Saturday, September 9, 2017

How a California Girl Survives in the Baltics

Being a California girl, I had concerns about how I would survive in a place where the weather is often... well, not like California. Californians are spoiled. If the weather is bad (and by "bad," I mean when it rains or the temperature drops to a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit), we stay inside and wait it out. It won't be long before the weather is nice enough to head outside.

That doesn't work in Lithuania. I was warned before I got here that the winters and long, cold, and gray. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I did not see the sun at all from November until April. And what I thought was winter, because it resembled winter in DC, turned out to be fall. Real winter hit in late January.

What I've learned from the Lithuanians is that you cannot wait until the weather is perfect to enjoy being outdoors. When the weather is what I would consider "stay inside with hot chocolate and a book," the Lithuanians are sitting outside coffee houses, strolling at an outdoor festival (why the most important Lithuanian holidays are in prime cold weather months is the subject of another blog post), and parents are pushing strollers through several inches of freshly fallen snow.

Even for an avowed homebody such as myself, there is such as thing as too much home alone time. So I've learned to adapt. Last winter, I bought a long sheepskin coat suitable for the Baltic cold (with apologies to any vegan or anti-animal skin readers, but I haven't found a man-made material that will induce me to walk outside in the middle of a Lithuanian winter). In spring, I threw on rubber boots and a poncho when I wanted to venture outside in the rain.

After what seemed like one week of summer, fall is already in the air in Lithuania. I know it won't be long before I have to bundle up like Nanook of the North when I walk to work in the morning. But this California girl is prepared.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Impression of Lithuania

Whenever I meet Lithuanians who discover I have lived in Vilnius for almost a year (wow, has it really been 11 months?!), inevitably they ask how I like living here. I always reply, "I LOVE it!" And they always react with a shocked, "Really?"

I get the sense that Lithuanians don't appreciate what they have accomplished since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991. They have a "younger sibling" syndrome with their Baltic neighbors, seemingly living in the shadow of Latvia and Estonia.

I wish Lithuanians could see their country the way I see it. Sure there are challenges, but Lithuania has so much going for it. Vilnius is a wonderful place to live. I love the charming blend of old and new that can be seen in every inch of Old Town. There is a creative energy here you can see in the number of art galleries around town and even in the graffiti. There is an abundance of talent in the arts, sciences, and, of course, sports.

I've heard people - including Lithuanians - describe the national personality as "reserved." I haven't really noticed that. My encounters with taxi drivers, waitresses, store cashiers have all been very pleasant. People are so forgiving when I speak their language badly and so happy that I tried. Looking at Lithuania as an outsider, I would describe the national personality as "content."

So, Lithuania, you have impressed me greatly, and I am not easily impressed. I have visited and lived in nearly 40 countries and in my mind, Vilnius ranks in the top as a wonderful city to live in. Yes, you are a small country, but that can be an advantage. You have a lot to be proud of.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Cowboys in Kybartai

Sometimes my job is awesome. This is me in my cowboy boots at the opening of an exhibit of cowboy and rodeo photographs by Lithuanian artist Zinas Kazenas. Zinas is a wonderful spokesman for America, so we've turned him loose in a number of small, out-of-the-way towns in Lithuania to show his work and talk about his love of America and the Wild West. This event was in Kybartai, right on the border with Kaliningrad.



To keep things in perspective, here is another picture of me doing my job. Sometimes my job is awesome, but COLD. This was welcoming a U.S. Navy ship to the port city of Klaipeda.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

It Meant Nothing to Me

Living in a place, it doesn't take long to see the character of the city and what crafts, arts, and food the city wants to share with you. What Lithuania is proud of, among other things, is its amber, ceramics, and linen. You can't walk a block in Old Town without seeing a store that carries these items. I've bought some lovely ceramic pieces, a nice amber brooch, and a unique linen scarf. I will always think of Lithuania when I see these things.

Recently I was in another Baltic city, Tallinn. I explored the Old Town, which was similar in many ways to Vilnius. I found myself browsing the windows of shops that sold amber, ceramics, and linen. It felt so natural to stop and admire these things. At one shop, a woman came out and offered me a discount coupon. And suddenly I felt guilty. Why did the thought of buying amber jewelry in Tallinn feel like I was cheating on Vilnius? Can you betray a city by buying souvenirs?

I didn't buy amber, ceramics, or linen in Tallinn. I remained faithful to Vilnius. But I wonder if the temptation will strike again the next time I visit.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dropping a Truth Bomb

Recently I was asked to write a guest post on a blog for people considering joining the Foreign Service. Specifically, a post about what this career and lifestyle are like when you do it solo. Here is the introduction to my guest post:

This week, Heather, from the blog Adventures Around the World, shares her perspective as a single “solo” Foreign Service Officer. Her story is one shared by many in the Service, but not one readily discussed because of its hard truths. A career in the Foreign Service has many perks: the profession, the chance to visit and live in new and beautiful places, the opportunity to meet cultures and people you normally would not be able to, and much more. However, there are many drawbacks, and it is critical that you be made aware of them, and understand them.

Read the full blog post at Path to Foreign Service.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Service

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the word "service." With all the talk surrounding the transition of presidential administrations, it's important to understand that Foreign Service Officers are professionals, many have served through multiple administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Federal employees are sometimes easy targets for directing frustration toward "the government." Especially when what we do is not widely understood or is considered irrelevant. Here are a few examples of how FSOs serve our country:


  • We represent America; we are often the only Americans foreign audiences have ever met
  • We protect and assist American citizens abroad
  • We advance U.S. interests and build alliances
  • We engage with foreign governments, businesses, and the general public about U.S. policies & culture
  • We advocate for U.S. companies doing business in foreign countries
  • We inform DC policymakers about current events in foreign countries


FSOs deliberately use the word "service" when talking about their work. I didn't just live and work in Lithuania, Afghanistan, Nepal, Iraq, and Romania. I served in those countries. There are many ways people can serve their country. I would make a terrible soldier, but representing the U.S. as a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service is how I can serve my country. I take it seriously.

FSOs come in different shapes, with various backgrounds and political affiliations.  And while there are channels for expressing disagreement with policy, we are required to conduct our work professionally even when we find it personally challenging to do so. If a Congressman slams the State Department in a speech one week and the following week requests embassy assistance for an official visit to a foreign country, embassy staff will make sure that Congressman gets what he needs. That's what it means to serve. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Adjustment

Since arriving in Vilnius, the biggest adjustment I've had to make is accepting that everyone here seems to be in a good mood. Maybe it's because I'm American, or a diplomat, or it's just my naturally surly disposition, my guard is always up. But day after day, Vilnius proves to be a happy place where people are among the most content and satisfied of all the European capitals.

The young guy at the cash register doesn't get angry when he can't understand my pidgin Lithuanian, he just smiles and speaks English. The taxi driver isn't taking the long way to run up the fare, the kooky layout of the city means the long way really is the only way to get to my apartment. And I believe the girl in the bakery really does want me to have a nice day.

Is it possible that an entire city can be in a good mood all the time? It will be interesting to see what three years here will do to me.