Just some unstructural deep ideas during a train ride from Emmen to Rotterdam

Happy greetings from the Netherlands! As I almost got the feeling of being glued onto my plastic office chair in my little room in Kaunas I decided it would be good to charge my inner battery with some Dutch happiness. I hadn’t been home since August, so I kind of thought it was about time again to head westwards. Amazing how many adventures have taken place in just a few months. After my 2013 summer holiday in both the Netherlands and France I headed to Copenhagen for a week in order to visit my friend Astrid with whom I shared a room in Kaunas during the first semester of my Master study in Lithuania. After that I had a truly magnificent time from September till January in Estonia’s beautiful capital Tallinn. So many nice cultural discoveries, so many nice people and such a joyful study program with even more fun extracurricular activities like volunteering at an after-school family centre and teaching at several high schools. I even had my share of ballooning too! Yes, my time in Estonia was certainly one of the highlights of my time in the Baltics, which started all in 2009. I spent Christmas and New Year with my dear friend Melissa in Sweden and in January I moved back to Lithuania in order to write my thesis there, being the last step towards obtaining my master degree. Now I’m home for three weeks again, even though I must admit the Baltics, even though they’re sometimes still a little odd, also feel like home. Blegh, what a too typical thing to say as a Dutchman living abroad.
There were a couple of things I noticed while being in the Netherlands again. Be prepared, I’m going to drift off enormously again on my way to convey what I actually want to say. In order to make it all a bit more bearable I’ll spice it up with some of the pictures I took in Rotterdam, but which don’t have to do anything with the story actually.
Because my study program takes enough time I’m not taking any Lithuanian language course. This is also due to the fact that Lithuanian is not particularly a world language that I might need in my future career. When people on the streets are talking I sometimes understand some words of what they say, but in general I don’t get the main message they’re trying to convey. One of the differences, generally seen, between Dutchmen and Lithuanians is that Dutch people speak a lot more loud in public than Lithuanians. That’s probably also why Dutch tourists abroad are so easy to be noticed; they just ask, maybe even unconsciously, for attention with their loud ‘here we are and everybody may know that’ behavior. Lithuanians on the other hand have the tendency to disappear in the crowd and to act as invisible as possible. Could be an aftermath of the Soviet time during which being notable wasn’t the smartest thing. In offices or in public transportation Lithuanians are eager whisperers. This is an observation I also made in Estonia as well as in Latvia. I might sound a little self centered now, but this whispering sometimes makes me feel a little suspicious. I grew up with the idea that when people around me whisper, they have something to tell which is not meant for my ears. This idea sometimes still arises when being in Lithuania, especially when afterwards some silent, not too fanatic but rather obscure laughs follow. I occasionally feel like being laughed at, which is ridiculous, because how can those whisperers know that I cannot understand them?! Ok, I might dress a little non-Lithuanian though.
On the Saturday before Easter I went to Rotterdam by train in order to visit the museum Kunsthal and to have a look in Rotterdam’s city centre. I really like watching out of the window when travelling by train. Especially after having being away for such a long time I was really pleased to see the Dutch landscape again. Whereas in Lithuania one can spot a lot of creative architecture that doesn’t fit together at all (but that actually does somehow form a whole because of its absurd variety), Dutch villages and cities are rather recognized by repeating patterns in housing, and even in agriculture with little canals symmetrically breaking the green with cows filled pastures. Normally I enjoy listening to music when travelling. Some songs, mostly instrumental ones in my case, just give this certain soundtrack feeling through which you can get lost in your own little dream world. This train trip was different. Dutch words everywhere! I really enjoyed this feeling of being in charge till what extent to understand the conversations spoken around me. In Lithuania I don’t have a choice, I simple don’t understand what’s being said. That can be a pure delight too. I remember well how I spent some rainy summer days in Finland while watching Finnish TV programs. I didn’t understand a word, and oh, this strange but still rather appealing language was great to listen to and to doze off with having it as a comfortable background noise. After having spent so much time in Estonia and Lithuania (Estonian is kind of like Finnish by the way) it was comfortable to be able to actually understand the non-whispered, loud, Dutch conversations being held around me in the train. I enjoyed it that much that I preferred it above my music for this time. 
