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Well this entry has been a long time coming. Time has  flown by and it seems amazing that it was over a month ago that I last posted. A lot has happened since then primarily my trip to the Baltics over Easter.

Before that however,an update on uni life. Classes are the same, some interesting and engaging, and some, er not so much. However it is the way of teaching that has provided some huge insight. In Poland many academics have two lives, that of a professor and then a working life. This means that students have links directly to real work experience and up to date techniques. It also means however that external obligations arise often (and illness) and without doubt multiple classes of mine are cancelled every week. This is a new experience for me; in NZ classes are very rarely cancelled and if they are we find out well in advance. You can head into uni everyday pretty confident when you have free time and when you don’t.

Here it sometimes feels like a lottery and you wonder when you will have some unexpected spare hours free.

When lectures are on however, they too differ immensely from NZ. I continually tell people that the power distance is low at home and it is; as students we have easy access to our lecturers out of class hours to get help or discuss further materials. Here it is the opposite, to tee up a meeting with a lecturer can be rather hard, in fact some of them find it hard to reply to emails in a timely fashion. The easiest way is to wait till the next weeks class (only one a week) to ask questions. Being someone who learns best in my own space I normally encounter problems out of the class room where there is now limited access to help.

I am putting this down to the wider gap between students and professors in Warsaw. Every lecturer turns up in a suit and many are known for their work in the public or private sector in Poland. It is odd to have a lecturer walk past in the hallway and students break out in whispers about who they are and what they are famous for.

There is another big difference around teaching styles and that is the level of interaction in class. For Dunedin students it is like every class is a tutorial, you are expected to be involved and contribute ideas, discussion and arguments around ideas.  Of course all lecturers are different in the level they expect but ultimately you always have to be on your toes and paying attention. This has made it easier to get through each class, with the minimum class length 1:40 and having 3-4 classes a day, energy levels can diminish. Having two way conversation helps to clear up ideas and put minds at ease ensuring the time flies by (most of the time).

I am not sure what I prefer, long interactive classes with one a week or short and multiple classes where the content is mostly found on the power point slide anyway. They both have their positives but I am glad I have been exposed to a different style of doing things.

I am not saying Otago lecturers don’t like discussion but there seems to be a culture of sitting back and listening in NZ students, built up from the very start of education in primary school. I hope once I return I retain the  questioning nature that I have picked up in some classes here.

Speaking of learning, my Polish is improving (I think). Having a few quiet days has allowed me the chance to really get stuck into it and I am enjoying it much more now. It felt hopeless at one stage, and the grammar still does a bit, but I can see I am making a bit of headway. I have had some basic conversations at shops and the post office fully in Polish but they are very scripted on my part and any significant deviation leaves me a bit out of water. I feel like I have taken English for granted, specifically the lack of different male, female and neutral versions of words.

On the running scene the Warsaw Marathon is only 8 days away and training has been going well. I had a pretty wicked cough over the Easter break and that disappeared completely before rearing it’s head again the past few days. Touch wood it stays away and allows me to complete a hopefully large PB time. Park-run every Saturday has continued to be a good time, and I recognise quite a few faces each week. It presents me a good chance to practice my Polish although unless they want to talk about the post office, or want to talk my order for a pizza, my vocabulary is a bit lacking.

I attended again today and as we were all bunched around at the end listening to the guy in charge (I say listening on behalf of the others, I basically try to pick out any words I know and get the meaning from them) the words ‘Matthew’ ‘Novej Zealandii’ and ‘SGH’ were all mentioned close together and so I knew he was saying something about me but what ever it was went right over my head. Oh well, I will just have to hope it was something good!

So onto travels. In the lead up to the thon, the travel has been rather sparce, with lots of things seen and done around Warsaw instead. This has been a relaxing way to still see the country I am living in while keeping fit. I had always planned to really get to know Warsaw and the lead up to the thon has provided a great excuse for this!

A brief note for anyone travelling to Warsaw, the Copernicus Science Centre is easily the best centre/museum I have ever been through. I cannot recall one exhibit that wasn’t interactive. I spent a stunningly fast 4 hours there yesterday and am already planning my next visit.

