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Agnė Žagrakalytė (b. 1979) is the author of three books of poetry and two books of prose. She has a truly unique poetic voice that is easy to recognize. One of the most important topics of Žagrakalytė's poetry is womanhood, in all of its various forms and transformations. Her texts often play with social and cultural stereotypes. This is alongside other significant themes in her work, like relationships between men and women, living abroad (the poet has been living in Brussels for several years), and her relationship with her homeland. Žagrakalytė's poetry is a creative force of nature filled with details and colloquial language. Her playfulness, lightness and eroticism set her apart in the broader field of Lithuanian poetry.

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Galloping World, 2015. Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

by Agnė Žagrakalytė

 

Sandra Bernotaite 03Photo by Dainius DirgėlaThe Ardennes horse weighs 1,000 kilograms, which is a ton. Currently, I feel as if such horse had accidentally squashed me.

It is so heavy!

As heavy on my chest is the task of describing my difficult experience as a Lithuanian immigrant in Belgium—which I can’t do. I can’t. I don’t know how. I don’t want to.

I can describe the thick, sturdy legs with feathered fetlocks (that’s how they are) that are crushing my clavicle, but not the situation in which I have found myself for the past 14 years. Because, well, it isn’t as unique as everyone, Lithuanian journalists in particular, expect it to be. How do you feel in foreign territory? But I am used to not having a place to call mine. Struggling to find a place for myself is my usual state. To not have a room or desk of my own. To live in a school dormitory. To live in a village and go to school in the city, which means being rejected by the village children for attending school in the city and be pointed at in that city school—the village girl! To keep moving, to continually be running. From the village to the district center, from the district center to the Lithuanian capital, from Vilnius to the capital of the European Union, then to a forest just outside Brussels and eventual peace.

Tell us about your life in Brussels, I keep being asked by Lithuanian journalists. (I keep getting lost in Brussels, just as I do in Vilnius and even in Pasvalys).

Are the Belgians really calm? I get asked by Lithuanian journalists. The Lithuanian saying “calm as a Belgian” is unknown to the Belgians. Because that saying originated not to describe the Belgians but the heavy Ardennes horses. A hundred years ago, the Lithuanians regained their independence, got a bit better-heeled, and bought Dutch black and white dairy cows and heavy-boned Ardennes draft horses, which were nicknamed Belgians. They are calm because they are serene mountains of muscle. They are so heavy that they sleep standing because if they were to lie down, it would be very difficult for them to stand up again. Here’s the myth undone for you! It’s not the Belgians who are calm, but their horses that were bred because they were able to drag the largest logs in the forest and the heaviest wagons of coal in the mines.

The fact that I live in a foreign country more or less seriously unnerved me only once. It was when I inserted in the search engine the name of Eduardas Cinzas as I had just finished reading his novel The Summer of the Red Horse (for the third time)—yes, horses again. The novel tells the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, a surgeon, who is trying to escape a terrible vision: as a result of taking LSD once, our poor protagonist suffers from reoccurring epileptic fits which are accompanied by a vision of a frightening red horse appearing from the wall. The horse that ruins life could be most easily interpreted as communism, terrible and red, always on a person’s heels. Cinzas (real family name Čiužas, which the Belgians found too difficult to pronounce), the Lithuanian writer living in Belgium, had it really tough: he wrote books after losing his leg in the coal mines, after losing his homeland in the war. Moreover, I was shocked to get the following result from the search engine: “died while living in Belgium.” Died while living! In Belgium.

I live in Belgium. But I am, let us say, young, healthy, strong, so what’s so hard about that? I visit Lithuania often, and I take part in all the main literary events, so the majority of the local literati don’t even notice me being somewhere other than in Lithuania. Every summer, I spend a continuous month or two in my native village in Lithuania. I speak in a dialect, grind the gravel roads with my bicycle tires, swim in the Mūša River, and when it is scummy and overgrown with rushes, I plunge into the quarry filled with spring water. I listen to what my mother says, I listen to my father’s stories, and having collected enough material to last me a year, bring those words back with me for the book that I’m writing in Lithuanian. What’s hard about that?

