Goodbye Baltics…

They have made me to who I am now… Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Within five valuable years I expanded my world view, got used to different mentalities, survived heaps of snow with -30 degrees and discovered both the most beautiful as well as most dirty places I had ever seen. I found love, and I lost love. I learned to say no and to trust my intuition. I found out the characteristics of being Dutch through self spot and pride, realizing that origin can often be traced back within one’s reasoning. I felt lonely on the most crowded student parties, but yet so fulfilled and energized when strolling along the sea side, through centuries old Russian cemeteries and abandoned side streets, all alone. There’ll be things I’ll miss, like my friends, the warm Baltic evening light, all magic but non-touristy places and the surprisingly informal atmosphere within the universities and internship placements.  There are also things I’m not going to miss, like the Lithuanian style inner-curve-taking way of walking which I still don’t get, the often experienced ‘customer isn’t king’-behavior, and the smell of people drinking so much cheap beer and vodka that they simply sweat pure alcohol, and then always manage to stand too close when there’s no way out, brr. Five years at this beautiful corner of Europe made me more independent, more intelligent, more open, more creative and even less judgmental. Being comfortable with yourself and your achievements is one of the greatest satisfactions you can have as a young adult. Especially as a woman, it was a delight (through a.o. the topic of my Master thesis, having to do with sexual objectification) to properly and comfortably distance myself from the immense female self-body-monitoring that seemingly occupies the lives of the majority of women here. The insight in the mechanism provided self acceptance and satisfaction, leaving a lot of time left to notice other things in life, let it be a special bird or just the change of light. Yes, the Baltics made me realize there is much to enjoy in life. Because of my experiences here, I managed to put my teen-like shyness aside and to perceive the world with open arms, but yet, always strongly relying on all my senses. If I could do it over again, I’d walk the exact same path.

From teen to young adult in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I left my teen years behind somewhere in Russia, where I celebrated my 20th birthday in 2010.

A view from the outside – magazine of the 25th anniversary of VMU’s re-establishment

 The original article, with the full text below.
Hello! My name is Nienke Bos and I’m a 24-year old student being passionate about hot air balloons and exploring the Baltics. Studying in Lithuania was a logical follow-up of my previous study adventures. I fulfilled an internship in Estonia and my Erasmus exchange and yet another internship in Latvia. Of course I couldn’t let dear Lithuania behind. In 2012 I started my full time Master degree in Journalism and Media Analysis at Vytautas Magnus University. Many youngsters from my home country the Netherlands would rather decide to head to France and Spain in order to ‘study’ there. Well, we all know what that means, don’t we? The stereotype foreign student being more active in studying beer brands than actual academic journals, furthermore accompanied by the sun, see and beach. 
I’m surely a victim of modern times, driven by the need to be different and stand out from the crowd. The fact that many Dutchmen regularly ask me how my studies in Russia, Iceland or even Lapland are progressing determines I succeeded in my wish to be rather different. People have no idea where I’m located and are shocked when I tell them Lithuania is an EU-member state since 2004 already. Such a pity, because even though it might sound cliché, Lithuania definitely conquered a place in my heart. It’s a pleasant country to live in. The quality of education is wonderful, the dormitory is besides small and simplistic actually very cozy and walking around through Kaunas feels safe. The only thing that I as a Dutchman could wish for is to buy Gouda or Olandu suris which is actually made in the Netherlands instead of Poland and to see more tolerance towards cyclists by pedestrians and car drivers. 
I discovered that under a layer of general pessimism and on first hand non smiling faces, there is a majority of warm hearted people sharing honest laughter. The Lithuanians I met are incredibly curious, generous and welcoming. I’m always amused by their self-spot when it comes to their excessive potato consumption. Some however, and then especially the ones not being able to speak English, can be confronting clear about their mood though. It happened more than once people annoyingly sighed when I entered pubic instances,  showing I’m a foreigner in need of help by sending out a friendly hello and a smile.  Apparently not only Dutch people are that straight forward. Maybe my ‘labas’, ‘aciu’ and ‘gerai’ knowledge is just not sufficient enough to please those ones, so I’ll take the blame for that. 
Moving to the Baltic countries was furthermore a true historical eye opener. During my childhood in the Netherlands the history books were filled with German sided stories. The painful Russian impact on the Baltics only became crystal clear during my stay here. The traces of the still fresh past give Lithuania an attractive raw edge though, noticeable within architecture, but to be honest also in bureaucracy. Yet, Lithuania’s drive to be itself, independent and unique shines over all this Vytautas-minded land. Yes, it seems I have something in common with my dear friend, Lithuania.

