If you talked to someone who has been abroad with “Erasmus+”, you would hear a bunch of exciting phrases, motivating you to do it too. I can say I am one of those people – after coming back from a semester in Cyprus I am still full of powerful experiences and reflections. One of many things it gave me is openness to foreigners here, in Lithuania. I know what it means to be in a place with no familiar faces, where everyone talks in a weird language, in such environment any friendly contact with the locals is important. This spring semester back in Kaunas I had an opposite situation, I became friends with Darko Malinovski – an “Erasmus+” student from North Macedonia. Since Darko is very easy-going and open to sharing his experiences, I decided that I want to share some of his thoughts with you.
First of all, why did you choose Lithuania as your “Erasmus+“ destination?
To begin with, I wanted to go on “Erasmus+” because I’m finishing with my master‘s, it was my last chance to use this student exchange opportunity. My institute had a few universities as partners for this program and VDU was one of them. The other ones were in Slovenia, Serbia and Turkey, so Lithuania was the most further away country. Not a lot of people around me know Lithuanian, so I decided to come here. Plus, I had a colleague from my institute that had been here and she had some positive recommendations.
Did you have any worries or preconceptions about the country before coming here?
When I was deciding to go on “Erasmus+” exchange in Lithuania I had some worries about will I integrate into the environment well, or will I make new friends. Arriving in Kaunas, I was greeted by a lovely couple which were my mentors. During my stay there, I had met a lot of nice people with whom I had shared some very interesting experiences. Because people going on “Erasmus+” do not often talk about the worries they had beforehand, what I have to say in retrospect is that in my experience, these kind of worries proved to be unfounded. Talking about the country, I didn‘t know much, mostly I‘ve heard about Lithuania because of basketball! But joking aside, the colleague I’ve mentioned before said that there are some similarities in our societies, just the people back home (in North Macedonia) are a bit more open, although it is not that noticeable. What she said to me turned out to be true: “you will not experience a cultural shock”.
Was it hard to adapt here? Did you have any surprises?
There were some things I had to adapt to. First, it was the first time I lived in a student dormitory, it requires becoming more flexible and make compromises. Second, VDU actually made a very good job at welcoming and helping us out with the orientation week after arriving here, they gave out information very efficiently. The International Cooperations Department is very professional. The mentor program is another thing why I‘m lucky: I met the very nice mentors here that I became friends with. They even greeted me at the airport when I landed in Kaunas at night. We spent quite a lot of time together, they helped me a lot. Plus, I joined the VMU academic choir “Vivere Cantus”, it was a new thing for me. I was interested in music but at the same time I never had any experience in performing. Regarding the language, almost everywhere people understand at least a basic level of English. Otherwise they try to talk in Russian which I don‘t understand fully, but it is possible to try to communicate in a mix of Russian/Macedonian/sign language.
How is the learning system in your country different?
The system there is kind of similar, we have both the lecture part and the seminar work. We have to implement the things we learn in various environments. It is both learning the theory and the practical part which I quite like. Another thing – the administration in VMU is very good: internet accessibility, internet integration in services is done well here.
I dare say that North Macedonia to us, Lithuanians, sounds quite exotic. What are some things you wish people knew about Macedonia?
We have mountains, we have more sunny weather than you do have here. I really love our food. It‘s not that different, but I think you put not enough salt in your food. Plus, you put sour cream/mayo everywhere. We have some similarities in our history: Lithuania was part of USSR, Macedonia (now the country is called North Macedonia) was part of Yugoslavia before the 90s. Both countries regained independence in early 90s, they are small countries in terms of population (population in North Macedonia is 2,1 mln). North Macedonia is now trying to get to the EU. In these kind of terms, even though Yugoslavia was more liberal than USSR in many ways, we still have kind of a transition period after our independence. The generation gap exists in both of our countries. History aside, Macedonia is a very nice place to visit, especially the mountains. In terms of tourism, we have a few lakes that are very nice, some interesting landscapes in the mountains. We have village tourism which is on the rise, of course there is classical tourism but I would choose this one too. The country is quite multicultural, you can find many different people here. Macedonia is also cheaper but it is not that different, for instance, beer in a bar would cost 2 euros, you could get a good meal for about 3 euros.
What do you miss from home while being here? (Apart from food!)
Family and friends. I miss riding my bicycle and my cars. Although I had a great opportunity to ride here in a race track, we don‘t have such things at home.
What is your general opinion on Lithuanian society?
I‘m surrounded by outgoing students, which is generally the young population. Students are more open to making friendships or just doing new and exciting things. Definitely, there is a more reserved attitude that is not too noticeable. But what I loved here is that you see that culture here is a big part of Lithuanian identity. Plus, there is a culture of alternative forms of art, it is very present in Kaunas. I‘ve seen a monument where nothing actually happened, a lot of street art… These are things that make you smile and help the places become warmer and more welcoming.
Could you share one of your most memorable adventures from your time here?
I was now getting close to heading back to Skopje, so I was trying to make the most of my stay in Kaunas. We had just finished singing with the choir, when some friends had just decided that they will go to Molėtai for a night and invited me to join them. I had already planned some small things for the day in Kaunas, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see Molėtai, so I took the chance. And I had not made a mistake. Arriving in the tiny town of Molėtai, I was greeted with picturesque landscapes consisting of a lot of lakes surrounded by woods. There, we decided to spend the day near a bigger lake, which had a tall watchtower near it. We started off with sight-seeing through the binoculars of the tower. And what a sight it was! You could spend the day looking at the treetops that were all around for miles, whilst the smooth wind blowing and the birds chirping in the distance were filling in the atmosphere. As the sun was progressing its way to the horizon, we decided that it’s time to have a swim. We went to a small dock and moments later, we were swimming in the clear and cold water. Moments later, the sun was already touching the tips of the trees and we went out to the dock again. Cue in a guitar, friends that were joyfully singing along and kids in the distance trying to exploit the last of the sun’s rays to make a short swim, I felt at home. 3000 kilometers away. A lovely day it was!
Any final thoughts after your “Erasmus+” mobility?
As I am sitting home and writing this, I can’t help but think about the people that I met in Lithuania. I hope that I will meet them again someday, but I know that some of them I never will. I didn’t think that I will miss Kaunas, as most of my long-time friends and family are here in Skopje. But still, I happen to miss the lifestyle that the small and lovely Kaunas had to offer. Even taking this into account, I feel happy about getting to know these friends and Kaunas, and I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything!