Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cats of Latvia

This Latvian cat can't wait for my conversation class at School #6.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ludza and Grey Peas

Yesterday I went with a friend to Ludza, a town not far from Rezekne. It is only 30 km from the Russian border and is one of the oldest towns in Latvia. According to Wikipedia, it was mentioned in the Russian Chronicle in 1173! Here is a picture of the castle ruins.

And here is a view of the town from the castle:
It was kind of wet and cold, but we walked around the town anyway and had lunch at a cafe. I had grey peas and ham. According to everyone I've talked to, this is the quintessential Latvian dish. It was good. The dish reminded me a lot of the black-eyed peas and ham soup we have at home, but much less soupy. I also had a cold strawberry soup for dessert. Anna had warm cherry dessert soup. I'm a big fan of this soup as dessert idea. Here is a site about Latvian cuisine:

I was going to take some nice photos of Rezekne this weekend, but missed the morning sun and decided to wait. Of course, Inta told me that the sun might not come out for some time.... I think I need to buy some vitamin D!

Tonight I'm headed to Rezekne Augstskola to help Inta out with her Business English class. The students are quite great at English, even though this is their first year in university to my knowledge. It makes me wish we emphasized language learning earlier in the US. Here, they start formal language training in the first grade. Many people in Rezekne know at least two languages (Latvian and Russian). The younger people tend to have had English in school as well.

Oh well, I'm sure Congress will read this blog and decide to pass funding for public school language education. I'm pretty important, you know.

Today's post is brought to you by The Killers "When You Were Young" and Peka, Liliya's adorable kitten. (Liliya and Peka let me stay with them for a little over a week while I found an apartment.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

A List

I was going to write a detailed post about my arrival in Rezekne and the subsequent week of no postings. I decided that was boring. Instead, I shall sum up my week in observations. Forgive me for not having photos yet. I’m used to people near me taking photos of anything interesting and then tagging me on Facebook. I will remedy this. I promise.

Observations in no particular order:

1. Cat ladies are universal.
2. The love of cats overcomes language barriers.
3. Charades and a dictionary also help with language barriers.
4. Latvia has better toilets than Ukraine. No squatties so far!
5. High-school students smell and act similarly no matter the country.
6. There is no polite way to say “piece of shit” and still convey the same sentiment. (A student asked for a polite version.)
7. I can’t use a gas stove very well.
8. My insurance covers the transport of my body if I blow myself up in a gas-stove accident.
9. Skype is an inadequate way to properly convey to my father my fear of blowing myself up with my stove.
10. The substitution of pelmeni in my mom’s tortellini soup is fan-freaking-tastic.
11. There are 16 different kinds of pelmeni in my grocery stove. Heaven.
12. There are 25 different kinds of potted meat.
13. There are 100 different meats in a tube of some sort. 
13a b/c I didn't want to add a number: You shouldn't take my numbers literally. 
14. I am afraid of the meat here.
15. ‘Call Me Maybe’ is everywhere.
16. Clothes are, actually, as expensive as I was warned.
17. My apartment is much less expensive than my old apartment.
18. It doesn’t have a bathroom sink.
19. The glorious old tub makes up for having to brush my teeth in the kitchen.
20. It is good if your Russian-speaking landlord’s wife speaks English.
21. Renumbering this list is a pain so I’ll just add things as they pop into my head rather than insert them topically.
22. Latvians have kick-ass bread.
23. It’s a good thing I walk places because otherwise I would gain a lot of weight while in Latvia.
24. Mushrooms are an art-form here.
25. I wish I had the TARDIS’ ability to translate every language. It would make reading the instructions to the washing machine easier.(Maybe I could steal one....)
26. That’s cheating, though.
27. TARDIS translation would help me interpret the shelves full of flavored mayonnaise in my grocery store.
28. There are also 600 kinds of fish-product.
29. I walk around Maxima (the grocery store) with my English-Latvian phrase book.
30. Jellied meat is “galerts” according to my book.
31. “Es nesaprotu” means I don’t understand.”
32. “Tev ir tik skaistas acis” means “You have beautiful eyes.”
33. “Novac rokas” means “Take off your hands!”
34. My guidebook also tells me how to say “Only if we use a condom.”
35. Google translate that. I’m tired of copying from the book.
36. Google Translate is a wonderful and wonderfully flawed thing.
39. Every time I see a cat, I remember the time I was in L’viv when I picked up a cat and some lady told me it was diseased only after I spent fifteen minutes cuddling it.
40. Its appropriate that we’ve come full circles to cats.   
41. I miss this girl:

42. I also miss my parents, but I don't have a photo of them sitting in a window looking pensive. 
43. They should remedy that. 
44. I'm not going to proofread this list. I'm a rebel. 
45. This post is brought to you by M.I.A. "Bad Girls."
46. I don't remember if I've linked that song before. 
47. Whatever. Listen to it again. 
48. I'm not a bad girl. At all. 
49. I can't even jay walk without getting nervous. 
50. I'm going to read some and then sleep.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Latvia at Last: Riga

I made it to Riga in one piece – one jet-lagged, dehydrated, and sleep-deprived piece.

