Michelle Altemus
2008-09 Outbound to Lithuania
Hometown: Pinecrest, Florida
School: Miami Palmetto Senior High School, Miami, Florida
Sponsor: Miami Dadeland-Pinecrest Rotary Club, District 6990, Florida
Host: Vilnius St. Christopher Rotary Club, District 1460, Lithuania

Michelle's Bio

 Michelle Altemus. People use that name to identify me everyday, yet from that one piece of information, you know nothing about me and have no idea what kind of person I am. Luckily, I’m about to tell you just that!

I am currently a 16-year-old sophomore at Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Miami, Fl. My friends are my life. I go to school with them, I hang out with them in my spare time, they know all my secrets, and I have no idea what I would do without them. But when I am not devoting my time to my friends, I find other ways of spending it. Currently my hobby is scuba diving. I have not mastered the sport yet by any stretch of the imagination, but I absolutely love it. When I am underwater, my body succumbs to nature. I feel so free spirited, and any cares or worries float away with the passing of each wave.

I also devote a lot of my time to the Interact club at my school. Interact is a community service club and I am the treasurer of Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s chapter. I know that I have a tremendous amount of things to be thankful for and I take joy in helping out others whenever possible. Another source of happiness for me is nature. I love wildlife and being in the great outdoors. For this reason, I try to do my part in ecological conservation and I feel that it is my duty to try and spread awareness to those around me.

That is my life in a nutshell as of right now. As for where I am headed, your guess is probably as good as mine! I may not know exactly where I am going in life but I do know that I am in for great adventures and amazing experiences. I am not a boring person, so I refuse to settle for a boring life. Lucky for me, I have been allowed to embark on a life-changing journey and I know that my great adventures are about to begin.

August 18 Journal

 Before I really start, I would just like to comment on all of the similarities between the pre-departure journals I have read so far. It is quite interesting how 50 eclectic teenagers who were complete strangers not too long ago, can have so much in common. Throughout this experience I have found that special bond and sense of understanding, that only exchange students can ever truly comprehend, immensely comforting. When the friends and family I had sought support and advice from for my entire life suddenly could no longer relate to, let alone comprehend, the things I am experiencing, it was nice to have a new group of friends that undoubtedly were dealing with the same issues as I was. Now we have all made it this far and are embarking on our individual journeys that will change our lives. Good luck and safe travels to everyone!

Alright, one might be wondering how I am preparing for my journey in these final days before departure. At this point, I have one week left before I leave for Lithuania, but I have been packing for the last month and a half! At the same time, I am frantically running around Miami trying to buy everything I think I may need in Lithuania. This is actually quite comical seeing as how I, along with the rest of my family, are Miami natives. Not only that but I have never even seen snow!

The next question that comes to a lot of people’s minds is in regard to the emotions that I am experiencing as I am about to leave everyone and everything that I have ever known, in order to start a new life in a foreign land with a foreign population. This is the difficult part! Right now, I feel like I am in some sort of hypnotic trance. I am experiencing so many things that should make the reality of leaving my home more real, yet I still don’t believe it.

For instance, one of my best friends hosted a Japanese exchange student for 10 days through a different exchange program. I went over to my friends house the first day that this student, Natsuki, was in America. What I found was a timid and slightly scared Japanese girl. She was insecure about her English speaking abilities, so for a while she attempted to communicate solely through gestures. This was probably the event that came closest to shattering the oblivious bubble that I am living in, since I am going to be experiencing the same problems and emotions soon too. Another, slightly more positive, piece of wisdom that I took away from that day was the fact that a smile and a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in making someone feel more comfortable with the situation they are in.

But as the day progressed, Natsuki began to become more comfortable around us and she let her guard down. After this, we had so much fun and discovered that her English skills were great. I hope that I can be as polite, as sincere and as willing as Natsuki was while I am on my own exchange.

Furthermore, as I talk more and more with my host family and learn new information everyday, I realize that they are extremely kind and excited to welcome me into their life. I cannot wait to meet them and know that they are going to make the process of assimilation so much easier for me.

A couple weeks ago I visited my sponsoring Rotary Club so I could get a few club banners to trade while on my exchange. This was also the first time I wore my Rotary blazer. Although I looked the part of an exchange student and everyone wished me well on journey, the reality still did not fully sink in.

My lack of comprehension does not stop there though. Yesterday I had a small going away party with a few of my friends. We had a good time but the day started and ended and as people left and wished me safe trip, all I could say was “I don’t leave for a week, you guys are acting like I will be gone tomorrow!”

Despite the oblivion that I am facing, I must admit that a bit of nervousness and anxiety has begun to set in, which was only strengthened through the course of writing this journal (which by the way has been an ongoing event for about a month now because of my incapability to describe what I am feeling). I would also like to thank everyone that has believed in me and given me this opportunity. Watch out Lithuania, here I come!

September 13 Journal

 Almost three weeks ago, I stumbled off of a plane ready to begin life in a completely foreign country. I left my home on August 25th with one hundred pounds of luggage to check in at the airport, and two carry-on's, one of which was quite heavy I might add. Although there were tears in my eyes I was not sad. I was not scared or anxious. To be quite honest I was not feeling much of anything. I said goodbye to my parents outside of the security line and managed to get lost within the first 10 minutes of being on my own. That shows you the great navigation skills that I possess J.

