here. Then we somehow ended up talking about gay rights in Russia. I was actually very curious how he as a citizen of Ukraine would think about this topic. Here in the Baltic countries people often speak about it in a negative way, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if he would have shared those opinions as well. 
Then he started telling me about one of his good friends in his hometown in Ukraine. This friend is a doctor and has a good reputation. Furthermore, he is gay. It was so nice to notice in how such a loving way my Vilnius-Kaunas travel companion was talking about his friend and how all the people in his surrounding there respected this friend for how he is, same counting for his partner. I told him about my experiences during my lectures in Estonia, that young guys often react negatively on homosexuality when it concerns two men, but that it’s suddenly all fine when two girls are making out together. He quoted a movie with Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards and it was something like this: “It’s basically impossible for a woman to find a perfect man who’s caring, cleaning, etc… those men all love other men”. 
From this we switched to yet another interesting topic. I said that many young boys might have these pornographic-like ideas when thinking about lesbians. Then the Ukrainian started to tell about the Soviet times. He told that people from the Soviet Union had such a twisted perception on Western-Europe, since they saw pornographic material from this area. They somehow thought Western-Europe equaled pornography and that it would be available easily without any sense of shame for the buyer (or better said, consumer, in this case). He said he was in London in 1989 and entered a shop called XXX. He seriously had no clue what kind of shop it could have been, and I could see on the expression of his face that he actually meant that. When noticing it was a ‘pleasure store’ with two very tidy looking gentlemen working there he decided just to buy a magazine. Since he thought West-Europeans were so open about sexuality he just left the store with the magazine under his arm. One of the gentleman rushed after him. “Sir? Sir! Please, can I offer you this neutral envelope for your magazine? People in England usually don’t show off buying magazines like these” And that’s when he discovered his Sovietic perception didn’t really correspond with reality. It might sound strange to you, as a reader now, to discuss these topics with a stranger, but I assure you it was a very neat one in which cultural viewpoints were discussed respectfully. Isn’t that just wonderful, to learn more about the world in this way? 
Because of the nice talk the trip to Kaunas didn’t feel to last for such a long time. So, there I was, ready for another adventure in the city where my home university is located. It felt good. There was not that much snow yet so my suitcase was perfectly able to easily roll home with me. Home… 15m2 (hm, a little bit less I guess) with badly isolated windows, a tiny heating device, a kitsch blanket with swans and lilies, a terribly moldy bathroom, the first blue screen of death of this semester but all with an awesome roommate from China. The raw edge, I better enjoy it now I’m still in my low expectations student profile mode ;-).

