the Animals...

I think I will miss this face most of all while I'm in Latvia: Angel (aka Rue Rue, aka Doodle) the Siberian Husky. By the time I leave I'll have only lived with her for a year. In a way it will be easier to leave the cats, since I've had them for 9 and 6 years. I hope my host family has pets...

It's strange... I've been without my parents and never really missed them, but I'm always extremely homesick for my pets. It's not that I love my parents less, but we're able to communicate, they know I still love them, etc. But pets don't understand why all of a sudden they have to sleep alone on the bed. They don't understand why someone leaves. And the relationship with a pet is very physical - they recognize love through belly rubs and cuddling. There's no way to show the animals that I still love them while I'm away. I sleep with my dog every night (and before we got her, I slept with a cat on my chest) and I have a hard time getting to sleep without a warm fuzzy animal snoring next to me. (Seriously, my dog snores louder than my dad.) I'm definitely preparing a Build-A-Bear visit before I leave. It's either that or stuffing a tiny hissing cat, a 40 pound dog, and an obese feline in one suitcase. Plus the fish.

Attempting to learn Latvian...

6:54 PM Posted by Allie 0 comments
There are a total of... let me see... zero books on Latvian at  our Barnes and Noble. I've been searching on Amazon, but there's barely any information on those books. Most are pricey video courses, which I despise with passion. Today for "Asia Week" at school my AP Spanish teacher had us learn Dari phrases with this site called Byki. Basically, it's a system of highly organized flash cards. (You can use it online or download it for free.) It uses a very simple mechanism - read the word, listen to it, recognize the word, then translate the word from English. It's really basic, but I'm learning way more than the method I tried before (which involved staring at a list of basic Latvian words on my computer screen and trying to use The Force to embed them in my mind.) 

After I get the 8 Latvian "lists" on Byki done - lists are basically groups of flash cards - I'm going to work more extensively with a free online Latvian program from UW. It's an actual college course, with a fantastically designed website that makes me happy. It's got a Latvian magnetic poetry theme. Hah. Anyway, it takes a much more academic approach to Latvian and is for intense studying, rather than Byki (which is more for learning while eating breakfast.)

I'm finding there are more resources on Latvian online than in print. Usually I'm a very physical learner - I have to write things down to remember them - but so far I've done pretty well, I think. I don't feel the need for a Latvian book anymore - maybe a workbook with exercises. If anyone has recommendations, let me know. 


Going Abroad as a Senior

Yes, I am missing my senior year. Yes, I am aware that senior year is considered the epitome of the high school experience, the year I've been waiting for ever since I was a freshman cowering in the face of the seniors' infallible power. Senior prom! Senior grad night at Disneyland! Senior ditch day! Will I physically miss all those things? Yes. Will I emotionally miss it? Not really.

Prom is first thing people ask about when they find out I'm missing senior year. I went to prom as a sophomore, I'm going again as a junior; honestly, it's overrated. It was fun, but it's not a reason to pass up the greatest opportunity I've ever had. So I won't have a typical senior year. Big deal. I'll be having an amazing senior year in Latvia. My main concern about being abroad as a senior is college apps. (Details after the jump.)

More Than Wooden Spoons...

Apparently Latvia is known for wooden spoons.* My mom was excited about this - I plan on sending her a new set for pasta cooking - but spoons don't exactly excite me. In fact, they're not even my favorite utensil. I prefer the spork. Anyway, I came across a Latvian designer who works not with spoons but with whimsical furniture.

Way cooler than a wood spoon. (Note: the skeleton is not part of the design. That would be creepy.) This bench bookshelf, by Stanislaus Katz, has spoon-like curves. His work incorporates traditional Latvian objects and design- spoons and milk jugs, for example - and modernizes them with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. The aforementioned milk jug is in a minimalist white ceramic... and it has udders on the bottom. 

More Latvian design can be found on the Latvian Etsy Team's site (which also features interviews with the artists). There are no wooden spoons.

*At least, that's what Frommers told me.

Why Latvia?

When I told people that I was going to Latvia, I got two responses: "Where?" and "Why?" Most of my peers were unaware of Latvia's existence. I ended up reciting a little blurb on Latvian geography - "It's in Eastern Europe, one of the Baltic states - those are the ones below Sweden - and it was formerly part of the Soviet Union." After establishing Latvia's existence come the whys. Why Latvia? Why not Italy, France? Why not somewhere known for good weather and good food? Why go to a "communist borscht-eating vodka-drinking country"? (I'll post more about these stereotypes later.)

