Category Archives: An American Abroad

Iki Pasimatymo!

I arrived safely back in Seattle on Sunday afternoon and this ends another installment of “Amanda in Lithuania.”  Many thanks to all of you who read my blog!  I enjoyed writing it.  I’ll check in periodically as I finish up my dissertation this year and hopefully take a few trips to back to Lithuania, but I won’t be posting regularly.  I’m always taking photos but rarely get photos of myself.  I’ll say goodbye with a couple of photos taken by a friend of mine so that I would have photos of me in Kaunas   And so, dear readers, Iki pasimatymo — until we see each other again.

At the Kaunas castle (photo by RG)


On Vilniaus street in Kaunas' Old Town


362 Days

I arrived in Lithuania on September 1, 2010 and I depart today August 28, 2011.  During the last 362 days, I…

Conducted 49 interviews

Revised my dissertation chapter outline 5 times

Partially drafted 4 chapters and the introduction of my dissertation

Attended 3 academic conferences

Traveled 71 times between Kaunas and Vilnius

Wrote 315 blog posts

Watched 214 episodes (10 full seasons) of the television series Stargate SG-1 on DVD

Built friendships, had adventures, improved my Lithuanian and had an all-around great time!

The Year in Quotes

Best “I won’t take it personally” quote — said to me by a Lithuanian friend:

“When I was in the United States, I would say something and I knew I said it correctly in English, but still people wouldn’t understand me.  Sometimes when you say something in Lithuanian, I have no idea what you said and now I understand how those Americans felt when I talked.”

Best “totally validates my opinion that Lithuanians don’t plan” quote — said to me by a Lithuanian who lived in the States for nearly 20 years as we were discussing how he could help me with my research:

“I’m going to write this down.  I learned how to plan in America.”

Most useful phrase I learned in Lithuanian this summer (unfortunately I had several opportunities to use it given the frequent thunderstorms):

“Eidama per parką, aš sušlapau [While walking through the park, I became completely wet].”

Best philosophical quote — from the summer course lecture on Lithuanian literature:

“Should we rely on the illusion that the era of changes ever comes to an end?”

The Structure and Sound of Language

Daily language lessons include a variety of activities to improve our comprehension and speaking skills.  Lithuanian has a complex grammatical system and we do a lot of grammar exercises to give us practice using various verb forms, in particular.  Participles, participles, participles!  We read articles and stories — not simplified “textbook” texts, but  Lithuanian texts from the “real world.”  And we talk a lot — we have group conversations or talk in pairs, using new vocabulary and grammatical forms. Practice, practice, practice!

All of this helps us to learn the structure of the Lithuanian language.  But we also do activities that help us hear the sound — the pronunciation, the rhythm, the flow — of the language.  We read poetry — repeating each line as a chorus after our teacher reads it and then each student reading the poem out loud individually.  We also listen to songs (ones in which the singer clearly articulates the words, of course).  Our teacher gives us the lyrics with certain words missing and we listen carefully to catch the words and fill in the blanks.  And then we sing!

One of the songs we learned this week is a poem by Marcelijus Martinaitis set to music by Vytautas Kernagis.  Kernagis is probably the most beloved musician in Lithuania.  He became popular as a singing poet in the 1970s and is still treasured today.  He gave voice to a nation during Soviet times and continued to perform until his death a few years ago.  I was surprised to discover that I haven’t written about Kernagis before now, so here is the song we listened to this week.

Mid-Course Evaluation

Week three of the summer language course and I’m both encouraged and discouraged by my language skills after one year in Lithuania.  It has been a great boost to my confidence that I can understand almost everything we read and the teacher says.  Oral and reading comprehension — definitely in the greatly improved category.

However, I’ve been discouraged at how difficult it is for me to speak grammatically and with how small my vocabulary is.  I am speaking better, but the truth is that — other than using Lithuanian on a daily basis — I haven’t really invested much time in memorizing words or practicing grammar.  I thought I’d pick up a lot more vocabulary simply by osmosis instead of taking the time to really learn the new words I encountered every day.  Of course, that doesn’t work so well in the long run.  It is easy to be lazy when I can make myself understood and when people consistently compliment me on my Lithuanian language no matter how poorly I know I speak.

But, then again, maybe I’m just being too much of a perfectionist. It’s been really useful to re-focus on grammar and identify what I know well and what I need to work on.  And I’m motivated to maintain my Lithuanian language ability when I am back in Seattle.  After all, I expect I’ll be back in Lithuania in the future so I’ll have more opportunities to continue learning and maybe one day I’ll actually be fluent.

Longing for Seattle

As my faithful readers know, my life has been quite full over the last six months with research and traveling and all kinds of adventures.  I keep in touch with my friends and family in the States and sometimes I wish I could see them, but I haven’t been homesick for months.  In four weeks I will get on a plane and return to Seattle — and suddenly I am really homesick.  I think it’s because I am now actually spending time thinking about my life in Seattle.  For the last six months, I’ve been living my life here and Seattle seemed far away.  With only a month to go, I am starting to plan where I will live when I return and talking to friends about what we will do when I am back in town.  Seattle seems much closer now and I miss my life there.

Of course, I am looking forward most to seeing my friends again, but here are a few other things that I am really looking forward to doing when I get back to Seattle:

A view of Seattle and the Cascade Mountains from Puget Sound. Photo by The Seattle-King County News Bureau

Mountains — there are mountain ranges on the east and west sides of Seattle and I love seeing the mountains on a clear day.  Okay, Seattle doesn’t often have clear days but it is amazing to look up and see snow-covered peaks reaching into the sky on the days they are visible.

