Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Morning After

The warning Nate got about his inlaws turned out to be fair--they were indeed up partying all night. However, no Eastern European--not even a Ruski--has anything on Stauber. When I came down from the bunk room the next morning, I found him asleep on the table where we had been eating dinner the previous night. Apparently, he had just "gone to bed."

While Stauber slumbered in the dining room, the rest of us hung out on the grounds of the lodge where there was a sauna, a lake, a swing, and various other lounging aids. After a while, I noticed that a group of people had gathered near the picnic tables and made my way over. There, was Lina's grandmother, who was addressing the small crowd as Mendogas and Lina translated.

It turned out that she was talking about her experience as a Lithuanian who was deported to Siberia in the early 1940s. Along with 12,000 other "enemies of the people," she had been arrested and moved to a Soviet work camp. Together, she and Lina's dad explained what it was like to be a Lithuanian before, during and after the Soviet occupation from 1939-1990.

While they tried to make their accounts as educational as possible, it was clear there was a lot of emotion behind their stories. Living under Soviet occupation had been financially devastating as well as demoralizing for most Lithuanians. As I listened to Lina's family members tell their stories, I got my first glimpse into this country's fierce sense of national pride.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cousin Sam

As the evening went on, it became evident that the singer of the band spoke perfect English and knew quite a few English-language songs. Cousin Sam, a passionate musician, managed to convince the band to take a break from Lithuanian music and play a song or two in English. He even volunteered to pick up a guitar and play along.

Before anyone knew what was happening, the band was rocking to AC/DC and Sam was basically head banging. One minute people were dancing to Hava Nagila-style wedding music, and the next, well, um, Who Made Who was blasting from the small stage. After a few songs, the band switched back and Nate's mother and uncle let out a big breath. Man, do I love weddings. I also really like Cousin Sam.

Ay, Ay, Captain!

At last we were able to take a break from the photos, the posing and the feats of strength and kick back with the other guests. It's unclear if Nate officially passed his challenges, but judging by the warm welcome Team Americanas got from Lina's friends and family, I'd say he made the least informally.

At this point, the beer started to flow and the reserved, buttoned up Lithuanians began to unwind. Many of them spoke beautiful English and were able to help Lina and Mendogas with all the translations. After an hour or so on the patio, we moved inside to the lodge where we were seated at a large, wooden table. It looked like something out of a cartoon, where intoxicated Germans might congregate, holding frothy beer steins that spilled their contents with every belly laugh. There were even animal heads on the wall behind us. Awesome.

The table setting was elaborate, with all sorts of special decorations in celebration of the newlyweds. Not only were there custom-made embroidered wall hangings, but there were personalized candies, complete with photos of bride and groom. The best part was that each section of the table was assigned a Lithuanian captain who was to be in charge of vodka consumption. In this important role, any time he or she felt as though a member of the table section was slacking on consumption, the captain would join them in doing a shot. Genious.

Throughout the evening, we were served all kind of traditional dishes while an accordion player and singer rocked song after song. The Lithuanians belted the words to each number in a drunken delight as they swayed in unison, encouraging the rest of us to sway along.

Here we are, just getting started:

Feats of Strength

After a stop at a vista point for additional photo opps and a drive through some quaint little towns, we arrived at the reception site. The minute we stopped, a young boy darted onto the van and handed out candy to each of us. We never did find out why.

Before we had time to unload our bags, an accordion started playing traditional wedding music and Nate was directed to the lawn area. Relatives had started to gather and we joined them in a circle around the bride and groom. Poor Nate looked like he needed a minute to gather himself, but again rose to the occasion and began clapping along to the music.

What happened next felt like a scene from Something About Mary. Nate was handed an ax and instructed to chop a piece of wood, to demonstrate that he could keep his bride warm during the long Baltic winter. Not having had much ax experience, Nate shrugged light heartedly and took a swing. While he did hit the piece of wood, it didn't quite split in half. Errr...

As if on cue, Lina's dad then stepped up and picked up the ax. Let's just say his family would be warm and toasty all winter.

Finally, Nate had to pick up his bride one last time to carry her across a seesaw. Not kidding.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Blue Steel

After the bridge-crossing feat, we made our way to a picturesque home in the woods that seemed to belong to the wedding photographer. The living quarters hinted of a fairy tale where one might expect to find a despondent Baltic maiden with some kind of magical pet who helps her to overthrough her evil oppressor. Did she live here for real or was the property only for photo shoots? A lot of questions went unanswered that day, but I was OK with that as it made things seem even more mysterious and exotic.

