Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Last Day!!

July 21 2009

We’ve finally arrived to our last full day in Estonia. Looking back on it, time has passed relatively quickly. The first week here was a little slow and tiring but once we got used to everything, time went by a little faster. Estonia has been nice but at the same time, I am definitely ready and excited to go home. I think this is the first trip of my entire life that I’ve gotten a little homesick on…and I’ve only been gone for 3 weeks! But mostly, I think it’s probably me going through Camilo withdrawals. I have tried my very best to enjoy the time I’ve had here though. I’ve been relatively social and up for trying lots of new things, I’ve had conversations with locals, learned tons through the lectures, picked up a little of the language, and I’m pretty satisfied with the trip overall. I actually feel like I know more about Estonia than I do about Michigan at this point. I’m sure I’ll miss it when I finally get settled back into life at home. I always miss Europe in general when I’m at home.

But here are some things I’ll miss in particular about Estonia: pirukas, pelmeenid, canoeing in Sooma, the giant spongy bog with it’s Coke-colored ponds, Baltic Sea beaches, freestyle Estonian rap, real Russian food, the smell of Juniper wood, Russian street singers, barley cake, that crazy water slide at the Terevis Spa, thatched roof cottages, people with noses like me, cloud berries, the giant dance festival, the giant song festival, daylight until midnight

Here are also some things that I will not miss: daylight at 3am, ginormous seagulls on the roof top across the street waking me up with their cawing in the middle of the night, Finnish tourists, meat market clubs, soviet style architecture, boiled potatoes, dill in everything, showers that make the entire bathroom floor soaking wet, the city of Tallinn, 4 hour lectures

So yeah, I guess I’ll be happy to be heading back home but there are things that are uniquely Estonian that I will definitely miss. Every country has it’s own special flavor even if it is as small as this one.

Today we had a simple excursion to the open air museum. It was basically a set up of what a rural town would have been like in the 1400-1800’s. It would have been really nice except for the schizophrenic weather. First it was pouring rain, then it would be sunny and warm for 5 minutes, then it would thunder, then it would be cold and downpour for another 5 minutes, and repeat the whole cycle over and over again. Now, it’s just overcast and depressing looking outside but at least it’s stable. I’m so glad we had such nice weather while we were in our beach town.  The weather in Pärnu couldn’t have been better. Really I liked every place we went a lot except for Tallin. My favorites were Pärnu and Tartu; good manageable sizes, a little safer feeling, less expensive, and better food and weather.

Tomorrow we’re catching the taxi to the airport at 6am and I’ll arrive in Detroit around 6:30pm (EST). So I’ll be traveling for around 14 hours….ewww. Wish me luck and hope that I arrive home alive! See you all State side. 


July 20 2009

Monday we had our very last lecture of the program. Thankfully, it was one of the best. The professor was a funny little man who was an economist. He talked about whether or not Estonia is doing well or not economically. When it comes down to it, how a country is doing can really only be measured in comparison with how well other countries are doing, especially your neighbors. So Estonia is doing quite well in many things and they are pretty much better in everything compared with their southern neighbors of Latvia and Lithuania. It is pretty impressive how quickly Estonia took off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it seems that now, through this global recession, they’re sort of coming down from their high of having grown so much in so little time and they are now finally realizing some of the mistakes they have made, and how to manage themselves a little better in the future in order to be prepared for another recession.

For dinner, we finally got to go to a Russian restaurant which I’ve been wanting to do this whole time, although apparently a lot of the food we’ve had on this trip is Russian, like the Seljanka soup and pelmeenid (little meat filled dumplings…mmm). Anyway, I ordered a sort of pot roast with bread cooked over the top and it was probably the most deliciously fattening thing I’ve ever eaten. I’ve never had gravy so thick, so greasy, and so salty. I could feel all of my arteries instantaneously clogging but it was one of the better things I’ve eaten here.

But yeah, that’s pretty much my day. Things are really winding down here as we come to the end of our trip. I don’t feel like doing much of anything at this point except sleeping and eating. I know, I’m worthless J

Monday, July 20, 2009

Back to Tallinn

July 19 2009

Today we moved from Pärnu back to Tallinn. Goodbye sunshiney beaches!!! :(  I can’t believe we’ve only got 3 nights left in this country. The hotel we’re staying at now is not nearly as nice as I was hoping. Their website was totally misleading. Unfortunately we don’t even have internet so when I post this, it will be thanks to the wi-fi at a nearby McD’s. The rooms have no kitchenettes so for lunch we ate all of the food that would have needed to be refrigerated (leftover stuff from Pärnu). After that, we went into town to find internet and something to do. Since it’s Sunday, most things were closed except for a bookstore. I managed to find some books to keep me busy and help me not think about how much I miss the internet. Thankfully I’m rather fond of reading so I bought One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (that one’s in honor of you darling), and I also managed to find a copy of The Little Prince in Spanish!!! (El Principito…that one is also in honor of mi amor). So those books plus my French book, should keep me busy until it’s time to leave.

At this point in the trip I think everyone is VERY ready to go home and be as far away from each other as possible. It isn’t that we don’t like each other, it’s just that spending every single day together for hours on end during 3 weeks, well, it’s enough to drive any sweet person to snide side comments. Dinner together tonight was probably a bad idea as we were all very grouchy but we managed to keep things civilized.

On the walk home it poured rain on us. You would think this would add to my grumpiness but it was really exactly what I needed. Everyone needs to walk through the pouring rain without an umbrella once in a while. I think it’s good for your soul. All I can hope at this point is that we make it through these next few days without saying things we might come to regret. I just keep reminding myself that I only have to deal with these people for 3 weeks and then, if I really feel like it, I never have to spend time with them again. So I’ve done my best to let things go, and encourage others to do the same. There’s no point in making things even worse by laying into someone about the way they chew or other stupid things like that. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses such philosophies of patience.

