Why you should visit Lithuania…

Last week, I went to Lithuania. As I’ve detailed in my previous post, my reasons for visiting were primarily to uncover more about my paternal history. But, this being said, I would recommend Lithuania to any traveller for the following reasons:

1. The coffee

Perhaps an unexpected entry at Number One.┬áBut, as I’ve previously detailed, the coffee in Spain leaves, well, how do I put it, “a lot to be desired”? In Lithuania, the coffee game is (to use a euphemism I loathe) on point. OK, so the flat whites are not really flat whites. But that is a small concession to make for a coffee which is palatable and tastes GOOD!

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2. The quietness

Compared to Madrid or Sydney, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is positively quiet. And this is marvellous! The experience of going for a walk, without being shoved out of the way, was incredibly refreshing. And when I went to bed in my apartment at 8p.m., I was able to sleep the ENTIRE NIGHT without being disturbed. This was fantastic.

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3. The food

If, like me, you are a fan of potatoes in all forms, then Lithuania is for you! There were so many delicious potato dishes to try, from dumplings to potato bake. It was like a dream come true. And not only were the potato dishes delicious, they were also incredibly affordable.

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4. Not overrun by tourists

Sure, there were tourists in Lithuania. But the whole feeling was very different to Spain. For instance, last year, I went to Barcelona to see the Gaudi buildings. The whole place was FULL of tourists, climbing from one escalator to another. It made me feel incredibly depressed, as if the city was only a manufactured experience. But Lithuania didn’t feel like this. There was tourism, but it was more subtle. The city wasn’t a caricature of itself.

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5. English speakers welcome

Although my father is Lithuanian, my knowledge of the language is minimal. However, in Lithuania, almost everyone speak English. I would certainly recommend learning a few words to improve your experience, but in total, Lithuanaia is a very welcoming place for English-speaking travellers.

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6. Superfast internet

Now THIS was a bit of a surprise- the internet in Lithuania is incredibly good. There’s free wi-fi almost everywhere, and the broadband speed is one of the fastest in Europe, if not the world. I find it interesting that a country which is not generally thought of as one of the leaders in technology is able to have such fantastic internet speeds and coverage, whereas in Australia, the NBN is still a national joke.

I’m not going to deny that I may be a little bit biased… ­čśë But in total, I would recommend Lithuania to any tourist who is interested in history, and who wants to have a holiday which is fun, relaxed, and not too difficult!

A visit to the fatherland…

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as “half-Lithuanian”. My father came to Australia after WW2 as a “Displaced Person.” He was only 7 years old. When he arrived, there were no ESL classes, or modifications made to assist students who didn’t have English as their first language. Rather, my dad was thrown into a class of students who had spoken English all their lives, and expected to survive.

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That’s what happened then.

I have incredible admiration for my father. His parents worked extremely long hours, doing manual labour, to support the family, and he effectively had to bring himself up. He was an exceptional student, and won a scholarship to the University of Sydney to study to become an English teacher (note the irony).

It might sound weird, but I have always STRONGLY identified as being from a working class, migrant background. (Aside- one of my favourite Australian authors is Christos Tsiolkas, because I think he “gets” what it means to be a migrant, and how you kind of fit in, but kind of don’t). “Stasa” is not our real name. Rather, it is an Anglicised┬áversion of┬áStankevi─Źius, which was too difficult to pronounce. As an unmarried daughter, my name should be┬áStankeviciute. But, well, it’s not…

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Sometimes, I feel incredibly angry about the whole situation. Why should my grandparents have changed┬átheir surname, because people were too lazy to pronounce something different? Why am I running around with what is effectively a “fake” name, which sounds like the East German secret police (the Stasi)? I don’t know. Perhaps for the same reason that┬á L├íszl├│ ├ťrge, the football commentator of Hungarian background, calls himself Les Murray?

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My upbringing was not what you would call “distinctly Lithuanian.” Sure, my grandma spoke with an accent. There was Lithuanian memorabilia around the house. Every Christmas, we would go to the Lithuanian Club’s Christmas party. I know what kugalis and borscht are. But I can’t speak the language, apart from saying “hello” and the colours of the flag (to show I’m a true patriot- the irony, again).

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All the same, I do FEEL Lithuanian. Or at least partly. When a Lithuanian rider is in the Tour de France, I cheer for him. And, I am not ashamed to admit, sometimes, in the basketball, I support Lithuania over Australia, because they are such a small country, and winning a match means a lot more to them.

My father has never wanted to go back to Lithuania. He remembers the rotting horses on the road through Vilnius, and the terror of the war. When a knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean your salvation or your death.

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But I have always wanted to see what it’s like, because I feel that it’s a part of me. About 10 years ago, I visited Scotland, where my mother’s family is from, to see if I felt something for that country. Although I loved the landscape and the people, I didn’t feel anything particularly profound. Will the same happen in Lithuania? I honestly don’t know. It may leave me cold. I may end up feeling more Australian than ever.

Anyway, I am going on Friday to see what it’s like. It may be the best experience of my life, and leave me feeling like I know where I belong. Conversely, I may end up feeling more adrift than ever. Who knows? But I think it’s something that needs to be done.

Wish me luck!

(P.S. Did you know that Anthony Kiedis is also half-Lithuanian, on his father’s side? I guess it could be MUCH worse!).

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Dogs in Madrid

One thing which has become very obvious to me since I arrived in Madrid is the somewhat privileged position of dogs in society…

Although the majority of Madrile├▒os seem to live in apartments, they absolutely LOVE their pet dogs. This adoration manifests in various guises, from the dogs walking around the city in coats emblazoned with “cutest pooch”, to others whose head fur has been coloured and put up in little ponytails. Or, my personal favourite, the Great Dane, which is the size of a small pony, whose owner religiously takes him for a daily walk through the city centre…

Kind of like this.

Except better.

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Put simply, Madrid is a paradise for dog lovers. But perhaps the most interesting part of this canine friendly city is the places where you can take your pet pooch.┬á I’ve seen dogs on the Metro, in the shops, and even in restaurants. Quite a few cafes across town have little signs in the window saying “Well-behaved dogs welcome.”

This is all well and good if you like dogs. But (and I expect the defriending to start now) I’ve got to admit that I am not a fan of canines. I have always preferred cats to dogs, because they are smaller and less frightening and they don’t have big teeth.

But I seem to be in a minority here. Dogs are everywhere!

Case in point…

One┬áday I went to a bar with a friend. We were having a great time, until I heard some creepily persistent heavy breathing beside me. Ugh! Looking across, I expected to see some sleazy individual staring at me. But instead, I saw a dog, seated uncomfortably close by, slobbering and drooling on the floor…

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Dog in bar.

Or the time I visited my favourite store, and found a beloved perro standing right in front of the cash register (surreptitious shot below…).

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Unfortunately, the strong presence of dogs has a rather unpleasant counterpart.

Namely, the strong presence of dog droppings…

Although Madrile├▒os are supposed to pick up after their hounds, this rule is somewhat, well, laxly enforced. Consequently, an early morning stroll through the city becomes akin to an obstacle course, as the unfortunate pedestrian attempts to dodge the piles of poo on the footpath.

This has led to the appearance of graphic signs such as these…

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Roughly translated, this means “Good luck is having a clean suburb.” And let me just say, after I’ve stepped in the hundredth pile of dog droppings, and I’m not even at the end of my street (seriously, it’s THAT BAD!), cats are starting to look better and better by the second!

But perhaps I’m a little biased…

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(One) Spanish school compared to (one) Australian school

A few times, I’ve been asked how school in Spain is different to school in Australia. I’ve thought about this a bit, and decided that I should write a post about some of the key disparities.

BUT (here come the caveats…), at the very start, I want to say that this post is based solely on my own experiences of a public primary school in Australia, and a public primary school in Madrid. This is not exhaustive. It’s a one person, subjective sample. And I certainly appreciate that things are likely to be VERY different in other types of schools and areas. Additionally, I am not making a value judgement- the fact that things are different doesn’t mean that one is “better” than the other.

This being said, hopefully, it provides an insight into some of the differences. And I’d love to learn what others think!

Key differences between the Spanish school I work at and the Australian school I attended:

  1. Uniform.

There’s no uniform in the Spanish school. I’m still not too sure what I think about this. I appreciate that it allows students to express their individuality, but I also think that it can be problematic for those whose economic circumstances are less privileged.

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2. “Grading” of classes.

In the Spanish school, all the students are together. There’s no grading (or streaming) of classes, as opposed to the Australian primary school I attended, where the more academically inclined students were grouped together. The reasoning for the lack of grading in Spain is that in the workplace and in life, you will be expected to interact with people with different abilities, and so it’s appropriate at the school to be in a mixed class.

OK, so this is true. But I do wonder about how effective this method is. In the Year 3 class, there are some students who are a few grades behind, and a couple who are way ahead. So there’s students at a Year 1 level with students at a Year 5 level. And I’m not sure how useful this is for anyone.

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3. Use of textbooks.

In Spain, all of the classes follow a textbook. And by “follow”, I mean religiously. There is no deviation. No experimentation. Rather, it is a word for word regurgitation of the chosen text. In my opinion, this can make for lazy teachers and lazy teaching. Some teachers make a real effort to make the lessons interesting and fun, but others don’t. This makes me so, so sad. In the Year 5 class, I see the pupils are SO much more interested when the teacher discusses what she and her boyfriend did on the weekend (in the past tense) than when they learn the grammar rules (third person singular past tense of “went” is….).

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4. Level of studies.

In Spain, the impression that I get is that students are exposed to material much earlier than in Australia. For instance, in the Year 2 classes, the kids are currently learning about the troposphere and the layers of the earth. This seems to me to be WAY more advanced than at home. I can’t remember learning this stuff until Year 4 or Year 5!

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5. Language learning is technical.

OK, so my language learning consisted of two semesters of French (what can I remember? “Open the window”) and two of Japanese (memories- “I am the teacher!!!!”). But in Spain, the kids are learning really technical stuff REALLY early. The Year 4 class are studying modals, and they call them “modals.” I didn’t even know what a modal was until last year, but I could use one just fine…Seriously, is this the best way to learn?!

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6. Punishment

I feel a bit uncomfortable writing this, but I think it’s best to be honest. In Australia, the focus is very much on positive reinforcement, and encouraging students to do better. In Spain, it is on punishing students who have done badly. So, if a student hasn’t done their homework, they are told off in front of the class, and they are deprived of their playground time. OK, homework is important. I understand. But to me, such punishment seems excessive. It’s better to see WHY Juan hasn’t done his homework for the past week, and try and solve this problem, rather than punishing and humiliating him. This is something I find REALLY hard to cope with. When the students are embarrassed in front of the class, and made to look foolish, I want to go and give them a hug, but I’m not allowed. This breaks my heart, because there’s often MUCH more to it than lazy students.

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If someone has tried, but simply CAN’T do the task, I can’t punish them because it’s cruel and unfair. OK, I might be a pushover. But I can’t do it. And I won’t.

So, these are some of the differences between Spanish and Australian public primary schools. If you have any other ideas or questions, let me know!