Catholic wedding and smoking pot

I had the chance to attend the wedding of Sarah's brother-in-law's brother. The wedding consisted of 1 hour long ceremony in a catholic church and a small reception later. Now this was my first time participating in a catholic mass and ceremony - and it was a spooky one. Catholic rituals seemed no less weird and intimidating to me than what I observed about Islamic rituals like praying, call to the prayer etc (when I saw them for the first time). Everybody chanting the same words together, praying together etc - it reminded me of horror movies with secret religious cults. I was almost expecting to see a virgin being sacrificed.

Among many peculiar things what I thought was especially weird was that during the wedding ceremony the church made a sales pitch and advertising the upcoming events in their church. To the people who don't even live in the surrounding community! What was even more weird was that the church collected money (donations) from the guests. During the wedding ceremony!! Using butterfly nets! How ridiculous and atmosphere killing is that! I couldn't imagine that during one of the most important days of my life, during the ceremony where I get married some dude starts advertising something and then collect money from the guest!

The following reception was rather modest. Guests had to pay for their own drinks(!), the room was very tiny for the amount of guests and no particular program seemed to be in place. The thing I liked the most was the Mexican mariachi band that was there, all dressed up.

My second cool experience meanwhile was attending a local raggae festival. As I learned this is an event with a history and is among other things a mean to communicate a political stance. This is typical to Austin, which is very different from other parts of Texas in terms of values of people and the culture. The people who attended the festival could be described as hippies, people against corporate monsters, capitalist policies and pro peace, sustainability and eco-living. Austinites. Probably noone of them vote for republicans. The event itself was really, really cool. Live music, booths selling cool hippy and raggae stuff (pipes, shishas, clothing, incense, necklaces, bumper stickers and what not). You could get tattoos done. Naturally you could get beer and food. It had somewhat resemblance to Viljandi Folk Festival in Estonia.

Now the thing that I saw for the very first time (and I was told this is common and characteristic to Austin) is that large majority (event was attended by thousands) was smoking pot - in public. This was jaw-dropping to me. Smoking weed is not legal here, but the local culture is so that police closes their eyes during such events. As I hadn't seen so many people smoking up ever before, I found myself being surprised every time I saw somebody with a joint (at that was nearly all the time). People selling their stuff were smoking up at the same time. This place could be a paradise for many;)

Another cool experience was visiting a real cowboy shop. Cowboy boots, hats, belts and all other necessary stuff. I'm now a proud owner of my own cowboy hat. Yeehow!

Picture of your rapist in your bedroom

This blog post is aimed at my international friends.

If somebody would rape you, your family, neighbors and other people for years and years, would you keep this person's picture in your bedroom? Even if he once beat up another bad man? I didn't think so. We wouldn't want to see that picture ever.

This is what is going on in Estonia right now. There is (was) a bronze statue erected for Soviet soldiers in Tallinn in 1947 and it was put in the heart of the city. Soviet army occupied Estonia during World War II and the occupation lasted for 50 years. 50 years of rape. 10% of the whole Estonian population was killed and/or sent to concentration camps to Siberia. Would you see why Estonians wouldn't want to have this statue in the heart of their capital? A picture of the rapist in their bedroom?

Ever since there was talk about removing this statue (re-locating it to a military cemetery), it was cause for growing ethnic conflict between Estonians and Russians and a reason for Russia to blame Estonia for being a fascist country.

For Russians the statue symbolizes the Soviet soldiers who died in World War II fighting Nazi Germany. I can understand how this is a noble thing (fighting against Nazi regime), but when one terrorist regime beats the other one, I don't think we should celebrate the first one. It doesn't wash them off of their crimes (whoever doesn't know enough can research the crimes against humanity carried out by the Soviet regime, plenty of information available everywhere).

Ethnic Estonians see the memorial as a symbol of 50 years of Soviet occupation, while Russia considers it a symbol of the fight against Nazism in World War II. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has called the statue an insult to Estonians and "a monument to mass murder".

"In our minds, this soldier stands for deportations and murders, the destruction of our country, not liberation," he said in an interview with the BBC earlier this year. I agree with him whole heartily.

Recently the government of Estonia announced the plans to remove the statue from the city center and put it in a military cemetery, and that set in motion a series of horrendous events.

Yesterday around 1,000 pro-Russian protesters opposed to the statue's removal had gathered in the square in central Tallinn where the authorities had cordoned off the monument to Soviet Red Army soldiers.