Tallinn somehow has a way of putting everyone into a bad mood…seriously. Maybe it’s a poorly planned city or the air pressure is different here. Who knows? All I can do is try my best to stay positive, and enjoy the rest of my stay here.

Beach Day 2

July 18 2009

Second free day. Yay!! Guess what we did? Yup, went to the beach again, and improved my tan some more. I didn’t stay quite as long as the day before but it was still fantastic; the sun just as bright, the water just as warm.

Later in the day we had a group dinner at a medievalish looking restaurant since it was our last day with Matt. I had a fantastic meal of pork roast with a port wine sauce, some vegetables, and a potato/spinach puree which was super delicious and I’ll have to make at home. The food I’ve had seems to be getting better but mostly, I think I’m getting really good at picking items on the menu that sound like flavor combinations I’ll enjoy (no more random pickles or pickled herring in things!).

After dinner I didn’t feel much like going out again so I just spent a nice evening in, conversing with the roomie. I’m just not really the type of person who enjoys going out two nights in a row.

I guess I’m kind of boring sometimes but, meh, I don’t really care. I enjoy my style.

Beach Day 1

July 17 2009

Friday was our first of two free days in Pärnu so of course, we went to the beach!! My day started out beautifully by skipping breakfast and sleeping in, then heading to the beach around 1pm and staying until 6pm. We were accompanied for part of the time by some the Estonian guys we had met the night before. One of them had brought their guitar along so it was a fun experience laying on the shores of the Baltic, listening to Estonian songs on the guitar (along with some Lady Gaga…).

Now many of you readers back at home may be wondering how cold the water is, being so far north. The Baltic Sea (at least in the little bay at Pärnu) is amazingly warm; probably far warmer than I’ve ever felt Lake Michigan be. Also, it stays shallow forever. You have to walk out in the water for probably a quarter of a mile before it’s over your waist. I don’t even know how far you’d have to go for it to be over your head. I imagine that contributes a lot to the warmness. Luckily, we had great weather and sunshine all day so I could work on my tan.

After the beach and dinner, we went to a place called the Bravo Club which was a decent place. Typical European club with creepy men standing at the edges of the dance floor, trying to decide who will be next to experience their expert dance moves. Did I ever mention that European men (at least most of them) CANNOT dance? I mean, I’m not saying American guys are any better, actually American guys don’t even attempt to dance but in a way I guess I prefer that to some random hotshot thinking he’s all smooth trying to sneak up behind me and dance with me. Ugh, I just don’t like dancing with guys anyway…they just mess up my groove. I like the Latin and ballroom dances of course but when I’m dancing to hip-hop or techno, I really prefer to do my own thing.

Anyway it was a fantastic free day. The beach and dancing can always brighten my mood, no matter how many overly flirtatious and unattractive men there are in the world.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

July 16 2009

On Thursday we had a lecture about God know’s what, and a lovely tour of the city dump and recycling center. I would have to say that it was the most painful 2 hours of my lectured life thus far. I’m not even sure what this guy was talking about but the title was something about urban development in Estonia. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what was going on so we all got to gripe about it afterward together.

Our tour of the recycling center was better. It’s great how well they recycle everything here. Their goal is to be like Germany where nearly everything is recyclable and there’s hardly any waste. I suppose things like that are easier on a smaller scale. I would love it so much if the States made recycling mandatory or at least more accessible. It’s rare to see public recycling bins except for paper bins in most offices and university buildings. I don’t even know how to recycle in Houghton. I think you have to take it to a special place that I don’t know how to get to. The Estonian landfill however, was very much like any landfill in the US, except a billion times smaller but still smelly and really gross, covered with dirt and seagulls.

At night, Brittany, Amber and I went to have a drink and watch a local rock band play at a café. We of course were joined by three random Estonian guys, one who ended up being the son of the lead band member and has a band of his own. As usual, we were all pretty creeped out (since up to then, we had not had good luck with random guys talking to us at bars and clubs) but they turned out to be pretty normal and not too creepy. I managed to get a good deal of information out of them about Estonian culture. For example, male homosexuality is very unaccepted here. I was somewhat not surprised to learn that but it still makes me sad that there are still people in this world who will act violently towards someone just because of their sexual preference.

Anyway, after the café we attended a jazz concert at the local high priced venue for classy events.  My dad would have loved it. It was the kind of jazz you hear on NPR in the middle of the night when no one is listening. Not really my style but to each his own. Nevertheless it was fun to watch Estonians play American improvisational jazz at this beautiful villa. With something like that, it kind of doesn’t matter if you don’t like what’s being performed. I enjoyed the atmosphere so much it really didn’t matter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vipers and Giant Sponges

July 15, 2009

I’m pretty sure the hugest bug in the world bit me today. It felt like someone stabbed me in the back of the leg. We had a little excursion to the Sooma nature reserve to see the bogs and go canoeing. The canoe trip was great. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy doing that. I think we went 7km or something like that. Once we made it to our destination we hiked out to see the bogs, which actually form hills. It’s so crazy looking. It’s kind of like a giant sponge attached to the earth. Usually when I think of bogs, I guess I kind of think of swamps, which are in low grounds but that certainly wasn’t the case for these. It was also interesting to learn that these bog-hills are growing every year, just absorbing more and more water I guess (they seriously are like giant sponges). Nothing really lived there, just some insects, small lizards and apparently vipers, as in the venomous snake kind of viper (yipes!).  I actually thought for a moment that that’s what bit me (yes, it was that painful). It didn’t help that at that moment I was running because the mosquitoes were so ridiculously bad, and I heard a big splash in the water next to me right after it happened. I don’t feel like I’ve been poisoned and my leg hasn’t fallen off yet so I’m assuming it was just a very large, hungry, evil fly.

There were also these really cool little lakes or ponds in the bog, which people enjoy swimming in. They’re really really deep and dark looking, and they don’t get deep gradually; there are just sudden deep pools in some spots. But they had little docks and ladders off of some of them for swimming. The water was a really interesting color. It looked a lot like Coke. It was a really cool area to see though, and I’m glad we got to do that. I’d much rather go on an adventure than sit in a 3 hour lecture.

After our hike into the bog, we sat by the river and ate the most delicious meal I’ve had in this country. There was a soup that reminded me of Italian Wedding Soup, some kind of sweet barley bread, pirukas (little meat and rice filled rolls), cake, and something sort of like kinderbeer. It was absolutely delicious. I’m sure my ravenous hunger after skipping breakfast, canoeing a few miles, and then hiking a mile or so also helped.

Now all I want to do for the rest of the day is shower and sleep forever.

I'm going to live in a spa someday.

July 14 2009

On Tuesday we had our tour of Pärnu, and a company visit to Tervise Paradiis, which is this ginormous spa and hotel. The tour of the city was nice. Pärnu is a small and very old city. We saw where Estonia’s independence was first declared in 1918, some old haunted music school, the old city gates, and some other 14th century buildings that have managed to survive.

The ghost story about the old music and dance school is great. Apparently one night, a very young, talented violin player was practicing all by himself, late at night in the building. Suddenly he could hear an entire orchestra accompanying him but no one was there. He got frightened and of course ran out but the ghost orchestra continued to play throughout the entire night, and it was heard by all the nearby inhabitants of the town. The story goes that perhaps someday another very talented musician will again be able to experience the ghost orchestra’s accompaniment. If  I were a student there, I would be sure to avoid playing alone at night.

The tour to the spa was pretty interesting. They offer all kinds of different therapeutic treatments. One of them, called a Salt Treatment, consisted of sitting in a room entirely surrounded by salt. You just sit there, in a beach chair, relaxing in the salty atmosphere. The oddest treatment they had (in my opinion) was the one they called a “shower”. This consisted of the client standing against a wall, holding onto a railing, while being sprayed from about 10 feet away with powerful jets of water. I thought that sounded more like torture than a relaxing spa treatment but hey, whatever floats your boat.

After our tour we were able to use the pool facilities, which included Estonia’s largest water park. The water slides were pretty fun, and they also had different temperature pools, saunas, steam rooms, and a platform to jump off of. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped from that high before and it was pretty intimidating (yes, I’m a huge girl and I screamed on the way down). I really wanted to get a massage while I was there but they were pretty full up and the services closed before our tour was over. Oh well, I suppose being in a beach resort town in Europe will have to suffice for my well-being. Life is so difficult sometimes.

At night I relaxed with the girls and indulged in some guilty pleasures of Cabernet Sauvignon, Camembert cheese, good bread, and Nutella. So yeah, it was a pretty fantastic day.  

Rain hates umbrellas

July 13 2009

The week here started rainy. Well, at least I thought it was going to be rainy. We were supposed to have our city tour on Monday but it was raining so much that we changed it to Tuesday and had a lecture on human rights instead. I still went to buy an umbrella though after breakfast because I didn’t want to be totally soaked. But of course, the moment I came out of the store with my newly purchased umbrella, the sun decided to start peeping through the clouds and 5 minutes later voilá, no rain.

So we went to our lecture, which was quite interesting. In a way, I think I actually learned more about Europe’s many different courts and legal systems instead of human rights issues. It seems that, as with any organization, there’s a lot of politics and bureaucracy involved in such things. It’s a wonder that people ever want to take their case to court when it takes so much effort.

After the lecture we had a company tour of Ruuki products. They make various steel products, mainly construction oriented things. It was kind of neat to walk around on the floor during their work day. It surprised me how few people really need to work to make that place run. Apparently, during an average shift, there are about 40 people working on the factory floor, running the machines and what not. But so much of it is automated now, it seems that most of the workers are there just to supervise and make sure everything is working properly. I can definitely see how a lot of lower paying jobs will no longer exist in the future thanks to these developments. I think there will always be some human supervision in such places though. As efficient as machines can be, they still aren’t without error.

Other than those things, I didn’t do much on Monday. Well, I suppose I did go shopping and bought a few things. My heart really isn’t in it anymore though. I just can’t think of anything else I need to buy. Maybe just one more pair of shoes?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New City

July 12 2009

On Sunday we made our voyage from Saaremaa to the beach town of Pärnu. I don’t know why but travel days make me so tired, even though we don’t really do anything but ride on bus for a few hours. Our new hostel is right in the old town so it makes shopping and café-going pretty convenient. Unfortunately, I think I’m pretty much shopped-out. I know, it’s unbelievable that I of all people should no longer be in the mood for shopping but it’s true. I’ve bought so many things, I just don’t know what to do with myself anymore.

