It is often said that to understand a culture you first need to understand the language. There’s definitely something in that but I’ll come back to that later.
Sartai Horse Race 2015 on the frozen Sartai lake
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

When I stepped off the bus in Lithuania on that fateful day back in 2010, two things hit me. The first was that nobody was smiling (remember that bit, it’s important for later) It was a bright sunny day yet everyone looked like they had just been force fed a lemon and washed it down with vinegar. The second thing to hit me was a half full can of beer thrown by some drunk with a remarkably good aim.

Welcome to Lithuania.

However, dripping beer, I duly trudged up to my new address and was shown around what was to become my home for the next several years by one of the nicest genuinely decent human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Between his minimal English mixed with broken Danish and my slightly stronger Danish and non-existent Lithuanian, we managed to make ourselves understood and after a time he duly left me to my own devices.

After a quick bit of unpacking , two sports bags, which contained the entirety of my worldly goods, I headed to the local supermarket for supplies. Tea, coffee, sugar, milk and some two minute noodles. Remember how I mentioned about language being important? Let’s look at milk as an example. In English, it’s ‘milk’, in Danish, it’s ‘maelk’, in German it’s ‘milch’, but in Lithuanian? Pienas! Ok, fair enough, even if you’re in China and can’t read at least you can look for a carton with a picture of a cow on it or something. Not so in Lithuania. All I could see was line upon line of orange cartons with what was presumably the name of the company stenciled on the side. I needed help so I went and performed an embarrassing mime act to the sour faced old biddy at the checkout. (you try and mime ‘milk’ and you’ll know what I mean.) She looked at me for a long moment, then quickly wrote me out of her immediate universe and began serving the next customer. Red-faced and none the wiser I head back to the dairy section and grabbed what I guessed was milk, paid and left.

Still feeling like I’d dropped in from planet idiot, I made my coffee and watched in horror as the milk curdled in the cup. Turns out I’d brought something akin to yoghurt called Kefyras. Too mortified to head back to the supermarket, I decided to go to the pub.

And so my education began. But first, we have to talk about drinking. My god these people can drink. Being a true blue Aussie, I figured I could keep up with the best of them, but when I began my travels, the first I encountered were the Danes, and I quickly realized I was but a babe in the woods. But even the damn Vikings don’t have a patch on these guys.

One bloke, in a 24 hour period, drank himself to death, was pronounced dead, tagged and taken to the local morgue. Several hours later he woke up, realized where he was, and naked, burst out of the morgue, jumped on a bus and back to his friend’s place where he continued to drink. Just to show this wasn’t an isolated example, late last year another guy was pulled over and given a breath test,…he blew just below 0.7%. For those not in the know, at 0.41 you’re clinically dead and this guy was still driving.

But I digress, back to my education, my attempt to understand this country and her people.

Lithuania is a land of dichotomies, of opposites, of pride and disappointment, of love and hate, of joy and great sadness. Nothing is what you think. Or maybe it’s better to say you have to think in opposites, in black and white, but at the same time. It’s both very young and very old; in fact it’s actually been born and reborn three times.

The third poorest country in the E.U. yet the first to recover from the global financial crisis. It has the highest percentage of tertiary qualified people of any country in Europe and the highest percentage of people who can speak three or more languages, yet suffers from mass emigration. Technologically, Lithuania has the fastest internet speeds in Europe and is slated as becoming the E.U’s version of Silicon Valley, yet many Government departments and the medical system still run on paper. The amount of bureaucracy is beyond belief and by and large, the regional Governments have never heard of the terms: efficiency or customer service. At many Government offices, the method of working is that you are there because you want something. It’s up to them to decide if they will give it to you. And whatever, it is, if you turn up without some form of gratuity, or you show up at morning or afternoon tea, then god help you, because they certainly won’t.

The people here are poor, dirt poor. The average salary is 600 Euros a month before tax. Yet, at the same time, there is a ridiculous amount of black money going round, and it’s not limited to the elite. Everyone seems to have a private stash.

Politicians cross the floor depending on who looks like winning so often that you might as well install a mirror ball and call it a disco.

Outwardly, people seem cold, brutal even, yet when they get to know you, they’re some of the most warm-hearted people I have ever met. Albeit with the blackest sense of humour I’ve met as well. One saying here,..” a Lithuanian never laughs unless his neighbour’s house is on fire.”

And if that isn’t confusing enough, then we have the language…my god! Even as a language teacher I don’t understand this. It’s based on Sanskrit, not Latin. All nouns are either masculine or feminine which is fine, but, every single noun has 7 different declinations for singular and a further 7 for plural. Verbs have 6 forms but that needs to be multiplied by 4 to account for the tense system. On top of that, Lithuanian has more diminutives and ways to express tenderness or affection than any other language. So did you get all that? No? Me neither.