Nienke about studying at VMU in Kaunas

Being a foreign student ambassador of Vytautas Magnus University, I often get e-mails from prospective students asking me “Can you tell me something about studying in Kaunas?”. Well, this is a very broad question, yet, in the video below I tried my best to provide a general overview.

The contact information can be found when opening this video on Youtube, within the discription.

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

‘World chick’, Baltic correspondent for LINDA.

For all Dutchies wanting to know more about what’s going on in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: I’ve got some news for you! Since several weeks I’m the Baltic Correspondent of http://www.lindanieuws.nl. This website belongs to the successful Dutch monthly magazine LINDA. by tv presenter and actress Linda de Mol. The tone of the brand is straightforward, short and clear and with a delicate hint of humor. The aim is to reach active and self conscious women and to show that beauty and brains can be combined well.
One of the website’s sections is called ‘Wereldwijven’, or, world chicks in English. Here several brave Dutch women based all over the world report on the news. Even though I’m currently residing in Estonia, I also write about topics that concern Latvia and Lithuania since I’ve anyways lived there as well. 
I’m very pleased I can show my writings to a wider audience in this way. As a future journalist this is a great possibility to learn how to write short but accurate articles and to determine what’s newsworthy and what’s not. It feels good to shine a light on topics which aren’t actively covered in other Dutch media, which was for example the case with the Russian import ban on Lithuanian dairy products.

