Impressions of Lithuania and VMU: A Gilman Scholarship Story
Juan Carlos Sierra Barbosa, a Mexican student at Georgia Gwinett College (USA) and recipient of Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, shares his experience of visiting Lithuania and attending the Intensive Lithuanian Language and Culture Summer Course at Vytautas Magnus University.
In the middle of a hot summer night, at around 12:30 a.m., four complete strangers look at the sky wishing to spot a shooting star – perhaps to gain access to more wishes. In one of the Baltic countries, in the middle of nowhere, on top of a manmade structure higher than the tallest pine tree, they lay down, facing the universe. They share experiences as if they have known each other since childhood. Perhaps it is their desire to travel to remote places, or perhaps it is their wish to meet other people and understand other cultures that brought them together. They know that besides the cultural differences there is still only one species – the humankind – living in one world, yet a Lithuanian, a German, a Czech, and a Mexican could only make this unique experience possible thanks to sharing one common language, a language that is not even one of their mother tongues: English. For the Mexican, it was also the generosity of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and Vytautas Magnus University that made possible the unique experience described above.
The summer program at Vytautas Magnus University brought the four strangers together to learn the Lithuanian language along with more than one hundred students from over thirty different countries. Although they communicated better in English, it was very interesting to learn and to say labas rytas (good morning) or kaip sekasi (how are you) every morning at the beginning of class, and to make the best effort to learn a new language in four weeks. Nevertheless, the best part of the summer program was to understand a new culture and new forms of artistic expressions of the Baltic country. Perhaps, not necessarily new forms of artistic expressions, but understanding the visual context, the social relationships, and weather conditions that influenced the creation of Lithuanian visual art, including their most important artist: Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.
Also, it was very delightful to excite the sense of taste by trying different Lithuanian dishes, such as šaltibarščiai, a delicious vegetarian soup made with beets, or the potato-meat dumplings cepelinai. One of the country’s regions, Dzūkija, is known for collection of mushrooms and berries as a means of subsistence. There is even a saying that goes: “If it wasn’t for the mushrooms and the berries, Dzūkija’s girls would be naked”. However, these days people make a living doing other things, but Dzūkija is still famous for forests, mushrooms, and berries. Mushrooms is one of my favourite foods, but not even in my wildest dreams did I think I would be eating these delicacies in their country of origin, in the Baltic region. My dream was always to visit Paris or Rome because of their visual artistic influence on the world. However, thanks to Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship and Vytautas Magnus University, it was possible.
Perhaps more visits to Europe will come and perhaps they will be as unique as the summer program in Lithuania. After all, the visits to Paris and Rome are still pending, but the friendship among the four strangers and other friendships with their classmates, will last in the memory of each other’s lifetime, with hopes of seeing one another in the future in some other remote place in the world. By then, they will no longer be strangers.
By Juan Carlos Sierra Barbosa