Finding my way home
I kept walking straight ahead on the path that cut a diagonal line through the lush botanical garden. Then the paved route ended and only a grassy worn route lay ahead, framed by pine trees. It sloped upward and the horizon suddenly fell away. "Jura!" I heard a child exclaim, meaning "The sea!"
It was the sea. Calm and shimmering, the Baltic Sea. The water that my grandparents had traversed to make a new life in America at the turn of the century.
That moment captured the essence of my two-week vacation this summer in Lithuania. I had always wanted to visit the place of my heritage. I took the path I knew to get there but was surprised at what I found.
Lithuania, one of the three Baltic States, is about the size and population of Ireland. Its population is 3.48 million, and the capital, Vilnius, has a population of 542,300. It is bordered by the Kaliningrad Region of the Russian Federation to the southwest, by Latvia to the north, and to the east and south by Belarus. Lithuania gained independence from the rule of Czarist Russia for 20 years, from the First to the Second World War, but then was under Soviet rule for 50 years, until 1990. Thus, tourists-particularly Americans-are rather a novelty.
The sum total of my experience is too great to list on these few pages, and so what follows is a mere sampling of some of my most vivid memories.
Learning about law
The first week of my stay was spent at a conference on Business Law co-sponsored by the Lithuanian-American Bar Association and the Law University of Lithuania in Vilnius. A panel of speakers on each day of the conference addressed various legal issues, from enforcement of business contracts to legal regulations in leasing and factoring to regulation of the international transportation of goods. Some spoke in Lithuanian, and some in English, with interpretation provided via headphones. The conference featured some wonderful "side trips." One highlight was a personal tour of the office of the largest law firm in Lithuania: 35 attorneys in their Vilnius office. This office was strikingly contemporary, and had a conference room in a converted loft with track lighting and skylights overlooking the city.
We walked by the managing partner's office, and our attorney guide pointed out that he was apparently in court, because his coat wasn't hanging on his office door. What she meant was that he had his "lawyer's robe" with him, a heavy robe that resembles a graduation robe that is required attire in the courtroom. A lawyer who forgets to wear the robe will not be allowed to address the court unless, as one lawyer told us happened to him, the judge is kind enough to hint to him that he appears to not be prepared and he could return within 30 minutes (wearing the robe).
Another fear that the lawyers told us about is that if they fail to appear in court when their case is called, even if they are in another courtroom, they will be personally assessed a stiff fine that could be as much as one month's salary. The only way around this penalty is to advise the judge's staff, in advance, of a conflict at the same time as the hearing.
My lawyer friend Jurgita ("Georgina") showed me her office, which she shares with another lawyer. As is typical for new lawyers, she shares a single room and a desk/workstation, which includes a small waiting area and table, with another lawyer. She remarked wistfully that she would someday like to be in an office with her own private office space. She then took me to the law office of her "attorney supervisor." New lawyers must practice under the supervision of an experienced lawyer for several years, and must obtain their supervisor's signature on any pleadings, contracts, and client retention agreements. Her supervisor, a sole practitioner, had been a judge during Soviet rule. He laughed that Jurgita should show me the office kitchen where I could see the fees they received from clients. Indeed, in the kitchen were a sausage and eggs from a client's farm-she explained that for some clients, especially the elderly, paying part or all of their fee in goods was the only way they could pay.
We also got a personal tour of the Court of Appeal of Lithuania, where the Presiding Justice and the Chief Justice of the Civil Division both personally greeted us and spoke with us at length about their court system and the developing state of their laws. On my way down the hallway afterward, I happened upon a justice in heavy robe with a medallion around her neck, followed just a few steps behind by a defendant in handcuffs who was followed by two police officers.
My father's parents emigrated from Lithuania to the U.S. around 1900. His uncle emigrated also, but then returned to Lithuania just before the Second World War. He was never heard from since then, and my father had no idea whether any relatives were still living in Lithuania. My grandfather's last name, Brazas, is akin to Smith or Jones over here, so I did not even try to find that side of the family. However, my grandmother's last name, Rauba, was more unusual.
Hampered by the language barrier, and by a complete lack of knowledge of the administrative processes there, I did not know where to begin looking for any relatives in Lithuania during the months prior to my departure. But once I was there, I decided to keep trying. Through a long series of fortunate events, finally I found myself making one last effort through the telephone directory assistance operator. I asked for anyone by that name in Taurage, the city where my grandmother was born. The operator found no one, and just as I was about to hang up I heard her say, "Wait just a minute. Try this number."
