You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘An American Abroad’ category.

I spent another year in Lithuania doing dissertation research.  Visit my 2010-2011 blog to read about the next round of my adventures in dissertation research and more!

I have been back in Seattle for a week so I thought I’d squeeze in a personal update between the Habsburg travels posts.  Most people expect to experience “culture shock” when traveling or living in a foreign country, but they don’t necessarily expect to experience the same thing when they return home.  I have not had too much “reverse culture shock” this time, but there are a few things that make me realize I am not in Lithuania anymore.

Sticker shock: On Monday, I had lunch on campus with a friend.  I paid $10.35 for a sandwich and a drink — the equivalent of 24.28 ltl (the Lithuanian currency is the “litas”).  I could buy a whole meal in a restaurant in Vilnius for that amount.  Granted it wouldn’t be a fancy restaurant, but still…

English overload: Although I understand a lot of spoken Lithuanian, I have to actually focus on conversations to do so.  As a result, my brain simply tunes out most conversations around me — they become white noise.  Suddenly I can understand what is being said all around me and my brain thinks it has to listen.  By the end of the day, I have a headache from the sensory overload.

Kitchen appliances: I am a bit surprised that I can say this, but I haven’t used the microwave since I’ve been home.  I did, however, use my rice cooker last night and I plan to use my waffle iron on Saturday morning.  Ah, the joys of a fully stocked kitchen — but I do miss my built-in dish drying rack.

I seem to be making the time zone adjustment more quickly this direction than I did when I went to Lithuania.  Last night I actually stayed awake until 10:00 p.m.and slept until 5:00 a.m.  After waking up at 2:30 a.m. for six nights straight and feeling exhausted all day, it was a pleasure to get a regular night’s sleep.

Today I arrive back in Seattle after eight and half months abroad.  What will I do now that I am home?

  • Visit my friends!
  • Eat real American peanut butter.
  • Learn how to make šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup) since it won’t be served in every restaurant in town.
  • Catch up with last year’s episodes of my favorite television shows: Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and The Closer.
  • Go grocery shopping at the Trader Joe’s that opened up by my house while I was gone.
  • Get my teeth cleaned.
  • And most of all, cry because Bob the cat isn’t there to meet me.
Bob taking a nap in the midst of stacks of books while I was preparing for my comprehensive exams.

Bob taking a nap in the midst of stacks of books while I was preparing for my comprehensive exams.

Today I leave Lithuania. Eight and a half months seemed like a long time when I first arrived, but it has flown by.  I really enjoyed living in Vilnius and I look forward to returning.  Here are a few things that I will miss when I am back in Seattle.

  • Chocolate-covered varškė — especially now that I’ve found coconut-flavored ones.  I ate one of these little cheesecake-like treats almost every day.
  • Convenient and inexpensive taxis — even if I had a car, it would have been easier just to call a cab.
  • Finding clothing treasures at Humana thrift stores.
  • Summer evening strolls through Old Town.
  • Coatrooms — in a country where people wear coats much of the year, they understand the importance of coat racks everywhere and free coat check in many places.  It’s so much nicer than dragging around a winter coat inside.
  • Excellent, inexpensive live music — especially jazz on Monday nights at Club Woo and classical music concerts at St. Catherine’s.
  • The opportunity to speak Lithuanian every day — I will have to work hard to maintain my language skills in Seattle.
  • And most of all, my many new friends — thanks for making my time in Lithuania so enjoyable and interesting!

After eight months of living in Lithuania, I am starting to do as the Lithuanians do.  Here are some of the ways in which I have adapted to life in Vilnius.

Restaurants:  Most restaurants in Lithuania, even nice ones, have a seat yourself policy.  I’ll have to remember to wait to be seated when I get back to Seattle.  Service is slower in Lithuania in the US, but you also don’t feel rushed to leave or to buy more to justify taking up a table.  I really enjoy being able to sit and talk after a meal without the server hovering over me waiting for me to leave.  A friend and I once spent  three hours talking in a cafe over one cup of tea each.

Mobile phones: As you can tell, I now call it a mobile phone instead of a cell phone!  And I’ve gotten into the habit of answering my phone all the time because I don’t have voice mail.  I also now text-message.  I know, Americans send text messages too, but I had never sent a text message before living here.  I am not very fast at typing, but I have gotten into the habit.

No smiling in public:  In general, Americans smile in public and Lithuanians do not.  When I first arrived, I would smile at people as they were getting off the trolley and I was waiting to get on.  I would smile at the person who sat next to me on the trolley.  I would smile at clerks in stores when I entered.  Basically, I would smile at everyone.  Now I don’t smile unless I am talking to someone directly.  Sometimes I don’t even smile at the cashier at the grocery store.  This isn’t limited to Lithuania.  I have an Estonian friend who spent a year in Seattle.  When I asked him about his experience returning to Estonia, he said everyone told him he smiled too much after living in America!

Who needs a planner? I like to plan.  I usually have events and tasks scheduled in my planner weeks and even months in advance.  Lithuanians are much more relaxed about advance planning.  At first I thought that it was just a contrast to my admittedly compulsive need to plan.  But other foreigners said they too felt that Lithuanians don’t plan in advance.  And I’ve even confirmed this with Lithuanians themselves.  I have learned not to call a friend about getting together unless I am available to do so in the next 48 hours — that seems to be the maximum time frame in which things can be planned.  It’s been good for me to learn to be more flexible with my time.  It also means it is easier to be spontaneous because tickets for concerts or other events don’t usually sell out in advance.  I, like many others, can just show up and buy a ticket at the last minute.