Curious about what I’ve been writing till so far? Have a look at  

Riga Vision 2013: the complete story

Riga, the capital of Latvia. The city with clean parks, narrow cobblestone streets and a wide variety of traces from her Hanseatic past. This is the place where I ended up as a 19-year old student during my obligatory student exchange abroad. I wanted to break the tradition of Dutch students going to France or Spain for their foreign study experiences. I wanted to discover the undiscovered, and that’s exactly what I did. Now, four years later, I’m still around in the area Latvia forms the heart of. The Baltic States, consisting of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became my beloved home, a source of adventures, self-development, historical eye openers and a quest for intelligence through my education mixed with valuable internships. On every potential flight day I’ve been watching the sky, trying to spot some exotic aerostats passing by. Unfortunately it hardly ever happened. What a delight it would be, to fly over my favorite city, is what I always had in mind. It was a long desired dream and with the end of my time in the Baltics being in sight I almost already gave up on it. Almost, since an invitation to ‘Riga Vision 2013’ from Latvian pilot Gunars Dukste made my heart skip a beat. A balloon event. In Riga. Around 20 participants. I was warmly welcome. No matter what, I definitely had to go there! 
Currently I live in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second biggest city. After being assigned as the event’s official photographer, English text writer and PR lady I headed towards the north with a bunch of balloon minded Lithuanians. In around three hours we arrived in Riga and having lived there for around 1,5 years I felt like being home a bit again. All officials and balloon teams stayed in a hotel a few kilometers away from Riga’s busy airport. It was very convenient to have all fiesta’s participants so closely together. The competition center was located in the very same hotel and also the briefing, our well organized food gatherings and little parties were held there. Upon arrival European alarm number room 112 was assigned to me. I had a roommate too, Viktorija. We met earlier in 2012 during the Junior Worlds where she provided the meteo info. This was her duty now again too. The only thing that surprised me a bit when I entered my hotel room is that there was just one bed. It was a double bed though, but still. The general briefing was followed up by a warm welcoming word from fiesta organizer Inga Igaune, a Latvian female pilot who even without hardly any sleep still manages to look fashionable and extraordinary pretty. 
The Baltic States have been independent for around 23 years now, however, before that the Soviet regime was in force and the main language spoken was Russian. This facet of history still finds its traces in contemporary life. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians all have their own distinctive languages, but the easiest way for the inhabitants of these sparsely populated countries is still to communicate in Russian. English was spoken for the pilots from countries like Spain, England, The Netherlands and Switzerland while the ones from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus favored the Russian language. The organization of Riga Vision clearly have a good bond with their sponsors. I never saw so many little additional prizes and fun and tasty gifts ever before on a balloon event. Upon my arrival a bag filled with chocolate coated fruits was waiting for me together with some souvenirs from Riga and a t-shirt stating I belong to the media. The local pancake flour company provided pans and baking ingredients and also the Latvian sweets production companies were well represented. Basically during every briefing people were awarded with small prizes. Some because they had won one of the assigned tasks, others because they violated the launch period time by taking off 15 minutes too early. These pity prizes show that this event was not aiming at hard core competition behavior bur rather at pure enjoyment and relaxation of flying above Riga. I personally really adore this kind of jovial atmosphere. 
After our official welcome we immediately continued with the first briefing for Friday’s evening flight. The weather looked good and it was decided to launch from a small place just outside Riga. This village is called Ogre and when hearing this name I always depict some caves and wild troll-like figures hunting  around with spiked clubs. Reality showed that this venue is actually inhabited by normal looking Latvians who were very curious about the mass invasion of balloonist in their otherwise so calm home town. I couldn’t stop smiling when all the balloons started inflating. It was such a delight to see some envelopes I had never seen on any other event before. It was the first time I actually saw the Riga Racer which is in real even more beautiful than the pretty one it is on pictures. Dutch pilot Hans van Hoesel was also present and pointed me to the new banner on his balloon stating ‘Greetings from Holland’, accompanied by a tulip in our national colors red, white and blue. Even though the Baltic States more and more feel like become a place I call home, my true identity is still based on my Dutch citizenship. Just a few days before Riga Vision started off The Netherlands celebrated the abdication of beloved Queen Beatrix, making place for her son, now King Willem-Alexander and his Argentinean wife Maxima. It was heartwarming to receive so many congratulations from balloonists all over Europe. Even though the Dutch monarchy is sometimes criticized because of its costs for the state, events like these rise my pride for my liberal country, especially since I’ve been so distanced from it the past several years. During Friday’s evening flight I retrieved the racer style Kubicek from my friends who brought me to Riga earlier that day. Spectators were to be found all over Ogre. I figured out once again how special the spring and summer evening light in the Baltic States is. I can almost not describe it, the comfortable warm color it shines over endless fields with here and there an old wooden farm and a couple of storks nurturing their babies on their nests. As soon as we reached the landing spot the evening dawn spread over the fields, making Latvia’s beautiful nature look slightly mysterious but yet so pure.

On our way back to our hotel we quickly dropped by at one of the three refueling stations. All of them are open 24/7 so that’s again a thumb up for this well arranged feature by the organization. Around 23.00, knowing we had to get up again in less than six hours for the morning flight, another activity started off. It was time for the official welcoming party. We were spoiled with an abundance of tasty snacks and there was a table filled with liver destroying beverages, from alcoholic mix drinks to champagne and vodka to cognac. Those Latvians surely know how to get shy balloonists to the dance floor! Inga invited all officials and pilots to come to the stage one by one. She offered all of us a gigantic book with pictures from Latvia in the year 1987 and 2007. It’s amazing to see how Latvia quickly developed to a country now even belonging to the European Union. The collection of pictures certainly show how a random day in Latvia looked like in these two decades. I was watching the opening spectacle together with the very kind British pilot Allie Dunnington. I just love how she’s always running around with her camera and makes time during her flight to shoot some extraordinary shots of her adventures. Estonian pilot Kalev Tikk offered us a glass of cognac, a respectable amount. ‘This is how we drink in Estonia!’. We were entertained with special performances of famous local artists, passionately play backed by the boys and girls from the organization. Even the Latvian Robbie Williams came by and before I knew I was dancing around with one of the two only active balloon pilots in entire Estonia. I’m curious if someone managed to capture this on film since I as a non-party girl basically never end up dancing. By the time it was 0.30 I decided to go to bed to at least catch some hours of valuable sleep. My roommate Viktorija thought the same so there we were, giggling around. ‘I never ever thought I would end up in bed with the meteo girl!’.

