Laima during the pandemic in Nida.

From Between Blue Waters

Laima Vincė.

Scenes from Juodkrantė.

The global quarantine of 2020–21 was like the game Musical Chairs. Wherever you were on planet Earth when the music stopped and the quarantine went into effect, that’s where you stayed. I found myself on a sandy strip of shifting dunes held tentatively in place by ancient forests of pines and firs.

The Curonian Spit is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Park. This narrow strip of land, forests, dunes, and long stretches of wild coastline are flanked on one side by the Baltic Sea and on the other by the Curonian Lagoon. The Curonian Spit is only two and a half miles across in its widest section, and in some places, only half a mile separates the sea from the lagoon. An international border between Russia and Lithuania and two different systems of governance, one autocratic and one democratic, slice through the middle of the Curonian Spit. The Russian resort town of Zelenogradsk is located at one end of the 60-mile-long two-lane road that stretches across two countries while the Lithuanian village of Smilytnė is at the other. There are nine sparsely populated fishing villages nestled in the sand dunes between these two points, separating Russia and Lithuania. Most of them explode into tourist destinations in summer. Three of those villages are in the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast, and six are in Lithuania.

“I quarantined in Amber Bay in a small studio apartment with dormers.”

I spent over a year of the P (March 2020 – May 2021) in one of those villages. The name of my village, Juodkrantė, translates from Lithuanian into English as “Black Shores.” The village is at a slightly higher elevation than the others, and when viewed from a boat in the Curonian Lagoon the shoreline appears dark and mysterious.

However, to be even more precise, I lived in an enclave of three low apartment buildings surrounded by forest a few miles down the road from Juodkrantė called Gintaro Įlanka, or Amber Bay. In 1855, workers dredging the bottom of a small inlet that connects to the Curonian Lagoon pulled up chunks of amber. The discovery led to the establishment of the V. Stantien and M. Becker Amber Excavators. They named the inlet Amber Bay and operated there until 1890, excavating from the inlet’s mud 165,346 pounds of amber. They also discovered carved amber amulets dating to the Neolithic and Bronze ages. The heyday of Amber Bay ended in 1890 once the amber load was exhausted. Today, Amber Bay is a sleepy inlet where local fishermen barely eke out a living, setting out at sunrise to cast their nets and haul in a modest catch of smelts and vimba bream, which they sell to locals out of battered garages on the edge of the lagoon or to small restaurants in the village.

I quarantined in Amber Bay in a small studio apartment with dormers that extend from the ceiling to the floor. I cooked on a hot plate and slept with the triangular bedroom window open to cold air from the lagoon. I woke to the first rays of the sun over the inlet. In June, I’d listen to a chorus of frogs performing an amphibian opera from the depths of the inlet, and in winter, I’d hike across the frozen lagoon to where local men fished from deep holes drilled into the ice. I spent many hours wandering in the old-growth forest that archeologists claim as a Baltic pagan sacred place of worship. Appropriately, the forest that stretches from Amber Bay to the Baltic Sea coast has been named since ancient times “The Witches Hill” (Raganų kalnas).

If starved for human contact, I’d find an excuse to buy some groceries and engage in aimless conversation with the cashier at the minuscule grocery store a few miles down the road in Juodkrantė. My neighbors in the two buildings flanking mine were mostly elderly people with that look about them of being forgotten by the world. There was also a pleasant young fisherman and his girlfriend and an enraged lonely sculptor. Beyond the parking lot stood a strip of garages illegally converted into dwelling places with chimney pipes poking out. These cavernous spaces were inhabited by several indigents who smoked fish and drank together amicably behind the garages but otherwise never bothered anyone.

Laima during the pandemic in Lithuania.

I kept a diary for the first 40 days of the quarantine. I laid down some ground rules. I would hold myself to standards of honesty and authenticity, weeding out any negativity I felt tempted to indulge in. I would write from a place of wonder, openness, and honesty.

Forty days is the length of a covenant with God. The word quarantine is derived from the Italian quaranta or forty – the number of days sailors had to remain onboard their ships in Italian ports when they returned from foreign lands before they could be released into the port cities, where they might have infected the local population with diseases from which they had no immunity. Time moved more slowly for people in lifetimes past, and indeed, the pandemic and quarantine slowed the clock down for us as well, returning us to the rhythms of another era.

