Latvian Pop Music & Prāta Vētra Concert

This post was supposed to be about my weekend, but it turned into a post about Latvian pop music. On Friday I went to the Prāta Vētra concert in Arena Riga (where the hockey team plays) with Jānis (my host dad) and Jordan (there was an extra ticket, so we invited him.) I have no pictures from it, nor can I really describe it, but it was amazing. Here's the two main cultural observations I made: 

1) Only in Latvia is there a mourning period in the middle of a concert. One of the founding members of the band (the bassis Gundars Mauševics) died in a car crash in 2004, and they played an instrumental song and had a slideshow of him for about 5 minutes in the middle of the show. It was quite moving, but Jordan and I found it a bit strange. In the US, that would only happen if the band played on the anniversary, or if it were the first couple shows after his death, etc. But 6 years later, they're still publicly remembering. A typical arena concert in the US is not going to be bittersweet, but everything in Latvia is like this. There is always a hint of sadness beneath the surface, but it is embraced instead of avoided.

2) Around two thirds of Prāta Vētra songs have to end in "lalala" or "dadida" or a short phrase repeated multiple times for maximum sing-a-long capacity.

Wikipedia has a fairly informative page on Prāta Vētra here, but basically, they're the biggest band in Latvia. I haven't met a single Latvian who doesn't like them. They've been around since 1989, but the lead singer (Rēnars Kaupers) looks like he's 19 and it's kind of frightening that he's nearly 40. And his vocal range is intense. They sing mostly in Latvian, but often release albums with the same songs translated into English and Russian. They play catchy "rock" songs (I guess the closest comparison for Americans would be piano rock or pop rock) of a quality much higher than most other modern Latvian pop artists. (See my comparison below.) Although on occasion Prāta Vētra wanders into Euro-cheese territory, they are known for their great lyrics. Their songs in English, well... they have titles such as "Lonely Feeling (to be Lonely)", and lyrics like, "It's like a thunder without rain / It's like a week without Sunday." Maybe in Latvia there's never dry thunder... Anyway, when they write their songs in English, they seem to be pressed for rhymes, hence the strange lyrics. In a language with endings (like Latvian), it's much easier to rhyme. That's my theory, at least.

So, here we will start with a horrible Latvian pop song, and then your ears will be cleansed by some refreshing Prāta Vētra. Note: In Latvian (and Russian, for that matter) only the first letter of a title is capitalized. I know, it bugs me too.

Also, I apologize for the way the embedding shows up on the blog; it messes up the layout and fonts, but as I am not a technical genius and I am tired, I will leave it for now.

Aisha: What For? (Only Mr. God Knows Why) Latvia's 2010 Eurovision Entry
Latvia's 2010 Eurovision Entry: "What For? (Only Mr. God Knows Why)" I don't see why Latvia can't just enter Prāta Vētra every year... (Latvia got 3rd in 2000 with Prāta Vētra; they got last in the semifinals in 2010 with this girl.)

Prāta Vētra: Rudens (Fall)

Yevgeny Grishkovets & Rēnars Kaupers: На заре (Na zarye - At dawn)
A collaboration between Russian singer Yevgeni Grishkovetz and Prāta Vētra. Actually, it's just written as a collaboration between him and Rēnars, but they played it at the concert.  Rēnars sang both parts, wearing a yellow scarf when he was pretending to be "Zhenya" and removing it when he was Rēnars again.

Plaukstas lieluma pavasaris (Palm-sized spring)
I couldn't find a good video of this, so enjoy this music video made by the class 10C at Bauskas 1. Vidusskola. At one point in the chorus, it goes, "Aha! Un kā tev iet un ko to dari?" That literally means "And how are you, and what are you doing?" It's kind of the standard text you get from Latvians, although usually there's not so many ands in there. Anyway, it was exciting when I first heard this song, because at that point I didn't speak any Latvian except for being able to ask/answer the questions "Kā tev iet?" and "Ko tu dari?" Also, if someone could explain to me what a palm-sized spring is, I'd really appreciate it.

Lauris Reiniks: Es Skrienu (I Run)
Better than Aisha, but still... The title means "I run", and the chorus is "I run and run some more / I have yet to manage / Before you leave, wait more / So I dance and dance some more / I have yet to manage / Already so late / I should be present as an image / A strange image." (That's just my attempts at translation, feel free to correct me.) The music video for the song is kind of great. The images are very... Latvian. The best parts? 

-When the weird guys tries to get the girls in the car at 2:21, and they enjoy it (and don't get irritated and/or scared of being trafficked like American girls do, and I am totally not talking about myself and my personal experiences with weird Latvian guys.)

-Also, the girl's outfit with the black leggings and hairbow.

-When he is on the horse, starting at 3:45

-The dance routine at 4:40

Prāta Vētra: Mana Dziesma (My Song)
A very patriotic song about Latvia and Latvians; this video is from their performance at the Song Festival.

Moving to Ādaži

I'm moving to my new family this afternoon, and I decided it was time for a brief update. Since leaving the hospital I've been in Riga (first at my adopted aunt's apartment, and then at a hotel). On Friday I finally got confirmation that I have a host family! They live in Ādaži (see red dot on map), a small town of 9000 people that is 30 minutes away from Riga. (Interestingly, although functions as a sort of suburb/bedroom community for Riga, there is literally forest between the two.) The family consists of my host parents Jānis and Gunita, two younger brothers, Dāvis (7) and Henrijs (4), and two pets (a cat and a dog). According to the family packet, which was in Latvian and written in handwriting that was very difficult to decipher, they enjoy traveling and skiing as a family, Dāvis likes Legos, and Henrijs really likes to draw.

This is my future school, Ādažu Brīvā Valdorfa Skola (Ādaži Free Waldorf School.) I don't know what the "Free" is supposed to mean, since there's tuition (which, as an exchange student, I don't have to pay.) Apparently the Waldorf school has a reputation across Latvia for being full of stupid kids who can't make it in public schools, as to in the US where it's known for the "creative" and/or "alternative" types. There are 14 kids in the entire 12th grade. 14. My first day of school will be on Thursday. I can't believe that with the exception of 1.5 days, I haven't been to school since before October break.

Speaking of October break and the Liepaja trip, I finally bought a new camera cable and was able to upload all my pictures. Here's a few... if you're Facebook friends with me you probably already saw them, my apology.

Rainy street. Note how there were still leaves. (Liepaja)
Fontaine Hotel from the back (Liepaja)
The canal and still-functioning docks (Liepaja)
The beach (Liepaja)
Sunset on the beach (Liepaja)
Beach (Liepaja)

Trees and puddles (Liepaja)

Hospital in Riga

 And again.

View from Auntie's apartment (Riga)

Coffee break @ Cafe Sienna (Riga)

Outside the ward (Riga)

Ferris wheel in the middle of Old Town.
Jordan and I rode it around midnight. (Riga)

We left a message in the snow for Niks. (Riga)

Jordan and I on the ferris wheel. (Riga)

People actually live on this street. (Riga)

Old Town. It's kind of like a gingerbread city. (Riga)

Eggs and Pastries and Uni

Just a brief update...

I was released from the hospital last night, and am now recuperating at the apartment of a family friend who lives in Riga. This apartment contains an incredible selection of books and an adorable asthmatic cat, which makes it a wonderful place for recuperation. It is near the center of Riga and faces a park, and behind that the canal where the ferries dock, which, when combined with the dusting of snow that has been on the ground for two days in Riga, makes for a view straight out of a fairytale. I love being in Riga; I am tempted to call everyone I know here and go to museums and dine in the only Indian restaurant in Latvia and take in as much "culture" as I can before heading away from the city to wherever my next placement may be --- but I am still sickly, unfortunately. Not so much sickly as depleted of all energy whatsoever by the mono. Luckily, the pain is gone and there are only remnants of the swelling on my jawline, although I have what appear to be bruises under my eyes (the right eye is particularly bad-ass looking) as a result of being so stretched from the facial swelling. I probably won't be able to leave the house without coverup for weeks.

In other news, I woke up this morning to a treat of not only a cooked breakfast of eggs and pastries (I can't remember the last time someone made breakfast for me!) but 4 emails from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, each offering me admission into a program! I was accepted into International Relations and Russian (Joint Honors), Honors Modern Languages (Spanish and Russian) with International Relations, Russian and Modern History (Joint Honors), and Russian and Middle Eastern Studies (Joint Honors). Right now I'm leaning towards International Relations and Russian, but I have a long while to decide. Ironically, I haven't submitted any of my US applications yet - they're in the final stages, I'm still applying to 6 colleges in the US (Rice, Kenyon, Grinnell, Wooster, Lawrence, and the University of Montana), but it seems a bit weird to be submitting the applications when I already have a place (4 places, actually) waiting for me at St. Andrews. The British university system offers less flexibility than the American system, however, which is something to consider... Who knows where I will be. Suddenly the idea of studying in Scotland for 4 years is actually real. Imagine - I come home from a year in Latvia, two months later I move to Scotland, who knows where I'll go for graduate school... I feel rather stateless, but in a good way (and not a "stateless refugee" way.) And I'm already planning my hypothetical trips to Latvia over school breaks, as it's not feasible to fly across the Atlantic that often, but cheap plane tickets from the UK abound (thanks in part to the thriving obnoxious-British-bachelor-party-in-the-Baltics tradition.)

Trivia, Because I'm Just That Excited: St. Andrews is the third oldest university in the English speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge, and is the meeting place (and alma mater) of Prince Williams and Kate Middleton. My grandpa once went on a golf trip there.

Straight from the Children's Hospital in Riga...

Yes. I am hospitalized again.

Here's a nifty Timeline to track my progress...

Three Thursdays ago: I arrive back in Valmiera after the Liepaja hospital.
Two Saturdays ago: My course of antibiotics finish. Immediately I feel sick again.
Two Mondays ago: I went to the ENT at the Valmiera hospital, who smeared something gross on my throat and told me to come back Wednesday.
Two Wednesdays ago: I went back to the ENT, who smeared something gross on my throat and told me to come back Thursday.
Two Thursdays ago: I went back to the ENT, who smeared something gross on my throat and told me to come back Friday.
Two Fridays ago: I went back to the ENT, who finally decided to prescribe me antibiotics.
Last Saturday: The antibiotics cause a drastic improvement. I feel well enough to go to a friend's house for the first time in 3 weeks.
Last Sunday: In the afternoon I start to feel worse.
Last Monday: I wake up with horrible side effects from the antibiotics and experience some of the strongest pain of my life. I go back to the doctor, who tells me it's because of the Latvian climate and I didn't wear a hat.
Last Tuesday: I have stopped taking the antibiotics after researching them and finding out that they have a black box warning (!!!) in the US, only currently allowed for the treatment of anthrax. It also is proven to work against thyroid medication, something any competent doctor should have known. I print out literature proving both this and that my pains, which were very specific, were side effects. The doctor tells me that I need to wear warmer clothes. Host brother backs her up by telling her that when I walked the five feet from the door to the car in 55 degree weather, I was only wearing a long sleeve shirt and a sweater. Gasp.
Last Wednesday: I try to go to school because I cannot stand another day in the house. Also, can't sleep all day because my bed is infested with both bed bugs and fleas. (Not new, but couldn't tolerate any more bites than I already had.) I go to school and am told by each teacher and classmate that I need to go to a tanning booth and that I look different... almost... Asian. (That swollen.) I come home, take a nap, and wake up to the realization that I am feeling as bad as I was when I checked myself into the Liepaja hospital. I take the easy way out this time and call my pals at the Embassy, who kindly spoke to my host mother and convinced her that I needed to go to the ER. We go to the ER, they take my temperature and the same ENT looks at my throat again, and then she recommends that I go to the Children's Hospital in Riga. Apparently the Valmiera hospital was not equipped for my case. As my host family has no car, I am taken by ambulance to Riga.
Last Thursday: At 1 am, I arrive at the Children's Hospital in Riga after the 2 hour ambulance ride. I am met by Ieva, our hosting coordinator. Now I hold the record for exchange student emergency midnight phone calls, apparently.
Last Friday: Although I have been on antibiotics for 24 hours, I am worsening. Apparently I look like hell. (Heck, according to Jordan, because he is a Mormon and doesn't curse.)
Last Saturday: Antibiotics changed. Improving.
Yesterday (Sunday): Improving. Sunday night my mother arrived from the US.
Today (Monday): Improving. Lots of ultrasounds. Gourmet feast from my mother.

I can't keep track of when my visitors came and went : my contact person Silvija has been coming every day, sometimes with her daughters, providing me "real food"; Jordan and his host mom Aija, who happens to be a brilliant doctor, have stopped by multiple times; a family friend from the US; my host mom dropped off some clothes and my computer on Saturday;  my real mother has now come from the US and will stay here until I'm released; tomorrow the president of AFS and a board member are coming to visit. Due to the kind hearts of my visitors, I have been spared the horror of Latvian hospital food. There's no vegetarian options either - I ran into that problem in the Liepaja hospital - and luckily this time I didn't have to wait two full days until I had human contact (and real food) from the outside world.

Currently, the diagnosis is unclear. The doctors are pretty sure I have mono, although the last two tests (from Nov. 15 in Valmiera and from the previous one in Liepaja) were negative. The strep throat I had in Liepaja probably never went away in the first place. Right now they're thinking mono, strep, and tonsillitis, but only the last one is officially diagnosed.

After I'm released from the hospital, I won't be going back to my host family. For a variety of reasons, it was not a good fit, and my doctor thinks the circumstances were detrimental to my health. At first I was resistant to the change. I didn't want to switch schools; school and my class seemed to be the only things keeping me sane. Now I face the strong possibility of moving cities and schools, as host families are hard to come by in Valmiera, particularly for a vegetarian. When I officially put in the request for a change, I had that cheese-grater-on-the-chest feeling that my exchange as I know it is over. Even if I don't have to change schools, I may be out of school for another few weeks - possibly right up to Christmas break. I thought about it a lot today, and I essentially I am missing almost 1/5th of my exchange being sick. But I realized that in this time I have drastically improved my medical Latvian, met an incredible variety of people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities (nurses, doctors, patients, their families, medical students, etc.), grown closer to the people who have been helping me through this, finished two more college applications, come to understand the Latvian folk-mentality that still tinctures anything related to health... and I got a fantastic Common App essay out of it. So, who knows where I'll be in a few days. (Okay, probably still in the hospital, but I'm trying to be philosophical here.) Despite the fact that I'm switching families, both my parents have had to come to Latvia to oversee my medical care, and I've been hospitalized twice in three months, I'm still excited and optimistic about my exchange. And I think that's the main thing Latvia has done for me - I'm now one of those annoying glass-half-full-of-cheer-and-a-magical-unicorn people.

Note: It's really hard to type with an IV in your arm.

On Mountains and Homesickness

10:14 AM Posted by Allie 0 comments
It has been over three months since I have been in Latvia. I have spent a third of that time being sick. I wish the reason for my lack of blogging is that I've been running around Latvia having a fabulous time. Instead, I have spent the past month ill. In fact, I haven't been to school in over a month, save a day and a half in the past two weeks.

The benefit of being out of school is that I realize just how much I miss it - my teachers, although some are crazier than others. As a diversion from the serious and rather boring topic of my health, I will relate an encounter that took place between my history teacher and I after I gave a presentation on American late-19th century imperialism in which I mentioned Social Darwinism:
Teacher: Hitler was a Social Darwinist, you know.
Me: I know.
Teacher: I'm a Social Darwinist.
Me: ...
Absence does make the heart grow fonder of some things. In the hospital, I'm in a no-man's-land: not at home in America, not at "home" in Valmiera, and I've had much Magic Mountain reflection-time, minus the TB. Things I miss from home: My pets. The mountains. Blue sky. Kraft Mac & Cheese. Ethnic food. Things I miss from Valmiera: My school. Friends. Tutoring my little neighbor. Walking home from the post office with a brown paper package tied up in string. Buying piperkūkas from Elvi.

A note on homesickness: It has struck me in a rather unusual way. Everyone always asks if I am homesick for my family, for my friends, etc. Of course I miss them, and yes, some days are harder than others, but I am not homesick for them. The only things I am really homesick for are my pets and the mountains. Yes, the Santa Cruz Mountains. I literally find myself dreaming about the overpass on the way to Kaiser San Jose - I would love if someone could tell me what it's called or what freeway it is so I could place a name to this place of obvious significance. On that overpass you are suspended above the suburbs, but they just appear to be covered in rows and rows of palm trees, and you are surrounded on three sides by mountains. When I think of homesickness, I think of mountains. There are no mountains in Latvia, just as there is no word specifically for mountain in the Latvian language. "Kalns" means both hill and mountain. I suppose ancient Latvians found no need to distinguish between the two, because they had no concept of the existence of anything larger.

Belated Photo from Teacher's Day...

...that has nothing to do with the last post. It's just cute. Also, doesn't everyone look like a cut-out figure?

Scattered Post-Hospital Blog Post

11:59 AM Posted by Allie 1 comments

To those who are concerned (and not to whom it may... sorry, lame pun): 
Yes, I am fine! I am out of the hospital and on a 10-day heavy does of antibiotics and various other pills. No, I'm not going home; I will be back in Valmiera on Wednesday. 

To those who are totally confused:
I had about 100 blog posts lined up, but by now I've forgotten all of them because something rather significant and frustrating happened - namely, tonsilitis/strep throat/systemic infection that required a 5 night hospitalization. In Liepāja. Liepāja is around 300 km from Valmiera, a seaside town (and the westernmost city in Latvia) that in the summer is a popular vacation destination. We had a week long break from school, as did the rest of the country, and Katharina (a German exchange student), Jordan and I decided to go to Liepāja. We found a funky and inexpensive hotel, Hotel Fontaine, with an ethnic imports/military surplus store in the check in area. The only bad thing about our room was that it was cold. We started a fire in the furnace once when apparently we weren't supposed to, and I'm pretty sure they thought we were stupid, as every day we had at least two hotel workers come and warn us about the stove - to put it bluntly, "Don't go fire or you will die." Not sure if she was referring to actually going in the stove, or don't "make the fire go"... Anyway...) I'll go into details and post pictures from Liepāja when I have my USB cable (actually, I'll steal some of Jordan's so that this blog can have pictures), but right now I will write about the most interesting part of the entire vacation - after it ended.

Me outside of our hotel, before the now-infamous Ailment of the Almonds.

I had a sore throat before I left Valmiera, but I get sore throats all the time, and I get over them. This one, apparently not. Each day it got worse and worse - by Monday, swallowing was painful, and by Tuesday, swallowing was barely tolerable. Upon inspection in the mirror, I knew I needed to get medical attention. All the clinics were closed, and I didn't feel like taking a cab alone at night. On Wednesday (after waking up at about 10), I took a taxi to Liepāja Central Hospital and went to the ER. After trying to get someone's attention for about 15 minutes, I successfully managed to explain that something was wrong with my tonsils. To be admitted I had to show ID. As my passport was still in Riga with AFS, the only ID I had was my ISIC card (which is no good for official documents) and a photocopy of my passport. The photocopy was enough, and I filled out a brief form with my addresses in Latvia and the US. 

Then I was taken to an exam room, where I waited for 15 minute periods. In between each period of waiting, someone would come in, ask me to sign something or take my temperature, and then leave. After about an hour, a doctor finally saw me. Now, no one in this hospital spoke English. This doctor spoke no English. And so I would like for everyone to take a moment to appreciate the fact that I was able to describe my symptoms and answer all her questions - including those about insurance - in Latvian. She basically asked me a bunch of questions, and then took one look in my mouth and said, "You need to stay here tonight."
Just frying some lavash in the hotel kitchen...

That's when the calling started. I first called my host brother and let him know, and then our hosting coordinator (whose cell phone doubles as the emergency number). Then I gave the phone to my doctor... and halfway through the call, my credit died. And so I was left without a way to communicate to the outside world. So, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. If worse came to worse, I could probably have called from a hospital phone. But that would have been a hassle, particularly when connected to an IV. 

The first day and night were the worst. I had no way to call out, I couldn't respond to texts from the 3 friends who knew I was in the hospital, and I had no communication with the outside world. There was also the hospital-culture-shock, which I will talk about later. Mostly that night was spent feeling scared, in pain, and alone. The second day the calls started pouring in, including from my parents. 
They had gotten an email from AFS saying that I had been admitted into a hospital in Liepaja complaining of angina and irritation of the almonds.
Yes, I felt the need to bold that. Angina was some Latvian word related to tonsilitis and strep throat that had nothing to do with the kind of heart pain that old people get, which caused everyone undue panic. As for the almonds, mandeles in Latvian means both almonds and tonsils. Although I could barely talk for the pain and swelling, I explained to them that this had nothing to do with heart pain or nuts. That call was interrupted by another one from AFS Latvia, who finally figured out that I was alone there. AFS-US had already realized that, and they told my parents that the insurance had it covered for one of them to fly to Latvia and stay with me while I was in the hospital. 
As we all know, Allie cooking ends with Jordan having to open
the window  due to the visible (and stifling) fumes of smoke
from  burning butter. Luckily, Latvian smoke alarms are pretty much non-existent.

When my mom called for the second time and said my dad was coming to the hospital, my first reaction was to say no. When she offered to give me the number of a family friend who works at the American Embassy in Latvia, my first reaction was to say no. It had been so ingrained in my brain that I was supposed to be independent, deal with whatever problems came my way on my own, etc. -  but then I realized that I had done everything I was supposed to do. I took responsibility for myself. I got myself to the hospital, alone, I checked myself in, alone; I explained my symptoms and answered all the doctor's questions, without even a dictionary; I contacted the right people and done the right thing, despite how sick I was. Now that other people could help me - why not let them?  

The embassy turned out to be a fuzzy friendly place (at least over the phone), and nothing like the giant scary bureaucracy it seems from afar. Before anything else, every US Embassy's number one purpose is to help US citizens abroad. They did everything they could - they got a translator on the phone with a doctor so I could make sure I knew what was going on; they Googled the untranslatable "angina" until we finally figured out that it was a blanket term for tonsilitis; they called me multiple times to make sure everything was okay. And I got a cute little flag pin with Latvian and American flags.

As for my dad coming, it was more complicated. Of course I want to see my dad, but I'd thought I wasn't going to see either of my parents for 10 months. That's what every exchange program - and exchanger - says is best for cultural adjustment, etc. I had been under the impression that I wouldn't see anyone from my natural family until the last days of June. To see anyone earlier, no matter the circumstances, felt like a failure. But at that point I was feeling so horribly sick that I just quietly gave my approval. By the third day my dad would arrive in Latvia. AFS US were the ones who suggested he go; AFS Latvia repeatedly told me it wasn't necessary. Was it necessary? No, not necessary. But I have 2 sets of parents across the globe, and if I'm going to be hospitalized for 5 days, I should at least be able to have one parent with me. My host parents couldn't miss work, and my dad could. So instead of being alone in a hospital, it makes perfect since that he should come, especially considering travel insurance pays for it.
It still tasted good. (This is the first day the throat started to get really bad,
so the lavash was kind of painful to eat. You can tell I'm getting sick -
note the beginning of swelling in the jaw/neck area.)

The third day I was suddenly overrun with visits from strangers (albeit kind ones.) Some random AFS volunteer stopped by for an awkward minute-long non-conversation (I still could barely talk), and then our hosting coordinator's mother came by with fruit and a toothbrush and stayed with me until my dad arrived at around 1 with his embassy entourage.  

This is way too much for me to write tonight. It's my first night out of the hospital, and despite how much I want to be a good blogger and not leave a half-finished story, I'll save the rest for tomorrow. I can't wait to sleep on something that doesn't remind me of a prison cot...

Pictures and Two Cultural Observations

View from our living room window
I hate walking by bus stops, because people waiting at bus stops feel as though just because they are waiting for a bus they have the right to stare at you as you walk by. I never noticed that in the US - although maybe I just never walked by enough bus stops - but here, walking past a bus stop at a particularly crowded time, there are maybe 10 or 12 heads that literally turn as you walk by. Every time. For every person.

Also, why do Latvians feel the need to celebrate the birthday of inanimate objects and institutions? At the end of the month, there will be a giant birthday celebration... 
for the mall.