After we arrived to Pärnu, we settled into our rooms and Nicole and I went to get some pizza. I ate this Pizza Mexicana which tasted a little strangely. I should have known better than to try eating Mexican food in Europe again. The last time that happened I was pretty disappointed. I suppose most Europeans have never had real Mexican food so I can’t blame them. Anyway, it turned out to be this odd pepperoni pizza with chunks of jalapeños and strange sauce. I was so starving though that it didn’t really matter anymore. After that I decided to be a lazy bum and take a nap. Hopefully I’ll have a bit more motivation to go out and do fun things the rest of this trip.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I like Saunas

June 11 2009

Staying at the Jurna Tourist Farm in Saaremaa is like a nice mini vacation for us this weekend. It’s been so relaxing being out here after all the lectures, museums, and continuous walking everywhere. This morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast and then took off on the bus to go to a castle tour. The castle was a huge 14th century, medieval building, which has been pretty much untouched throughout the years. It’s in really great condition because they never had any major battles there. Apparently all the castles in England and such places have been totally rebuilt. It was cool to be inside one that was completely original and unchanged.

After that we visited a very uneventful and unimpressive windmill place. I’m not sure why we went there. We also visited a small round lake/crater created by a meteor, and a medieval church, which was kind of interesting. Then I went back took a nap, took a sauna, and now I’m relaxing for the rest of the evening. This place is really beautiful and I think I’ll be just a little bit sad to leave it tomorrow. It’s been nice to enjoy nature, and the countryside of Estonia.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

To the island!!

June 10 2009

We made our voyage from Tartu to the island of Saaremaa today. It took longer than I expected but I suppose buses just can’t drive that fast. Taking the bus onto the ferry was kind of fun though. It just seemed odd. Along the way I discovered that Estonia looks even more like Michigan than before. They might have a few more birch trees but other than that, it looks like I could be driving anywhere in Michigan or Wisconsin; lots of fields with big patches of mixed forests and some wild flowers along the road here and there. The island of Saaremaa especially looks like the UP. Probably because of the amount of pine trees, narrow roads, and the borders of water. The only thing that really allows you to tell the difference between Estonia and the Midwest is the architecture of the buildings. Europe just seems to have a knack for preserving old buildings, and continuously restoring them to their former glory. Sometimes I wish the States would do that. Instead, once a building starts to look outdated or if the owners have failed to properly maintain it, we just tear it down and put something else up in the latest fashion. Or if we want to remodel the interior, of course it’s furnished with current trends and styles that will also be outdated within 10 years. What happened to the timeless classic styles? I love how you can feel the history in Europe but at the same time they have plenty of modern structures and furnishings mixed in as well. Like cafés that have been cafés for a hundred years and still maintain the beautiful architecture of the building, while at the same time incorporating fresh colors and modern furnishings into the mix of things (but a type of modern that still goes with the classic). But that’s enough of my ranting.

We’re staying at a lovely bed & breakfast in the middle of nowhere here. My parents would absolutely adore this place. The cottages are old with thatched roofs, surrounded by beautiful little shrubs and rose gardens. There are old stone walls separating the adjacent farms from this one, and you have to walk down a cute little tree lined two-track to get back here but not for very long thankfully. I don’t know if my suitcase wheels were made for such terrain. The rooms in the cabins remind me of Saunas; all finished in pine, including the floors and ceilings. I’ve found that our accommodations and the food are getting progressively better as we stay here…I wonder if they did that on purpose? For example, for dinner tonight I had another taste of that Saljanka stew which I was not so fond of the first time. It was so much better here though. Much smaller chunks of the odd things, better spices, and no giant chunks of lemon or pickle! I’m sure they were still in there, just not so noticeably. And I’m pretty sure I’m not just becoming more accustomed to the food. I think it’s actually getting better. I’m also finding that I like each new place better than the last. Tallinn was not my style, Tartu was pretty nice, this island is great (at least for a few days, there’s not a whole lot to do), and it sounds like Pärnu will be even better. I like to be in beautiful places and Tallinn was just not that beautiful. There were so many old cement soviet-style buildings and not enough parks or flowers. I’m kind of a nature lover when it really comes down to it. After being in the chaos of the city, I really love to come back to the country, relax, and enjoy the serenity and peacefulness. It reminds me of home.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Last night in Tartu

July 9 2009

Today went by so quickly. Probably in part because I was able to sleep in until 10 J  Then we had a tour of the Estonian National Museum and then the Estonian National Court which is the highest court in Estonia. The national museum had a lot of examples of the types of housing and clothing (especially clothing) that the Estonians have used throughout the ages. I’d seen a lot of the clothing already at the dance festival but it was kind of neat to see it closer. They have these giant brass broaches that they wore, which are circular, convex, and come to a point. They look like they should be chest protectors of some kind.

The national court was in beautiful building that used to be a hospital. It had great dark woodwork and wood furniture and a nice calming sage green on the walls. So we learned a little about their legal system which sounded quite similar to ours…although I’m not sure I know much about our own to be perfectly honest. Everything is on a much smaller scale though. Today the tour guide was saying that government officials are so accessible because for 50 years, no one was allowed to say anything, so openness is very important in their society now.

Tomorrow we leave for the island of Saaremaa. I guess we’re staying at some kind of tourist resort so that should be interesting. I’m mostly excited to have a break from all of these lectures. It’s not that they aren’t interesting because they are. It’s just that it’s all very tiring for my little brain to take in so much information along with a new environment and language. At this point, we’ve learned so much that I feel like I know more about Estonia than I do about the US or even Michigan. I’ve slowly been picking up some of the language but only the most basic survival words and phrases. It’s fun though.

Now it’s off to the bars and clubs to explore the nightlife of Tartu!

The KGB gives me nausea.

July 8 2009

Today, I took a 5 hour nap. Clearly I’m not quite used to this time difference yet. I mean, I get tired at night and I wake up early but then I’m still tired all day. I think it’s partially because they’ve kept us so busy and partially because I’m burning more calories than I’m taking in I think. Makes for a sleepy Emily.

