Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Fulbrighter Learns Lithuania--and Its Very Old, Very Hard Language

Today's blog post is by another guest writer -- Christine Beresniova, Fulbright Grantee to Lithuania in 2011-2012. 

I have a very special relationship with Lithuania because I am married to a Lithuanian. So when I was awarded a Fulbright grant in 2011 to spend 9 months doing dissertation research there, many people thought that I would have an easy time of things. People assumed that because I could already limp along in the language, and I knew what I was getting into when someone uttered the words "Lithuanian winter” that I was merely going on some kind of extended vacation.

This was hardly true. My husband was not going with me nor was I going to be spending 9 months lazing about on my mother-in-law's sofa. Instead, I was going to have to carve out my own research path and make my own way in a world that neither knew me nor was invested in my success. Yes, I could look forward to a lovely Sunday dinner of buttery cauliflower, lumpy potato dumplings (cepelinai), and freshly made poppyseed cake every week, but my in-laws could not help me build trust with people, nor could they make the subject I was studying less controversial in Lithuania's political landscape. Doing anthropologic fieldwork on how post-Soviet teachers are trained to teach the Holocaust after 60 years of Soviet-occupied silence on the matter was going to be a journey I had to undertake almost entirely on my own.

In fact, for the first three months in Lithuania, I wondered if I had made a mistake because it took what felt like forever to get people not only to talk to me, but to trust me. The words, "my husband is Lithuanian" only went so far in a country that was understandably wary of outsiders after a century of repeated occupations. Just like anywhere else, I had to prove that I was invested in my role not only as a Fulbright cultural Ambassador and a doctoral student, but as someone who cared about the future of Lithuania and the people in it.

So, I did the one thing that I knew was most important to Lithuanians: I continued to learn the language. Lithuanian is the oldest Indo-European language in the world, and some scholars claim that they can even trace it back to Sanskrit. It is a source of pride to Lithuanians because they have worked so hard to preserve it during decades of occupation and re-occupation by Czarist imperialism, Polish linguistic encroachment, Nazi invasion, and 50 years of Soviet totalitarianism. However, because it is so old, you can imagine that it's not the simplest language to master. The bane of my existence was (and still is) participles. I am told that I need them to have a solid conversation, but I am still not convinced of this. Who needs a verb that acts like an adjective? Aren't there adjectives for that? Nope. In Lithuanian, you need both.

Needless to say, I had a bone to pick with Lithuanian grammar and I was losing, so I enlisted the help of a Lithuanian tutor who worked with me on research-specific language needs 3 times a week. I will spare you the details of learning participles, but I will say that while the language often gave me a headache, the relationships that I formed by learning it were irreplaceable.

Some of my fondest memories take place in a small Lithuanian town called Jurbarkas. The town is situated along a lovely stretch of the Nemunas river, and it is also home to my language tutor’s family. On two occasions, I was invited to spend the weekend with the entire family—including cousins, aunts and various and sundry other affiliations who knew nothing about me save for what Agnė (my language tutor) had told them. We went to a Lithuanian folk festival, voted along with the rest of the European continent during Eurovision, and celebrated a traditional Lithuanian Easter in the freezing snow. I could not have had the same experiences that I had on these two occasions without having spoken Lithuanian.

On our first visit, Agnė, her sisters, and another Fulbrighter named Shay attended Panemunių Žiedai, a famous cultural festival held at Raudonė castle. Yes! A castle! There we learned how to make soap, cook fish on a stick, and eat snails. 
Shay Laws learns to make soap
A rather imposing stilt walker who was painted in all silver stole my hat (he eventually gave it back).

While there, we watched a woman make the famous Lithuanian cake šakotis, and I struck up a conversation with her in Lithuanian. She wanted to know how two Americans had found their way to this castle, and we wanted to know how she made her cakes (in which batter is turned over a spit to make its famous tree-like shape). It turned out that several Fulbrighters and I were going to be in her city the following week, and so she invited us to come by her shop for a visit. Because I spoke Lithuanian, I was able to call her the following week, and we ate delicious cake at her house until we could eat no more.

The Easter weekend that I spent with the family was reportedly the snowiest and dreariest Easter Lithuania had seen in 20 years, but if you let the rainy weather affect your mood in Lithuania, you'd never have any fun! So, we stood like icicles during the Catholic mass, and I learned that much like the US, going to mass is not only for services, but also to see what your neighbors have been up to during the year! I also learned how to make Lithuanian Easter eggs the traditional way. While bright chemical colors are becoming all the rage in Lithuania these days, the traditional egg dye is made from nothing more than colored onion skins. Patterns are made by wrapping leaves around the eggs and tying them off with stockings.

The other option—which requires far more skill—is to draw on the eggs with wax to create patterns. Using a pencil with a small needle embedded into the eraser, I stuck my pinky out and set to work drawing thin wax lines in the shape of flowers and stars. At least that's how I envisioned it in my head, but drawing a steady series of thin lines along an egg with candle wax is not nearly as simple as one might think. After I was done, I was given accolades for my enthusiasm, but then it was kindly suggested that leaves and onion skins might be easier for an American. We all laughed.
Once the eggs had soaked in the onion skins overnight, we tried to identify the ones we had done the day before. Then I was instructed that before eating them we all had to engage in "egg wars" with our neighbor. The object is to hit your opponent's egg hard enough it breaks. It has very little to do with skill and everything to do with the shape of the egg, but every time we cracked our neighbor's egg we laughed and raised our hands in the air like Rocky. It's was nice to remember that laughter is still a universal language.
Language is a fundamental thing. Learning it tells someone that you care enough to get to know them on their terms. It really does break the ice, and in Lithuania where there's 8 months of winter, finding a way to warmth is important whether it’s literal or figurative.

Once my Fulbright year ended, I decided to return to Lithuania for another 8 months of research. After all, I was finally building the relationships that I sought, and I still had all those participles to learn.