Epilogue to Last Summer

My first issue of Bridges is coming off press now, so I wanted to share a bit of it with you: part of my Letter from the Editor. Bridges had been serializing my blog, and this issue has the last few entries. In the letter, I explain why my posts tapered off toward the end of my stay in Lithuania, and catch you up on what happened. That missing week and a half was the best part of my trip.

“If you read the conclusion of my blog (page 20), you’ll notice a week’s gap between the two entries near the end of my stay in Kaunas, and the absence of entries in the days between Kaunas and home. So here’s the epilogue: The truth is, I was so immersed in activity that it was difficult to find time to write. Between preparing for finals and making a last swoop of souvenir buying, I was trying my best to cram in as many experiences as I could.

“The best of those experiences were my long-awaited meeting with my cousin Diana and her two daughters, Aleks (yes, another one) and Gabija, and two more visits with my cousin Liliana. Diana and the girls were just home from two months in Scotland and on their way to Neringa when I met them for lunch just minutes after taking my language course final. The time was all too short, but we remain in touch via Facebook and email.

“When I got back to Vilnius, I found that the language course had really paid off. I was able to call Liliana unaided, have a simple conversation all in Lithuanian and arrange to meet with her—at the right time and in the right place. We spent a lovely day together with her friend Regina, who didn’t even need to translate this time. And it was just the two of us the day we made our tearful goodbyes at Vilnius Airport.”

So there you have it. I think of my Lithuanian family often, and can’t wait to see them again. Maybe next year…

Sūris Success, or How I Made Cheese in a Pillowcase

Homemade Lithuanian Farmer’s Cheese with Caraway Seeds

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could make cheese at home.

I should qualify that to say making cheese easily at home. I know people who make complex things at home all the time, and I admire them, but I am known to run out of patience when the instruction list has more than four steps or I need to construct some specialty apparatus to accomplish the task. Not so with lietuviškas sūris, a soft, mild Lithuanian farmer’s cheese.

It helped a lot that this recipe for making sūris was thoroughly tested by my friend Jana, who teaches Lithuanian cooking in Toronto. She demonstrated her technique to me and a dozen others at the last Women’s Weekend at Camp Neringa. As the most challenging step seemed to be waiting for a pot of liquid to come to a boil, I was emboldened to try at home.

The Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon raw milk
  • 1 half gallon buttermilk
  • salt
  • optional: caraway seeds

That’s it. Really. Just a note on the milk: Jana found that the ultra-pasteurized milk available in most groceries doesn’t work, as it doesn’t readily form curds. You can usually get raw milk from your local food co-op or a nearby dairy if you’re lucky enough to live close to one.

The Tools:

  • 2 big pots
  • wooden spoon
  • colander
  • cheesecloth
  • 2 cutting boards
  • heavy weight

The Instructions:

Pour the raw milk into a large pot, and heat it until it just begins to boil, stirring to prevent it from burning. You can judge this by eye, watching for small bubbles forming around the sides of the pot, but I found it easier to take the judgment out of it and use a thermometer after consulting The Joy of Cooking about milk’s boiling point. After the milk reaches 180°F but well before it reaches 212°F, remove it from the heat and pour in the buttermilk. Curds should form immediately. Stir gently if they need encouragement, but be careful not to break up them up too much. If you’re Little Miss Muffet, I suppose you could stop here to enjoy your curds and whey, but I recommend continuing.

Curds form as soon as buttermilk is added to the heated milk

Line your colander with cheesecloth, making sure you have enough overhang to gather it up into a bag and tie it off. I’ll digress here a bit to discuss cheesecloth. The stuff you can buy in the grocery store labeled cheesecloth is a flimsy gauze, and you’ll need about three layers so you don’t lose the curds through the loose weave. Real cheesecloth is thin muslin, which you can buy at a fabric store. You could also use a flour sack or a 100% muslin pillowcase. The muslin, sack and pillowcase have the bonus of being reusable; all they need are a good washing in hot water with unscented detergent. I was lucky enough to have a perfect pillowcase of my grandmother’s, complete with beautifully tatted edges.

The 100% muslin pillowcase, complete with decorative tatting from my grandmother, that I use instead of cheesecloth

Curds and whey after being poured into the pillowcase-lined colander

If you want to save the whey (you can use it in place of milk or buttermilk when making breads, muffins and pancakes, in soups in place of stock, in smoothies, to boil pasta, even to water outdoor plants), place the lined colander in another large pot. Put the colander and empty pot in the sink and carefully pour or ladle in the hot curds and whey. Once most of the liquid whey has drained out, gather up the corners and hang the bag somewhere to continue draining for a bit. I just tie my pillowcase to the kitchen faucet.

