Lizzie, outbound to Lithuania

I’ve been in Lithuania for a little over six weeks now, and I can’t believe how quickly this time has flown by… I left my comfortable and cozy life in South Florida for an unpredictable and unknown future. Honestly, I was kind of terrified upon leaving home. I’m not the type to get home sick, but I am the type that likes to know exactly what will happen tomorrow and next week and next month - you could say that I’m a big planner. However, I couldn’t be happier to be living in Lithuania for the next year. So far, I’ve celebrated my eighteenth birthday, run in a Color Run, started school, traveled all around the country (keep in mind it takes only 3 hours to travel from one side to the other), helped welcome the National Basketball Team home, and had some of the most phenomenal cultural experiences.

Before leaving the States, I often got the reaction, “….but why Lithuania of all places?!” or “okay, funny joke Lizzie. Seriously where are you going?” To tell you the truth, originally I didn’t really have a reason - mostly, I just thought it would be cool (literally, it’s freezing here). But once I discovered how many of my relatives are/were Lithuanian, I began to feel a weird bond to the country. Now that I’m actually living here, that bond has strengthened and I’m definitely attached to the people, culture, and beautiful city of Vilnius. Everything is different than my Florida life, but that’s what makes me fall in love more and more each day.

As I wander around the old town, I can’t help but think that I’m living a dream - I casually stroll down cobblestone streets, passing churches and buildings which are hundreds of years old. Then on my way home from school, I meander through Užupis - the art district with it’s own constitution - and maybe stop to get a coffee with friends. Also, yes, I walk everywhere, which is a refreshing change from the confining reliance upon cars that I’ve become so accustomed to in the States. It’s interesting how something as simple as taking a little extra time to walk can really give you an appreciation of the city and world around you. That’s one thing that I already love about how Lithuania is changing me - it’s making me really appreciate the little things.

Now I have a newfound gratitude for forests, mushrooms, fresh produce (my host mother has one of the best gardens ever), clean air, basketball, the ocean, warmth, and so many other things…. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted something as delicious as raspberries off the bush, smelled such crisp air as in the Lithuanian forests, or seen anything that compares to the otherworldly beauty of the Baltic Sea (and that’s saying something coming from South Florida, where I go to the beach weekly). This has already been such a life changing experience, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable people who I’ve been lucky enough to get to know.

On the first day of school, I sat there, understanding nothing, praying that someone would talk to me and tell me that everything will be okay. Well, I was kind of ignored! Prior to coming to Lithuania, I was warned that the people wouldn’t go out of their way to speak to me because they’re shyer than Americans. However, once I stood up and said in my best Lithuanian accent, “Labas, mano vardas Lizzie ir aš iš Amerikos,” (Hi, my name is Lizzie and I’m from America), almost every single person in my class went out of their way to talk to me. Indeed, Lithuanians are shy, but they’re some of the most welcoming, helpful, patient, and genuine people I’ve ever met. I’m constantly surprised at how willing my new friends are to teach me the language… Seriously, the way to make a Lithuanian smile is to try to speak the language, even if you 100% sound like a foreigner, they LOVE when people try.

Upon meeting new people, I often receive the response, “wait, you’re not Lithuanian?” I find that to be a huge compliment because it means that I do sort of fit in here - I look Lithuanian! Woo! Although, while my appearance may help me fit in, my proficiency in the language makes me stick out. This language is extremely difficult, and that’s an understatement. It’s ranked as one of the top three most difficult in the world… yikes… But I’m learning more and more each day. Some of my favorite moments are when I successfully have a conversation in Lithuanian, reply in the language without thinking, and when I can actually read the homework assignments my teachers give me. While the language is tough, frustrating, and sometimes discouraging, it’s so fun, rewarding, and exciting to learn.

So, what have some of my incredible cultural experiences been?! To name a few, I’ve been to Trakai Castle, gone mushroom picking, and participated in basketball celebrations. Trakai Pilies is one of the coolest castles I’ve seen (well it’s a castle, so of course my inner princess thinks it’s awesome) - it was built in the middle of a lake and therefore has natural protection due to it’s island location. Throughout history, it’s been used as a fortress, palace, prison, and now a museum. I was surprised with how well the medieval feel has been maintained… as I was wandering around the beautiful grounds, surrounded by high brick walls, I couldn’t help but wonder if a knight in armor would suddenly appear.

Then there’s mushroom picking. I ventured into the forest, bundled up in my warmest clothes with my knife in hand, ready to hunt and chop down some mushrooms! My host mom tried to explain the difference between poisonous and edible ones, and honestly the two look almost identical… if I were alone, I would definitely accidentally eat the poisonous ones, oops. So as we were quietly walking around the forest, I breathed in the delicious air and realized that I’ve never been in any place like this before - I can’t even describe how peaceful, crisp, silent, and shockingly stunning it is.

And lastly, I’ve been to several basketball celebrations, including a few games from the FIBA Basketball World Cup shown in stadiums and welcoming the team home. Before moving here, I was a basketball fan, but I wasn’t obsessed with the sport. However, Lithuanians are more than obsessed with basketball.. It’s practically a religion. During the World Cup, one of my friends said that if you don’t like basketball, you’re not Lithuanian, end of story. And as I’ve been here, I’ve grown to love the sport. The excitement spreads like the plague, and I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, anxiously watching the scoreboard flick back and forth and back and forth during many games.

As I’m looking back on these past six weeks, I’m realizing that my time here is moving far too quickly. To be completely realistic, not every day is a perfect happy wonderland in Europe. Yeah, some days are really hard and frustrating, but that’s life… without those challenging days, what would make those amazing days extra special?! I’m so grateful to be spending a year here, and I couldn’t thank Rotary enough for this phenomenal opportunity. So many people told me that this would be a life-changing experience, and now that I’m in Lithuania, I recognize how life-changing this is :)

Also, here are a few things which I find interesting:
1. Women here are gorgeous and have some of the best eyebrows I’ve ever seen.
2. In school, guys wait outside while the girls enter the classroom first, we stand until the teacher says we can sit down, and keys are used for lockers (not locks).
3. Early in the morning, some channels on TV only have a clock or a “beeeeeeep” sound, unlike the constant television programs in the States.
4. Often, girls who are really good friends greet each other by kissing on the lips.
5. So many people smoke cigarettes here… I heard that smoking was big in Europe, but didn’t realize how true that was until now.