The next question had to do with costuming. Why was it that members of the wedding party were being photographed with various unrelated props? I was pretty sure Nate was no sax player and that his sister, Amy, had nothing to do with the navy (above). Was it some kind of Baltic tradition? This went on for at least an hour while the rest of us snacked on pickled vegetables and salmon tea sandwiches.

After a few more series of curious photos, we got back in the van, unsure of what would come next. The Lithuanians seemed completely at ease with all the posing and shuffling around whereas the Americans were bewildered as to why they weren't drinking yet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Over the River

Back on the foreigner van, we discussed what the rest of the evening might hold in store. Nate had warned us of his inlaws' proclivity for heavy drinking and tireless dancing that often lasts past noon on the following day. But these people seemed so stiff (not in a stuffy way, but in a crisp, Baltic kind of way). It was difficult to picture them slamming drinks and shaking it on the dance floor to George Michael...or even Journey for that matter.

As I was flipping through my mental catalogue of "that-would-be-funny" wedding song selections, the van pulled over. We were in the middle of nowhere. What was going on? The driver motioned for us to get out and when we did, we noticed a bridge stretching out ahead. OMG, was this really happening? As we walked toward the the bridge, I glanced at Nate's mom who looked more than a little nervous. This bridge was no tiny brook crossing--it was long.

One of the relatives signaled Nate to pick up his bride and carry her across. Stauber immediately took out his camera and began grinning ear to ear. And me? I just hoped that nothing happened to Lina's dress. Or Nate's back. OMG.

The next few minutes seemed unreal. As if it were nothing, Nate scooped up his gorgeous, 6-foot-tall bride and whisked her across the bridge, with the river beneath. The moment had the feeling from one of those 80s movies when the lovable protagonist accomplishes the seemingly impossible, like when the Nerds beat the Alpha Betas to win the Greek Games in Revenge of the Nerds (not that Nate is a nerd, but he does wear glasses). He carried her the entire distance with confidence and grace. Everyone cheered on the side of the road, in a mix of Lithuanian and English.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nate Gets Hitched

The foreigner van dropped us off at the wedding church where we unloaded and milled around for a while in the shade. While Nate and Lina were busy greeting guests, I stood by while Stauber took a few calls from what I guessed to be his trading colleagues. Each time he'd answer, he'd get a serious look on his face and respond with, "Ok, yeah, sell" or "mmmm...let me get right back to you on that." It all seemed very Wall St. with a hint of Hollywood. I liked it.

With Stauber preoccupied for the time being, I was left on my own to survey the premises. After some thought I concluded that their wedding chapel was one of the prettiest I had come across, which is really saying something since I visited (read: was forced to visit) just about every "iglesia" one can visit throughout the entire nation of Spain...and then some. Towards the end of the semester, every last student in my study abroad group could identify and describe in detail the features of their favorite cupola. (Today, my friend Brian would would offer his nerd call on that one: "nerp, nerp.")

After a beautiful ceremony, of we which understood next to nothing, we went back outside for an extensive photo sesh (complete with a clergyman in a druid outfit). Then we were loaded back into the foreigner van, presumably headed for the reception site. By that point we had given up hope on the bride-and-groom bridge crossing, assuming it was just a rumor created by the locals to scare the hell out of Nate. Or maybe once they heard about the beaver, they decided he couldn't handle any more "local traditions?"

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Farm

The next morning we were off to Lina's dad's farmhouse, where the wedding pre-party would take place. As promised, we got to hang out among black current bushes, edible mushrooms, apple orchards, the family's bee-keeping operation, and some hearty Lithuanian sheep. Lina's dad built and runs this farm solo and keeps up its rustic Baltic charm.

After we had completed the tour, we gathered on the front lawn waiting for Lina to make her big reveal. When she stepped out of the house in her white gown, our group inhaled a collective gasp. She was stunning. And statuesque. And, OMG how was Nate going to carry her across a bridge in that dress?
Next we moved inside for snacks and spirits and several heartfelt toasts that were translated back and forth with the help of Lina and Mendogas. The brother-sister translation team had to be exhausted at this point, and the day had barely begun.

English-speaking guest to Lina: "Lina, please tell your father that his farm is lovely." Lina passes on the message and responds on behalf of her dad: "My father wants to thank you for your kind words." Mendogas for his father: "My father invites everyone to please enjoy the spread of food." Guests: "Oh, please tell him the dill spread is delicious and we appreciate his warm generosity." It went on like this all day.

