What’s Lithuania really about – and why we don’t quite belong in the East nor West.
There was a time when I wished my name was Elizabeth Smith. I can’t remember why I picked that particular one. I just knew that life would be so much easier, brighter, and more exciting…if only I had a Western name.
My real name is impossible to pronounce to anyone who isn’t Lithuanian. “Eagle Grrrr….?” was what most of my University of West England lecturers would manage. “Egg – Elle”, “Ug-Ley”, “Eagle” and a myriad other variations followed whenever I told foreigners my name. But what was even worse was the inevitable next question, “where are you from?”, and an inevitable, doubting “ah” when I said, ‘Lithuania’. Ah, that country. Eastern Europe. Ah-a.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, there was freedom and excitement in the air. What’s next? Where are we going? Oh, what incredible things we’ll do now that we’re free!
But somewhere along the way, it felt like Lithuania abruptly quit looking for that unique new direction. Instead – unsurprisingly – we chose to look to the West. It made sense: we needed allies, a strong economy and solid international relations. “We’ll soon live just like the Swedes”, politicians promised in 1995. “We need to become part of the real Europe”, slogans promoting the campaign of joining the European Union proclaimed in 2003, just before Lithuania became a member EU state.
Wanting to join the cool kids so badly and so blindly, we missed the mark so often. We went over the top with the discos and denim, but still went to universities by trolleybuses, ugly Soviet-era ghosts in the streets of Vilnius. We learned English, but our accents were hopelessly Eastern European; our literature was intriguingly dark and hopeful at the same time, but not worldly. Our spirits were up, but the economy never kept up with them. Our politicians, once partisans and troubadours of freedom, now morphed into sleazy mediocre businessmen.
At the same time, we were making progress. Cities grew, replacing the gray concrete apartment blocks like old snake skins, renovating beautiful medieval old towns, parks and Baroque buildings of better times. Universities and academies produced world class artists and scientists. Basketball put us on the map, jazz kept us there, and laser technologies guaranteed new cash flow from foreign investments.
In the eyes of Western Europe, though, we were never quite European enough. For decades, we remained that weird cousin with an awkward haircut and a funny accent. Most Westerners just assumed we were kind of Russian, more or less, and looked at Lithuania with a bit of a benevolent but patronizing smile.
And so for years, I wished I had a Western name. I used to tell people, “just call me Elle”, so the embarrassing explanations would be over. “Northern Europe”, I’d say vaguely, whenever foreigners wanted to know where I was from. I wasn’t ashamed of my origins – far from it.
But I simply didn’t know how to explain it all to people in a sentence.
How could I explain, in two minutes or less, that Lithuania isn’t really Western or Eastern at all? That we are a tiny but strangely unique country, and our language is one of the oldest in the world, stemming directly from Sanskrit? That my name, Egle, means “Evergreen”, and that it is a symbol of resistance: Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe, and under the Soviet rule, giving children old, pre-Christian names was a means of quiet defiance.
Lithuania is a country of magical realism, where the real and the fantastical merge, blurring the lines between the imagined and the tangible. It’s in our legends: the pagan kings of old were said to be shapeshifters, transforming themselves into wolves and bears at will. It’s in our habits: my grandfather would leave a small bowl of milk at the threshold for serpents and hedgehogs that lived in his barn – a house that had serpents was thought to be blessed… It’s in our fairy tales: Lithuanian forests are full of kaukai, little wooden elves, laumes, magnificent witches, and aitvarai – restless spirits of fire and wind, said to bring both luck and heartache.
It’s in our history: Vilnius was built by a heathen lord who saw an iron wolf in a dream, and his royal sages foretold he would build a city whose fame and glory would travel as far as the howl of the iron wolf. It’s in our names: my own, Egle, Evergreen; Saule, Sun; Dalia, Fate; and Daina, Song.
Lithuania is not the West nor the East. We have none of the Germanic ruthlessness nor any of the Slavic depression. We’ve borrowed some of the Scandinavian reserve but have none of their Nordic futurism. We’re amused by Polish fierceness but prefer our own version of quiet creativity; we’re fascinated by the Hungarian grandeur and Russian pomp, but we’re all about strange Baltic legends and big dreams.
A quest for identity is never an easy one. In Lithuania, it’s still turbulent and painful, messy and complicated. But it’s also wonderful. And exotic, and intriguing, and magical. Sure, it’s also ridiculous and small sometimes.
But I am, finally, thankful, that my name is not Elizabeth Smith.