Gone But Not Forgotten

Huh? Lithuania? That’s a country? Where? Why did you choose it?

I’m betting that most (if not all) of the students in the Study Abroad Lithuania program heard those same questions before they left this past January. As the semester is officially over, I decided some reflection is in order.

My answers were yes, it is a small country in the Baltic region of Europe. It’s along the Baltic Sea, bordering Poland and close to Russia. I chose it because of LCC International University, located in the port city of Klaipeda. It just felt right.

For most of a semester, I lived among students from around the world, with roommates from India, Germany, and Ukraine. I was surrounded by a city with a new language and new culture, as well as LCC’s own unique melting pot of people. This leads to a lot of unexpected things, and culture shock that sneaked up on each of us.

A short list of surprises compiled by the Spring 2020 cohort:

  • Sugar granularity
  • Eggs not refrigerated in stores
  • Dark rye bread
  • Food with fewer preservatives
  • Pastries uncovered in stores
  • Easy, inexpensive and safe public transport
  • No brown sugar or maple syrup
  • Buckwheat is more popular than rice
  • Tea is just about as popular as coffee
  • Prevalent smoking culture

Around each of those surprises is a story and a memory. Studying abroad for a semester is not just about traveling and adventure. It is also about living in a new country, with only the things you can fit in a suitcase or two. I chose to study in Lithuania because of the challenges and opportunities.

One of my firsts was taking the bus with fellow study abroads. We made it to our destination just fine. When it was time to head home, we excitedly found the right number bus. However, we hadn’t yet made the connection that we needed to cross the street first. As we were driven farther and farther away from campus, all we could do was look at each other and laugh. Then laugh some more at the spectacle we were making for everyone else on the bus. That night we rode that bus all the way to the end of the line, when the bus driver motioned that we had to get off and we all piled out. From there it was a relatively simple matter of crossing the street and waiting for the right bus to arrive. Instead of panicking, we reveled in the freedom and adventure.

When I asked members of the Spring 2020 Cohort about favorite memories, they didn’t just focus on the big trips. While those were incredible highlights, so were the everyday things we did while living in Klaipeda.

Nadia remembers Tri-S Meetings, when we were placed in groups and assigned to an American professor at LCC. They welcomed us into their homes and families. “It was a great time to feel connected and comfortable living abroad.” During my Tri-S dinner, we shared stories about grocery store excursions and the challenges of finding spaghetti sauce. 

Sofia’s favorite memories are all associated with the people she met. But a specific travel memory was from the first day in St. Petersburg, Russia. “When I was in St. Basil’s Cathedral with Jaden we walked into one of the larger spaces that was gilded and painted in so many colors. A men’s group started singing and it literally felt like time stopped. I can’t begin to describe how it sounded, but it’s a feeling I’ll always carry with me.”

Fiona A. remembers spending the day with a group of friends at Nida, a small resort town located on the Curonian Spit. “We rented a car, packed lunches, and spent the day exploring some beautiful nature parks, sand dunes and beaches. It was a heck of a day, and I’ll never forget it.” 

On the nice days, you could take extra time to walk into the city using a shortcut. The path included a huge bridge reaching over railroad tracks. Brittany remembers that every single time she did, “there would ALWAYS be a single engine not pulling anything going along the tracks.” 

It wouldn’t be LCC without the pond in front of the dorm buildings that attracted so many animals and children out for walks with their parents. One common sight on sunny days was bread bags on the side of the pond the ducks and other birds feasted on. I remember when I woke up on Valentine’s Day morning and opened my blinds, two swans had arrived in the night and formed a perfect heart the moment I looked out. 

It would be easy to say that the coronavirus global pandemic ruined my semester abroad. To focus on all the things COVID-19 took from me in the last month and a half after we had to leave. Instead I choose to realize that the semester being cut short doesn’t take away from the memories and experiences. I can remember the adventures, and think of those yet to come, rather than those I missed out on. 