Soon enough we were shepherded back into the foreigner van, now with several cars full of friends and cousins lined up behind us to follow our lead. As we pulled out of the farm, I took one last look at the sheep while Mendogas translated for the driver. "Please, everybody, sit down."


Two hours later we arrived in Alytus and checked into our hotel. Lina had organized for all the foreign wedding guests to stay at one place, which I'm sure Baby Brother Mendogas appreciated. This meant he didn't have to keep track of us all. Once safely inside the air conditioned building, poor Cousin Sam went straight to bed while the rest of us geared up for the parental introduction luncheon.

With Lina translating, the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom traded well wishes and dignified gifts. Meanwhile, the boys had caught wind of the fact that Nate would be forced to complete several acts of strength and bravery as part of the following day's marriage rituals and began placing bets on how it would all shake down.

Would our Nate be able to carry the bride across an entire bridge? Was it true that he'd have to engage in some kind of violent duel before he'd be considered worthy of her hand? Why wasn't this being filmed by MTV, cause, man, the entirety of "Nate's Lithuanian Wedding" would trump Jersey Shore before viewers could say holyshiticas.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Has Anyone Seen Stauber?

The next day we were scheduled to travel by van to Alytus (pronounced “Al-ee-tas”), the home town of Lina and Mendogas. However, there was a bit of drama getting out of Vilnius on time. You see our especially fun friend Dave Stauber, had arrived the night before. Wired from his flight, he convinced 20-year-old Cousin Sam and me to join him for some late night shenanigans post dinner. Let’s just say that Cousin Sam, an endearing little thing with a heavy British accent, was no match for the blinding force behind Stauber’s party power.

The next morning, poor Sam arrived at the van, in a bad way. Hungover and exhausted, he had somehow managed to spend all the funds allotted for his trip, which still had 4 days remaining. Meanwhile, Stauber was nowhere to be found. While I attempted to track him down, Sam begged his cousins to buy him some bottled water. ("A bit of water would be luvely, if it's not a bothah.") Eventually, we all made it on the van, with a frazzled, sheepish Stauber haphazardly stuffing clothes into his bag. Mendogas sat up front with the driver, no doubt apologizing for his cross to bare: Team Americanas.

This scenario immediately brought me back to the era of high school field trips. In fact, it was Nate and I, along with our friend Verd and some other delinquents, who caused a similar holdup on the Chatham High School trip to DC, back in ‘92. Convinced it was a good idea to indulge in a bottle of Southern Comfort (we were in the South, right?), a group of us wound up drinking ourselves sick at the hotel after a day of sightseeing.* Verd, now a Harvard educated attorney who appears on CNN as an expert commentator, attempted to explain his delayed bus arrival and disheveled appearance to our teacher, Dr. Freiberger, with an excuse he’ll never live down: “I ate some bad fish.”

*Let it be noted that Nate was an innocent bystander in this operation.

Enter Mendogas

Since Lina was still at her father’s house, preparing for the wedding pre-party, she had arranged for her brother Mendogas to show “The Americanas” around Vilnius. At this point, we had become quite a large group as Nate’s mom and her husband had joined us, along with Nate’s aunt and uncle, their two daughters, and a stray cousin from England by the name of Sam.

At last we encountered "baby brother" Mendogas, the tallest person I’ve ever met. A city historian and proud resident, we couldn’t have been in better, or larger, hands. As he aptly explained the historical significance and artistic value of each point of interest, he trotted us all around Old Town—up to the castle, around the main square, past what I deemed the Lithuanian Darth Vader statue (see photo), and through the ancient city gates. I guessed that we looked like bunch of little ducklings following their large, Lithuanian mother.

As my jetlag set in, the group walking tour started to feel like some sort of tourism endurance test, and I didn't care if my failure made my countrymen seem apathetic and lazy (plus, we kind of are). “Mendogas?” I asked with trepidation, looking way up at him to meet his eyes. “Um, would it be ok if I went back to the hotel for a bit before dinner?” “Yes,” he responded flatly with zero facial expression, indeed a man of few words. So back went the little Americanas with her figurative hall pass, to lay around…and sweat.


The next morning we met up with another wedding guest and hit the hotel’s continental breakfast. Damian, a proper Englishman and fellow History professor, had arrived the night before while we were at dinner. Over coffee, we brought him up to speed on the beaver situation as Nate’s stomachache had not improved. “Is it even legal to eat beaver?” he inquired.