De geest van Berend Botje in het afvoerputje van Tallinn

Ik woon vlakbij de haven van Tallinn waar dagelijks meerdere indrukwekkend uitziende cruiseschepen aanmeren. Het is een fijne plek vol bedrijvigheid. Iedere dag hoor ik vanuit mijn kamer wel eens een scheepshoorn (is dat de correcte benaming voor ‘toeter van een boot’?). Vanochtend hoorde ik het geluid ook weer, waarna ik aan een liedje uit mijn kindertijd dacht. ‘Berend Botje ging uit varen met zijn scheepje naar Zuidlaren…’. Verder kwam ik niet. Ik nam me voor om kort daarna de volledige tekst eens op te zoeken, wat ik natuurlijk vergat. 
Eerder deze avond heb ik met behulp van twee wegwerp houten stokjes een flinke portie noodles met kip naar binnen gewerkt in een kneuterig Chinees restaurantje. Ik was daar samen met een Estse vriendin. Ze vertelde me dat de tram waarin we zojuist hadden gereden als eindpunt het district ‘Kopli’ heeft. Ik heb nooit veel goeds over dit gebied gehoord, dus ik vroeg haar nieuwsgierig wat er nou precies zo gevaarlijk is. ‘Hier in de buurt loopt wel eens een man rond die voor de lol vrouwen en kinderen prikt met een injectienaald. Gelukkig heeft niemand tot nu toe een ziekte opgelopen’, vertelde ze me. ‘In Kopli moet je oppassen, je kan er maar zo in elkaar geslagen worden. Ook zijn er hier enorm veel daklozen’. Wanneer ik zoiets hoor heb ik stiekem altijd de neiging juist wel naar zo’n plaats te gaan, er een paar kekke kiekjes te schieten om daarna heelhuids maar met een lichte adrenalinekick weer terug naar huis te keren.
 Een impressie van Kopli
Eenmaal verzadigd en weer thuis besefte ik dat er op dit moment even geen tijd is voor spannende tripjes. Misschien later. Voor nu hou ik het bij de afbeeldingen die Google me voorschotelt. Ziet er lekker rauw uit, kijk maar eens. Ik las dat er in 1774 een begraafplaats werd aangelegd voor Baltische Duitsers en dat deze plek ‘Friedhof von Ziegelskoppel’ heette. Op een gedenksteen na is daar niets meer van over. Wel vernam ik dat er vroeger een Lodewijk van Heiden zou hebben gelegen. Dat moet een Nederlander zijn geweest! 
En jawel, Lodewijk Sigismund Vincent Gustaaf van Heiden, geboren in Zuidlaren op 6 september 1772. Zijn vader was onder andere bestuursambtenaar van Coevorden en het Drentse Landschap. De familie woonde op een havezate in Zuidlaren. Lodewijk schijnt de enige Drentse zeeheld in de geschiedenis te zijn geweest. Opvallend is zijn connectie met Rusland, waar zijn achternaam trouwens werd uitgesproken als Geiden in plaats van Heiden. Hij schopte het uiteindelijk tot opperbevelhebber van de Russische vloten en gouverneur van Kronstadt, een op een klein eilandje gelegen Russische havenstad. 
 Kronstadt
Lodewijk’s zoon Graaf Frederick Maurice van Heiden werd geboren op Sveaborg (nu Suomenlinna), een vesting van een paar eilandjes voor de haven van Helsinki. Hij werd gouverneur generaal van het Groothertogdom Finland. Van 1809 tot 1917 maakte Finland deel uit van het Russische Keizerrijk. Hij settelde uiteindelijk in Lijfland, het gebied dat nu ruwweg Estland en Letland is. 
 Suomenlinna (deze foto heb ik gemaakt vanaf de boot richting Helsinki)
En dan nu weer terug naar Lodewijk van Heiden. Zijn bijnaam was Berend Botje. Toen hij in 1832 terugkeerde naar Nederland leende Koning Willem I hem een stoomboot zodat hij enkele belangrijke steden kon aandoen, zoals zijn geboorteplaats Zuidlaren. Toch kon hij zijn draai niet helemaal vinden in Nederland. Hij vereenzaamde en belandde uiteindelijk in Reval (Tallinn, Estland), wat niet zo gek ver weg is van Kronstadt waar hij zo geliefd was. Aldaar kreeg hij waterzucht (oedeem) waardoor hij op 77-jarige leeftijd overleed. Het was altijd zijn wens geweest om in Zuidlaren begraven te worden. Toch is er schijnbaar een pijnlijk gevalletje van miscommunicatie geweest. Lodewijk van Heiden werd in 1850 op de inmiddels vernietigde Duitse begraafplaats in Kopli begraven. De grafstenen zijn door Sovjet militairen weggehaald en verwerkt in muren en voetpaden.
 Lodewijk van Heiden
Triest… Dan is het misschien nu de juiste tijd om toch eens de tekst van ‘Berend Botje’ op te zoeken.
Berend Botje ging uit varen
met zijn scheepje naar Zuidlaren
de weg was recht, de weg was krom
nooit kwam Berend Botje weer om
Een, twee, drie, vier, vijf, zes, zeven
waar is Berend Botje gebleven?
Hij is niet hier, hij is niet daar,
hij is naar Amerika.
Maar… ho eens even… hij is dus niet in Amerika. Toen hij ‘De Nieuwe Wereld’ wilde verkennen viel het hem dusdanig tegen dat hij er voor koos liever in Estland te willen verblijven. Zijn geest spookt nog gewoon rond in Tallinn, hoewel hij eigenlijk in Zuidlaren had moeten rusten. Het is wat met die Drenten hier… 

Some random observations in Stockholm…

Here some points that somehow grabbed my attention when visiting Stockholm for a couple of days:

– Russians. Everywhere!

– Many young men in their late twenties or early thirties have moustaches. Often the blonde ones reminded me of pictures of my father during his younger years.

– A lot of masculine Russian tourists had an aroma of vodka-sweat around them.

– At Sergel’s Square I’ve seen at least five easily visible drug deals happening.

– Many women wear ultra tight tights while their upper clothes are rather loose. I especially spotted many shapeless jackets.

– People from Stockholm often ignore red traffic lights.

– Many young men have their trouser legs rolled up a bit.

– Even though the smell is not that strong, the underground metro stations have a same distinctive smell as in London, St. Petersburg and Warsaw.

– Hello equality! In Malmö I saw a cool woman making an art work of an ice block with a chain saw and in Stockholm I saw many female construction workers and technicians. I also saw a lot of guys working in cosmetic stores.

– Sweden is an extremely child friendly country.

– I really like to observe people and while walking on the streets I had a lot of eye contact with Swedes. I have the feeling this is not really the case when walking around in Lithuania for example. Furthermore, Swedish people have such an open facial expression which makes them so easy to approach when wanting to obtain some travel info. Their English is very good too!

– Many people wear a Fljällräven Kånken backpack. I dissolved within the crowd of Stockholm’s rather calm city ‘rush’, which felt nice.