You know, music is something interesting. I think for some it might actually be a grand factor in feeling at home somewhere, like for some would be a teddy bear or their own pillow. Some of the songs on my mp3 player have been on there for years. Luckily we’re not using cassettes anymore nowadays, otherwise a new recording would be made impossible with all these pieces of music being burnt onto that tape. Many songs bring back certain memories or associations. Some remind me of the Netherlands, others to some fun ballooning in France with friends and yet others bring me back to hour-long bus rides from Estonia to Latvia, while enjoying the Baltic light and the peaceful countryside with its wooden houses and stork nests. With my tiny mp3 player accompanying me on these travels, I carry a set of valuable memories with me that created my personality in a large degree: I am what I’ve experienced. Since I’ve been moving so much since 2007 (firstly to Maastricht and then a whole lot of times in between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) I feel like I created the feeling that my own experiences, my own being, have sort of become my home. No matter where I am, I carry this feeling with me, and I guess rather unconsciously, music plays such a big role in this. People sometimes ask me how I bear to be away from home for such a long time. It was difficult during the very beginning for sure, but now, it almost feels like it’s all going automatically. The key is just to be very close to yourself, to be very good to yourself and how sad and schizophrenic it may sound, to be one of your own best friends. It might be more of a challenge for group-people than loners like me, still, in many cases the often desired free life, living abroad in many countries and being culturally enriched, is attainable. Also financially, you just have to know your way through the maze, work hard and be a little lucky. Still, luck is for the largest part in your own hands.
As you can see I’m drifting off way too far from my initial story once again. So, let’s come back to some other thoughts during my train ride to Rotterdam. One of the most joyful things about being surrounded by Dutchmen in the Netherlands is that jokes and humor play such a huge role in everyday life. This is something I noticed especially because many people in the Baltics, but also closer by, for example in Germany, don’t really have this in common. Humor is often even used to weaken the awkwardness of certain painful situations. And the nice thing is, often it works, at least, in the Netherlands it does. Joy comes with smiles, and during my trip to Rotterdam I’ve been seeing them everywhere. I don’t know if it’s because of the language, but Dutch people seem just so approachable. Hindsight language maybe don’t even matter. When I see Norwegians or Swedes I see this very same openness in their eyes, even though I still by far not fully understand (let’s call it) Scandinavian. This is different in Lithuania. In my eyes a lot of people walking down the streets there don’t look like the caring mothers and fathers or even joyful children from a few blocks away (just to lead the emphasis away on you now thinking that I claim Lithuanian parents to be bad – I didn’t say that, but they just don’t look like the sweet, smiling, cycling parents in the Netherlands). Isn’t that interesting, that one can get so used to facial features, but that when being asked to mention what specifically differs, it’s difficult to give concrete examples? Before this comparison goes into the wrong direction, which is not my intention, I just want to say that it’s wonderful to see so much diversity within one relatively small continent. It’s amazing how history can either create enormous gaps between different cultures, or bring them closer together.
I guess the thoughts as described above maybe don’t easily arise when residing in just one country for an entire life time. Being distanced from your roots makes you so much more aware of where you come from and how your host culture can differ from that what you were used to. Countries geographically not even being so distanced from another can be driven by people with complete opposite ideas on religion, relationships and even esthetics. This is exactly what leaving your own country makes so appealing. Being distanced from your home country culturally enriches, but also provides insights that would otherwise maybe never have appeared. I am never really considered as ‘Nienke’ when being in Kaunas. I’m ‘that girl from the Netherlands with white hair’. I somehow embody my country, whether I want it or not. When walking through Rotterdam this caused some confusion, which would probably fade away after spending some weeks or months in the Netherlands again. On the one hand I’m ‘the’ Dutchman (because of a lack of other Dutchmen in Kaunas, not because I consider myself that important), but on the other hand this image of myself didn’t really fit with my presence within this crowd of Dutchmen in Rotterdam. In the Netherlands I also don’t always really feel like being just ‘Nienke’, but more ‘that girl living in Russia’ (because a lot of people here sadly still consider everything behind Poland to be Russia). This two sided projection of personality is confusing, especially when people in the Netherlands start to say that “you have such a typical accent”, even though I’ve been embodying my country every single day when being abroad. Oh well, issues of a student that thought of going on Erasmus for half a year, but ended up extending this period of time up to five years already by now. Despite of all this, it’s good to be back for a while though! Both sides of my European homes still make me feel fully pleased about my rather adventurous study path. I just wonder if this infection called ‘Fernweh’ I contracted will ever be banned by my system. It doesn’t look like it for now… but that’s ok.

