Austeja & Elena
Vilnius – Lithuania, July 2023
"I have to go now but come for lunch on Tuesday and we will talk you more.” Finding a grandmother who lives in the city and enjoys the city rush life is not easy. In Lithuania, however, I was lucky! Not only does Alina, Austejas Baba lives in Vilnius half the time and in the village the other half, but she also lived in Vilnius during part of the communist period.
We meet on Saturday at the "Rūdininkų-Platzin the centre of Vilnius, in a pizzeria with Lithuanian flair. Alina is 73, she has a long dress on and an embroidery jacket over it, the sun is warm but anyone who has spent even a few days in the Baltic States in summer knows: it is better to be prepared for anything. For a moment I sit outside alone with Alina, Austeja is inside enquiring about something. We look at each other, it's more of a confidential look. I get Google Translate out. It only half works. Alina can read what I translate but typing is a bit tedious for her. I get somewhat frustrated I didn’t learn more words before coming, that technology is not yet at the point where it can transcribe and translate in all language combinations and that I lean on English for language support as a habit, when in many cases it doesn’t really help. The clouds become thicker and more threatening. The waiter asks us if we want to go in. Alina wipes her hand and says something in Lithuanian. We stay outside for a while until the wind starts and it becomes a bit more uncomfortable.
We eat our pizzas and Austeja asks her grandmother the first question. Now I have to remember the answers, Austeja believes her grandmother will be intimidated if I take out the microphone and my notepad.
"When I was the same age as Austeja 24, I had my first child when I was 24 and studied at night classes in Vilnius to become an accountant. Meanwhile, my brother helped to take care of Austeja's father. My husband was drafted into the army for one year for military service." Austeja laughs before turning to me and saying:"Ah, I hadn't heard that story yet! After my grandpa came back from the army, a letter came home. My father was called to the army. My grandmother and grandfather cried and panicked, my father was only 4 years old ! My grandpa then went to the office to find out. In fact, a number was missing, the son was not 14 but 4 and did not have to serve in the army. My Baba was still very shocked. It didn’t seem completely unbelievable that the regime would come up with such an idea." Later we learn that the grandfather was stationed near the Chinese border. He said: "the military was a complicated balance: it was boring but as soon as you did too much and stood out it was dangerous for you, dangerous because they would really settle you somewhere."
Alina says that at that time she did not particularly care about what was happening politically, or at least did not question it. "In my work, of course, I realised that everything had to be written in Russian and not in Lithuanian. In the 70s it also became more difficult with food, there were rations, and queues. I chose to be an accountant because I could take care of people directly and make sure they got their salaries. Communism took a lot of things away from my parents. But we had a good position. My husband was an engineer and through that, we had got a house." She adds: "But my mother always told me "one day you will experience freedom". The discussion is very lively, Austeja has many questions and is happy about the space the discussion gives. After an hour of storytelling and a beetroot pizza, Alina says, "You can interrogate me for a few more minutes but then I have to go." Before she leaves, I ask: "What event was formative for your life?"
After we leave, Austeja has to go also. She is volunteering at the Midsummer concerts that evening. Midsummer is one of the biggest celebrations in Lithuania, Scandinavia, and other the Baltic States. It celebrates the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Flower wreaths are worn, fires are made and music is sung.. Many of the names in Lithuania come from Baltic mythology, plants, flowers or natural elements. Austeja means "queen of bees". And her surname is a derivation of the word honey. No wonder Austeja loves to eat berries, go for walks in the forest and prefers to stay in the countryside. She is now 24, and has been working her first "real job, paid and long-term, no more internship or part-time job". for a few months. She works for the coordination of the European Solidarity Corps. She is particularly concerned with the relationship and cooperation with international organisations.