Little did I know, this breakfast would set the culinary stage for the next three weeks. Spread over a few large tables was a selection of meats (mostly ham-looking items), some hard boiled eggs, sliced cheese and tomatoes, an assortment of pickled vegetables, a choice of dark and light bread, a big bowl of pink yoghurt, and a few cold cereal options.

When Nate saw that I had opted for the brown cereal with the pink yoghurt he commented, “Oh, I see you’ll be dining on the Cocopufficas?” Sure enough, the cereal turned out to be the
Lithuanian version of Coco Puffs (see above photo taken during a later trip to the market).

According to Nate, when in doubt regarding an English to Lithuanian translation, simply add an “as” to the end of the word. For example, salon becomes salonas. You can also recognize a Lithuanian name by the presence of an “as” as in Medogas, Lina’s brother, and my good friend Tony (from Antanas) Brasunas. No wonder the the hotel staff kept called me "Americanas."

A Dam Fine Meal

So off we went into Old Town Vilnus in search of dinner—Nate, Amy, Amy’s husband Ryan, and I. Luckily, I had a Lonely Planet book that covered Lithuania, which meant that I was put in charge of finding a restaurant and mapping our way. Bleary eyed and spacey from the 10-hour time change, I paged through the book. “How about this place, guys? They have traditional Lithuanian food, like spiced wine and, ummm, something about all kinds of hunting game.” No one had the energy to come up with an alternative, so traditional Lithuanian fare it was.

By the time the waitress came over to take our order, we had consumed enough beer to convince Nate he should order the Beaver stew. Billed as a house specialty, it looked kind of interesting and, after all, how could we (read: Nate) pass up a Lithuanian tradition?

Newly pregnant, Amy wondered if she should even have a bite. “Is it safe?” she asked. Fresh off my
canoe trip through Minnesota, I knew where she was coming from. “Those things are like river dogs, with all kinds of bizarre oil glands and super powered tail muscles. I’d steer clear.”

Over dinner we swapped transport stories and learned what was in store for us over the next few days: a tour of Vilnus, a visit to a black current farm, the wedding, and then an all-night reception at a campsite with cabins and a sauna. “Oh, and Lina’s 6 foot 6 “baby” brother, Mendogas, is gonna be our tour guide of sorts throughout the trip. He’s a man of few words, doesn’t take no for an answer, and can knock back vodka like it’s lemon aid. Something is bound to go awry.”

By this time, we had finished dinner and moved onto vodka…and beaver jokes. “Well this certainly shaped up to be a dam fine dinner!”
Ryan announced, slapping Nate on the back. Amy, completely sober, rolled her eyes.

When Nate called Lina later that night with the report on our first night out, she burst into laughter. Having lived in Lithuanian most of her life, she explained that she’s never once been offered beaver. “Damnit!” Nate responded, now experiencing the beginnings of a stomach ache. “Those bastards passed off their crap meat as a local delicacy and we played right into it. I’m gonna blame Lauren so she can deal with the scorn of your brother tomorrow.”

Lietuvos Respublika (Lithuania)

It’s been almost three months since I went to Lithuania for my friend Nate’s wedding. I’m not sure how that’s possible, yet here we are in October, my favorite month. I swear it feels like just last week that I was subsisting on all things pickled with the ever-curious bright pink beat soup the only respite. Here’s how three weeks in Eastern Europe went down.

A Bit of Background

Nate is a friend of mine from home. (Fun fact: we were born on the same day.) His little sister, Amy, is my little sister’s best friend. Nate, who’s a History professor complete with requisite glasses and beard, fell in love with Lina, a Lithuanian researcher at his University. The two of them held a traditional Lithuanian wedding on July 31st and a handful of us flew over there to cheer him on. (Woot!)


From the minute I arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, it was clear that this country was gonna make me work for it. With no one speaking a lick of English at the airport (um, shit?) and zero signs to point me toward a downtown bus, I was lucky an Irish business traveler took pity on me. He must have noticed me pacing back and forth in a jetlagged daze, saddled with my 5-ton backpack.

“This country will drive ya mad with disorganization, you know,” he explained in his darling accent. “But if you’re looking for rich history and breathtaking countryside, you’ve come to the right place.” And with that, he pretty much threw me on the bus, paying for my ticket since buying one would have been a multi-step process requiring small bills, native language skills and at least 10mg of Valium.

Eventually I made it to the hotel and found Nate alone in his room, cursing in a pool of sweat. “It’s so effing hot in this hotel, I’m gonna kill someone. Why don’t you get yourself together and we’ll grab some food and beers? Lina’s at her dad’s house for the night, but Amy and Ryan are here…and starving. Let’s get the hell outa here.”