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...