LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 1 - Spring 2007
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura
Going Back: Journal Entries of a Peace Corps Volunteer
Indrė Biskis is a Lithuanian American, born in Chicago. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Klaipėda, Lithuania from 1992–1994. She has an MBA in finance and economics and is currently employed by World Learning in Washington, DC.
July, 2006, Alexandria, Virginia
I am sitting on my balcony with my laptop. A hot, humid, summer night quickly closes in – I am very happy to be here and feel as if everything I have done in my life has brought me to this point. I’ve been working in Washington since June at World Learning, a non-profit organization specializing in education and training. One of the main visions of World Learning is to bring diverse people together through training and cultural exchange. It is no coincidence that the Peace Corps mission is so similar.
A decision I made fourteen years ago brought me here.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago – Downers Grove – a tomboy through and through – outside all of the time, riding my horse, climbing trees, surrounded by my animals and my quite elaborate insect collection. My brother and I were together all of the time until I went to school, where I finally started speaking English in second grade. I would have preferred to be alone with my interests, but socially, I led a double-life. During the week, I was an American, a cheerleader, in love with the teenage idols, but on weekends (and most evenings) my extracurricular activities were Lithuanian dance, song, and Saturday school. During the week I was cheering the basketball team on with “Go team GO!” but on Saturdays, when my parents would “import” Lithuanian friends, we sang a song: “Grįšim, grįšim, ten kur teka, Nemunėlis ir Nėris,” which in translation says: “We will return, we will return, to the land where the Nemunas and Nėris rivers flow…” Though I was not born in Lithuania, the concept of “going back” was always strong in my mind.
I became a Lithuanian activist when I moved to New York in 1985 after graduate school. Being Lithuanian provided access to a ready-made circle of friends in the big cold city – all that was needed was to get the widely dispersed Lithuanians together. I joined UBA Batun – United Baltic Appeal to the United Nations – a lobbying group whose purposes was to keep the Baltic nations on the UN agenda. I was also involved with the Baltic Youth Association, a group that by the late 1980s had become increasingly vocal with demonstrations supporting the Soviet-occupied nations. We shouted the cause in New York to anyone who would listen, and with the advent of Sąjudis, more and more started to listen. We captured the interest of US Senators – Alphonse D’Amato became our good friend – and we found excellent speakers for our events including the wife of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn as well as the director of the AFL-CIO. Our activities received some coverage in the national media.
In short, my commitment to Lithuania ran very deep and was beyond my own control. I have had many conversations with my fellow first generation friends about the “Lithuanian guilt” we were instilled with – our feeling of responsibility to, in some way, acknowledge and help the country of our fathers and mothers. When the Lithuanian daily newspaper Draugas advertised in autumn of 1991 that the US Peace Corps was looking for volunteers for Lithuania, my passions responded immediately. I had been working toward medical school in Chicago, but I felt compelled to apply.
January 1992, Chicago, Illinois
I walk into the Chicago Peace Corps office for the first time. I have dreamed of being a Peace Corps volunteer but never thought I had the profile for it; even now I think they will never accept me – it’s too demanding, I’ll never make it through “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I fill out the applications, and over the next few weeks faithfully deliver what the letters ask of me. The application asks for preferences but clearly states that one must be willing to be posted anywhere. Of course I write Lithuania as my first preference but name other Eastern European countries as well.
March, 1992, Chicago, Illinois
While on my way to the airport for a short visit to the East Coast, I open from that day’s mail an envelope from the Peace Corps that shocks me to the core. Inside is a formal invitation to serve for two years as a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer in the Republic of Lithuania. They want an answer in one week.
I am torn, wanting to go but not wanting to leave my friends. Chicago is the secure route, following through on medical school, staying with my boyfriend. The former Soviet Union is the unknown – anything but secure. During my trip to New York, I visit my good friend Daiva, one of my partners in my New York activist days. We take a long drive to Boston, stopping in Connecticut along the way.
March 12, 1992, Putnam, Connecticut
This trip is exactly what I need. We visit Daiva’s good friend Sister Ignė, the director of a Lithuanian camp I had been to as a girl. She is the head nun at the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Putnam. With a sprig of brown hair showing at her brow from under her blue habit, her eyes are sparkling and bright, her demeanor cheerful and full of life. She has recently returned from an extended trip to Lithuania, just out from under the yoke of Soviet occupation. We walk the grounds of the convent and she tells of conditions in the recovering country. In the kitchen after our walk, I am washing a dish as I ask my question.
