Lithuania: An Old Land, a Young Nation

Summer workers discuss the differences between life in the U.S. and their homeland

Part 2 of 2

Lithuania has been immersed in the great experiment that is democracy for just 16 years, or roughly since Brett Favre was busy washing out as a backup quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. In the NFL, that’s a long time. When a people have spent 50 years under the communist rule of the Soviet Union, 16 years qualifies you as a relative toddler in the grand scheme of national development.

In the time Favre has spent building a resume of statistics and achievements slinging a football, the people of Lithuania have been struggling to build slightly more important things like a justice system, capitalist economy, and shaking free from a deeply entrenched communist mindset.

Three young Lithuanian women, Asta Dumbaite, 22, Rita Bajevaite, 22, and Dalia Abaraviciute, 21, spent this past summer working in Fish Creek at Diggers Grill and the Fish Creek Market. As they neared their last days on the peninsula I sat down to talk with them about their impression of America, its people, and to get their thoughts about their own country as it weeds its way through the transition from communism to capitalism.

To Americans, the change seems simple, obviously mankind’s evolutionary peak. Freedom and democracy would be anyone’s first choice, we believe, and once given it people will embrace it and flourish. While our experience in Iraq is teaching us different, a glance at the countries of the former Soviet Union have been showing the fallacy of this thinking for much longer.

“Older people think they lived better under the Soviet Union,” Rita says. “Then everybody had a job, you had your necessities taken care of, and now you have to do everything by yourself.”

Many of those older folks, the girls say, wouldn’t mind returning to life as it was under the Iron Curtain. After living so long in a society where your job, your style, your media, and even many of your words were dictated by the central government, the freedoms of democracy can seem overwhelming.

“You couldn’t express yourself,” Dalia laments. “You couldn’t travel. Even if you had money, you couldn’t buy things. There was nothing to buy like here. Everything was the same.”

The inability to express one’s self is a theme they return to often. They were only children when the curtain fell, but they have vague memories and the stories of those who lived it are strong in their minds. They bask in the ability to choose their clothes, speak their mind, choose their education, and travel.

Asta picked up on Dalia’s line of complaint describing the old way.

“All the houses were the same,” Asta says. “All the furniture in them was the same. Clothing was the same.”

There remain other remnants of life under the Soviet Union, extending to the indoctrination of thought. Growing up with the influence of the Kremlin still lingering in their minds, they saw Americans as “dumb and fat,” Rita said. “Everything from America was bad. That’s what they told you.” She said those ideas are fading now, and Lithuanians are adjusting to the ability to pick and choose their news and information.

The girls had mentioned that many of the jobs they do in America – washing dishes, waiting tables – they would never do back home. Not so much because it’s beneath them, but because the impenetrable glass ceilings of communism still stand sturdy in many minds. There remains the fear of being stuck a dishwasher for life, or a waitress, or a clerk. Lithuanian society has not yet fully accepted these jobs as stepping stones or simply respectable career choices. To many, they are still a reflection of family standing or character, as they are to many in the United States, but the girls give the impression the stigma is much stronger along the Baltic Sea.

The younger population, however, is largely absent of any yearning for the communist life.

“Young people, no way” do they want to go back, Dalia says. “We love it.”

They say the new freedoms are starting to take hold in noticeable ways – though they’re often places we wouldn’t think to look for evidence, such as new architecture, clothing, and media. The Lithuanian economy has thrived in recent years, growing at a rate of six to seven percent, double the rate of the American economy.

But many of the structures we take for granted here have yet to materialize in their homeland. They say there is not a credit system in their home country comparable to here. In Lithuania, the emphasis is on need, not desire. Lithuanians think long and hard before taking out a line of credit for anything. Whereas Americans generally think of material goods and ownership as an entitlement, these women matured in a culture where such an idea seems beyond far-fetched.

You buy a car to get you around rather than status, they say.

“Here it’s normal to have a 2005 car,” Rita says, obviously influenced by a summer of tourist traffic. “In Lithuania it means you’re rich.”

The most popular car in Lithuania is the Volkswagen Golf, and the prevalence of Sport Utility Vehicles on our streets confounds them.

“What is the use of all these SUVs?” Rita asks. I don’t have an answer.

The girls hope to be married by their mid-20s (a single woman over 30 can be a pariah, though Rita seems less focused on settling down), and if they want a car they save until they can buy a modest one. Newlyweds often live with their parents for a year or more, akin to American life decades ago, and the purchase of a home is a dream nestled on a distant horizon.

