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Out and about in Vilnius.
Out and about in Vilnius.

Lithuanian for Beginners

When I was hired at Cosmopolitan magazine a week after arriving in Lithuania in December 2003, I told the editor-in-chief, “Don’t worry, my Lithuanian is a little rusty, but I’ll be back to speaking fluently in a few weeks.” 

That, at best, was wishful thinking.

A few things had changed in Vilnius since the summer of 1997 when I spent a month in an intensive language course at Vilnius University. At that time, very few people spoke English, and I was forced to use the vocabulary and grammar I was learning every day in class. Six years later, virtually everyone at Cosmopolitan spoke perfect English, especially the art director who had recently returned after spending five years in the United States. My job itself which consisted mostly of searching for photos and coordinating with the New York and London offices of the magazines I represented meant that I spent most of my day speaking English.

I had the opportunity to enroll in one of the various semester courses at Vilnius University, but lacked the motivation. My estimate of being able to speak even conversational Lithuanian in a month was sorely misjudged.

Left mostly to my own devices, I picked up what little of the language I could from various sources in my daily life. Often on the way into work, I would stop in the lobby of the Spaudos Rūmai building where the same elderly lady sold sweet and salty pastries everyday. She helped me to identify various fruits, and introduced me to kibinai (a traditional Tatarian meat pastry something like a pasty) and čeburekai (deep-fried dough, something like Elephant Ears at the country fair except there is meat inside), both containing unidentifiable ground meat.

The greasy cafeteria we sometimes ate lunch in provided a great environment for immersion to the Lithuanian language—the only English word they understood was Coca-Cola. My vocabulary increased with useful words such as blynai su mėsa (crepes with meat), pomidorų sultys (tomato juice), and brendis (brandy)—Spaudos Rūmai was very cold in the winter.

Out of sheer necessity (and an aversion to trolleybuses), I became fluent in taxi vocabulary quite quickly, “Laba diena, norėičiau taksi į Užupio g. 16.” (Hello, I would like a taxi at Uzupio st. 16.) Taxi drivers the world over tend to be a chatty bunch, and I got many opportunities to inform them that I was not anglė (British), but Amerikos lietuvė (Lithuanian-American). As I became braver, I would add that my father was born po karo, vokietijoje (after the war, in Germany). At that point, all I had to do was sit back and listen as the taxi driver would inevitably launch into a story about a distant relative who lives in Chicago.

In the Old Town, the Lithuanian language has become all but unnecessary; even the bobutės (little old ladies) on the corner selling bouquets of flowers can tell you the price in English. I always did my best to speak Lithuanian to them though, and I loved to buy a pretty bunch of wildflowers for my table, especially at the bargain price of 4 litai ($1.50).

After five years and hundreds of bouquets of flowers, I do consider myself more or less fluent in the language, but the reality is that I’ve learned most of my Lithuanian from the kids of the Kalnu Ereliai Ski Team of which I’m head coach. Besides correcting my grammar (and laughing at it a lot too), they’ve taught me such wonderful words such as atsibodo (I’m bored) and užsičiaupk (shut-up).

What I like about Lithuanian is the endless possibility to make up words with the various prefixes. While driving from Vilnius to Ignalina for a weekend of racing, I had the kids laughing so hard their stomachs hurt with several of my own versions of the verb mirti (to die); atsimirti (to rise from the dead), persimirti (to die a second time), and primirti (to die for a moment). The translations are, of course, loose, and the words do not really exist, but we sure had fun dreaming them up!

I’m a bit ashamed that it has taken me five years to feel comfortable speaking my father’s language. Fortunately, there is so much snow in Lithuania that all the ski hills are open, and in the beginning of January, the entire city of Vilnius was nearly shut down because of snow-covered roads. I look forward to a long winter in the ski team van with the kids, learning new words, hopefully improving my grammar, and trying to translate my new favorite made-up word: apsidraugauti—to become friends too much.

From Lithuanian Heritage January/February 2009

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