Thai food — there are a plethora of inexpensive and delicious Thai restaurants.  I miss spicy food in general, but especially Thai food.  Yummy!

American slang and cultural references — I know a lot of Lithuanians who speak English very well, but I still have too moderate my speech so that I don’t use to much slang or make American cultural references that won’t have meaning here.  I look forward to just talking and not wondering if the other person will understand what I said.

With four weeks to go, I’m also back to eating chocolate-covered varškės treats as often as possible since I won’t be able to get them in Seattle!

Big Fish, Small Pond Syndrome

My appearance on Lithuanian national television highlights an aspect of my life in Lithuania that is very particular to my life in Lithuania.  In the United States, I am just one more graduate student in history trying to get funding and write my dissertation.  In Lithuania, I am an American scholar who speaks Lithuanian and one of the few non-Lithuanian historians working on Lithuanian history.  This opens doors for me that wouldn’t necessarily be open to the average Lithuanian doctoral student or the average American who comes to Lithuania.  Sometimes it even brings a little bit of fame.

It would be easy to let it go to my head and start thinking that I am a pretty big fish and not pay attention to the fact that I am in a small pond.  I certainly don’t mean that Lithuania itself is a small pond — there are a lot of smart, talented, and influential doctoral students and scholars in Lithuania, quite a few work and are recognized outside the boundaries of Lithuania.  I also don’t want to denigrate my own capabilities.  I have worked hard to establish myself here and many opportunities have come about because other scholars respect my work.  At the same time, I am aware that sometimes I get attention just because I am an American and I speak Lithuanian — I’m a novelty.

Reminding myself that, in some of these situations, I am simply a novelty keeps me humble.  I know that I will continue to work as a scholar in Lithuania and likely will live here again.  While it’s fun to get attention and be interviewed on television, in the long run my life in Lithuania is based on professional and personal credibility and relationships.  I might be a fish of a different color, but I’m just one more fish in the pond.

Two Minutes of Fame

The nationally-broadcast morning show “Labas Rytas [Good Morning]” did a segment today on the VMU Summer Lithuanian Language course for foreigners.  They interviewed the course director, one of the teachers, and a student.  And you’ve already guessed it — the director invited me to be interviewed!  The reporter asked me where I am from and why I want to study Lithuanian language.  I made quite a few basic grammatical mistakes but, given that I was extremely nervous about speaking Lithuanian on national television, I think I did okay.

Unfortunately the segment on the language course isn’t posted separately on the website.  But you can watch me on TV if you follow these steps:

1) Click this link to go to the LRT website archives page.

2) If the video in the center column does not say “Labas Rytas,” look in the right hand column for the entry “2001 07 28 6:00 Labas Rytas” and click on the blue arrow at the end of the description.

3) Press play and then move the tab to 1 hour 50 minutes (1:50) into the program (it will probably take a few seconds to load to that point)

There I am!

Intensive Language Course – Day 1

The intensive Lithuanian language course started today.  I’ll be in class for the next three and a half weeks, every morning and some afternoons.  I was placed in the advanced group, which at first made me nervous.  Today I realized how much my language skills have improved in the past year and that I am actually in right level.  There are five of us in the advanced level — two Russian students from Moscow State University, a Polish student from Warsaw and a Swedish engineer.   The students are all in Baltic Studies programs and the engineer likes learning languages.  Today’s lesson was just right, challenging enough that I learned new things but not so difficult that I got frustrated.  It’s also great to speak Lithuanian with other students at my level — I can understand them because we have the same level of vocabulary and make the same mistakes.  I think the course will be quite useful and I’m looking forward to the lessons.

Today’s favorite phrase:

Aš nesigailiu savo pasirinkto kelio. (I don’t regret my chosen path.)

Teaching Lithuanian History to Lithuanians

When Lithuanians ask me if I would like to come back to Lithuania to teach once I receive my Ph.D., I say “yes.”  Then I point out that I am trained to teach Russian and East European history, with a specialization in Lithuanian history  — and there are plenty of Lithuanian historians around to teach those subjects.

On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to give a lecture at Vytautas Magnus University on Lithuania in the Soviet Union to a group of young people, Lithuanians from Lithuania and Lithuanians from abroad (Germany, Canada, Australia and the United States).  It was a challenge to prepare the lecture.  First of all, what do they already know about Lithuania during the Soviet years?  Next, what do I think they should know about Lithuania during the Soviet years?  Finally, what will actually be interesting to a group of 20-something year olds?  And, of course, how can I cover Lithuania in the Soviet Union in only an hour and a half?

I decided that they most likely know about the initial occupation and Sovietization of Lithuania in the 1940s and early 1950s; and that they know about the independence movement in the late 1980s.  They are less likely to know about the in-between time, the perhaps less dramatic and quite complicated decades of accommodation, passive resistance, dissent, striving to maintain Lithuanian culture and the filtering in of Western culture.  And it just so happens that those decades — the 1960s and 1970s — are my area of specialization.  I also wanted to make sure that they understood the context of those decades, that they could see how what happened in the Soviet Union affected Lithuania and how events in Eastern Europe and the West also affected Lithuania.

I am happy to report that the lecture went very well.  We had a good discussion after my presentation, with quite a few thoughtful questions and comments posed by the students.  Several students came up to thank me after the class and even mentioned specific pieces of information that were useful or interesting for them.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to teach — something I haven’t done much of this year.