June Travels: Country Mouse

[This is one of a pair of posts about my travels in June 2017. The first can be found here.]

When the time came for the second trip, then, I was starting to slightly dread what was in store for me. I have never been much of an outdoors person or an extrovert, and the prospect of camping out for six nights with a group of eight people was fairly daunting to me. We were going to visit two national parks of Estonia, Lahemaa and Sooma, and then take a day to visit Narva, one of the modern day border cities between Estonia and Russia. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the parks and was very intimidated by the concept of “hiking.” Nevertheless I climbed on the bus to Tallinn with my friends Thursday morning and we headed north.

Of course, in the end I only fell more in love with Estonia, a place with countryside far more diverse than its small area would suggest. I swam in multiple seas and lakes, wandered in the forest, biked past swamps and bogs as well as beautiful stone beaches and Soviet ruins, and walked with my friends through enormous fields of flowers that made me feel like we were trespassing in a fairytale. I would never have assumed from the pictures I saw before coming that the countryside would be so varied or so beautiful. The forests truly show you why such places inspired stories of magic and enchantment as well as fear in the hearts of Europeans through the years. The seaside was incomparably beautiful, natural and quiet, (yet) unspoiled by tourism. What surprised me most, however, was what I was capable of. I biked 45 kilometers in one day with two of my friends, camped out every night, enjoyed Estonia’s tradition of sauna, and even got lost in the forest and lived to tell the tale. Hiking, it turns out, is just walking that some people take very seriously. And I, it turns out, am more of a country mouse than I ever assumed.

June Travels: City Mouse

[This is one half of a pair of posts about my travels in June 2017. The second one cane be found here.]

When I was a toddler one of my favorite picture books my parents would read to me was one about the town mouse and the country mouse—two sister mice, one of whom preferred to live in the country and one of whom preferred to live in the city. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a city mouse, preferring the fast pace, the crowds, and the hustle and bustle of urbanity. This past month I put that to the test, however, with two biggest trips I took once my finals were over. The first I made with my roommate from home, Sarah, who had been studying theatre in Italy for a couple of weeks in May. She met me in the Czech Republic and we made a ten-day tour of Prague, Vienna, and Tallinn before she headed back to the US. About a week later I embarked on a very different adventure with my friends from Tartu—a road trip through Estonia’s national parks.

Both were certainly unique and interesting experiences. Beginning in the city I felt I was proving myself right every step of the way. I absolutely adored Prague—it is now firmly cemented as my favorite European city I’ve visited. Every single building was beautiful and historic, as if the whole city had been frozen in time. It simultaneously, however, somehow managed to remain authentic. Many European cities (Vienna being a perfect example) feel like you’re walking through Cinderella’s castle at Disney land: incredibly beautiful, but ultimately made to be visited, not to live in. In Prague the history of the city was very clear—from the 1300’s to the 1990’s, each decade had left a unique mark. The art deco styling that decorated the buildings contrasted to the medieval artifacts and modern theaters. Besides Estonia, Prague was most certainly the place I will most want to come back to.  This trip made me sure I was correct about my proclivity for city living, and consequently made me quite nervous for my trip to the national parks.

Comparative Academic Culture

One aspect of culture that is under constant discussion amongst students on study abroad is comparative academics. With people coming from all over the world to study together, one thing you can guarantee they have in common is schoolwork—but it’s amazing how differently different countries (even countries next door to one another) handle the same basic education. In France, classes are graded on a scale from 1-20. In the Czech Republic, grade school is assessed on a scale of 1-4. In Italy, almost all exams are oral exams so written finals seemed very strange to my roommate from Milazzo. In Germany, your entire grade depends on your final so doing smaller assignments throughout the semester really threw my friends from Berlin. Even the variation in how education was viewed was stark—my Czech roommate told me that going to a private university there is considered embarrassing because if you have to pay to go to school you clearly aren’t all that bright.

My personal observation was that the main difference between university culture in the United States and Estonia was the level of trust between teachers and students. While in the US it often feels like there is a constant subliminal tension between students (doing as little as they can to do as well as they can) and teachers (trying to get as much out of them as possible), with presumed ill will on both sides of the equation, this feeling has been nonexistent in Tartu. Professors assume that their students want to get the best education possible and will make good choices to ensure that that happens. They don’t police students from using phones or laptops in class or pose pop quizzes. They are very flexible with deadlines and helpful in giving students resources. Over all, the tone of classes was much more cooperative and relaxed. I don’t know what steps would be necessary to bring more of this culture to the US, but in whatever ways we can I think we ought to try; I feel I have learned more this semester than in the rest of my undergraduate experience combined.