Pillowcase with curds hanging from faucet to finish draining

Once most of the liquid has dripped out, give a last good wring, tie the bag securely, place it between two clean cutting boards and put a heavy weight on top of it to squeeze out the rest of the liquid. You can use a cheese press if you have one (or you could make one, but what did I say about specialized apparatus?). Just for fun, some illustrations of old Lithuanian cheese-making tools here and here. My personal favorite is the bed leg.

You’ll want to press the cheese somewhere it can be undisturbed for 8-10 hours or overnight to set. I use my laundry sink. The longer you press the cheese, the drier it will be.

Curd bag tied and sandwiched between two cutting boards

Our makeshift cheese press weighted down with full cast-iron stockpot

Our cheese the next morning, just unwrapped

Once the cheese is set, turn it out of the bag, and salt to taste. You can also sprinkle with caraway seeds if you like. Enjoy on a slice of lietuviška duona (dark Lithuanian bread) drizzled with honey. It makes a great breakfast, light lunch or snack any time!

Another Lithuanian Summer

Well, summer is here, and it’s looking Lithuanian again, so I thought I’d dust off the blog and catch you up on what’s been happening.

I wish I could tell you that I’m traveling to Lietuva again this year, but that journey will have to wait a bit while I establish my new business. Since returning from my travels last year, I’ve started my own strategic communications consulting firm, Vekteris Communications LLC. And by “firm,” I mean me: founder, chief strategist, project manager, creative director, writer, you name it. It is exciting and fun, even though I’m also in charge of new business development, probably my least favorite role.

But enough about that. What’s been particularly Lithuanian so far this summer? Let’s see:

  • I spent a wonderful weekend at Camp Neringa in Vermont at the annual Moterų Savaitgalis (Womens’ Weekend). Okay, it was technically spring, but close enough.
  • I am currently overdosing on šaltibarščiai. I just can’t control the addiction.
  • I learned how to make lietuviškas sūris (yes, homemade farmer’s cheese, me!).
  • I heard the Philadelphia Boys’ Choir singing the Lithuanian National Anthem at their last practice before their Baltic tour.
  • My family story is in the most recent issue of the Lithuanian Emigration Institute’s scholarly journal, Oikos. The paper was authored by the grad student who interviewed me last summer.
  • I’m the new editor of Bridges, The Lithuanian American News Journal

It’s the last that will afford me many more Lithuanian experiences this summer—and fall, winter, and I hope for many seasons to come.

Stay tuned for more Lithuanian-ness to come!

How do I miss thee?

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It’s funny. I was a little hesitant to come to Lithuania for the length of time that I did. I thought that once tourist week was over, I might feel out of place or like a stranger in a strange land. That I would get homesick after a little while, that I’d miss the comforts of home, my people, my things. That I would find it difficult to be by myself for so long.

So here it is that I’ve been away seven weeks, with only one full day left, and I don’t want to leave. I’ve had vacations where at the end of two or so weeks I’m ready to come home, but this isn’t one of them. And I’ve found that I’m totally fine and comfortable being on my own.

While there might be a few items that would make life away from home slightly more comfortable or convenient, like my own washer and dryer, I’ve found that so far I really miss only two things: Elena and my bed. And the second could just be any comfortable bed, not necessarily the bed I have at home. So just one unsubstitutable thing, because you can’t get a hug through Face Time.

People at home, don’t think I don’t love you. I do, with all my heart. I love to see you, talk to you, go out with you, relax with you, laugh with you. But we can normally go weeks, sometimes months, without being in each other’s company. With Facebook and email, the void doesn’t seem that great. If it were a year or longer, yes, I think that would be very different.

Same goes for you, all of the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years of my life. I can’t bear to part with a single memento when I’m in your presence, but I’m finding that I don’t really miss you when I’m away from you. There’s something very attractive about a minimalist existence.

Hmmm, and maybe this is just the rain talking, but a cat might also be nice…

Beer, blueberries and chocolate

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So now I really feel like a student again.

I had planned to make a trip out to Maxima last night, but it poured rain most of the evening, and I didn’t feel like getting soaked. For lunch around 1:30, I’d had a couple of deviled eggs and a small bowl of chicken soup made with barley, vegetables and pickles (which didn’t taste at all pickle-y). Now it was 8 p.m. and I was hungry.

My refrigerator was empty except for a 1.5 liter bottle of sparkling water, 200 grams of blueberries, some butter left over from the bread we baked last weekend and a half-liter bottle of Švyturys Baltijos that I had picked up on a whim at the Maxima three weeks ago. I also had two chocolate bars that were intended for my language course secret friend next week.