Bridge over Daugava at night -  Riga

House of Blackheads

Today I was reminded by my classmate Kate that I had failed to update my blog in a very long time. While I have been getting such reminders daily from my mother (sorry mommy), I decided I would be kind and gift the blogosphere with my insight. Since then, so many things have happened that this will undoubtedly be a very disorganized and confusing post. Let's start with the weekends, because that makes sense. Two weekends ago was our school's 90th birthday celebration... I volunteered to be an usher, which, in retrospect, was kind of ridiculous given that when people came at me speaking quickly in Latvian I just went, "Ummm..." and turned to whoever was next to me. But I got a name tag, with my name Latvi-fied and everything! Random anecdote: There was this one elderly man (he may or may not have been completely wasted) and he kept wandering around the main hall. Twice he came up to me, looked like he was about to say something, stared at my name tag, got a disgusted look on his face, and walked away. Twice. The only theory we could come up with is that maybe he thought I was Russian... Then there was an old lady who went up to one of my classmates, shook her hand, and said (in Latvian) "Hello Ruthie!"
Aleksandra: the least helpful dežurants you will ever meet.

On Thursday, I missed the second half of school in order to take the bus to Riga for Intercultural Dialogue Day - which, despite its name, was actually quite fun. We got funding from the EU to scribble circles on paper. No joke. Oh, how I love the EU... Anyway, we made presentations on exchange, intercultural communication, etc., met a bunch of people from all over the world (including the president of AFS International), and ate cake.

All the other exchange students spent Friday in Riga at some other events, but I drove back to Valmiera that night (my bus got in at 1:30 am) in order to go to school the next morning. Yes, I turned down the opportunity to miss school, but only because it was Teacher's Day. I taught first grade with Līva and Arta, which was... interesting. Note to concerned parents: have your teenager spend two hours trying to control a room of 25 seven year olds and you will never have to worry about them being on "16 and Pregnant." I can't remember how many times we had to break up wrestling matches, fights, etc... the only method of control that works is, literally, carrying the misbehaving child upside down. Then there was that one kid who liked to scream the F word (in English) to get a rise out of me. At the end of the lesson, there were two little kids who gave us hugs and literally clung to our legs as we left - the level of cuteness made the early morning torture almost worth it. Almost.

That Saturday I rode back to Riga for the AFS Latvia 20th Anniversary Ball. Despite my lack of any formal wear (yes, I've been here for a month and still haven't gotten used to the whole "dressy" thing), it was an incredibly fun party. I don't really know what to say about it; when Jordan's photos come back they will explain themselves. Oh, and the ex-President of Latvia was there (I guess she's like their Bill Clinton, minus the whole impeachment thing), as well as many other important people whose names and titles I forget. And there was more cake!

L-R: Jordan, Ieva, Gustavs, Napon, Allie with eyes closed, Martiņš, Alex
The party ended at 2 am, past the last bus to Valmiera, so I stayed with a bunch of AFS-related-people. We walked around Old Riga for a while and when we got home drank all the free Coke we were given (seriously, I think Coke is a sponsor of AFS or something, because they were just handing it out... I had 6 bottles in my backpack alone) and went to bed at 7. The next morning we went on a walking tour of Old Riga (although we were late and only caught the end), ate as a giant group of AFS people, and then 7 of us (2 Latvian returnees, 3 inbound exchangers, and 2 volunteers) went to the top of St. Peter's Church to look at the view. Afterwards we went to the Melngalvju Nams, which translates literally to the House of Blackheads. Disgusting, right? It was actually just a historical museum, nothing related to skin problems and acne. I don't know if it's a normal Latvian thing, but usually American teenagers don't hang out in museums. We were there until closing doing weird things like auctioning off paintings and discussing whether it's normal to have a stripper pole in the middle of your basement. (Topic courtesy of Alex, who was an exchange student in Alaska and witnessed this.)

That's enough for today. The photo-to-text ratio is already too low, and I still haven't spoken about this week yet...

I Don't Even Have a Title for This...

So, I have been a bad blogger and have failed to update for the past week or so... I am really much too lazy right now to do a day-by-day, so I'll just write about what I can remember.

On Sunday, I volunteered at the Valmiera Marathon with 5 other girls from my class. We were working from 8 am to 5 pm, but, like with any job, most of the time was spent waiting. With the exception of skiing, it was the longest time I had spent outside in extremely cold weather - and it wasn't even officially autumn yet. What do Valmiera Marathon volunteers do, you ask? We register runners; make the medals; hand out bags that contain coupons, candy bars, vitamins, a banana, and a loaf of bread; drink ten cups of free tea; "test" the bouncy house; work at the bag check (I know all my Latvian numbers!); eat the free sandwiches; chase Bread People; eat the free candy; make sure no one steals from the Asics shop; re-test the bouncy house; go to Hesburger for fries/stalking the Valmiera basketball team; another hour of bag check madness; and, finally, load purse with free candy and leave.
The Bread People!

The best part? They gave us participation certificates and medals (the classy engraved medals, by the way, not the ones that we made) - neither of which distinguish that we were volunteers rather than participants. I have taken to telling people (like my mother) that I ran a marathon, and I have a certificate and medal to prove it! (She didn't buy it, by the way... I suppose a 17 year history of hating physical activity cannot be surpassed by a piece of paper and a hunk of metal on ribbon, however official both may be.)

Monday I had to miss school in order to go to Riga to sort out my visa. Katrin (a German AFSer who also goes to VVG) and I took the bus together at 9:45 am. We had planned on meeting at 9:30; Katrin,  being German and extremely punctual, was there at 9:20. Allie, being Allie, left the house at 9:29. At 9:35 I was almost at the bus station when I realized I had forgotten my papers and passport. So I went back home, got the documents, and speed-walked to the bus station... and then I ran as I saw it pulling away. Yes, I chased down a bus. (In case you were worried, it stopped.) We met Jordan, Jan, and Lisa in Riga (Jan and Lisa being other Germans), and took the tram to the Immigration Centre (I don't know what it's actually called, but it was in a very large, intimidating, and bureaucratic looking building; it was some sort of immigration center, so I decided to make myself look informed and write it with capital letters and the British/Jack's college's spelling.) The Germans were missing copies of their TB x-rays, but they were able to get their residence permits due to being in the EU. Jordan and I, however, had less luck. While we both had all the documents we needed from our side, AFS for some reason didn't have one of the forms needed. From what I could understand of the long-and-fast Latvian conversation, there was never a document that specifically said "(My name) is an exchange student." There were forms that said AFS was an exchange program, etc., but none that specifically stated I was an exchange student.

