Things I Didn't Expect to See in Lithuania - as an American!
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Let's just state the obvious, y'all: I'm all the way on the other side of the world from a home country I'm - in the same breath - extremely proud of and embarrassed to be associated with. We all contain multitudes, you know? But these days, I'm living my best life as a foreigner in Vilnius - whether that's attending Girl Gone International events, hosting community gatherings, or supporting the local economy by buying my weight in sūrelis. I've gotta say, though: there are some things I genuinely just wasn't expecting to see a third of the way around the world. If you remember from my Latvia post, most Americans don't have much of a touch point on Lithuania in the geographical landscape; the most I could've told you is that it's... somewhere over there. *Points to Eastern Europe, probably?*
But as I've been here for almost a year and a half now (what!?), I've compiled a bit of a mental list on things that continue to surprise me - maybe even delight me, in some cases. Perhaps some experiences I'd deemed as American are a bit more global than I'd thought - even though I'd personally only experienced them in America. So, let's jump right in, shall we? Starting with my favorite...
Photograph: Ziyang Hsiung
KFC - I don't know what's more impressive: that American fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken has made a name for itself in Europe, or that people generally speak positively about it here. Damn, what a marketing success story! It isn't that KFC is the absolute dregs of the Earth in America - it's somewhere around Popeye's, above Arby's. (I said what I said.) But y'all have to understand that it's just so commonplace, so ubiquitous, along Southern pavement strips - and you're probably better off getting Soul Food at your restaurant of choice. So, every single time I pass by a KFC, I emit an audible laugh. Much like the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Subways here, the KFC's of Lithuania have noticeably different menus. (Still amazed that cakes, pies, pastries, and doughnuts play such a huge role in McDonald's here!) KFC is currently slinging a slew of seasonal drinks, which I'm proud to be able to translate for you: Hot Lemonade, Cinnamon Cookie Latte, and a Salted Caramel Latte. But hey, joke's on me because, upon research, I learned KFC joined the UK cuisine in1965, and its first Lithuanian location opened in 2007. It's an international powerhouse, but y'all still can't tell me those are the same Bucket meals. Where are the mashed potatoes? Cole slaw? Potato salad? Green beans? They have doughnuts here!? (Making a mental note to check if American KFCs are now also offering vegetarian options!) So, there are a few differences - yes, I've tried it! While it's not exactly the same, there's no question this chicken makes me smile. Wasn't expecting that one!
Culture, baby! - Remember when I visited Kaunas back in January with some friends to check out the Lithuanian Folk Music Museum? (Cue to me falling in love with the kanklės.) I mentioned then that Kaunas has been the European Capital of Culture for 2022, as well as touching on the friendly rivalry between Kaunas and Vilnius. But check out number 3 again, where I mentioned Yoko Ono's current exhibit in Lithuania's second largest city. Well, I finally checked it out this weekend - absurdist, poetic spirit and all - and it honestly just reminded me that I don't have to go far to get culture. I don't even have to travel to Vienna, although we're all grateful for that opportunity. It's right here in Lithuania, from the numerous Romuva and folk celebrations to artists I consider mentors and heroes from back home. As Lithuania continues to grow and break out of its status as an undiscovered gem, I expect even more culture to flow through like a blustery November windfall.
Religious Fanaticism - I'll admit I haven't seen as much of it as, say, Texas outside of Austin or anywhere along the Bible Belt. But still, on one of our first days in this beautiful country, we witnessed a Doomsdayer along a main artery of town yelling emphatically - if her sign was any indication - about sin, apocalypse, and Jesus's imminent arrival. Everyone ignored her, perhaps even smirked a bit, but for someone coming Texas, I was confused as hell. Where did she come from? Did she sneak in my checked luggage when I wasn't looking? I've only seen her one other time, but you can find conservative mindsets here via "family values" rallies and a real fun disdain for homosexuality. Of course, being the capital, Vilnius shines brightly as a beacon for acceptance and forward-thinking communities, but there's still a ways to go. Not so far removed from America, huh? Surprising.
Lack of Hot Sauces (And Where to Find the Ones That Do Exist!) - Let's flip this concept on its head for a moment. This one I should have seen coming, but I didn't want to believe it. I came from deep in the heart of Texas, absolutely surrounded by "spicy sauces," as my Colombian friend calls them. (She's even more hardcore than me, always carrying either a bottle of hot sauce or habanero peppers in her bag. At all times. For all food occasions.) To her point, I wasn't expecting to move to Lithuania, order something spicy, and receive a mild dish; it happens all the time here. Even back in the US, servers can tiptoe around offending you with their spiciest offerings. Thankfully, I've found a couple of workarounds, beyond my friend's clever mind. First, if you head to San Diego off of Antakalnis, they'll provide you with a whole bin of hot sauces for your meal that do not go unused at our table. (It's also the only place in town I can heartily recommend for their tacos!) Second, anyone into hot sauces in Vilnius knows there's a hot sauce store at Halės Turgus, and more specifically, Aštriai aštru. This is a Godsend. So there are ways to survive in a hot-pepper-less and corn-tortilla-less climate, but you have to know where to go. (Or, have good friends bring said things back to you from the US - they, too, are a Godsend!)
Of course, I have even more items to add to this list, so a Part 2 may be arriving in the future... but for now, just know that the most important things - hot sauce and corn tortillas, obviously - can be remediated. Traveling or moving outside of your day-to-day experience can widen your lens on how other people live, how similar we all actually are - that's what this post really comes down to. I'm curious to hear your own thoughts, especially if you're also living in a country other than your home country. (Bonus points if you did this in the past and moved back to your home country!) As per usual, feel free to subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive a bi-weekly email from me on whatever's on my heart that day! And as always, I'll see you next time here at Into the Forests I Go - iki pasimatymo - see you soon!