Time and Temp: I can check the time on my watch and look at the bus schedule for the next trolley with only the briefest pause to convert to the 24 clock.  I even have Accuweather set to give me the temperature in Celsius.

When in Rome, as they say…

There are many things in life that I don’t understand.  This is even more true in Lithuania where I am operating in a foreign language and culture.  I won’t address the big existential questions of life, but here are a few of the little mysteries that I have encountered during my time here.

  • Why does it cost 20 ltl to go by bus from Vilnius to Kaunas, but 23 ltl to go from Kaunas to Vilnius?
  • How do Lithuanian women walk on cobblestone streets in 3 inch spike heels without breaking an ankle?  I trip when I am wearing flat shoes!
  • Why are hand and wrist injuries so common in Vilnius?  I have been surprised by the number of people of all ages with bandages and casts on their arms and wrists this summer.
  • Why do European Skittles taste different from American Skittles?
  • Why does every trolleybus have small yellow electronic card-swiping machines that aren’t operational?

If you have an answer, please let me know…

Cognates are words that have the same etymological derivation.  When learning a foreign language, it’s always encouraging to find words that you can recognize because they are basically the same as an English word.  These words might have come from the same root (for example, from Latin) or they might be English words that were absorbed into another language.

There are many words in Lithuanian language that came directly from English — just add the common Lithuanian ending -as or -is and it’s a Lithuanian word.  Some examples: greipfrutas (grapefruit), mitingas (meeting), and kompiuteris (computer).  Sometimes when I am speaking Lithuanian and don’t know a word, I’ll just take the English word and add an -as.  Unfortunately I often simply get a blank stare in response, but every once in a while it works.

However, as my Russian translation professor always reminds his students, not all cognates are your friends.  Some words come from the same root but have taken on different meanings.  Some words might look related but not be related at all.  For example, a fabrikas in Lithuanian is a factory not fabric; a kabinetas is a consulting room (like a doctor’s office) not a cabinet; and a sodas is a garden not a soda.  And then there is snoras, which only not is not a snore, it’s not even a real Lithuanian word but the name of a bank.

…is the Russian language.  I studied Russian for two years as an undergraduate and for two more years as a graduate student in the early 1990s.  Fifteen years ago, I spoke Russian quite well.  Of course, I didn’t use the Russian language from the time I finished the master’s degree until I returned to graduate school.  Last year I took a series of reading and translation classes in an attempt to jump start my language skills.  My goal was to refresh my vocabulary and grammar just enough to enable me to read documents with the use of a dictionary.  That goal was achieved and I have been able to work with archival documents in Russian.

Since I’ve been in Vilnius, I have found my Russian language skills starting to re-emerge simply through exposure to the language by reading documents and listening to it being spoken around me.  I’ve even had a number of opportunities to actually try to speak Russian.  The two most common situations — little old ladies who ask me questions in Russian on the street or in the grocery store and visits to Riga (since I don’t speak Latvian and Latvians more often speak Russian than English).  I can understand more and more in conversations, but getting it out of my mouth coherently is still a challenge.  However, I’ve been encouraged to discover that I can drag the Russian language out from the recesses of my brain when necessary.  Maybe one day I’ll have the time to focus on really regaining my language skills and will speak Russian once again.

On a related note, I had an interesting experience of multi-lingualism in Riga yesterday.  The Latvian staff person helping me pack the exhibit at the National Library spoke limited English so we were communicating partly in English and partly in Russian.  The library handyman who came with his cordless drill to seal the crates was Russian but had lived in Lithuania for 20 years during the Soviet period and spoke Lithuanian.  So I was speaking Russian with a Latvian and Lithuanian with a Russian and throwing in a little bit of English every once in a while!

Each year the American Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania hosts a 4th of July picnic.  This year, July 4 falls in the middle of the song festival so the event was moved to July 1 — which is, of course, Canada Day.  As a result, we got to celebrate two North American holidays in one (well, Canada Day wasn’t officially recognized at the picnic but I celebrated both!).

I did wear red, white and blue to this evening’s picnic.  There was a smattering of Americans in the crowd, but most of the attendees were Lithuanians.  Even some of them wore red, white and blue in honor of America’s independence day.  All the elements of a good July 4th picnic were on hand — balloons, beer and burgers, and big band music.  The Vilnius Chapter of the Harley Davidson Club showed up on their motorcycles, led by the mayor of Vilnius.  The festivities started with a 21 gun salute by the Lithuanian armed forces honor guard and ended with fireworks.  Happy Independence Day, United States of America!

july4-kids

july4-fireworks

Here are photos from the opening of the exhibit Baltic Americans in Washington State, which I co-curated for the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.  Two years ago, when we started working on the exhibit, my colleague at UW Libraries and I said “wouldn’t it be great if we could send this exhibit to the Baltic countries?”  And now it’s here!

Unpacking the exhibit crates

Unpacking the exhibit crates

Guests and the press at the exhibit opening

Guests and the press at the exhibit opening

Celebrating the exhibit opening with project coordinator from the Latvian National Library

Celebrating the exhibit opening with project coordinator from the Latvian National Library