The Albert Hotel is nice. I don’t believe there is any connection to its namesake Albert Einstein beyond the quotes on the wall and the slightly atomic patterned carpets, but it’s comfortable with a good breakfast, great views, and a fantastic bathtub. It isn’t in Old Town, but I’ve found that Riga is one of the most walkable cities I’ve ever explored. (I still have blisters, though.)

The first evening I was here, I did nothing but eat in the hotel restaurant and read a book in the bath before an early bedtime. The second day, I found a sim card for my phone, explored the area around the hotel, and watched the BBC in my hotel room. Also, I read a book in the bath. Today, I took a walking tour of Old Town, went to the Central Market, and checked out the Galerija Centrs shopping mall. Oh, and I plan on reading a book in the bath. With a glass of wine. I live dangerously.

Everyone I’ve with whom I’ve spoken about this city has almost nothing but good things to say. The architecture is varied and gorgeous (to my certainly untrained eye). The people are nice. The food is tasty. The one complaint I’ve heard from multiple people is that the price of clothing is too high. Maybe that’s changing. I found several very nicely priced shops for people my age. An H&M is also going into Galerija Centrs on the 15th of this month. (My friend Laura is going to be jealous that she isn’t here for that!)

I’d like to add one drawback to this lovely city: pigeons. I hate pigeons. I hate birds in general (except chickens, the most superior bird). I especially hate European city pigeons that aren’t afraid of people and congregate in public squares. They lie in wait for tourists, watch with their beady eyes, and then fly en masse just as the unsuspecting tourist turns the corner. I don’t know if I believe in God, but I certainly believe that Satan is in pigeons.

Tuesday I have an orientation with the embassy about the Fulbright program. It should be helpful. On Wednesday, I head to Rezekne. I’m nervous and excited about the next leg of the trip. I’m half-afraid they’ll meet me, find out that I’m not all that good at what I’ve been sent here to do, and send me back to Texas. (A small part of me, when I think about the long months ahead without seeing my family, hopes that they send me back. I’m more homesick than I thought I’d be. I’m attributing that to the rough trip over and exhaustion, so I hope it goes away once I get started doing whatever teaching I’ll be doing.)

Yesterday I spoke to Inta on the phone and said that the temperature in Riga currently is what we have in College Station for Christmas some years. She said that she hopes I don’t see -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). I almost passed out. 

I've taken some photos, but I haven't dug my little cord thingy out of my suitcase yet. So no photos. I'll figure that out when I get settled in Rezekne. I know you're all dying to see my very non-amateur photography.

This post is brought to you by Gogol Bordello's Wanderlust King.

- V

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Eyes of Tejas are Upon Me

Hi Everyone!

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in a while. Things are crazy.

Currently, I’m in Texas visiting family before leaving for Latvia on Thursday. Quite a lot has happened since I last updated, but honestly it isn’t all that interesting. Well, some of it was interesting when it happened, but I don’t know if I can write about it interestingly. Nevertheless, I promised to update people on the whole “preparing to start at Fulbright” process, so I’ll do that.

I did manage to get my medical clearance and I submitted all of the paperwork to trigger my first payment. They were fairly quick once it got in the system. I’ve noticed that Fulbright often puts, “It may take such and such time to get this completed” on paperwork, but in my experience they tend to get things done quicker than they warned. That means that I’m worried about getting things done in time because of the dire warnings like “Submit all of this stuff at least six weeks before leaving or you might not get your money before you depart.” So I ask about deadlines and what happens if I don’t get my money, etc, and I’m told “Don’t worry.” Of course I’m going to worry. The paperwork is dire! I guess I would rather be told “Well, we usually get this done in three weeks, but we say six weeks just in case the world explodes.”