Sylvia Leary

Facing The Unexpected In Unexpected Ways

When first brainstorming blog ideas for the Study Abroad Lithuania blog, one of the brainstormed topics was “Facing the Unexpected”. At the time, we weren’t exactly sure what this topic would cover since it is very broad. However, it seems our cohort is a great example of facing the unexpected while abroad.

Because of the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, we had our study abroad experience abruptly cut short. While enjoying our time exploring Russia, the students of LCC received an email from the university president. This email gave the students an update on the pandemic situation as it related to both Lithuania and specifically to LCC and its students. In the email, it was encouraged for students to return home if they could because the COVID-19 situation was worsening. This put a lot of study abroads in a tough position of whether to go home right after the Russia trip or to make the decision to stay in hopes that things would improve.

Although the news that our semester was ending early was very disappointing, we all stayed in positive spirits through the rest of the Russia Trip. Once arriving back on campus in Klaipėda, we all scrambled to go and have fun in the city, as this was also the day before the city shut down all its non-essential businesses. Some friends and I decided to try and find last minute souvenirs in Studlendas, a local grocery store, and go to a coffee shop in the city. Later we decided to go to Olando kepurė, a beautiful area looking out to the Baltic Sea, to have pizza and explore one last time.

Even though by the time we all returned to Klaipėda, many of the study abroads already made the decision to return home, I don’t think the fact that we would be going our separate ways really sunk in until all the study abroad students, interns, and coordinators came together for one final pizza party. Hosted in one of the dorm kitchens, we got together to see each other as a big group a final time before people made preparations to fly home. During this time, we talked about what a great semester it had been and about our favorite memories from the trip or what we would miss the most about living in Klaipėda. We also had the chance to write letters to our future selves about how the trip had helped us to grow or what it meant to us in general. These letters were special as at the start of the semester we also wrote letters to our future selves during one of our first days together in Lithuania. Once they are delivered, we will be able to see how our perspectives may have changed and they will serve as another memory of the wonderful things we experienced in Klaipėda.

The days following were full of both happy and sad emotions. All but four of the study abroad students were going home and the rest, including myself, stayed on campus to try and wait out the restrictions. I helped my friends pack up their things as we talked about future ideas of traveling together and what they planned to do during quarantine once they were home. Although the semester was physically ending in Lithuania, we still had online classes through the end of the semester which was carried out in an online platform So, this kept many students busy once they returned home. The four of us that stayed spent our time staying busy in quarantine as well. We made food, played games, and watched movies together, among other things to keep busy. However, eventually, with the uncertainty of having flights home, the four of us decided to return home from Lithuania as well.

It was very sad to say goodbye to the people who I had grown so close to and experienced amazing and unique things with during the past few months, but we all held the same grateful view that at least we had the opportunity to have these wonderful experiences at all. Although the semester ended in this way, it in no way took away from my experience as a whole. I loved my time in Klaipėda and I will always have those memories to carry with me. Even though it ended on a melancholy note, it won’t be the end that I will remember but rather the joy and excitement that the program experiences gave me. No matter what, if there is an opportunity to study abroad, I definitely recommend it to anyone, regardless of the unexpected scenarios that one may have to face, because the memories and the opportunity it will give one to grow will be far more worth it.

~Emily Boone

A City of Art And The Beginning of Goodbye

After a train ride and plenty of new adventures, we made it through our first day in Saint Petersburg. I loved traveling in this city, even just walking along the streets and looking at all the architecture felt magical. For me, Saint Petersburg was also marked by how much beautiful art I got to see in so many different forms. We started our second day in Saint Petersburg split up into different groups based on different options for places to visit. These included Grand Maket Russia, a model museum of different regions of Russia, Kunstkamera, an anthropology museum founded by Peter the Great, and the Museum of Anna Akhmatova, a museum dedicated to the Russian poet of the same name (which was what I chose). After spending time and learning in these places, we all joined together to explore the Hermitage. 