It is known that a couple of leaders of Russian youth movements in Estonia had met the ambassador of Russia to Estonia a few days before - my guess is they received instructions from Moscow.

The demonstration was full of provocation and it turned into a six-hour riot and looting spree. The police used water cannon, rubber batons and flash grenades to disperse the crowd and prevent youths from forcing their way through a security cordon.

What followed was just damn horrible - total anarchy. Russians started to smash nearby cars, stoning windows, breaking in to businesses, set newspaper booths and a house on fire. Just for fun. They looted liquor stores (and got drunk), attacked journalists (both Estonian and foreign ones), broke in to a nearby Hugo Boss (to steal suits and jeans), eye wear shop, restaurants and pretty much everything that was on the way. The stealing and maraudering that was going on was crazy... Total havoc and terror. Total damage done yesterday was worth close to 2 million dollars. For what? Most of the people taking part of the vandalizing acts where in their late teens and 20ies, they don't have any close personal connection with the past events, most likely most of them don't know the course of WWII. I am just so surprised how people can be so open for brainwashing, which was done heavily using many different channels. Reading the live commentary of all the horror that is happening is quite terrifying... Can you see how this creates more ethnic conflict and might make Estonians think Russians are a violent bunch, not much improved since WWII? This is what you can read from the comments on internet portals.

The 2-metre (6 1/2 ft) high bronze statue was taken away overnight after the worst violence seen in years in Estonia and its current location is being kept hidden for the sake of peace. I welcome this decision and think it was the one and only thing to do to keep public order.

Now Russia is enraged over this statue and is threatening with diplomatic and economic sanctions, cutting off all ties and some members of the parliament have said they should go to WAR with Estonia. Can you believe this? I can't. I am glad our prime minister has firmly said this is a purely internal matter. Can you imagine any foreign country telling your country which statues you can have where? Especially if the statue is erected for your rapist? And now attacking Estonia because of a statue???

People in Moscow are protesting in front of the Estonian embassy - and demanding an apology from the Estonian nation among other things. Unbelievable... Well, I do think an apology is in order, but it should be for all the occupation and massacres Soviet regime did.

Russia had ca 20 media channels present during the riots, forwarding extremely biased information and are now trying very hard to make Estonia look bad in front of the international audience, trying to portray Estonia as a fascist country. This leaves me baffled. Why such hostility and anger? Why not even trying to understand? How in the hell can you accuse Estonia as being fascist? They are missing the point, so far off... it only goes on to prove how a big country chauvinism can blind you and see only what you want to see.

And its not like the statue is being destroyed and the soldiers buried under it dumped in the sea. The statue will be just moved to a different place and soldiers re-buried with dignity and according to international law (Russia was offered to send an observer to the re-burial to make sure they are also satisfied, the proposal was rejected).

How did this stupid, stupid thing get so big? How can people be so emotional over something and lose rational thinking?

You can check out what international press is writing about it as well:

You can see videos and pictures here:

The trouble isn't over, there a big gangs of hundreds of Russians and now also Estonians in the city and there is a chance of fights happening...

I just wanted to let you know and let you know what is happening before you hear it through a Russian news agency. I am happy to talk to anyone about it.

How ya'll doing?

I guess there's a stereotype that most Texans speak English with a Texan accent - which I have found to be untrue. In fact I yet have to meet somebody who has the pure Texan accent and I've been here 2 weeks now. There is something that almost everybody uses and that is "ya'll" (meaning "you all"). How ya'll doing? Whatcha ya'll been up to? What can I getch ya'll? are some of the questions you hear all the time. When I have pointed this out to Sarah she says she even doesn't notice. Well I guess that's true if its your language. But I am very much looking forward to talking to somebody with a thick Texan accent :)

One thing I have found to be different (although I'm already used to it) is that pedestrian traffic lights have different colors. I mean red is still red, but instead of green they use white color. When I questioned it I heard something like its simpler this way. After voicing my opinion that wouldn't it be easier if green would always be green, the reaction was something like "oh.. I guess yeah". It makes you see how people get used to something and then consider this easy and convenient as this is what they're used to. I'm convinced you see such phenomena in every country, including our own (even though we might not be conscious of it!).

