Here are some pictures of my (not-so-recent) trip to Riga in at the end of March. Better late than never, I guess.
One of my favorite events in Vilnius is the Kaziuko Muge (St. Casimir’s Fair) which takes place in early March. I’ve always been attracted to shiny, colorful things, and this huge market, which extends from one end of Gedimino prospektus to the other and wraps around the Old Town, is full of them! There are traditional folk crafts, jewelry, scarves and hats (because, you know, it’s still 30 degrees out!) and food stalls with traditional Lithuanian foods.
There were even some live performances, like these student folk dancers (they pulled in by-standers to dance with them. Fortunately not me):
I visited the doctor for the first time since living overseas. I wasn’t quite sure how it would be, but the doctor was recommended by friends. He’s Australian, so his English was good (no jokes about Australians speaking English) and I felt comfortable with his expertise. My visit with him was professional, tidy, and very much like I have experienced back in the U.S.
He was concerned about my cough, and so he sent me over to the Centro Poliklinika, one of the medical clinics here, for a chest x-ray. My experience there, however, was not like any I’ve had in the U.S.
Since my doctor had called ahead, I did not have to wait to be seen. I handed the technician my appointment slip, he read it, and started speaking to me in Lithuanian. When I told him that I don’t understand Lithuanian very well, he went to his computer, typed something and showed me. In Google Translate he had written, “Take off your clothes.”
We were standing in the reception area of radiology. There were no other patients, but there were two other technicians. I made a gesture over my body: all my clothes or just the top?
He made circling motions over his chest, like he was rubbing himself down with oil or something. I got the picture. Another technician, a woman, added: “And bra.”
I had been warned by a friend that this kind of experience was usual, so I did as instructed. I’m not body shy, and I told myself this is their job, they do this all day. Besides, an 80 year-old woman had just finished up before I got there, so I told myself they had probably seen worse.
Once I was topless, the male tech ushered me into the x-ray room and rather mechanically positioned me chest-side against a large glass/plastic (very cold!) wall or plate. I held my arms out like a gingerbread man and then the tech went back to his little command station, mimed that I should take a deep breath, and he took the x-ray. He then re-positioned me like I was in the body-scanners at airports, with upraised arms, fully facing the glass window where he and the other techs could see me. Great. Again, he mimed breathing in, and he clicked the machine. That was it. He waved to my clothes. “Go home.”
I feel like I have been somehow initiated into a weird secret society.
I was asked to speak at my landlord’s son’s middle school on Friday. The boy’s English class had been studying movies, Hollywood, stuntmen and such, and as a native English speaker, they wanted to talk with me about my life in California (I told them right away that I was not from Hollywood) and about movies they liked. Their teacher asked me to share something with them on the topic, and so I thought of the Hero’s Journey, a very common plot structure for most Hollywood movies, and quite frankly, most of Western literature. So, I showed them the upside-down check mark, we talked about backstory, inciting incidents, obstacles, the wise mentor trope, climax and resolution. We used the first Harry Potter movie as an example, and traced Harry’s journey to see if he followed the steps. (By the way, he does!).
After this discussion, we decided we wanted to write our own movie plot. So, I present to you, the 6th and 7th grade classes’ movie, Olaf the Bodybuilder.
Olaf was teased and bullied as a child because he had red hair and was overweight. However, his mother loved him and helped him through the experience. When Olaf grew up, he became a bodybuilder. One day, however, he received a mysterious text message that his beloved mother had been killed. He had to find out who the murderer was.
With the help of his friends, Olaf was able to track down the killer, only to find that it was his girlfriend! After an intense battle with her, she escaped, and so, Olaf’s journey will continue in Olaf the Bodybuilder 2.
They were sweet kids–the boys were squirrely and dominated the time (as you can probably tell by the movie plot), though I tried include everyone–but man, it reminded me of my student teaching days! (And why I didn’t become a middle school teacher). To be honest, though, sometimes my university students are just as bad. The joy’s of teaching.
Everyone but me seems disappointed that we will not have a white Christmas this year. Granted, it is only Christmas Eve, so there is almost 24 hours left for the snow to fall…but, naw. While it is pretty to look out at a soft drift of newly fallen white powder, the aftermath of muddy slush or treacherously icy sidewalks, I can do without. It must be the California in me that doesn’t need snow to have Christmas.
I can also do without the seasonal colds, but apparently I don’t get an out on that. I’m sick. Like hack-up-a-lung, no voice sick. I’m doing my best Rudolph impersonation this year. Even so, my roommate and I are having friends over for Christmas Eve, and as long as I am not bedridden, tomorrow I’ll go to our Christmas morning church service, and then to a friend’s for lunch. I prefer a low-key Christmas, for various reasons, but it is also nice to spend the day with people you care about. I’ll also be able to Skype with the fam (and did a little bit earlier).
But even without snow, Vilnius does Christmas well. Here are just a few pictures of our Christmas market, and the main streets all decked out with boughs of holly (Not really. Mainly just LED lights).
Linksmų Kalėdų/ Merry Christmas!
In my mind, bureaucracy might as well be a 4 letter word. Almost all of my most anxiety-ridden, ulcer-inducing memories have centered on some kind of government agency. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate quickens and I have the pit-of-the-stomach feeling that things are going to crumble apart and I will end up in some underground cell in some unpronounceable place.
Today I had the joy sitting in the Lithuanian immigration office for the second time, since, well, the first time after a 3 hour wait, my application was summarily rejected by an ill-tempered woman who, though I know she spoke English (because I had heard her in the office) refused to do so with me. She had sent me off that time with a sneer and a list of other documents I needed. This time, I believed I had the documents, but no. Not only did she reject the ones I offered, but she added to the list. Now I have 2 more things I have to track down before my current visa expires in about a month.
