Yesterday was my birthday — after a busy weekend, I decided to have a quiet day. I celebrated the actual day by having dinner with my longest-term friend here in Lithuania.
I arrived in Kaunas in September 1993 with my first Fulbright fellowship to learn Lithuanian language and do research for my master’s thesis. I barely spoke Lithuanian and very few people spoke English. I was the only American I knew of in Kaunas. I had never lived anywhere this cold. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, the secretary of the Humanities Faculty took one look at me and decided to take me under her wing. I would not have survived a year in post-Soviet Lithuania without her. She truly was my guardian angel.
She helped me find a nice apartment instead of the residence “hotel” where I’d been placed. She showed me where to buy food. This was no easy task at that time. Not only were there food shortages, but there weren’t grocery stores like I was used to. She showed me how to pay my utility bills at the post office. She helped me arrange for a language tutor at the university. She assisted me in my research by introducing me to the system of using newspapers at the library and tracking down Soviet-era history textbooks. Basically, if I needed anything or to do anything in Lithuania, I went to her office first.
And along the way, we became friends. I got to know her son and her parents. I still have the beautiful crocheted doilies that her mother made for me. I brought back Nutrasweet and other items they couldn’t get when I went back to the States for Christmas. Her son started learning English in elementary school so he could read the letters I sent from America. He’s now an anesthesiologist. It’s been a lot of years.
We’ve known each other for 17 years now. The opportunity to spend time with my friend is one of the best parts of living in Kaunas again after all this time. We go out for tea after work once a week. And she is still the first person I ask if I have to figure something out in Lithuania.