My first stop was in Frankfurt Germany, and after having been on the plane for about 9 hours I was happy to get off. I had plenty of time to kill so I wandered around the airport for a while, then sat down in front of my gate. That is when it first hit me. Complete and utter exhaustion. Although it was 7 AM in Germany, every part of my body knew that it really was about 1 in the morning. Terrified of falling asleep and missing my flight, I fought the fatigue, and waited and waited and waited for a voice overhead to announce boarding to Vilnius.

After what seemed like forever I finally hopped on a bus that took me to my flight, and once I sat down in my seat, I am not exactly sure what happened. A wave of emotion fell over me, a whirl of excitement and nervousness. The time had finally come. Unfortunately, my mood was soon dampened by a strong feeling of nausea. Afraid of losing my marbles right then and there I quickly fell asleep, waking after about 90 minutes with 30 minutes left of the flight.

Upon landing, the plane erupted in applause, my first glimpse of the craziness that is Lithuanian culture. Oh and I can‘t forget to mention that the Lithuanian basketball team returning from the Olympics was on my flight. This may not seem like a big deal, but you have to realize that basketball is a HUGE deal in this country. It is commonly referred to as their second religion. All right, so back to the point. I stepped off of the plane, collected my luggage (very relieved that it had all arrived), and stepped through the doors to be greeted by a cheering and smiling group of people, that is, my first and second host families. They immediately took all of my bags from my hands and replaced them with flowers, balloons, and a welcome sign.

I only stayed with my first host family for about a week, but a lot happened during that time. Once we arrived home from the airport, I only had time to drop of my stuff because Simona (my 17 year old host sister and former exchange student in Minnesota) and I left to go to the center of the city where there was a celebration to welcome home the Olympic basketball team. We missed the celebration but had lunch with some of Simona‘s friends. This was where I was introduced to putting ketchup on your pizza. I must say this is something that I am not a fan of. In the midst of experimenting with pizza, jetlag consumed me and I proceeded to fall asleep on the table. I adjusted to the time difference pretty well though, and after the second day, I was pretty much fine.

The next day we went to a water park, which is ironic because I thought that once I left Florida I would be saying goodbye to swimming for a year. During the rest of the week we toured Old Town in Vilnius (pretty much every major city in Lithuania has its own Old Town), went to a Snoop Dogg concert (Snoop Doggas in Lithuanian), and took a trip up a hill one night to see the view of the city (which was absolutely gorgeous). And I can not forget the bike ride to a restaurant called Belmontas. Bike riding through dirt roads, down hill on cobblestone, over a river and down a 45 degree slant at top speed was quite an adventure. It was exhausting to get there (and even more so coming home uphill) but completely worth it. The restaurant is breathtaking. It is located on a river and small waterfall surrounded by tons of trees. The sight is so gorgeous that there were about 4 weddings occurring at the location that day.

That Sunday I switched host families to the one I am currently living with. The next day, Monday September 1, I started school. It is customary to give a flower to your teacher so my host mom gave me a flower before we left the house. Upon arriving at school I was introduced to my teacher, I greeted her but forgot about the flower even though she was holding a large bouquet. After a few minutes my host mom politely reminded me but when I tried to hand it over I hit my teacher in the face!

The rest of the day went pretty well, though, because I was only at school for an hour and a half and didn‘t actually go to any classes because September 1 is a big celebration in Lithuania. The head of my school, or “General manager“ spoke for a little while (of course I did not understand a word) and then there was a small performance. The first grade students and twelfth grade students came and and performed a dance (the first grade students were dressed in traditional costumes) and then they symbolically walked off with each 12th grader holding the hand of a first grader. It is very hard for me to remember my class schedule because I have 11 different subjects, different classes in a different order everyday and some days I start at 8 AM while on others I don‘t have to go until 10.

My host family, consists of my mom Rita, dad Saulius, and two younger brothers, they are 2 and 10 years old. This is pretty interesting for me because in Florida I was the youngest in my family and I only had one sister. They also have a son my age named Kristijonas but he is on exchange in Jacksonville right now. I have done a lot of sight-seeing since I have been here. In Vilnius I have been to Old Town many times. It is completely gorgeous - I should spend all of my time there J. I am also very lucky because Rita just finished her certification as a tour guide, so not only can she show me buildings and monuments, but she can explain their history.

Also, last weekend I went to Palanga (a city on the coast) with my host dad, a woman named Valda who is a Rotaract member and one of my host mom's friends. The reason for our trip was the Rotary games, which is their version of the Olympics. There were sports events on Friday night and all day Saturday, some of which I participated in (I was actually very good at darts). Midday Saturday I went to a meeting where I was asked to say a few words about my stay so far. This is where I met for the first time another exchange student in Lithuania from the United States. The festivities ended with a party on Saturday night and we didn’t leave until 2 AM. The party hadn’t ended but we decided that we wanted to walk down to the beach. I had been to the beach earlier during the day but it was nice to see the Baltic Sea at night as well. I met a lot of Rotarians that weekend and it was nice to see people from all over the country come together. (Can you believe that it only takes about 4 hours to drive from the east coast of Lithuania to the west?!)

Well that’s all for now. Until next time, viso gero!