Over Easter we had ten days off (well 8 and a few ‘voluntary’ days of uni) and so I headed off to explore the Baltic countries and Finland. These countries had never been on my to-do list and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Although after having the same feeling for Poland before coming and finding out what a stunning place it is had me pretty excited.

The trip started off the back of an exam and 2 presentations in 3 days, well actually 1 exam and one presentation because yet again a class was cancelled, and an overnight bus ride.The first city was Vilnuis, the capital of Lithuania.

Vilnuis

Having booked my travel alone due to the fact I wanted to head out of the big cities and to the countryside it was cool to find that 5 others from Warsaw were in the same hostel and multiple others were in other hostels around town. Vilnuis was a stunning town,  compact yet filled with history. Careful effort had been shown to ensure the natural beauty of the country was not lost and there were hills and river paths around the area.

Our introduction to the hostel was what I hope was a replica AK-47.

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The first day involved taking the free walking tour and visiting the key central points around town.

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Of special note is it has a district which is an independent republic where you can get your passport stamped by the local barman.

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The rules of entry are as follows: Must smile, go less than 20km, appreciate art and not drive in to the river.

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While this was the bizarre introduction to the republic it got even crazier when I saw the Constitution. The photos turned out terrible due to the reflection but some of the 39 articles are:

Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.

Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.

Do not defeat.
Do not fight back.
Do not surrender.

A dog has the right to be a dog.

A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.

This is just the beginning of the somewhat eccentric ‘rules they live by’ and to be honest a refreshing light-hearted take on life. The rest of the day was taken up by exploring the city including the shocking and down to reality KGB museum which was formerly a KGB prison and torture house.

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The next day with the weather playing ball a couple of us hired some bikes and went in search of the great lakes. Unfortunately we did not reach the largest of the lakes but we did come across a few smaller ones which were frozen over enough to walk on. It was a bit unnerving but well worth for the experience. Lots of the cycle journey was on snow and made for a few dicey moments. It was brilliant to get away from the hustle and bustle with a breath of fresh air!

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The food in Vilnuis fitted my taste pretty well with potatoes and beetroot soup ‘local delicacies’.

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That night after a bit of souvenir shopping I caught a bus to the next city on my list, Riga – the capital of Latvia.

Riga

Arriving in Riga at 10:30pm and walking to my hostel I could very quickly tell what sort of city this was, the beer to person ratio on the streets was definitely greater than 1 but it gave a good vibe. After riding all day I hit the sack ready to explore the next day.

The morning bought around the promise of a good run and I was not let down. A few kms out of town (ended up being 8km’s-much further than I thought) there was a forest which would make a good horror movie setting. I have never found a wood where I would not be surprised if bodies were found there but this one fit that perfectly. However it was very surreal and even more so when I came across an apparently abandoned race track in the middle of it. That provided a good excuse to extend the run and made a good start to the morning.

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Lunchtime I took part in the free walking tour and got a taste of the history that makes up Riga. Stalin’s Birthday Cake and the shop that has everything you need – if they don’t have it you don’t need it were part of the tour. The Art Nouveau around town make for an aesthetically pleasing and richly dramatic story told by a good local tour guide.

I only spent a day and a half in Riga which was about half a day short of what I would have liked but I still managed to see most of the sights. My morning run on the second day took me to the object that dominated the skyline, the TV and Radio tower. This is the tallest structure in the EU.

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Also knocked off a few sights not close to the city centre such as the library and this ‘satellite’.

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I got a view from a different perspective and ticked a few other things off in the morning before I left.

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The afternoon saw me head to Estonia’s fourth largest city ready for a few quiet days and natural sightseeing.

Parnu

Parnu in the some is a thriving seaside town, famous for it’s beaches and beach front bars and restaurants. However when I was there it was slightly different. For starters the hostel had a total of 3 people in it resulting in me having a 12 person dorm room to myself. This was a refreshing change from previous hostels.

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The next big difference and something I was not expecting to see was down on the beach. After a few hours in the bus I was ready to relax on the beach, the temperature was mid teens so I thought it would be a pleasant way to pass the day. However this is how it turned out….

