Winter

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It is safe to say that winter has arrived! “Snow has fallen, snow on snow.” Image

And it keeps falling! It is so great! I am sitting by the window, watching the snowflakes, eating gingerbread and oranges, and soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. Earlier I went for a walk in the snow and I will share some of what I saw.Image

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I really felt like I was “walking in a winter wonderland!” It is nice since it is the weekend, but it should be interesting trying to get to school tomorrow! Back at home, school would be cancelled for a week with this much snow! I have already seen a lot of cars get stuck in the intersection outside of my window, but these Latvians are tough and are pretty good about getting out of the slippery situations. But for now, “since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” Man, I am on a roll! Sorry, but I am just in the Christmas mood! We had a YFU Christmas Party yesterday and all the exchange students had to perform in front of all the parents and volunteers. We had to either sing or read a poem in Latvian of course. I chose to read a song that my class wrote the day before.  It is about not being alone at Christmas and I really like it. 

I cannot believe my exchange year is almost half-way over! It is just not possible! Though,as much as I want it to last longer, I would not go back to my first month and start over. I especially would not want to relive October (longest month ever). Starting out in a new country is really challenging and tough, but I thankfully got through it. I now have a life here filled with friends, family, school, and expectations. I am one of the crowd. It took soooo much work to get here and now I just want to enjoy every minute of it. I hear the second half of the exchange year just flies by so I better be ready to grab hold and ride it to the end. 

My Latvian is coming along quite nicely. I would say that I understand everything. (except sometimes it needs to be re-worded or acted out.) The plan is to start speaking only Latvian after Christmas. I guess that is my new year’s resolution. 

Well some family has come over to visit so I must depart. But next time, I will write about my last 3 concerts. Can you believe I had 3 concerts since I wrote last?! Ridiculous! And 2 more coming up! “The life of a foreign exchange student in a music program” should be the title of my blog.

Independence Day

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I just realized that I haven’t posted in a long time! Like I said before, I am super busy and I barely noticed! Anyways, I would like to update everyone on my recent concerts. I have had two in the past week in recognition of Latvia’s Independence Day! First was my school concert which was on the 15th. My class sang two songs, Pastalas and our Original song, and I was also in a show choir performance where we sung a song written by our teacher. You could say I was pretty involved. First up was my show choir performance where we sang a song about Ogre. I sang a duet with another girl for one of the lines. This whole song was in Latvian but with enough practice, I was able to blend in pretty well!

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The girl playing the guitar is seriously one of the most talented people I have ever met. She plays guitar (obviously), the piano, the Latvian national instrument which is a like a harp-hammer dulcimer hybrid, and she sings with the powerful voice of a country singer! She is just so amazing! She also has a wonderful personality and her and I laugh all the time together. We had to draw an… interesting picture in art and we could not stop cracking up! What makes it better is that she has a Russian accent when she speaks in English! I LOVE IT! She is really tall (like 6 ft maybe) and her name is Lauma. She also writes songs and I am just really glad to have met her and have the chance to get to know her over the course of this year.

Next, we performed our Original song. I was asked to share some lyrics so here they are!

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It is basically a song about Latvia and what it means to everyone in it. I am just so proud that my classmates and I wrote a song! It is something I have never done before and it was a great experience! Having people sing words and melodies that you wrote is just something else! I could get addicted to it. Some more details about this song, my friends Simona and Katrine sang the first two lines, then Una the next two. Everyone sang the chorus twice, then the next four lines were for me! It was exhilerating! Then the chorus in English twice, then everyone together for the next four lines and the chorus one last time. We didn’t sing the last verse because the song would have been too long, but I honestly feel like this words that I wrote, perfectly sum up my time in Latvia so far. I still am not quite sure about the translation for the bits that my friends wrote, but I sang them nonetheless!

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There is me sitting with the microphone getting ready to sing! I was so nervous it was unbearable! But everything turned out better than I expected and I think we performed our best that day 🙂

The next song, Pastalas, was all in Latvian. Pastalas are a part of the Latvian National Costume. They are made of leather and basically have no sole. They were similar to ballet slippers because you have to wrap them up your leg and tie them in a bow. It was really tricky because you had to tie them tight otherwise this would happen.

