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In a rut.

First trips to Lithuania in 1977–78

by Raimundas Balsys.

Over the years, Mom and Dad kept in touch with relatives who had stayed behind in Lithuania. Mom was always writing letters and sending boxes of used clothing to the old country. The relatives thought that America’s streets were paved in gold. They would send letters requesting jeans, record albums, electronic equipment and all kinds of things. This was at a time when we didn’t have many of the same luxuries ourselves.

In 1977 Mom took me on a trip to Lithuania. She had been there herself the year before and wanted to take me to meet my relatives. I can’t say it was my first trip outside the U.S., I had been to Canada several times. But it was my first real international trip. When Mom went the first time, she could only go for 5 days. This trip was to be for 10 days. We had to go with a cultural exchange group, similar to what the Cubans have to do today. Getting ready for the trip was chaotic. I had started writing to my cousins shortly before (which is what prompted my mother to take me). I can’t tell you how many pairs of jeans we bought, not to mention LP albums for my cousins’ rock and roll tastes. No lie, when I got on the plane at JFK, after checking 4 bags each, I was wearing an undershirt, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a coat (in July). Gifts, all of them. Since the Russian authorities were looking for too many gifts, we had to pack cleverly. Although all the clothing had been intermingled well, I had all of the LP albums in a hand-carry tote with me. Without any forethought, I had packed a tube of toothpaste on top of the records.

Dad kept in touch with relatives who had stayed behind in Lithuania. Mom was always writing letters and sending boxes of used clothing to the old country. The relatives thought that America’s streets were paved in gold. They would send letters requesting jeans, record albums, electronic equipment and all kinds of things. This was at a time when we didn’t have many of the same luxuries ourselves. In 1977 Mom took me on a trip to Lithuania. She had been there herself the year before and wanted to take me to meet my relatives. I can’t say it was my first trip outside the U.S., I had been to Canada several times. But it was my first real international trip. When Mom went the first time, she could only go for 5 days. This trip was to be for 10 days. We had to go with a cultural exchange group, similar to what the Cubans have to do today. Getting ready for the trip was chaotic. I had started writing to my cousins shortly before (which is what prompted my mother to take me). I can’t tell you how many pairs of jeans we bought, not to mention LP albums for my cousins’ rock and roll tastes. No lie, when I got on the plane at JFK, after checking 4 bags each, I was wearing an undershirt, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a coat (in July). Gifts, all of them. Since the Russian authorities were looking for too many gifts, we had to pack cleverly. Although all the clothing had been intermingled well, I had all of the LP albums in a hand-carry tote with me. Without any forethought, I had packed a tube of toothpaste on top of the records.

As we get to customs, the Russian agent asks me to open the tote. I started sweating since I didn’t want him to search the entire luggage. Of all things, the toothpaste had spilled open all over the suitcase. The agent rolled his eyes and told me and Mom to pass through. On the way in to Lithuania we stopped in Moscow for two days, and on the way back, in Helsinki. When we arrived in Vilnius there were dozens of relatives, and numerous cousins who wanted my attention. It was unbelievably emotional. Relatives from both Mom’s and Dad’s side. After the first day, certain relatives came to ‘borrow’ us from the cultural exchange group for a few days and we got to see more of the countryside. Kaunas, Klaipėda, Druskininkai, Palanga; too many details to describe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mom happier.

Welcome from relatives.

I remember getting to the hotel, sweaty and exhausted. The hotel room was dormitory bleak. The shower nozzle in the bathroom jutted out of the wall with no division between the shower and the rest of the bathroom (in other words, there was no shower curtain). Every time we showered, the toilet and toilet paper would get soaked. Yep, pretty gross. But my relatives kept pouring through the door to celebrate. There must have been fifty people that first day. I remember receiving a traditional sash with “Sveikiname” woven into the weave. The tears, the pictures, the laughing, the drinking, the whispering about what happened to missing relations. I recently looked through some old pictures and noticed that people rarely smiled in public. To say Soviet times were dismal is an understatement. The tour group guides tried to only show us the good things about Soviet Lithuania, but when I had some free time, I would visit local stores where the shelves were empty. If there was anything available, it was the same design/color in many sizes, no choices.

Godparents after the baptism.