Looked promising.

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Oh cool, it has evaporated and left salt behind….

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Hold, up that’s not salt…

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Ok never mind about chilling on the beach.

I had never seen Snow this deep of far out at a beach before. for about 400m out to sea it was frozen and partially frozen before the ocean water properly took hold.

There were two jetties that extend close to 2km into the ocean and I wandered along one till the end to see what it was like further out.

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I originally had plans to swim in the Baltic sea but I think I will wait until it warms up a bit and come back!

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Despite being Estonia’s 4th largest city, the town was pretty small and deserted which meant I wasn’t shoving my way around to see the main tourist spots.

There wasn’t a huge amount to see in the town but that wasn’t why I had come here, there was a national park close by I wanted to see.

So the next day I was up at 5 to catch a bus at 6 into the country side and after being dropped in the middle of nowhere the bus driver returned 40mins later and took me to the furthest point of the bus route 5km away from the info centre.

This was the bus stop.

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After wandering the 5km to the centre and walking round one of the closest trails and seeing bever dams for the first time I was shown the best places to walk in a day and headed out.

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This area is famous for it’s ‘fifth season’ a period of intense flooding every year when the water level raises right up and you can canoe round the whole area. In normally coincided with my visit but had come very early this year so I missed out on that unfortunately. However it was pretty stunning to see just how hight the water came.

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Here is a road marker I walked past on my way in and here is a photo showing how high the water reached in 2010.

After wandering around for a few hours through some dramatic landscapes I came across a house and had a chat to the owner. The house would be an awesome place for a school camp and bought back good memories from primary school trips.

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The rest of the trails bought me to the largest bog in Estonia which looked like I imagine Africa would.

 

Had I been there in summer there was a deep pool located amongst the trees that would have been beautiful for a swim.

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The journey back to the bus stop took me through even more amazing scenery.

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After 10 hours on my feet, the bus stop (aka the bench in the grass) was a welcome sight and I happily slept on the roadside in the sun till the bus arrived.

The next day after a morning run  I headed to Kuressaare.

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Kuressaare

Kuressaare is the largest city on Saaremaa, the biggest island off the coast of Estonia. When planning the trip my perspective of an Island is that of an NZ island, pretty small and flat. Saaremaa is only one of those, it is flat. However as the bus continued to drive for well over an hour and a half I knew this was no Stewart Island. I only had a day and a half here so I was planning to make the most of it and see everything there was to see, however a trip to the information centre confirmed my fears of the land size. Having read reviews that buses serviced most of the island, and regularly it was a bit of a shock to find out that there were only buses to two destinations and there were only 3 each day.

So of the three main attractions I wanted to see I would have to settle for one and a few churches and a stronghold. The rest of the day was spent exploring the township and the outside of the castle/museum (it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for some reason).

I did sort of manage to cross one of the three things off my list, instead of seeing a collection of old windmills on the island I saw one and ate dinner inside.

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Despite the ‘city’ being having 13000 residents the main street felt empty and was rather small but it did have a few second hand shops where I managed to snaffle a few bargains.

I arrived at the hostel to find it was more of a dorm and had no kitchen facilities, but had been upgraded due to lack of people to a small individual room.The next day was my only full day in town and after an early morning run through a few of the forests and marshes,

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and a breakfast using one generous persons cup and another’s fork, I hired a bike and set off to the Kaali meteor crater, the 8th largest in the world. I had been told by the woman hiring the bikes that I shouldn’t as the weather would turn but it turned out into a bright and clear Estonian day.

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After the meteor and attached museum (that you get to through the only shop in town) had been visited I headed back to Kuressaare in a round about way taking in one of the most powerful churches I have ever seen, the Kaarma church. The building itself was rather plain but the location, weather and general feeling around made it feel significant like I haven’t felt before It was in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road next next to a  ‘stronghold’, the isolation and lack of visible humans adding to the atmosphere.

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The stronghold mentioned was rather a let down comprising some mounds of dirt that had been modernised and trashed.