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It is sad. So after I learned this lesson, I tied them super tight and almost cut off circulation to my calves. But at least they stayed up! So yeah, we sang a kind of rock song about traditions and the things that make Latvia Latvia. It was one of my favorite songs! It was all in Latvian so I had to learn not lnly a new song, but also a whole new way to pronounce words.

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I guess I did pretty well because at the very end of the song, they gave me the closing solo! “Pat tad, ja to nejūt vairs neviens cits” (Even if no one else can feel it). It was so amazing! Ahh! Everyone in my school cheered me on after that! They were so impressed that an American can speak Latvian! I got so many compliments and thanks from my teachers and classmates. One lady in my other choir even came up to me and told me that she was there for my school concert and she was so thankful that I am in Latvia and am singing in her choir. She then gave me a piece of chocolate and a kiss on the cheek. I officially love the people here.

On November 18th, my choir joined many choirs for a performance of patriotic songs for the city of Ogre. It was a great learning experience because I was able to memorize the Latvian Naitonal Anthem and other national songs. I loved it! It is Latvian tradition to sing in large choirs so I was also able to participate in this cultural norm. Before the concert, one of the ladies went around with chocolate and a bottle of alcohol and gave some to every member of the choir! This thoroughly surprised me!

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After our concert, we had cake and everyone was invited by the director of the art school to a party at his school. I opted out in favor of going to the fireworks! Since I missed Indepence Day in America, there was no way I was missing this!! I rejoined my family and we went out into the crowd to await the firework show. Everyone was standing facing the Culture Center because that is always where they are launched but when we heard an explosion from behind our heads, the mob turned around really fast! This year apparently they were shooting off from a different building, one that was really close to where we were standing! I have never seen such big fireworks so close before! They were right over our heads!! The ashes fell from the sky and kept smacking me in the face. It was a little painful! But it was just spectacular! Happy Birthday Latvia!

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Life Update

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I have finally found the time to write! I cannot believe how busy I have become! All of a sudden, I am super popular! Just when I thought the original “shock” of there being an American in a Latvian school had worn off, I was hit by the complete opposite. I don’t even have free time in school anymore! I wrote a list of what to write about so I wouldn’t forget so I will just start from the top.

First on the list is Initiation Day. I would write about that now, as it was very interesting, but I am waiting to get some pictures from a friend so that way they can accompany my story. (I apologize if I spell anything wrong because I am writing on a Latvian computer so everything is underlined as a spelling error. Go figure).  So next up is my trip to Riga to get my residence permit card. It is pretty sweet. The Thai girls and I had to meet in Riga where we then went to the immigration office to get our pictures taken and forms filled out. I thought it would be at most half and hour, but I was way wrong. It ended up being 3 and a half hours! I didn’t get to have lunch! So at 4:30, after we returned to the train station, Pim, Jib and I (those are their English nicknames. I have no idea what their real names are) went to eat the biggest pizza we could find.

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We may have misjudged our hunger. Nevertheless, we managed to eat it all! Conquered! After our feast, we all went home. I had to return after 5 days because my card was ready. They had to finish mine quickly because of my summer cruise of Europe. Apparently you only have 90 days to live in the zone and I used a lot of mine up over the summer so to keep me legal they had to act fast. Here it is!

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Isn’t it beautiful?! Now I am legally able to live in Latvia until July 1st! Whoo hoo!

Let’s see, next is the a capella concert. On Saturday night, my host parents took me to an a capella concert. They told me that this women’s ensemble won first place in the Riga Music Festival and so I was super excited. We drove to the mall and parked in the lot (because it was free) then we walked to where the concert was held. I was expecting some nice, big concert hall but instead we arrived at a warehouse. We went underground for this performance! The building was not heated so they had a bunch of wood burning stoves going and it was producing a lot of smoke which added to the eerie atmosphere. They didn’t even need a fog machine! I was beginning to doubt the authenticity of this group, but they did not disappoint. They did some of the best singing I have ever heard! Every song was in Latvian and the dissonances just bounced off the naked, concrete wall and produced a loud, full sound. Oh my goodness it was sooooo amazing! I didn’t want it to end! And in order to have the pitch for the next song, they all wore tuning forks on the belt of their dress! It was legit! This is a picture of them after they finished singing and everyone gave them flowers.