“Forty,” Dalia says. “Maybe in thirties you can buy a home.”

“Definitely forty,” Asta counters. They seem resigned to this and each takes a deep drag of their cigarette, exasperated as they contemplate the years that will pass before the dream is realized.

While few Americans would claim to trust or believe in politicians, the girls don’t pretend to have an ounce of faith in the honesty of Lithuanian poles, and even less in their young justice system. Bribery of officials and police is common, they claim.

“When you get pulled over for speeding,” Dalia says, “you get in the police car. They ask how much money you have. Then they say, drop it on the floor,” at which point you put some of it on the floor of the car, usually about $25, for the police they say. This, they estimate, happens about half the time.

A Glimpse of the Future?

Their time in America has given them a picture of many things they dream of for their country in the future, but also a glimpse of many of the pitfalls they either hope to avoid, or question if they should be seeking at all.

There are the obvious differences, such as American fashion. They can always pick an American out of a crowd back home they say, and in the United States they can pick out a European, and it has nothing to do with accents. Americans commonly wear shorts, sneakers, and t-shirts, and it’s not uncommon for women to dress very casual or go out sans makeup. European women, (with the possible exception of Germans) they explain, would never leave the house without makeup and would never wear shorts or sportswear.

To them it seems to come down to a most basic, but crucial, difference in approach.

“In the U.S. it’s about comfort,” Dalia says. “In Europe it’s about beauty.”

That emphasis on comfort is important in a country well-known for our appetites, which have helped make us the world’s fattest country, so it’s no surprise that one of the first things that struck the girls about the U.S. is our food, especially the portions.

Dalia described her first day making sandwiches at the Fish Creek Market, where the classic “Norzwich” is famous for its generous stacks of meat and cheese.

“I started making the sandwich like home,” she says. “I put on one piece of cheese, two pieces of meat, and they were looking at me funny. ‘You might want to put some more meat on there,’ I was told. I didn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t believe how big they made them.”

They don’t speak of these differences with distain or in judgment, but surprise and humor.

They noticed how much food we waste here, where the end of a bread loaf is tossed or the slightest imperfection renders a piece of fruit or a vegetable to the discard pile. At home a bruise would simply lead to a slight discount, not the trash.

The concept of shopping as recreation took getting accustomed to as well.

“Back home, you would never just shop,” Rita says. “You shop for what you need.”

But don’t misunderstand – they love the American version. “I love shopping here, it’s so cheap,” Asta says.

Here people use plastic bags, forks, plates, and just about anything disposable with every meal and purchase. In Lithuania you pay for each grocery bag so people have their own bags for shopping and disposable dishware is rare.

Midwestern smiles and small-talk leave them wondering. They appreciate the effort to be cordial, but it’s not the way of their hometown, where such niceties are uncommon and smiles for strangers rare. Common greetings confused them at first, such as “How are you?”

“They ask and leave,” Dalia says. “How can you ask me how I am doing and just walk away?”

Or they explain to a customer that they work at the Market during the day and Diggers at night. The diner will often respond by saying, “oh, good for you.”

“Good for me?” Dalia says and laughs. “I work, work, work, all day every day. How is that good for me?”

But they’ve come to realize these habits are part of life in the Midwest. Rita and Asta spent the summer of 2006 working in Maine, where they say the people were similar. But when they visited cities on the East Coast, people were much different than here.

The time they’ve spent in Door County they call “the best of our lives.” Maine was beautiful, they say, and they made a little more money there, but it was quiet and dull.

“We’ve had a lot more fun here,” Rita says, and the others agree. They love their jobs and co-workers, and the friends they made in their many nights spent taking in American nightlife at the Bayside Tavern.

They’re enamored with their American bosses, who surprised them with the way they operate their businesses.

“Here they actually work in their business, washing dishes, stocking shelves, taking out garbage, and cooking,” Dalia explains. “In Lithuania hardly ever would they do that. There, they’re just bosses, telling you what to do.”

We are often reminded that the hundreds of foreign workers who flock here in the tourist season provide a great service to our economy, but they can provide us with other benefits off the payroll. We often hear what the rest of the world is experiencing or what they think of us through conjecture, or via reports filed from reporters in far-flung locales. But we have better sources here in kitchens, dining rooms, and hotel rooms, serving and picking up after us.

As Asta, Dalia, and Rita demonstrate, these imports are a source of perspective, of education, a trove of knowledge about the world and culture that no geography class, Web site, or newscast can provide. Our personal foreign correspondents.

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