How many American-Lithuanians have, in the last twenty-five years, served as a confidante to the chief mastermind of Lithuanian independence, Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, baked the first-ever American-style pizza in Vilnius, translated intricate legal documents, gotten involved in politics and, overall, deserved being called an exceptionally FUN person? None except for Rita Dapkute-Sproston, the 49-year-old American-Lithuanian who, unlike most expats that have witnessed the colossal changes in the county on the sidelines, has herself contributed enormously to the transition of Lithuania, from a former Soviet Republic to a European country, bringing a good deal of Western flavor to Lithuanian politics, communication, and, with her name and the first-ever pizzeria in Vilnius, (inter)national cuisine. With 25 years behind her in Lithuania, she seemed to have become rooted in the country; therefore, her departure to the United States (she firmly says “for good”) has come to many as a thunderstorm from a blue sky. “With a new house being built on the outskirts of Vilnius, I was thinking I have settled here forever. However, the crisis has shuffled my plans, triggering me to sell the house at half the initial price, and move back to the United States,” Dapkute-Sproston admitted to Zmones, part of People magazine, before leaving Lithuania at the end of last year. She kindly agreed to answer The Baltic Times’ questions as well.
You have to agree that you are a flamboyant personality, encompassing the widest range of human skills and features – from being a Sajudis insider to the first-ever Vilnius pizzeria owner and a Vilnius Municipality Council member. How do you want to be known in the modern history of Lithuania?
I’m not someone who enjoys being famous or anything like that. But I did spend nearly a quarter of a century in Lithuania and would like to think that I had at least a little bit of impact on, if not the country, at least a few people. Mostly I’d like to be remembered as being fun.
Which of the activities, throughout the 25 years in Lithuania, were the most precious and awarding to you?
That’s an extremely difficult question - there are so many. I guess the top would have to be when the new Lithuanian parliament declared the restoration of Lithuania’s independence. I was actually there, and I’ll never forget it. On a lighter note, it was very rewarding to successfully introduce Chicago-style pizza to the country, as well as other dishes like BBQ ribs and chili [here I’ll brag a bit; it was Rita’s that introduced chili, and not Cili Pica, which didn’t even exist yet]. There were lots of funny moments. I remember some customers telling me they’re going to sue for trying to poison them after tasting our chili and realizing it was very spicy. Personally, I don’t think it was all that hot, not for U.S.-style chili anyway, but Lithuanians weren’t used to chili peppers even though the menu had “hot!!!” written on it 3 times.
Can you remind everyone how you ended up in Lithuania in the late 1980s?
After I got my bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois in 1985, I continued on there, planning to get a master’s degree in Lithuanian Language and Literature. I wanted to translate prose from Lithuanian into English as a hobby, and had been doing so already. But the Lithuanian language I spoke was stagnant, since I learned it from my parents, so the language I knew had stopped developing after WWII. I needed to learn the living language with all its Sovietisms, meanings between the lines, humor, slang, etc. My professor, Violeta Kelertiene, encouraged me to spend some time in Lithuania. I signed up for a sabbatical at Vilnius University and got accepted. After that, events led to my remaining there.
Was your arrival in Lithuania instigated in any way by Gorbachev’s perestroika? This is what some people think about your arrival. How did Lithuania appear in 1986?
Gorbachev’s perestroika wasn’t felt in 1986 yet, so it could not affect my endeavor. The first time I visited Lithuania was with my grandmother in 1975, so I was not surprised by anything in 1986, especially since I had organized a 10-day youth tour to the country earlier that summer and spent 6 weeks there in 1985 through Vilnius University.
How come you did not pack up your stuff and scuttle back to the United States?
Why would I have done that? I loved and still love new experiences, challenges, and if there’s any action, I want to be part of it.
How did you get involved with Sajudis, the Lithuanian national movement for independence? It is usually shown very romantically. Were there many skirmishes and feuds for power among its leaders?
Once the Sajudis initiative group formed, there was a barrage of inquiries, questions, searches for information, etc. from Western journalists, especially the ones based in Moscow. Lithuanians were not prepared for this. Not many spoke the language in general, and all the media representatives graduated from the Soviet school of journalism. Since journalism was my profession, Algimantas Cekuolis asked me to help deal with the foreign journalists and to help run the press center for the founding Congress. Sure, there were skirmishes, but nothing like what we have now in Lithuanian politics. Back then there was a mutual goal that united everyone.
What are your brightest recollections of Sajudis?
They involve writing press releases, sending my journalists out to report on events, constant interviews, phone calls, excitement, fatigue, joy, frustration, work, work, work, and becoming part of a wonderful family of people that were the backbone of the organization.