English(wo)man in LT

Guess it is time for a little update once again. I have been terribly busy with my thesis the last few weeks but the end is luckily in sight. I have to hand in my work May 12th and I’m looking so much forward to the moment that this thesis burden falls off my shoulders. Quantity-wise it all goes fine. Previous week, during a hot spring evening, a loud thunderstruck marked my 30.000th written word; interesting timing. Also quality-wise it finally goes into the right direction, even though I expect some excessive coffee usage during the last week before the deadline.
Two weeks ago my dear friend Sarah from England visited me in Kaunas. We had a great time and a lot to catch up as we hadn’t seen each other since August last year, when we were in Northern France for some fantastic ballooning during Mondial Air Ballons ’13. We did some sightseeing in both Kaunas and Vilnius this time. It’s always nice to have a close friend around. My life in the Netherlands is so different from that in Lithuania that I value it a lot to show others around in my kind of second world. I guess also later, when my Baltic adventure has come to an end, it’s good to have loved ones around that can easily create a visual image in their heads that accompany my stories of the ‘good old times’ in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
To come back to Sarah’s visit I can say we had loads of fun. Furthermore, Sarah noticed immediately how bad the pavements in Kaunas were, stating she could hardly keep her eyes off her feet because she was afraid to stumble. My father said the same when he visited me last year. I guess I got used to it already. Another thing Sarah noticed were the relatively low food prices in Lithuania. She was so kind to treat me on many meals and coffee’s and with just around 50 euro’s we survived for a long weekend, together, eating out several times a day. What a delight for a greedy Dutchman like me. Then something else: waiter and waitress behavior. Of course I’m stereotyping now, but so incredibly often Lithuanian waitresses can just be a bit incomprehensible. Generally it seems that all restaurants are filled with too much personnel, but that all these people just have one little task for which they are responsible. As soon as the border of their task is crossed, they seem to block. Instead of communicating with their colleagues or just by thinking along, replacing themselves in the minds of their happily smiling customers, they just stand there being serious. This whole thinking along doesn’t seem to be part of their contract. Again, I’m generalizing now, but Sarah was astonished and so was I, still, after all that time. Thus, a lot of waiting and a no ‘customer is King’ service at all.
During our touristy weekend, just like when in France, we visited a lot of churches. Not to attend services, but just to observe the architecture of the buildings, their interiors and moreover the people and their customs. I guess we enjoyed the little Russian orthodox church in Kaunas and the big greenish Russian orthodox church in Vilnius the most. After having visited the one in Kaunas I’m not that eager anymore to eat these rolls of spreadable meat wrapped in plastic. Sarah and I were sitting down on a small bench and after two sweet Russian ladies shared a smile with us a small man walked into the church, taking a seat next to Sarah. In the corner of my eye I noticed that this man looked a bit filthy and homeless-like. He had greasy hair, his clothes were torn and a closer inspection showed his face was heavily damaged. His eyes were hardly visible as his eye lids and under eye skin were as thick as a finger. He carried a transparent plastic bag with him, containing some dry white bread which he fanatically started to eat. Later on he also grabbed a huge piece of in plastic covered meat. He unwrapped the plastic and stuffed half of the thing up into his mouth, slobbering, smacking and wheezing of enjoyment. Luckily the angelic sound of the small choir in the church distracted me just enough from retching out loud. No more rolls of meat in plastic for me anymore now these visions are projected on my retina. Poor fellow…
To conclude, this miraculous discovery in a little side street in Vilnius: a manhole cover from Pont-a-Mousson, the tiny French village where team Grand Britannia and both my dad and I stayed during the previous editions of Mondial Air Ballons.

Estonia – Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon

My feet gently lift off from the earth while the wind guides me on an adventurous exploration. Destination unknown. Tallinn breathes a Nordic vibe even though soon the traces towards freedom uncover themselves. From the medieval Old Town and massive modern skyscrapers the scenery changes into concrete living blocks you would easily categorize as extraordinary Sovietic. Outside the city limits I observe abandoned military barracks while at the same time some innocent children send their smiles and greetings up. In a small red balloon I’m drifting over delicate natural treasures, leaving the rush of the city life behind. 
Balloonists speak the universal language of freedom and desire of satisfying their senses in search for the unknown. Interesting, how a piece of fabric and a powerful burner can connect kindred spirits from all over the world. It only takes a touch of the clouds to make me forget I miss the Dutch cycling culture, our unhealthy deep-fried yet delightful snacks and our ‘ggg’- sound dominating language. Estonia embraces me with purity. 
I hear the wind softly playing with the leaves of the trees. An elk desperately tries to hide which enlightens the atmosphere in our tiny basket. In a masculine tone a cool story is shared about an earlier flight during which bears were spotted. Because of the calm winds we decide to make an intermediate landing in the middle of a bog filled with berries undiscovered by fanatic berry pickers, till now. I jump out of the basket and feel like coming down in a heap of fluffy feathers. The earth is soft, the berries slightly sour and the immense cleanliness of the air makes me doubt about any existing pollution. 
Our flight continues over sweet wooden houses. The chimneys show signs of coziness and the protective dogs make sure our passing by doesn’t remain unnoticed. Curtains are put aside and curious faces stare at us with fascination. I managed to gather many Estonian smiles in my heart already on this way; priceless. 
The day almost came to an end but the grand finale is yet to come. With the sunset on its way, the Baltic light covers Estonia with a soft blanket of the last few warm sunrays of the year. This particular light pleases the eyes and even makes the most old sheds revive a hint of livelihood it used to host hundred years ago. The wind has dropped down and the many tiny lakes in between the forests sharply mirror their accompanying trees lighted by the setting sun. With one last blast from the burner that kept us airborne we safely come down, back into the arms of mother earth. Beautiful Estonia gave price on all her beauties tonight. 
Nienke Bos – The Netherlands