Melanie Schäfer, exchange student at Vilnius University
So this is for real now. My return flight to Germany is booked, I can see it black on white that I will be leaving Lithuania, this beautiful little painfully underestimated country that has dug its way deep into my heart. While one side of me is sad and still in denial about this, the other side is looking forward to it because there is such an important job waiting for me at home.
During this semester, I had the incredible chance of getting to know a country that I only knew existed together with Latvia and Estonia somewhere in Northeastern Europe. Upon arrival, I realized I did not know even the most basic phrases that would have made my first interactions with the locals so much more dignified. That shame quickly turned into furious motivation to start learning the language and I slowly started to get a better understanding of the people, their behavior, and their culture.
Of course, learning the language was not the end of it. I tried traditional food and now cannot imagine my life without having tried delicious cepelinai and every single flavor of sūrelis there is. I learned some traditional folk dances and started to admire how people here are so proud of their cultural heritage. I travelled around the country and saw how different life is in Vilnius, compared to Klaipėda or Kaunas. I went to museums, read books, attended a history class to learn and understand how Lithuania and its people became who they are today. I also visited Latvia and Estonia and started to realize what a huge mistake the world is making by throwing all three countries together in one pot, when they are clearly all their own and individual nations.
One semester is a short time and it flew by even faster than I had expected it to. Nonetheless, I believe it was just enough time to come to know and love Lithuania. There is still so much to discover and I am certainly looking forward to coming back soon for vacation.
I will soon return to Germany, to my friends, family and neighbors for whom Lithuania is still one of these three little countries somewhere in the Northeast. And I am determined to change that perspective.
Most of these people do not really have sufficient knowledge in order to have an actual opinion about Lithuania. But there are still stereotypes to fall back on and sometimes even fantasies or simple-hearted assumptions help to form a picture. That is how it is and I will have to work with or around these presumptions.
I decide what stories I’ll tell them and what photographs I’ll show them. I am in the powerful position to transform people’s opinions or even just give them the knowledge to form one. What a blessing and huge responsibility at the same time.
So what do I tell them, which pictures do I show them? These are the thoughts that have spun around in my mind ever since I arrived and slowly started to overrun my own stereotypical assumptions.
I love the old-fashioned trolleybuses that make me feel transported back in time and give me a tiny glimpse of how my own parents lived in the GDR. Some of my friends might find them cool but what about the others, the ones who are convinced Lithuania is in its core still a Soviet Republic, all grey and run-down, its people poor, deprived and disadvantaged? Should I show them a picture of an old trolleybus, tell them about the bumpy yet somehow comfortable rides? Or should I just skip that part and instead talk about all the modern city busses, with Wi-Fi and USB outlets to charge your smartphone?
I am an ambassador of Lithuania now and I need to find answers to these questions.
Do I tell them about how Vilnius has the fastest broadband internet in Europe and how that makes it a hotspot for the fast-growing IT sector? Or do I tell them how every day on my way to the bus stop I passed elderly people, sitting on the street in almost every weather condition trying to sell homegrown vegetables and fruit, flowers from their gardens or self-knitted gloves and socks in order to make a few euros to compensate for their low pensions?
Will I go on and on about Vilnius’ gorgeous old town, protected by the UNESCO, with all of its beautiful buildings, dozens of churches and cobblestoned little streets while also praising the skyscraper skyline in the new town hosting all these said IT-firms and international corporations? Most definitely. But will I also show pictures of the grey block apartment buildings that characterize the look of the living districts and are a part of the daily life of most Lithuanians like sour cream is of almost every meal?
Yes, I will most certainly do so. All these contradictions is what makes Lithuania interesting, unique, and wonderful. It is still a young, evolving independent state. If you think about it, 28 years of newly gained independence is not that much. The Soviet past is just as important part of it as the current membership in EU is. One has to acknowledge that in order to understand the country.
So I want to tell everything, show all the pictures without leaving out anything because of fear of misunderstanding. I know I can use my words wisely and share my experience in a way that has the potential to challenge and maybe even transform other people’s views and assumptions. And if I succeed in making only one person think about Lithuania in a different way, I have achieved my goal. Because what if that person decides to see it themselves and comes for a visit? That is when the snowball effect kicks in and starts to make some real damage. Yes, damage – to outdated and unjustified stereotypes.
I am an ambassador of Lithuania now and I am going to tell all of those stories, about how this beautiful, painfully underestimated little country has dug its way deep into my heart in a way I could have never dreamed of. I am incredibly proud to carry a tiny bit of Lithuania in my heart from now on.