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The group is called Anima Solla and if you have time you can check them out. I haven’t heard any recordings of them but if they are anything like the concert I attended, they are amazing!

Next, I would like to talk about my choirs. My class teacher came up to me at lunch and asked me if I had ever been in a choir before. I told her yes, that I had sung in the top choir at my school at home. She then asked if I would like to join her choir. She said they were in need of more soprano 1’s and that I had a really nice, high voice. That just made me feel so good inside! Of all the other singers in my music class, she asked me to join! I went to my first practice and was overwhelmed. To start off, I was the youngest one there. All the other singers were at least in their 30’s. And next. of course, everyone was speaking in Latvian and we were singing in Latvian! But after the initial shock , I found that I really like it. The people are all very nice and helpful. And the choir is super amazing! Our conductor is famous in Latvia and we will compete in July in the world choir olympics in Riga! Ahhh so exciting!! So every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. I have rehearsals. We are singing songs in multiple languages and even some written by my class teacher! (She is pretty amazing). Our first concert is on the 18th of November for Latvia’s independence day.

I also joined a show choir. The director of the music school asked me if I would like to come. (Yet another time I felt all warm and fuzzy).  This choir consists of 12 students and we are currently working on a song that the director wrote about Ogre. It is just so cool that we are singing so many original songs! I cannot get over it! We are practicing improvisation on 2 notes all at the same time. It sounds pretty awesome if I do say so myself. I cannot wait to see where this choir goes! Every Monday and Wednesday from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. I have these rehearsals. My free-time has slowly dwindled away. But I believe that is a very good thing. I am accomplishing so much and look forward to everyday. I am improving in so many ways I cannot even describe! This year is definitely set out to be one of the best of my life.

October 15

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October 15th was a very good day. I believe it was the best day that I have had since I have been here. It was long and tiring and I didn’t really do anything overly exciting, but I know now for sure that I have friends here. I will start from the beginning.

I woke up and did my usual routine of eating 3 slices of bread with Nutella and then getting dressed, except this time I finished early! Whoa! Then when I got to school, I had a test on quadratic functions (I know most people would not find this wonderful but I do love math. The teacher taught the class to solve the problems differently than I learned but we still got the same answers. I think my way is the shortcut because I always finished first). The test was surprisingly easy! All except for #7. I am pretty sure the teacher wrote down the wrong equation. I got a 9 on the test! Yay! My classmates have found out that I am the best at math and are now taking advantage of the teacher not speaking English. They are allowed to talk to me during tests in order to translate what I don’t understand but now they just ask me how to do the problems! More power to them! Way to use those hard earned English skills!

In Gym, we did our warm-ups and then after that I was free. Everyone else had to make up the tests that they had missed. (Long jump- 10; 1 kilometer run- 10). Since I was done, I got to play frisbee or soccer! I opted to play frisbee with my friend Ieva, and we spoke Latvian to eachother! It was so great! I can form simple sentences now! Ieva was helping me a lot because she would have me try to say something, correct me, then wait for me to say it right. It was a good system. And the best part was that I was actually remembering what she was saying to me. Usually it just stays in my head for a few minutes, but I have finally reached the stage where things just stick.

Next, I had a test in science. It was over cells. I had already learned this subject quite a bit so I felt pretty confident. I answered the questions the best that I could, and guessed on the rest. Ieva and Una kept turning around to admire how much I had written. For one of the problems, I had no idea what to answer so I just wrote, “Mušas ir kaitinošas”. (Flies are annoying; my first sentence). Valters told me that our teacher had the nickname of Muša. Then I felt extremely awkward. Una told me there is also a joke that goes bzzzz…..(clap). That, apparently, is all people remember from science class. Oh well. It made for an interesting story. (I got a 6).

Then, I had lunch, which I ordered all by myself! The lunch ladies practically have my order memorized. It was so adorable! (They also give me more salad than anyone else because they know I love it). Once you find your way into people’s lives, you can find them to be ever so generous.  They go out of their way to make sure nothing is in yours. I really do feel accepted here. It is a wonderful feeling. People are always willing to give.

