At first you get angry. Then you try to smile and quietly grumble: "Oh again..." Yet once you notice that those stories tend to repeat, you anxiously press the panic button. How come nobody knows we have electricity and we know how to flush the toilet and no, our language has nothing to do with Russian?
Explaining to foreigners what Lithuania is like, can be quite a challenge. After spending decades behind the Iron Curtain we are desperate to be acknowledged, heard, seen and identified. God forbid you don't know about our Baroque churches or the coastline. Or the fact that Vilnius is going to be the European Capital of Culture next year - along with Austria's third largest city Linz (yet we prefer not to mention that, although I love their website). Or that our beer is as good as Czech or Polish, which seem to be getting quite popular in Ireland - you can buy it in O'Briens and avoid miscommunication in Eastern European shops. Or if you haven't heard that Lithuanian language is one of the oldest and best preserved in Europe. Or...
But why should foreigners bother with these crumbles of information about a former Soviet republic nestling somewhere along the shores of the Baltic sea? For many we will always remain a mere former Soviet republic, no matter how hard we try to convince the world that we are not a black hole on the world map. Despite 17 years of independence it still seems that little is known about us.
As part of the campaign, promoting Lithuania and celebrating the fact that Vilnius will be European Capital of Culture in 2009, a contest was introduced recently. Lithuanians are invited to send various myths they have heard about their country. The best ones are regularly published on the most popular news website in Lithuania. Majority of them seem to arrive from the USA, where Lithuania oftentimes is considered as either one of the 50 states or some district in Russia. Scandinavians tend to think we live in the caves and have never seen TVs or microwaves. Some agree that our capital Riga is as beautiful as another Lithuanian city Tallinn.
The objective of the contest apparently is to challenge various myths about Lithuania and to encourage Lithuanians to send a message to the world about what their country is like.
Sounds like a good cause, yet as I was reading those bizarre stories with various misconceptions, it seemed that those myths mainly seek to emphasise foreigners' stupidity and ignorance. Besides, they are written in Lithuanian and are of little use as a message to the world.
Of course, it is funny to discover that some think Lithuanian women still don't have the right to vote or that Lithuanians live in igloos, but as we gargle with laughter at foreigners scoring a fat hollow zero in questions on Lithuania, we should ask ourselves why so little is known about us.
I must admit I used to support those who were considering people of the Western world as somewhat ignorant and being lightweight in general knowledge department, the Irish being no exception. Yet after living here for a couple of years and seeing what has been done in order to introduce Irish to Lithuania, I am beginning to reconsider my position.
Recently I was asked why the vast majority of the events organised by our embassy and various Lithuanian groups seem to be concerned only with attracting Lithuanians and rarely target the Irish audience. While I am trying to come up with some sort of an explanation, the Irish continue to weave another myth about us. Ignorance? Whose, I wonder...
Written for "Metro Eireann"