You were close to the then-chairman of Sajudis and Supreme Council, Vytautas Landsbergis, sort of his confidante. Does the public know everything about him? What are your most vivid memories about him?
There is no way the public can know everything about anybody, especially someone who is always on the front page. That may seem like a contradiction, but what I mean is that the media reports negative issues and dirt more often than the good things, because the good stuff simply isn’t as newsworthy or interesting to read. It’s sad, but true. The public isn’t privy to other sides of him that I know of, like when the pressure was really great he’d sit down at the piano to get a bit of relief from present-day issues (he didn’t mind that I was in the office), or when he would teach me Russian words and grill me on them as we rode in the limo to some joint meeting with the presidents of Latvia and Estonia.
You launched the first pizzeria, which turned out to be a big success in Vilnius in the early 1990s. Why was there such a swift change – from politics, media to the pizza-rolling business?
I never wanted to be a politician or a civil servant. I did the job because I felt I was needed at the time. In 1992, when most countries recognized Lithuania’s independence and it was pretty certain that the unrest had passed, I felt I could step out with a clear conscience and leave the work to aspiring professionals of the future. When I did so, I realized that I didn’t want to go back to Chicago. How I came up with pizza and the food business is a whole other story, enough for a separate interview.
Your pizzeria was booming. How come you did not expand to a major Rita-pizza franchise? What didn’t you like about the business ethics in Lithuania? Has it changed, and if so, how, over the years?
I didn’t want it to become part of a conveyor belt. To me it wasn’t a business as such - more of a creative endeavor. I loved seeing people enjoying eating something I created, that’s all I wanted. As far as business ethics are concerned, that’s another one that could fill up space for two interviews.
If you were to repeat the last 25 years of your life in Lithuania, what would you do differently?
I probably wouldn’t have thrown the two drunken girls out of my restaurant who, as it turned out, were tax inspectors and cost me... well... more than I want to remember.
Have you made many true friends over the time in Lithuania?
No one can have many “true” friends. I made many friends and acquaintances, and several true friends that I will treasure forever.
Tell me, honestly, what fretted you most in Lithuanian politics and social life while you stayed here? What Lithuanian characteristics exasperate you? What determines them? Has the Lithuanian mentality become “Westernized” over the years? Is it a good or maybe a bad thing?
There were many things that frustrated me in politics, particularly since Lithuanian politics is so different to that in the U.S. When Lithuania was struggling to regain independence and recognition, everyone had a higher ideal to work toward. After things settled down, bickering and the hunger for power got steadily worse. The characteristics that exasperate me most about my people are inconsideration, rudeness and jealousy. It’s amazing what wonderful hosts Lithuanians make when they know the guests, but the treatment of strangers is a whole different story. There is a persistent underlying bad mood that probably lingers on from Soviet influence. It’s really easy to see – just get into a car and enter the streets of Vilnius. And the Lithuanian mentality has definitely Westernized, but only partially, and unfortunately a lot of that are not the best qualities. The mentality has still not fully incorporated all of the fundamental and moral values, as opposed to the material ones.
How far should Lithuanians go in accepting the Western values? Do they threaten the Lithuanian identity? What makes the identity, in your opinion?
Lithuanians should take the best of all values throughout the world, grow and progress. My opinion is that the panic and fear of losing the Lithuanian identity is what will eventually bring the loss of it if it continues, because so many young people will leave the country, there won’t be anyone left to have an identity. You don’t need to flaunt who you are, you need to be it. Shoving something down people’s throats will have the opposite result.
You are a journalist by profession. What are the most significant stages of development of the Lithuanian media you would discern? What do you not like about the media?
I would have had a lot of negative things to say about the media in Lithuania 10 or 20 years ago, but in my opinion the media has gone downhill drastically all over the world. I was taught to treat hard news with respect, use three sources for quotes, etc. That doesn’t exist anymore; the media as a whole is taking the tabloid road of sensationalism.
What made you make up your mind to leave Lithuania? A new love? Disappointment over Lithuania?
I needed something new, a change in my life, and I must admit my decision was also influenced by a little bit of both things you mentioned.
Have you not gotten “detached” from the U.S. over the couple dozen of years in Lithuania? What are you missing about Lithuania most?
To be honest, I don’t feel that I’ve been gone that long - things in Chicago seem totally natural. And I miss my friends most, of course.
What activities are you involved in nowadays? I heard you are trying to launch some specific e-business. Tell me about it…
Yes, my husband and I have begun an online retail business - you can find it at www.barglobeworld.com. We have also bought a small house that we are presently renovating so that we can sell it for a profit. We love working on houses.
What words describe your stay in Lithuania the most – experience of a lifetime, lifetime adventure, escapade, career, business, vagabond-like wandering or…Finish it, please.
Thank you, Rita. Good luck with your endeavors in the U.S.