After lunch, I had voice. My class practiced the song that we wrote about Latvia and another song called Pastalas. We are going to perform them at the November 18th celebration at our school. (It is Latvian independence day). My teacher’s wife choreographed some moves for us and they both decided that I should have the ending solo in both songs. Holy moly! Crazy! Not only do I have a solo, but it is in LATVIAN! I feel both honored and super nervous. I want to practice a lot so when I sing it, I will be without accent! Wish me luck!

Baiba, my private voice teacher, decided to have me play a piece on the piano for our concert. (This is a different concert). This makes me even more nervous because I don’t have a piano here to practice on! She also gave me another song to sing. Guess what it is…. My Favorite Things!! How did she know?! Julie Andrews is my favorite! Gah! Perfect!! So now I am singing Impossible (while playing guitar), Lullaby of Birdland (singing scat), My Favorite Things, and playing a piece on the piano. When I asked Baiba why she was giving me so much to do, her response was, “Because you can do it.” I like that.

I was invited by both Baiba and Una to go to a breathing class. So I said, why not? (At this time it was 6 and was already dark). It is humorous because on October 14th I was worried that I wasn’t doing enough during my exchange year and then the next day was overload. Interesting how things work out.  Anyways, at this breathing class we did the same laughing things as I mentioned earlier. Except this time, Una and I were with a bunch of 10-year-olds. But it was fun none-the-less. This class was the first real “bonding” moment with Una. I know now that she is my best friend here.

It was a good day. 🙂

Girls Night!

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Friday night was my first slumber party in Latvia! It was so great! A bunch of my classmates and I went to a girl named Signe’s house. We made sushi for dinner and had chocolate muffins for dessert! And to drink, we had orange juice! Ah! It was so wonderful! She had the tiniest kitten ever and he was just precious! I didn’t mind that he kept biting my fingers, he was too cute!

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We watched a scary movie, of course, and then Despicable Me 2. At the beginning of that movie, the characters speak in Russian and my classmates were able to understand! It was pretty impressive. They know Latvian, obviously, Russian, English, and are in the process of French and German. Lucky them!
We stayed up until at least 3 a.m. and then I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was great that I got to spend so much time with my classmates outside of school! I really enjoyed it! A lot of them had been scared to talk to me because I am a native English speaker, but thankfully they got over their fear. They helped me learn Latvian and were amused at my accent. I think that is a good thing 🙂 I was thoroughly wiped out after this event but it was well needed. I feel much closer to the girls in my class now! I know I can ask them anything and they will be both willing and eager to help!

And Fall Begins

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On Monday, we celebrated Teachers’ Day. As you can see here.

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My best friend, Una, is the model. (I think she should be on the Wheel of Fortune). We had a party in our class! We ate cake and drank champagne (without alcohol) and watched a video that some of the students made. It was very nice! At the end of the day, there was a performance for the teachers. They got awards and people sang, danced, and acted. My class sang the ending song for the show. I am not going to lie, it was pretty awful. But, my pronunciation of Latvian wasn’t half bad! (I am still working on ļ and ķ) I got a compliment from a teacher of how wonderfully I sang in Latvian! That made me feel pretty darn good.
I had a Latvian language lesson this week. My teacher brought in her granddaughter to teach me because she knows English. It was adorable!
My voice lessons are going really well! It is my favorite part of my week! My teacher is having me do things that I have never thought of before! For example, in my group lessons, she has us lay on the floor, then put our ankles and knees together. Then, we must flex our feet to be perpendicular to floor. And even more, we have to roll our hips back to get rid of the arch in our back. Finally, we lay our neck flat on the ground and do a bunch of breathing exercises. We had to stay in that position for the entire hour. I had no idea lying on the floor could be so exhausting! We also do a lot of laughing from the diaphragm. My teacher can laugh so loud! It is ridiculous! She cackles like a witch and her face gets red and it is super funny!! I really want to videotape her sometime. But even as she makes a fool of herself (like all good music teachers do) we all get the idea and do the same. She has us lay on the floor again, but this time bring our knees up to our chest and use them to help push the air out of our lungs. If you aren’t doing it right, then she comes over and pushes on your legs for you. She has no mercy. After many lessons like this, I finally got the concept! I found my diaphragm! (I was beginning to believe that I was born without one). I have never been that loud before! I didn’t know I was capable of that much noise! My classmates were all laughing at me because I was making such funny sounds. And of course that made me laugh more! Laughing is so contagious! Oh it was tiring! I was crying by the end. But I got it! I could tell my teacher was very proud. I was the only one in the lesson who did it right. Score for Sofia!
And now a picture of Autumn in Latvia. Brace yourself, it is beautiful!