September 30 Journal

 Two days ago was my one month anniversary in Lithuania. One month is actually a pretty long amount of time if you really think about it. One month without seeing or hearing the voices of all the people I love and have spent my whole life with. But when I reflect on this past month it is strange. Sometimes it feels like it took forever to pass by, while at other times it seems as if it flew by within the blink of an eye.

The first week I was here I was always either sleeping or out doing something. I had very little time to be homesick, which was good, but I still shed a few tears whenever I found the time to miss home. The second week was tough. That was when I started school and it was nothing like I imagined. Before leaving Florida I was told that everybody is going to want to talk to you and interview you and most people will be dying to practice their English with you. I do not think that could have been farther from reality. At first, no one wanted to talk to me, apparently they were afraid to speak English, and definitely anything but eager. I think all the confusion of never knowing where to go, never knowing what to, and not understanding a word anyone said brought on the full wrath of homesickness. I was sad a lot. I cried a lot. There were even times that I considered that I might have made the biggest mistake of my life. However, I pulled through and by the third week those awful feelings had passed. I was so ecstatic, I thought I was safe. Safe from the tears and the pain. However, they slowly started to creep back, not nearly as severe as before but still apparent. Now I have finished my fourth week in Lithuania and I am happy. I can completely and honestly say that I am happy. That doesn‘t mean there still aren‘t times when I find myself upset but as a wise little girl in a movie once said, “You just have to make the good stuff count for more than the bad.” I can finally find all my classes at school and all the kids are opening to me. It‘s nice. However, I still find myself wondering at times if people here truly like me for me, for the person that I am, or if they just want to talk to me because they either find me new and interesting, or because they pity me. Either way, a warm smile or a friendly “hello” in the halls means more to me than anyone could ever know.

Now, some words of wisdom that I have been pondering recently. I have come to the conclusion that despite my efforts, a camera can never fully capture the beauty of something or someplace and I will never be able to describe my experiences here in a way that will make all of you reading this journal, feel the things that I have felt. So I have decided that I need to stop constantly thinking about taking a picture of this or that so I can show everyone back home and quit always thinking about how great whatever I am doing will sound in a Rotary journal. This way I can appreciate the moment for all it's worth and not let anything slip by unnoticed.

Next are some quick facts about life in Lithuania.

• My host mom took me mushroom picking in the forest. It was so much fun. Not only that but we ate wild berries right off of the plant, they actually tasted pretty gross though. And you would be surprised how many different types of mushrooms there are! Some were brown, some were red, others were orange and one type was bluish green and spongy looking, just to name a few.

• I am drinking tea now. I refused to go anywhere near a glass of tea in Miami but now I happily drink it on a regular basis. This is pretty fortunate because if I didn’t drink tea I think I would die of dehydration here ;).

• Vilnius has the biggest mall ever.....well maybe not ever....but it is still pretty big. Not only does it have a ton of stores and restaurants, but the restaurants have themes from different countries. There is also a movie theater, an ice skating rink and a casino.

• Lithuanians put ketchup on everything from pizza to eggs to cucumbers. They even have ketchup flavored Cheetos. Probably the worst yet was when I was eating soup the other day and someone offered me ketchup...

• I ate snails for the first time. No, snails are not typical Lithuanian cuisine, but a family friend is a snail exporter so he made some and we ate them. Buvo labai skanus! (it was very delicious)

• We went to a “Grybų Šventė”, other wise known as a “Mushroom Festival”. We rode a giant basket down the street. No seriously, they built a giant basket out of wood and put an engine and steering wheel on it.

• I went to the sauna for the first time at the house of another family friend. It involved getting really hot and sweaty, a lot of freezing cold water, taking off my clothes in front of people I barely know and getting wacked with tree branches (apparently some form of massage). Lets just say it was an interesting experience.

• The phrase “Oh dear” and the word “super” are really popular here. It is quite entertaining to hear someone speaking in Lithuanian and then in the middle of the conversation they will say one of those things in English.

• I went to Riga, the capital of Latvia for a day. Latvian food is a lot like Lithuanian food.

• I gave a presentation to my host Rotary club. It just might have been the most mortifying experience of my life....despite the fact that everyone said I did good (I don‘t really believe them J)

These next stories are sure to embarrass me and entertain you. ;)

Story #1: One of my classes in school is photography. We have photography class from 8:00 to 9:40 every Wednesday. However one week we were going to an exhibition after school so for that day, classes were cancelled. Someone in class was nice enough to translate the fact that we were going to the exhibition but no one bothered to tell me that classes were not going to be held. So I show up at school, find out the news and call my host mom to tell her what was going on. Now I had taken the bus a few times before and thought that I knew enough to be able to take the bus home (it is only about a 5 minute ride until you reach the final stop on the route and have to get off) and then walk home from the bus stop. So I buy a ticket (in Lithuanian!) and read the schedule to see when the next bus will come. While I was waiting, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my newly found self-sufficiency. The bus arrives shortly and I notice it is strange that the bus is facing the wrong way to be able to drive towards my house but I assure myself that it has to be the right bus because it is the one that a friend and I had taken to and from home the night before. But before we even reach the next stop I realize that we are definitely not going the right way. So I had to make a decision, get off at the next stop and walk back to school, or stay on. I chose the latter because I figured that the bus route was circular and if I stayed on long enough I would eventually get back to where I started. All right, so to make a long story short I was horribly wrong and found myself lost in the middle of city. I asked for help from people along the way and it took me about two hours but I eventually got back to school, ten minutes late for my first class.

Story #2: My house is surrounded by forest and three lakes. It is very beautiful so my new favorite thing to do is to go on walks. The forest is so full of pathways that I swear I could walk my whole life and never travel down all of them, but that is what makes it interesting. Although I never have any idea where I am going I have always found my way home eventually and I was very proud of that. However, one day my luck ran out, and after having walked for over an hour, I found myself completely lost in the middle of the forest. After walking back and forth and trying out a ton of different paths, I became so confused and disoriented I couldn‘t even find the path I had originally come on. After much reluctance I called my host mom, who was with her friend at the time, and they got in the car and came looking for me. They told me that the best thing to do would be to try and find someone who could tell me where I was. I eventually found someone and I asked them to talk to my host mom‘s friend and explain where we were. As it turns out, I was actually very close to home and within a matter of minutes my host mom found me. J

Well I think that about covers it for this journal. Iki pasimatymo!

November 4 Journal

 When I first sat down to write this journal my introduction was “It is almost my two month anniversary in Lithuania.” Then I sat down to try and finish this journal and had to change the introduction to “Today is my two month anniversary in Lithuania.” Now, the proper introduction would be “I have been in Lithuania for over two months and a week.” Oh, the woes of high levels of confusion mixed with good ol’ teenage procrastination. I might say Rotary Youth Exchange Florida, you have presented us exchange students with quite a task. Nevertheless, each time I attempted to write this darn thing, I had to look at a calendar. I take this as a very good thing because it means that I have better things to do than count days the day since my arrival.

What have I been up to lately? I will give you a quick summary of excursions. I have been to:

• Zarasai to visit my host dad’s mother. Just like the small cities I have been to so far, it was incredibly cute. Everything is old fashioned and I imagine that if I travelled back in time, Zarasai would look pretty much like it does now. On the way there, we stopped at the true geographical center of Europe, which just so happens to be located right outside of Vilnius….I have a certificate to prove it.

• Utena to visit my host mom’s parents. There is a national park nearby which is code for a really beautiful forest!...we did more mushroom picking =D. We also went to a bee museum. I didn’t see any actual bees but it was an outdoor museum about the history of bee farming.

• Old Trakai/ Trakai- Trakai is a city with a huge castle built on one of the many islands in the numerous lakes….very beautiful scenery. Old Trakai is only about 10 minutes away and there used to be a castle that doesn’t exist anymore. What does exist is a nice church on a small hill with a moat around it. The moat doesn’t have water in anymore but it was still cool. Old Trakai was also the birth place of Vytautus, who was once the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Also, one of the 2 other exchange students in Lithuania came to visit me in Vilnius. We had a lot of fun and I showed her around the city…..I’m a good tour guide ;).

Moving on to one of the most important topics I have to cover in this journal is the language, LITHUANIAN!......I don’t know a better way to explain my feelings toward this language and the process of learning it so far. Considering the fact that I boarded that plane over two months ago, basically only knowing how to say “labas” (hello) and could not conjugate a single verb if my life depended on it, I am extremely proud of the progress that I have made. My first real breakthrough was when I understood what my host brother said for the first time. To be honest, I don’t remember when it happened, but it was a while ago. You don’t know what a blow it is to your intelligence level when you are out smarted by a two year old, well actually, now he is three. The second one was probably when I attended my first Rotary meeting. The club president presented me with their banner and I said “ačiū labai.” The fact that I said thank you very much is quite unimpressive, the amazing part is the fact that my lips spoke those words effortlessly, I didn’t have to think about it…it just happened. My brain thought in Lithuanian for the first time and I was ecstatic.

Other self esteem boosters have been :

• When I am talking to someone in English and they have forgotten a word, so I ask them to say it in Lithuanian, I understand the word and am able to translate it into English for them.

• Being able to have a conversation with my Lithuanian teacher. It is always something simple, like what I ate for breakfast, or what I did over the weekend but it is a dramatic improvement from the beginning of the school year. The teacher would point to one of the few objects in the classroom she had taught me how to say (maybe 4 or 5) and have me repeat their names almost every day. Not only that, but when I am having a conversation with my teacher, a lot of the times other classmates will huddle around us and listen to me speak, with a huge smile on their faces because of all that I have learned.

• There was a girl who helped translate a lot of things that my teachers were saying for the first week of school. Then she was absent for a long time but when she came back, she heard all of the things I could say and understand and was thoroughly impressed.

• I wanted a bottle of water from one of the kiosks that sell a bunch of stuff like candy, chips, drinks, and magazines, and that are located ALL over Vilnius. When I asked for water, although it is only one word and very simple to say, she had no idea what I was talking about. Then she started asking me all these questions and I understood EVERY word, and eventually got my drink.

Even though all of these experiences have been great and the sense of accomplishment I felt during each one of them is indescribable, frustrating lows are never far away. So I think it would appropriate to say that learning Lithuanian is one of the most rewarding yet devastating endeavors I have ever undertaken J. One more thing that I would like to add about this language is that there are seven declensions. This means that there are seven different endings for nouns based on the way in which they are used. For example, the word tooth is not just the word tooth. Oh no! It is dantis, danties, dančiui, dantį, dantim(i), danty(je) and dantie. Not to mention all of those have plural forms as well!

