Lizzie, outbound to Lithuania

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I last wrote… Time flies while on exchange! Thinking about the past few months, I’ve celebrated several big holidays here (Halloween, Thanksgiving-a big celebration for a girl from the States- and Christmas). I’ve switched to my second host family and experienced living with snow (let me specify that this is quite different than going on a vacation to snow).

In the States, I’ve grown up almost viewing Halloween as a routine because the same thing happens every year… There are always little trick-or-treaters knocking at our door, always a few costumes to make, and always enough candy to last a lifetime. Thinking about it now, after spending this holiday in Lithuania, I’m sadly aware that I took all of the ghouls, goblins, tricks, and treats for granted. The fake cobwebs, carved pumpkins, and over-the-top costumes are a beautiful part of the American culture, making us awesomely unique. So, while I was a bit nostalgic on this day, I embraced the Lithuanian Halloween, after all, when on exchange, do as the Lithuanians do.

Different from the one day celebration in the States, Halloween here includes October 31st (Helovinas), November 1st (Visų Šventujų diena - All Soul’s Day), and November 2nd (Vėlinės - The Day of the Dead). October 31st isn’t really observed, but November 1st and 2nd are big family days, celebrated by going to ancestors’ graves, cleaning them and lighting candles, then standing in silence for a bit to remember them. Initially, I found this to be incredibly gloomy - it was tough for me to adjust from my American Halloween expectations to accepting that these days are full of remembrance and mourning. Kind of similar to the Lithuanian culture, the holidays are very introspective and peaceful.

Now that I’ve experienced the traditions of Visų Šventujų diena and Vėlinės, I actually think that they’re some of the most beautiful customs I’ve witnessed. I like how Lithuanians remember their ancestors, visiting their graves at least once a year. People often fear being forgotten after death, and I feel like these holidays ease that worry. I was reminded that family is the most important thing, which is always good to remember.

Then there was Thanksgiving (Padėkos Diena), which unsurprisingly is not a holiday here, but I always enjoy the tradition of writing what I’m grateful for. So, this year I’m thankful for the fact that I’m in Vilnius, Lithuania, learning a new language (one of the coolest languages), and making new friends in a fantastic corner of the world. I have the BEST host families, who make me feel as if I’m their real daughter every second of every day. I’m very grateful that I am not withering away in the cold and that I’ve experienced my first snow here!

Walking home from school on November 20th, my face was pelted with tiny chunks of ice. Pushing through the wind and falling snow, I was probably the happiest person on the street. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, tilted my face towards the sky, and stuck my tongue out to taste my very first Lithuanian snow. I’m also thankful for travel, new experiences abroad, and opening my eyes to the world. I never could’ve imagined living in Lithuania at 18, and I often pinch myself to realize that I’m not living a dream, but that my reality is even better than anything I could imagine. I’m just thankful for everything in my life right now, so it was a great Thanksgiving!

Then, Christmas quickly took over Vilnius… It seemed like it happened overnight, big trees were put up, lights were strung everywhere, and several Christmas markets popped up throughout town. This along with the chilly weather and Christmas music in every shop made me feel like I was living in a little winter wonderland!

As Christmas Eve (Kūčios) grew nearer and nearer, my excitement grew to see the special traditions and magic of the night. After spending all day cooking, decorating the tree (eglė), and setting the table with small fir tree branches and candles, my host family and I gathered around our feast. Prior to the meal, we each broke off a piece from a Christmas wafer, and the longer piece means the longer your life will be… Nobody informed me of that until afterwards, so I broke off the smallest piece possible to try to be respectful… oops.

We said a prayer, then began our meal, which traditionally doesn’t include meat, milk products, or eggs, but ours included some milk and egg products-a slightly modernized version of the traditional one. It consists of twelve dishes, one for each month or for each Apostle (depending on your source), and you must taste each dish in order to guarantee that each month in the next year will be prosperous.

As I’ve mentioned, I find it special how the Lithuanians always remember their ancestors during their holidays. During Kūčios, the table is set with an extra plate for each family member who either couldn’t make it or who had passed away in the previous year (we had one extra setting at the head of the table for my host mother’s father). After the meal, the uneaten food is left on the table because it’s believed that the souls of the departed ancestors would visit during the night, the food making them feel welcome.

Then following dinner is when the Christmas magic comes to life. Lithuanians have many Christmas Eve traditions (Kūčių Burtai - translates to ‘Christmas Eve Magic’), and my host sister and I did a few of the following:

Straws of various lengths are placed on a table beneath a cloth. Each person draws a piece, and the longer the piece means the longer life. (similar to the Christmas wafer tradition)

Write down ten names of boys in your life (friends, boys you find attractive or like, anyone!), crinkle up the slips of paper and put them under your pillow, sleeping with them there until the next morning. Immediately after waking up, choose one name randomly, and that person will be your boyfriend/husband.

Put a candy, coin, key, and eraser each under their own teacups, then mix all the teacups up and choose one. If the coin is chosen, you’ll have a rich year; the key means you’ll stay in your parents’ home a long time; the eraser means you’ll have a year full of studying; and the candy means you’ll have a sweet year.

Reach into a container full of kūčiukų (these are little cookie-type things in the shape of a small ball; a typical Lithuanian Christmas sweet) and pull out a big handful. After counting them, if you have an even number, you’ll be in a relationship this year, but if you pull out an odd number, you’ll be single.

“Taip,” “ne,” arba “nežinau” (Yes, no, or I don’t know) is a game where each of these words are written on a slip of paper. Fill a pot with water, place a candle in the middle, then place the pieces of paper floating in the water around the flame. Ask a question and stir the water, then the one which swims is your answer.

Of course, waiting for Santa Claus (Kalėdų Senelis) to make his way to our home. We all said Merry Christmas (Linksmų Kalėdų) to one another, and headed to bed.

While the holidays here have been some of the most fun times, my favorite moments are when I’m mistaken for a Lithuanian girl. Comfortably asking a random person for directions, ordering coffee with ease, and getting a surprised gasp when I tell someone I’m from the States make me tingle with excitement. The quote, “to speak another language is to possess a second soul,” couldn’t be more accurate. I sometimes feel as if I have two identities, an American and Lithuanian one, which are both so incredibly different but so unique.

So, Rotary, thank you for absolutely everything. While Lithuania isn’t a typical destination, it’s one of the most beautiful corners of the world in all aspects-the country itself, the people, the culture, the language, the history, the food, everything here is extraordinary. I’m often asked the question, “Why would you choose Lithuania of all places?,” but it really should be, “Why would you consider anywhere else but Lithuania?”

Lietuva, aš tave myliu.