Lauku - the Countryside

Yesterday I went to the countryside with Gatis and my host-great-aunt Baiba and host-great-uncle Andris. We left at 11 and didn't return until 9. The "country", as everyone calls it, is 25 minutes from Valmiera.  I think it's sort of like a time share... there was another older couple and their giant black lab, and a young couple with their baby. It was really like a picture book... chickens were just wandering across the road. (Dirt roads full of potholes, fyi.) I made quite a few "Why did the chicken cross the road?"jokes, but apparently Latvians are unfamiliar with such riddles and my puns were met with stares. Most of the day at the country was spent walking around outside, eating vegetables straight from the garden, climbing the "mountain" (hill) and walking on the ruins of an ancient castle, and more eating. We had amazing crepes that Gatis insisted were pancakes (just because in Latvian they're called pankūkas does not mean they are pancakes!)... They were fantastic, of course, especially with biezpiens and jam, but they were definitely crepes. I think I'll have to make American style pancakes to prove him wrong.

I also tried the sauna... it was... strange, to say the least. I passed on getting hit with branches from a birch tree. Usually everyone goes in together - the entire family, naked - but for my sake Baiba and I went separately (me with a towel. Hah.) It was very relaxing afterwards, but my face felt miserable in the burning heat. I only lasted about a minute... Anyway, here are some pictures from the day.

Me on the lake.

Some unidentifiable sour berry
Canoes on the pond
A frog Tēvocis Andris caught.
The house - inside there's two bedrooms, a bathroom, sitting room, kitchen, and sauna.
Stork just sitting on the telephone pole... That's just normal in Latvia.
The stove is heated with an actual wood fire.
Gatis and I on an awesome Latvian swing.
The lake whose name I forget.

The cat eating
Tractor! With special potato-digging-attachment.
Outside the house
Homemade berry cake
The pond
Boats on the lake

Cultural Differences and Eminem

The concept of privacy is very different in Latvia. Back in the US, when someone is on Facebook or checking their email or writing in a journal, there is an invisible boundary no one crosses - or if they do, it's considered extremely rude. In my host family, if someone is on the computer it is common to gather around and watch what they're doing, read their email, etc. Given that I'm typically a very private person, it's probably one of the most difficult things to which I must adjust.

There is a different concept of "cleanliness" here. In Latvia, everyone drinks milk/water/juice/yogurt straight out of the carton (at meal times it's just passed around), silverware is shared, everyone eating from the same dish is normal, and we usually eat straight off the table (except for dinner.) I'm not exactly a germophobe, or I would have serious issues here, but it's the second most difficult adjustment. But I'm diving headfirst into the Latvian way of life. I figure that if my host family is still alive and undiseased, I'll be fine as well.

Pop Culture
There are practically no cultural differences when it comes to pop culture. America is everywhere. I watch more MTV here than I do in the US. The other favorite channel in our house is LMT, which plays a German soap opera dubbed in Russian and subtitled in Latvian around the clock (or at least every time I turn the TV on.) Also, Latvians are obsessed with Eminem.

And finally, a special treat for everyone... Latvian rap!

Biezpiens and Latvian Food

7:53 AM Posted by Allie 0 comments
Biezpiens: an untranslatable dairy product, akin to cottage cheese, but... slightly different. It literally means "hard milk" in Latvian. Biezpiens shows at every meal, usually mixed with yogurt. A sweetened version of biezpiens coated in chocolate is one of the most popular Latvian sweets. Even I, lover of all things intensely sugary, am not able to finish one - it is way too rich for me.
My host parents leave for work early, so breakfast is usually just the kids. (Actually, it's usually just Gatis and I, because we're the last ones up.) Breakfast is slices of white bread with any (usually all) of the following toppings: tomato, cucumber, biezpiens, cheese, salami, yogurt. My host brother Gatis eats about eight slices of bread stacked an inch high with food each morning. Latvians eat so much... For breakfast I usually have two pieces of bread with homemade cherry jam, cheese, and biezpiens. The host fam is very confused as to why I eat jam for breakfast and not dessert.

Lunch tends to be a smaller meal much akin to breakfast. Sometimes there will be potatoes, or possibly pasta soup (hot milk with sugar and macaroni.)
Dinner is around 9 or 9:30, and always contains some kind of potatoes and cabbage. Last night we had cabbage that was fried in a batter of eggs and flour... Latvian cabbage tempura? Cabbage is slowly growing on me... last night's cabbage was incredible. We usually have salad as well, but Latvian salad is nothing like American salad. It's vegetables (maybe cabbage) in yogurt. And yes, often with biezpiens.

