French Guy in a Small City in Lithuania

In the summer of 2012, when I was on the way to China, I tried to find a couch on Couchsurfing and somehow I noticed thatHamza_in_Salakas there’s French guy living in Lithuania, planning to go Iceland. I thought, -What a coincidence! Since I do speak Lithuanian too.

I texted him, but unfortunately, I left to China and we could not meet up. Half a year later, he returned back to Iceland and we finally met up. He introduced me to the his living place in Lithuania, which I had no idea about before. So here’s the story of his life in Salakas, Lithuania:

Hello my name is Hamza Abbas; I’m from a little village in Northern France, close to the Belgian border. I’m 22 years-old and I’m a law student in the biggest city of my region, Lille.

My grandparents are originally from Algeria, and arrived in our region right after World War Two, where my granddad started to work as a coal miner, so that’s why I have an Arabic name!

When I was 15, I went off to Berlin, Germany, where I studied German for 6 months, in a German family and high school. This gave me the curiosity and the strong will to discover more in Europe, so I went to study in a Swedish High School for 1 year, when I turned 17. Then came the time to graduate from high school, which I did and majored in Philosophy.

Then I moved to Paris to study French-German law, but after one year, the Parisian lifestyle was still not suiting me and I decided to “leave everything behind” and move…to Lithuania!

You come from the quite big city – Lille, France but last year you spent 8 months in Salakas, Lithuania. Why did you choose this place?

Well, first of all, just have in mind that I was in Paris at that time and not in Lille! So it’s a bit more of a change, between Paris (11 million inhabitants) and Salakas (400), but that’s actually all what I was expecting and willing. I wanted to live in the countryside, to meet genuine people and try to learn from a healthy lifestyle! I wanted to do something more for Europe, and especially for the part of the continent which I like the most, North-Eastern Europe.

When I started to look for a European volunteering service (EVS), I found a project in Tallinn, Estonia, but it didn’t work out. After few weeks, I suddenly found this offer, in Salakas, where a volunteer was needed! I applied, since the offer really interested me, and received a grant to work in The Grazute Regional Park.

During your stay, what were your tasks?

I liked this project, especially because it was rich, developed and very pedagogic. I didn’t want to end up doing the stuff that the organization doesn’t want to do (sometimes it happens in volunteering programs). I came for special tasks and it worked quite well!

During winter, Andriy (the volunteer from Ukraine) and I were mostly working in office and primary school. Our colleagues needed some help for basic office tasks and since it was winter, it was not frustrating at all!

In School, we were having English (me) and Russian (Andriy!!!) speaking workshops with both teachers, and the most important work we did at school was the “bird nests workshop”.

We built approximately 60 to 70 birdhouses with the children to make them discover how fragile the environment can be and why we should protect the birds of our Regional Park.

Then came the spring and summer time!

We mainly did two activities –

The Museum:

The Museum of the Regional Park of Grazute is quite amazing because it is very well provided with important information about Ecosystem and respect for the environment in general. It explains the history of the Regional Park itself, but also about the history of Salakas and the surroundings. Last, but not least, the museum of Salakas has a sea museum! It’s probably one of the furthest museums from the sea, in the world! The owner of the collection, Vida, dedicated all her life to it and it is amazing to discover the sea…deep in the inland!

Another task was: Cleaning and preserve the Park.

With arrival of spring and summer, snow (FINALLY) melted down and made the park and the lakes more enjoyable. Unfortunately, it is also a way to discover all the pollution that some people left the summer before! So we went throughout the Park, we cleaned, we cut, we gathered wood!

The pollution fact is also the reason why we were so motivated to interact with children, to make them aware of how to respect the Mother Earth. On Earth day, which is a big event in Lithuanian primary Schools, Andriy and I made presentations about the nature, pollution, forests, lakes and even local birds!

Could you describe your daily routine?

I wake up at 8 and then go down to the office (our volunteer flat was in the same building as our offices and museum!) and check what’s going to be on for today. On Monday mornings, our colleagues prepare a big meeting to plan the week, so we mostly know in advance what we’ll be doing!

