Wife Finds Heritage, Husband and Pride in Parents’ Homeland
Imsre Sabaliunas Bruzgiene, wife of Lithuanian Ambassador Audrius Bruzga, could not love Lithuania more if she had been born there. But America is the country of her birth, home to her parents Leonas and Ona Sabaliunas of Michigan, who emigrated from Lithuania during World War II.
To add one more dimension to this national love affair from afar, the Bruzgas’ two children, Simona and Laurynas, have never lived in Lithuania, except for holiday visits. They were both born in Finland while their father was Lithuania’s ambassador in Helsinki from 2002 to 2007.
“We’re fast-tracking,” Imsre explained. “We were married in 2000 … and have two children: Laurynas who has just turned 5, and Simona who is 6. When we first arrived here and the children were only 2 and 4, Simona used to tell people she was Finnish and that her home was in Helsinki! That was the only home she had ever known.
“For the first two years we were here, it wasn’t easy,” Imsre continued. “Frankly, I have always found it hard to juggle the children and the needs of the embassy. I hate babysitters but finally we had to have a nanny for one year before the children were both in school. There was so much going on. This embassy was being renovated and enlarged and when it was ready, we had to take all the furniture, artwork and other historical pieces out of public storage. As you may know and I’ve been told, this building has been an embassy for the longest time, without interruption, of any diplomatic property in Washington.”
Indeed, during five decades of Soviet occupation, America kept the doors of friendship open to Lithuania, and even when the 31-room embassy’s pipes burst and the garden grew wild, Lithuanian-Americans never gave up hope that one day their country would be free again and they could formally reopen their mission in Washington.
In fact, I remember interviewing renowned Lithuanian historian and former Ambassador Alfonsas Eidintas for my book “Diplomatic Dance: The New Embassy Life in America.” He proudly recalled how, despite the Soviet occupation, the country’s Italian-style mansion designed by American architect George Oakley Totten Jr. had remained in the hands of Lithuanian-Americans since 1924. Eidintas said his countrymen often told him: “As long as we had a legation in Washington, we knew there was hope for independence. We had this building and we would take the kids every year to National Day.” Hence, Eidintas decided not to abandon the old embassy for a newer building but refurbish and expand the original site.
Today, instead of walking up five floors to their bedrooms and private quarters, Imsre’s young family now enjoy a separate residence located in Northwest Washington between the Palisades neighborhood and Foxhall Road.
Yet she made the difficult transition — the refurbishing and decorating of the embassy, while juggling the needs of two young children — seem as smooth as ever. “We had to decorate at our last post so I was used to it. Plus, the children were happy to be with us and young enough to be fascinated with change,” she said.
For example, the entire family went shopping to select the embassy’s new furniture and draperies. “The children loved being involved,” Imsre said. “They played ‘house’ under the tables and chairs and hide and seek behind the sofas and bookcases. It was a game for them. I would tell them to look for something for the yellow room and my daughter would find something in deep purple or electric yellow.”
Imsre’s own childhood is what spurred her love of Lithuania. Growing up in Michigan — where her father taught political science and specialized in Russian and Eastern European studies at Ypsilanti’s East Michigan University — Imsre and her sister grew up attending a Lithuanian school every Saturday to learn the language and the culture of their parents’ homeland.
The summer before she graduated from Michigan University, Imsre also attended a month-long language and culture program at Vilnius University in Lithuania’s capital city, stepping onto Lithuanian soil for the first time in her life.
“We flew via Moscow and besides our classes, we spent most of our time on excursions. I met my long-lost relatives. I’ll never forget meeting my mother’s first cousin. For a moment, I wondered how I would find her amongst all the others waiting for us with bouquets of fresh flowers, but I recognized her right away. She had some of my mother’s features, and so do I, so we found each other immediately. It was a very moving moment,” Imsre recalled.
“I heard Lithuanian spoken and all of a sudden, I had the bridge I needed [between my birth country and the homeland of my heritage] — the gap was gone. Lithuania was no longer just a fairytale. It was the real Lithuania.”
Still, times were tough in both the United States and Lithuania — not unlike today — and jobs were hard to find after graduation. After earning her bachelor’s degree in English and literature in 1990, Imsre had to settle for a bank job in Detroit. Then after receiving her master’s of business administration from East Michigan University, Imsre’s father read a notice about a position at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. After many long-distance interviews, she was hired over the phone. Imsre worried that she wasn’t fluent enough in Lithuanian, but she quickly caught up and ended up as a cultural attaché with the London embassy in 1997.
It was in London where she met her future husband. “We heard he was coming, this new political counselor. I was the first one to meet him as he arrived at the embassy from the airport. I still remember that he wore a crisp lilac dress shirt, was tan from his previous posting in Israel, and had a nice smile,” Imsre recounted.
“I liked him. We worked together but he was very serious, a workaholic. We’d all go to the pub after work and when I came back — I had a studio apartment at the embassy — he would still be sitting at his desk. Anyway, I had decided it was time for me to move on. After all, I had been at the embassy for four years. When I left, he drove me to the airport. It was raining and he presented me with a bouquet. It was a sad, romantic ending. I was crossing back over the Atlantic Ocean, he was staying there. But as my plane took off, a rainbow came out of nowhere,” she fondly remembered.
“Arriving at Kennedy Airport, I was still clutching what was now a much wilted bouquet when the customs officer, a typical New Yorker said, ‘Hey, didn’t some guy from Chicago just get elected to be president of your country today?’ It was a nice, warm welcome home.”
Back in Michigan, Imsre worked for Borders bookstore, which was headquartered in Ann Arbor and about to open a store in London. “Then one day at the office, I got an e-mail that said ‘A.Bruzga’ and I just stared at it. I couldn’t believe he had written me.”
Next up came a surprise birthday call and then Borders flew her to London for the grand opening of Borders Oxford. “I took some vacation time and we met again. I already knew that the embassy can be an all-consuming place and there was no talk about the future,” Imsre explained.
Once her vacation was over, she headed home and “settled back in, happy to be close to my parents and sister” — until another opportunity came knocking at her door: the American Center in Vilnius needed a media relations person. “Once again, I was hired over the phone. This time, I was there as an American,” she noted.
On her arrival, Imsre was met not by Audrius but by his former colleague, who told her, “You know Audrius — he’s working!”
But he would quickly find time for Imsre. “Later that day, he showed up at my door — this time, with an even bigger bouquet,” she said. “And that’s how I became a millennium bride in 2000.”
In retrospect, “I think it took the distance apart for us to appreciate each other,” she said. “Now we are celebrating Lithuania’s heritage and its millennium, and Vilnius is the ‘European City of the Year,’” a European Union distinction.
As I left, Imsre handed me a note from her husband. I had asked him for a quote about his wife, something about how she helps him represent Lithuania in the United States. What I got was this lovely poem, in a way another bouquet of his devotion:
“To Imsre, with love
She is my conscience and my inspiration.
She dreams of the future, whereas I stay in a reflective mode.
She is a family person. She can easily relate to human suffering, feel the pain and spring to action when many of us, me included, contemplate the phenomena and hide behind the façade of authority and rationality.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.