After several visits to Lithuania starting in 2005 I decided it was time to brush up my knowledge of Lithuanian culture and improve my language skills (my weekly language lessons in England were useful but I wanted to immerse myself on a day-to-day basis).
I applied to Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas in Kaunas (VDU), found myself a flat on K.Donelaičio street and and headed off for a four week course. I was one of three “oldies” in the first couple of weeks with a veteran called Greg from America and a lady called Renata from Canada.
Greg had a flat next door to me, so that was nice, and the 30 or so Erasmus students from Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Latvia, and Russia, were kind to us as well.
Apart from the language lessons – after taking a test I scraped into the intermediate class based on my tuition in England, although it was still a challenge – we visited various cultural sites including Vilnius, Trakai, Anykščiai, Rumšiškės, and Druskininkai.
Apart from that there was the day-to-day life; trying to understand when you actually cross a zebra crossing, discovering the area heating wasn’t working for hot water, and lifts never seeming to work – it was 60 steps up to my apartment and several floors at the university to the language lab.
The shock of Greg having his lap-top stolen out of his hands as we sat in the street in a wi-fi-zone. (The police officer we reported it to laughed when he found out where I was from “So all our criminals haven’t gone to the UK then?”).
Each day I attended lessons which were interspersed with lectures, the language laboratory, and films. These were quite dark, mostly about life in occupied Lithuania.
I remember in particular the “The Children at the American Hotel‘ about teenagers who wanted to be rock’n roll stars attending a concert by rock band Ant and others surrounded by armed soldiers. It didn’t end well for them!
There was one humorous called “Nut Bread” and one about musicians in Bremen
“Dievu Miskas” (Forest Gods) was about a prisoner’s life but the most horrific was “Vilnius Getas” about life in the jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. I was so moved by these last two I bought copies to bring home.
The last one we saw was a moody psycho-drama called “Whisper of Sin”.
Much as I love Vilnius I also enjoyed my time in Kaunas. Walking up Liberty Avenue (Laisvės alėja), the longest pedestrian street in the city, to the blue church of St Michael the Archangel (Orthodox in early Russian times – which is why some locals still call it the “garrison church” or Sober from when it served Kaunas Castle garrison – then Catholic, then a storehouse in soviet times, then back to Catholic). And at the other end a statue of the pagan god Pan. Entirely appropriate considering Lithuania was the last European country to convert to christianity!
I ate a lot of cold beetroot soup – šaltibarščiai – and Balandėliai, cabbage leaves with a meat filling, (which is just like the Ukrainian Goluptsi I enjoy at church in England when I meet my Ukie friends). It means pigeon as the folded cabbage leaves look like one.
In Lithuania they also use it to refer to couples as love-birds!
We certainly enjoyed our food and the local beers – especially Švyturys made in Klaipeda.
There is also world’s only Devils’ Museum founded by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius . The museum contains a collection of more than 3,000 devils: creations of fine and applied arts, souvenirs and masks not only from Lithuania but from around 70 countries
Thunder House was not far way and reminded me that that’s where the old border with Prussia used to be.
It’s a medieval castle and evidence suggests that it was originally built during the mid-14th century, in the Gothic style. Its site is strategic – a rise on the banks of the Nemunas River near its confluence with the Neris River.
We also visited some more memorable places – in a battered old bus with no air-conditioning (which explains why I jumped in a lake fully clothed when I got the chance) which had the habit of breaking down on distant highways – some of which I have already posted about.
Among our trips were:
A visit to the local linen factory, near the burned out barracks. Linen is big in Lithuania and I have several linen scarves I brought back (and I like linen blend shirts too). You can see the proprietor in traditional dress who made us very welcome with some snacks of cheese and Gira, the fermented rye bread drink, as she described the process of producing linen.
The horse museum in Anykščiai (Arklio muziejus) with all the wooden carvings, traditional crafts, old dwellings and a chance to actually sit on a horse.
The outdoor ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės with the amazing wood carvings.
And let’s not to forget the International Party!
I have been back since with my colleague and I would recommend a visit any time.