Wherever there's a bouncy house...
Ultimately, after a lengthy discussion and sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a couple hours, we left - Jordan and I without our residence permits. We had to leave our passports with AFS so that later they could go back with the new forms and obtain the visas in our names. While I trust AFS completely, I hate the feeling of being without a passport. I keep flashing back to the documentary I saw on Eastern European girls being trafficked into white slavery - it's always a charming guy with an "exchange program" or "work abroad program" who convinces you that you need to give him your passport for either safekeeping or to get a visa, and then he won't give it back and you can't escape and you're forced into prostitution... Okay, now I'm just rambling. I need to stop watching documentaries.

Anyway, after a rather sour start to the day, we decided to walk to the pankukas restaurant. It was cold, raining, and we were following Jordan in circles. Then we met Jordan's classmates, and it was awkward, and then Jordan left for reasons unstated, and it was just... awkward. Jan, Katrin and I had to get back to the train station, so two of his classmates walked us back. It was slightly less awkward, but, yeah... They took us through Little Moscow (the "dangerous and scary" part of Riga where no Latvians dare go) in an attempt to scare us, but they ended up scaring themselves. Us exchange students really have no fear of Russians, so...

Oh, yes, and someone hacked into my card and has been withdrawing large sums from my bank account. Also, the remaining 13 lats of cash that were to hold me over until I'm able to set up a new account in the US have mysteriously vanished. So, yeah, being broke in a foreign country is great. The worst part about the credit card thing is how easy it would be to commit fraud in Latvia. In the US, you have to enter a pin code not only when you want to withdraw from an ATM, but when you want to buy something at a store. Here, you don't even have to enter a pin! So essentially, you could take anyone's card, go to Origo, buy yourself a brand new computer and maybe a shiny red bicycle, and use their card without any hacker skills required. It's ridiculous. Yes, the hacker was somehow able to get my PIN, so this point is kind of irrelevant, but it's making me paranoid. Do you see the irony with PINs here, though? Cell phones require PINs, but credit cards don't.

Okay, rant over. I'm going to get ready for a(n allegedly giant) party now. It starts in 30 minutes, but all the cool kids (aka we're getting there) at 10 or 11. My plan for tonight? Do hair. Put on face. Get dressed. Sit on couch with tea and bread and watch some dubbed MTV. Go to party. Come home. Sleep.  Then tomorrow our school is celebrating its 90th year, and there's a giant alumni celebration and a choir concert, etc. I'm volunteering (since when did I get so charitable?) and will be directing alumni to their designated rooms by year graduated - more Latvian number practice, yay!

Oh, and one more thing! On Tuesday or Wednesday our Latvian teacher had us take a dictation, and I tried my best to keep up with the quick pace and included a lot of question marks and ellipses. Today in class, our teacher had everyone applaud me - literally - for my wonderful dictation. Of course, it had way more red marks on it than anyone else's, and I'm pretty sure I invented some new words, but apparently it impressed her! She passed it around to everyone in the class, and had 12A and 12B read it as well. She wrote on my paper that by spring I'd be writing with no mistakes, and while I doubt that, it made me rather proud of myself. An unnamed classmate said that I'd soon be better than him... but then another classmate told me that it's not too difficult to be better than him.

Speaking of the 12's, here's the picture our class took on the first day of school. Ignore the awkward pasty child in the back.

So, this post has been horribly disorganized. As a passport-less, visa-less, money-less child, I feel somewhat justified to not bother with editing this for structure. Or punctuation. Or at all. Or even coming up with a good conclusion, for that matter.

A Day in the Life of a Valmierite

This post is really no big deal. There's no tale of the Big City, journey to a farm, etc. It is simply Allie and her average life. The fact that this post seems dull is, in fact, a milestone: I have been here for almost a month, and my "Latvian life" is now normal. It's no longer my "Latvian life" - it's just my life. I have my routines, I know my way around; everything I see is no longer exciting and new - it's just the way things are.

Actually, that's not true. This post contains a wonderfully stereotypical Eastern European image: the sketchy electronics store.
iDeal. We investigated... Yeah, definitely not legal. The best part?
It's in the middle of Riga. Has no Apple employee and/or lawyer
stumbled across this? Oh, Latvia...

And now for the rest... here's a Day in the Life of Allie:

7:00 - Wake up to my alarm, which is still "We Are the People" and needs to change.
7:10 - I finally get out of bed and get dressed. Open my giant window and put on my makeup. Note: In California I wear no foundation other than a sheer powder, but here I wear a tinted pressed powder every day. Otherwise, I feel completely underdressed, and very, very pale. For a country that gets no sun, the tans here rival that of CA. And there are also many Snookies.
7:30 - I tiptoe into the kitchen, trying (and usually failing) to be quiet as to not disturb Gatis and Artis, who are sprawled on their beds in their underwear. For breakfast, I have two pieces of wheat bread with biezpiens and jam or krejums (sour cream, but different) and jam, often with sliced cucumber on top. Depending on how fast I got dressed, I may or may not make tea.
7:40 - I go back to my room and load the notebooks I need in my purse. I have a cute normal sized backback, but in a Latvian school it would be considered huge and bulky. So I use my little purse. It's a tiny purse by my standards, but it fits every single thing I need for school. The notebooks and textbooks are so small and lightweight - it is quite adorable, and convenient. Anyway, in order to see which books I need, I check my schedule, which I have glued (glued! like I'm in kindergarten again!) into the back of my planner, just like all Latvian girls.
7:45 - I brush my teeth, run around doing anything I've forgotten, put on my coat, and leave the house.
7:50 - I arrive at school as the bell rings, and head straight to the basement. The basement is like a wine cellar, with low vaulted brick ceilings. Every class has its own mud room with cubbies, a mirror, and hooks for coats. I put my jacket there, usually run into my classmates, and we walk to first period.
8:00 - Russian. For the past few lessons, we've been going over verbs I've known for a year. It's good to have a class in which I actually follow everything, though. Russian is my only class that's not only students from 12C - all the students in the 12th grade who learn Russian are in this period (except for 12B, because they're strange like that.)
8:50 - English. We go over workbook exercises the whole time, and the teacher often stares into space and starts confusing herself, and asks me for my opinion. On every. Single. Question.
9:40 - Music. Our teacher is a typical nerdy music teacher, combover and all. We sit in a giant (and cold) choir room, take notes on vocal range, and then sing some popular Latvian song. The chorus is "I love you / Do you love me?" and with the Latvian "o", the song is quite entertaining. We actually sound wonderful singing... but I can't even hit the high notes. That's when my lipsyncing skills come into play. Oh, and our teacher told us this story: "There once was a very talented Latvian tenor who moved to Italy to sing in the opera and got very rich. Then he lost all his money and got syphilis." (That was the word for word translation.)
10:30 - We're supposed to have Philosophy, but our History/Philosophy/Politics teacher has been sick/absent since last Thursday (or was it Wednesday?) Instead, Science was moved to this period. We went over the differences between plants and animals (Dogs eat flowers. Flowers do not eat dogs.) and filled out worksheets. It's actually a fun class; we're allowed to talk. Or more like I'm allowed to talk with my "translator," and when we have communication difficulties (smoking fish), it's quite entertaining.
11:20 - Free period! We use our free periods as lunch, because there's no designated lunch hour. We went down to the cafeteria and ate. I had potatoes and rice, which was a huge shock to everyone, including the lady serving the food. Everyone was looking at my plate - "Potatoes and rice? Together?!" "Wow, I never knew Americans ate such strange food..." You get the picture. Who knew? After we finished eating, we went back up to the second floor and sat in the main hall until the next period. (Note on sitting in the halls: The smaller halls are tiny and cramped, but the main hall has giant windows, high ceilings, and is extremely wide. On one side are classrooms, and on the other there are the windows and large tables. Around each table are four giant armchairs. They're old and torn in some places, but it still reminds me of Harry Potter.
12:10 - We had geography, which we spent copying a list of inventions and advancements in technology from the 17th century to the present day. Did you know that the zipper was invented because a fat man had difficulty tying his shoes? Neither did I.
12:50 - Finished with school! I went home and ate lunch (the same as breakfast, but with yogurt).
1:30 - Gatis and I walked to Depo (the Latvian version of Home Depot, with some Target thrown in there, and chinchillas and parrots...), as I was searching for a particular unnamed object that I wish to purchase for my mother's birthday. (They didn't have the one I wanted.) We returned, and Laura was home. We looked through Facebook and (Latvian Facebook) profiles of hot guys (sisterly bonding). Then Gatis decided to take out my ukulele. I went to the kitchen to make my specialty drink (Nesquick, instant coffee, and sugar) and when I returned, my ukulele was horribly out of tune and being mauled by Gatis's clumsy fingers. I probably spent three hours giving instructions and demonstrations, and now he knows three chords (gasp!) and is learning (key word: learning) a basic strumming pattern.

I stop checking the time after school is out, so now I have no idea where we are. At one point I went to Maxima to buy more Nesquick; at one point Mama Zane came home and we talked in the kitchen for a bit over tea; at one point I read more of the book from the Occupation Museum (over halfway done now); at one point I got on the computer and wrote this. Now Artis is going to go on and talk to girls on Skype... And that's a day in my life. Fascinating, no?

And because everyone hates a giant block of text with only one picture, here's Jordan and I in our matching yellow shirts on the plane to Copenhagen, almost a month ago...

Riga and Buses, Pankūkas and PINs

Today I ventured outside of my comfort zone of no-buses-or-trains-required Valmiera... Yes, I went to the Big City. Yes, Riga only has about 710,000 residents, but compared to Valmiera it is a giant metropolis. Slight Anecdotal Detour: When the bus pulled into the first stop in Riga, I put my jacket on and prepared to exit. 15 minutes later, still in Riga and not yet at my station, I was frustrated and shocked - "15 minutes and we're not even in the center yet!" Then I remembered that in San Jose, you can drive for probably 40 minutes and still not be at the other side... Mini-reverse-culture-shock, perhaps? But back to the beginning...
The crepe cafe (pankūkas kafejnica)

Friday night I was texting Jordan (the other American AFSer in Latvia), who lives in Kalngale (a 30 minute drive from Riga.) It's strange, the bond one makes with other exchangers. We met each other the first day of orientation and then spent two days traveling together, and by the end of the journey it felt as though we'd known each other for years. We text each other all the time, and once a week or so we'll talk on the phone for about an hour and spend all of our O!Karte credit. Last night it dawned on me that there are countless buses from Valmiera to Riga, that the buses are only 3 lats ($6), and that I had no plans for Saturday. And so I checked the time table, wrote down the bus numbers and times, and asked Mama Zane if I could meet Jordan in Riga. After some hushed debate in Latvian, it was decided that I could go. Of course, Gatis gave me the safety lecture, as well as a talk on how to get on and off a bus (quite literally - "Before your stop, you must stand up, but carefully, so you do not fall..."). 

On Saturday, I woke up at around 10:20, had a leisurely breakfast of rye bread, biezpiens, and jam with some "Teja Jauniešiem" (Teenager Tea, which I bought at a place in the country - more on that later), and then realized I was late and hurriedly got my things together and speedwalked to the bus station. There were only eight or so people on the bus, and it was surprisingly pleasant. When I think of buses, I tend to think of a sketchy moving vehicle with a tendency to crash and/or smell like pee. But this bus was just... nice. There was a large big digital clock, which actually was a brilliant feature, the seats were adjustable, there were footrests, etc. The most surprising aspect? It was pristinely clean, and lacked any sort of smell.
Wedding photos...
and some guy carrying a kayak in the middle of Riga.
As I only had two battery bars left, I turned off my phone. I spent most of the ride listening to my iPod and looking out the window, which was not nearly as pathetic/boring as it sounds. We passed farm land, villages that seem to be straight out of a fairy tale, rows and rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks, small lakes, and miles of forest. Certain parts of the forest(s, as we passed many different ones) were filled with people mushroom picking. It was quite adorable, actually. As we neared Riga, I turned on my phone to clarify details with Jordan. The night prior I had told him that I would be arriving at 1:45 at Rigas SAO, but we hadn't spoken that day. So you can imagine my panic when I turned on my phone and it asked for a PIN. A PIN! Who has a PIN for their phone?! I do, apparently! Later I learned that every Latvian sim card has a PIN - when I asked Gatis why, he just said, "For security, obviously." - and that it's written in the little packet your sim card comes in. (Remember, we buy our sim cards from convenience stores like drug dealers on The Wire.) Well, this was the first time I'd ever heard of my phone having a PIN. I desperately tried to figure it out - I tried the usual 1234, 0000, 1111, etc. combinations, but none of them worked. And that is how I officially locked myself out of my phone.
Cupcake mural outside the Laima chocolate factory.