I also remember being asked by my cousin, Violeta, to be the Godfather of her newly born daughter, Kristina. You must remember that religion was frowned upon by the Soviets. So we had to sneak into church through the back door. In those days you could lose your job if you were caught. I met so many people, it turned into a blur. I recently got back in touch with some of my relatives.

One of Mom’s childhood friends married a Lithuanian who had a “good” position within the Soviet system. He was able to extract us from the tour group for a few days. We saw most of Vilnius, Trakai, Palanga, Klaipėda and Kaunas. I distinctly remember going to a nightclub in Vilnius. There was a long line at the front door, everyone hoping to enter (usually with a bribe). We went right to the front of the line and showed our US passports and got right in. The room was very uncrowded and I was told, in a whisper, that since tips weren’t allowed, there was no reason to let in anymore people than was absolutely required. There must have been another American with us because I remember getting on the dance floor and dancing “the bump” to a robust round of applause.

On our way out of Lietuva we were delayed at the airport because one woman who was part of our group had been caught bringing Bibles to her relatives. They decided to strip search her before we left. We stopped in Helsinki on the way back. It was a refreshing return to democracy.

My first trip to Lithuania had been such an emotional encounter that, the following year, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go back as a student at the University of Vilnius for the summer. Back in those years the Soviet authorities would invite the children of those who left after the war back to the university for “language courses.” It was meant to be an immersion in the highlights of Soviet occupation. They were essentially trying to brainwash us that things were good under the Soviets, but by the end of our trip, they all wanted to come home with us.

This was my first international trip by myself. I was really scared, but exhilarated. And my parents were covering all (reasonable?) expenses. They were so happy at how interested I was in going. I decided to take the scenic route to get there. My relatives had friends in Germany who invited me to stay there for a few days before leaving for Lithuania. I started in Hamburg, West Germany (yes, Germany was still two separate countries at that time). I was supposed to hop on a train directly to Vilnius, but, of course, it wasn’t going to happen that smoothly. In retrospect, I would not have experienced half the adventures I had during that trip.

As the train passed through the line that divided West Germany from East, the color and light changed. Remember, I was going into the old Soviet territory. There were guard towers with barbed wire fences, then hundreds of yards of nothing (I think it was a field of land mines), until we got to the other side with more guard towers and barbed wire fencing. The atmosphere seemed to change to a very foggy, overcast grey. Even the farm animals we passed on the train seemed to be grey. Very strange.

After a few hours we arrived in Berlin. Entering West Berlin was like seeing an oasis in the middle of a desert. Tall buildings with neon lights that seemed to rival Las Vegas. It was truly an experience to see the stark contrast between East and West in those days. In Berlin, the train wagon was attached to a different locomotive and we headed for Warsaw. There, the wagon was decoupled again, and we were told to get off. I say we, because there were three French Lithuanian young ladies who were also going to the University of Vilnius for the summer course.

Warsaw has two major rail stations that I personally visited. The one on the outskirts of town, where we were dropped off, and the main station downtown, which is where we had to go to get another train to Lithuania. The sight of four people, who had obviously packed lots of
gifts for relatives, trying to squeeze into three cabs to get downtown was hilarious (at least in hindsight, because it wasn’t funny at the time). As I remember, we didn’t have any local currency, so I had to pay in dollars. Good thing it was cheap. When we finally made it to the ticket counter at the Central Station, we were told that we had to turn back because our Polish visa was a transit visa and would expire before the next train. By this time I was so exhausted, hungry and thirsty that I turned to the woman behind the counter, and in an ever escalating, “ugly American tourist” voice said, “I am an American and DEMAND to be treated better than this. You go back to your manager and get us all tickets to our destination or I will jump up on this counter and scream as loud as I can.”

She looked like a deer in headlights. It worked! She came back to us with tickets to get us to Vilnius. However… we had to make three train changes along the way. Good thing I happened to have a lot of single bills, I had to tip a lot. But a dollar went a long way back then (Poland was still a Soviet satellite). Off we trudged to our first train, where there was no seating available, but at least it was quiet. Train two was a different story.

I should start by saying that our trip happened to be routed in a very chaotic way. We went south, into Poland, before turning north to Lithuania. We had to change trains four times on our way. All the while carrying a great amount of luggage.