The State Hermitage Museum is the second-largest art museum in the world and was formerly the Winter Palace of Russian emperors. Similar to seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral for the first time, seeing the Hermitage in person also felt very surreal and I was taken aback by its beauty and size inside and out. Because of the massive size of the Hermitage, everyone had to do research beforehand in order to have a plan of what they wanted to see. This was important because not only is there so much to see, but the Hermitage is also split up into different buildings so it’s important to know which building has the art that you’re looking for. The museum is broken up into different sections of countries that the artists or art originated, so it was somewhat easy to navigate. 

Because I am interested in Russian history, I wanted to focus more on seeing former parts of the palace and other historical works depicting Russian emperors. The architecture of the palace was beautiful, with giant crystal chandeliers and scarcely a room that didn’t have gold throughout in some way. There was also a long corridor with portraits of famous Russian emperors such as Catherine the Great, and other members of the Romanov dynasty. One of my friends from the study abroad cohort and I spent most of our time exploring the extravagant rooms and taking pictures with portraits of the prominent Russian figures while trying to mirror their poses. After experiencing a lot of Russian culture through art, I moved to the General Staff Building, another building part of the Hermitage museum. The General Staff Building holds many beautiful paintings from famous artists like Vincent Van Gough and Claude Monet; some were very well known works and others were ones I had never seen before. 

After conquering the Hermitage, we all met back up at our hostel to rest or get ready before seeing Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. Before leaving for Russia, if someone were to ask me to list what I was most excited about for the trip, seeing the Russian ballet was definitely high on my list. Something seemed so special to me about all of us getting dressed up to go to the theatre together to see something that people spend so much time working on and perfecting. Swan Lake, through its four acts, was absolutely beautiful. The music and choreography working together were very moving and definitely lived up to my expectations of what going to a prominent ballet would be like. By the time it reached the final bow, I was amazed at the talent and beauty I had the opportunity to witness. After grabbing our coats from the coat check, we all headed back to the hostel for some free time to rest or discuss the events of the day. 

Following the ballet, the study abroad students and the study abroad staff members also had a meeting after receiving news about the COVID-19 situation in Lithuania. We all received an email from LCC President, Marlene Wall about how the coronavirus situation would affect classes at LCC moving forward and which also somewhat encouraged students to go home where they would be safer and with family. This was not completely surprising for us as a few students were already advised to come home by their home universities. However, it was still shocking to believe that soon our trip, the people we met, the things we learned, and the memories we made, would be coming to an end. Even though this news was very sad for all of us, especially after a very emotional meeting with our study abroad leaders, we all decided that we would still make the most of the rest of our time in Russia and focus on the good times we had. 

After a few more days in Saint Petersburg exploring Catherine’s Palace and seeing more of the city on our own, we had our long train ride back to Lithuania. During this time we spend lots of time together. One of my fellow study abroad students, Fiona Milmoe, also got notebooks and had a great idea for us to all write letters about our favorite memories with and nice things about each person. I loved this idea and I think it demonstrated how even though we were very sad that not only the Russia trip but also our time in Lithuania would be ending, we could still focus on the positive memories and cherish the remaining time we had together.

~Emily Boone      

What Do You Expect?

I’ve always been very good at keeping my expectations in check, especially when traveling to a place that is completely new. For Russia, it was a bit harder because in the weeks beforehand, we heard the stories and saw pictures from past trips. Things did work out a bit differently for the 2020 study abroad cohort, but despite the challenging circumstances globally, the trip completely surpassed my expectations. With one notable exception, we were able to see and do everything on our itinerary, along with all of the unplanned experiences that will never be forgotten.

The train ride to St. Petersburg was just under four hours, spent in a luxurious, modern space. It was an ideal time to rest after the hectic pace of Moscow, catch up on journaling, and start to process the feelings and emotions of our journey. But by the time the train pulled into the station, we were more than ready to start the next adventure. We were prepared for the long walk from the train to the hostel with all our luggage, but hearing about it is different from doing it, and we all grumbled a bit. The light drizzle and dark clouds didn’t help, but we were distracted by the sights and people walking by.

