mushrooming Lithuania

Grybaujame*

*Mushrooming

My favorite word in Lithuanian, grybauti, means “to go mushrooming.” In English, the meaning is simple and to the point, but in Lithuanian, the sentiment of the word is much more poetic. I didn’t fully understand it until recently, when some friends put me in a pair of rubber boots, handed me a basket and a knife, and drove to a “secret spot” some 20km outside of Vilnius on a cold, damp morning.

Wandering through a moss-covered forest with your head down, looking for small brown lumps hidden in the earth, it’s easy to get lost. You never walk in a straight line, glimpses of baravykai and voveraitės pulling you this way and that. If you were to leave a trail of red paint on the ground it would look like a drunk lost on his way home from the bar, only to wander around and around in circles outside the front door. Lithuanians use the word not just to describe the act of picking mushrooms, but also anytime they want to describe someone who is perhaps a little bit lost in life. When one of my ski racers takes a particularly wide race line through the course, we might say, “Nu, kur tu grybauji?” (Where were you wandering?) Or, if taking a wrong turn means arriving late to a party, we might explain our delay saying, “Grybavome!” (We were mushrooming!) The mountain bike race in Anykščiai this year was muddy from a week of rain forcing hundreds of riders to get off their bikes to trudge through the mud, creating a massive traffic jam at the start. I heard riders all around me exclaim, “Ir ka, visi grybauji? Baravykai daug šiais metais!” (So what, everyone is stopping to pick mushrooms? There are a lot of porcini this year!)

After an unusually hot summer in Lithuania, the cool, rainy start to fall was more than welcome. The rain stopped just in time for Sostinės dienos (Capitol Days) the first weekend of September. Craft fairs along Gedimino prospektas in Vilnius are not unusual—Kaziuko mugė (St. Casimir’s market) in March, European Union days in May, and the Christmas market in December—but this fall’s market was the best I’ve ever seen. There was the usual stuff: ceramics, decorative candelabras made of iron, linen, and wood products, and booths selling bulviniai blynai. But there were also booths selling original and beautiful jewelry, an entire block featuring a book fair, a food section including natural meats, cheeses and sweets, and galleries I had never seen before presented art I actually wanted to buy.

Our amazing haul of baravykai, (porcini) mushrooms.
Our amazing haul of baravykai, (porcini) mushrooms.

I visited the market each day that weekend with different friends. On the far end of Gedimino prospektas near Lukiškių aikštė we met a friend, Lidija Rasutis, who was about to get on stage with her ladies ensemble, Eglė. The sun was low in the sky blanketing Vilnius with a deep orange light. We stayed and watched Lidija’s group perform a few songs; it was too beautiful to go inside.

Sunday evening, the last night of my trip, we strolled one final time out along Gedimino prospektas to find something to eat. The food stands were closing down but had a few leftovers. We ordered šašlykai and plastic cups of karštas punšas (hot punch). Sitting at a picnic table, we watched the people pass by on their way home. The air was crisp but comfortable, and the mood was festive. At that moment, I couldn’t believe I had to leave the next day.

I spent the last fifteen months outside of Lithuania, first in New Zealand and then in Aspen, Colorado. Certainly, my experiences this year have been incredible; heli-skiing, sea kayaking with penguins, Colorado blue skies on a powder day, and whitewater rafting. But after five and a half years living in Vilnius, time spent užsienyje (abroad) feels a lot like mushrooming: I’m wandering through a beautiful forest with my head down, sometimes getting lost, but more often than not, finding those delicious mushrooms. And when I finally look up, I come back home to my friends, my boots muddy from experience, and a basket full of stories to tell.

From Lithuanian Heritage September/October 2010