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This weekend, I believe my family is going on a trip to the best place in Latvia to see the leaves changing. I cannot wait!
This week went by fast! I am so glad it is the weekend! I need some relaxation time! A walk through yellow and red woods should do the trick.

Nature, Nature, and More Nature

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This weekend was all about discovering Latvia’s forests! My friend, Mathilda, asked me if I wanted to join her and her host sister and some of her friends for the weekend for an excursion to a town called Laidi. (Laidi is so small that even Latvians don’t know it exists.) I said sure! Why not? We met in Riga at our usual meeting place, the Central Train Station. Then, we walked to meet the others in Old Riga. There were eight of us total. Here we are!

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Starting from the left, there is a Latvian who went to Germany for a foreign exchange year with YFU. Next is Mathilda, who is from Germany. Those two had a marvellous time talking to eachother in German. Then there is a Latvian who was born in Canada. He moved to Latvia 3 years ago. His first language is Latvian, then English, then French. He is pretty cool. Then there is another Latvian beside him; she is his girlfriend. She speaks Russian also and was my driver on the trip. Then me, obviously. And next, is a boy from the Czech Republic. He is studying English in Riga. Don’t ask me why. Lastly, there is another Latvian who lives with Mathilda. (He is her host sister’s boyfriend.) I believe he also speaks Russian. There is also Mathilda’s host sister, but she successfully managed to cut herself completely out of the picture. So yes. This was the crazy diverse group of people that I spent my weekend with. Thankfully the common language was English so it was very easy for me. The whole weekend, I tried to understand what the Latvians were saying to eachother. I caught some things! It is a working process! 

We drove 2 hours from Riga to Laidi. Once we arrived at our small country house, we went out in the woods and hiked. It was super fun! We made our own trails and went through the mud. Only one person fell! *cough… it was me* After that great adventure, we went back inside (the old country house does not have heating, just a wood-burning stove) we started to make some dinner. Pasta! I, all the while, was trying to listen in on their conversations. I feel so unaccomplished being the only one who speaks English as a native language and not knowing any other. They all had to translate and some spoke 3 or 4 different languages. Not fair! After dinner, we set up to watch a movie. Yes Man! it was. Such a good movie. Sometimes I would laugh by myself because the other’s couldn’t understand the jokes. Yep. It was pretty funny. We played games and ate snacks and did all the typical things as a sleepover, except everyone kept switching languages! It was so cool!

The next morning was very foggy. It was perfect zombie weather.

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We packed everything up and piled in the cars. Although, it was not easy to leave. You see, these were college kids and they don’t exactly have the newest of cars. One of the cars wouldn’t start. The other car had already made it down the long, muddy driveway and needed to turn around to help and guess what, it got stuck. It took about 20 minutes to finally leave. We drove to Kuldiga where we toured the old city. It has the longest waterfall in Europe! And the longest brick bridge! It is a beautiful town! We also drove to some more forests and saw more trees and mud and lakes. It was a really great time! I got to know not only Latvia, but some people that I had never met before. I hopefully will meet them again, because I had such a good time! 

I apologize if my stories are kind of choppy but I think that will be what happens from here on out. This is the kind of English I have been speaking for 6 weeks now so it has become me! Eventually I hope to not use English at all! I will let you know when that day comes!

Market Time!

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This weekend was the annual fall market in Rīga! And boy was it cold! My family met up with some friends and we walked around the city, looking at all the goods for sale. There was such a variety! From knit hats to honey candles and blocks of cheese to personalized cookies! There were also live performances of traditional singing and dancing! It was very fun!
By the end of the day, I decided it was time to buy myself a real coat. So I did. Hopefully it will be warm enough to last me through the winter ahead! Go ahead, be jealous.

