This weekend I attended the annual LOS ANGELES LITHUANIAN FAIR at St. Casimir's Church in Silverlake and had a fun, fabulous, fascinating time while learning so much about Lithuanian culture, food, politics and music. The event is a two-day party always held the first weekend in October, this was the 28th such event since its founding in 1986, and it is one of the largest such Lithuanian celebration outside of that country. It is put on by young enthusiastic voluneers led by President Vytas Juskys. The Baltic versionof Octoberfest, I got a great taste of the art, craft workshops, polkas-folk dancing and singing, but it was the ethnic food which stopped me in my tracks. The brother-sister team of Sonata Jarasunaite and Saulius Jarasunas walked me through the hefty menu of potato dumplings with meat (Cepelinai), stuffed cabbage with boiled potatoes (Balandeliai), potato pancakes (Blynai), cold beet soup (Saltibarsciai) and homemade pork sausages called Desra su kopustais. What surprised me was the lack of strong spices and seasonings; no hot pepper, over-salting, no garlic (but lots of sautéed onions). Subtle, delicious, attractive ....like all the people that I met. Saulius gave me a sip of the strong, sweet honey mead liquor they favor, but since I was driving, I went easy.
Sonata told me there were about 4 million Lithuanians in the world today, all fiercely democratic and independent. I didn't realize that the Republic of Lithuania was a full-fledged member of NATO and the European Union. I always think of the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as an entity....but quickly was dissuaded from this. Last night I went to my map and fingered the nation in Northern Europe on the Baltic Sea bordering Sweden and Denmark. Many, many years ago, when I was touring Europe for the Cinerama movie company, I did visit the capital city of Vilnius, but all I remember was the delicious liver dumplings called koldunai. Sonata told me that the language was a living branch of the Indo-European language family, with roots in classic Greek and Sanskrit of India. In 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to break away and declare its freedom. Today they have their first female President, Dalia Grybauskaite, a good omen for us. Saulius told me that basketball is the national sport (not soccer) and their country's team has won many championships. He proudly mentioned that the UN Human Development Index lists Lithuania as "a very high human development" country, and I learned that the country is the first in the world in internet upload ability. Most of the country is internet-connected...something which we in the U.S. cannot say.
At my table people were discussing the tense political situation in the Baltics, with the Russian armed forces taking actions which are endangering the NATO nations in the region. "They now don't accept the outcome of the Cold War," someone said, and then told me of an incident which I had not read about: "On Sept. 18th, Russia seized a Lithuanian fishing boat which, according to all sources, was sailing in international waters off Russia's northern coast. They towed the boat int a Russian port. Lithuania and the European Union have protested the seizure and demand the return of the seized citizens." The table fell silent, and then the band struck up a popular song and the singing began. I was entranced by seeing the young dancers in ther traditional costumes with folk music accompaniment. Little kids and teens, all dancing, singing in Lithuanian, upholding their native traditions and culture. About a quarter of the people attending the festival were not ethic Lithuanians but -like me- interested in learning more about this proud, ancient and living culture. So mark your calendars for next year's first weekend in October and look for me there.
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