Friday, June 28, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Prior to my travels to Lithuania, I did as all travelers do: read books about the country. While perusing the my traveler’s guides, I took note of the events that would happen during my summer here. Joninės seemed like the most fun event that falls on a day that teeters between Paganism and Catholicism. On the one hand, it is also known as John's Day, as in Saint John, and we celebrate all those who are named John on this name day. On the other hand, it is also known as the Midsummer, and a large festival is held at Kernavė, an ancient settlement site, to celebrate the summer solstice. 
As one of our roommates is named Jon, we celebrated him throughout the day. All of us soon piled into a car and took off for Kernavė to see the big festival. I expected to see fires and dancing, but perhaps of only a hundred people or so. I was so wrong!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Jousting, Castles, and Still Waters. Only in Trakai!

Over the weekend I went to the Trakai Medieval Festival with my roommates, Kaitlin and Jonathan, and one of our Marines here, Sergeant Mario Stokes. We heard about this festival weeks before and it was something we were looking forward to for a while. We arrived at the bus station and ordered our tickets. Twenty minutes later we were in Trakai. We had to laugh as we paid 1LT to use the bathroom, something we have never seen in America. We stopped to look at a map to find out where to go next, but instead made the right decision to just follow the huge crowds of people walking up one particular street. We were making our way to the castle!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Panevėžys, Cicinskas, and Opening the Pažink Ameriką

On Wednesday, June 12, I travelled with my colleagues to Panevėžys. Our purpose for this trip was to meet with members of the Alumni association as well as to present at the opening of Pažink Ameriką, or Discover America. The terminal is a touch screen computer, pre-loaded with information about U.S. geography, history and culture, designed to appeal to young audiences.  One of the terminals is currently in Panorama shopping center in Vilnius, another one is now in Utena Public Library, and this one was installed in Panevėžys, at the Kniaudišku street branch of the city library.  
Standing in front of the new terminal on the day of our opening.
Once we got to Panevėžys, we were able to meet with members of our Alumni Association to discuss English teaching methods and camps. We met with several educators ranging from those who teach very young students to those who teach graduate-level classes. We discussed their ideas of helpful methods of teaching English, what they may be lacking, and what students and teachers could benefit from. There was a consensus that both students and teachers alike need a more active surrounding of English speakers, and to be forced to have to use the language. We discussed Fulbright scholars from America and their ability to assist in this, as well as Fulbright opportunities for Lithuanians to travel to the United States. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Message to American International Exchange Host Families: Thank You!

This week, we saw our ExCEL exchange students return to Lithuania after spending a year studying in American schools and living with American families. We are thrilled to have them back, and cannot wait to hear their stories. Today, we want to pass on a special Thank You to all the American host families who opened their hearts and homes to Lithuanian and other international students -- this is a message from Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. 

In the next few weeks, I have the pleasure of seeing the faces and hearing the stories of our exchange participants before they board planes to go home. It is a favorite time of year. I marvel at the change and growth.  Nervous and shy exchange students that we met at arrival have blossomed into brave, eloquent, independent future leaders. They challenged themselves, made lasting friendships, contributed to their communities with volunteer service, and shared their countries and cultures with their American peers.  
We hear of host families who took them fishing for the first time, helped them become part of the varsity soccer team, taught independence skills to students with disabilities, brought them to their churches and mosques to share their own traditions, and even showed them how to build snowmen. Most importantly, our host families gave our exchange participants the nurturing and inspiration they needed to excel throughout the year, not just as guests, but as new members of their families.
A Message to American International Exchange Host Families: Thank You