Usually, this wouldn't be a big deal. There are always those ancient relics called pay phones, and there are always kind strangers with cell phones. It turns into a big deal when you suddenly realize that you know no numbers. None. Not your home phone, not your host parents' phones, not your host siblings' phones, not even Jordan's phone. It is a big deal when you are stranded without a phone - even worse, without any contacts. I panicked. There were 20 minutes left until we would arrive at Rigas SAO, and those 20 minutes were so stressful they probably slightly reduced my life span.

Dancing people sculptures near the music store
And then I was saved by social networking (aka, I remembered that Jordan had sent my his number via Facebook.) All I had to do was get to a computer. I began writing drafts of scripts in Latvian - I hypothetically explained my situation in detail to a sympathetic stranger and then begged for the use of a smart phone or computer. When I realized it probably wasn't a good idea to advertise the fact that I was alone and without any contacts in Riga, I boiled it down to "Do you know where the closest internet cafe is?" Ultimately, I didn't need to ask - inside the bus terminal, there are little internet kiosks. For 1,20 lats you can have an hour of internet time. In my panic, I dropped in an entire lat ($2) instead of 10 centimi.  Despite the fact that I wasted a lat, I was quite literally overjoyed. I logged onto Facebook, found Jordan's number, sent an email to Gatis with Jordan's number and an explanation, wrote Jordan's number on my hand, and ran to the nearest payphone.
The river in the park... it's actually not brown.

Jordan answered on the second ring, and I breathlessly explained my predicament. A 20-something-year-old punk walking by giggled/smirked (he was totally eavesdropping), but I could have cared less. I don't think anyone understands just how stressed I was... I was about to call the American Embassy. Yes, I could have just taken a bus back to Valmiera. But then I would have left Jordan sad and lonely, and I would have wasted 4 hours and 6 lats, and I would have felt like a failure. Anyway, Jordan answered, I talked for about a minute while constantly shoving coins into the payphone, and then I asked him where he was. He said he was inside the terminal, and we played a game of "Can you see the red sign? No, not that one, the other red sign. Can you see the guy with dreads? Move to your right... can you see him now?" When I finally saw him, I literally dropped the phone (don't worry, the bungy cord caught it) and ran Hollywood-style to squeeze the living daylight out of him in an "I-was-about-to-call-the-embassy!" hug.
Newlyweds' locks on the bridge
I needed to calm myself after such an adrenaline rush, and so we walked to Old Riga. Jordan goes to school in a modern orange and grey building in Old Riga, right in the center of everything. We walked there and then decided to eat at this amazing kafejnica (it's like a cafeteria/buffet/cafe in one) he knows. All they have is crepes. Crepes with mushrooms, crepes with biezpiens, crepes with Nutella... crepes galore. I had a biezpiens crepe and a cherry crepe... so fantastic. Afterwards we walked through Old Riga, looking at the sites and just talking. When we came across the Occupation Museum, I really wanted to go in, but Jordan was being lame and and said that all his Latvian friends had said it was boring. So we compromised and decided to go to the gift shop (the best part of any museum, as everyone knows.) I bought a book, "Unpunished Crimes," about the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia, which I have been reading for most of today. 
Year-round Christmas tree (the Occupation Museum
is on the right.)

After the museum, we walked over to the main park and sat on castle ruins and watched a couple take wedding pictures. There's a tradition in Latvia (and I think Russia too) where newlywed couples put a symbolic lock on a bridge. One small bridge in the park is covered in locks, and Jordan and I spent about fifteen minutes inspecting them. Some people had Chinese characters, others had a simple lock that was from a hardware store, and some (Konstantin and Tatyana in particular) had engraved golden locks.

From there we wandered over to Jordan's favorite music store in Riga. Despite the sketchy alleyway entrance and the fact that it is in a dimly lit basement, it was actually one of the coolest places I've been in Riga. It wasn't that exciting of a store - there were two cheaply built and overpriced ukuleles and a bunch of guitars and some basses - but there was a playing room where you can try out the guitars and amps. We watched two guys jam on electrics for a while, and they were incredible. Then Jordan played "his" $1000 bass (which he apparently visits weekly). Needless to say, I was blown away again. I had no idea such melodic sounds could come out of a bass... That kid is genius, I tell you.

Jordan in the music shop

It was already closing time at the music shop, so we reluctantly left after about half an hour. We started wandering, and eventually we realized we were lost. The Art Nouveau buildings stopped and old wooden buildings began cropping up, as did the Laima chocolate factory. That made getting lost better - it smelled like chocolate for blocks. I brought out my map of Riga after Jordan finally decided to admit we were lost, and we found our way back to the head street. From there we followed the Freedom Monument to get back to Old Riga. (Jordan's comment, in response to their monument celebrating freedom and liberty: "Ours is bigger.") 

Back in Old Riga, we decided to have another meal. We ate some pretty good pizza at an Italian restaurant in a prime people-watching spot... all I'm going to say is that there was quite the crowd. For dessert, I decided to go for a banana split, which I hadn't had in years but was suddenly craving. At first Jordan refused to eat any. Then he decided to take a "little taste," using a mint leaf as a spoon. Then he brought out the fork and stole all the strawberry ice cream. (That's okay, because I don't like strawberry ice cream anyway.) At this point, it was almost time for me to head home. My bus left at 19:20, and it took us longer than we thought to walk there... and it's a big terminal.... Yes, we were those people running through the terminal to catch a bus. I made it with about a minute to spare, bid adieu to Jordan, and secured my seat on this bus. This time, it was pretty full, but I managed to wrangle two seats (one with my conveniently placed purse.) On the ride back, I listened to Bob Dylan and read my new book from the Occupation Museum. I arrived home in Valmiera at 9:30, and sat with Mama Zane in the kitchen for a while and was successfully able to describe my day completely in Latvian - no Russian or English needed! After some more Teenager Tea (next post, it's a long story), I went to the computer, typed this, and went to bed. (Now it's Sunday, and I am planning on having a lazy day in my pajamas reading the museum book. And of course, more Teenager Tea.)

In the middle of Old Riga: a knockoff Obama poster, Twilight, and Michael Jackson.
Remember what I said about American pop culture being big in Latvia? Here's the proof.