The Estonian Landscape

When my advisor recommended I consider studying in Estonia, she showed me some pictures of the university and said, “Other than that it’s pretty grim. Lots of old Soviet block buildings and I mean it’s desolate but you can travel!”

My first impression of the country seemed to confirm what she had warned me about. On the way from the bus station to my dorm I saw a shopping mall, some construction sights, and not much else buried under the snow. The place seemed to have been hit by a winter apocalypse 20 years ago that left little to nothing of aesthetic appeal. While this first impression was partially influenced by my bad experiences with travel that day (which you can read about here if you’re curious), there was certainly an element of this presupposition that survived throughout my first few months in Tartu. It is true that Estonia was a country ravaged by its USSR days and it most certainly shows the signs of this in the landscape and architecture—cinder block apartment complexes, churches full of bullet holes, and historic buildings meticulously reconstructed to try to recreate what was lost.

But this past month what has struck me more than the shrapnel, ideological and physical, that persists in Estonia is the sense of healing in the country. Walking through the more residential parts of Tartu there is a constant juxtaposition of pre-Soviet wooden buildings, Stalin-era apartment blocks, and sleek, modern architecture. They coexist almost beautifully. And between all of them, in the abandoned lots and among the wash lines and between parked cars, wildflowers grow in incredible profusion. These stitches of nature, bringing together two sides of a wound the people seek to mend, are truly a welcome sight. And though spring means rebirth the world over, Estonia seems most truly to be embracing it. Estonians no longer feel bound to their history and we ought not presume to hold them to it either.

Russia: The Personal Parallels

Beneath the surprisingly palatable and “normal” façade, however, it was easy to see that there was something rotten in the state of Russia. Talking to local people and looking at the advertisements and snippets of daily life that could be seen through the fog of tourism there was a clear disparity between the polish and the surface underneath. On the macro level I was amazed to see that Soviet symbolism was still rampant not only in architecture and historical monuments but in modern advertising and propaganda. On a micro level, it is clear that the citizens, though living on the surface of the country, could sense the rot underneath—a feeling with which I am horrifically familiar. In a shop in Saint Petersburg my friends and I asked a girl for directions and ended up having a conversation with her. When she heard what state I was from in the US she was ecstatic, telling me that one of her good friends lived there and she hoped she could visit him someday. After a few more minutes we invited her to have a drink with us after work and hearing more about her life over those drinks was the most eye-opening part of my trip. She works at three jobs to help support her family as well as going to school for graphic design. She desperately wants to get out to somewhere in the EU so she can escape the cycle of poverty her family is trapped in, but her English is broken and visas out of Russia are insanely, prohibitively expensive. She is clearly doing her best and was so optimistic and sweet it broke my heart every moment she talked about the US with longing. She was so clearly in love with the Minnesotan guy she had met and could so vividly imagine her better life that having it out of her grasp hurt even more.

On our last day in Russia we made a visit to a university that is affiliated with the one I attend here. Beneath the 10-foot statue of Lenin we met the students from the University who were asked to show us around their town after a few lectures from both sets of professors. The girl guiding my friends and I was an engineering and management student. She also spoke less than perfect English, but told us that she hated where she lived and wanted to move to Saint Petersburg so that she could actually have a good job and a different life from her parents. Even though her school works very hard to place graduates in the region they come from, she couldn’t see the use of living somewhere where the community is dying. Her town was full of history and beautiful churches but she seemed so disheartened by all of it at only 18. Seeing these girls so close to my age struggling with burdens so different but so similar to those with which my peers and I back home struggle was incredible and humbling. Wherever we live, we live with the same fears, the same aspirations, the same push to something greater against the same power structures and the same crumbling societies. I wish them the best. And I wish that someday, somewhere, we may see girls doing better.

Russia: A Surprising Surface

As someone from the USA, traveling to Russia is a somewhat surreal prospect. For those of us who have never been there, Russia seems a nebulous and imposing entity. We hear about it in the news or see it portrayed as the ultimate geopolitical villain in movies (whether Cold War era or contemporary), but the humanization of its citizens or even a discussion of its history is rare. Though in some ways it is a Western power, it has a very separate history outside of as well as including interaction with the West. The social and political fear mongering centered around Russia meant that even for the trip that I took there for just five days, every friend and family member who keeps up with me consistently was worried and telling me to be safe during my visit.