For people who have never experienced a hostel, it can be an intimidating word. Is it a hotel? Is it clean? Is it safe? I can say now with experience that the hostels I have stayed in are extremely safe, and most are clean and beautiful. The idea is you are staying with fellow travelers in a new place, and hostels are a safe haven and a way to connect with others. For us in our large group, it was a lot harder to do that. But Soul Kitchen Hostel is a gorgeous, welcoming environment in the midst of the large city of St. Petersburg. The kitchen is stocked with shared essentials if you need to cook. Every morning the coffee is freshly brewed, tea and hot chocolate are available, and there is even delicious apple cake set out for guests to enjoy. Typically, you would choose a room based on the size of your traveling party, and if you were comfortable, pay less to be in a room with other guests. In some hostels there can be over 10 people in a dormitory style in bunk beds. But Soul Kitchen Hostel was like a glamorous, homey hotel. We were able to request roommates, and I stayed in a triple with friends in the study abroad cohort. I was always grateful to return to the hostel each night and relax after the busy days.

The first full day, we were given an extended walking tour of St. Petersburg to orient ourselves and learn the main streets of the city. We were also told landmarks of how to find Soul Kitchen Hostel. In the afternoon, we got to choose between many options, one of which was going back to take a nap. I resisted, though the rain didn’t help my sleepiness, and instead went with a small group to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. We didn’t go inside, however, instead we went up. It was perfect timing, because after the tour I could actually point out all of the landmarks and historical places from the 360 degree walkway at the top of the cathedral. We saw the streets and waterways making up the heart of St. Petersburg from above. Standing in the air, staring down at the city, pretty sure I could have sat down right there and fallen asleep, I realized that I never want to stop traveling. I promised to never stop finding joy in new places, whether they are an hour from my house or across oceans and continents.

The day didn’t end there. We went to Feel Yourself Russian at the Nikolayevsky Palace for a traditional folk singing and dancing show. There were many laughs and jaws dropped in awe at the dancers’ skills. During intermission, we tried caviar, currant pies, and many other treats. Afterwards, I chose to go with a group to New Holland Island, which has a large ice skating rink. Unfortunately, we arrived with less than an hour left until close, so we decided not to spend the money. Instead we split up for dinner, and I had some of the best sushi ever.

It feels like there are about a million more things I did and experienced during those four days in St. Petersburg, so much I could never tell you in a blog post. But what I can tell you is that travel is never disappointing. Even when things go wrong, or your expectations aren’t met, that doesn’t take away from where you are and the opportunities you have. Though the trip ended with the realization that the corona virus situation was worsening, and most of us would be returning to the US much sooner than expected, we didn’t let the news overshadow the joy we found in Russia.  

Sylvia Leary

The Beginning of a Grand Adventure

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the awe and excitement of traveling to new places. Traveling brings about a rush of experiencing new things and being pushed outside comfort zones. These feelings were especially strong during the study abroad trip to Russia. Russia has always been a top destination for me so this trip holds a special place in my heart on top of all the wonderful memories made. After having lessons in Russian language, hearing about memories and mishaps from past trips, and lots of anticipation, the day to embark on our journey to Russia had arrived.

The trip started before we even arrived in Russia however with all the study abroads, senior interns, and SALT coordinators traveling on a bus to the train station in Riga, Latvia. After stopping at The Hill of Crosses and having a big lunch, we were all ready for our 16-hour train ride to Moscow. Moments like these, of the journey before the destination, were my favorite. I loved the feel of anticipation before arriving and joy among all of us as we prepared for the coming journey. The train ride didn’t feel long at all as we all filled the time with games, joking around, and talks of what the week ahead would bring.

And the week ahead did not disappoint. Every day of the trip was filled with new and exciting experiences, some that were expected, like touring the Kremlin and other experiences that were more spontaneous like visiting Flacon, an art district with many interesting murals and sculptures made from two former factories.

