Labas. That’s right. Labas. To all my Lithuanian friends: Labas! In fact, I’d like greet everyone reading my blog: Labas! That’s hello in Lithuanian. My Lithuanian friend Vito taught me that word because he always insisted that we greet each other by saying Labas. Now, I always greet Lithuanians with Labas and they always smile. I especially love to greet them with Labas especially if they didn’t think I knew they were Lithuanians. I’m not sure why, but they’re always thrilled to hear me say Labas. So to all my Lithuanian readers: Labas! I guess sometimes I go on and on, don’t I? Well, my friend Vito taught me another Lithuanian word: tylėk. Sometimes we would go to the show, I would just keep on talking even after the movie started. He would keep telling me tylėk until I finally shut up. That’s right, tylėk means shut up in Lithuanian. But I never did. And I never will.
For as long as I can remember, I have always lived near Lithuanians in Chicago. In Back of the Yards, Holy Cross was the Lithuanian church I attended. At Holy Cross School, the nuns always praised The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because the protagonist was Lithuanian and the novel was set in Back of the Yards. When we moved to Marquette Park, 2509 W. Marquette Road, many Lithuanians lived there and they even had a street named Lithuanian Plaza Court. In fact, that neighborhood was the unofficial capital of Lithuania during the Soviet era. Maria High School, run by Lithuanian nuns, was at Marquette Road and California Avenue. Right on the same campus was the retirement convent for the Sisters of Saint Casimir at 2601 W. Marquette Road. The Lithuanians also had their own Holy Cross Hospital at California Avenue and Lithuanian Plaza Court. I met my friend Vito when I lived in Marquette Park. Vito and I used to eat at the Lithuanian McDonald’s at 68th and Pulaski. I don’t know if it was actually Lithuanian, but Vito told me that the tiles on the wall were typical Lithuanian colors, so it became a Lithuanian McDonald’s in my mind. When I moved to Bridgeport, there weren’t that many Lithuanians there anymore, but they did have a street named Lituanica Avenue. My favorite restaurant in Bridgeport was a Lithuanian restaurant named Healthy Foods at 3236 S. Halsted Street. When I saw the movie Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled to learn that the family of Harold Abrams were Lithuanian Jews.
When I was a student at Holy Cross, my best friend was Patrick McDonald, but when he moved away, I became friends with Adrian Stanislovaitis and Anthony Kivenas, both Lithuanians. Whenever I was with them, we spoke English, but when they were with their parents, they spoke Lithuanian. I never understood what they said and it didn’t bother me at all. However, I never even learned one Lithuanian word from them. And when they came to my house, I spoke Spanish with my parents and grandmother. I envied Adrian and Anthony because they got to go to Lithuanian classes on Saturday morning. I wanted to go with them. I wished Mexicans would have Spanish classes for Mexicans. Anyway, Adrian and I spent a lot of time together. For school holidays, we used to take the bus downtown and just wander around, but he showed me a few points of interest, such as the Prudential Building because it used to be Chicago’s tallest skyscraper.
When we moved to Marquette Park, we met more Lithuanians. Marquette Park has a monument for Lithuanian aviators Captain Steponas Darius and Lieutenant Stasys Girenas. This is where I met Vito and other Lithuanians. I went to Lithuanian restaurants and bars with Vito. At one bar on Lithuanian Plaza Court, it might have been Knight’s Inn, we met a Lithuanian improv group that was named Second Village, which is Antras Kaimas in Lithuanian. It was inspired by the name of Second City. We talked to them a while, and Jim, Vito, and I told them that we performed standup comedy. We ended up making a little skit/song/dance for them sung to the tune of “Skip to My Lou.” I still remember it, but don’t know how to spell it because it was in Lithuanian. Vito wrote most of the song. My contribution to the song? Labas and tylėk! No surprise there!
We once went to a Lithuanian festival on Western Boulevard near the Lithuanian V.F.W. Hall, which if I remember correctly was named after Darius and Girenas. Anyway, there were all kinds of Lithuanian food. One vender is selling empanadas, which really surprised me because as far as I knew, empanadas were Mexican food. The Lithuanian cook tells me that empanadas were invented by Lithuanians. He could tell that I didn’t believe him. He pressed on with his explanation and tried to convince me that I really didn’t know Mexican food. He was so convincing that I almost believed him. Almost, but not quite. Finally, he told me that he learned to make empanadas in Argentina. During WWII, his family went to Argentina before they came to America.
That’s how I think of Lithuanians. They’re always ready to play a friendly practical joke on you. Vito was always the joker and had a great sense of humor that not everybody got. I could tell he got it from his father. Once I went to Vito’s house so we could go to the show. His father answered the door and I asked for Vito. He knew very well that I was asking for his son, Vito, my friend, but he said, “You’re talking to him.” I said, “No, Vito Junior.” He said, “I am Vito Junior!” This went on much longer than was comfortable for me, but Vito’s father was really enjoying this. Finally, he said, “Vito’s not home.” Why didn’t he just tell me that in the first place? Well, he wanted to play a joke on me. I laugh now that I think of it. But that day I learned that both Vito’s father and grandfather were named Vito. What really made me uncomfortable about them was how they greeted each other and how they said good-bye. Vito would always kiss his father on the lips. Talk about culture shock! For a while, Vito lived with his grandfather Vito. Before we would go out, Vito would kiss his grandfather on the lips before he went out. It was as shocking since I had finally gotten used to him kissing his father. But one day we were talking and Vito told me that his father was adopted. Suddenly, it hit me. “Vito, you kiss your grandfather on the lips and he’s not even related to you!” He thought nothing of it. I still can’t get over it!