By BRIANNA MARTH.
I am a senior in the College of Business at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduating this semester with a degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Management with a specialty in Marketing.
My university is part of the MAUI-Utrecht exchange studies program. Vilnius University is also part of this program. The exchange program is set up so that when one country sends a student to one of the universities in the MAUI-Utrecht network, another student from another country in the program comes to our university in Omaha. Since the universities are partners, I paid tuition to my home university and my credits transferred smoothly as long as I was pre-approved. There was also an option to study at Šiauliai University.
I took four courses in the International Business School at Vilnius University: International Business, International Marketing, Cross-Cultural Management, and Total Quality Management, which were all held in the Sauletekio area of Vilnius where the International Business School and Economics Faculties are located. I took Lithuanian Language at the main Old Town campus. I also took Intro to Management online through my university in Omaha because the similar course at Vilnius University was cancelled and I needed the course to graduate on schedule. All of my courses were in English, taught by Lithuanian professors, with the exception of my Lithuanian language course. I received credit for all of my courses, which were given in ECTS (the European credit system) and were transferred to the credit system used by my university. I took 30 ECTS credits which converted to 15 credits in the United States.
Visiting Lithuania was one of my childhood dreams. My grandma and grandpa, Ona Bradunas (Anna Cernius) and Jurgis Cernius (George Cernius), both fled Lithuania just before the Soviet occupation during World War II. They met in the United States, married, and had three daughters. My mother was one of their daughters and through her I grew up experiencing different levels of Lithuanian culture and tradition. These ranged from Lithuanian folk dancing when I was very little, to Kucios dinner on Christmas Eve, to stories every once in awhile about my grandparents’ memories. Having this other, mysterious culture present itself in various aspects in my life led to a stroke of fate that opened up the door to an opportunity called Lithuania.
I arrived in Vilnius on September 1, 2012 and stayed until January 5, 2013. During my time in Vilnius I learned some things about the country I love:
1. Lithuania is a beautiful country.
I stayed in a university dorm in the Sauletekio district and used the bus system to get to Old Town. I went to class every day at Vilnius University and spent the rest of my time in the Old Town area shopping, eating, or drinking coffee in the many cafes. I felt like I was in a movie every day I was there. The streets of Old Town are romantic and I wanted to photograph them all the time. Gedimino Pilies Bokštas (Gediminas Tower) sits proudly overlooking Vilnius and serves as the picturesque background of the cathedral and tower. The autumn season turns the plentiful green of Vilnius to shades of yellow, orange, and red. There are numerous walking paths around the cathedral, and it was always nice to see people strolling along and enjoying being outside when the weather was Aš myliu Lietuva, favorable. The Three Crosses memorial sits farther back in the distance and the white color of the crosses is a fantastic contrast to the autumnal hues of the trees surrounding them. In my mind, I have a wonderful picture of the scene.
2. Lithuania is full of robust history and living elements of the events the country has experienced, yet no one willingly talks about its history.
The Museum of Genocide Victims helps you understand it a little bit. The museum sits right off of the main street, Gedimino Prospektas. I visited the museum twice and it was just as hard of an experience the second time as the first , and was possibly worse because I noticed things I hadn’t seen the first time. Leaving the museum and stepping back outside to the bustling streets full of life was somber and yet inspiring all at the same time.
How can anyone understand what the Lithuanian people have gone through? Those of us who didn’t live it certainly can’t.
My grandma and my grandpa understand, and the people of Lithuania can (perhaps the older generations better than the younger generations) and all the Lithuanian immigrants who fled the country during the different periods of occupation and suppression to make their lives better in other places around the world certainly understand. Yet no one from the outside knows the Lithuanian experience and that these may be some of the strongest and proud people you’ll ever meet. My grandma is the strongest person I know, and my mother was blessed with her determination as well.
Today, Lithuania has a strong and emerging economy and Vilnius was named as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2009.
3. Education is taken seriously at Vilnius University.
I was told by many people that students studying abroad, or “Erasmus students” as most European students visiting from other countries referred to themselves, were expected to do little actual schoolwork and were given a lot of slack to allow for the “cultural experience” that is studying abroad. I ended up taking the equivalent of 18 credit hours which meant I was taking the heaviest course load yet in my college career during the same semester in which I was supposed to be “finding myself” and experiencing all kinds of new and exciting things. I learned quickly that I would not be allowed to slack on my school responsibilities, even if my travel plans and wish to see other cultures and parts of Europe were calling me. I felt challenged by my professors to work hard on my assignments and projects and truly enjoyed learning from them and hearing their perspectives. I’m sure the coffee shops loved the fact that my roommate and I would take hold of a table and chairs for hours upon hours, multiple days a week to keep up with our studies. Here’s a huge shout out to Caif Café, Coffee Inn, and Vero Café for entertaining our social needs, while drowning in assignments, emails from home, and other normal distractions. I’ll take a migdoline latte. Aciu!!
