Category Archives: An American Abroad

Lithuania = North Florida

In some ways, Lithuania reminds me of North Florida, where I grew up.  Before you make a snap judgement that I’ve gone bonkers, hear me out.

1)  Flat — North Florida is flat.  Lithuania is flat.   What qualifies as a tall hill in Lithuania and in Florida would not even be considered a foothill in Washington State.  We have real mountains there.

2) Coastlines — Both North Florida and Lithuania have coastlines consisting of pine forests that run right up to sandy beaches.  Granted the Baltic Sea is a LOT colder than the Atlantic Ocean and the type of pine tree is probably different given the difference in climate, but their coastlines look similar to my eye.

3) Summer thunderstorms — Afternoon thunderstorms are common in North Florida  in the summer.  I don’t remember them being common in Lithuania in the past, but we sure are having afternoon thunderstorms this summer.  Just yesterday I got drenched walking home from the university when the heavens burst forth.  I was already in the park and there was no place to escape from the rain so I walked home.  It wasn’t too bad because it was warm rain, definitely a Florida-type experience.  We rarely have thunder and lightening in Seattle, where the rain just drizzles down rather than storms, so I appreciate a good summer thunderstorm.  However, I’m not so appreciative of the humidity that accompanies the kind of weather that brings thunderstorms.


My Lithuania 25th Anniversary

This month is the 25th anniversary of my first visit to Lithuania.  In July 1986, I traveled to the Soviet Union with a student tour group.  I was getting a bachelor’s degree in Russian and East European Studies and expected to see Moscow and Leningrad and, well, Russia.  I did visit Leningrad, but Intourist — the official and only Soviet tourist agency — sent me also to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.  At the time, I didn’t know anything about the Baltic countries.  That visit, however, prompted me to start learning about them.  And that was how it all started…

I came back to Lithuania in 1992 for a language course and in 1993-1994 to do research for my master’s thesis.  I returned in the summer of 2007 — retracing my 1986 steps in reverse from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn.  As my faithful readers know, I spent 9 months in Lithuania in 2009 conducting dissertation research and now I’m back again.

Twenty-five years, six trips.  I’ve experienced Soviet Lithuania, post-Soviet Lithuania and Lithuania in the European Union.  It’s been quite a journey for Lithuania and for me.  I don’t know what the post-Ph.D. future holds, but I am sure that it will include more adventures in Lithuania.

Four Americans and our Estonian tour guide in front of the Cathedral in Vilnius, July 1986


“My” Gift to Lithuania

The American Embassy sponsored free concerts by the US Latin rock band Ozomatli at the Vilnius Town Hall Square on Tuesday and the Kaunas Town Hall Square on Wednesday.  The concert poster advertized the concert as a “gift from the American people to the Lithuanian people.”  So to all the Lithuanians who enjoyed the concerts (including me and my friends in Vilnius last night), I say “you’re welcome!”

July 4th Nostalgia

…or how you can’t escape your dissertation topic.

As I was thinking about the July 4th holiday, I started reminiscing about spending the holiday, and summer days in general, at our family lake house in central Florida.  The mental soundtrack of my childhood is what would now be called “classic rock” — when it was just “rock” in the 1970s and later when it became “classic” in the 1980s.  I started browsing for classic rock songs on the theme of summer and came across the Seals and Croft ballad Summer Breeze.   I loved this song as a child and I was surprised to discover that the song was released in 1972.  As my faithful readers know, 1972 is the year in which the events I am studying occurred.

So I give you Summer Breeze and a look back at 1972.  I wish my American readers a Happy Independence Day and all of us a relaxing summer.

Understandable Mistakes

For me, vocabulary is the greatest challenge in learning a foreign language.  I can learn grammar (although I don’t necessarily speak very grammatically).  Knowing the words to say what I want to say — now, that’s the hard part.  I find myself looking up the same words over and over, until eventually, hopefully, they stick in my brain.

Sometimes, however, I think I know a word and it turns out I was wrong.  Recently, I’ve discovered that I was using the wrong Lithuanian word in several cases.  These are pretty basic words so it’s a bit embarrassing that I confused them because I know I was using the wrong word frequently in conversation.  It might also explain the blank stares I sometimes get when I am speaking Lithuanian.  As you can see, the words that I confused are fairly similar so the mistakes are at least a bit understandable.  However, it probably makes it a bit difficult for Lithuanians to understand what I am trying to say.

something = kažkas; I’ve been using kas nors, which means “anything”

several = keletas; I’ve been using kelinta, which means which “which”

finally = pagaliau; I’ve been using paskui, which means later or afterwards.

skelbimas (announcement) and skalbimas (laundry) — one little letter makes all the difference

I won’t even go into all the times that I mix up he (jis) and she (ji) — see how the s is masculine in Lithuanian and feminine in English?  Plus I have to get the gender and the case form correct — whew!