It would have to be the beer and blueberries, along with some dark chocolate. The Baltijos did not have a twist-off top; however, and I had no opener. I hadn’t thought about that when I purchased it. I eventually managed to open it using the desk’s drawer pull. I saved the cap for the son of a friend, who collects them — I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have one of these yet.

This particular brew of Švyturys is my favorite. It’s a “tamsusis alus,” which means darkish beer. I’m not a huge beer drinker, because I’m really picky about them, but this is one I like a lot. The blueberries (mėlynės) were local, smaller than the ones we get at home, but packed with flavor. The chocolate was also a Lithuanian brand, Laima, and quite good. I figured my meal was supplying me, if not all of the food groups, at least a good dose of antioxidants.

As I sat at the desk writing and enjoying my makeshift dinner, I watched the storm end as the sun was setting. The sky lightened ever so briefly to reveal a fiery yellow-, red/orange- and pink-streaked horizon with inky clouds above. If I had been at Maxima as planned, I would have missed the show.

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Crisis week

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Crisis week. That’s what Jurgita, our language teacher, says they call the third week of the four-week course. Mid-terms need to be taken and graded, presentations need to be made, lessons become more intense because it’s the last full teaching week, and everyone is getting overloaded, tired and frustrated.

Our mid-term was Monday of week three. I managed a 95 by some miracle, which made me feel good. Because our teacher assigns a point scale to our tests and assignments, that meant I got a 10 along with Fabio and Vašek. The others received 7s, 8s and 9s. Jurgita also posted our extra-credit chart, based on things like class participation and how far above the minimum we would go with homework assignments. Fabio topped the chart with an 8, Vašek and I were at 7, and the others ranged from 3 to 6.

Then things started to go downhill.

We did our presentations on Tuesday afternoon. We could do anything — talk, sing, dance, make something — as long as we did it all in Lithuanian. I demonstrated, live, how to make šaltibarščiai, a cold beet soup that’s a summer staple here. I don’t think I reverted to English at many points, as a few others did, but I didn’t feel I engaged the audience enough. I was trying (unsuccessfully) not to make a mess while opening packaging, pouring, mixing, chopping and referring to the iPad for my Lithuanian notes. The iPad got a bit of a bath, happily without ill effect. At least I had the sense to wear a top that was the same deep pink color as the soup, which I told the class was a requirement.

This week we started on prepositions, but not prepositions in the sense we know them in English. These are prepositions that are prefixed to verbs and change the meaning subtly to something very specific. However, they don’t always mean the same thing in front of every verb. You knew there would be a catch, didn’t you?

Take the verb “eiti,” to go. There are several different ways to go, and the preposition prefix tells you. The preposition also indicates a definite action, that the going resulted in something, rather than not knowing if you actually arrived. Sometimes another traditional preposition coupled with the now-more-specific verb tells you how or where you are going even more precisely. For example:

Apeiti: to go around
Ateiti į: to come to something
Ateiti pas: to come to someone
Įeiti: to go in
Išeiti: to go out
Nueiti į: to walk away to somewhere
Nueiti pas: to walk away to someone
Paeiti: to walk a little bit
Pareiti: to come back
Pereiti: to go through, to cross, or sometimes to transfer, like between schools or teams
Praeiti: to go/pass by
Prieti: to go near, to approach
Sueiti: to go together (more than two people, a group)
Užeiti: to go behind, or to come around another time

To confuse things further, even though these are all the same root verb, some take accusative case while others take genitive. My brain is just about at capacity, and I can’t seem to cram anything else in. I flubbed the daily review test because I confused the pa-, par-, per-, pra- and pri- prefixes. Arrrgh!

My next breakdown was over time. Not running out of time, but how to tell time in Lithuanian. There are about four different ways to express any time of day, and how you do it will dictate whether you use nominative, genitive or accusative case. If you’re expressing concepts like five minutes to or five minutes after, the word order is different. There are specific words for noon and midnight, but you can’t use them for anything other than those exact times of day. And because everyone in class was choosing different ways to express the time when doing the exercises, it was difficult to know if my answers were correct or not when we went around the room from question to question.

Every time I thought I had it, I didn’t quite. I finally asked Jurgita during our lunch break if she would sit with me and walk me through it. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get what I thought was so simple a concept that I was just about in tears. Jurgita is terrific and extremely patient. She assured me that I wasn’t stupid, that it was difficult grammar for everyone. She suggested I take a five- minute walk to clear my head. After I got back, we went over the grammar one-on-one, and I was able to ask all of my, “but why…” questions until the lightbulb went on. I took some extra homework to practice on.

This weekend is a three-day break because Monday’s Feast of the Assumption, Žolinės, is a national holiday. I may just take Jurgita’s suggestion that I give myself a break from the books for at least one full day and do something just for me. Now, what time does the museum open?