Friday, June 7, 2013

Visiting Kėdainiai: Historical Memory and Rolling Hills

On May 29th, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kėdainiai to accompany my supervisor, PAO Jon Berger, who gave remarks at the Workshop for the Principals of the Schools with Active Tolerance Education Centers. More than 40 principals from across Lithuania, speakers, and experts from museums, universities, and members of the International Commission  attended a seminar called “Historical Memory  as the key to civil society” at the Kedainiai Multicultural center.
Jon's presentation was titled “Holocaust education programs implemented by the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania” and emphasized that the most important thing is to be able to discuss this subject openly and honestly, with everyone, at all ages.  Information on teaching tools, the most successful programs, available resources at the American Center library, and ways of future cooperation were provided for school principals. All participants were excited to hear that the U.S. Embassy will make available 1000 DVDs, one for every school in Lithuania, that contain testimonies from Holocaust survivors, translated into Lithuanian. 
The history of Lithuania is so interesting, and even though some of it is also tragic, there is so much that can be learned from this culture. It is strong, patient, and faithful. At the event, one of the people who run the Tolerance Center was kind enough to show me the small museum they have upstairs to remember those who died during the Holocaust in Kėdainiai. Pictures, clothes, books, memoirs and more revealed the sad events that took place in this city. In the top part of the museum, names of those who were lost are engraved into metal plating that goes around the entire room. This was incredibly interesting to me. In the States we have many Holocaust museums, and many people who fled Europe for saftey came to America, but I have never been to a Holocaust musuem in a location where the events actually took place, and it is a very somber and humbling experience. The Lithuanians have done a great job in commemorating those who were lost, and remembering the events in order to build, grow, and assure that it never happens again.

Homes and synagogues now lost to Kėdainiai
A video showing the tragic events that happened so long ago.
 After the event we had a little extra time to go and see the rest of Kėdainiai. The town is beautiful and is clearly influenced by many different styles of architecture. There is a river, parks, and a small square were we stopped to take photos. Everyone we met while we were there was friendly and ready to talk to us about their town. On the trip back, we drove through Babtai, which is the most beautiful natural scenery I have ever witnessed. There were wide open fields of wildflowers growing, pastures where horses were grazing, miles upon miles of beautiful rolling hills. We only saw houses every few miles, and the feeling that these lands have gone untouched since the beginning of time made me happy that the environment here is so natural. Being from the East coast of America, there is hardly any areas like that left anymore, and usually you need to go out West to see that type of nature.

Kėdainiai Square
The city was wonderful, and it was great to see more of Lithuania outside of Vilnius. I plan to visit many more cities and towns during my time here, as each one is more beautiful than the last, and they all have something different to offer. This experience was one of many, and many to come, that have made me fall in love with this country.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

If I’m lucky, I’ll go back to Lithuania someday. Until then, iki!

Even after nearly a month home from Lithuania, I still think about it every day. My experience interning at the US Embassy was incomparable and I really value the opportunity I had to learn about diplomacy as well as the culture, government and history of the region.

My 12-week experience in Lithuania really flew by. I stayed busy and had the opportunity to do a myriad  things, from representing the Embassy at cultural programs and outreach visits around the country, to leading discussions at movie nights, and even dancing around Vilnius for Violence against Women awareness.  I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to several towns and cities, including Kaunas, Kėdainiai, Tytuvėnai, Panevėžys, Šiauliai, Rokiškis, Trakai, and Marijampolė

I saw inconceivably beautiful cathedrals, frozen lakes and rivers, astonishing forests, and fascinating museums and cultural sights. I learned about an array of things, including the path to the restoration of independence in 1990, the Jewish history, the thriving art scene that exists in Lithuania, and so much more. This internship marked my third trip to Lithuania, but I continue to learn about and love Lithuania more and more with each stay.

My favorite part of my experience in Lithuania by far was the people. There is truly something special about those who I had the opportunity to meet in Lithuania, whether it was local staff and local interns at the Embassy, the attendees of the movie nights and other events, or the numerous students and teachers that I met during outreach visits. There was a human spirit and feeling of hospitality that is unlike anywhere else. Some of my best memories are times spent with local staff at the Embassy, like spinning eggs on the floor around Easter time and even just drinking coffee and hearing their stories. 

I was provided insight about the history, language and culture that would be impossible to learn from a class or museum, and my colleagues at the Embassy really became some of my best friends by the end of it. These relationships are invaluable and they made my internship experience and time in Lithuania all the more enriching.

This was a great opportunity to expand and grow, personally, academically and professionally. What I gained while I was there was more than I could have ever imagined or wished for and I hope that all future Embassy interns and visitors to Lithuania will have a similar great experience!

If I’m lucky, I’ll go back to Lithuania someday. Until then, iki! J

// Sara