My family in Belgium is entirely Lithuanian. Lithuanian husband, Lithuanian children. The children go to the European school in Brussels where all the subjects are taught in their mother tongue, that is, in Lithuanian, at least until the fifth grade. I live in a bubble, in a greenhouse, and I could never leave it if I chose to. What’s hard about that?
Food? I come from Pasvalys district, and everybody used to brew their own beer there. I moved to Belgium where, as is well known, there are more breweries than villages. So, wherever I am—in Brussels or in Pasvalys—hops are in my blood. What’s hard about that?

When we still kept pigs in our Lithuanian village, the delicacy used to be blood pudding oven-roasted by my mother on the morning of the slaughtering. The Belgians have boudin noir—black blood sausages, which a person can eat every day if they so desire, without waiting for the day of the slaughter. Moreover, those get complemented by raisins and sour cream, for something different. So what’s hard about that? Neither Lithuanians, nor Belgians can live without potatoes… Oh yes—the Belgian mussels! But if needed, we could easily assemble a similar dish from freshwater shells from the Mūša River. It’s just that not many get such an idea.

The Belgians are French-speaking Walloons and Flemish-speaking Flemings. However, it’s difficult to come across a Belgian in Brussels. In Brussels, people speak in such a variety of languages that I, with my Lithuanian, feel equal—one of the many. Just the short street on which I live, apart from our Lithuanian family, is home to people from the Congo, Spain, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Morocco, and I buy beer after my iaido training sessions from a Pakistani corner shop. Once per month, the Catholic church which we attend on Sundays holds an African mass. I am learning iaido, a Japanese sword art, and the little space we use at the kendo/iaido club in the evening welcomes Spanish, Moroccan, Turkish, Polish, French, and Finnish members, along with a few Lithuanians, but the pure Belgians are represented at that Belgian martial arts club by only two Flemings—no Walloons even left. I speak Lithuanian, French, and Russian, and I can keep up a conversation in English—I learnt English from watching movies. I can more or less understand what is offered on a restaurant’s menu in Polish and Finnish, and I am intending to improve these languages; moreover, my Moroccan friend has promised to teach me some Arabic, so in terms of languages, Brussels is definitely not a boring place. My Lithuanian was affected by other languages insofar that when I speak in other languages and struggle to find a certain word, I enact it through gesticulation. I notice myself gesticulating widely in Lithuanian, too. Speaking on stage at one reading, I overturned a vase with flowers; at another literary event, with the first poem I sent my champagne glass flying and broke it into pieces while reading the third.

My situation is straightforward and easy. Flights connecting Lithuania and Belgium are frequent and reasonably priced. This is what I usually tell journalists. However, in everyday, real life, when journalists switch off their cameras, anything can happen. I know that a comfortable situation can crumble any time, as if under the weight of a heavy Ardennes horse. Heavenly guardians remind me of that me by sending me signs. For example, this summer I was a happy villager flying freely through the fields on my bicycle until a massive black dog came running at me. It was enormous—the broad marks of his bite remain visible on my bum even a month later. “It’s not your territory” was the unambiguous message I received that day. I am happy, for instance, that my children are being taught at school in their mother tongue, but suddenly my own mother had a stroke, and I cannot understand my mother’s language. I know that this safe greenhouse that I boast about here, this bubble in which I live, can at any time be torn apart by the terrible red horse of history. I am writing my second historical novel and spend the greater part of every day among stacks of old newspapers and mountains of biographies, so I’ve read a fair share of how it can happen. But for now, I live in Belgium. I’ll die in Lithuania. I’ll return, I say, smiling into the journalists’ microphones.

 

 

 

 

I know that this safe greenhouse that I boast about here, this bubble in which I live, can at any time be torn apart by the terrible red horse of history

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