So, a review of Latvian food: It is incredibly rich, and Latvians eat A LOT. I haven't been able to finish a full Latvian meal yet.

NYC/Why Rolling Duffels Should Be Banned in all 50 States and Guam

I'm at orientation camp now... I was literally the last one there, and so I am stuck with the XXL bright yellow AFS shirt that I am forced to wear all of tomorrow. I found my group (late, of course) - Czech Republic (3), Hungary (4 or 5 maybe?), and Latvia. The other American in Latvia will be Jordan - he's from Poway, CA (I still can't pronounce it, it's near San Diego) and will be living 3 km outside of Riga. 

None of those going to Hungary actually selected Hungary as their first choice - they all applied late, and Hungary was pretty much the only place left. I kind of felt bad for Hungary. It was my third choice country... I don't know what that has to do with anything... Anyway, we did cheesy orientation games like Fellow-AFSer-Bingo (I think my name satisfied almost half of the categories...) and then we did a Jeopardy-like-thing with our group. The best part? For the first time, I wasn't the only one with the answers. Then we had dinner, a basic salad-rice-potatoes-chicken ensemble, fifteen minutes of down time, which was considerably shortened given that the elevator takes about four minutes to arrive, and then country-specific Q&A/info sessions. Russia had too many to count. Finland had twelve. Latvia and Iceland had two each. 

We met with Marilyn, who went to Latvia about 10 years ago, in the restaurant/bar of the DoubleTree. Classy, no? She went to a tiny village on the Estonian border - Valmiera was the nearest city - and apparently everyone considered staring normal. She did a wonderful demonstration of a placid Latvian staring face.

Then we were freed; I met my roommate for the first time (she's going to Finland - her dad is Finnish and she's been going to Concordia in the summer), Jordan came over and borrowed my uke (he has expressed interest in picking up the ukulele in addition to the bass, and has quite an interesting improv style of playing the uke like... well, a bass), I took a shower, I arranged my clothes for tomorrow and ultimately decided to wear the same jeans over again because the only other non-Space Bagged pair is brown, and I refuse to travel in a yellow and brown ensemble. And then I went down to Jordan's room and hung out with him and his roommate, an American from Guam who is going to Iceland. His grandparents were doing medical research there and so his father was raised in Iceland and went to work on farms in the summer (which is apparently what Icelandic youth do), and now he's been going there in the summers as well. We saw some awesome pictures from an Icelandic farm (though I could have done without the dead duck pile) and of his life in Guam. I have never met a Guamite before. Guamanian? Spellcheck is telling me Guamanian is correct. And it turns out that the Joseph Smith song from South Park's Mormon episode was extremely accurate in its portrayal of the religion. How do I know? Because a real life Mormon (aka Jordan) said so. We also found out that Latin American Catholics are the easiest to convert.

So, that was my day. I excluded the miserable travel details because I would rather not remember them. Us Latvians don't have a printed schedule because it's only Jordan and I (even the Icelanders have a schedule!) but I know that we have "safety training" at nine after breakfast and at noon we get on the shuttle and drive to Newark with the Finns and probably some others, and our flight to Copenhagen leaves at five. The Finns will also be with us to Copenhagen, but I have no idea about the layover. 8 hours... goodness.

By the way... overweight baggage is not a hassle because of the baggage fee. It's a hassle because of just how painful it is to carry. The rolling duffle I have has no handle,  just an awkward strap, so it bumps into my legs and twists my arm and now I have three new bruises on my shins and I think I sprained my good wrist. Other than that, life is good. 

T Minus 3

Three days! Actually, it's more like two now. But seriously, I never knew one could be so busy. I left on errands with my dad at 12, and got back at 6. 6 hours at the mall. Do you know how much I hate the mall? Half of that time was probably spent in the Apple store at the "Genius Bar" (really, Steve Jobs? Genius Bar?) getting my computer tuned up before I head off with it. The trackpad was entirely worn through and it was literally falling apart in places, so they took my baby overnight. I feel naked. A side note: Why is the Apple Store so popular? Do people really just go in there to play with iPads? Is it a tourist destination of sorts? I don't get it. I love my Apple products as much as anyone else, but I feel no need to drool over the new ones. My four year old MacBook is standing sort-of-strong, thank you.

