Goodbye to a not-your-average, but really extraordinary American!

  • 2012-09-19
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

She has learnt some Lithuanian mushroom pickling secrets, ventured into the chilly Baltic Sea for a swim, but for the biggest part of her stint, has enforced the Obama administration’s policies in the Republic of Lithuania, which she calls the United States’ staunchest ally. But the plenipotentiary and extraordinary Ambassador of the United States in Lithuania, Anne Elizabeth Derse, has already hit the Washington, D.C.-bound path, leaving behind a trail of the fondest memories of her for many here. For those who happened to get to know her, she perhaps will remain extraordinary in another sense - as a very gregarious, outgoing and also curious person. And, probably, one the most guarded persons around. After seeing off the contestants of the American Spirit Rally, an annual American car race in Lithuania’s resort of Palanga, the ambassador sat down for a nice, laid-back chat with TBT.

Since we have this interview in the most beautiful and exciting Baltic resort of Palanga, I cannot resist asking you: how often did you manage, during your diplomatic stint, to escape to it? What will be your fondest memories of it? And, most importantly, did you have a chance to take a dip here in the Baltic Sea?
(chuckles) I’ve been in Lithuania now for three years and I came out to western Lithuanian at every opportunity I had. So I’ve been to the Sea Festivals in Klaipeda. I had several nice tours in Nida with its mayor, and one quite recently, for an exhibit held for the twentieth anniversary of the Lithuanian and U.S. diplomatic relationships. I’ve been to Palanga on many occasions. Not just in summer, but also during winter. I came here this past January, and it was absolutely gorgeous, as if a frozen wonderland. Such a beautiful place. It was really cold and so icy all over. But, also, brilliantly sunny. I really love this part of Lithuania. And I feel very much at home here. And, let me tell you, each of the cities I’ve visited - Klaipeda, Nida and Palanga - has its own very distinguished character. And that’s what I like, as in a relatively small place you have three completely different cities. And sometimes I like to be here in Palanga where you have the excitement and the noise and people. That’s fun. Sometimes I liked to be in Nida and Juodkrante where you see that wonderful and beautiful nature. And sometimes I liked to go to Klaipeda, because it is a big city.

Did you have any favorite spots here in Palanga?
The beach! And I liked to go around the Botanic Park where the Amber Museum is. And sometimes I liked to ride my bike here. But usually when I come to Palanga I go to the beach and then walk two or three hours towards Latvia, and then as long I walk back the other way. And I’ve ridden my bike almost from Palanga to Sventoji. I haven’t made the complete trip, but I will next time.

You didn’t answer my question on that dip…
Oh. Yes, I had many dips in the Baltic Sea. Not in January though (laughs)! I really like the Baltic Sea and its water is kind of interesting. Like half lake and half sea. It reminds me of the Great Lakes in Ohio, where I grew up, but later moved to Chicago. I also lived in Detroit, and my family has roots in Norway. When I am in the United States, I still spend every summer on the Great Lakes.

I really consider you to be one the most outgoing and pro-active U.S. ambassadors Lithuania has ever had. Frankly, I am not aware of another U.S ambassador in Lithuania who would end up on the western coast so often…
Well, too bad for them (grins)! But I know they did so, as the previous American ambassador recommended me to come to Palanga.

Well, differently from you, they have never invited local Palanga journalists for an interview as long as I can remember. And you have been open for journalists every time you ended up here.
Well, I really think that it is very important to travel around the country and reach out. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to people, participating in events and talking to journalists.

Flipping through newspapers, I saw you mostly visiting major cities, like Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda…and Panevezys, Utena as well as some others. Have you seen the local rural countryside?
Absolutely. I’ve been to Uzpaliai, for example. You don’t know where it is?

Frankly, I don’t.
And I’ve been to Giedraiciai. They have a beautiful church there where I was invited for its 600th anniversary. Also I’ve been to Silute and Rusne Island. And I’ve been out to the Visaginas area. I’ve been mushrooming in a very small town not far from Varena, in the south.

Did you enjoy mushrooming?
I did, thanks to a couple of my Lithuanian friends, who took me to a beautiful forest in Dzukija. It was my first time, and we spent five hours mushrooming. It was one of those magical Lithuanian days, trees silvery and sparkling in the shining sun. The friends taught me how to find mushrooms, and I was lucky to find a trigubas baravykas [a triplet boletus, stemming from the same roots]. That’s very good luck, right?

