A Swedish Man in Vilnius

Today (I say “today,” but I wrote this yesterday) I was out in the city having lunch at some sort of Greek food restaurant, and realized I was running out of Litas. I had a flat-bread filled with some sort of vegetables (I think – it was called something like Hot, Spicy and Crispy. It was not spicy, but it was good) and a drink. I used some internet from a café across the street because I realized that on Couchsurfing I had told this guy we could get together and talk a little in Vilnius since I had found other housing options in Vilnius, and I had not contacted him. It turns out that tomorrow he is going to Venice because he has a rich friend who basically bought his airplane ticket and didn’t give him much of an option. Not that he complained much either. So we got together for coffee and a walk today, and I spent about two hours with him just talking about whatever came to mind.

Muezz is from Sweden. Often when I tell people I am part Swedish, their first response is, “That’s where the blonde hair comes from isn’t it?” I mean, that probably does have something to do with it, but it is not the only determining factor of my blonde hair. Also, I don’t see why people feel like they need to say this because it is literally said every time I mention anything about being Swedish. I mean, EVERY TIME. Does it make people feel smart if you tell them you are part Swedish, they see you have blonde hair, and immediately make an assumption? I really don’t understand. Let me tell you what Muezz looks like. He is about my height, and very dark. I mean black hair and darker skin than you would expect from most European countries. I know he is only one person and could be an exception, but I had the opportunity to meet his friend from Sweden too. His friend was shorter than me with hair as dark as Muezz’s but with lighter skin. My father, who has traveled extensively, said that when he went to Sweden he found that yes, the children are very blonde. However, he said that what he saw and learned was that most Swedish people only have blonde hair probably until they reach their mid-teens. (I am not sure of the exact age). Then their hair starts to turn dark, and it gets very dark. So, next time you look at a blonde who is twenty or older, and they tell you they are part Swedish, it is probably safe to assume they are probably part something else too for the blonde to stick. This is not to say that no Swedish people are tall and blonde because there definitely are, I think I am saying this more to make a point that people jump to conclusions rather quickly.

After speaking with Muezz and his friend, it sounds like there are quite a few Swedish people who come to Lithuania to study. Many of them are located in Kaunas, and apparently the guys are very concerned with the other Swedish men stealing their girlfriends or ex-girlfriends. In Sweden they have a sort of student loan that I don’t really understand. It gives the student funding for six years (I don’t think an excessive amount of funding), and for six years the student can travel to another country to learn languages or study whatever their faculty (like a major) requires, within reason. I was told also that if there was a country in Europe that has a language as their official language, that they cannot study this language in another country, they have to study it in Europe. For example, if a person wants to study English, they have to study it in the United Kingdom; they can’t go to the United States.

We also tried to understand from each other the differences between Swedish, Lithuanian and American universities, but each one is slightly different from the last, and I have the feeling that unless we talked to someone who had experienced all three, we will not fully understand how the universities from the other’s country worked. They have credit hours they have to fulfill each semester. It is not done in classes like ours, but they have to fulfill these hours to get the credit. I don’t understand it because they don’t have to go to the lectures; it is that the administration thought they needed to study that many hours to pass the exam, so those are the hours. In addition, their area of study takes up all four years because the amount of credit they receive in four years is the amount they need to complete study in one faculty. Muezz said that in Lithuania the lectures you have to take for your faculty are already set. There is no leeway to choose something that is still in the faculty but might interest you more (like in American universities when you have some elective courses in your major). In Swedish universities, I understand that they still run on this faculty system, but they have the leeway of the American universities that allow students to pick some of their classes.

