It is often said that to understand a culture you first need to understand the language. There's definitely something in that but I'll come back to that later.
When I stepped off the bus in Lithuania on that fateful day back in 2010, two things hit me. The first was that nobody was smiling (remember that bit, it's important for later) It was a bright sunny day yet everyone looked like they had just been force fed a lemon and washed it down with vinegar. The second thing to hit me was a half full can of beer thrown by some drunk with a remarkably good aim.
Welcome to Lithuania.
However, dripping beer, I duly trudged up to my new address and was shown around what was to become my home for the next several years by one of the nicest genuinely decent human beings I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Between his minimal English mixed with broken Danish and my slightly stronger Danish and non-existent Lithuanian, we managed to make ourselves understood and after a time he duly left me to my own devices.
After a quick bit of unpacking , two sports bags, which contained the entirety of my worldly goods, I headed to the local supermarket for supplies. Tea, coffee, sugar, milk and some 2 minute noodles. Remember how I mentioned about language being important? Let's look at milk as an example. In English, it's 'milk', in Danish, it's 'maelk', in German it's 'milch', but in Lithuanian? Pienas! Ok, fair enough, even if you're in China and can't read at least you can look for a carton with a picture of a cow on it or something. Not so in Lithuania. All I could see was line upon line of orange cartons with what was presumably the name of the company stenciled on the side. I needed help so I went and performed an embarrassing mime act to the sour faced old biddy at the checkout. (you try and mime 'milk' and you'll know what I mean.) She looked at me for a long moment, then quickly wrote me out of her immediate universe and began serving the next customer. Red-faced and none the wiser I head back to the dairy section and grabbed what I guessed was milk, paid and left.
Still feeling like I'd dropped in from planet idiot, I made my coffee and watched in horror as the milk curdled in the cup. Turns out I'd brought something akin to yoghurt called Kefyras. Too mortified to head back to the supermarket, I decided to go to the pub.
And so my education began. But first, we have to talk about drinking. My god these people can drink. Being a true blue Aussie, I figured I could keep up with the best of them, but when I began my travels, the first I encountered were the Danes, and I quickly realized I was but a babe in the woods. But even the damn Vikings don't have a patch on these guys.
One bloke, in a 24 hour period, drank himself to death, was pronounced dead, tagged and taken to the local morgue. Several hours later he woke up, realized where he was, and naked, burst out of the morgue, jumped on a bus and back to his friend's place where he continued to drink. Just to show this wasn't an isolated example, late last year another guy was pulled over and given a breath test,…he blew just below 0.7%. For those not in the know, at 0.41 you're clinically dead and this guy was still driving.
But I digress, back to my education, my attempt to understand this country and her people.
Lithuania is a land of dichotomies, of opposites, of pride and disappointment, of love and hate, of joy and great sadness. Nothing is what you think. Or maybe it's better to say you have to think in opposites, in black and white, but at the same time. It's both very young and very old; in fact it's actually been born and reborn 3 times.
The third poorest country in the E.U. yet the first to recover from the G.F.C. It has the highest percentage of tertiary qualified people of any country in Europe and the highest percentage of people who can speak three or more languages, yet suffers from mass emigration. Technologically, Lithuania has the fastest internet speeds in Europe and is slated as becoming the E.U's version of silicon valley, yet many govt departments and the medical system still run on paper. The amount of bureaucracy is beyond belief and by and large, the regional govts have never heard of the terms: efficiency or customer service. At many govt offices, the method of working is that you are there because you want something. It's up to them to decide if they will give it to you. And whatever, it is, if you turn up without some form of gratuity, or you show up at morning or afternoon tea, then god help you, because they certainly won't.
The people here are poor, dirt poor. The average salary is 600 Euros a month before tax. Yet, at the same time, there is a ridiculous amount of black money going round, and it's not limited to the elite. Everyone seems to have a private stash.