For me, April was an especially awesome month, for even though it meant the beginning of our Sommersemester, it also included my first trek ever into Eastern Europe. However, there was one little catch, and that catch was the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (pronounced eye-yuff-ohhhhhh-whatever) in Iceland. As I’m sure you all heard, the eruptions from the volcano produced a massive cloud of volcanic ash that slowly crept over Europe and forced the cancelations of thousands of flights each day.
Naturally, the cloud eventually did cause the cancelation of my flight, which I should add was direct from Bremen to Kaunas, Lithuania (a total of maybe 2 hours in the air). Because I had been looking forward to this trip for quite some time, my awesome companion and fellow Dickinsonian Kara Elder (who is studying currently in Moscow) and I quickly agreed that it was necessary to find another means of transportation so that our trip could go through as planned. After some discussion, we eventually decided that we would travel by train, even though this increased the duration of our trips greatly. For Kara, it meant traveling 13 hours by train (around Belarus) from Moscow to Riga, Latvia, and then catching a bus for a 5-hour ride to Kaunas. Loooooong.
Well, not that I want to play the one-up game, but mine was a tad longer and not quite so easy. I boarded the train out of Bremen at 2:17 pm on Tuesday, and after making four connections and riding for 25 hours, I finally reached Kaunas on Wednesday at 4:30 pm. This epic and somewhat scary train ride took me into the heart of Poland and caused me just a bit of grief. Throughout these rides, I was asked by the Polish police to produce my passport, continually worried about missing my connections or whether or not I was traveling in the right direction, and was even gossiped about by two Polish women but in sign language (I glared back at them, but if you ever want to make me feel totally uncomfortable, learn sign language and use it to blatantly communicate with someone about me.). The biggest problem was the communication barrier.
Obviously, the first language there is Polish, and even though I don’t speak a lick of Polish, I didn’t envision this to be a huge problem from the get-go. Before I left, I was taught how to ask politely (in Russian) if one spoke English or German, but whenever I attempted to do this, it was clear that the train conductors did not want to deal with me. Now, I know that my pitiful attempts at “Russian” probably discouraged them from talking to me, and it certainly could have been the fact that very few people with whom I spoke actually knew German or English, but I kind of wondered to myself whether or not this “unwillingness to help” was really a reflection of the public perception in Poland of Russians. I know little on the subject regarding Russian-Polish relations, but I think I know enough to guess that there’s a little reason for some contempt towards Russia amongst the Polish community. Anyways, it wasn’t a huge deal; I was usually able to find one person that could either speak German or English and could help direct me/encourage me that I was headed in the right direction. These trials and tribulations also didn’t detract from the trip as a whole; quite the contrary, for it was lovely traveling across the Polish countryside and being able to see the architecture and general “quality” of the buildings change as I moved further into Eastern Europe.
In Kaunas, I of course met up with my fellow Odysseus and spent a few great days just walking around the city, taking in the crumbling-yet very charming-buildings, the quaint, cobblestone streets, and the general demeanor of the Lithuanian people. While the Lithuanians displayed looks of stiffness and stoicalness when we passed them on the street (which I expected due to reports I had gotten regarding the people of Moscow), they were always very helpful when we needed help or directions or just engaged them in a quick dialogue. They were certainly curious of us. Having spent the past 8-9 months in Moscow, Kara is quite familiar with the look that Eastern Europeans take to be “normal,” if you will, and has little trouble in reproducing it; I, on the other hand, am not and certainly looked foreign to any that passed us on the streets and received a few curious stares (but again, not out of contempt or malice). Needless to say, don’t go wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the words “Biglerville Athletics” across the front; you’re asking to be noticed. Another thing that should be mentioned is the food. Kara and I enjoyed a meal at a typical Lithuanian restaurant, and there we enjoyed dumplings filled with various kinds of meat or fish. While a simple, these meat dumplings were incredible. Covered in creamy mushroom and onion sauces, it wasn’t too much of a task for us to finish each and every last one. Anyways, to make a long story shorter, the trip to Kaunas was simply amazing, and having a little company made it that much better. I’d strongly encourage to visit Eastern Europe, for the area truly has a different feel to it. As for me, I absolutely want to go back one day.