Now, on to more sappy information. It has been hard for me to accept the fact that everything about this experience seems to be a roller coaster. Nothing is constant. Sometimes I feel on top of the world, like nothing could be better. But then a few minutes later something triggers sadness or homesickness. But that’s okay. I have experienced so many highs and they definitely overpower the lows.

For example, the other day I went to the movies with a friend. I was so happy I walked to the bus stop from home and took the bus into the city (the correct bus I might add). When I got off the bus I actually walked in the right direction, unlike the time before when I was trying to get to the same place. In fact I was meeting the same friend and since I had walked in the wrong direction I ended up being about 30 minutes late. But this time when I stepped off that bus I KNEW I was going the right way. I actually KNEW what I was doing and it felt good. As I walked down the street I realized that I blended in with everyone else. I was hurriedly walking through the city on an early Sunday afternoon, just trying to get where I needed to be, like so many other Lithuanians.

It’s the situations like this that have made me realize that now I truly am living in Lithuania. I am not a tourist and I am not on vacation. I am no longer the little American girl who has no knowledge of the local language or of the city. No longer am I the girl who never knows what she is doing or where she is going. I have upgraded to the girl who used to live America, the girl who has a very basic command of the local language and the girl who knows what she is doing….well at least some of the time J. The only drawback to being a Lithuanian girl is that there is no such thing as personal space on the city bus. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE being able to take the bus to get where I want to be instead of having to beg my parents to either drive me somewhere or let me borrow their car. But sometimes, I am afraid that the bus is going to break down from the combined weight of all the people that cram themselves onto that sauna with wheels. Heck yea it’s hot when you are wearing a coat, squeezed in between a bunch of strangers all radiating massive amounts of body heat, and they have the heater turned on to boot!

January 4 Journal

 Four months....wow really? That can't be right...yet it is. So here is another brief on my activities during the last 2 months.

- We took a trip to Kernavė, the first capital of Lithuania. I'm not exactly sure what made that place so special but I just absolutely loved it. Perhaps it was the natural beauty ... the rolling hills sitting on a river bank bordered by forests. Despite the reasons, Kernavė was probably my favorite place outside of Vilnius I have seen so far and it was an incredible day.

- On Thanksgiving I decided to make a meal for my host family, and give them a taste of what a real American Thanksgiving is like. It was the first time I had made any sort of entire meal all by myself so when I was through, I was thoroughly exhausted. Although there were minor problems, like having a drinkable pie instead of a chewable pie, everyone seemed to enjoy the food and they appreciated my efforts.

- I took a trip to visit another exchange student living in a city called Panevežys. Yes, I took the trip meaning, me, alone, by myself, on an approximately 2 hour bus ride....and i didn't end up in Siberia, now that's what I call progress. :) Panevežys is a lovely city, really it is but I must say not the most entertaining for tourists, it is very small and quiet. I send a big thank you to whoever decided to place me in Vilnius. Nevertheless, us two exchange students had a great time together.

- Lithuania celebrated the 90th anniversary of the establishment of its army as a free state....that's a mouthful. Anyway there was a nice parade in Vilnius, there was supposed to be some sort of plane show but that was cancelled due to weather. What was wrong with the weather? It....was....SNOWING!!!!!!! My first snow! I was so happy...

-My host mother is a member of a women's club and they have a big fundraiser every year. I attended the performance this year and it was really interesting because I was able to see traditional Lithuanian costumes, music and dance.

-Vilnius's Old City is very beautifully decorated during Christmas time. In addition to many lights, there are two very large Christmas trees. One in Cathedral Square and one in City Hall square. When they lit the tree in Cathedral square for the first time, there was a very nice show. There was a bell concert performed by people in funny looking costumes, suspended high above the ground. Then the tree was lit and fireworks followed.

-Soon after my arrival in Lithuania I met a woman named Edita who works for Rotary. When I met her she promised that we would spend some weekends together throughout my exchange year. The first and hopefully not last of those weekends passed some time ago. I stayed with her, her husband and son and we all really got along well. We talked a lot and got to know each other, met with friends and relaxed. We all just had so much fun together and I can't wait until we meet again.

-I turned 17 years old on December 11th. My plans were slightly ruined when I got sick two days earlier. Despite the fact that I was home from school, laying in bed with a fever, the people I am surrounded by here in Lithuania managed to make it special. Before my host mom had to go to work she prepared the table with snacks, drinks and a cake. Then throughout the day my cell phone was flooded by birthday greetings from people in school, some people I had never even given my phone number to.....Then after school my closest friend, Kristina, visited me with balloons and presents. The next day I was feeling a little better and my host family took me to the ballet to celebrate. It was a performance of Sleeping Beauty and I really enjoyed it. Afterwards my host mom and I went out for a late night Chinese dinner over a nice conversation.

