A refreshing odyssey

  • 2011-06-08
  • By Matt Garrick

DOWN ON THE FARM: Coaching the runners on at the pig racing during May’s International Hansa Day in Kaunas.

VILNIUS - While hundreds of Lithuanians continue to emigrate each year, leaving their home soil to explore opportunities around the world, Vytautas Magnus University has a plan to inspire just the opposite: bring back migrants of Lithuanian heritage to live and breathe Baltic culture in Kaunas, for two weeks of summertime fun in a course called Refresh in Lithuania.
Refresh in Lithuania, now in its second year of existence, bore from the minds of coordinator Vida Bagdonaviciene and director of the Lithuanian Emigration Institute, Professor Egidijus Aleksandravicius, who has labelled the notion of returning to ancestral roots as “the odyssey of the contemporary world.”

One of the firsts of its kind, the project provides more than just a touristy experience: it’s a chance for so-called World Lithuanians to connect with local students, learn from lectures, enjoy excursions, and as Bagdonaviciene wrote, it aims in “strengthening the self-awareness of Lithuanians as a diaspora nation, conceived as inhabitants both of Lithuania and beyond its borders, composed of all individuals who have Lithuanian roots as an undivided nation, culture and history.”
And it all costs next to nothing.

Though base-camp for the two weeks will be Kaunas, organizers of the course from the Lithuanian Emigration Institute and Center of Emigration studies at the university have announced participants will get to explore some of the nearly forgotten corners of the nation.

Sprightly doctoral student and a coordinator of the project, Ingrida Celesiute, described World Lithuanians ideal for joining the course as being those who emigrated as children together with their parents, along with those of the third or even fourth generation children or grandchildren of Lithuanian emigres. Scattered around the planet, many of these contemporary migrants know little of the country where their ancestral blood stems from, and hardly retain connection with global Lithuanian communities.

“Lithuanian communities, for example in Australia, do not have very good contacts with Lithuanian communities in Belgium, or Spain, or elsewhere. So the idea was to give them all the possibility to meet somewhere, and that somewhere is Lithuania,” she beamed at the idea, talking to The Baltic Times in the grassy grounds of the Vytautas War Museum in May.
She believed the project, which is part of a bigger plan proposal, called the World Lithuanians Academy, could open new perspectives to both World Lithuanians, as well as countrymen who remain living within the borders. “It helps us, Lithuanians in Lithuania, to broaden our horizons, and to accept those who once left, and those who are leaving now. There are families who took their children when they were little, ten years ago, so now they are grown up, in their twenties… and they don’t really know what happens in Lithuania. What is the culture, the politics, the economics: and they want this. They desire for this knowledge. So that’s what we offer,” she relayed.

Among his works, Professor Aleksandravicius has written about the necessity for emigres to return to their elders’ homelands, and how those still inhabiting the country which they left “need to be conscious that, even if the majority of children of the diaspora speak English, German, Spanish or Portuguese, they are still the children of our Lithuanian nation.”
Today, emigration has never been easier for Lithuanians: since joining the European Union, and signing as a full-member of the Schengen Agreement in 2007, citizens of the country can move freely around much of the continent, as if it were a single state.

This form of emancipation, partially available since the demise of Soviet occupation in 1991, being able to travel and set-up life where you want to, is both a blessing and a curse, said Celesiute.
“It comes from the Soviet times - for so long we were locked, like in a prison, and we couldn’t go outside. So everything which came from abroad was something special. If you had a possibility to go abroad, it was like ‘wow.’ Everybody looked at you as if you were famous. I think we still have this mentality. Somewhere else is always better than here. I think it’s the worst thing, that it’s becoming a culture,” she said, denouncing the fact that children from an early age are fed the notion of migration as being ‘the way.’ 

“Their parents, their environment puts ideas in their heads that migration is good. Kids, for example: if you went into a school and asked, ‘who is thinking to study abroad?’ I think all the class would raise their hands. From when they are born, they hear about it. An uncle went to the UK to work. A sister went there to study. And it seems like a cool thing to leave Lithuania, be a world citizen, and not to stay here,” she said dolefully.
But while a multitude of Baltic folk are packing their bags and fleeing to find higher financial grounds, an equal amount of citizens are staying put, and working on fresh and vibrant concepts to showcase the originality of the culture which raised them.