Certainly it is. Did someone teach you how to pickle mushrooms?
Actually, one of my friends who took me on the mushrooming trip, Danute Bekintiene, an MP, is known for her cooking and pickling mushrooms. She does that well, indeed. And, actually, I tried to do that myself, but they wouldn’t let me clean the mushrooms (chuckles).

Statistically, no other European nation tends to pickle fruits and mushrooms as much as Lithuanians. Don’t you find that fact odd?
No, not at all. It’s a handicraft and a tradition. In the United States, we do that too. My grandmother did, but I had not done that.

Do you find a lot of American spirit in Lithuania?
Actually, I do. And that is what I really like very much as American ambassador in Lithuania. It’s really wonderful to see those things that Americans are very appreciative of here in Lithuania. Like jazz, which is a quintessential American music, that has been adapted here. Lithuanians just put their own special stamp on it. And I really like to go around and just listen to the jazz music. Also, there’s this appreciation of American cars and the open road, which both symbolize freedom for Americans. The cars are not just a means of transport for most Americans, as they also represent our pioneer spirit, our desire for freedom and no constraints. Since I partly grew up in Detroit, the car is very important to me, as the city is rightly called  Motown, the capital of the U.S. auto industry.

Detroit automakers have made an impressive comeback from the economic crunch. How important has the U.S. government’s role in putting the industry back on the track been?
We are delighted, of course, to see that the biggest American car companies, including General Motors, have made the comeback and again are producing cars that are popular all over the world. In Lithuania as well.

What will be your brightest memories of the country?
Well, I have a lot of wonderful memories with my friends here. I’ve told you about the beautiful day that we all went mushrooming. That was an amazing experience for me. As well as making cepelinai [minced meat flavored with spices and stuffed in a potato covering]. We cooked them and then ate them.

Didn’t you find cepelinai too heavy?
No. Home-made cepelinai are very good, especially if you eat them right away after cooking them.

When I made cepelinai for my American friends when I lived in the U.S., they were not particularly crazy about them…
Well, I am not your average American, perhaps (grins).

Do you know where you are going next?
I’m going back to Washington D.C. My husband is working in Washington, D.C. and my kids, most of them, are in the States, so I want to come back and see them.

Being a diplomat and moving around the globe, not knowing what awaits you next after the assignments are over must be very challenging…
Actually, it’s more exciting.

To see you smiling all the time is also of the American character. Did anything upset you sometimes in Lithuania?
Well, I, honestly, cannot say I’ve ever been upset in Lithuania.
Let me ask you the most important questions at the end. How important is Lithuania for American businesses?

When traveling throughout the country I heard the experiences of dealing with the crisis, and I felt very empathetic for the people. But the crisis has been global. We’ve been trying in both Lithuania and the States to work out things to overcome it and, I am sure we’ll manage to do that. As American ambassador to Lithuania, I always encourage American business to look at Lithuania as a great place for business. Primarily, from what I’ve heard why American companies like to work here. They particularly like the workforce. They say Lithuanian workers are well-educated and usually are committed workers with high work ethics. That is one of Lithuania’s biggest strengths, along with your strategic location, so close to the East and the rest of the EU. So Lithuania has many advantages. And I think that the only issue is that Lithuania has to get on the radar screen, meaning it has to become better known. So last year we had a first-ever Commerce Department-sponsored Certified Trade Mission in Lithuania. And we’re looking forward to having others here. I’m quite convinced that the opportunities will become a lot better known for American businesses.

You’ve been known as an outspoken activist for women’s and minority rights. Was that because of your personal beliefs or U.S. policies that you’ve been implementing?
Well, because of both. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama have made the point to all U.S. ambassadors to make sure our human rights policies are known for all.
How much has the U.S. embassy in Vilnius changed, in terms of work load, staffing?
Well, that’s an interesting question you’re asking. In the past three years we’ve got a new face… As you know the United Sates has always been supporting Lithuania, but in the last several years we’ve gone into a new stage. It’s not much anymore about what the U.S. is doing for Lithuania, but what we both are doing together. Today our two countries are relating as two equal partners. I am very pleased that Lithuania, in every sense, considers the U.S. as its full partner. And the other way. You are a great ally not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, and were such in Kosovo and elsewhere. And you’re becoming a much larger partner on the economic front as we’ve expanded the relations into whole new areas, like countering smuggling, energy security.