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Today, I went shopping in the Ogre market which is way smaller than that in the city, but still had plenty of wonderful foods. We bought some goodies for lunch and they are cooking in the oven right now! The smell is drifting all through the house. It is torture.
Overall this has been a pretty solid weekend! I hope to get in some serious Latvian learning this afternoon. Tomorrow I am supposed to have a song (that my class teacher wrote) memorized. Whoops. I had better get on that.

An Adventure

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Today is Monday, which means it is my longest day of classes. It also means that I need to catch the 5 o’clock train to Rīga where, then I will go to the YFU Office to fill out a residence permit. Oh and Monday also decides to rain, and not just any rain, wind Latvia barely sees. Let me start from the beginning.
Last night, while I was watching Mary Poppins and knitting, the power went out. It was pretty windy outside, but I’ve seen worse at home. The tree branches weren’t breaking, so that was a good sign. It reminded me of the wonderful Midwest storms (minus the lightning and thunder) and I went to sleep listening to the rain hitting my window.
I also woke up to that sound. It continued all as I was getting ready and just before I was about to leave, the sun came out! It was a beautiful sight to see the pink sun poke out from under the dark rain clouds. I thought to myself, wow, this could be a really nice day. So on the way out the door, I passed by my umbrella without a second glance. (That was really stupid.) But I did wear my rainboots! I had been waiting for a chance to use them.
The walk started out very nice (remember it is 20 minutes long) with only light sprinkles. I thought, ha! these Latvians know nothing of storms! (Stupid. I should really stop thinking to myself. I only wind up with trouble.) Then after the first 2 or 3 minutes, the rain all of a sudden decided to fall a lot faster. I, not having an umbrella, put my gym bag over my head and picked up the pace. I thought it would let up after a minute or two. Nope. Wrong again. By the time I got to school, I was soaking wet. I could have rung out my pants if I didn’t have to wear them! But strangely, the rain did not dampen my spirits at all. I felt good! (Just a little more wet than usual.)
Over the course of the day, I dried out. The rain got worse, and even hailed at one point. Then, the sun came out! It was so bright! I thought to myself, (once again) I knew it would be a great day, my walk home shall be so pleasant! (Gah!) Two hours before school ended, the rain started again, even heavier than the morning’s performance. The temperature plummeted and it had no sign of stopping any time soon. At 4:30 I was still in school and remembered that I have a 20 minute walk home to get my papers and a 5 minute walk to the train station and I still have to buy the ticket!
I politely excused myself and practically ran out of the school building. I managed to shave 5 minutes off my walk! (Probably could have made it faster but my rainboots slowed me down). I arrived at my house at 4:52. I dumped out my drenched bag and shoved in all my visa papers. I stripped off my pants, which were leaving a wet trail behind me. I quickly put on some running tights and booked it out of there! (With both my rainboots and an umbrella this time. You see, I learned.) I got to the train station, bought my ticket and boarded the train all within 3 minutes. I made it! Sure I looked like a drowned rat, but I made it!
This was one of the most stressful afternoons I have ever had! But still, I was always in a good mood. I could see how wonderful of a story this was turning into. I rode the train for 50 minutes and arrived in Rīga where I was met with my host mom. We then made the long trek to the office through the crazy wind and constant rain. We had to make a few pit stops in a university and restaurant doorway because the wind was just too strong. By the time we got to the YFU Office, I couldn’t feel my face. We drank some hot tea and put all my layers on the space heater. Boy, was I exhausted!
As fun as that experience was, I would be perfectly okay if it didn’t happen again. The weather man must have found out that I was coming to Latvia and decided to throw all the crazy weather he could manage at me. I heard on the TV that this will be the coldest winter Latvia’s had in the past 100 years. It would be safe to say that there will be more stories to come.

Friday!

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I went and got ice cream in the rain with these two crazy kids! It is never too cold for chocolate ice cream and good fun! What a perfect way to end the week! (These are my friends Ieva and Valters just in case you were wondering).