Two days later, in a bus station in the port city of Klaipeda, a tall man with a shock of white hair waited with a briefcase in one hand and in the other he held up a handwritten sign that read "Juozepas" (Joseph). He was, I think, my cousin-through my Lithuanian friends who translated for me, we shared the stories of our families. Some of the details matched, and some were very close but with some differences.
That afternoon Juozepas and his wife and mother-in-law invited me and my translator/chauffeur to their home, an apartment in Taurage. First they showed me the cemetery where his family and cousins were buried, and then, down a winding gravel road, they showed me where the family farm of his parents and grandparents had been. The whole family-he and his brother and parents-had been deported to Siberia for 17 years, and the Soviets seized and destroyed their farm and buildings. Their only crime was that they owned a large farm.
In their apartment I admired a finely crafted wooden clock, and they proudly explained that the clock had gone with them all the way to Siberia and back. They then produced a huge mounted set of elk's antlers. They very matter-of-factly explained that Juozepas' father had buried this trophy just before they left for Siberia, and when they returned he dug it up. This was amazing to me as I had seen their family farm now devoid of any buildings or even an access road.
That afternoon was an emotionally draining one as the family told about the hardships of their exile to Siberia and the aftermath. Juozepas' three uncles had left for the U.S. in 1940 and he had not heard from any family in the U.S. for 50 years. Then, suddenly, came my telephone call asking if I could meet him. Whether or not he is my cousin, I was moved to get a glimpse into the life of the people of my ancestry.
The second week of my trip I traveled alone. This part of my sojourn began with a taxi driver, who spoke no English, taking me from the law school campus to the bus station. Luckily I knew how to say "bus station," and from there made my way around the country via bus, "microbus" (essentially a mini-van seating 20 people), and private driver. The thrill of it all was simply in blending in with the crowd and hearing the language all around me and then, in the end, realizing that I had figured out how to get around to where I wanted to go.
Often en route I noticed people sitting at the roadside, with a few jars of strawberries, peas, or other garden produce in front of them for sale at a fraction of our prices here. At the bus rest stop I bought two boxes of fresh strawberries from a farm woman who launched into a string of Lithuanian which ended, I think, in her delight at a tourist stopping by-all I could make out was "tourista."
While in the city of Palanga, on the Baltic Sea, I stopped to hear a rock band called "Spectrum," playing mostly American music, in an outdoor café/art gallery. Adjacent to the café was a bar that was nationally known as the filming site of a nightly "reality TV" show. Contestants worked as bartenders and waiters/waitresses, and then performed via song and dance. The members of the band befriended me and, to make a very long story short, I found myself on stage singing "Let it Be" with the band. Who knew? I also got to know an amazingly talented violinist and pianist duo who played nightly in a nearby outdoor café. It was wonderful to sit and take in the music and hear a variety of languages around me.
I also became friends with a woman and her daughter, Migle, age 13, who were spending the week in Palanga and who had helped me understand that when the bus driver stopped at the rest stop, above, he announced that he was stopping for a 15-minute break. Migle and her mother and I spent several hours walking on the shore and in the town, and they invited me to have lunch in their apartment where I had a bowl of the best soup I have ever tasted, along with the famous Lithuanian dark rye bread and strong coffee.
Upon returning to Vilnius for the last few days of my vacation, I met up with a member of the Lithuanian President's legal staff, who I had met during a tour of the Presidential Palace during the law conference. He and his girlfriend and I took in the concert of 120,000 voices at the National Song Festival. The concert featured fireworks and a dance performance by a city dance troupe who had won the European competition for Latin dance. Even though it rained during about half of the concert, the crowd, in typical Lithuanian stoic form, simply put up a ceiling of umbrellas and sat quietly. I observed this quiet patience in all concerts, parades, and theatre performances. People would stand or sit, at rapt attention, for hours. There was a sense of pride and reflection as the performances told of the country's history and passion.
I could go on for pages and pages about my exhilarating journey. I experienced so much that was rich and emotional. The people were solid, honest (crime is virtually non-existent-two times salespeople literally chased me down with the change I had forgotten), and kind. I had, at last, found and met my people. And my way home.