How a Sunday photography club spawned a friendship with photographer Šarūnė Kajietė that led to a book editing opportunity that blossomed to an article in Lithuanian Heritage about a farm-to-table restaurant in Užupis.
My friends Agnė Alenovič and Jura Radzevič opened Valgomasis, a tiny lunch spot around the corner from the flower market in Vilnius, in December 2015. I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last September while on a heritage trip with my entire family.
So many of our memories are rooted not in sights and experiences, but in smells and tastes—especially around the holidays. When I think of my Grandma Klara, I immediately think of koldūnai stuffed with blueberries, the combined joy and dread of eating greasy potato pancakes on a hot Florida day, and the smell of day-old kugelis frying in butter. The only thing my grandmother was more enthusiastic about than cooking was getting us to eat.
But when I think of Teta Marija, my grandmother’s older sister, there’s only one food that comes to mind: angel wings. While she made them year round, a special treat whenever we came to visit, they were available in abundance around the holidays.
I remember my father telling me that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was once the greatest country in Europe, extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. It was in the fifteenth century—but I was too young to understand that. One Sunday when I was twelve, at my grandparents' church in Southfield, he bought me a little gold pin with the American flag flying opposite the Lithuanian tricolor. He told me that the colors of the Lithuanian flag—geltona, žalia, raudona—represent Lithuania's golden fields, its forests, and the blood that has been shed for the Fatherland. It doesn't sound so melodramatic in Lithuanian. I had always been aware of my heritage on both sides of the family, but from that day I began to identify myself as being something other than American.
Even before I left for Sochi, Lietuvos Rytas television journalist Rita Stankevičiūtė contacted me to ask if I'd mind giving an interview. Of course I never mind the chance to promote my skiers, and I quickly agreed. And then she asked me, "Do you speak Lithuanian?" Sure I said, I just can't write very well.
Off to Sochi we went, and up to Rosa Khutor on a sloppy Tuesday morning to watch the women's giant slalom. Rita found me after the race, pointed a camera in my face, and asked me if I was ready. The fruits of that interview appeared in a segment titled "Olympic Fever."
After the interview, I told Rita, still speaking Lithuanian, "I'm so embarrassed for my Lithuanian. You know, I really learned it from the kids."
In Sochi, we measured everything in hot dogs. The concessions inside the Olympic venues were limited, to say the least, and the hot dogs were the most appealing. A “classic” hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise was 150 rubles. The specialty hot dogs, which included the “Brooklyn,” covered in melted cheese product and bits of bacon, and the “Manhattan” with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, as well as fried onion bits and pickles, cost 200 rubles. Because it's extremely difficult to comprehend that an American hot dog covered with baked beans (the “Boston”) could cost over $6 in Russia, we simply ignored the conversion rate and measured the world in specialty hot dogs.
My parents taught me how to ski. We spent many winter weekends on the slopes of Northern Michigan, went to Colorado every spring, and I loved to watch ski racing in the Olympics. I remember Tommy Moe’s gold medal in the men’s downhill in Lillehammer (I was teaching a young cousin how to ski that day), but I don’t remember the first Olympics I watched—like skiing, it is something I’ve just always done.
Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. In this interview, she speaks about discovering her Litvak heritage and her connection to the future of Lithuania.
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.
In Lithuanian, the word užupis means “beyond the river,” though the Vilnelė River, which divides Užupis from the Vilnius Old Town, is more of a winding creek. In 1997, a group of bohemian artists and writers declared the neighborhood independent and founded the People’s Republic of Užupis. Independence Day is April 1st, and a sign marking the entrance to the district features four distinct symbols including a smiley face and the Mona Lisa warning you of “art ahead.”