Austeja has already lived in 4 other countries than her native Lithuania; India, Greece, Turkey and Georgia, where we originally met in Erasmus in 2019. That was some time ago in 2019, yet Crimea as well as 20% of Georgia were already or had been occupied by Russia for some time, as it says in every bar in Vilnius. Vilnius is only 35 kilometres away from the first Belarusian city. Russians have to pass through Vilnius if they want to get to Kaliningrad, so Vilnius has decided to make its support for Ukraine visible everywhere: on the display of the buses, on the institutional buildings or on the cinema doors. Austeja is not afraid of adventure, traveling alone is a habit as well as couchsurfing. Her last trip was to India for 6 months. Now she is happy to be back in Vilnius. "I live with my parents, I think it's nice to be surrounded again by my family members and of course, it's more practical. The prices are very high in Vilnius, they have also gone up with the war. I can get to work easily by bike along the river."
Politically, Austeja remembers two moments."As a big neighbouring country, Poland has a big influence in Lithuania as well. The fact that Poland has become more restrictive and despises women's rights, for example by prohibiting abortion, worries me.” A second event she remembers is the last elections in Lithuania. The two candidates to become Lithuania’s next president were in the race. Both of them represented the same part of the electorate with very small ideological differences. "Everyone was talking about the woman candidate around me and it sounded like she was very popular and would win the election. After that, I understood that I was living in a bubble. She did not win."
On Tuesday we meet again at the grandparents' house. The house is in a backyard, very central, not far from Austeja's work. Around the corner is a very popular pavilion café and a small, wooden stage where concerts or dance classes take place. The front door ring can be overlooked, a small black knob hangs in the air above head height. When the door opens, you enter directly into the entrance area, something unusual for such apartment buildings to have a direct entrance. A few steps lead down to a large basement room. Apart from a few chairs and more doors, the room is empty. I wonder what this room was used for. But before I can ask, we go up the stairs. Inside, much of the room is made of wood and feels almost like a cabin in the mountains, but the extra wallpaper on the walls betrays the communist past of the house. The Grandfather plays chess on the computer. We sit down in the living room. Alina has prepared a lot of food and runs back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. Besides fruits and berries, she brings the famous cold "Barbie" soup -„Šaltibarščiai“ with potatoes and eggs. The grandfather and a cousin of Austeja, join us. Tomas the cousin has come to help with the translation. He lived in France for 17 years. Austeja's grandmother looks more tired, with less energy. She sits huddled on the stool as we try to resume the conversation. "When we stopped at the restaurant, your grandmother just told us that she had taken part in protests." Austeja's grandmother looks at her husband, his presence seems to have an impact, she is more shy today and doesn’t want to tell so much. "Yes I was demonstrating! There is nothing more to say. ." I ask "Why did you go to the demonstration, weren't you afraid?” “No, we weren't afraid, what was there to lose? My children were there too, we wanted our freedom, and we wanted to be independent. For me, everyone young and old should go. We just didn't think about it and went.”
The most formative event for her was the not-to-be-forgotten" The Baltic Way". The Baltic Way was a peaceful demonstration over 650km through all three Baltic states. On the 23 August 1989 formed a chain to show 50 years after the Hitler-Stalin Pakt and years of occupation their drive for freedom and unity in this fight. She, her husband and friends were there. Austeja's father was also there with his student group. "I am happy that my mother could witness this moment," Alina says emotionally. "Is demonstrating a kind of power for her?" I ask "Maybe, in any case, we were united, all together." For Austeja, power is being able to choose, to be oneself. "It's not just our work that defines us," she adds.
On my last evening in Vilnius, something special is taking place: There are free concerts in Vingio Park. Vilnius is celebrating its birthday "700 years young" as it says on the flyer. Many well-known Lithuanian artists are there for the first part, then 2 internationally known musicians Clean Bandit and Bastille. At the end of the concert comes the debrief: "I would have liked to hear more from the Lithuanian artists, but did you hear what Bastille said?!" tells me Austeja. The British artist said a few words and sentences in Lithuanian but with the phras “thank you for everything Vilnius has done for Ukraine" he won the heart of every person in the audience feeling recognition. "He knew how to speak to his Lithuanian audience!" Austeja adds.