- Then it was Christmas time!!! Christmas lasts a lot longer here than it does in America. First of all, Christmas eve is a celebration, some may even argue that it is more important than Christmas itself, where as in my family in America, December 24th is not a festive event. So, on the evening of Kučios my host dad's family (mother, sister, other sister and her daughter) arrived with food and gifts. We sat down for dinner, where you are supposed to try 12 different meals, but none of then can be made from meat. Then after dinner we were visited by "Kalėdo senelė" or "Santa Claus" and although it is not technically a tradition, it is popular for young children to be asked to sing some kind of song or poetry when meeting Santa Claus. Therefore, when we were greeted by this jolly old man, each person had to tell him something before receiving their gift. After presents, we spent the night in various ways, one of the most unexpected and entertaining activities was learning how to tie ties. This idea was hatched when, for some unknown reason, my host dad's sister gave us all ties and my host dad, being the only man in the house, was the only one who knew how to use his present properly. And trust me, all you women out there....it is a LOT harder than it looks. Everyone decided to go to sleep somewhere around 1 or 2 a.m. Then there are two days of Christmas....that's right not one but TWO! On the first day of Christmas, after breakfast and taking plenty of group photos, my host dad's family went home. But my host brothers, my host mom and I went for a drive. There were two reasons for this: the first was so that my host mom could show me the forests, which I had loved so much during the summer and autumn time, during the winter. It was absolutely picture perfect...but my camera was out of battery so I didn't take any pictures, but don't worry I will be back :). The second reason for us driving around was so that we could find a good hill to sled on because there was SNOW! MY FIRST WHITE CHRISTMAS! I was ecstatic, that was something I had wanted and wished for my whole life, but no matter how much I wish there will never be snow in Florida. And I was told I was very lucky because sometimes there isn't any snow on Christmas. So sledding was fun but we all got really wet so decided to go home. After eating we went to visit two churches. Churches here in Lithuania, almost all have a nativity scene, and no this is not the little nativity scenes that you buy in the store, set it up at Christmas time and then store it in your attic until next year...oh no these nativity scenes have so much detail and are really beautiful, as well as all of the churches themselves. The second church we visited is very popular because it is the only Gothic style church in Vilnius, but now it had a LIVE nativity scene. That's right...they actually put a pony and some sheep inside the church. The second day of Christmas was similar. A great majority of the day was spent sledding....you can never have too much of that :)

-The day before New Years Eve I went to a town called Širvintos, which is not too far outside of Vilnius. The reason for this trip was to stay with another exchange student that I had been introduced to. His exchange is through a different program and he is originally from Germany. We just hung out for the day, went on a walk and picnic in the woods, ate, talked, watched a movie and made the most delicious key lime cheesecake I have ever had, using the key lime juice my mom mailed in our families Christmas basket. Just like in Panevežys there is not much to do, but if you put 2 exchange students together they are bound to have fun. I spent the night at his house and the next day we came back to Vilnius together, stopped at my house, made brownies and then went to the house of another German exchange student because her host sister was having a New Years Party. At about 11 o'clock we headed out to Cathedral Square in the center of the city where a big light and firework show was being held. Then we spent the rest of the night eating, listening to music and playing games....but no sleeping. At about noon the next day I came home and immediately fell asleep but I had to wake up at about 5 pm to get ready to go back out again. In front of city hall there is a large square, which had been frozen over and an ice skating performance was shown.

I would also like to add that today, when I my host family and I were coming home from a day in the city it was -14 degrees Celsius, which is roughly 7 degrees Fahrenheit....yes you read that correctly...7. Yet to most people's disbelief I am still not ready to go back to the unbearable Miami heat :P Actually just like expected, I am enjoying the cold temperatures and REALLY enjoying the snow....everything just seems more beautiful when it is covered in snow 

And one more thing: Although I have only been living in this country for less then half a year, I can‘t help but be filled with a sense of Lithuanian pride. With that said I would like to congratulate all the 2009-2010 outbounds. When I found out that they have all ready been chosen I raced to the list of students and their countries and a huge grin appeared upon my face when I saw that someone was assigned to Lithuania. I take pride in being the first student Mr. Al Kalter has ever sent to this country (well at least I think that's a true statement) and hope that I have helped play a part in expanding this small, but wonderful country‘s exchange program. <3

January 26 Journal

 So it’s a funny story actually…..

Another Rotary exchange student from the U.S., Naomi, who I have mentioned before, came to Vilnius again on Saturday because a woman, who I believe is the editor of the Lithuanian Rotary magazine, wanted to interview us because an article will be written about us in the next issue AND we will appear on the cover of the magazine  but actually that is beside the point. So, getting back to point, after the interview we spent the day together and she slept over at my house. On Sunday morning we woke up and somehow, in the process of deciding what we wanted to do during the day, we started talking about the amount of time we have been in Lithuania and then I realized that I left Florida on August 25 and arrived in Lithuania on the 26th ….making yesterday…..my….. 5 month anniversary of leaving Florida and today……..my…. 5 month anniversary of setting foot on Lithuanian soil!!!!!!! So then, of course, I started dancing around the room enthusiastically and badly singing ‘Happy 5 Month Anniversary To Me’. After I finished singing and dancing (probably to the relief of everyone around me), I remembered that I had had a dream that night about the two of us and I proceeded to tell her about it. The conversation went a little something like this:

Michelle: ‘I had a dream last night that we were sitting at a table but there were only dirty dishes on the table. Then I looked at you and started talking in Lithuanian and you were talking to me in English….(quick pause)….OH MY GOD I HAD MY FIRST LITHUANIAN DREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!....oh…. wait…..does it count if only I was speaking in Lithuanian?’