Suddenly she becomes extremely serious and looks me in the eye: “The people are scared, confused, and depressed, and life is very, very hard there. You will go, you will work hard, 43 you will suffer, and at the end of it all, no one may even thank you for it... but GO!” I ask the next logical question – “Why?” “Because it is necessary,” she says, “Dėlto kad reikia.”
The day I return to Chicago I meditate by Lake Michigan, thinking of both Sister Ignė’s words and my own desire to be of service to Lithuania. Breaking the pattern of my perfectly protected life, I decide to go. I attribute this decision to fear. I do not want to look back and be sorry I never took this opportunity. I also think that some higher power has a hand in this. After making the decision, I feel as if I’ve taken a dive off of a towering cliff. I have no idea what lies at the bottom, but somehow I know things will be OK.
Most of my friends are supportive. Nevertheless, I hear some of them are making bets on how long “Princess” is going to last in Lithuania – one month? half a year? Will I stick to my commitments? Will I finish what I start?
July 20-23, 1992, Alexandria, Virginia
The Peace Corps trainees for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania arrive at the Washington airport with our eighty pounds of baggage – the only material tie we will have with home for possibly the next two years. A three-day orientation takes place at the Sheraton Hotel in Alexandria, right next to the Pentagon. I don’t know what to expect – I have boots for Arctic temperatures, water purification tablets, all kinds of antibiotics, and formal business attire – later I will find that my wardrobe is entirely too light and a leather jacket is not enough to stay warm in the Baltic winters.
My colleagues are about twenty Small Enterprise Development Peace Corps trainees, each destined for one of the three Baltic countries. Seven of us have been posted to Lithuania, a number that will eventually shrink to five. We are from all over – California to Virginia. Most have over ten years of experience in various business fields. Men and women are about evenly split. Our ages range from twenty-five to oversixty. Some of us have done a great deal of traveling; some have never left the country. The one thing we have in common is that we want to make a difference. In one of the exercises during this orientation in Alexandria we create a timeline of our two years to come – what do we seek to accomplish? And how much, realistically, can we accomplish? Making a difference, we decide, will not be one giant event – rather, it will be comprised of many small ones. Relationships with people are most important. We discuss cultural differences, how to be sensitive to the unfamiliar cultures we are about to enter. Rapport is critical; learning from others is key – the best teacher is one who undergoes a change herself – it’s a dynamic process. We know almost nothing of each other as we begin, but bonds are quickly forged.
We do know which countries we’re being sent to, but not the towns where we’ll ultimately be posted. This will be determined during the three-month training that will begin after we arrive in country. On our last night in the US, groups form to go out to dinner – but I just want to relax in my hotel room and talk with friends back home. From room service I order “the best hamburger ever made” because it’s something I won’t have for two years.
July 24, 1992, en route from Washington to Riga
Our initial takeoff from Dulles Airport in Washington DC is delayed and we sit on the tarmac for four hours. Another unexplained twelve-hour delay in Stockholm has us sleeping on the floor of the airport. Apparently there is something wrong with the plane so we finally are put on an Aeroflot flight. It is no coincidence that it is sometimes jokingly called “Aeroflop” – the interior seats are not fastened and flop around into the forward position as you walk by them. Somehow the cabin has a less than solid feel.
We finally land in Riga around 10 pm. The first thing that impresses me is that the sun is still shining. We take our first group photo and then are herded onto a bus that takes us to our dormitory. What impresses me are the many small garden houses that dot the outskirts of the city. Everybody has a little piece of land that they utilize to the fullest. As we approach the center of town, there are larger houses but they don’t seem to be any more permanent than those in the country – everything looks old and unkempt. Our rooms are in an old institute dorm, a rude contrast to the Sheraton we left not 24 hours before. Though it is mid-summer, the air is crisp and cool. The rooms are chilly too, with concrete flooring that makes them seem colder. The showers dribble only cold water – it’s the time of year the city does maintenance and turns off the hot water for two weeks. The hot water and the heating will stay off, because of the less than friendly relations with energy-providing Russia next door. Living in this room I immediately feel like I am catching a cold. The beds are old, the lighting dim, but a wonderful party awaits us – ethnic singers and dancers, traditional food – delicious cheeses, all sorts of gastronomic delights. That is how we begin our stay in Riga, Latvia.
In Riga I am impressed by the electric trolleybuses maneuvering like puppets on strings through the windy, cobblestone streets of Old Town. Typically women are the drivers and more than once, on a Saturday night, I see them on a “date” with their boyfriends nestled next to them near the driver’s seat. On one of my many walks through Riga, I find a street called Indreika, my mother’s maiden name.