One of the most memorable moments of the trip for me was one of the first. After stopping at one of the many ornate metro stations to buy our tickets upon our arrival in Moscow, we traveled to GUM, a giant department store near Red Square, to eat lunch. As we walked towards GUM, I looked up to see St. Basil’s Cathedral, the candy church that everyone pictures when thinking of Moscow, standing tall in the distance. Honestly, seeing it from afar in all its colorful beauty almost brought tears to my eyes. Although we later had a chance to see the church up close and even tour inside, I’ll never forget my first time seeing St. Basil’s in person. After seeing it so many times in pictures, it felt so surreal and magical to see the real cathedral right in front of me.

Although that was a very special moment for me, I think my favorite memory from our three days in Moscow was shopping and bargaining at the Vernishazh Market. Before leaving for Russia I had a plan for what souvenirs I wanted to bring back for family members and friends. I was a little worried about whether I would be able to afford these souvenirs but luckily you don’t have to be a rich kid to buy nice things for loved ones at the Vernishazh. You simply need a friendly smile and a willingness to try to bargain with the sellers!

When we first arrived, I felt a little overwhelmed by how many vendors there were. Booths holding various souvenirs seemed to go on forever. The market was full of all sorts of handmade goods and beautiful treasures. Anything someone could want to bring home from Russia could be found there, especially tons of Matryoshkas, the iconic Russian nesting dolls. There were also stands selling various pins and memorabilia from the Soviet era, beautiful scarves, elaborate Faberge eggs, and even assorted knives.

After walking past a few stands of hopeful vendors trying to entice me to stop and look at their items, I stopped at a stand selling old Soviet and Russian pins. Pins are my souvenir of choice and before leaving for Lithuania, I made it a goal to collect a pin from every country I visit. After looking at the huge assortment for a few seconds, the vendor started telling me about what the different pins meant. He didn’t speak much English but he was very helpful and it was nice learning more about the history of the pins he had and where they came from. It also gave me a chance to bargain and the vendor gave me a deal on two Moscow themed pins that I picked out.

Although the thought of bargaining with sellers intimidated me and my fellow study abroads before arriving, it was actually much easier than expected. A good amount of the vendors spoke English and were willing to bargain with us, and if all else failed we just had to be persistent. It was honestly fun trying to make a deal with the sellers and finding gifts for loved ones back home.

The remaining time in Moscow and our time in Saint Petersburg was filled with many more magical experiences that pushed us outside of our comfort zones and helped us all to grow closer and appreciate the memories that were being made together. Moscow is a city that I’m so grateful to have seen and one that I know I’ll never forget.

Next stop, Saint Petersburg!

~Emily Boone

The Start of Something New

The best feeling is the start of a journey. Every time I embark on a new adventure, I am filled with gratitude, excitement, and so much joy. My most recent trip with my fellow study abroads, senior interns, and program leaders was no exception. It started off with a 16 hour overnight train ride from Riga, Latvia to Moscow, Russia. We stayed up late playing card games and talking way too loudly. Our excitement was palpable, as we couldn’t wait to finally reach our destination.

We were only in Moscow for three days, but from the moment we arrived and I saw the streets filled with flowers for Women’s Day, I would have loved to have more time. But in the 72 ish hours I did have, I took every opportunity to explore. Our first stop after dropping backpacks at the hostel was the Red Square. As we entered the ornate gate and walked towards the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, we were surrounded by the Kremlin, GUM department store, the State History Museum, and Lenin’s Mausoleum. It felt like a dream, but as we were able to walk through the majority of these immensely historically significant buildings, I began to realize I was actually in Russia.

One specific memory I will treasure is even sweeter because it was not on the itinerary and couldn’t have been planned in advance. That first night, I ventured out with Chloe and Vika, our study abroad intern (who speaks Russian) to Zaryadye Park. Surrounded by city lights, couples, groups of friends, and families, we walked along the Floating Bridge which juts out over the Moscow River. It was cold, but that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the night. I was amazed at the number of people we saw.