Naomi: ‘Yea, of course’

Michelle: ‘OH MY GOD I HAD MY FIRST LITHUANIAN DREAM!!!!!’ (this exclamation was followed by more of my dancing)

Michelle: ‘Today is a good day. It’s the 5 month anniversary of my departure and I had my first Lithuanian dream! Let’s go to the city!’

Naomi: ‘OK….but you need to write a Rotary journal tonight.’

So here I am. But I am writing tonight instead of last night. Sorry for keeping you waiting, I am sure you were all in a lot of suspense  But now that you are updated with the events of my weekend, I think I should do a little backtracking. Since my last journal I switched host families. I was sad to leave my first family…well technically my second family…but I also understood that it is better for me, and I will grow more from my year abroad if I have the opportunity to experience multiple lifestyles. But still…..it was sad. BUT! I did take comfort in the fact that my new home is a 3 minute walk away from my last home, I still have the same bus stop/route, I still have my lakes and forests, I can go and visit my old family whenever I want…the only thing that really changed is the people that I am living with…..and luckily they are nice people :D

Also, a little while ago, I received an email that had been forwarded to everyone in the Vilnius Rotaract Club. This email was entitled ‘You know you have been if Lithuania too long if…..’ and I would like to share some of my favorite points from that list with you. You know you have been in Lithuania too long if…

 You see wearing your seat belt as a sign of weakness.

 you only eat in restaurant-chains, whose name starts with Čili

 you put ketchup on your pizza

 you have become tired of explaining to your friends and relatives at home, that you are a.) not in Latvia b.) not in Russia and c.) Riga isn't the capital of the Baltic

 with a meal you drink either beer or tea

 basketball has become the most important thing in your life

 you learned everything about the glorious Lithuanian language, and now you get angry about ignorant people denying the existence of a Lithuanian language or, worse, consider it some branch of Slavic languages

 you've learned the hard way that a triangle means women's toilet and a triangle upside down means men's

 you think drunkards shouting at you in Russian are a normal part of life

 you think hot chocolate means melted chocolate and you love it

 you see someone smiling in public, you think: well, a bloody foreigner

 a meal for you must contain either potato or meat, and sour cream, but usually all of them.

 you are afraid crossing a street, especially at zebra crossings or traffic lights

 you think its normal for people to have 7 phones and 8 different cards from different phone companies so they always get the best price.

Now it is time for random thoughts from Michelle’s mind:

 The other day at a café I asked the waitress if I could have the notebook instead of the check……miraculously she understood me.

 2009 is a big year for Lithuania. Vilnius is now the European capital of culture and it is the 1000th anniversary of the name Lithuania. In other words, the first record of the name Lithuania is from the year 1009.  

 Last weekend it was really cold….I think the coldest it got was -19 C…. and the lakes froze. And I am not just talking about a thin layer of ice on the top I am talking about a lake that we ice-skated on, barbecued on, and one that cars and motorcycles were driving on.

 I would also like to add to the comments of other exchange students about how life in Lithuania is relatively normal now. The language is coming along, kids at school are used to the fact that you’re a foreigner, I have my schedule down and the things that used to be absolutely amazing are still cool but no longer anything out of the ordinary. This isn’t a bad thing though, it’s just another phase in the life of an exchange student….and I would have to say a more relaxing stage than the adaptation period.

Well I guess that’s all for this journal.

Atia ir sekmes visiems! <3

March 21 Journal

 So I was talking to the closest friend I have in Lithuania and I said, ‘Wow I can’t believe that I have almost been here for 7 months’. She replied by saying ‘Yea, what’s your point?’ and even though later on in the conversation she claimed that she understood what I was saying, I realized how much she doesn’t understand, how much she could never understand me. And although talking to other exchange students is of great comfort, every exchange is a little bit different, my time here will never be duplicated by anyone else. I know that I have grown and changed a bit as a person during these 7 months, but I also know that this journey has forever changed and developed who I am and who I will become, in ways that I don’t fully understand right now, in ways that I may never fully understand……….

Guess what?!?! About a month ago I started attending Lithuanian language classes at Vilnius University. And now Lithuanian grammar has finally started to make sense! After seven months of reading and re-reading teach yourself Lithuanian books, and after 7 months of peoples failed attempts of trying to explain it to me, it's all starting to become clear! I thought this time would never come. And don’t sit there and think about how pathetic I am. In a world where everything is new, different and confusing, where merely existing is tiring, ridiculously complicated grammar was the least of my worries.

And besides that benefit, I can also say that when I was 17, I attended not only the largest and oldest university in Lithuania but also the oldest university in Eastern Europe. Pretty cool, huh?

Oh and not only am I the youngest student in the class, but I am the only non-European and I’m the only girl. The rest of them are either international business men, people working at embassies, or people married to people working at embassies.

Okay so what I have done since the last journal?

There were two Independence days. The first and most widely celebrated was February 16. On this day there were concerts, bonfires in the streets, street decorations in the shape of Lithuanian flags, and we got to listen to a speech by Vytautas Landsbergis who was one of the main leaders in the fight for independence against the Soviet Union, even though this particular celebration is unrelated to the Soviet occupation. February 16 is the celebration of when Lithuania got its independence in 1918 after being annexed by the Russian Empire in the late 1700’s. Then the second holiday was on March 11, which is the celebration of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Is that enough history for you?