One weekend a group of us takes off for a Russian army base south of Liepaja for a camping trip – the truth is, we don’t know we are heading for a Russian army base and when we get there we are nervous that we’ll be dismissed from the Peace Corps for our unauthorized adventure. The Russian soldiers on the beach interrogate us, asking where we’re from and what we’re doing there, but the trip turns out fine.
August 7, 1992 en route from Riga to Vilnius
We leave Riga by bus for Vilnius. We arrive in the latter part of the day, during an unprecedented heat wave and drought in Vilnius. We stay in a “hotel” near the Pedagogical Institute that is perhaps one step up from the dorm in Latvia. We are beginning to appreciate that we are in new territory where the entire standard of living is different. The energy issues continue so the cold showers do too. Some of us are al46 ready looking less well groomed than we were upon arrival. I consider chopping off my waist-length hair. Here, we begin our three-month orientation and training in Lithuania. Arthur, now known as Artūras, walks across the Nėris with me to the Parliament Building, the first thing I want to see when we arrive. Concrete blocks and barbed wire still surround the area. Then I see the flowers, the writings on the wall written for and about those who died in the siege in January of the past year, along with the photos of the victims… extremely moving.
After two weeks at the Pedagogical Institute, we move in with host families in typical apartment complexes in and around Vilnius to get the feel of how Lithuanians live. My family is the farthest out in a northern suburb, about an hour by bus from the center called Baltupiai. The buses seem always overcrowded, packed with pushy, mostly unpleasant people who seem to stare all of the time. Once or twice my host family’s father drives me to class in his fluorescent-green Russian Zaproziets toy-like car. The trip is less than ten minutes; but gasoline is scarce and expensive so there are few cars on the road. Some drivers keep their lights off – even at night – because they say it saves the bulbs of their headlights. Another way you can get around is to flag a car down – any car. This is what was done in the Soviet days. You just tell the driver where you are going and if it fits his plans, he will drop you off. It is customary to pay a little for this service. Taxis exist but they are not easy to find and very expensive. I usually take a bus.
The Peace Corps allots us a per diem of a few dollars a day. These are royal wages in comparison to the locals. We are paid in dollars which we take to the currency exchange to obtain Russian rubles. Soon the rubles are changed to the interim currency of “talonai”, nicknamed “little animals” because of the pictures of storks, wild boars, and other indigenous wildlife on the different denominations. There aren’t many places to spend our money. A full lunch at a local cafeteria costs about twelve cents – and that is going all out with a glass of kefir, beet soup, black bread, a mystery meat cutlet with that day’s 47 version of potatoes, boiled sauerkraut, fruit cocktail, a small cake and tea. We joke that the astronomical inflation rate can be felt at the currency exchange counter – you get more notes for your dollar the longer you wait...
September, October, November, 1992, Vilnius
For the next two months, the group spends many hours in training – five days a week, eight hours a day.
During training I get to skip the Lithuanian language classes because I already speak the language fluently, though I notice that many of the words I know from home are not used in Lithuania – it seems the language has changed significantly over the past fifty years. I find out my surname Biskis means “a little bit” and comes from a German word “Bisken”. If my name were of Lithuanian origin it would be “Truputis.” This fascinating fact had never made much of a difference in the US.
While others are in Lithuanian class, I work as an editor at the Baltic News – a weekly English-language journal. I don’t know how good I am at this job, but I learn a great deal about Lithuanian life from the senior editor Danguolė and from her assistant, who seems to have a permanent speech defect. I find out later that he has this “condition” because he was placed in an asylum by the KGB during his high school years in the 70s in order to “rehabilitate” him. Apparently, he was once an extremely bright and dynamic young man with much potential. Now he seems slow, stuttering all of the time, and his eyes seem somehow vacant.
In between projects I make the rounds of international aid organizations in Vilnius. There is a lot of foreign assistance from the US, the EU, and the Nordic countries. I go to the International Executive Service Corps office, to USAID, to the Chambers of Commerce. Everyone in these organizations seems busy. On the streets I am constantly running into friends whom I knew from conferences in the United States – one now works at the Ministry of Agriculture, one at the Bank of Lithuania, one at the US Baltic Foundation, one at the UN. Daiva 48 Venckutė, a newly made friend in Vilnius who is originally from California, is working for the Parliament. When the Dalai Lama arrives in Lithuania for a three-day visit, she escorts and translates. I am also fascinated to meet and hear stories from some of the young people who had helped to defend the Parliament during the January 1991 siege.