Along with the team from Refresh in Lithuania, organizers of historical, film, and musical events such as, consecutively, International Hansa Days, Kino Pavasaris Film Festival, Vilnius Festival, and many more, were doing their bit in conveying to both tourists and locals alike, the joys which their heritage can offer.

International Hansa Days, a monster-scale medieval festival held in Kaunas recently, which, over four days, brought in a hundred-plus acts from around Europe, and thousands of curious spectators from every stretch of land with a flag, was a perfect illustration of how Lithuanians embracing their culture can show it off to the rest of the world.
Art director of the event, Andrius Ziurauskas, described the feeling that within history, “only culture makes us human.” Talking to The Baltic Times, he mentioned the first task in his mind whilst figuring out how to construct the artistically intricate event (which included the setting-up of an entire medieval village by the Nemunas River) was how to make visitors “proud of their nation, of their town, and of their traditions.”

To convey a lesson on the rich histories of Lithuania, he said it had to be done with flair, not by a teacher dictating from a desk. “It can’t be a narration, like a teacher saying ‘you must learn your history!’ It must be done interactively. Invite them, let them play and see the history they like. And by this lesson, they learn about days when Kaunas was glorious, and the most wonderful town in the world,” he explained. He went further, to convey how historical inspiration of the culture which cultivated them could engage people to better their country’s future.

“When they feel like that, they can do something for today. People would say: ‘my home isn’t clean, I must make it clean, because at that time, Kaunas was the cleanest town in the world. At that time, Kaunas people were the noblest in the world, so I must be noble now.”

In this same vein, Refresh in Lithuania organizers want to guide course participants into the country’s histories interactively. Those involved will have the opportunity to converse among local students, and take part in discussions on ‘What is Lithuanian Identity,’ rather than by just being lectured from a podium.
2010 course members relished the opportunity to socialize with locals as much as anything else. “That was the best experience for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of this course. To make Lithuanians from Lithuania and Lithuanians from all over the world meet and talk,” Ingrida elaborated, apparently testing how many times she could say ‘Lithuania’ in a sentence. 

But the Refresh course is not all about chin-wagging: it’s also about opening people’s eyes to the countryside around them. Last year’s World Lithuanians, a group hailing from places as distant as Brazil to the USA, ranging from 18 to 62 years old, packed into an overheated minibus, and hit the bumpy road less traveled.

“We didn’t take the road where a normal excursion would go. Our bus was in the hills, in the meadows,” she reminisced. “We tried not to show just the most famous places of Lithuania, but to take a route through the best nature, through the villages, through the piliakalnis (hills where fortresses used to stand). We have this legend, which says giants created these hills.” She did not mention if locally-grown mushrooms were the reason for visions of such giants.

Excursions during the 2010 course took the Refreshers to Lithuanian monasteries, graveyards, neo-pagan ritual sites, and importantly for many of the young Americans involved, to the lakeside of Moletai for “a lot of swimming and sunbathing.”
“Mostly this trip was just to relax, to feel Lithuania and have a good time together,” explained Ingrida, while noting, although, that there was a deeper motive. “We tried to show what we are. What Lithuania is today. And of course, when you want to know what Lithuania is today, you have to know what it was, what it used to be.”

The blue skies and cheery togetherness shattered the impressions which some of last year’s participants had perceived of the country before attending the course. “I thought it’s just a dark place. Because of the dark history […] I’ve just pictured the wintertime too. Snow all the time. Freezing temperatures. All the time snow,” was a recount taken from a Refresh in Lithuania handbook, by American-born 22-year-old Kevin, whose Lithuanian grandparents had emigrated decades prior.
“I was very, very shocked the way everything looked here. I was expecting everything to be older, […] like very old houses, a lot of ruins, nothing in the street, nothing so colorful as it is now,” noted American-born Kim in the same handbook.

As the Emigration Institute opens for application form submissions for the 2011 course, Ingrida conveyed the importance of a learning experience like this, to help dispel illusions of a country which may not reflect what exists today.
“One of the goals of Refresh Lithuania is to show the positive sides: what is good, why you should come back at least for those two weeks in Lithuania: to refresh yourself, not only during the excursions or the evening programs, but also through refreshing your language, your knowledge of history, of the culture, of everything. And some of the time, it’s not a refresh: when they come to Lithuania, it’s the first time they find these things out. It’s a fresh perspective.”

For more information on Refresh in Lithuania, or to download an application form and get involved, check out the Web site: http://www.pasauliolietuviai.lt/
This year’s course will run from July 18-30, in Kaunas.