Anyway, I got a pair of Doc Martens today and they are my new best friends. Today was also the first day of packing. I haven't space bagged anything yet (as seen on TV, and they work!) but I have it all laid out. On my kitchen table. Jen came over as I took inventory and we had pizza/talked with my mother... And then she left, and we cried. And then I went back inside and looked at the giant bag of presents for every occasion while I am gone - going away, birthday, and Christmas, wrapped accordingly - and cried again. And then my cat and dog got into a fight, and it was a really strange evening.

Right when I was wondering why I would want to leave everyone, I looked at Valmiera's weather forecast for the first time. Rain, highs of high 60s, lows in low 50s. I love rain. And it is Latvian rain. And it will be raining on me. And then I realized that I was staring at my computer, smiling like a crazy person.

Three days.

Allie's Top 12 California Songs

In honor of having only 12 days left in California, I present you with my personal list of the 12 best California songs. Actually, it's more like a California playlist, because I can't deal with ranking things. It stresses me out. Anyway, click HERE if you want to go to the playlist on YouTube. You know you want to.

1) California - Rufus Wainwright

                 California, you're such a wonder that I think I'll stay in bed
                 So much to plunder that I think I'll sleep instead

Most of the videos are boring lyric vids... but you should watch this one. 

2) California - Phantom Planet
 Some definite O.C. nostalgia going on here... Also, in Northern California we don't drive down the 101. We drive down 101. No article.

3) When I'm With You - Best Coast
Okay, so California's not mentioned at all in this song, but a) the band is called Best Coast, which obviously refers to the West Coast, and b) it's the most Californian song on my iPod.  Just listen to it. Fuzzy surf-rock, simple but distorted chords, catchy daisy-chain melodies. It's almost like she can harmonize with herself. This song screams "beach and sun-bleached hair and denim cut-offs."

4) Why You'd Want to Live Here - Death Cab for Cutie

                 I'm in Los Angeles today
                 Asked a gas station employee
                 If he ever has trouble breathing
                 And he said, "It varies from season to season."

True story: A non-Californian friend of mine and I were talking about this song. He laughed at the gas station employee's sense of humor. Those joking Californians. I stared blankly. "But it does..."

5) California - Rogue Wave

                 Screw California, and friends that are never there.

Disclaimer: I have no harsh feelings towards California, and my friends have a good track record of being there. But I love this song... it's like one of those 100 calorie snack packs. It's so light and delicious and sweet and comforting but slightly hollow. I can't help but think it would be better on a banjolele. The song, not the snack packs.

Click here for the original... or watch a fantastic cover by Kristen Sullivan.

6) Road Trippin' - Red Hot Chili Peppers
They have so many California songs... Californication, Dani California, Tell Me Baby, Venice Queen... but I choose this one. It's about a road trip (duh) to Big Sur. The opening lines made me snicker for so long, but I've grown very fond of the allies and snacks. (You'll see.)

7) Just Dial My Number - Jeremy Jay
Happy little piano jangle. Cute boy-voice. Adorable little love song à la Jens Lekman. Talks of his travels through the Golden State.

8) California - Joni Mitchell
Joni and a dulcimer. Wandering through Europe and missing California. It is perfect. How can she say "I'll even kiss a Sunset pig" and make it not sound ridiculous?

9) California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade - The Decembrists
It's just... lovely. They make a highway sound so appealing.

                 And the road a-winding goes from the Golden Gate to roaring cliffside
                 And the light is softly low as our hearts become sweetly untied
                 Beneath the sun of California One.

10) California Dreamin' - The Mamas and the Papas, performed by OriginalGreeno
We all know the song. But do we know it on a ukulele?

11) California Love - 2Pac

                 Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild, Wild West
                 A state that's untouchable like Elliot Ness.

Elliot Ness. Untouchables. Really. Go to 1:26 for the song, if you can call it that. It's kind of ridiculous. I don't even know...

12) California Songs - Local H
A song about hating California songs. Seriously.

                 We're all so sick of California songs
                 Yeah we know you love L.A.
                 There's nothing left to say
                 Please no more California songs
                 And eff New York too.

THE END of the longest post ever. Your poor computer browsers must hate me for all the video spam.