Without downplaying the atrocities that various Russian governments have participated in or corroborated in any way, the actuality of standing in Russia was much less terrifying than I was lead to fear. Saint Petersburg was very much like New York City, just written in Cyrillic letters—bright lights, pollution, and beautiful and historic buildings next door to tiny falafel shops. Moscow was much more like Washington D.C.—all white marble and monuments to the more cleanly portions of the country’s history. Since Saint Petersburg was partially destroyed in World War II, Moscow shows much more clearly the progression of the country from medieval fortress to Europeanization to the years of the USSR and finally the present day. The contrast here between the Soviet history and the capitalist modernity was stark. Across from Lenin’s mausoleum there is now a huge mall featuring bourgeois standbys like Prada, Gucci, and Dolce and Gabana. This would be ironic enough on its own, but the entire city seemed to be brand named—every corner of the dozens of streets we walked had a recognizable storefront, everything from Steak and Shake to Tom Ford. The contrast between what I had been lead to think Russia was like—a freezing and terrifying land entirely foreign to my US heart—and the reality of a European city in many ways similar to others I had visited (at least on the surface) amazed me. The differences and continuing fear that I saw just below the surface warrant a separate post, but the illusion of a modern liberal city was as complete in the land of the ice and snow as it is anywhere in the land of the free and home of the brave.

My Pitch for the Baltic States

Over the past month I have been lucky enough to travel among the Baltic States and to see parts of Latvia and Lithuania, including their respective capitals, Riga and Vilnius. Previously I spent a weekend in Helsinki, Finland. In general, I think we in the US tend to think of the Nordic states (Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and Western Europe as more beautiful, more advanced, and better places to visit than the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). When I was first considering coming to Estonia, my advisor essentially said, “I mean it’s not very pretty, it’s all very post-Communist cinder block buildings, pretty bleak, but it’s cheap and you can visit other places.” I think this assessment/assumption is fairly common in Western countries, that Eastern Europe isn’t the place you visit. If you’re going to go to Europe you go to France or Italy or Spain. Maybe Germany or Sweden if you’re feeling adventurous. But no one thinks to come to the smaller, farther countries.

Consider this, then, my official pitch for more Americans to consider visiting Eastern Europe. All the Baltic countries are in the EU, which means you should be able to visit any of them without a special visa. They all have remarkably well preserved Old Town portions of the city—including beautiful museums, churches, parks, and attractions that you can visit for free or less than $5. That is certainly one thing (if the only thing) my advisor was right about—travel is remarkably cheap. I’ve been saving up for this trip for years and fretting about every cent I spend. But most hostels can be gotten for less than 10 euros per night. Food, even big portions in the most touristy parts of the cities, rarely costs more than five. And anything you could look for in a Western European country can be found here as well. Besides the traditional attractions I’ve listed above, there are beautiful outdoor craft markets in the summer and Christmas markets in winter, Neoclassical architecture, artist districts (the one in Vilnius, Užupis, particularly tickled me), castles and palaces to rival Versailles, hiking and undisturbed natural sights, and each has a unique, complex, and interesting history. Western culture is inundated with images of London, Paris, and the Rome. But visiting the Baltics has been an entirely new and unique experience for me. I cannot recommend highly enough that if you’re considering a trip outside the US, you give some thought to a more Eastern option.

English in Perspective

I’ve always known that speaking English as a first language was a considerable advantage in the increasingly globalizing world. English, for a variety of reasons, is quickly becoming the default language of business, academics, and cross-cultural communication. Without delving into the problems with this trend, I will say that my experience with being a native speaker surrounded by non-native speakers has been eye opening. While I had considered the respectability politics involved in speaking English and the aptitude with which various groups are able to speak it “correctly,” I had not considered the more technical aspects of speaking English as a second (or in some cases third or fourth) language. This practical aspect has become much more clear to me now that I have been placed in an academic setting with many people from various countries who are doing all their course work in a secondary language.