In short, if you’re thinking of applying, pay attention the dire warnings, but don’t freak out if you feel you’re behind. You’re going to get mixed messages.­

One issue I’m dealing with is a lack of quick communication on multiple fronts. I understand that I’m dealing with a lot of different people in different locals with different backgrounds and cultures and time differences. I don’t need a lecture about people being busy. (I’ve gotten that already.) Still, I do find it nice to receive some sort of “I saw your email” message. I worked in a job with customer email and am used to replying, “I can’t give you an answer to your question, but I finding someone who does and I will let you know.” That way, if it takes a couple of days to get an answer, the person knows I’m not just ignoring them. I know people differ on this, but I get frustrated when I ask a question and receive a seemingly non-related question in response. Or no answer for weeks. Or at all. I guess I err on the side of pestering someone instead of assuming, “They’re working on it.” Because I do understand that I’m not the only person trying to arrange stuff, I feel that I have to be my own advocate when it comes to email.

My partial list of worries in no particular order:
1. sucking at teaching
2. my school expecting me to not suck at teaching and therefore thinking I’m an idiot when I arrive
3. not having a place to live
4. not being able to communicate effectively because my Russian, at this point, is shit

I’ve been working on points 1, 2, and 4 by being clear when communicating with my schools in Rezekne that I’m not a trained teacher, that Fulbright is sending me as an assistant, and that my Russian is pretty crappy. Hopefully it’s enough. I’m sure we’ll all have to adjust our expectations. I’m coming to terms with that, though the planner in me finds it hard hard hard.

As for point #3: I’m working on it. Oy. I have a place to crash when I arrive, so I’m not completely at a loss. Thank god for friends!

I’m damn lucky. So far, I’ve been in pretty constant communication with two wonderful ladies in Rezekne. One -Inta- works at the University where I’ll be assisting with English and American Studies classes. Tatiana, the other lady, works at the high school where I’ll be assisting with English classes. Both have been great in answering all the little questions I have and in helping me look at apartments (more on that later).

A sample of my questions:
1. Can I get internet in my eventual apartment? Of course we have internet. (I imagined an eye-roll here.J)
2. Will I offend people by learning Russian and not Latvian? Why would one need Latvian in the United States? Learn Russian. It is more useful. (I’m used to dealing with western Ukraine where some people are offended by learning Russian instead of Ukrainian. I’m glad it’s not a problem in Rezekne. I can’t speak for all of Latvia.)
3. What do I wear to teach? We don’t wear shorts, but jeans are okay. (Yay!)
4. Will I be able to get around with a car? Of course.
5. Why is nobody responding to our questions about apartments?! I have no idea. It is frustrating. We will find something, though. We will not let you sleep on the streets. (Did I say that I love my contacts?)

So… apartments:

Rezekne is smallish (at least by American standards). Still there are always a couple apartments available and there is a listing site. They’re not very expensive at all. They are furnished generally in varying shades of tasteful. The problem? I can’t get a response when I submit an inquiry through the site! I don’t know if the site is weird or what. Inta has been looking for me, too, but often doesn’t get a call back when she tries to contact people. Once, we thought we had an apartment, but then the lady’s family decided to move into town so she rented to them. Inta says that I’ll have more luck when I arrive and can see apartments in person and can have cash in hand. I’m sure that’s the case and, honestly, I’m not as worried about this part of the process as I expected. My advice: try to find a place in advance, but also arrange a place to stay temporarily and plan to look when you arrive. Also, if possible, have a local contact with you. I’m not sure about leasing laws and customs in Latvia so I’m glad I’ve got someone to help me not get screwed over.

This post is getting long. That’s what I suppose happens when I go MIA for a month and a half. In my defense, I went to a teaching workshop in DC, moved out of my apartment and into my boss’ parents’ basement (thanks to the lovely Hull family), had tearful goodbyes, quit my job, drove to Texas, stayed with my mom, and then stayed with my brother.

So, I’ll talk about DC soon. And about packing. And teaching materials I need and want and don’t know if I need. Tonight’s agenda is Japanese food with Aya and my madre. Tomorrow is the grand family pastime of drinking and cooking and possibly playing board games. Monday: shopping! I need shoes. And a smaller suitcase since mine is giant and I can’t handle it without a support team.

My questions for you:
1. Do you have any suggestions on suitcases? I have a Samsonite that I like, but I would like something lighter.
2. Does anyone who has done the whole Fulbright bit have recommendations for what to wear to a Fulbright function at the embassy? Do I need a party dress? Should I get a party dress just in case?

Today’s post is brought to you by Rita Ora's "How We Do (Party)." I like to pretend that my "tearing up the town" consists of more than two drinks and bed by midnight. I also wish I could wear that leotard.

- V