Chapter 7. To Lithuania (and Back?)



Riding the train in Russia is one of the many things I'll miss about this great country. No adventure in public transportation quite compares. I think that I shall always be able to close my eyes and have the sights, sounds and smells come back to me. In sleeping cars, the senses are almost overwhelmed. Commotion everywhere. Provodniks selling tea and coffee and renting linen for the beds. Cooking their dinners over coal-fired cast iron stoves that belch black smoke from every car. Squeezing past one another in narrow hallways. Staring out grimy windows at passing villages. Venders walking from car to car, selling newspapers while barking the headlines. Pet dogs. Ice cream cones and lottery tickets. Passengers pulling sausages, cheese, beer and even smoked fish from their coat pockets. Kids running and laughing. Pillows and sheets everywhere. People sleeping on bunks, playing cards, drinking beer and vodka. No privacy but no problems. Old women crocheting. Old wrinkley men in white old-timer T-shirts. Russian music, sometimes festive and folksy but usually melancholy. Watching the tracks go by when the toilet flushes. Modern day peasants selling fresh milk in old beer bottles, home made jams in mason jars, cakes, beer, fish, cheese, bread, hot boiled eggs and potatoes at the stations. Dim lights bleakly shining trough old and yellowed plastic lamp covers. All this is part of the incredible adventure aboard a Russian train!

The train ride to Vilnius, Lithuania took us across the plains of western Russia and Belorus. Very little is old here. The Germans in the 1940s and Napoleon's armies over a century before each came this way. Both invaders were turned back, their generals underestimating the ferocity and length of the Russian winter and the impossibilities that come with a 1000 mile long supply route. The Germans were especially ruthless in their retreat, destroying everything as they left.

In Vilnius we were met at the train station by our host, Regina Jasiuniene, the Chief Methodologist at the Lithuanian Teachers' In-Service Training Institute. She took us to our dormitory where teachers from all over Lithuania come to attend continuing education classes. The teachers stay in the dorms for 2 - 10 day periods while they take these courses. We were each given a separate dorm room. Mine was on the 9th floor overlooking forested hills and the city of Vilnius, perhaps three miles away. Deep snow and pine forests made for a beautiful contrast.

While in Lithuania, we ate all of our meals in a small canteen that played American music and was always filled with cigarette smoke. It seems that almost everyone smokes here. Two young couples operate the canteen. One of the women always waited on us. Before we left each meal, she would take our order for the next meal. She never smiled but she made the best coffee of the trip. She practiced her English on me, Ed practiced his Russian on her and Sergei liked taking her picture. After three days at the canteen, we were all in love even though we never learned her name. Our official hosts, Regina, Remus and Gervidas did not eat with us. They were nice hosts and treated us very well, but we were not invited into their homes like we were at every place in Russia. Being invited into a person's home is a good occasion to enjoy life for awhile and to learn about the host on a more personal level. There is always eating, toasting, and much talking. Often small gifts (calendars, figurines, sets of post cards, etc.) are exchanged. It seemed to us that the Lithuanians simply lacked the warmth of the Russians. Later, back in Moscow, Leah explained to us that this was indeed true. Lithuanians were "More Like Europeans.

On our first afternoon in Vilnius, Remus gave us a walking tour of the old part of the city. Remus does not have a car so we took a cab from our dorm. As Remus spoke to the driver in the Lithuanian language, it occurred to me that 80% of the words ended with an s.' It turns out that all masculine words end in an s' sound so we were introduced as Edwardus, Sergeius, and Bruce or sometimes Bruceus. By the end of our stay in Lithuania, I had to force myself to not listen to the language being spoken for fear that I would start chuckling. Simply put, it sounds funny. Lithuanians are very proud of their language, however. For over a century of Russian occupation under the czars, the Lithuanian language was forbidden to be written or spoken. Today, two-thirds of the elementary school children learn English which is quite popular. Linguists already worry that the Lithuanian language is becoming too Anglicized.

