I stared at the bull and he stared back at me. I was afraid he would charge at me if I moved. I stood still for a while and he continued to look at me. I decided I couldn’t be late for my class and quickly walked past him. He was actually tied to the ground with a post and a rope.
My host family in Ugale took me on some outings that I will never forget. One of the trips they took me on was cranberry picking. I love fresh cranberry sauce and was excited to be able to go picking. However I did not know that cranberries grow in bogs. Bogs are swampy water-filled flatlands with mosquitoes and flies everywhere. The berries grow in the marsh close to the ground. We each had a wicker basket that we filled with the berries we picked. Each time I bent down to get a handful of berries the mosquitoes and flies swarmed around my face. The picking of the cranberries was not fun but it was worth it. We were able to pick quite a few cranberries that we ate ate several meals.
Another outing I was taken on was a sailing trip. We went to a lake with an island in the middle and the only structure on this large lake was the dock. I boarded the boat with the other members of my host family and we set off sailing a course around the island. The island was a dangerous place I was told by one of the men in charge of our trip. It was said to have wild boar inhabiting the island, such as the one the grandfather had shot and killed.
I learned to drink one shot to be polite and then leave any other shots full so they would not refill. There is no way I could have taught classes with many shots of vodka. At the time I thought of how strange that would seem to Amveerican teachers, and maybe some would like it.
My students were well behaved, respectful and for the most part I did not have any trouble with students misbehaving. The only trouble I had was with a student in the 9th grade. Every day he would interrupt class and get his friends to do so as well. I decided I had to do something about their behavior. I went home and thought about some solutions and decided I would give them a try. I was the mean teacher who implemented a boy/girl seating chart, much to the dismay of the class. It broke up the group of boys from disrupting the class but one student continued to be a problem. I called on him to answer a question and he did not understand. I went on to another student and at the end of the class I asked the student to stay after. I asked him if he was having a hard time understanding the lessons. He told me yes. I told him I would be happy to work with him outside of class if he needed some tutoring. I did not have trouble with any students after that.
Once I started teaching I had to set up a bank account. The town had one bank and one afternoon I went in to start an account. The woman asked me my name and I told her Wendy. I saw she wrote down Vendija, the Latvian version of my name. I told her the Peace Corps would send my checks to Wendy B… She told me I could not have two names on my account. I agreed. She handed me my bank book with the name Vendija printed on it. I decided it was’t worth the fight and let it be. Most Latvians did call me Vendija, but on legal documents I was hoping to have my actual name.
One afternoon I was walking down the dirt street to the school after eating lunch at home. As I walked maybe a quarter of a mile I saw a bull standing in a field close to the side of the road. He had horns and stared at me as I approached. My heart stopped when I realized there was no fence around the field.
My friend Erin and I met the man from the defense department at a cafe in Riga’s Old Town in an area where ex-pats hang out. He told us he was there as a consultant. Latvia had not been an independent country since the 1920’s and at that time there were lots of consultants and volunteers in Latvia as the country tried to rebuild itself. After enjoying a nice meal and hearing the latest news about my home town, Erin and I boarded a train back to Valmiera.
One of the most memorable events of my time in Eastern Europe was the opera festival. A group of Peace Corps volunteers traveled by bus to a nearby town where there were castle ruins largely intact. During the day, performers sang from a stage built among the ruins of the castle. We sat on a large green lawn eating a meal picnic style and listened to the beautiful music. When evening fell the stage and surrounding areas were lit by candle light, giving it a medieval look and feel. Singing is a huge part of Latvian culture and the opera festival is one of the main events.
Although we were overseas we continued to celebrate US holidays. For the 4th of July the Ambassador from the United States invited the Peace Corps volunteers in Latvia to his 4th of July party.
I saw them following me around town, but could not figure out why. Finally someone who spoke English came up to me from the news crew and said they were amazed that I would follow a Latvian custom and wanted to document it as we were the first Americans to visit their town. They asked me a few questions and then continued to follow me back to the school where my training was held.
That evening I sat down to eat dinner and watch the news. All of a sudden there I was. For 30 minutes there was a story about me on television and I could not understand anything being said. The shots of me were mostly of me carrying the flowers for my housemate. News stories in Latvia and Russia at the time were not a few seconds like here. They were long and very in depth.
Among knitters there is a popular book called Latvian Knitting. It contains patterns to knit Latvian mittens. At the time I owned a copy and brought it with me. I bought yarn from the shop downstairs and knit a pair of wool mittens. Each province in Latvia has its own pattern. They are quite beautiful.
Grocery stores were quite a challenge at first. All items are on a huge shelf behind the counter. One must go up to the counter and ask for the item wanted. There is no looking beforehand and if you ask for it you had better buy it. The second challenge was asking the price and understanding the answer. People would roll their eyes and shake their heads as I tried to understand what was being said. I now have tremendous regard for those who come here unable to speak English. Learning a new language while attempting to live in a new culture is quite stressful. When I returned back home I went back to volunteering as and ESL tutor for refugees.
One day while in class for training, our supervisor came in and said I had a phone call from the American Consulate. I walked to the office, wondering who would be calling me and how did they know where I was. I picked up the phone and it was a man from my home town saying he had read an article about me in the newspaper and decided to get a hold of me while he was there. He said he was from the defense department and wanted to take me to dinner.