“Where we’re from, there’s no sun, our hometown’s in the dark.” –Twenty One Pilots, “Hometown.”
Ben Cockrell, a junior political science and social justice major from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, could count on his hands the number of times he saw the sun while studying abroad in Lithuania last semester.
But we’ll get to that in a second.
When Ben arrived at LCC International University in the fall, he immediately noticed something distinct about it.
“So I got there and met a lot of people and everyone was super international, ‘cause it’s in Lithuania, but it’s a completely international university. So people are from all over. Like my roommate was from Russia, and then my suitemates were from Moldova and Ukraine, and on my floor we had Belarusians, we had Kazakhs, we had Syrians, we had Estonians, Latvians, Polish people; everyone is different, and so immediately it was like, ‘how do we communicate?’ you know, like, ‘do we use English, do we use Russian? You don’t speak either? Oh no! …sign language? I don’t know what to do!’ So immediate[ly], trying to figure out how to communicate with people, how to live together,” Ben said.
Learning the art of conversation when often times there wasn’t a mutual language—at least, not one that both parties spoke fluently—was certainly a challenge.
“You had to learn between signing or using very simple words, using like ‘good,’ or ‘interesting,’ very vague but commonly known words to convey a lot more than they mean, which got frustrating for every side,” Ben said.
This was especially tough for Ben, since he thrives off of connecting with people.
“That was hard because I—and I mean I think anyone loves communicating with people—I communicate a lot with just seeing and just saying, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ Handshake, hug, whatever,” he said. “And while I knew how to say ‘hi’ and some rudimentary phrases in Lithuanian, I couldn’t hold a good conversation.”
Fortunately, though, Ben was able to establish those connections he sought—primarily with his roommate.
“We immediately hit it off. …he didn’t like going out as much, so we bonded a lot over studying together, I would help him with his English and his editing, he would help me with my Russian. And then we’d cook all the time. …so we just bonded [during the] time in the kitchen, and as we cooked, or also when we sat and ate together, that was our thing,” Ben said. “We always ate lunch and dinner together, and just like you sit down at a meal with the family, you have good conversation, and I learned a lot about his family, and about what he does and what he’s passionate about…”
Speaking of food, when Ben thought of Lithuanian cuisine, there was only one word that came to mind.
“Potatoes. If you can think of every way you can do something to a potato, they’ve done it, and they’ll do it,” Ben said. “My first day, I got there, I had potato sausage, which is all potato. It’s like thin potato with potato mashed inside a potato. And then a boiled potato with some meat in it, and [a] potato pancake with potato on it. Like seriously, that was my meal. And then I was like, ‘is this seriously what you guys eat? Like this is all starch. I’m going to die.’”
In addition to the meals and fellowship Ben experienced with his roommate, he also developed a meaningful friendship with one of his suitemates. One day, his suitemate randomly came into his room—even though they did not know each other that well at that point—and told him he wanted to quit smoking. He told Ben of the peer pressure that he constantly faced, to drink and to smoke, and how he wanted so badly to be rid of those habits.
“And I was like, ‘dude, Jesus can take that away from you. You can pray for that. Let’s pray for that,’” Ben said.
And over the course of the semester, the two continued to have intermittent talks about life, always initiated by his suitemate. At the end, he would simply say ‘thanks,’ and then leave Ben’s room. The last time they saw each other, when they were each headed back home, his suitemate told him how much those talks had impacted him.
“He gave me a hug, which is weird in that culture, it’s very: handshake, no emotions; and he just gave me a hug, and he was like, ‘thank you for always listening to me, because no one here wants to do that. And everyone just wants me to get involved with the crowd, and you were one that I could come to, and I don’t have to be a part of the crowd,’” Ben said.
Like Ben mentioned regarding his suitemate, the culture in Lithuania is one of reservation, and if you know Ben, that’s not how he operates.
“It was really hard…I had to be…very reserved the whole semester. And when I got back to Pennsylvania I realized, and here as well, I just love seeing everyone and just saying ‘hi!’ And I just feel a lot more alive and myself. And it feels bad to say, ‘I just wasn’t my full self in Lithuania,’ but it was a hard and challenging thing for me to be that way,” Ben said. “But I also think it’s something that God really showed me, in getting in His word every morning and being reliant on Him, not reliant on what I think makes me who I am, and see Jesus is the root of who I am rather than what I feel is my personality.”
Another aspect of Lithuania that deeply affected Ben was the absence of the sun.
“I probably saw the sun maybe 10 times that whole semester. You don’t realize how psychological that is,” he said.
To counter this weary feeling that he got whenever he was bored or stationary or he couldn’t see the sun, Ben did what he does best.
“I would go running all the time. I saw a bunch of places, just running around finding places. I know the city really well because I ran everywhere…” Ben said. “Running for the first month was more of an adventure, that I just wanted to find places and run on the beach without my shoes on and just, it was so fun. Finding new places. So many historical sites, so it was like running to historical sites that I saw and thought, ‘oh that’s so cool.’”
As a whole, with the communication challenges, the reserved culture and the elusive sun, Ben said there was a clear theme that encapsulated his time in Lithuania.
“I felt like that endurance was like what God was doing with me in the semester,” Ben said. “‘OK, come to me every day, you have to come, otherwise you’re going to get really tired and it’s not gonna work.’”
In December, before returning to America, Ben made one last excursion, to Barcelona. There, he saw one of the most exquisite sunrises of his life.
“We were just almost weeping. Because it was so, I cannot explain to you the emotions that just came flooding in. Seeing and feeling the sun on your skin and not having had that for so long, how much that can revive your spirit…tears are just streaming down our face[s], like this is so beautiful. The sun is so good. God not only gave us his son, Christ, but he gave us the sun, for warmth and to see. And they say that ‘Jesus is the light of the earth,’ and they say ‘as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,’ and everything with the sun. And when you haven’t seen it, you lose a lot of that imagery. …And I was excited to see the sun, because I hadn’t seen it, but it just hit me, like everything in the semester in that one sun.”
By: Barrett Gay, editor-in-chief