Whirlwind Tour of Lithuania

My parents originally said that they wanted a relaxing trip to Lithuania, so I planned an easy schedule.  After they arrived, they decided that they should see as much as possible in the eight days they were in Lithuania.  We had a whirlwind trip and saw everything from villages to the Baltic Sea coast, plus two days each in Vilnius and Kaunas — and, of course, the castle at Trakai and the ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės.  We had a great visit together and a lot of fun exploring on foot, by train, and by car.  I was too exhausted at the end of each day to write blog posts!

They left this morning for part two of their European vacation — a week in Spain visiting Menorca and Barcelona.  Fortunately the volcanic ash cloud didn’t disrupt their flights.  I’ll post photos from our adventures over the next several days.

Here we are at the Baltic Sea coast in Palanga

Plan for the Parents

When visitors come from the States, the big decision is always — what to see what while in Lithuania?  The following is the tentative sightseeing plan for my parents’ visit.  Everything is, of course, subject to change.

Wednesday: sightseeing in Vilnius — Pilies gatve, Old Town, Cathedral, Gediminas Castle, Gediminas Street, Dawn Gates (accomplished)

Thursday and Friday: Kaunas by train — Kaunas Castle, Vytautas Church, St. Jurgis Church, Old Town, Kalanta memorial, Vtyautas Magnus University, confluence of the Nemunas and Neris Rivers; bonus — Hansa Days festival

Saturday: more sightseeing in Vilnius

Sunday: Surininkų Namai — cheese-making village outside of Vilnius

Monday: Trakai Castle

Tuesday: Rumšiškės Ethnographic Museum

Meet the Parents

My parents arrived on Tuesday for an eight day visit.  We’ll be having a lot of sightseeing adventures, but I might not be posting consistently while they are here.  Stay tuned for photos and stories!

The parents in Old Town on their first day in Vilnius

Which “You” to Use?

Along with the distinction between “friends” and “acquaintances” in Lithuania, the Lithuanian language (like many others) has both an informal and formal form of “you.”  In general, this means that one uses the formal “you” (jus) with everyone except those one knows well (tu).  If only it were that simple.  In practice, it seems a bit random.  People whom I’ve known for several years and have a somewhat personal relationship will still use the formal “you” with me, while other people use the informal “you” from the moment we meet.  I always start with jus and only switch to tu when it is clear that the other person is using the informal — unless I am talking to a child.  It gets really confusing when I am in a conversation with several people and I am using the informal with one person and the formal with another person.  Unless, of course, I am talking to all of them at once — then I use jus because it is also the plural form.

Note: English used to have formal and informal forms.  You was the formal and plural form of the second person pronoun and thee was the informal second person pronoun.  So when the King James Version of the Bible refers to God as thee, it is actually using the informal form — although to us today it sounds old-fashioned and formal.  And, of course, those of us from the South have a plural form for you — that would be y’all.

Friends and Acquaintances

Americans tend to use the word “friend” much more loosely than Lithuanians.  I will s0metimes refer to people as co-workers or fellow students or members of my church or cross-country skiing group. But I pretty much call anyone with whom I am acquainted and with whom I am on good terms a “friend.” It’s a fairly generic term.  I rarely use the term “acquaintance” and I suspect that most American don’t use it very often either.  I would only use it to refer to someone I barely know (e.g., a “passing acquaintance”).

Not so in Lithuania.  There are “friends” and there are “acquaintances.”  This has been an adjustment for me.  Two years ago, I used the word draugas all the time to refer to people I know here and in the U.S.   I also once had my feelings hurt when someone whom I consider a good friend (in the real meaning of the word) introduced me as her acquaintance.

As far as I can tell everyone is an acquaintance unless you’ve known each other for a very long time. So, while I have a lot of English-language “friends” in Lithuania, I have pažistymai [acquaintances] rather than draugai [friends] in Lithuanian.  As I’ve come to understand this cultural difference, I now rarely use the word draugas and instead refer to my friends as pažistymai.   And I don’t take it personally when people whom I consider my “friends” introduce me as their acquaintance. Because whatever they call me, they act like my friends and, in the end, that’s most important.