But besides my full nights sleep in the middle of the day, we had another 3 hour lecture with the same guy. Thankfully he tried to throw in a little more humor today and it was a little bit more interesting. Plus he let us out half hour early! Yay! Today’s lecture was about Baltic-Russian relations, which we’ve kind of been hearing about this whole time. Pretty much, they don’t trust each other. I realize that the whole soviet mess happened only 18 or so years ago but at some point, you have to start moving on. It seems the EU has but the Baltic states are still pretty uneasy about dealing with Russia. One of the problems is that these countries rely almost entirely upon Russia for gas and oil, so obviously they don’t like that but it’s really their only affordable option. However, Russia doesn’t really like to cooperate and do things in a way that makes economic sense so instead of using Estonian ports, they’ll use ports in St. Petersburg, which is actually more expensive…all so they don’t have to deal with each other. I’m not saying Russia is completely trustworthy but it’s not helping anybody to have so much mistrust, and tensions between everyone. They can’t hold onto the past forever.

I found it really interesting that in the Estonian language, there are two different words for “Estonian”. If you’re a “real” Estonian, meaning your family is ethnically Estonian and has been here for hundreds or thousands of years, then you’re called “Eestlane”. If you live in Estonia but do not have Estonian blood (even if you were born here), then you’re called “Eestimaalane”. I guess it’s kind of like the whole African-American or Chinese-American thing but words like that still create so many borders. It’s one thing if you create these borders yourself because you’re proud of your heritage but it seems that these people don’t really have a choice to try to identify with being a real Estonian. To me, the US is such a diverse place, if you live there, you can pretty much call yourself an American and that’s it. I suppose it’s a matter of personal preference for most people though.

After the lecture we had a visit to the KGB museum, which turned out to be completely different from what I had imagined. I thought that we would be looking at fun spy gadgets and what not but no. It turned out to be the old prison and holding area that the KGB and the Nazi’s had both used. It was where they held people after being arrested while awaiting for trial. It was also where many interrogations took place. So basically it was a basement, with a lot of cement rooms, no windows, metal doors, and horribly old stale, stinky air that was hardly breathable. Made me feel kind of nauseated. The displays ended up being about the soviet occupation more than anything. There were pictures of bombings, rallies with forced participation, soviet propaganda etc.. The museum turned out to be a lot less fun than I’d originally thought and quite depressing. It was after this exhausting experience that I took my beautiful nap.

On a side note, my lunch and dinner today consisted of Pringles, bananas, strawberries, and some version of a Little Debbie’s snack cake. I just wasn’t in the mood for the usual pickled meats and potatoes. I saw raw pig’s feet at the market this morning…kind of made me lose my appetite for the rest of the day. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bad weather! Go lie down!!

June 7 2009


Three-hour lectures are not my cup of tea. Yes, EU enlargement policy and how to get into the EU is all fascinating but not for three hours at a time. Basically this guy went through a little history of the EU, what it does, and how it takes in other countries, along with some of the problems it and it’s members face when becoming part of the EU. Mostly stuff I’d already heard. I tried to pay attention and take notes for the first hour but I have to admit, after that I just started choreographing dances and thinking of new formations in my head…made the time go by a little faster. I’m always interested in Turkey’s situation trying to join the EU though so I did listen a little to that part. I like to describe the EU more as a club than a federation of some sort, or maybe even a gang could be a good description. A bunch of little punks who, alone, are not so tough but combined have lots of power and influence. There are also all kinds of initiation activities you have to go through in order to join and you have to be a certain kind of country that they like or that they think is just like them. Kind of snobbish and cliquey if you ask me. But whatever, I guess it’s not my union.

Anywho, after that thrilling adventure we a walking tour of the city. Although the weather was rather grey, rainy, windy, and cold…it was ok. Tartu is a very beautiful city with lots of green spaces, fountains, parks, and flowers in all the windows of exquisitely preserved 18th and 19th century buildings. It’s quite a lot smaller (and cheaper) than Tallinn so it makes for easy walking and shopping. I’ve also had better food here so far but maybe that’s just luck or I’m finally learning how to order things that sound good.

Overall a good day, minus the weather and the lecture…Ok so the tour was alright and that’s about it. But we did get a lot of free time today which is always good. 

Monday, July 6, 2009

I <3 Estonia

June 6 2009

Today started out beautifully with the best breakfast I’ve had here so far. Along with the usual meat, bread, and cheese, there was also granola, yogurt, and fruit!!! It was very satisfactory (finally!).

After breakfast we had a day of interesting lectures and ideas. First, one of the professors of the University of Tartu, Viktor Trasberg, spoke to us about the economic developments in the Baltic region. But first let me start off by saying that this guy was wearing a dollar sign belt buckle…threw me off a little bit in the beginning but he ended up sounding quite knowledgeable. He gave a little bit of history of how it all started, and how’s it grown into what it is today. The Baltic region could be described as the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. These countries include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Germany, and sometimes Norway.  These countries have always traded with each other, and now many of them are a part of the EU. Anyway, the most interesting part of this discussion to me was how many of the existing institutions in Estonia from the Soviet Union (education, healthcare, roads, ports, etc.) actually seemed to contribute to liberalized institutions, which in turn helped get them into the EU. Estonia is a great case study of a country that went from communism to capitalism, extremely rapidly (pretty much overnight). They’re an interesting case because it happened quite smoothly and quickly, and they’ve turned into a very stable and fairly successful country. Their economy was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, apparently this was because of once-in-a-lifetime conditions that existed after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had cheap resources, a favorable global environment, a loan based economy, and the EU was purposefully enlarging. All of these things helped Estonia merge into Western Europe and become a capitalist nation. This rapid growth has caused problems though. For instance, too much was invested in certain sectors (such as real estate), the resources went to less productive sectors, and because there was so much domestic dependence, there is a huge decrease in international competitiveness.

The next lecture we had really complimented this. It was given by one of the most distinguished social scientists in Estonia, Marju Lauristin. She talked about the social challenges that Estonia has had to face since regaining independence. Because Estonians were so used to having everything taken care of by the USSR, and the government being completely run by the USSR, they had to start everything over from scratch. All they had were some ideas of how the Finnish and the Soviets ran their governments pretty much. They had to create an entirely new budget for example. They had to figure out how to tax people, how to set up social services, and most importantly, how to pay for all of it. The Soviets had a huge amount of resources but Estonia is such a small country that they simply cannot take care of the people like they were before. Pensions were decreased, and healthcare was set at 13% of taxes which apparently only covers about 60-65% of the costs. You have to remember that these people were used to having healthcare at no cost, and pensions were set at 70-80% of the previous salary during the Soviet occupation. But it seems to me that Estonians are extremely hard workers and they’re willing to do whatever they need to in order to keep this an independent and free country.

What really strikes me is how responsive this government is. Of course they are currently in a depression because of the economic situation across the world, with the 3rd highest ranking for unemployment in the EU. They are however, already developing ideas and so many strategies to overcome their problems. It seems like they notice so quickly when something has gone wrong, and then everybody works together to fix it. It simply amazes me how quickly things get done! All of these successes and problems and solutions have come about in the last 19 years, and yet they’re already fixing so many problems that have hardly begun. For example, their population is decreasing and since they’re already a very small country, this is a problem. So the government is fixing it, just like that. They’ve set up a new policy that lets one parent take 1.5 years of leave with full pay (up to a certain amount but it sounds like most people get full pay). So already they’ve increased the birth rate by 25% or something. The response time here is just amazing. I suppose it’s probably because it’s so small. You see a problem more quickly that way and it doesn’t take as long for a solution to take effect. I mean, of course this country has a lot of kinks to work out still, especially through this economic crisis but for how new they are, I am just so impressed by the way things are run. I think the young people are really the key to the future success of this country. They’re so open to change and new ideas, and it seems they’re also more accepting of minorities and ready to leave the past behind. Really there are a lot of similarities to the US in terms of social and economic problems. It’s just really fascinating to see it on a smaller scale, and to see that there are possible solutions to these problems.

Brokeback Bus

July 5 2009

Oh what a day!!! Nothing was planned for today except moving from Tallin to Tartu. You would think this would be a quick and simple process but everything is always more exciting in a foreign country.

We were driving along through the countryside (which looks amazingly similar to Michigan), and I was pleasantly dozing while listening to my iPod, when suddenly, after 2 hours of being on the road, we pulled off to the side. The bus had broken down!! So there we were, stuck on the road, surrounded by beautiful yellow fields and an abandoned little yellow brick building with graffiti. We had to wait for at least an hour for a different bus to come rescue us. It was a pretty cold and windy day, very much like fall, and the other American group from San Diego was freezing, hahaha. One girl said she thought it was going to snow. Well, at the point, all the MTU students thought it was pretty hilarious and we all just said “Eh, feels like home.” Houghton certainly does produce character-building-cold. But we finally arrived to Tartu, which I have found to be a very lovely city. It’s a bit smaller than Tallin and I think I like it more. Our housing is better too. They’re cute little rooms with private bathrooms and mini-kitchens.

The weather is still a bit too chilly for my taste but I’m sure I’ll survive. Sometimes I wonder if Costa Rica wouldn’t have been a better choice for nothing other than a change in weather. Estonia is almost a little too similar to the UP. I like to feel like I’m escaping when I go abroad but here it’s cold, and I’m surrounded by MTU students. I guess it’s comforting at least. So here I am in a new city for the next 5 days. I think I’ll like it here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Song Festival Day!!

July 4, 2009


Today was the day of the Song Festival. We walked down to the grounds where there were hundreds of thousands of people milling around, waiting for things to start. There were food stands and beer tents and lots of diversions for us. I ate some kind of interesting meat filled pastries. They were kind of like mini pasties but not quite the same filling. Maybe some cabbage in there? Anyway it was one of the best things I’ve eaten since I got here. To see the concert, we walked up to the very top of the hill and sat on the grass. We were pretty far away though so we couldn’t see very well and the sound was a bit quieter than I would have liked. Still, it was pretty amazing to get a glimpse of the thirty-some-thousand singers on stage, and hear them singing in unison. It was really beautiful to hear their unofficial anthem which we’d heard in the documentary. I felt pretty privileged to have been able to attend such an event that only happens every 4 or 5 years.


The Estonians have so much pride in their country but it’s not an obnoxious pride like so many Americans seem to have (USA’s #1!! Fuck yeah!!!). Their pride just seems to be more pure, more for their heritage and what they’ve been through to become an independent country. I think the States have lost that somewhere along the way. I also thought it was great how EVERYONE stood up for their national anthem. Even the punkish kids that were sitting in the grass behind us. I mean, we were at the very back of this huge crowd, nobody would have noticed if they’d stayed seated but they stood up to respect their country. I’m not sure some American teenagers would do that nowadays.


The only bad part of the day was the weather. Unfortunately it turned rather cold and rainy at the start of the concert so we only stayed for the first part. Then Brittany and I grabbed a cab home to avoid the long walk home with the sky spitting at us. If it had been nicer, I definitely would have loved to stay longer and enjoy the festivities.