Our chemistry program took place on our second day in Lithuania. This was our last program of the trip and perhaps I should describe our programs in brief detail. Most programs consisted of approximately twenty-five chemistry demonstrations suitable for chemistry courses in high school or in college or university. All of our materials fit snugly into three suitcases. When everything was set up on a table, one could almost imagine that we came with a truck instead of just three suitcases. Set up took at least one hour. Noelle or Sergei put together the demos that required assembly. Ed and I each set up our own demos. Before we began, there was usually an introduction by our host and then Ed would give some additional introductory comments so that the audience, mostly teachers, didn't leave thinking that American chemistry teachers usually did ten demos per hour. Then we proceeded with the program. Ed and I took turns, each describing our demos in appropriate detail and with an emphasis on teaching pedagogy. While one of us was talking, the other would be cleaning up and putting away as well as making last minute adjustments on upcoming demos. Also, as Ed spoke, I would make sketches on the chalk board or write equations for him. He would do the same for me. Sergei would translate and, after several times through the program, he even filled in information that we forgot to mention! We made a great team and the programs were always much fun. We always left copies of the demonstration instructions for our hosts to distribute. Every person in attendance received a small hypercolor periodic table which had our names and addresses on the back, a business card that will not be thrown away! In all we did ten programs in five cities. A total of 950 people attended our programs. Our demos were taken from the following list. For each presentation we selected approximately 25 that we could do with available materials. Often dry ice was not available and sometimes hydrogen peroxide was not available.

List of Demonstrations That Were Presented in Russia:

  • Welcome with Polyacrylamide on the Overhead
  • The Edible Candle
  • Sodium Polyacrylate and Diapers
  • Ammonia Fountain
  • Elephant's Toothpaste
  • Genie in the Bottle
  • Instant Carnations
  • Silver Dendrite (overhead)
  • Think Tube
  • CO2 Can Be Poured
  • CO2 is Heavier than Air (soap bubbles)
  • Colorful Formation of NO2
  • Lead Iodide Tornado
  • Collapsing a 2-L Bottle with NaOH and CO2
  • Polar Water and Surface Tension
  • Crush Cans with Steam
  • Visible Intermediate
  • Alyea Device for Generation of Gases
  • Electrolysis Demos in Petri Dish
  • Transferring Ammonia By Hand
  • Ammonia & Goldenrod
  • Hydrogen Can Explosion
  • Methane Bubbles
  • Big Bottle Alcohol Fumes Fire
  • Methane Mamba
  • Alcohol Ping Pong Ball Rocket
  • Alcohol 2-L Rocket
  • Hydrogen Mini-Rockets (pipet bulbs and micro-generator)
  • Lycopodium Fireball
  • Magnesium Burns in Dry Ice
  • Lazy Susan & Fire Tendrils
  • Titration in Well Plates on Overhead
  • Oxidation States of Manganese on Overhead
  • Thionine Photoreduction
  • Acid Rain Microchemistry in Well Plates on Overhead
  • BB Models
  • Human Salt Bridge
  • Redox Series in Well Plates on Overhead

A personal highlight of our trip to Vilnius was meeting four Creighton students who have been studying there since August, 1995. They are David Cormier, Kindra Ramaker, Meghan Smith and Stacy Holscher. They all wanted me to say "Hi Creighton! for them. It was fun meeting them and enjoying a cup of strong Lithuanian style coffee.

As you've read these episodes of "From Russia, you've come to know that the whole trip has been a truly grand adventure with lots of surprises. As Ed, Sergei and I boarded the Moscow train in Vilnius little did any of us realize that the most unforgettable part of the adventure would begin in just one short hour.

The train pulled out of Vilnius on schedule. It was a Lithuanian train with modern, private sleeping compartments. Everything was so clean. I made my bed and stretched out to nap while the train traveled along through Lithuania's beautiful hills and pine forests. At the border with Belorus the train stopped for Customs and Passport Control. The Belorus soldiers performing passport control came into our sleeping compartment and asked for our passports. A few perplexed expressions and they disappeared with our passports. We heard radio conversation from just outside in the hallway. Sergei said, "Oh, this is very serious! They say that we have only single entry visas and have already used them when we exited Russia to go to Lithuania. My 1990s mind-set couldn't quite grasp the gravity of the situation. Of course someone with a cellular phone would call someone; perhaps a few things would be punched into some computer somewhere and all would be fine! Nothing to get so alarmed about! Anyway, I was just getting comfy on my bed. Well.... the next thing I knew everyone was yelling at me that we had to leave the train. I was still relatively clueless. Why couldn't they come here to us? We could fix things up right here at our nice little table with the plastic flower. And anyway, if we left the train, who would watch our stuff? More yelling. Leave our stuff???? We're kicked off the train!!!! The very next thing I remember is trudging through deep snow with our suitcases. The soldiers helped to carry one or two of them. I was still more annoyed than worried. The people on the train watched through the windows at the hapless Americans with ALL of those suitcases. They watched as we were led to a compound, a wire fenced enclosure where we were kept along with our suitcases. A guard stood at the gate. The compound was covered with trampled snow and we stood there with cold wet feet. I watched the train. Suddenly it made a few gaspy and hissy noises and then slowly started to move down the tracks.

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