We had Užgavėnės, which is a celebration before the start of Lent and everyone has to eat all different kinds of pancakes. Which made me happy, I love pancakes in Lithuania. Some people also call this holiday the Lithuanian version of Halloween because some people dress up in costumes but it is more traditional to make paper maché masks. Another function of this holiday is to ward off winter. There is a doll called a morė, which symbolizes winter and you are supposed to burn it. It was also quite entertaining to see my host mom's friend in a mask running around chanting “žiema, žiema, eik iš kiema” which translates into something like “winter, winter, leave the yard,” which doesn‘t sound good translated into English, but you get the point.

Then there was something called Ice Baroque where people made ice sculptures of baroque churches in Vilnius.

After came Kaziuko mugė. Which is a sort of market that fills the streets of Old Town and people sell all sorts of handmade items and food. There are also some Easter related items, like decorated eggs, and something called a verba, which is made from dried flowers, and is supposed to be taken when you go to church for Easter services. My teacher at Vilnius University told us that this celebration is a modern day variation of when Casimir, the son of a Grand Duke, became a Saint and the people were so happy that they all filled the streets and celebrated. Also, for many people, Kaziuko mugė is an unofficial sign that spring is coming.

June 14 Journal

 Alright, its been awhile since I’ve written one of these things and I’m feeling contemplative right now…so here goes nothing.

Since my last journal I experienced two major events in my exchange year: Parents visit and Eurotour.

Parents visit: To be 100% honest there hasn’t been a single moment during my entire exchange year when I have sat here and thought, “Wow, I miss my parents.” It just hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them, nor does it mean that I love them any less than I did before I left. In fact, I’m pretty sure they mean more to me now than they did then, I just never consciously thought about it. And this is why I was so surprised at how I reacted right before their arrival. Of course, weeks, even days before, I was excited to see them but still, I wasn’t feeling anything extraordinary. But a couple hours before hand I just flipped out. I started getting nervous. Yes, nervous. Like the heart beating, limbs shaking, hands sweating kind of nervous. Right before my host family was going to take me to the airport, they were all just standing around, talking, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so impatient, I was pacing, a thousand thoughts were flying through my mind, and I just couldn’t understand why we were all still there. Then, on the car ride to the airport I cried. I was thinking about what it was going to be like when they were standing in front of me, playing different scenarios in my head.

I hadn’t seen my parents in SO long. It was the first time in my life I had gone that long without seeing them. I was living in a different world from them, a world they could never understand. And now they were going to be here? In my world? After so long? Impossible! But however impossible it may have seemed, when I walked through those automatic doors, there they were. At first, I saw them and just stood there. Then they turned around and saw me. My mom screamed “OH MY GOD!”, with her hands held to her head. She was just as ridiculous and just as loud as she has ever been. Everyone else in the airport turned around and stared at her, just like they always do. Some things never change. But some things do change. This time I didn’t care. I was just happy to see them.

Then it was time for my parents to meet my host families. It really was a special feeling having my American parents and my Lithuanian parents in the same country, at the same restaurant, sitting at the same table.

After 11 days it was time to say goodbye. It was sad. I cried again. I think we all cried. In fact, I spent most of the day crying and feeling miserable. But the next day I went to school, got back into my normal routine, and forgot about my parents. It’s funny how things happen, isn’t it?

Alright enough of the sappy stuff for now. Moving onto event #2.

Eurotour: So as I’ve probably mentioned before there are only 3 exchange students in Lithuania. And seeing as how only 2 of us wanted to go on Eurotour, I’m not surprised that there is no such thing as Lithuanian Eurotour. So we joined the Danish exchange students, 'cause there are plenty of them, about 150, so what's an extra 2?

And not only did we get to join on the trip but we got to go early to see a bit of Denmark. We stayed with 3 Rotary families, in 3 cities, during three days and learned a little bit about Danish culture and traditions, in addition to doing all the really touristy things. It was so great!

And then we met up with the 40 other students that were traveling on the same bus as us. Little did we know the extent of the great, greatest, greatness that the 42 of us were in for during the next 18 days. We went to Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Monaco, France, Belgium, and Holland. We saw so much, and naturally, any trip like that would be amazing. But being on a trip like that with 41 other people your age, who are all exchange students, made it something unforgettable, irreplaceable and unrepeatable. There were early mornings and late nights but we enjoyed every second of it.

And when it was over we were all sad to say goodbye. We were all utterly exhausted but none of us wanted to leave. None of us wanted it to be over. Some people cried. But we had to go home. For most of them, home was a short drive away. For us Lithuanian kids home was a train ride, an overnight stay in a hotel, an hour and a half plane flight and THEN a short drive away. And then when we finally got home we stayed awake for a few hours and then slept. For 20 hours.

And since my return I have been relaxing. School has pretty much ended and I’m just enjoying some free time. During this time I realized something. I realized that I don’t really think any time spent on exchange can be wasted time. No matter what you do, it's all inevitably different than your life back home. Whether it’s the view outside your window or the couch that you lay on while staring into space. It’s all different. It's all part of the experience.

And in closing, I would like to cite my new favorite quote. Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. The more I realize I don’t know, the more I want to learn.”

I must say, at this point in my exchange, at this point in my life, I empathize with Albert Einstein. I have learned so much this year, yet I am more confused than ever before.

3 weeks left.