For the past year and a half, in his homeland of Uruguay, a young man named Nicolas Velo has been working so that he could buy a plane ticket to Lithuania. After being there for two weeks, he’ll return to Uruguay and start working for another two years so that he could afford his next trip.
He may not have a single drop of Lithuanian blood flowing through his veins, but this South American native is the president of his country’s Lithuanian Youth Association. If ever there came a time to move out of South America, Nico says, the decision to move to Lithuania would be almost instantaneous.
Yet, as much as he is Lithuanian at heart, his South American temperament is apparent even from the first moment I spotted him in a café in Vilnius’ old town; he has a smile that never leaves his face, and his stories are told with the vim and vigor so prevalent in Latin countries. He is both humble and easygoing, and does not need to pad his stories with deep aphorisms or philosophical claims to make them seem more credible.
Traditions, Language, and Entrees
In eloquent Lithuanian speech, Nicolas explains that he lives, breathes, and travels so that he could spend time with his friends. His most important friends, of course, live in Lithuania. Even in Uruguay, all of Nico’s free time is devoted to the Uruguayan Lithuanian Youth Association, where he oversees the cultural and traditional activities of approximately fifty people. Together they dance, eat, and celebrate Lithuanian holidays.
The next event on their agenda is the ancient Feast of St. John, which is also known as Midsummer Night’s Eve. Campfires will burn, men will leap over the flames, folk dances will be danced, and all will play the traditional games of St. John’s eve, which include searching for the elusive fern blossom at midnight. Nicolas makes a point to continue his studies of Lithuanian culture, so that he could always have something new to share with the group.
At Uruguayan Lithuanian events, all of the food is made by hand by members of the community. Later, this food will be sold to recoup the expenses from the event. One particular favorite is sausage with sauerkraut, though the group has also made kugelis and cepelinai for crowds up to sixty people. Though some technical difficulties may have occurred in the kitchen from time to time, the end products have always been delicious.
Years ago, when Nicolas first decided to learn the Lithuanian language, he began attending weekly classes in the Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay. He quickly realized that this was one language that could not be learned in weekly visits alone, so he applied for several grants that would allow him to study at the Lithuanian “Vasario Sesiolikta” (Independence Day) boarding high school in Germany or at Vilnius University.
The First Disappointments
These initial grant application led to nothing but bad news. Nico was too old to go to high school, and the tuition of Vilnius University was too expensive. Luckily, Vytauto Didziojo University in Kaunas offered to let Nicolas study pro bono, and this is how the native Uruguayan ended up living in Kaunas for nine months. It was here that he saw his first flakes of snow. “It was beautiful for a week,” he says, “but after that I wanted to die.”
Though he lived in the common student dormitories, nobody talked to the English/Spanish-speaking Nico, who was relegated to eating alone in his room. Looking for friends and companionship, Nico joined a Lithuanian folk dancing group similar to the one that had always brought him joy in Uruguay, but found that the dancers dissipated like smoke after practice ended. This was not what he was used to, for in Urugauay the dancers would stay after practice to drink mate tea, chat with each other, and dance some more.
The cultural divide continued when Nico decided to go out dancing. Because he was used to staying at South American clubs until eight in the morning, he calmly got ready and went to a Lithuanian club at half past three. Right after he received his first beer, the club closed for the night.
Feeling completely shunned and alone, Nicolas sank into a depression; some days he would sleep for sixteen out of twenty-four hours. This went on for several months until Nicolas finally decided to approach the international affairs department of the university. They quickly shifted his dormitory assignment and placed him in a multicultural dorm with six Polish students, a Morroccan, a Frenchman, a German, and a Basque gentlemen. Even though most of these students left the next year, it still gave Nico enough time to learn Lithuanian in a friendly and supportive environment.
Lithuanians Need More Time
While all of this wonderful learning was taking place, Nicolas’ bank account was suffering. Soon he didn’t even have enough money left to get a flight back home, so he reached out to a friend in Spain. This Catalonian friend found Nico a job as a waiter on the Spanish seaside, and it was here that Nicolas spent several months working sixteen hours a day in order to scrape together enough money to return to Uruguay.
Because he had earned a bit more than was necessary for the return ticket, Nicolas decided to return to Lithuania one more time, and this time he was met with a great surprise: waiting for him at the train station were the same dissipating folk dancers that had seemed so unfriendly in the past! “I couldn’t understand why they were so overjoyed to see me, but the kept hugging me,” he recounts.
Now, however, Nico simply understands that Lithuanians, and Eastern Europeans in general, might just need more time to warm up to strangers. He feels lucky that he was in Lithuania long enough to enjoy the thaw, and notes that this is not the way the people interact in Uruguay, where life moves more slowly and people tend to spend more time interacting.
Upon his return to Uruguay, Nico was worried that he would forget the language that he had worked so hard to learn, but he quickly realized that this would not be the case, for there always seemed to be some Lithuanian or another visiting Uruguay. Nicolas was also able to practice speaking the language at Lithuanian Youth Association events at which he would represent his country. According to Nico, if it weren’t for the “little hooks” on some of the letters—which he always forgets—his Lithuanian writing would be better than his English. He also continues to practice reading Lithuanian, for although he may not understand every detail, he is at least able to understand the main ideas of the story.
The Unlikely Champion
Nicolas Velo was born in Montevideo on a lot bordered by a slaughterhouse. Many immigrants worked there temporarily, but his Croation-Spanish great-grandmother decided to put down roots and stay to live there. This is where the Lithuanian community had also put down it’s roots, and it was in this area that Nico’s long, one-story, multi-bedroom home was built. Its eight bedrooms surround a central parrillero, a fire bit used to cook meat, which is the central foundation for traditional Uruguayan homes.
Even though several generations of Nico’s family live in this home, there always seems to be room for guests. Often there are three or five Lithuanian visitors living in the area. Is it traditional to live together? “Well, it’s hard to live alone,” says Nico.
This entire relationship with the Lithuanian culture began on a day when the Lithuanian immigrants in the area were missing a player for a bowling tournament and asked Nicolas to play with them. After befriending some of these Lithuanians Nico went on to help them reorganize and restructure their entire bowling alley.
Not long after this, Nicolas was invited to participate in the Lithuanian community events. After becoming a member several years later, Nicolas set out to found the Uruguayan Lithuanian Youth Association, which would represent the younger people in the community. He helped take care of financial matters at the beginning, but was soon promoted to the role of president.
And so, for a year and a half, Nicolas saved money for his trip to Lithuania. Every morning he would wake up at seven, ride a bus for forty minutes, and would work at a store for automotive, aeronautical, and medical supplies. Nico was simultaneously a salesman, administrator, accountant, and manager.
Doesn’t he want to continue his education so he could get a job that pays more money? “I wanted to,” he says regretfully, “but I didn’t do well on the exams, got angry, and punished myself by forcing myself to start working right away.” Later he tried to study at nights, but his heart always led him back to Lithuania and his friends. After one particularly lengthy trip, Nicolas, frustrated with the amount of work before him, left his studies.
“It may seem a bit silly, but my friends are the most important thing in my life,” he claims without regret. In truth, he does not traverse the Atlantic to gaze at the tower of Vilnius or to flutter his toes in the water surrounding the Traku castle. Instead, he comes for the friends. If they want to walk and tour around the town, then that’s great. If not, then it will be just at nice to sit down at home, drink some mate, dance some dances, and speak Lithuanian until dawn.