As part of our training, we have occasional “field assignments”. One takes us to the Universalinė Parduotuvė. The national TV program “Panorama” is there to interview us. A reporter asks me if I am an altruist. He finds it difficult to believe that we can be businesspeople and altruists at the same time.
Language continues to be an important part of our training. One day my Peace Corps colleague Heidi is waiting to take a trolleybus home from the flower market and a woman gives her a pen and a piece of paper that looks like a map. She keeps saying “Savanorių, Savanorių.” Well, one of the first things Peace Corps Lithuania volunteers learn to say is that we are volunteers – “savanoriai.” Heidi thinks the lady has seen her on TV and is asking for her autograph. She takes the pen, signs the woman’s map, gets into her waiting trolleybus, and rolls away. The woman is left rather confused with the pen and map in her hands, still wondering where Savanorių Street is.
Everything seems gray – the people, the streets, the houses, the nights. When you spot color it is unusual or plastic. Like the kiosks – little box shops no bigger than an ice cream truck that sell anything and everything – their products add the only color to be seen in the Baltic winter. Everything is imported except for the occasional local pack of cigarettes and water, or beer. The most popular song on the radio these days is “Go West.” “Go west,” say the lyrics, “where the air is clean... Go west... together, we will start life anew.” It seems like many here want to go west. They ask us why we want to come here if it is so good in the United States.
Many of the cafes play the same loud techno-pop music and display off-rhythm blinking Christmas lights. Dining out is always an adventure because you never know what you are going to get, or who will give it to you. I go to the local coffee shop and order a light coffee with no sugar. The waitress ignores my order and brings me black coffee with sugar. When I point out her mistake, she impatiently explains that it is not allowed – “negalima” – and impossible – “neįmanoma” – and it is not healthy any other way. Ketchup is used on everything from spaghetti to pizza, but not on traditional Lithuanian foods.
I often encounter drunks and hooligans walking in the long Baltic nights – I find it best to ignore them than try to be polite or reason with them. I write a letter to a friend explaining how excited I am to find bananas in a kiosk. One needs to talk to people to get a sense of where the best products are – there are new stores opening and bringing in new items all the time. The local mushrooms at the market are as big as footballs. The outdoor market is still the best place for many things. We go to traditional sauna parties far out in the country – they offer a warm place in this land of no heat – and what a welcome thing this is to us! By now it should be heating season, when the cities turn on the centralized heating facilities, but due to the energy crisis, the heat is barely high enough to keep mold from forming on the walls or furniture of the thin cement block apartments. I am sleeping little, trying to keep up my five mile a day jogging routine, taking ice-cold showers, eating as much salad as I can find.
Training is complete, and I am officially sworn in as a member of the Peace Corps in a ceremony... at the hospital, in bed in my pajamas, recovering from meningitis. Even the hospital, during a very cold November, has almost no heat. Four or five blankets are brought for me, and a space heater. The food here is poor, so an aunt from my host family brings me my favorite dish – cepelinai – real Lithuanian soul food. Too late am I told that one must eat a lot of soup in Lithuania to stay healthy.
After three weeks, I am released from the hospital and we now learn where we will be working. Sandy is posted in Vilnius, Arthur in Kaunas, Chris in Šiauliai, and Heidi in Panevėžys. Klaipėda is my allocated site, about a hundred ki50 lometers south of the Russian Army base we had visited. I am excited to be close to the Baltic Sea. My assignment is to work at the Klaipėda Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
December, 1992 – March, 1995, Klaipėda
I am picked up in Vilnius by colleagues from my host organization, the newly formed Klaipėda Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They drive me 300 kilometers due west from Vilnius to Klaipėda on one of the few expressways in the former Soviet Union. I will be living in Klaipėda’s Old Town – cobblestone streets, gingerbread houses, just half a block from the central Theatre Square. Unlike the Old Town of Vilnius, Klaipėda’s streets are arranged in an orderly, crisscross fashion, I am told because it is a port city where many unknown people pass through, and they built it in such a way to make it easy to see who is coming from down the street. The ferry that goes to the Curonian Spit is just three blocks away and I take advantage of that right away. Ten minutes down the canal and across the harbor, and I am in a pristine pine forest flanked by the white-sanded Baltic Sea coast.