When going to the US you would normally expect to see and hear English everywhere, but it seems in the south Spanish is also a very important language. You see signs in both languages on the streets, in the shops, pretty much everywhere. When I landed in Atlanta airport already there I was struck by the amount of signboards in Spanish (sometimes only Spanish!). The influx of Mexicans to southern states of the US is pretty high and its common to see cities where Hispanic people form a majority (including big cities).

When you tell anyone outside the US that "Hello, I'm from Texas" you will most likely hear comments like "Oh, from the Bush country" or "So how's George these days", then here in Austin I have found only people that strongly dislike him. I have seen stickers in the shops saying "A village in Texas has lost its idiot" next to the picture of Bush, anti-Bush writings on cars, graffiti on the walls and pavement. As I hear Austin is the only city in Texas which consists mostly of democrats.

One thing that I constantly find telling myself is "Hey, that's just like in the movies!" US culture and lifestyle are so widely communicated to the world through Hollywood movies, TV serials and so on, that you won't be surprised that often. Its more like recognizing things you have seen than seeing something for the very first time. Its an interesting feeling that I have kind of never felt before. Its kind of like attending a concert of an artist whose songs you know well and when you hear the first chords of a song you recognize, you have this warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Seeing things with your own eyes beats TV any time, real thing is the real thing.

The first times I saw the yellow school bus I yelled "Hey, thats the schools bus!", first time I saw the fire truck I said "It's just like in the movies!". American homes/houses are somewhat distinct from houses in Europe, but they still feel familiar.

Tomorrow I'm attending a Mexican wedding here, with a Catholic mass and everything. More about that later!

(Pictures: 1. Austin suburbia 2. Texan nature and the truck we use to get around 3. Lily (Sarah's younger sister) and Sarah 4. Sarah and Jayda (Sarah's niece)). I promise to take much more pictures from now on and post them on the blog.

New experiences

Every day I'm doing or eating something for the very first time. Yesterday I had my first peanut butter jelly sandwhich (good stuff!) and my first marshmallow. Today I ate sweet potatoe fries for the very first time.

Yesterday morning I attended my first little league teeball game (which is like baseball only instead of throwing the ball to the dude with the bat the kids hit the ball off a post). I went to see how Shannon's (Sarah's sister) son Alex is playing. It was interesting - although the game seemed to matter much more to the parents and coaches than the 5-year old players. Some of them didn't seem to understand what they're doing. A lot of it is about wearing the baseball outfits, eating the special powerbar, everybody getting together.

This morning we were helping Ross (Sarah's brother-in-law) at a 5 km race. He is a chiropractic was one of the sponsors at the event. He was giving free pre- and post-race massage and assessment, we were getting people into his stand. It was fun and a good insight what this kind of events look like here. The number of runners was over 3000. What I think might be characteristic to the US culture is the mascots - haven't seen people in the mascot outfits walking around in other countries. I wonder how the culture developed in that way and why some people thought it might be a good idea to dress up as a giant hamburger. Kids like it, I was told.

One of the things I find annoying is that in restaurants and shops you really don't know how much something costs - because they always display the price pre tax! How irritating is this! You have to add sales tax (same as VAT) to everything yourself. The sales tax is flat for all the products, only some things are tax free - like unprocessed food. The logic behind it is that so poor people will prefer healthier products instead of processed food (which makes them fat and is often not good for them). As I was told it doesn't help much as processed food is still cheaper even with tax.

Another thing I find peculiar is the level of water in the toilet (the pot). The water level is really high, like 1/4 is filled - how weird! At first I thought it was only in a few first places we visited, but it seems to be almost everywhere. I haven't figured out why this is useful.

One more thing I haven't seen in other countries is the number of signs on high pole posts. I mean here advertising signs like McDonalds and so on - almost every restaurant, shop, carwash, gas station and what not has its sign really high up. Sometimes when driving the number of signs you see is overwhelming, it's like a parade or something.

So far all is good, having a lot of fun!

My first 6 days in the US and other thoughts

Entering the US went smoothly, the border guard looked at my passport and asked "Where the hell are you from?". When I arrived to the US, my bag didn't and was left behind in London. Good thing the airline paid me 50$ for compensation (I got the bag also 2 days later).