4. Vilnius is connected.
I was spoiled to be able to have almost constant connection to friends and family and Google because of the exceptional internet capabilities and the presence of Wi-Fi in most of my normal hangouts. Apparently Lithuania ranks first in internet upload and download speed and it’s obvious. I’m convinced I was able to find Wi-Fi spots in Vilnius easier than I can in the States. Studying abroad in Lithuania At the Hill of Crosses near the city of Šauliai in northern Lithuania DRAUGAS NEWS 2013 DECEMBER 2013 11
5. Lithuania should be ranked first in cuisine.
Although I am most likely biased, because I’ve grown up eating traditional cepelinai and cabbage rolls and already had a love for both as well as the overall meat-and-potatoes-that-is-Eastern-Europe kind of food, it was no surprise to me that I loved most of the other Lithuanian or Eastern European dishes I ordered. I do have to admit, though, that I prefer my grandma’s cepelinai, or kukuliai as she calls them, better than any I tried in Lithuania.
I fell in love with two particular foods – kepta juoda duona (fried black bread), and basically every Lithuanian dairy product on the grocery shelf. Fried black bread is a beer snack served in many restaurants and at the street festivals. Black bread is cut into strips, rubbed with fresh garlic, fried until crispy and served plain, or covered with cheese, or with a mayonnaise-cheese dipping sauce. Luckily we have a Lithuanian bakery in my city, so I’m able to recreate the dish pretty close to the real thing whenever I have a strong craving.
Regarding the dairy products, I discovered individually wrapped cheesecake-like desserts found in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores. Some are flavored, others are dipped in chocolate. I don’t know what they are called in Lithuanian, but the word “pienas” (milk) is on the packaging. They are delicious, as is the yogurt, cottage cheese, and any of the Džiugas brand cheeses I tried. I would love to be able to find something similar in quality and taste here at home. There is also an ice cream shop on Pilies Gatve called Dione. From the little information I could gather, I’m almost positive it is a Lithuanian company, that has foreign locations and distributes its frozen grocery products to several other countries. They have the best ice cream that I have ever tasted, and I frequented the shop with my lovely German roommate.
As far as beer is concerned, I loved Švyturys Alus (Svyturys beer). My favorite places to drink it were Bambalyne and Busi Trecias. Bambalyne is a very small drinking establishment; you’re lucky to find an open table for you and your friends. You can pick a beer from one of the several fridges or order a small snack. The fridges are stocked with local Lithuanian beers, and I tried a new one each time I was there.
Busi Trecias is a loud and fun restaurant and bar with multiple levels that brews its own beers and even offers flavored versions. My favorite was the whiskey-flavored light beer. I have so many favorite places to dine and drink, that I could fill several pages writing about them!
6. Lithuanians have a different sense of time.
I learned to live at a much slower and relaxed pace than at home in the States. When I first arrived in Vilnius, I experienced numerous frustrations that ultimately forced me to adopt the mantra of “be calm girl – it will all work out.” I embraced what I’m assuming is the typical study abroad mentality of “experience everything, stress as little as possible.” That is probably how I was able to manage the language barrier, school deadlines, additional travel plans, the lack of internet connection in other countries (not Lithuania!) and the moments when I deeply missed my family and friends back home.
7. The Lithuanian language is captivating and complex.
I took a beginner’s Lithuanian language course through the university and by the end of my four months, was able to shakily order things on restaurant menus, understand many staple food items at grocery stores, and say excuse me/I’m sorry/I don’t understand with the catch-all word “atsiprašau.” That’s about it. I’m sad to say that I haven’t progressed much since and have forgotten much of the more detailed lessons that I didn’t practice as much.
The fall festivals in Vilnius are memorable experiences of music, dancing, food, beer, and souvenir shopping. They are unique and full of life. Vilnius is especially beautiful during Christmas; the city is ablaze with holiday lights and the Christmas tree in the Cathedral square takes your breath away.
If given the chance to do my semester over again, what would I do differently?
I’m pretty content with the experiences I had during my four months in Vilnius and traveling through Europe. However, in hindsight, I would have planned to be in Lithuania longer. There were still so many things I didn’t get to do or see. I spent most of my time in Vilnius (where I lived); I visited Trakai Castle, and the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, where I left my wooden cross. I would like to go back and see other parts of Lithuania, because I heard that there are other very beautiful areas. I want to go to the Baltic Sea and visit where grandma and grandpa grew up, even though I have heard that there is nothing left to see. I want to be there in the deep summertime when the sky stays light far into the night. I want to experience Easter and all the Holiday celebrations. I want to experience a traditional Kucios dinner. I want to go to a basketball game. (Can you believe I didn’t do that?!)
I really want to study Lithuanian and retain it. I’d also like to be involved in Lithuanian-related groups here in the United States, but haven’t figured out where to start. (I did go to a Lithuanian straw ornament-making class at my grandmother’s church a few weeks ago and made my first straw ornament!)
One thing I do know is that I will be back someday and I can’t wait.
Aš myliu Lietuva.
For those interested in studying abroad in Lithuania, I encourage you to inquire within your university or college’s International Studies office or with a study abroad coordinator. I found most of my information on our university’s study abroad website and Vilnius University’s web page for exchange students (www.vu.lt/en /studies/exchange-students). I set up several appointments with my study abroad mentor to ensure I had all the paperwork filled out, the recommendations required, and all of my questions answered so that I could feel secure and ready for my trip. I also searched the internet for what kinds of things to bring to Lithuania and Europe in general when studying abroad from the United States, as well as what to expect regarding Lithuanian culture and people and getting around. While I did experience some difficult moments because of the language and culture barrier and I missed my family often, I absolutely loved my experience and saw and learned so much. I am happy to answer questions for anyone who wants to know more about studying in Lithuania. I can be contacted at email@example.com.