P.S. I did not take that picture but I thought you might want to visualize that amount of people in one place.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A good day

July 3, 2009

Today was probably my favorite day so far. We started off with a tour of the parliament building, followed by a Q & A session with Taavi Rõivas who, at the age of 29, is one of the youngest members of parliament. It was really interesting to get his take on Estonian politics. Apparently much of the parliament is quite young because it’s only been running since 1991, and most of the politicians at that time had been involved in the communist party of the USSR and therefore booted out. I guess now the whole internet craze makes sense…old people would never go for that. He even said we could add him as a friend on facebook. This country is just so funny sometimes. It’s so small and everyone is so familiar with each other, going out for drinks with a parliament member or striking up a conversation with one of them on the street is totally normal. It’s very relaxed.


The more time I spend here, the more I am convinced by my growing idea that Estonia, although part of Europe, is VERY different from France or even Germany and the other places I’ve visited. It’s a totally different atmosphere here. At times I feel like it’s heavier and more depressing because of it’s long and dark history but at other times I can definitely sense it’s pride and happiness in being an independent country. Today we went to the dance festival which is part of the huge song festival they have every 4 years or so. It was amazing. It’s so awe-inspiring to see 7,500 people dancing all at once in front of you with choreographed movement and traditional dress. I finally feel like I got a real sense of who the Estonian people are today, and it was beautiful. Tomorrow evening we’ll be attending the actual song festival where 100,000 singers will be on one stage, all performing in beautiful harmony. I guess about 500,000 Estonians will end up being present which accounts for nearly half of their population. Can you imagine that I’ll be seeing HALF of their population?


Anyway, although I’m very happy with my experience here so far, I have not been entirely impressed by the local cuisine. For example, the first day I was here I had this soup called Saljanka (I think). It was this odd mix of pork, sausage, chunks of lemon, black olives, onion, pickles, and God knows what else. I’ve never had anything like it and I’m not sure I’ll ever care to again. It’s not like it was bad…it just wasn’t very good. They also seem to eat an overwhelming amount of potatoes in various forms, which have been good but sometimes they too are put into strange mixtures of beets and pickled fish which makes this odd, chunky, purple mess. But maybe I’ve just been getting the wrong things. So far the best things I’ve had have been Turkish pita’s (those Doner things which are popular in Germany), and some good Italian ravioli. It’s all right though, hopefully it won’t make me gain weight like I did in France .J

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Long day...almost.

July 2, 2009


Today was a rather busy day. I’m not even sure I would have survived if I’d attended the whole thing (well, I probably could have but I would be REALLY tired). Anyway, we started off with a lecture at 10am about eGovernment in Estonia and how all that works, which lasted for about 2 hours (a half hour longer than planned). Then after lunch we had a 4 HOUR LECTURE on Russion Foreign Policy. Surprisingly it turned out to be pretty interesting however, after the first 2 hours my friend Brittany felt really sick (she thinks from dehydration) so I walked with her back to the dorms since it was pretty far. We also missed a city tour that immediately followed the lecture which turned out to be 5 hours from what I heard. I guess I can’t say I’m terribly sorry I missed it. Well, the tour would have been kind of nice.


But no worries, I’m sure I’ll attend everything else there is. Thank goodness we won’t have any more crazily scheduled days like today. Anyway, I should probably explain the whole e-government thing that Estonia has going on. Basically, Estonia does everything with the Internet. This year, 90% of the population filed tax declarations online (called edeclarations). I thought that was pretty amazing. Not to mention everyone does online banking (entirely online), the government has gone paperless, everyone gets a smart-chip ID card with ALL of your info on it, and they even have e-voting. So far all of it is working out beautifully and they haven’t had nearly as much trouble as you would think with identity theft and things like that. I think one of the major reasons people are so involved with this process is that the internet is very very accessible here and free in places like restaurants, hotels, airports, and libraries. Plus there’s something like 700 public internet access points which I believe are also free.  I think it would be great to have the internet more accessible to the general population in the US. I realize that children can get it at schools but there are so many other places that it would be great for if it were free. I couldn’t believe I had to pay for internet at the airport in Detroit…I’m pretty sure it wasn’t like that a year ago. Of course I didn’t pay for it though; why should I have to pay so much for internet in a public space that I’m only going to be at for a few hours?


So far at this point in the trip, it seems to me that Estonia’s got some really good ideas about things even though they haven’t been independent for very long. I really wish the US could get more inspired by other countries to change some stuff. There are great ideas in the world and the US does not always have the best ones. When will we accept a little humility and see that there are other ways to do things that might just be better?

Other than those lectures, we had a group dinner and I've also gotten to know my group members a bit more. It's an interesting mix of typical tech students except lots of girls and only two guys but we're all pretty nerdy. There's even already been a late night, highly witty discussion of various pieces of literature (which included but was not limited to Twilight, Stephen King, C.S. Lewis's works other than Narnia, and R.L. Stine). It's been entertaining. Thankfully we all get along pretty well.

Not so fun stuff I did.

A warning: The first part of this will be rather boring everyday probably. My apologies.

July 1, 2009

Today we visited the European Commission and met one of the ambassadors of Estonia, Toivo Klaar (at least I think he was an ambassador). Anyway, it seemed to me that he mostly talked about how the European Union works and what part Estonia plays in the decision making processes. I have to admit, I was pretty bored at first and a bit sleepy but it turned out to be quite interesting. What really struck me was how similar the EU and the US actually are. It’s an interesting thing that Europe has put together; somewhat like the federal government of the US but each state has much more autonomy. Of course, they’re running into some problems putting all of these nations together into a cohesive and cooperative club. It seems to me that the EU and the US could learn a lot from each other in terms of organizational methods and policies. With fresh ideas from the EU, and lots of experience in the US, I would think that we should both be able to improve how things are run. For example, students who are citizens of an EU county can go to school in any other EU country without paying additional fees. This makes sense to me. Why shouldn’t US students be able to go to school out of state without paying out-of-state tuition? I think it’s really interesting to see something like the EU growing and adapting as they figure things out.


