WE HAVE NEVER LIVED BETTER THAN NOW By Giedre Virbalaite
“We have never lived better than now” – is a social documentary project of a Lithuanian family of 8 people (parents and six kids) from a small hamlet Kurkliai, north east Lithuania. The photographs depict family mundane life style living on the edge of “modern” poverty, highly shaped by social, economical and political aspects of Lithuania, a country, which together with other two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, regained the independency from the Soviet Union in 1990. All three Baltic countries, often called Baltic sisters, along with other 7 countries joined European Union in 2004. The independency over two decades ago meant freedom from the communistic regime but a long period of struggle ahead for many young families. Šniuikai’s family was not an exception. Both parents lost their jobs in the collective farms, which after independency, were destroyed and privatized. Instead of moving to a brand new family house, which needed a half-year longer to build, they ended up living in a small wooden house without basic facilities. Valentas, the father, had been earning money occasionally working on his tractor, though started to drink with local friends of the same fate, whilst Birute, the mother, was looking after their children. The new independent government soon started support young families with kids and the family leaned on those benefits for the next two decades and still does. Today, when the hardest is in the past, the family is challenged by modern national struggle – emigration. Over two decades around 0,6 million Lithuanians have left the country to look for a better and easier future. Social and economical insecurity, high unemployment of young people, forced many educated young Lithuanians to choose between United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain or Norway to make their new home. They go to work and save but end up taking roots in a foreign land. Kestas, the oldest son of Birute and Valentas, has been working in Sweden, not such popular destination for the descendants of migratory nation, for the last 3 years. Being just 23 years old, the oldest brother and son in the family, Kestutis took responsibility to support his big family in Lithuania. There is a national joke going around for many years already, saying that Lithuanians are the only nation where people emigrate to earn money to be able to have holidays in Lithuania. However, the nation laughs tearfully as it is the naked truth. Every year Kestas returns to Kurkliai twice. So far without a prospect to come back in the nearest future.
Despite the emigration damage raised by government and media, the emigration of Kestas improved Šniuikai’s family life quality and style far more than they could have hoped to. There is no central heating in their little wooden house, but they have new fridge, washing machine, big plaza TV, personal computer, laptop, mobile phones - things, which are meant to be in a modern western family life to enjoy. However, despite all the technology in the house, there is a strong sense of poverty they had been living in previously – everything apart from modern things are old, shabby, dirty, and chaotic. There is no shame in anybody’s face, they are genuinely comfortable and Birute confirms – “We do live well, we have never lived better than now. We are happy: kids are doing all right at schools, help me at home, husband does not drink all the time, and most importantly - salary is on time.” She knows everything is fine as she knows every corner of the house. Birute is one of those women who took responsibility for their families when in the beginning of Lithuanian history, men gave up feeling too much pressure whilst facing struggle to feed their families. Even Birute’s face tells how harsh those two last decades had been to her – she turned 48 this year, but her fatigue adds those two decades of constant struggle and troubles with kids, their education and drinking husband. This face also tells that she knows how to stand for her family and for herself. Birute has a part time cleaning job at local council, looks after everybody’s problems at home, and also takes care of her mother. She jokes she has seven, not six kids, the youngest one is like for many Lithuanian women – her husband Valentas. Though lately he has been doing “quite all right” – not drinking but only because of the pain in the back. The hard work and accidents in the past causes his inability to work full time to support family. If he does get jobs on his tractor – all the money are taken straight to Birute. However, unlike the other majority of Lihuanian men, Valentas has never been an aggressor, and Birute is more than proud of him. “He just has to listens to me and when he does not - I tell him off, I shout a lot too, but he does not care” – Birute gigles. It is also her part time job in the local council, where she has been working for the last couple years, is not secured as many changes are ahead within the government decisions. Along with work, her youngest kids and what is ahead them – Birute stays calm, she has got the plan ready for them.
Gitana, the youngest one, is only 11, Gediminas, the youngest son, is 12 years old. They both go to the local school but whenever they turn 16 and finish the secondary school, both will have to move to the nearby town Ukmerge and attend college, gain some qualification. The middle daughters, Genute, 19, and Janina, 20, both are studying there already. Genute is seeking to become a chef and Janina – graduating decorative landscaping business’ course. Before moving to Sweden, Kestas also studied there. Mindaugas, the second oldest son, 21 years of age, the only one so far, after college returned to live in the family house. Birute knows it is better for him to be with the family, where he could look after parents and she could look after him. The house is always full on weekends as both girls return to help around. “I am very proud of my kids, none of them are interested in partying, drinking what usually other young people their age do. They are always around whenever I need their help, they just have to do what I ask them for. My kids are my hands and my support” – Birute sincerely admits. This piece of documentary about Šniuikai’ family provokes some profound questions – what is the future of the family, living in the province, uneducated and living on the edge of the poverty. More importantly – what is the future of the youngest generation, living in province and not having an access to many exciting things their peers’ are having elsewhere. Hopefully having newest technology devices, kids would feel encouragement to use it in a way to get the most out of it towards their education. “I wish Gitana, our youngest one, would become a nurse or social worker, as there are always jobs for them. Though she should start studying harder” – tells Birute. Despite her wishes, the future for the kids from provinces statistically said to be poor – fewer opportunities to take extracurricular activities at school, lack of motivation, lack of parents’ attention towards kids’ achievements, constant distractions at home which are mostly troubled with parents’ fights or drinking, and endless poverty. However, after spending some time at Šniuikai’ home, I left without understanding what the poverty is nowadays – they might be uneducated, but surely more open minded about their future than most of the people I know. Their positive attitude and pride in being who they are, the way they are – is contagious. Seems there is nothing worse what could crush this family. Probably because they have never lived better than now, the worst is in the past. Text and photographs By Giedre Virbalaite