Where are you from?

I am from Lithuania, one of the Baltic states that regained its freedom  from the Soviet Union, communist Russia in 1991.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a small, quaint and beautiful health-resort in the southern-most part of Lithuania.  Several hundred years ago, natural salt-water springs were tapped into for their myriad of health benefits, thus giving birth to Druskininkai.  The word “Druska” means “salt,” so in translation it would be “Salt Town.” Hotels and health-spas sprung up  (no pun intended) all over town.  By the late 1970’s Druskininkai was home to about ten thousand residents, whose main livelihood was health management, hospitality and tourism. Despite growing up under a communist regime, I had an unusually vibrant childhood. Thanks to my town’s close proximity to the borders of Poland and Belarus, it was like growing up in three countries all at once.  Very early on in my life I developed an appreciation of different cultures, as there was an influx of visitors from other countries each month.  People flocked to Druskininkai to relax, have fun and restore their health. The house where I grew up was situated smack in the middle of three hotels, one of them was the largest one in the entire town! To say that my back yard was unusual, is an understatement. Living in Druskininkai was like being on an international vacation every day! I enjoyed learning Russian and Polish, just so that I could interact with the tourists, with whom I had formed many friendships. I was sort of the “town chatter-bug,” the word “shy” did not exist in my vocabulary. My parents owned an excursion business called “Panorama,” which provided day-tours and overnight getaways to historic sites throughout Lithuania. Panorama hosted travel groups from Azarbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and many others that were within the old Soviet Union. I enjoyed meeting people from all the varying countries and  appreciating the unique cultural attributes of each.

What brought you to Cleveland?

In fourth grade, I started learning my fourth language: English. We were taught “King’s English,” where the R’s are not rolled in words such a far, car or expert, etc.. Yet, strangely, intuitively I was the only student that rolled the R’s like in vernacular American-English. Upon hearing that, my teacher gave me a peculiar look, paused to think, shook her head infinitesimally and just let me “roll with it” (again, no pun intended.) Learning English came to me so easily and naturally, that it was almost baffling. Since those were the days way before “mother internet,” I asked everyone and anyone as much information as I could gather about America, the country where the R’s were rolled which  sounded oh so cool! Ah, the mind of a 10-year-old.  I became obsessed with all-things-America, that my class mates would tease my by saying that I was “a little American born in Lithuania.” I thought it was funny and a great compliment all at once. Even though I wanted to travel to America with all my heart: the iron curtain of communism, lack of sufficient funds and the fact that I was an only child, were obstacles too tough to hurdle. Or were they?!  Six years later, thanks to the unfolding of some semi-miraculous events in my life, I ended up on American soil, right here in Cleveland Ohio.  Cleveland was not my particular destination of choice, but that of serendipity, as I had distant family connections from my great-aunt’s marriage in the 1950’s. An art and academic foreign-student scholarship was what had brought me here to the beautiful campus of Hawken Upper School, in Gates Mills, Ohio.  I came here alone, my entire family eagerly awaiting my return in exactly one year. Little did we all know, that we would not see each other for six years since the day we parted.

What were your first thoughts about coming to the United States?  Did those change?

I can relate my feelings to those of Alice in the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland, after falling into the rabbit hole. Within the very first year of being in the country of my dreams, I was flooded with a kaleidoscope of emotions: excitement, nervousness, elation, fear, joy, confusion, wonder, stress, happiness, panic, fun, surprise, longing, and aftershades of each.

What challenges did you face transitioning here?

Words such as: “outsider, xenophobia, different, all alone, language-barrier” were not easy to live with. Coming in as a Junior into a tight-knit private school in a world so radically different from my own, was like jumping into a giant tub of ice. It was a cultural shock. I was the foreign specimen, in a group that has never met anyone from the post-Soviet-Union. As communism and capitalism are polar opposites, so was I in comparison with my new classmates.  I looked different, dressed “weird,” talked not as good-English as I had thought, I might as well have had green skin, as that’s what I felt that others saw in me. It took some time for me to get my bearings academically and then socially. That year of my life would probably be the one I would choose to skip, if I could, now that hind-sight is 20/20.

Thanks to the words that were in my personal vocabulary: “perseverance, commitment, grit, passion and resilience,” I muscled through what was one of the most challenging years of my life. Yet, that was my price to pay, to assimilate in the country that I adored since fourth grade. I believe that each and every immigrant pays a “price,” and “initiation fee” of a sort, before they feel at home in America.

I no longer feel like Alice in Wonderland, my roots have taken deep into American soil and it is truly my home, a place where I was meant to be.

What is your occupation? Are you a member of a civic or social organization?

I graduated from Ursuline College, Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Accounting.  Early on in my career I worked in sales, marketing and client management in the corporate retirement plan field. In 2004 I took time off to become a full-time mother for then my daughter Samantha (now 14) and son Dean (now age 12,) my third child Austin was born in 2006. I had my hands full! However, as a daughter of staunch entrepreneurs, I didn’t roll far from the tree. I own a small business creating delicious and visually unique cookies for special occasions. I started Cookie Art (CookieArtDesign.com) as my children were growing up and my relentless entrepreneurial spirit kept beckoning me to create. I am a proud and happy member of Global Cleveland and the Lithuanian Cultural Gardens.