We also had a lecture about the integration of Estonia into the EU (they became a member in 2004 I believe). After they regained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they wanted to drastically distance themselves from the USSR and become a liberal democracy. They actually liberalized and privatized themselves so much, that they had to tone it down a little in order to join the EU. It seems to me like Estonia fits in very nicely with the rest of the EU and it’s amazing to see how much like Western Europe it really is. To think that less than 20 years ago they were under soviet rule, and now they have one of the fastest growing economies and a technologically advanced government system.


Then we visited the Museum of Occupation, which turned out to be SUPER boring after about 10 minutes.


Well, enough of the lecture stuff. Here’s what happened to me today besides that. Basically, I went to bed at 6:30pm last night because I was soooo exhausted after skipping a whole night’s sleep. This resulted in me waking up at 3:30am, wide awake. So I was pretty bored until 8:30am when we had to begin our day. Other than the lectures, I went shopping and bought a super cute leather jacket. Yay!! I think that’s about it. On a side note, I am NOT yet impressed with Estonian cuisine. They have odd combinations of things in their dishes.  I am loving the strong coffee though. Reminds me of the expresso in France (and no I did not misspell that, le français uses an x).

Monday, June 29, 2009

To Estonia!!

Well, today's the day I finally leave for Estonia. It's all feeling a little deja vu-ish as not that long ago, I was on my way to study abroad in France. However, I'll only be in Estonia for 3 weeks which is hardly any time at all. It kind of seems like no big deal after what I've already done. So I guess it kind of takes the excitement out of it. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited, just not as excited as I feel like I should be for such an event.

The thing that's most exciting for me is the fact that I'll be getting 6 credits for spending 3 weeks in a beautiful European country. Yay! It's allowed me to have the rest of my summer free for working, and hanging out with family and friends instead of taking classes from May to August. 

So some of you may be wondering, where the hell is Estonia? Well, Estonia is a small country located far north, just south Finland, and just west of Russia (quite near St. Petersburg). It's also bordered by Latvia to the South, and across the water to the west, there's Stockholm, Sweden. They have a low density population of about 1.3 million people who speak Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish. They're a country which has been occupied by many different people such as the Soviet Union and the Nazis. 

Ok, that's enough history for you. I'll be updating this thing everyday (as mandated by my program), so you'll get to hear about all my misadventures. So let's see, I should probably write about some of my expectations. I expect that Estonia will be much like the rest of Europe; picturesque cobblestone streets with historic buildings from centuries past, great bakeries and cafés around every corner, dimly lit nightclubs exuding electronica and techno, well dressed 60 year old women with oddly colored hair. Yes, I know it's far from the influence of Western Europe but they are a part of the E.U. and I think Eastern Europe is still quite similar, just with less money. However, it will be interesting to see how previous occupations by the USSR have contributed to cultural practices and ideologies. I imagine this influence will create a different atmosphere than the other European countries I've visited since their independence from the USSR was gained less than 20 years ago.

That's all the writing I'm in the mood for right now. I suppose I'd better get ready for my flight today. Miss you all!!!

p.s. I REALLY miss my Bolivian :(  

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Waste of Internet Space

Well, I've decided that I should probably utilize this blog space that I've ignored so well for the past year. I suppose an update is in order as well.

I'll start at the beginningish: My sejour in France was absolutely perfect. I stayed from January through to the end of July and loved every single moment of it. A part of me (a very large part of me actually) would love to go back and live/work there someday but...leaving the people I love behind in such a seemingly permanent fashion is a bit frightening. And I can't lie, Camilo may play a role in that particular decision making process. But France will always have a piece of my heart. Words cannot begin to describe how much I miss my little village of Aix. Actually, words can describe it...I'd almost forgotten I made this list...

Things I'll miss about France:
street vendor crêpes, the abundance of Nutella, amazing fresh fruits and vegetables, small children speaking French, the boulangeries and pattiseries (tartalettes framboises!), the flower market, people saying "oo la la", everyone wearing boots, my huge window in the apartment, the way people greet each other, walking through narrow streets dodging mopeds, good Moroccan food, sitting at cafes, cheapness of wine, eXpresso, the market on Tuesdays, the blueness of the sky, the Mediterranean, real functioning shutters, people actually dancing at bars, looking nice everyday without people asking "why are you so dressed up today?", being able to walk everywhere in the city, being able to get to other cities with cheap public transportation, the centre ville, freshly rinsed cobblestone streets, the fountains, not smelling like an ashtray after a night out at the bar, tiled roofs, courtyards, Paris, the Metro, art museums, the French language, the cost of medical care without insurance, spring in Provence, sunny days and rainy nights, Les Calanques, smoking Hookah with the Frenchies, the boys of ENSAM, le bisous, Remy's place on the Corniche, 365+ different kinds of fromage (real Camembert!), Jérôme Belloche

As it turns out, the last item of that list turned out to be, at the time, the most painful thing to leave behind. But I guess time heals everything and can even make you forget. So, as hard as I tried to hold onto the beautiful memories we had together, it wasn't enough to keep us together in the long run. It was a nice dream but nothing more than that I guess. These days I'm dating my Bolivian Camilo instead, and it's nice to finally have someone who doesn't seem imaginary.

Study Abroad Program in France: $10,000
Plane ticket: $800
Side trip to Italy: $400
6 pairs of French shoes: €200

Realizing that long-distance relationships don't work out: ....$700

Lesson learned.