I remained in isolation in the forests of the Curonian Spit for another 14  months. Sometimes, it felt as though all of humanity found themselves in a meditation retreat they had never signed up for.  During the winter of 2020-2021 the government set up police barricades to prevent movement between municipalities and banned all unnecessary travel. Other times, when restrictions were eased, I made it out to Vilnius, spending a few days in the city. However, for the most part, my experience of the pandemic was defined by living on my own in a remote, sparsely populated forest on the Baltic Sea coast.

As I look back on what I wrote in my diary from the perspective of time, I realize that what I wrote then in the very earliest weeks of the pandemic documents a time when the music stopped. I had to make the transition from a life busy with opportunity, possibility, and stress to learning how to live with the unpredictable nature of this pandemic and, eventually, to acceptance.

Living under conditions of quarantine, I wrote my diary as a bundle of love letters addressed to the world.

March 21, 2020
My Hello Revolution…

I grew up in a suburb of New York City on the New Jersey side. When I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I lived in Manhattan’s Morning Side Heights neighborhood. When you live in a city as big as New York, you learn to consciously not notice passersby; in fact, you purposefully ignore them.

The dunes in Juodkrantė.

In October 1997, when I was 31, my husband, our two children, and I moved to Peaks Island, a small island off the coast of Maine. The only connection with the mainland was a ferry that sailed roughly every hour with the first ferry departing the island at 6:15 am and the last returning from Portland at 10:30 pm. In winter, there were, at best, 900 souls residing on that island. In those years, many of them were lobstermen and artists.

The isolation of an island in the North Atlantic accessible only by ferry is a good place to learn how to become a good neighbor. It’s also good training for how to cope with self-isolation during a quarantine. I’d only recently begun living on the island when I received my first lesson in neighborliness.

I was walking down the dirt road to my 1880s wooden fisherman’s house with a gaggle of small children, two of my own and a few more I was taking care of. As I was herding my assorted pack of toddlers and preschoolers to our yard, I noticed my neighbor, who lived opposite us, walking past, but I did not say hello. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I must have been too preoccupied with looking out for the children. Or perhaps it was my ingrained New York habit of seeing and not seeing people at the same time.

Half an hour later, this neighbor came knocking at my door.

“Have I hurt your feelings?” she asked.

“No,” I answered, surprised by the directness of the question.

“Have I insulted you?”


“Have I cheated you?”


“Have I given you the evil eye?”

“No, no, no…”

“So why didn’t you say hello to me just now when you walked past?”

“I’m not sure why…” I muttered. “I was keeping an eye on the children I suppose, a lame excuse for my rudeness.

The next day, the neighbor came to my door again – this time with a plate of freshly baked cookies for my children.

That day I received a lesson for life.

I promised myself that never again would I walk past a person and not say hello.

I have kept my promise up until now.

When I lived in China, in a high rise in Beijing, whenever I saw neighbors in the elevator or the hallway, I would greet them, “Zau shan hao” or “Ni hao.”

“Don’t do that, and especially not to men,” scolded my Chinese colleagues, Beijing sophisticates.

However, I kept it up, and soon, people in my building would greet me first or wave or smile when they saw me in the lobby. Neighbors would rush ahead of me and push the button for my floor on the elevator. They’d make their small children wave “Bye-bye” as I continued on my way, or if we were in the elevator together, they’d patiently listen as I practiced my rudimentary Chinese conversation skills on them.

Amber Bay.
Amber Bay.

I had a harder time keeping up my vow to never walk past someone without saying hello when I moved back to Vilnius from China.

On Independence Day, in my Vilnius apartment building hallway, while climbing down five flights of stairs to the street exit, I ran into my neighbor from across the hall as she climbed up. This neighbor sported a hair style my French ex-boyfriend would have described as “Communist professional.” She was dressed in a formless gray tweed wool coat from another era and lugged thick, cumbersome boots on her feet. I’d been warned by Lithuanian friends that I should never antagonize the retired Communist Party functionaries who’ve lived in my building since before the fall of the Soviet Union. When they were young, and this building was new, it was exclusive to Party elites. Now, the structure was old and crumbling, with concrete balconies threatening to fall off and overcrowded parking lots designed for a time when a good Soviet citizen waited ten years to buy a car, thus limiting demand and ensuring a proliferation of parking spaces. My Lithuanian friends advised me to “make myself invisible” to the old functionaries because they would not like that I was Lithuanian-American. Nonetheless, I plowed on.

“Good morning, neighbor,” I said cheerfully, adding brightly, “Happy Independence Day to you!”