Honestly, this is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I'm still not really sure why I chose Latvia. I can, however, tell you about the process that led me to Latvia.

How I Chose Latvia
I. Language
I wanted to go to either a Spanish- or Russian-speaking country. As time progressed and I became fluent in Spanish, I decided I would get the most out of my experience if I worked on the language with which I had the most difficulties. In eighth grade I decided that I wanted to go to an Eastern European country that had been a part of the Soviet Union. At first I only wanted to go to Eastern Europe because of my interest in Russia. As time progressed I realized that I had held an almost imperialistic view of Eastern Europe. I was thinking of every country as "ex-Soviet" rather than as a country with a unique language and culture of its own. Researching the area extensively, I became more aware of the differences between the Balkans and the Baltics; South versus East Slavic, etc. With a better understanding of the attitudes and cultures of different Eastern European countries, I made a list of my top choices for an exchange: Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Russia, and Ukraine. It turns out AFS doesn't have programs in Serbia or Ukraine (for safety reasons I assume - land mines and health care?) and because I only wanted to go with AFS, I was left with three choices.

II. Vegetarianism
Back in eighth grade, I emailed AFS and asked about vegetarian placements around the world, mentioning Eastern Europe and South America (I was still unsure of whether I wanted to study in Chile/Argentina or Eastern Europe). She recommended Latvia, not because vegetarianism is common, but because AFS Latvia welcomes vegetarian placements. Some countries refuse to take vegetarians at all. While it can be difficult to place a vegetarian, it was reassuring to hear that a country was willing to be open-minded and accommodating about different cultural practices. This wasn't the most important factor in making my decision, but it was the first thing that really put Latvia in the spotlight for me.

III. History, Culture, and the Latvian Spirit
After extensive research and debate, my top two choices were Latvia and Russia. Ultimately, I chose Latvia. It was a difficult decision - I had been learning Russian since the end of seventh grade. I always thought I would be going to Russia. I didn't want to disappoint Tatyana, my Russian teacher, by choosing Latvia over her country. But when it came down to deciding, I felt that Latvia was the better opportunity for me. When I told Tatyana that I had chosen Latvia, she was supportive. "I think you will like Latvia," she told me. "Russia is not for you now. Later, you will like to live in Russia, when you are older, on your own. But for now Latvia will be good to you." (After talking to a friend from Riga, Tatyana's opinion would drastically change - I'll post details later.)

My final answer to "Why Latvia"? Latvia is the underdog success. She achieved independence not with weapons but with a cultural revival. I have fallen in love with her forests, her fields, her seaside, her cities. Latvia is not paradise; she still bears the scars of being beaten and conquered. She gained independence only to have it tragically taken away as the world turned a blind eye. Now she is back, but she is wary. She fears that her very existence will be extinguished at any moment. She is cautious, sometimes overly so. She is proud and protective of her culture, a culture so many have unsuccessfully attempted to silence. Latvia has her flaws, but she remains poised and dignified, beautiful and brave. The short answer? I admire Latvia's character. I think we all can learn a lot from her.

Sveiks, mani sauc Allie!

3:13 PM Posted by Allie 0 comments
I'm a 16-year-old Californian attending a public performing arts school. I enjoy books, cats, subtitled films, technical theatre, the ukulele, and languages. In approximately 145 days, I will be an AFS exchange student in Latvia.

So far, that is the extent of my knowledge of where I will be from August 2010 to July 2011. I don't know if I will be living with a Latvian or Russian family, attending a Latvian or Russian school, living in a metropolitan area or on a farm. I don't even know which language I will be speaking on a daily basis. Lacking definitive information makes preparation more difficult, but no matter how much one may know beforehand, I realize that it is impossible to be fully prepared for something like this. And in the end, that's half the fun.

Other than stocking up on winter clothes, of which I currently have none, I've been boning up on Latvian history. Sometime soon I will be recommending the books and sites on Latvia I have found to be most helpful.

Finally, I would like to thank my supportive family and friends (specifically my wonderful parents - hi Mom!), Ms. Geyer at AFS Seattle, my interviewer Mr. Ruzic, and my Global Leaders Scholarship sponsors. Without these people, this experience wouldn't be possible. For the longest time AFS was a pipe dream, something that would happen for other people but not for me. I can hardly believe that this is reality - not just any reality, but mine. In 145 days I am going to pick up my life and move it almost 6,000 miles, to a country with a population smaller than my city. To some, it may sound crazy. To me, this is (quite literally) the opportunity of a lifetime.

Uz redzēšanos!