I don’t think it is coincidence that I have started re-reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, given to me by a beloved mentor who had been battling cancer at the time. To crudely paraphrase the beautifully poetic and convicting memoir, count your blessings. Literally. (That is for my roommate, K. We roll our eyes at how horribly misused is the word ‘literally,’ but here, I mean it).
To live a grateful, thankful, eucharisteo-filled life is to count each day, and all that comes in it, as a gift from God.
I had a hard time with this one on the bus ride home from immigration. Knowing that I am called to pray for my enemies, I prayed for the ill-tempered woman who has (twice!) rejected my application. My prayer was studded with words like “heathen,” “wrath,” and “smite.” When I caught myself, I rather reluctantly changed my mind, but my heart is harder (I mean that in both senses). Being at immigration and dealing with her and the whole process makes me bitter. It makes me dislike being here. It makes me long for the US where, though not perfect, the ways are familiar.
But today, but immigration, is the gift that God has given me today. I count it, even though I don’t understand it at all.
Today, my landlord and landlady were incredibly kind to drive me to immigration, wait with me, and help me understand what the ill-tempered woman was telling me. Today, though my status is in flux, I have the stability of a wonderful job teaching university students, a comfortable flat. Today, I went to the grocery store at the bottom of the hill and bought good, (somewhat) healthy food which I will prepare tonight and enjoy with my roommate while we binge watch Netflix. I am not a refugee stranded at a foreign border. I am not in fear for my life, or that of family members. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1,000. I am thankful, for this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will absolutely rejoice in it.
Today I went to the funeral of a young woman who worked in my university’s office. I have known her for just about a year. When I think of her, the word ‘radiant’ comes to mind. She is statuesque, expressive, quirky. I have never seen her without a smile and a readiness to help. On my first day at the university, she shepherded me through the labyrinthine personnel offices and made sure that I got every signature and stamp. Each morning she greeted me warmly and gave me my classroom key. I knew she had been battling cancer for some time, and that she was undergoing treatment for a recurrence, but except for the scarf she wore to cover her bald head, to look at her was to see–life.
She died on Thursday and her funeral was today, Saturday. Compared to funerals in the U.S., this seems pretty fast, though I know in some practices, where the body is not embalmed, the funeral also takes place within a few short days. She was cremated. I don’t know if this is a typical practice here.
A part of me was the cultural observer: so, this is how Lithuanians conduct funerals. This is the way they mourn their dead. Another part was broken for her stoic mother, whose hands trembled but sat otherwise still; for her husband who wore aviator sunglasses, behind which tears fell.
I have been told her funeral was typical. Family and friends gathered in a chapel-like room at a funeral home where her urn was placed on a dais for viewing. Flowers, mainly white, surrounded the dais. There was a picture of her, which looked like it might have been taken from her national ID card–black and white with very little expression. Mementos and trinkets were laid next to her urn. Pottery angels, small stones, some candles, and a few stuffed-animal sheep. She must have liked sheep. In the background, U2 songs played. I can only guess that they were her favorite band. We sat in the chapel for about an hour. People came and went; they left more flowers and mementos. I was told that this was a time of reflection. I prayed. Some people around me whispered to one another. After a while, a priest came in and everyone stood. He read from a book of funereal liturgy. I recognized some Hail Marys. Then, all of the flowers and mementos were gathered up and all in attendance drove in caravan to the cemetery where her family’s plot had been prepared. After the priest said a few more words and sprinkled her urn with holy water, a grave digger came and lowered her urn into the hole. The priest took a handful of dirt and dropped it down the hole. Then her mother and her husband did the same. They dropped some bouquets of flowers down the hole too. Then we all watched as the grave digger filled in the hole. He was meticulous in his shoveling and scraping and forming, so that when he was finished, a perfect rectangle of raised dirt, with a cross scraped in it, stood above her. A temporary grave marker was planted in the hole. Then the family arranged the flowers and candles over her grave. A few people spoke, I presume sharing some fond memory of her, or telling her how much she would be missed. My Lithuanian is not good enough to know. Then after a few moments, we all left the grave.
I was a bystander today. Most of this is because of culture and language, and the fact that though I knew her, and I will miss her, I am not family or a close friend. So much of today I felt like an outsider, a stranger whose presence was either tolerated, or barely noticed as those more touched by grief struggled in that grief.
Grief makes me awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t like it, not just here in Lithuania where I am clearly an outsider, but even in the U.S. I never know how to comfort or how to be comforted. At my father’s funeral, I wanted nothing more than to find a place away from everyone and just sit in silence. I didn’t want to hear stories about him. I didn’t want to talk about him. I almost took my mom’s car keys and drove off, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon her. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be alone with my grief, and so when I meet someone else in theirs, my instinct is to leave them be. To run from the awkwardness and discomfort. This is selfish, because I don’t want to be there, but I also think it is natural.
Death is wrong. It shouldn’t be here. I disagree with those who say death is a part of life. It’s not. It was never designed to be. And so when I am confronted with the unnaturalness of death, I want to flee from it. I look forward to the day when death is no more, but until then, I have to muddle through the awkwardness and discomfort. I don’t know what her beliefs were, and I don’t know what would bring comfort to her family. Right now, probably very little. But I know One who is the source of all peace, and so to Him I turn in times like these. I pray, in all of my awkwardness and discomfort, for the peace that passes all understanding to fill those who mourn. I pray for the day when there will be no more mourning.