Then, either I go to the museum, or to the school, or outside, depending on the tasks!

What is Salakas famous for?

Salakas is very famous in Lithuania because of its church. It is 75 meters high and built with stones. It is very impressive and is actually the symbol of the whole Grazute Regional Park!

There are some other things that Salakas is famous for, but probably not many to know about it, like the tough two days battle that happened there in July, 1919, when the Lithuanian national troops took it back from the Bolshevik troops, during the first war of independence!

How was the feeling being foreigner in a little village?

Of course in the beginning, everybody was staring at me but after few days, (yes, very fast!) nobody was “staring” at me anymore, and people even remembered my name (which is more than simply uncommon in Lithuania) and said Hello in the streets. I had very nice relations, especially with children. They even came to my place to ask me to go out to play cards or watch movies with them. It was not embarrassing or anything. Some people asked me how it feels, to be the first colored person that they probably have seen and ….well…nothing special! Everybody has been entirely nice to me and made me feeling comfortable, from the first day! I got invited for tea, coffee, food…people really wanted me to try as much as possible, to have the best time possible!

Are people in Salakas different than those in the capital Vilnius and your hometown Lille?

Of course!

People in Vilnius are like other capital city people (and I’ve lived in Paris, so I guess I know what I’m talking about), a bit arrogant, feeling like the center of the universe, and feel sorry for me to be in Salakas…so of course, every time it happened, I proudly defended Salakas and said the truth: Salakas is better than Vilnius! 😉

Nevertheless, people from Vilnius are very nice, open-minded and know how to party, and I’m glad I met many people there!

People from Lille are open-minded as well; they know how to drink (way better than Lithuanian people! ), that is our Flemish/Germanic blood! Since it’s my region, it feels good to study here and be here, to be where I feel I belong to, and have a cheap flat and cheap groceries (not like at the tine when I was living in Paris!)

Have you learned to speak Lithuanian?

Yes, I had a Lithuanian language courses (covered by the EVS agreement) and then, I simply had to live and learn!

Try to be in a 400-inhabited-village and not know the local language….and you will see that after a few weeks, you will be able to express yourself!

Laba diena, mano vardas Hamza, cia Lietuvoje Hansas, ir buvau savanoris Grazutes regioniniame parke, Salake, siaures Lietuvoje

Have you got some favorite Lithuanian dishes?

AIŠKUUUU!*

But actually, I loved everything in Lithuanian food…so I am not able to define any special meal, since I loved them all! Cepelinai, Koldunai, Desreles**…everything was nice!

*Lithuanian expression meaning – Of course!

**Lithuanian dishes: Boiled potato Zeppelins, dumplings, sausages.

What have you learned from this project?

Aham…THE big question.

Easy to ask, hard to answer! First of all, I discovered the smell of homemade vodka… breathtaking, literally.

I learned more about the history of this tiny, but strong country which “went till the Black Sea”, as they all are proud to say when a foreigner arrives. I learnt how to deal with children, to run a museum, to manage my time the best possible. I learnt now to love and respect nature. When you live in a 11 million inhabitants metropolis, you forget the real meaning of the word “Nature”. This experience brought me back to it.

Any plans of returning to Salakas?

Of course! I already went back twice since my EVS ended. And I will probably go back again very soon. I met people there that I am not about to forget, and especially, the Little Jore, 2 years old, who I babysat and to me she’s like my goddaughter! 6

 

Andriy and Me in Vilnius.

Andriy and Me in Vilnius.

Me with local friends

Me with local friends

If I could spend some time in Lille, what places you would recommend seeing?

Well, I would be proud to show you my city, and explain you its rich history and culture!

I would show you our Belfry, a tower that represents the civilian power facing the religious one (church towers), our Great Square and the old town for example.

We also have the most advanced fortress called Citadels. Vauban built it after having taken the region (Flanders) in 1667. Louis XIV decided to fortify the new northern border, and Vauban was so proud of its own work that he called it the Queen of all Citadels.

.And so much more!

Everyone is welcome to Lille!

Hamza

Interview by M.Borgarbúi

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