Muezz said to me that whenever he talks to an American, he feels like they are trying to sell him something. The way we choose our words where something is a certain way, or someone has to do something, I guess it just sounds like a sale. He said that maybe it has something to do with our consumer culture because we are sort of wired to buy and sell. Maybe it does have something to do with this, I don’t know, but it is also probably a difference in intonation. Muezz mentioned to me that there a videos online that have come up recently that make fun of Americans. He told me an example that someone would ask an American where Afghanistan was located and the American, instead of admitting that they don’t know, would point to an area that was completely wrong, like Australia. The point of these videos is not so much that Americans don’t know geography, but also that they don’t want to admit that they don’t know. It is back to that old belief where America is such a strong and leading country that the people from it can’t look like they don’t know something. I don’t know how prevalent this mentality was, or still is in America, but from my point of view this is a mentality that existed more before 9/11.

When Muezz saw his friend from Sweden across the street, we went over and said hello. That’s the first time I have ever heard the Swedish language spoken and I am sorry to say I don’t know anything about it. It sounds complicated enough, although I don’t think there are any cases. Muezz’s friend was up from Kaunas with his Lithuanian girlfriend. His girlfriend is apparently a quarter Russian with both friends and immediate family living in Russia, but she does not know Russian at all. They are both in Kaunas for Med-School, but it seems that this city does not interest people as much so they wanted to get away for the day and come to Vilnius.

Muezz has been going to the gym twice a day for the past month apparently. He said it is because he has time, and he is also in-between jobs. He is also writing a fitness blog. He says many people come up to him on the street and ask him what he does to look like he does, and they are not satisfied with his answer that in fact he still eats meat and potatoes together, and that he eats late at night. He told me his opinion on the fitness level of Lithuanians in comparison to his own country. People in Lithuania are not fat like Americans or Swedish people when they get fat. (He has not yet been to the United States, but he says parts of the exercise culture and mentality seem rather similar). He says that many Lithuanians  in his opinion are “skinny-fat,” a term you may know if you enjoy going to the gym and see skinny people who don’t. In Muezz’s words, when Lithuanians are young they think they look good so they don’t feel the need to work out, but soon they start “sagging” because they don’t have muscles to hold anything in place and then they want to work out. If you are driving down the street in Sacramento, California for example, there are huge box gyms that you can see standing next to the road. When these gyms are open, there are always people in them because American food makes people fat, and then all of our commercials tell us we should be skinny and work out. In Sweden it is apparently the same way. There are gyms everywhere, and they are always full. Walking down the streets of Vilnius, I have not seen one gym. They do have gyms, but Muezz tells me they are really expensive in comparison to the income that these people earn.

Edit: I spoke with my host Guoda after she read this post. She disagrees with what Muezz has told me, and I would like to go out on a limb here and say that I believe her more since she has lived in Lithuania her whole life, and he has only lived here a year or so. Guoda says that many people in Lithuania like to work out. Maybe not in the gym (for example I see many people jogging or riding bikes). In every culture there are people who like to get exercise and people who are not as interested. I think that Muezz, perhaps like myself, must be used to a culture that advertises exercise and having in shape bodies so much that it is hard to adjust to see the values of a different culture.

I understand that Muezz has at least three brothers. I did not ask him how many siblings he has, but he spoke of three. They lived in Beijing when Muezz was in high school, so when Muezz graduated high school he decided to move there for a while. I think he lived there for six months. When he moved there, his brothers moved away. I know one moved to Tokyo, and one moved to Ukraine. He didn’t say much about his time in Beijing, but afterwards he moved to Tokyo for a year as well too. He said that he really enjoyed Japan, but the biggest problem he had with their culture was their bad communication. He said this is one reason he likes Americans because we don’t take a year to know someone before we are comfortable opening up and talking about something more interesting than surface information. Now after Japan, Muezz is in Lithuania. He told me that he plans to stay here for three years and I believe he has already been here for about a year and a half.  He is trying to learn Lithuanian because he said he will not live in a place for three years without at least trying to learn the language.

Overall Muezz was a very interesting person to spend some time with, and I always love meeting new people with their own life experiences. I think we will meet again for coffee or for a walk or just to hang out when he returns from his short jaunt to Venice.