Well, that struck a nerve. She turned out to be one of those people who believed in some twisted Orwellian way that life had been better under the Soviet Union, before Independence turned them out of their cushy positions and societal privilege. Of course, the former deportees to Siberia and political prisoners of the same generation thought otherwise.

The woman skewed up her face and looked me up and down, taking in the patriotic Lithuanian flag pinned on my lapel. I was actually on my way to pick up a woman in her nineties who, in the postwar period, fought in the anti-Soviet resistance and who was going to be delivering a speech that morning from a stage outside of City Hall. Her only request was that I take a photo of her with Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, the man who led the nation to independence from the Soviet Union.

My neighbor’s face twisted into a grimace. Through clenched teeth, she said, “How long are you staying here with us?” (The not so subtle “us” was a reminder that I was a lone American capitalist here amongst “them,” the collective.)

Before I could answer, she added, “And where did you show up from?”

“My apartment…” I muttered.

“It’s been awfully quiet up there,” she commented, pointing upwards with her chin because her hands were occupied clutching tightly to her shopping bags.

“I like to keep myself to myself and not cause anyone any trouble,” I said, not quite defeated but a little unsure where this conversation was headed.

I was beginning to regret that I’d said good morning to this woman. I remembered what my friend, James Joseph Brown, who’d spent three years in the Peace Corps in Russia in the early nineties said to me when I asked why he never spoke Russian with anyone: “Because it wouldn’t be a conversation, but an interrogation.”

I decided to cut this interrogation short.

“Have a nice day,” I said and left.

Will I say hello to her the next time I see her?

Yes, I will. I will keep trying.

Now, here in Amber Bay, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who got the brilliant idea to run away from the city and head for the coast. Sometimes, it seems as though half the population of Kaunas and Vilnius have decided to spend their quarantine breathing fresh air in the National Forest on the Curonian Spit. Well then, I resolved that even if I’m hiking in the middle of the pine forest or on some deserted stretch of beach, I must say hello if I walk past someone.

I find that usually, after I say hello, people walk past me and say nothing. Sometimes, they mutter under their breath, “Crazy woman.”

Yesterday, while hiking in the sand dunes, I ran into a family with two young children. I smiled pleasantly and said hello. The children cheerfully said hello back. But their parents gave me the once-over, followed by a dirty look, and stalked away in silence. What sort of an example is that for their children? A friendly auntie (okay, maybe she does come across as a little odd) says hello, and you maintain a stoic silence?

I believe that people can heal their inner wounds by simply saying, “hello.” Saying “hello” is an exchange of energy. It takes barely three seconds to utter those two syllables: “He-llo.” When you greet a stranger, or an acquaintance, or anyone, you ought to show respect. It’s a way of reminding them that we all live together here on this planet.

As a student, I would spend the weekends at my grandparents’ house as they grew older. I remember that when my grandfather woke up in the morning, he’d say brightly in Lithuanian: “Good morning on this fine morning.” (Labas rytas iš pat ryto)

My grandfather always woke up in a good mood. That small life lesson remains with me to this day. That gentle utterance, the good energy in those words, “Good morning” is something you carry with you throughout your day.

Out in the yard outside my building, along the edge of the Witches Hill Forest, the enraged sculptor is continually chopping firewood. He’s out there eternally chopping firewood with his small ax, stacking it alongside his shed. He balances a log on a stump and gives it a firm whack with his strong sculptor’s arm, splitting it precisely down the middle.

Let’s call him, “The Woodcutter” for now. Every day I pass by him as I slip into the forest on my daily walk. I always say, “Good day,” in return, I get silence.

But this morning, the Woodcutter said, “Good morning” back to me for the first time. I have hope now that one day we may actually exchange a few words, and maybe one day we may become friends.

So, I invite all of you to join me in my “Hello” revolution. Wherever you are, when you see a neighbor or a passerby, just say hello. Obviously, if you are in a big city and the streets are packed, it is hardly possible to say “hello” to everyone, but you can try. In these times of quarantine, when those of us who venture outside our homes rarely meet another soul, simply saying hello does mean something. The least that saying “hello” can do is put you and the person you say “hello” to in a good mood. A heartfelt hello is like a reflection of all the good in the universe.

Hello to all of you!

First published in Lithuanian as “Karantino dienoraštis,” Dominicus Lituanus, 2021.

A Juodkrantė scene.

“Draugas NEWS”, December 2023 edition.