– The air in Stockholm is really clean.

Impressions of Finland by Clara Engelen – 1906

A while ago I bought myself a little Kobo e-reader. I’m very satisfied with that purchase since I’ve been reading five books in less than a month already. Ok, some of them weren’t that huge. I started off with ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl. Besides this beloved story I read his classic ‘The Witches’ for the first time. I was very touched by its ending, but I guess you’d better read it yourself during a cold afternoon, accompanied by a warm blanket, a cup of tea and some cookies.
Another pearl in my e-reader’s library list is a non-fictive story called ‘Indrukken van Finland – De Aarde en haar Volken, 1906’, which means ‘Impressions of Finland – The Earth and her People’. It’s written by Clara Engelen and luckily I managed to find some information about this adventurous Dutch woman who was born in Leeuwarden in the year 1879. She enjoyed some valuable creative education and eventually lived in Zutphen for almost fifty years. She was highly interested in art history and became one of the first females working in this field, being academically educated. She ended up being the museum director of the ‘Stedelijk Museum’ in Zutphen. She furthermore loved to write about the novelties within the world of musea. 
 Clara Engelen in the middle
There were so many issues I recognized in her travel report concerning Finland. It’s about a one hour visit to Reval (Tallinn now), the boat ride towards Helsinki (Helsingfors) with all the little islands you pass by then, the Finnish countryside and the Finnish people and their habits. A really interesting matter is the Russian presence in Finland at the time the story was written, 1906. I’ve always had some slight difficulties to visualize how it would feel when one’s own country would be occupied by an unwanted force. Luckily, because it means I’ve lived in peace for my entire live, for which I’m very thankful. I was surprised that Clara managed to tell a real Finnish-like story and that the Russians only seemed to interfere during passport and baggage checks at the border control. 
I adore her way of describing the exploration of an exciting new country. It’s obviously written more than a century ago. The Dutch langague she used has some slight hints which reminds me of the German language (so when reading the below quotes don’t think I made tons of spelling mistakes).
When you’re able to read Dutch and have an interest in Finland, I highly recommend this rather short travel story written by Clara. I picked out some sentences which fascinated me the most and I did my best to translate some quotes into English. Some of the sparks from the Dutch usage might have lost their strength though. 
‘Ook ons reukorgaan werd in ’t begin onaangenaam geprikkeld door de lucht van juchtleeren vetlaarzen, die alle Russen dragen, en waarmee de boot als ’t ware doortrokken was’.
‘In the beginning our olfactory organ was unpleasantly touched by the aroma of fatty Russia(n) leather boots, which all Russians wear, and which smell was present within the entire boat’. 
‘Nog eens, Finland is geen land voor toeristen, maar een land om op een plaats stil te blijven, het is een land om te rusten en te droomen’.
‘Once again, Finland is not a country for tourists, but a country to stay put, it’s a country where to rest and to dream’.
‘Bij een veer kwam de eerste moeilijkheid: we moesten betalen. Gelukkig is de gebarentaal overal dezelfde en hebben de Finnen nog niet geleerd vreemdelingen te exploiteren; ze gaven ons dus netjes ons geld terug, toen het bleek dat we te veel betalen wilden’.
‘At a ferry the first difficulty arose: we had to pay. Luckily sign language is the same everywhere and the Finns didn’t learn yet how to exploit strangers; thus, they kindly gave back our money when we almost were about to pay too much’.
‘De kwestie van russificatie, zeggen zij (de Finnen), berust op jaloezie van den kant der Russen’.
‘The matter of ‘Russification’, they say (the Finns), is founded on jealousy from the side of the Russians’.

‘De Finnen zijn geneigd tot droomen en dichten, zooals ik reeds schreef. Waarschijnlijk brengt de natuur die hen omgeeft, hier veel toe bij, want voor natuurschoon zijn zij zeer gevoelig’.
‘The Finns tend to dream and write poetry, like I wrote before. Probably the nature that surrounds them highly effects this, because they’re so sensitive to the beauty of nature’.
View during my 2012 midsummer night tooth brushing session, too good!
‘In Reval hadden we een uur de tijd om de stad te bezichtigen. De alle overheerschende indruk, dien ik kreeg, was, dat de huizen, straten en menschen onbeschrijflijk vuil zijn. De bevolking heeft het bizondere type, dat aan den russischen moeilijk herrinert: een goedige, domme, slaperige uitdrukking van het gezicht…’.
‘In Reval we had one hour to visit the city. The dominating impression I got was that the houses, streets and people are incredibly filthy. The population has the special type of face that hardly reminds of a Russian: a kind, stupid-like, sleepy expression’.
Wow, such an old story but yet so many similarities with our modern times! Curious for the entire, yet still rather short, story? It can easily be found on the Project Gutenberg website. Enjoy! I did for sure :).