Talking the Talk

When we were on the dairy farm in France and went out with the farmer, Laurent, on one of his weekly delivery runs, we had a conversation about what we’d like our secret super power to be. Laurent, being Laurent, smiled and said, “How can I tell you? It’s a secret.” (An hour or so later, he admitted that he would like to be able to take the most arid, inhospitable land and make it fertile — an appropriate goal, given his line of work.) Peter and I failed to reach consensus on what our one superpower would be, but decided that it would be pretty cool if we were able to speak every language in the world fluently.

It would definitely be a nice skill to have in Lithuania. Want to hear the extent of my Lithuanian so far? “Achoo.” No, it’s not a sneeze (nor is it spelled right). It means “Thanks.”

I’m achoo-ing left and right, hoping that by being effusive in my gratitude, I might distract people from the fact that I don’t know how to say “hello.” (Smile and nod, this is my strategy.) I know, I know — I should put some effort into this. But here are my two justifications for why I am not going to (except, perhaps, to memorize the words that mean “pig trotters” and “blood sausage,” so as to avoid them on restaurant menus):

1. We are here for about four days, and then will be in Latvia. Want to know another language I will never be fluent in?

(You’d think that the two languages would be mutually understandable, sort of like Czech and Slovak, but they’re not. And don’t even get me started on Estonian.)

2. According to my Lonely Planet, Lithuanian — another surviving language of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family that is very important to linguists — is “said to be as archaic as Sanskrit in its grammatical forms.” Now, granted, I know nothing about the grammatical forms of Sanskrit. But I’ve heard some of it in yoga classes, and it sounds hard. So does Lithuanian pronunciation. Here, for example, is how I am supposed to say “Call a doctor!” in the case of emergency: “Issaukite gydytoja!” (with accents that this keyboard is not capable of typing). I hope we don’t need medical help.

It’s also an interesting area of the world to consider the politics of language. A lot of people speak Russian, for example. But given the Baltics’ er, sensitive history with their eastern neighbor, you need to be careful where you speak it, lest you be greeted with an even frostier reception than if all you know how to say is a word that sounds like a sneeze. (That’s not entirely true — I have been amazed by how friendly people are here, despite the fact that I am helpless in their language.) We are incredibly lucky that most people under 30 seem to have some knowledge of English — and a willingness to try it. But woe upon the Lithuanian who comes to the United States only knowing how to say “Thank you.”

(Important side note: Peter has just found a television show called “Lithuania’s Got Talent.” The first competitor was singing opera while dressed as Dracula, followed by a man doing a sword dance in an attempt to woo a blanket-wrapped Barbie Doll. Thank god Simon Cowell is not here.)

It’s difficult enough to figure out what foods to order — but I’m struggling with a bigger challenge. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about bathrooms:

We hope you’re not busting for a pee, as working out which toilet door to enter may require some thinking time. The letter “M” makrs a men’s toilet in Estonian, “V” in Latvian or Lithuanian. “N” indicates a women’s toilet in Estonian, “S” in Latvian and “M” in Lithuanian. Some toilets sport the triangle system: a skirt-like triangle for women and a broad-shouldered, upside-down triangle for men. To add even more confusion, in Lithuania (as in neighboring Poland), male toilets may be indicated by a triangle and female toilets by a circle.”

I may never pee again.

Upon our arrival in Birstonas, the "Big Balls" boules team was waiting.

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