The conditions for the Saturday morning flight looked ‘too good’ as stated by Viktorija. When the wind was measured it said: no. No wind. The eventual data collected pointed at every single direction you can imagine. A calm flight it would be and it was decided to take off at Rumbula Air Base, an abandoned military airport. A minimum and maximum distance as well as a hesitation waltz were scheduled for this flight. I didn’t really notice much of the competition spirit which made the entire event pass by without any hectic. The main prize however was a brand new Samsung phone not even sold in the Baltic States yet. Still, pure fun and relaxation were what really mattered. The balloons crossed the Daugava river dividing Riga in two parts. I joined the Lithuanian chase crew once again and we took the touristic route in reaching the landing spot of our pilot Zydrunas Kazlauskas. Ballooning definitely takes you to places you’d never thought of ending up. It’s always fascinating to drive through ordinary districts and discover how locals slowly live their lives and smoke their morning cigarettes in their unfashionable bathrobes while enjoying the strong spring sun. 
Back at the hotel I treated myself on a well deserved meal consisting of pasta, potatoes, pancakes and porridge. And interesting combination but I was clearly in need of it after all the fun in such a short time span. There was time for a half an hour nap before the next activities would start. When I woke up again I found Viktorija next to me laughing about the fact I was still wearing my shoes which were sticking out from under the blanket at the end of the bed. That’s what I call not wasting time on unnecessary things and gaining as much precious time to rest as possible. Saturday afternoon we headed towards Riga’s beautiful city center to join an organ concert at Riga’s Dome. After that some of the event’s participants made a boat ride on the Daugava while some Lithuanians joined me for a guided tour through Riga. I’ve been working for Riga’s most popular tourist guide for a while so I know where to find the most fantastic places. In around two hours we saw the entire Old Town, the breathtaking Art Nouveau district, the central market (inside the zeppelin halls) and a few parks where all flowers and trees were blooming like maniacs. Riga’s weather was surely showing off for us.
Also for Saturday evening the weather looked all fine. This time we would start on a small embankment in the Daugava river with a perfect view on Riga’s Old Town. The city was crowded with spectators where dozens of festive events were organized. May 4 is a special day for Latvia since on that day in the year 1990 the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia was adopted which made Soviet Latvia a free and independent state once again. I didn’t really know how to feel during this day. Of course the Latvians were all euphoric, however, in the Netherlands May 4 is kind of a sad day during which we commemorate all civilians and members of the armed forces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands who have died in wars or peacekeeping missions since the outbreak of World War II. Nevertheless, this evening made my day, my week, my month and possibly even my year. I joined the Estonians for a flight over Riga! This has been one of my biggest dreams ever since the first day I set foot on Baltic soil. All muscle power was needed though to send the balloons up in the sky. The embankment was terribly small and the sea wind didn’t make the inflation much more easy. Latvian pilot Gunars Dukste took off the first having a gigantic Latvian flag hanging under his balloon. What a fantastic goose bump moment. A little later it was my turn to leave the earth behind. My intense ‘whoohoo!’ was probably heard by half of Riga’s inhabitants. What a delicious delight, being in a balloon above my all time favorite city. Happiness filled my senses and rapidly all desired shots were captured by my camera. We headed towards the west which caused us not flying over Riga’s center, but the view on it still was very spectacular. The environment changed from prestigious buildings to Sovietic flats, houses with little gardens and eventually a rural area with swamps, lakes and if I’m not mistaking a secret kind of espionage venue with suspicious looking satellites and abandoned military buildings. 