How have other Cleveland’s made you feel welcomed?

With the exception of my very first year here in Cleveland, the rest was rather smooth-sailing. I enjoyed the compactness, versatility, affordability and mid-western conservative values of the city.  The people were welcoming and friendly ( once they could understand me.) I worked extremely hard to shed as much of my accent as I could, so that nothing would be ‘lost to translation.” Mastering the language was instrumental in gaining acceptance at my new school, where I was then a senior. In my interactions with many immigrants here locally and with people abroad, I noticed their fear of “making a linguistic mistake,” and thus being shy to speak English. I made a point to everyone I spoke with “ to please correct me, if I said something incorrectly.” Upon hearing that disclosure, people kindly helped me build the local language skills that were the lifeline of my success in a country where I was all by myself since a young age of sixteen.

What traditions or customs do you continue to practice?

Cleveland has a large Lithuanian community, on East 185th street and Neff Road. It was there that I made my very first friendships which I treasure to this day. The Lithuanian community was like a bridge from the old world into the new, a comfort zone where I could turn to for “nostalgic safety and familiarity.” It was the place where I kept my Lithuanian traditions alive, while becoming assimilated in a land all so new. It is also a place where I made the connection with my husband Saul, who is a second-generation Lithuanian, and has been raised immersed in the Lithuanian culture.  Many years later, our children attended Saturday school at the Lithuanian Club, where they learned the basics of the language, performed in a folk dance group “Svyturys” and  learned about the beautiful customs of their heritage. I taught at the Lithuanian School for three years, as my way of expressing gratitude and to continue the traditions that make our culture unique and add international vibrancy to the Cleveland international community. I am a big fan of experiencing different cultures through cuisine. I keep the culinary traditions at home going strong, though my first-generation American children balk at some of the menu-items, such as the traditional pink “beet and root vegetable salad,’ pink cold beet soup (borscht) and herring smothered in a delicious mixture of  oil, onions, carrots and dried porcini mushrooms. They do,however, immensely enjoy the Bonkukinas (tree cake)! It is a round, tall and akward looking, yet irresistibly delicious pastry/desert, which they like sharing with their friends. At the Gintaras restaurant, they enjoy traditional Lithuanian grated potato and meat dumplings – Cepelinai. Even though initially my children were reluctant to embrace their Lithuanian heritage, as they are growing older and have traveled there several times, it is amazing to see them identify with their Lithuanian roots and tell their friends about how much fun it is to have another country to belong to overseas.  

What do you love about Cleveland?

Just as myself, Cleveland has changed a lot in the past 23 years since I’ve been here. It morphed from a ubiquitous industrial city of the mid-west into one of the most progressive cities in the country, by establishing itself as the health-care hub via world-renown Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. It has a vibrant cultural presence and great sports teams. I was thrilled to witness the Cleveland Cavaliers brining home the NBA Championship this past summer and the Cleveland Indians only one hit away from winning the World Series!  I am truly happy to call Cleveland home. I have traveled to many cities around the world, and the ease of getting around Cleveland and its suburbs, the great selection of private and public schools, the Playhouse Square, The West Side Market, the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Art Museum, and many more establishments are the vibrant threads in the tapestry of our great city.

Why is it important to welcome immigrants and refugees?

People immigrate to “higher ground” propelled by their need for safety, economic necessity, sense of adventure, a career opportunity or a passion for a certain country, as it was in my case. No matter what their reasons are, we need to embrace our shared humanity and help people in need from whatever part of the world they come from. Immigrating here on my own was a long and convoluted experience that has made me who I am today. I have a deep respect for people who have moved their entire families to the United States and literally started from zero. People as such, import a unique “CAN DO” attitude into our country, which further propels our culture of effort-driven success. Immigrants bring with them not just suitcases with a few essentials and a small amount of “seed-money,” but also a tremendous appreciation of freedom and the amazing opportunities America offers to those willing to put in the hard work.

Why is it important to travel abroad?

My parents have instilled in me the love of travel and exploring other cultures. Even though travel in the old Soviet Union was limited to the fifteen countries that comprised it, they covered quite a vast and geographically and culturally diverse area. I remember vacationing in Sochi as a small child, and feeling like I was at the opposite end of the world.  My husband Saul and our three children are avid travelers and enjoy learning about other cultures from the locals. As members of Global Cleveland, we have also had the world ” travel to us.” We have had the privilege and honor of  hosting guests from Gabon, Mauritius and Saudi Arabia.  By welcoming international visitors into our home, we are shattering cultural stereotypes and growing the global community which we are all a part of. There may be border lines that slice up the map this way and that, as each country is represented in a color of random choosing to distinguish it from others- but those connected shapes make up the vibrant mosaic of our world. Each piece has its own sound, taste, movement, voice and customs. By traveling abroad we gain perspective and understanding, that cannot be gained by simply reading about it or watching it on the screen.  It is so intriguing to learn about other cultures and learn from them, because there are SO MANY WAYS TO LIVE A LIFE.