After wandering, we found an enormous outdoor amphitheater where we sat to take in the view of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. When I was ready to speak up and mention heading back, a guy about our age approached. In a halting, slow conversation with Vika translating, we understood. He was there with a few friends, and they all planned to go to England this coming summer. They had heard us speaking English, and wondered if we’d be willing to have a conversation to help them practice.

We all agreed, why not, and moved lower down in the seating area to join his friends. Everyone was introduced, and we shook hands. I could never recount every word. But I don’t need a photographic memory to remember the feelings I experienced. Who could ever imagine I would be here? Sitting in Zaryadye Park in Moscow, having a scattered, partially translated conversation with Russians. They were all surprised to hear we were from the United States, and like most people when we told them about our semester in Lithuania, their response was wait where? Their excitement was obvious when we said we were going to St. Petersburg next.

In the second half of the conversation, they wanted to know if American stereotypes were true. Did everyone look like models in high school? Did the popular jocks all drive pickup trucks? Were the hallways really so empty and organized between classes? I couldn’t help but laugh, and Chloe and I did our best to reassure them that no, high school is not like it is in the movies. It wasn’t the most deep, meaningful conversation, but it didn’t need to be. It was enough that we were able to connect just from a random, chance encounter.

The rest of the trip was filled with wonders, and you will be hearing more about them in blog posts to come. But that first night in Moscow, I learned it is always the right choice to say yes to something new. Fear and tiredness can feel like insurmountable obstacles. But the regret of saying no and wondering what if is worse than just taking the chance and experiencing something new.

Sylvia Leary

Did Someone Say Fire?

As the seasons change, so do we. SALT students are at the halfway point in the Spring 2020 semester. So far it has flown by, and the weeks ahead are filled with travel plans. In just over a week we will be leaving for Russia, which just means we have to accept every opportunity to experience Lithuania, its people, and its culture while we can.

This past weekend was Užgavėnės, or Pancake Tuesday, the perfect time to reflect on what has happened and what is yet to come. Similar to Mardi Gras, it takes place on the weekend before Ash Wednesday, but has deep pagan roots and is one of the oldest known festivals of its kind in Europe. 

On Sunday afternoon in Revival Square, I saw Lithuanians wear masks and interact with each other. They celebrated the noisy excitement of spring that is coming. I was struck by the joy on the faces all around me. The joy in changing seasons from the cold, dark and quiet of winter to the warmth, light and colors of spring is something we all have in common.

I went with three other study abroads, and our first accomplishment was getting there without using the Traffi app for bus directions. As we walked towards Revival Square, we were greeted by the now familiar sight of tents used for market days. We immediately saw the delights that awaited us, like kepta duona and waffles dipped in chocolate and other toppings. But we refrained for the moment, and walked on to the main part of the square.

The Lithuanians mark the change in seasons using fire. They build a large straw woman, an effigy symbolizing Morė, or winter, then set it on fire to scare away winter. The large straw figure drew most of our attention as we approached. We were also entranced by the intricate masks and costumes people were wearing. As I learned later, typical masks in Lithuania are wooden and handmade to depict both joyful and frightening characters.

Despite the distractions, we made it to the straw lady and took in the sights. It was larger than I expected, and reminiscent of a Viking woman. Eventually, we moved on to the rest of the square. The theme for this year, recycling, was immediately apparent. Organized by Klaipeda Ethnocultural Center, we were entranced by the Recycled Ideas Fair. Booths included information about climate change, environmental pollution, and waste management, specifically recycling. Participants dressed up as witches, devils, horses, goats, foreigners, doctors, brides, and many other characters. Though we couldn’t understand the words, it was easy to see the passion and determination of everyone’s efforts.

But the best part of the day was standing with the crowd of Lithuanians, seeing the delight and expectation on every face as the spark caught and the straw began to burn. I saw children and adults alike dancing both alone and together. There was such a sense of community and celebration in the air. It was a time of expectation and acknowledgement of the change that is coming. I am more excited than ever for the rest of our time in Lithuania as we prepare to welcome spring and step into the second half of our lives here. 

-Sylvia Leary