When waiting for my connecting flight quite a few people sparked up a conversaton with me which would never happen in Estonia and wouldn't be very likely elsewhere in northern Europe. One of them was a 16-year old dude from Florida who liked to talk about cars. He understood from my accent that I'm from Europe and so he asked "So what's Europe like?". Later he also asked what kind of houses people live in over there and said he prefers to live in the US as its more free here. When I asked how he said as far as he knows people are not allowed to carry guns in Europe.

Americans are generally very friendly, outgoing, outspoken and not at all afraid to express themselves - very nice change to cold northern people. This morning when I went for a walk everybody whom I met on the street (walking their dogs, jogging, going somewhere) said 'Good morning!' to me which I found very nice.

I will not have time or enough space to write about everything I have done, seen and thought about so I will point out only the main observations.

The weather is Texas is interesting. Up until my arrival the weather had been beautiful, then it suddenly turned cold (just above 0) and it was raining. 2 days later it was 25 degrees again. I've never seen this happening before. As I learned dramatic weather changes are very common here, in fact that is the way it is. There are no seasons here like we know it, but fronts - whatever the winds bring. Right now its perfect, temperature in the 20ies, blue blue sky, sunshine. When walking you can smell the blossoms on trees. When driving out of the town you can see beautiful flowers on the side of the road. Its beautiful. I'm so glad I'm not in the Middle East anymore.

Petrol is cheap (compared to Europe), even though there was a hike in the price while I was here. A liter costs about 0.7 dollars. Everybody drives a car here and it is pretty much not possible to be without one as the public transportation system sucks. Appearently there are some cities where public transport is good (NY, Chicago etc), but in most of the cities you have to drive a car. I just happened to read that the best-selling car in the US in 2006 was Ford F-150 and that pretty much sums up what kind of cars people like to drive here - big. I have never seen so many pickup trucks in my life, its crazy.

You see religion a lot. Companies use christianity in their names (you can see this very often when driving around), it turns out it can be an attractive factor to many people as average citizen is quite religious. This morning I even ate bread which was made according to Ezekiel 4:15 (or smth), so recipe taken out of the bible. As I understood the main consumers for this bread are actually hippies who like organic products. I also had the pleasure of seeing a religious crazy person preaching in public (during easter day) and talking about how the world is gonna end if we ignore god's teachings. Me and Sarah seemed to be the only people paying attention to this guy, but sadly for him only for cultural reasons.

I have never seen so many fat people in my life. Its not as much as one might think based on what they write in the newspapers, but you see them quite often. Poverty and obesity go hand in hand, so the poorer the neighbourhood or the city, the more fat people there are - because the cheapest food is junk food. In Austin, where I'm now, the amount of fat people seems to be less than it was in San Antonio. You also see fat kids which is quite sad. Majority of the people are perfecly normal.

Austin is a pretty town (population 1 million), very green, quiet, friendly. Live music capital of the world, they claim - I have to check that out later. It doesn't seem that Austin is that big, the feeling is more like its a small town. It actually reminds me of Tartu a little bit. I like it a lot.

Food is very expensive here. I knew that before coming here, but I didn't imagine it's that expensive. Money just flies when eating out all the time.

Those few random people I have met have not known where Estonia is, but thats okay - even in Europe they don't know. When I'll meet somebody who knows, I'll be surprised.

The best part so far by far has been being reunited with Sarah. I'm as happy as a person can ever be, I have everything I could ever wish for. I'm meeting members of Sarah's family one by one which is great, I'm having so much fun.

My first 6 days have been really nice. Looking very much forward to the days to come.

Honey, I'm home

Saturday evening I will land in the US. I got my ticket today and I am eager to go. Can't wait to be again with my love, and to meet her family. My trip will be about 2.5 months where every day I get to do whatever I want.

Whenever I have the chance I will try to post my experiences and insights on my blog - as it helps me to capture my learnings plus I can share it with you.

I'll be back by Jaanipäev.

Going to the US

Yesterday I got my visa to the US. What a good feeling that was to hear "Visa will be sent to you...". Pheew! I was initially refused the visa in Dubai - I guess it was Dubai's attempt to get even with me after all that anti-propaganda. Well, I won - in your face Dubai!

US Embassy in Estonia and Dubai are like 2 very different organizations. The latter treats people like shit, in Estonia its a service oriented organization. Two very different experiences and outcomes. Oh it's good to be back in the free world.

Early next week I am departing to Austin, Texas to have the trip of my life. I will also go on a road trip with Sarah, going from Texas to California through many cool places (more about that in the future postings).

Yay for me!