There is no denying that academic texts can be challenging. The language is dense, the vocabulary is esoteric, and the speed with which one must read them for a variety of classes throughout the week makes the sheer volume of pages overwhelming sometimes. But I cannot imagine reading complex academic texts in French (my closest to second language). I am taking a class on Political Economies of Transition along with one of my roommates who is French. The class has been very difficult for her because the professor talks fairly quickly and while she has taken classes in economics before, they have all been in French. The vocabulary of economics (I take it) does not transfer particularly well between the two and isn’t the type of thing she was taught in her conversational English classes either. Another one of my friends is struggling with his Latin classes because while he has been studying Latin for over five years, he studied it in Germany and has never had to translate to English before, so the particularities of English grammar are constantly frustrating to him. All of this is to say nothing of the people from abroad who are taking Russian or Estonian language courses in taught English, so they have to translate every word twice to understand and answer so they can mediate the two languages that are not their native one with the one that is.

I have always known that my mastery of English would give me a hand up in first impressions the world over. But this trip has made me recognize many more aspects of the ways the hegemony of language affects people every day.  I have considerably more perspective now and while I am extremely grateful for the mother tongue I was born into, I think it is important to recognize as well that the struggle many non-native speakers go through to communicate in this dominant language should earn them respect not derision.

The USA’s Unofficial Ambassadors to Estonia

When you go on study abroad, the first two questions when you meet someone are, “What’s your name?” and, “Where are you from?” every single time. If you happen to be from the US the answer to the second question will be fairly obvious from your accent. Just in case it’s not though, as soon as you say it the next reaction is either that the other person asks where in the US despite the fact that they have no reason to know any states besides Texas and California or something to the effect of, “oh shit y’all just fucked up.” It’s always more polite than that, but you can tell that the subtext is there. Several people asked if I left because of the election results with no intention to go back. While this is untrue, it certainly shows the attitude of other nations toward those who call the US home.

If you look at the other US people on my study abroad program, it’s not difficult to see why those I talk to are initially skeptical of me. The Americans are unequivocally the loudest, whether in class, the dorms, or a bar. One gentleman from the University of Texas wears a cowboy hat and boots more often than not. A young lady from South Carolina does the hand gesture for her sorority in every picture she takes. Best of all, one young man self-identifies as a fascist. US demographics transfer surprisingly well overseas, despite the fact that everyone I’ve talked to has expressed surprise that these people would want to leave the US for any reason. Before leaving OU I was given extensive instruction on how not to embarrass the university and country while abroad. This was clearly not a speech which made its way into the consciousness of some of my fellow expatriates. While being born in the USA has certainly shaped me and shows in the way I carry myself day to day, I hope I can be a slightly less obtrusive unofficial ambassador during my time here. The more things change the more they stay the same.

An Inauspicious Beginning

My first days in the place of my dreams were far more nightmarish than oneiric. Prior to arrival I was told that while Estonian is the national language everyone here speaks English so I’ll be just fine. I learned a few basic greetings, questions, and survival phrases, but over all I wasn’t too concerned about it. When I touched down in the capital city of Tallinn I still needed to take a two-hour bus ride to the town where my university, and thus my accommodation, was located. The only way to buy a bus ticket was by using a machine that operated partially in English until it came time for payment, where the card swipe only displayed instructions in Estonian. It didn’t like my card and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.  After struggling for at least 10 minutes I was rescued by a middle aged English man who, as it turned out, was a professor at my future university. He helped me buy my tickets, talked to me while we waited for the bus, and helped me get off at the right stop. He then disappeared into the crowd at the stop so effectively that I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t some form of divine intervention.

After this initial hiccup things only became more stressful. My luggage had gotten lost so I had only what was in my carry-on. Luckily this included some clothes and toiletries. Unluckily, it did not include my outlet adaptor. I spent my first 24 hours alone in my dorm room, jet lagged, lonely, and stressed. Everywhere I went all the signs, all packaging and instructions and notices, were exclusively in Estonian. Having travelled alone and being unable to contact my family or friends at home for fear of losing precious battery life before I could recharge anything, I can honestly say I have never felt more isolated. Studying abroad has been my dream for as long as I can remember but in that moment all I wanted was give up and go home.

Going out to explore the second day felt like a Herculean effort, but once I made into the old part of town and began finding my class buildings, book shops, and encouraging graffiti, I pulled my chin up and began to see the positives in my time alone. Today, exactly one month later, I am sitting in my favorite café, listening to my music from home but next to my roommates from France and Germany. I will never forget how scared and overwhelmed I was that first day, but nothing worth doing is easily done and even if I tripped over the doorframe I’m so glad I made it over that threshold.