My roommate is Rūta, a 45-year-old red-haired widow whose movements seem to fit her late husband’s åcareer – theater. When she talks her eyes and mouth seem bigger than life and her arms appear to be everywhere at once. She moves to the living room and gives me her bedroom. I imagine my stay with her will be short since the space in her apartment is so small, her talking and smoking incessant. Sure enough, after two months I run into one of the sailors I had met in New York who had sailed across the Atlantic on the “freedom voyage” from Lithuania to the US in the late 80s. He tells me about an apartment for rent for 25 dollars a month just half a kilometer from the sea. I grab it and move into the little brick blockhouse studio that will be my home for the next two years. In Klaipėda I meet some interesting artists and gallery owners and get to know the local galleries. Klaipėda is full of artists, actors and musicians; it is also full of people who work at the port, the largest employer in the city.
In addition to the small business advising I do at the Chamber of Commerce, I work with the Women in Business Club – a group of very smart and powerful women. At our meetings an extreme amount of talking about people goes on – where they got their money, who they were prior to the fall of the Soviet Union – and there is a divide between those who were “Party-friendly” and those who were not. This sometimes makes my conflict-shunning nature less than comfortable, but I try to treat people equally and remain concerned with their desire to do business – my mandate is to develop skills to help the local economy. We discuss many valuable and interesting things, but I honestly don’t think I am successful in the way I had envisioned. I do hold marketing and business planning seminars, and try to encourage many people who have great ideas for business. Some of these ideas will succeed. In the end though, I think it is the conversations with people I meet every day that provide more enlightenment than the skill-building workshops at the organizations, the university and technical college.
Together with my colleagues from the Chamber of Commerce, we open up the PHARE Business Advisory Center – western-style consulting for small and medium businesses. It is interesting to participate in the meetings with the Danish Technological Institute and city leaders. One city council member laughs when I bring up tourism as a viable industry for Klaipėda. “Why would anyone want to come here?” he asks. Tourism is now a major industry in Lithuania.
One of my successes has nothing to do with the Chamber of Commerce. It is the English Club. We talk about the most interesting of topics: “When a country is going through a transition, what of its culture should it keep and what should it let go of?” It is a good question, one that remains unanswered and may be asked again and again. We hold two-hour meetings on Monday nights. One of the highlights is Valentine’s Day: I create separate Valentine’s greetings for each member of the club. In Lithuania, holidays and festivals are religious or patriotic, but seldom cheerful. Valentine’s Day offers a refuge from sad holidays. Another interesting club episode is watching the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Western culture is completely alien to the bushman in the movie; we find comparable differences in understanding the cultures of the US and Lithuania. Though I am of Lithuanian descent, I sometimes feel like the bushman. My American culture has defined my self and my perspective on post-Soviet Lithuania.
To break up the endless, cold nights of the winter in Klaipėda, I try teaching aerobics in the evenings. Since one of my hobbies in Chicago was leading aerobics classes, I think it will be a fun way to work off the potatoes and sour cream of Lithuanian food and get to know people at the same time. Initially it is very difficult to find a space – the typical gym in Klaipėda is a male hangout, women do not go to there very often. Somehow I locate a club with an auditorium big enough. I dig up a boom-box, pull out my dance tapes and organize the first class one evening in January. About eight women show up and I do my high-energy routine with them. But the lack of heat in the gym makes it impossible to work up any body warmth. The women love the class but I don’t have the endurance to teach in subfreezing temperatures. The potatoes and sour cream will have to be worked off with long runs in the pine forests and along the Baltic Coast, gathering amber along the shore during my cool-down walks back to my apartment.
Audronė Zubavičienė is our support person at the Lithuania Peace Corps office in Vilnius. When we need cheering up, or simply to talk, she is there for us.
The Peace Corps decides to do a promotional video, part of which we film in mid-winter in Klaipėda. The producer has broken her ankle; and there is no handicapped accessibility anywhere in the city, so the process is slow. Nevertheless, we shoot some great clips from the Port of Klaipėda and in the small crafts shops in Old Town. Eventually the video is aired nationwide on PBS stations, but I never see the finished product.
August 25, 2006, Washington, D.C.
Sandy, who worked in Vilnius, is now in Amsterdam. She travels the world, happily married to her American husband. Arthur, who worked in Kaunas, lives in Seattle with his Lithuanian wife Aušra, from Kaunas. Chris, who served in Šiauliai, is now in Nairobi, Kenya with his Lithuanian wife Živilė and their four energetic kids. Heidi, who was in Panevėžys, works for the University of Richmond and has had other long-term assignments abroad. After Klaipėda I spent six more years in Vilnius working for World Learning, then recently relocated to Washington. We all stay in touch, one way or another, mostly by e-mail. The friends I made in the Peace Corps won’t be forgotten. We went through something unique and unforgettable – a life-changing experience.