To really get any sort of feel for this place, you need to understand the depth of its history. For several hundred years, Lithuania had been the largest country in Europe stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and with a sizable chunk of Russia thrown in. But, by the 1700’s it had become sandwiched between two devastating military machines, commanded by two men who even Napoleon was wary of. In the West, she faced Frederik the 2nd, also known as Frederik the Great. On the East, she faced General Suvurov, Count of Rymnik.

Faced with the prospect of unwinnable wars on both fronts, Lithuania agreed on a series of ‘partitions’ effectively giving up territory and saving her people. However, the greed of the powerful is rarely sated and piece by piece, Lithuania was carved up until in 1795 when the last partition was so worded that the country of Lithuania ceased to exist.

It simply became part of Russia and remained that way for the next 100 years.

In 1918 Lithuania was given her independence back but it was short lived. Stalin, fearing betrayal from Hitler’s Germany decided to give his army and extended holiday in Lithuania, but, the boys partied too hard and weren’t paying attention when Mr. Hitler decided to pop in on his way through Poland and gave said Russkies the boot.

The Russians, being Russian, didn’t take too kindly to this and returned en masse and slaughtered everyone, and I do mean everyone in their path. Then the newly reborn Lithuania fell once more under the boot heel of the Soviet. So, given independence, only to be raped and butchered by the very same people, then by the Nazi’s and then by the Soviet,..again. And it stayed that way until the collapse of U.S.S.R in 1991. But even then, the Russians didn’t leave until 1991.

Two events deserve mention here as they epitomize the personal resolve and connection with the land that these people have. The first is the ‘Baltic Way” which occurred on the 23rd August 1989. The people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia combined to form an unbroken human chain that stretched from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn, some 675 km. All in the name of independence. These weren’t soldiers but mums and dads, kids, brothers and sisters, all standing arm in arm in the face of the Soviet military machine.

The second occurred in early January 1991. Where people from all over the country, again, mums and dads converged on the capital and peacefully occupied all the main Governments buildings. Tensions were running extremely high and the country was literally at flashpoint. On one side, you had unarmed mums, dads and kids and on the other you had the Russian army including, their feared Alpha Team, a sort of SAS’s SAS. Plus a division of elite paratroopers and a division of tanks.

Everything at this point awaited the order of one man, Mikhail Gorbachev. If he had ordered his army to open fire, it would have been a massacre to make the killing fields of Cambodia look like a child’s playground, but thankfully, he could see that it was genuinely the will of the people and not just some upstart rabble rousing and so, he ordered his military to back down and gave the people of Lithuania their independence.

At last I felt like I was beginning to get a glimmer of understanding but in reality, I’d only just scratched the surface. Worse, much worse was to come.

During the 40 years of Soviet occupation, thousands upon thousands of people Lithuanians came to an abrupt and sticky end in the cellars of the KGB building in Vilnius. There were others; in Klaipėda, in Kaunas and other cities but in Vilnius it was sheer hell on earth and the process was as chilling as it was inhumane.

Imagine if you will, you’re in an underground cell and held between two guards while the officer reads out your charges and your sentenced is pronounced. There is no trial. Your knees go weak, you soil yourself, the fear is so heavy you can no longer breathe yet at the same time is like molten lava in your stomach. You are dragged down, out the door, 5 steps down and turned right. You walk, stumble crawl another 10 meters down the underground corridor and one of the guards opens a door on your right. The door itself swings open from left to right and you’re pushed through. You never see the man behind the door, you never see the arm come up, you only briefly feel the chill muzzle of the 9mm Makarov as it touches the base of your skull and then you feel nothing, …ever again.

I mentioned earlier that no one here smiles, that’s because they have learned to only smile or express emotion to people they know and trust. That’s because it was only a little over 20 years ago that showing emotion at the wrong time could earn you a very short and very terminal stay as a guest of the KGB.

In the 5 years I’ve lived here, there is not a single person I’ve met who hasn’t lost at least one close family member either to Siberia or to the tender mercies of the KGB.

So how does and Aussie understand that? More to the point is can we understand it. The simple answer is that you can’t. Unless you’re born here you simply can’t. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t let Lithuania get to know you, and that good people is a completely different story.

For me, Lithuania is now my home. I let this jewel of a country get to know me and she opened her heart. I still miss the smell of Eucalypts or the morning song of magpies, I always will, but now this is great lady of Europe is my home.

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