Train One took us south, unbeknownst to any of us. But at least we were a group (with the girls from France). We were all tired and very cranky and the amount of luggage just left us with thin skins. I wish I could tell you where our first stop was, but I was too exhausted. I just moved forward like a robot. November / December 2018 LITHUANIAN HERITAGE

It must have been a Friday night, around dusk, in the summer. Sultry, for that time of year. We boarded Train Two, which also had no seating. We stood as a group at the back of the train. A group of Poles got on as well. They looked like they had a few drinks beforehand and were on their way home. I guess they were far more inebriated than I originally thought. As for my three young French companions, they were completely flabbergasted. Actually, they were quite frightened and I could easily see it. None of them spoke English well, and only one spoke Lithuanian fairly well. And none of us spoke Polish. The tallest of the three spoke some broken English and Lithuanian. I saw that the men were leering at her, and their mannerisms were making me nervous. When I turned, all three women were obviously frightened. Frankly, so was I. So I took my arm and threw it around my companion,
“Nu žmona! Kaip sekasi?” (Well, wife! What’s up?)

I saw that the gentlemen seemed to simmer down, so, in Lithuanian, I said I would pretend to be her husband to keep us out of trouble, and we all agreed to the plan. Thank God this leg of the trip was short. By Train Four we all got seats and almost slept through our destination. The last leg started just before dawn and got us to Vilnius 24 hours later than planned. Our poor relatives had come to see us the day before and had to leave before
we got there. Luckily, the course was seven weeks, so I had plenty of time to catch up.

It was very hard for me to write about this part of the trip. Let’s call it writer’s block. I took out an old photo album to help me remember the trip. It was such a kaleidoscope of images, but here goes…. As noted above, I remember the train came in to Vilnius a day late. It was a weekday, because no one was at the station, except two people who believed that we would somehow make it, my Aunt Birutė (really my cousin, but I am very respectful of her). And my cousin, Violeta. From that moment, I loved them so.

I don’t remember the trip to the University of Vilnius, but I do remember passing a row of what I thought were carports/garages. They all smelled like they were being used as bathrooms. Sorry, just sayin’. To say I was tired after the trip is a horrible understatement.

Diaspora Lithuanian students in Vilnius in the summer of 1978.

We were about 15 students. When I visited Lietuva the year before, I thought the hotel was very dormitory. I took a picture of the bathrooms / showers in the dorms. Rust, mold, dirt, lousy plumbing… What the hell did I get myself into? It was a summer of love. My roommate never showed up, so I wound up being alone in the biggest room in the dorm. The friends I made will live in my heart forever.

I was told by all my teachers that my accent was perfect, but my grammar was “lacking,” to say the least. I had fought with my parents about going to Lithuanian School when I was young. I almost quit a month before graduating. I left Lithuanian life for a few years, and now came back with full force.

In a rut.

We took a number of trips around the countryside. On one trip our bus slid into a rut and almost turned over. We were escorted off the bus and spent the afternoon rollicking on a farm in the countryside. We even jumped into haystacks in the field. We had a number of ‘guests’ who accompanied us on these trips. Sometimes they were friends, sometimes, they were spies. But no matter, they all wanted to move to America after spending the summer with us.

Our days were filled with lessons and trips to the countryside. Our nights were generally our own. One day we went shopping to make a pizza. OMG, there was nothing on the shelves to be bought. Somehow we were able to put together some dough and sauce. The locals loved it.

I remember being on a farm and seeing a cow with a chain in its nose. I thought she was chained to the ground. At some point she started to move and, eventually I noticed that the chain had run out and she was still moving. Never ran that fast in my life! I remember going to Rumšiškės, the Folklore Museum of Lithuania. I was charmed by it. We went to Palanga, Druskininkai, Kaunas and much more.

Postscript: This past June 28, 2018, I took my first trip back to Lithuania. It’s been 40 years. My first trip had been to Soviet Lithuania, and now I was traveling to a free country, with many changes. Stay tuned…!

Editor’s note: Raymond (Raimundas) Balsys is a CPA living and working in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida area. He runs a popular Facebook group called “Lithuanian Traditions.”