A week or two ago, I was talking to my friend AAron. We try to keep up on a semi-weekly basis and this time there other people with him and his family and one of these other people, upon finding out I lived in Lithuania, had a question for me.
“Do you know any left-handed, redhead dentists?” she asked. Puzzled, I asked her why. She said when she needs to explain something as rare, the phrase which has become second nature to her is “rare as a left handed, red haired Lithuanian dentist.” I acknowledged that I did not know anyone who fit that particular description and we chuckled, but it started me thinking.
Then, a couple of days ago, AAron sent me the above ad from a magazine and those thoughts came back.
What is it about Lithuania which makes people use it as a punchline? Now, I’m just as guilty, I know. I used to have a standard line about “in Lithuania, I am like a god” but the reference was to a TV show I used to work for which actually filmed in the country so at least there was a connection, regardless of how tenuous. It didn’t matter that I’d never been there when I used that line (and to be perfectly honest, wouldn’t have been able to identify it on a map, often getting the Baltics confused with the Balkans) I still felt I could make the joke (which stopped as soon as I actually visited the country, by the way). But why?
In fiction, we lay claim to both Hannibal Lecter and Marko Ramius, the captain of the Red October in Tom Clancy‘s novel The Hunt for Red October. Even Upton Sinclair‘s novel The Jungle features a Lithuanian protagonist by the name of Jurgis Rudkus. And don’t even get me started on the David Bowie/Man Who Fell To Earth connection. Meanwhile, the list of actual Lithuanians (and those of Lithuanian descent) is also pretty impressive (including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Algis Budrys and my personal favorite, Jerry Siegel, the guy who co-created Superman).
So what is it about the country which opens it up to being used in the western world as an example of everything? There’s a souvenir t-shirt for sale which reads “I love Lithuania – I just don’t know where it is” and maybe that’s the thing. Lithuania has been around for a while. It was first mentioned as a country in 1009, which beats many of its neighbors by a significant factor. It was also the first of the Soviet countries to declare independence. Maybe that’s what it is, it’s become a part of a global zeitgeist but no one is exactly sure why – so they just pop it in when they need a country, someplace exotic and yet familiar at the same time.
What do you guys think?