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On my way back I just rode in the general direction of town and went down roads, driveways and alley ways that looked interesting. It was amazing to find a school down one, with there being no signs or evidence of it at the road. I was also on the hunt for good kaarma but apparently it was closed at that time of the year!

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Getting out of town showed the conditions that everyday people lived and worked in. It felt like I was watching a medieval movie, where the poor lived in run down shacks and worked the farm as a way of survival. It made me very glad for where and how I live.

 

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I headed back and get to wander around the castle/museum for a few hours before closing. This castle felt like a castle. It didn’t feel like a furniture magazine with items too good to use but it felt liveable.

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The only thing was the museum had no clear path, so one moment I was looking at old paintings and then there was a whole room worth stuffed animals.

Having walked around it about 3 million times to make sure I saw everything I headed back and feel into bed knackered after a day riding.

The next day bought a very early bus ride to Tallinn the capital of Estonia.

Tallinn

After 5 days in smaller cities and rooms that are empty I was looking forward to the hustle and bustle of a city for a few days. The tropical temperatures had disappeared from Estonia when I arrived, to be replaced by a thick grey fog that bought low temperatures. I don’t think the temperature got above 2 or 3 degrees while I was there.

 

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Tallinn was a city designed for tourists but for a good reason. The old city is pretty huge but is full of hidden treasures amongst all of the giant buildings, panoramic views and local delicacies.

After taking yet another excellent free walking tour and having a lunch of elk soup and ox sausages I proceeded to spend the next day and a half walking the streets, seeing the sights and getting to know the city.

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I will let the photos do the talking.

There were two big highlights in particular. First was the tunnels underneath the city. Originally designed to link up the security towers around town only two were eventually finished. Over time they have been used as bomb shelters, punk rave parties and homeless ‘homes’.

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The second highlight which was my last attraction seen in Tallinn was the Seaplane Harbour a massive museum housed in a concrete seaplane hanger. Large enough that there was a submarine hanging from the roof inside that you could walk around and explore on the inside.

Likewise outside there were multiple ships in the dry dock that including multiple navel vessels and an icebreaker that were open to explore around.

 

This was one of the highlights of the whole trip and easily one of the best afternoons I have spent.

I also managed to get a run in, hitting the beach to knock a few km’s out. Running is something I do everywhere and every time I do, I can’t believe how much more I see and experience for the few hours out. I feel like you can really get a taste of a place pounding the footpath, track beach etc

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The morning bought another early trip as well as the sun. I was on my way to Helsinki for the final stop of the trip.

 

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Helsinki

Arriving at 9:30am my hectic schedule had allowed only a day in Helsinki before flying out at midday the next day, so I was keen to make the most of it. After a quick trip on the seafront Ferris wheel, it was good to meet up with some SGH mates at the free tour.

 

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After seeing and learning about the most important parts of the city and a quick lunch that for 5 euros was far cheaper than anything else around, a few of us headed to Suomenlinna, a fortress island (series of 6 islands) in the heart of the Helsinki harbour. It  was not just a tourist destination, it also housed a population of 900, something that when we were there seemed pretty unfathomable!

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Dinner that night included a surpassingly good wok meal in a pub beneath my hostel followed by visiting the night life.

The next morning the weather from Estonia had returned and I laced up the runners and headed out to tick off a few more sights in the early morning mist. the biggest thing I wanted to see was the Olympic Stadium from the 1952 summer Olympics. I was expecting an immense powerful structure but was a bit let down. It comprised of a reasonably small arena that was surrounded by construction sites, but seeing the 5 rings was a cool moment. The photo below was as close as I could get but you can see them from here.

 

 

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After that was back for a quick shower, pack up and headed to the airport. I few back with a mate from SGH and after a nice but expensive layover in Oslo made it back to Warsaw.

It was like we had stepped into a different country than we left. The temperature was nudging 17 degrees on a sunny Sunday afternoon and I knew then that spring had hit.

That ends the account of my trip, one that took me far to long to write!! It is a good reminder to keep on top of the updates! There will be another one soon with my adventures around Warsaw.

I have just noticed that all the photos from my past entries have disappeared so I will remedy that asap.

Matt

 

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