Before we would reach the enormous amount of forest waiting for us we decided to land. It was a heavy one. Pilot Kalev later on told me this was his first non-standing landing in about a year. A ditch filled with some muddy water was coming closer and closer but eventually the basket stopped gliding right in time. Unfortunately the balloon was already coming down falling straight over the ditch. Even though we managed to stay dry, the balloon didn’t. Rotten leafs were sticking to the in 1990 produced balloon which developed its own kind of smell already without any wetness. Without too much effort we got the balloon on a dry place where we immediately did a hot inflation once again to save it from more unpleasant aroma’s. Back in the car this beautiful flight over Riga was celebrated with the only beer left in the car which we kindly shared, apart from the driver of course. The three adventurous Estonian airsport fanatics were pleasantly surprised seeing a woman drink beer while passionately talking about gasballooning. I think I might earned a + point there, especially since I was asked to join them again for a flight on Sunday morning. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse of course, my dream coming true for the second time. Because of our extra unexpected hot inflation after our smelly landing we missed out on the promising nightglow with music especially composed for this event. Some balloons were however still standing and caused a colorful welcome in Riga where night had fallen already. 
After a short night sleep we headed towards the ‘Freedom park’ for Riga Vision’s last flight. Ironically this park contains a gigantic piece of Soviet propaganda with statues representing ‘liberation’ by the Soviets after Nazi occupation. The weather looked fine once again, but we were advised not to fly after 09.00 because of increasing winds. On board were Kalev, Jaano (team member as well as prospective pilot) and a passenger from the organization. The direction was just too good to be true, right over Riga’s old town. It was a calm early morning and all streets in Riga were still empty. The building of Riga’s impressive skyline passed by us one by one.  This is how a Sunday morning should be, even though a long weekend sleep has to be sacrificed for it. Away from the city we crossed some beautiful natural landscapes with little rivers crawling through the fields. We decided to land before having to cross the area of forest waiting for us. This happened to be a good decision since the wind got stronger every single minute after we touched the ground. Since we landed in the middle of nowhere our retrieve crew faced some difficulties reaching us. He was nearly there, about one kilometer distanced from us, when the road suddenly stopped to exist. He then somehow managed to drive 40km in order to reach the place he could pick us up. This was however not the only difficulty. We landed in a muddy field in which our retrieve car would definitely get stuck. 
The thing I admire so much about the Estonians I joined is that they take all problems with a smile, don’t stress and easily find an inventive solution for anything. Kalev hit the road in search for the next farm, asking for a tractor to pull the basket and envelope out of the field. In the meanwhile Jaano and I enjoyed the sun and a nice little walk in the area we landed. We somehow ended up comparing the Dutch juvenile prison system with the Estonian one, then linking that to the way how both countries handle asylum seekers. Jaano also told me about his way of living and the time he spends with his hobbies up in the air and his two giant dogs. Ballooning is in fact a suitable tool to meet awesome inspiring new people. An old tractor kept together with isolation foam came down the hill to rescue with a smiling Kalev happily waving from the back. The Latvian farmer got all equipment to the safe solid side right outside the field. After some more interesting conversations about ballooning in Estonia to the Russian military back during the Soviet days our chase crew finally arrived. 

It’s amazing how so many activities can be packed within one weekend, while such a weekend flies by. The only thing left now was the closing ceremony held in Riga’s botanical garden. A table filled with shiny strawberries and delicious pasties were waiting for us. One happy ballooning family gathered together and shared experiences of their exhausting but memorable time in Riga. All pilots and officials were once again overloaded with presents, hugs and smiles. Since the competition tasks weren’t carried out that well it was decided to give away the desired phone through a lottery. Farewells were spoken out, memories were locked up deeply in our hearts, knowing we would all meet again for the next adventures. Fantastic how much positive energy a balloon event one can give.

Documentary: Dreams for Lithuania

Just a while ago I wrote about the documentary I was planning to make together with my class mate Junhyup. Well, we finished our project! Nicely before the deadline, that’s how I like it. It gives an insight on the dreams Lithuanians have for their motherland and themselves. We had a lot of pleasure working together with all kind of fantastic people and we cherish this clip as a valuable souvenir of our memorable time in Lithuania. Feel free to take a look by clicking this link. Have fun!